The First World War; by John Keegan; Vintage Press (May 2000); ISBN-13: 978-0375700453

Second wave of British troops
leaving trenches on the Somme
The First World War, despite its name, was not the first "multi-continent" conflict in history — strictly speaking, that title could more accurately be applied to the The Seven Years' War (1754-63) — but it was, nonetheless, a truly all-encompassing conflagration that ultimately spread beyond the confines of Europe to the far corners of the globe. In spite of its worldwide reach, however, this four year struggle was, in its antecedent causes, in its conduct, and in its unfortunate aftermath, a peculiarly European War. Or, at least, such is the view of noted British historian John Keegan. Moreover, this is only one of several intriguing ideas that the author puts forward in what is certainly an ambitious attempt to review the major events, both political and military, that initially propelled the major European powers into an unwanted general war, and then insured that that conflict, once begun, would continue virtually unabated, from 1914 to 1918, until the original belligerents had all finally reached the point of military and societal exhaustion.

Beginning with the first few pages of "The First World War," John Keegan makes it clear to his readers that, at least from the author's perspective, this book is intended to be more than a simple catalog of the various military campaigns that were fought on a myriad of different battlefields — from Flanders to the Baltic, from Galacia to the Italian Alps, from the Caucasus Mountains to the Middle East, and from Africa to the Far East — which, when woven together, combine to form the bloody historical tapestry that was then, and is today, still referred to by many as the "Great War". Certainly, providing such a chronicle of military events is one of Keegan's main objectives in writing "The First World War"; but, while it is obviously important, it is not the author's only purpose in creating this work. In point of fact, Keegan's historical narrative, both in form and in substance, is directly linked to his other more personal goal which, according to the author's own words, is to present an unsentimental, but deeply respectful account of the almost incomprehensible sacrifices that long ago were asked of, and usually willingly made, by the millions of soldiers who fought in this protracted and sordid orgy of industrialized slaughter. The attempt to seamlessly combine these two themes makes for a challenging