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A Novel of the First World War

Written by Jeff ShaaraAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jeff Shaara


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On Sale: October 26, 2004
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-345-48076-7
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Jeff Shaara has enthralled readers with his New York Times bestselling novels set during the Civil War and the American Revolution. Now the acclaimed author turns to World War I, bringing to life the sweeping, emotional story of the war that devastated a generation and established America as a world power.

Spring 1916: the horror of a stalemate on Europe’s western front. France and Great Britain are on one side of the barbed wire, a fierce German army is on the other. Shaara opens the window onto the otherworldly tableau of trench warfare as seen through the eyes of a typical British soldier who experiences the bizarre and the horrible–a “Tommy” whose innocent youth is cast into the hell of a terrifying war.

In the skies, meanwhile, technology has provided a devastating new tool, the aeroplane, and with it a different kind of hero emerges–the flying ace. Soaring high above the chaos on the ground, these solitary knights duel in the splendor and terror of the skies, their courage and steel tested with every flight.

As the conflict stretches into its third year, a neutral America is goaded into war, its reluctant president, Woodrow Wilson, finally accepting the repeated challenges to his stance of nonalignment. Yet the Americans are woefully unprepared and ill equipped to enter a war that has become worldwide in scope. The responsibility is placed on the shoulders of General John “Blackjack” Pershing, and by mid-1917 the first wave of the American Expeditionary Force arrives in Europe. Encouraged by the bold spirit and strength of the untested Americans, the world waits to see if the tide of war can finally be turned.

From Blackjack Pershing to the Marine in the trenches, from the Red Baron to the American pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille, To the Last Man is written with the moving vividness and accuracy that characterizes all of Shaara’s work. This spellbinding new novel carries readers–the way only Shaara can–to the heart of one of the greatest conflicts in human history, and puts them face-to-face with the characters who made a lasting impact on the world.

From the Hardcover edition.



The British Lines, Near Ypres,
Western Belgium–Autumn 1915

The darkness was complete, a slow march into a black, wet hell. He was the last man in the short column, one part of a line of twenty men, guided by the low sounds in front of him, soft thumps, boots on the sagging duckboards. There were voices, hard whispers, and, close to him, a hissing growl from the sergeant: “Keep together, you bloody laggards! No stopping!”

No one answered, no protests. Each man held himself tightly inside, the words of the sergeant swept aside by the voices in their own minds, a tight screaming fear, the only response they could have to this march into the black unknown.

They had come as so many had come, crossing the Channel on small steamers, filing through the chaos of the seaports, and after a few days, they had boarded the trains. There was singing, bands playing along the way, the raucous enthusiasm of young recruits. They had stared curiously at the French and Belgian countryside, returning the smiles of the people who greeted them at every stop, and few noticed that as the trains moved farther inland, closer to the vast desolation of the Western Front, the villagers were quieter, the faces more grim. Then the trains stopped, and the men were ordered out onto roads that had seen too much use, repaired and repaired again. They would march now only at night, hidden from the eyes in the air, the aeroplanes that sought out targets for German artillery. If the roads were bad, the small trails and pathways were worse, men stumbling in tight files, moving closer still to the front. The fire in the recruits was dampened now, by the weather, the ever-present mud, the soggy lowlands of Flanders. Then came the first sounds, low rumbles, louder as they marched forward. Even in the darkness, both sides threw a nightly artillery barrage at the other, some firing blind, some relying on the memory of the daytime, a brief glimpse of movement on the road, convoys of trucks and horse-drawn carts. Some had the range, knew every foot of the road that stretched out behind the enemy’s lines. Throughout the night, the targets might be unseen, but they were there, and every man at every big gun knew that in the darkness, each road, each small path might be hiding great long lines of men, new recruits, the replacements who marched quietly to the front.

His guts were a twisted knot, his arms pulled to his sides, one hand tightly curled around his rifle, his eyes straining at the unseen man in front of him. The soft wood beneath him was bouncing now, sagging low, and his knees buckled, trying to match the rhythm of the footing. There were more soft sounds, splashes, the duckboards spread across some chasm of black water. His mind tried to focus, one foot in front of the other, keeping his boots on the narrow wooden boards. He imagined a great pond, inky and deep, the duckboards some kind of bridge, but the image was not complete, his mind shouting at him, to the front, focus to the front. The man in front of him made a low grunt, water splashing, the man stepping hard, trying to catch himself.

“Bloody hell!”

He stumbled as well, his boots down in the water, the duckboards sagging too low, and he felt the man suddenly beneath him. He fought for his balance, falling now, one hand pushing down hard on the man’s back.

“Get off me, you bloody bastard!”

“Shut up, Greenie! On your feet!” It was the sergeant again, and rough hands grabbed his arm, jerking him upright. Beneath him, the other man pulled himself to his feet, both of them gripped hard by the sergeant.

“Stay awake! Keep moving!”

He wanted to whisper something to the man in front, an apology, but the march was on again, the rhythm of his boots blending with the others, soft sounds of water and wood. He felt the wetness in his socks now, the chill of the water adding to the cold hard stone in his chest.

The replacements had been called Greenies from their first moment on the march, green troops, sent forward to rebuild the front-line units, fill the gaping holes in the British regiments. Their training had been rapid, some said far too rapid, a nation scrambling to find new soldiers, more soldiers than anyone had thought they would need. They had been parceled out into small squads by a system none of them understood, led by unfamiliar sergeants, hard, angry men who had done this work before, the men who knew the trails, who could find their way in the dark.

He had joined with many of his friends from the village, a small farming town near the Scottish border. No one had thought the army would be away from home through Christmas, but the newspapers spoke of great battles, a new horror for the world, words and places that seemed foreign and fantastic. In the village, there had been talk of young men who would not come home, strangers mostly, sons of farmers barely known, word of families in mourning. His friends spoke of the adventure of it all, that if any of them missed it, or worse, avoided it, they would be called shirkers, traitors to the king. No matter the accounts in the newspapers, a massive and bloody war that had swallowed the whole of Europe, few who lived in the small village could resist the call, to march in song and parade to join a war the likes of which Britain had not seen since Napoleon.

He tried to adjust his massive backpack, the darkness broken by a small clink of metal, his canteen rattling against the trenching tool that hung down the side of his pack. He had become used to the weight, the clumsy mass just part of the rhythm of the march, bouncing with him on the duckboards.

The ground beneath him was hard now, the wood not moving, no water, and the boots were louder, echoes in the darkness. He heard voices to one side, a group of men, still unseen, and the voices hushed as they passed. He stared through the darkness, wondering, officers perhaps, speaking of plans and tactics. He glanced up, no stars, the night still thick and black. A soft breeze swept past him, a wave of sharp odor. He hunched his shoulders, fought off the smell, but it was all through him, burning his nose, then harder still, sharp and sickening. The man in front of him made a choking sound, others as well, hard coughs, curses.

“Keep moving! That’s just the roses, you bloody greenies! Plenty more to come!”

The smell was settling dull in his mind, his brain numbing to it. The breeze seemed to stop, but the smells were still there, all around him, and the man in front of him said, “A horse. A bloody horse!”

He moved past the shape, could hear the hard buzz of flies, was grateful now for the dark. He squinted his eyes, fought through the worst of the smell, stared down for a long while. The march continued, more hard odor, different, unseen decay, and he focused on his footsteps, tried not to think of what lay rotting in the deep mud around him. He could see the faint outline of his boots, the motion steady, constant, realized he could see. He looked ahead of him, could see a shape, the man in front of him outlined
in a dark gray mist. He glanced to the side, more shapes, low hulks, movement. The duckboards began to sag again, more splashes, and he looked down, each step pushing the water out in low ripples. He stared ahead, past the shadow of the man, tried to see beyond, to see where they were going, what the land looked like. The sergeant moved past him now, another hard whisper.

“The first trench line is just ahead. We’ll be at the guard post in a minute. Step down easy. We’re close. No talking. None! Old Fritz is just out there a ways!”

He could hear something new, a slight quiver in the sergeant’s voice. There was none of the profane anger, the mindless screaming at men who had done nothing wrong. He thought of the word, close. How close? Close enough that the sergeant is afraid? He felt his legs turning cold, the hard chill in his chest spreading. There was another low voice, unfamiliar, the words barely reaching him. He could see another man, a gray shape, an officer, speaking in low tones to the sergeant, the man’s words finding him through the heavy mist.

“Sergeant Cower . . . you’re late . . . daylight . . . heads low.”

Behind the two men there was another low, fat hulk. But the soft dawn was spreading, and he could see a shape, a fat round barrel. His heart jumped, hard tightness–of course, a cannon. A big one. The carriage was hidden, buried in the wet muddy ground, the barrel pointing out in the direction of the march. The sergeant was moving toward them again, waving his arm, a downward motion, words coming now, but there was a new sound, a hard whistle, ripping the air above them. The ground in front of him erupted, a mass of earth and men, and he felt himself pushed back, rolling down, his face hitting the mud, his backpack lurching up over his shoulders. There was another great scream, another shell landing a few yards to his left, the ground under him rising up in one great gasp, then settling back down. More dirt fell on him, heavy, a sharp punch into his backpack, nearly rolling him over. He gripped the ground, his hands clawing into the mud, but the sounds kept rolling over him, thunderous bursts, the ground still bouncing beneath him. He tried to breathe, blew a sharp breath out, his face buried in water, tried to raise his head, another great blast, lifting him up, dropping him again hard in the mud. He gasped for air, turned his face to the side, saw only smoke, no men, no great gun. He forced a breath, his throat seared by the heat. He looked for the sergeant, tried to shout, something, not words, fought for air, another scream above him, another great blast behind him, other sounds now, more screams. Men. The dirt settled on him again, and he thought of the sergeant, the man’s words, trench line, close. He raised his head up, saw motion, a man running, then another blast, the man disappearing, swept away. He tried to stand, the backpack nearly falling over his head, the weight pulling him over. He tried to run, his legs useless, soft jelly, felt a hand now, a hard grip under his arm.

“Let’s go! Move!”

The hand released him, and he reached down for his rifle, saw only water, the voice again.


The man was running out ahead, and he followed, pumped his legs through the churned-up mud, the backpack bouncing wildly. He saw the man drop down, a large round hole, more black water, and he followed, stumbled down, splashed hard, water up to his waist.


He rolled to one side, the backpack sinking beneath him, could sit now, water to his chest, the muddy rim of the hole above him, protection. The shells still came over them, but fell farther back now, the impact jarring him in hard rumbles. He wiped at his eyes, but the mud on his hands made it worse, and he blew hard through his nose, dislodging mud and water. His hands were empty, a new burst of fear, so many days of drill, of screaming sergeants, the routine pounded hard into every man, the punishment. Never lose your rifle. . . .

“My rifle . . . I dropped it! I have to go back. . . .”

The hand clamped hard on his shoulder again, and he saw the face of the sergeant.

“Stay put! There’s more rifles to be found. You wounded?”

The question confused him, and he looked down, saw only water, said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“You better check, Greenie. But keep down.”

He moved his hands along his sides, was suddenly terrified of what he would find. He felt for his legs, his hands probing slowly beneath the dark water, said, “I don’t know. It doesn’t hurt.”

The sergeant did not laugh, said, “Roll over. Let me have a look. You could bloody well have a hole somewhere. There’s no pain, sometimes. Just a piece . . . goes missing.”

He turned, the backpack rising up beneath him. Now there was a
short laugh, and the sergeant said, “No, don’t appear you been hit. But the quartermaster’s gonna be mighty ticked. You let Fritz blow the hell out of your pack.”

He slid the pack off, moved it around, saw shreds of cloth, the contents, his clothes, food rations, ripped to small bits of cloth and metal. He stared at the useless mass, pushed it away from him, watched it disappear into the water.

“Say a prayer, Greenie. Probably saved your neck.”

He probed again, his hands feeling his chest, stomach, and the sergeant was serious now.

“Naw, Greenie, you’re fine. If I hadn’t gotten you into this shell hole, you might have joined your mates. Direct hit . . .” The sergeant paused, looked up into the thick gray sky. “Shelling’s stopped. For now. You best get moving. Trenches should be ahead, if there’s still anything left. Chances are, those boys fared better than you greenies. Take a look. See if anyone’s moving.”

He slid to one side of the shell hole, adjusted his helmet, eased his head up slowly, and the sergeant said, “Go on, there’s nothing to fear now. Fritz can’t see you back this far. If they start shelling again, you know where to find me.”

He glanced up out of the hole, saw low drifting smoke, mounds of dirt, duckboards scattered, splintered. “I don’t see anything.” He turned, saw the sergeant staring at him, saw the man shivering, the water around him moving in low ripples.

“You best go on. They’re waiting for the greenies up ahead. You’ll see the trenches, a hole bigger’n this one, pile of sandbags. Tell the guards you’re a replacement for B Company. They’ll know where to put you.” He paused, took a long breath, spit something out into the black water. “Double-time it, though. Fritz could start his guns again.”

“I don’t know the way. I’ll wait for the others. You have to lead the way!”

He felt a small cold panic rising, stared at the sergeant, who said, “Go! I’ll be staying here.”

“But the others!”

He was angry now, furious at this man, this bully, the big man with
the temper and the hard hands, quick to punish, quick in his abuse of the replacements. From the beginning of the march, the sergeant had been
on them, cursing them, finding fault with every step. He moved through the water, closer to the sergeant, said, “Damn you! You cannot just order me. . . . I cannot just go alone! We must find the others!”

The sergeant closed his eyes for a moment, said softly, “Direct hit. The first shell . . . there are no others.”

“You’re mad! Twenty men!”

He scrambled to the edge of the shell hole, eased his head up, searched the dull gray. His heart was pounding again, the cold returning. He climbed up farther, pulled himself out of the hole, crawled slowly away. The smoke was mostly gone, the air now thick with wet mist, a light rain beginning to fall. He paused, listened, tried to hear voices, heard only the faint hiss of the rain. He glanced beyond the shell hole, toward the front lines, the place where the trenches were supposed to be. He raised his head up farther, felt suddenly naked, no rifle, nothing in his hands, no heavy mass on his back. He felt light, like an animal, stood up slowly, bent low, began to move back, followed the shattered trail of the duckboards. He could see the muddy ground broken into round patches of water, shell holes in every direction. He crouched low, saw a rifle, thought, mine . . . but the butt was missing, useless. He eased close to a shell hole, said in a low voice, “Anyone . . . ?”

He peered over the edge, saw an arm in the water, fingers curled in a loose grip around a rifle. He fought the sickness rising inside him, reached down, pulled at the rifle, the hand giving way, the arm now rising slowly, the man’s body pulled free of the mud below. He tried not to look, but the face turned up in the water, familiar, the name digging into him, Oliver. He turned away, pulled the rifle close to him, held it for a long moment, fought the tears, the panic. He tried to breathe, his throat tight, said in a low voice, “Sorry, old chap. I’ve lost my Enfield. Don’t expect you’ll tell the captain.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Jeff Shaara|Author Q&A

About Jeff Shaara

Jeff Shaara - To the Last Man

Photo © Laurie Lane

Jeff Shaara is the New York Times bestselling author of The Steel Wave, The Rising Tide, To the Last Man, The Glorious Cause, Rise to Rebellion, and Gone for Soldiers, as well as Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure–two novels that complete the Civil War trilogy that began with his father’s Pulitzer Prize—winning classic The Killer Angels. Shaara was born into a family of Italian immigrants in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, and graduated from Florida State University. He lives in Gettysburg.

Author Q&A

Q. You’ve written five previous novels that dealt with earlier periods of American history. Why move forward? Why World War One?

A. I enjoy digging into stories that most people just aren’t that familiar with. We’ve learned so much about the Second World War and the Civil War, from Hollywood, from history class, from the thousands of books that have been written over the years. I’m often asked why I don’t tackle D-Day or Pearl Harbor, the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand. The answer is easy: You already know those stories- there’s simply not much I can add. Just like the Mexican War or even the American Revolution, I am drawn to a story that has familiar names in unfamiliar roles. Once I began looking at the characters who were responsible, or who represented so much of what happened in World War One, those who were responsible for so much heroism, so much history, I knew it was a story I wanted to tell. It’s a surprising story, not just for the horror, but for the humor as well, and of course, for the amazing characters.

Q. Two of your main characters are flying aces. What is their appeal?

A. I originally thought I could do an entire book about the “battle flyers”, but I realized that the war in the air was such a contrast to what was happening on the ground that it was a necessary addition to this story. But, once again, it’s not about the airplanes as much as it is about the men who flew them. On the German side, Manfred von Richthofen is at first a cavalryman, who quickly realizes that horses are dangerously obsolete. But he views his airplane as just another horse, as though pilots are just like the knights of old, fighting gallant and honorable duels in the air. The American pilot, Raoul Lufbery was enormously attractive to me for several reasons. First, he completely disagrees with Richthofen’s view of air combat. His job is to kill the enemy, not engage in chivalry. Plus, Lufbery is the most accomplished American ace of the war, and yet most people have never heard of him. This is the man who teaches an entire generation of young American pilots, including Eddie Rickenbacker, how to fly. Plus, Lufbery is a part of the Lafayette Escadrille, an incredible mix of characters, a story that I felt needs to be told. Both Lufbery and Richthofen are marvelous characters.

Q. Von Richthofen is the primary German voice in this story. Why?

A. I didn’t want to spend too much time with the generals. In all my previous books, I look at the events through the eyes of the men at the “top”. Once I realized how fascinating Richthofen was, I knew his voice was crucial to the story. Even though the German commanders, Ludendorff and von Hindenburg, do have a small voice in this story, I wanted to show what life was like for a German hero, a man who had so much responsibility thrust on him to support the morale of his country. But beyond becoming a propaganda tool, Richthofen (the “Red Baron”) was the greatest flying ace of the war, on either side. Some historians have dismissed his reputation as myth. They’re wrong.

Q. Describe the kinds of research you do for a story like this.

A. In all my books, whenever possible, I rely only on original source materials: diaries, memoirs, collections of letters, the voices of the people who were there. One enormous advantage in researching the First World War is the wealth of material that has been passed down. Many of the specific sources were easy to find, such as the memoirs and papers from “Black Jack” Pershing, the young George Patton and George Marshall, and books written by a great many flyers and Marines. But then I was privileged to receive inquiries from descendants (usually the grandchildren) of a number of soldiers who fought in the war. I was so grateful to be given unpublished diaries, collections of photographs, all kinds of wonderful information that you simply can’t find in a modern history book. This is what inspired me to include an “Acknowledgements” page at the beginning of the book, to thank those people who offered me their personal artifacts.

Beyond the reading, it is critical that I walk in the footsteps of the characters. I spent some time in France and Belgium, walking the ground, to get a first-hand look (and feel) for what the countryside was like. That is an important part of every story I’ve done.

Q. Were you surprised by what you discovered about any of the characters in this story?

A. I’ve mentioned the flying aces- I was enormously surprised at the depth of the “Red Baron”, that, through his writings and the writings of the men around him, what life was like for the one part of the German military that was so successful. I was even more surprised to discover how significant Lufbery was to the Allied war effort in the air, and as well, how much humor and charm surrounded him and the other pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille. Pershing’s role was a surprise as well. Much like George Washington, the pure force of John Pershing’s will is what held the American effort together, and allowed the American Expeditionary Force to take to the front lines as a well-trained fighting force, without which the allies would have lost the war. There is an awful lot of revisionist history that dismisses America’s role, especially as written by a great many French and British historians. I was very surprised to learn that in fact, the Americans were enormously responsible for the defeat of the Germans. This isn’t simply my opinion. It’s the opinion of most French and British generals at that time, as well as a good many Germans.

I was also surprised by the role of many of the young men who would become far more famous in World War Two. George Patton is a minor character in this story, as is George Marshall. There are so many similarities in this book to my book on the Mexican War, “Gone for Soldiers”. In Mexico, so many familiar names from the Civil War are much younger men, completely inexperienced as soldiers, who learn the first lessons about life and war. In “To The Last Man”, so many familiar names from the Second World War are fighting in World War One as inexperienced officers, who have their first taste of command and combat, the foundation for what they will accomplish later in life.

Q. Most people have heard of the Red Baron. One other well-known character from this era is Sergeant York. Why didn’t you include him in this story?

A. First of all, just because people are familiar with a character doesn’t mean they know the real story. (I am appalled how many people believe the “Red Baron” is simply a cartoon character). I gave serious consideration to focusing on Alvin York, but in the end, I realized that his story is not so very different from the stories of a great many other anonymous foot soldiers, who did not have the good fortune to return home as a national hero, or to or see themselves portrayed on the silver screen by Gary Cooper. York was certainly a hero, and I’m not taking anything away from his accomplishments, but there were an enormous number of American Marines and Doughboys who deserved attention as well. In the end, I chose to follow the front line action through the eyes of an otherwise anonymous Marine private, Roscoe Temple. The Marines were such a crucial part of the American effort, and for the most part, they participated in every major fight we had.

Q. Is the young Marine, Roscoe Temple, a real character?

A. Temple is a composite character, drawn from the personal memoirs and diaries of several Marines. But every event he witnesses is accurate, every move his squad makes is authentic, every experience is something that was endured by a real Marine. Also, the officers and sergeants who lead his squad into battle are real figures- every name (and the date of their death) is accurate, taken from the official records of the American Second Division, which included the Marines.

Q. What lessons can be learned from this story? Is there something about World War One that is as relevant today as it was then?

A. There is one lesson that Pershing himself was very much aware of. At one point in his memoirs (and in my story), he quotes Napoleon, who said that he always enjoyed fighting a “coalition”, because they are the easiest enemy to defeat. In the First World War, Germany nearly won, because they were fighting a mix of nations who held an uneasy and uncomfortable alliance, and who exhausted as much energy bickering with each other as used to combat their common enemy. Without getting political, which is something I really try to avoid, I believe this lesson is clearly relevant today. Anyone who believes that a coalition is the best way to tackle the challenges of our modern world should give the same heed to Napoleon’s view as did “Black Jack” Pershing.

There is a more obvious lesson of course. As war has become more “modern”, and the technology and weaponry has continued to improve, wars are still fought by soldiers, by young men (and women) with guns. The First World War shocked the entire world by the degree of slaughter, the astounding horror of what war had become. A great many people felt then that humanity would never allow that kind of catastrophe to occur again, that we could elevate ourselves above that kind of ghastly conflict. It only took twenty years, until the start of World War Two for even the most optimistic to be proved wrong.

From the Hardcover edition.



Praise for To the Last Man

“A gripping account of World War I–from tactics to strategy. The reader feels the horror of the trenches in France and is drawn into the maneuvering of political and military leaders on both sides of the battle. Jeff Shaara shows the dominance of the U.S. military in the context of coalition warfare–as relevant today as it was in 1918.”

“A sweeping, searching look at World War I. Jeff Shaara’s novel rings with authenticity, from the feelings of frontline soldiers to the challenges of high-level command.”

“Jeff Shaara has again demonstrated that rarest of writing gifts, making literature read like history and history read like literature. He has now shone that talent on another era as he brings World War I to pulsating life.”
–JOSEPH E. PERSICO, author of Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour

“The best novel about the Great War since Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which it greatly surpasses in depth, scope, and intensity. . . . This account of how the war was really fought will be a real eye opener for anyone interested in historical fiction or modern history.”
–JOHN MOSIER, author of The Myth of the Great War

“A riveting masterpiece revolving around the ghastly conflict that still profoundly defines the world we live in. With To the Last Man, Shaara cements his reputation as a war writer of Tolstoyan or Homeric dimensions.”

“Jeff Shaara’s To the Last Man lets you live WWI in the air, in the mud, and in the councils of government in a way that makes you understand how the participants experienced it. Von Richtofen, Lufbery, Ludendorff, and Pershing come alive.”
President, The Citadel

From the Hardcover edition.

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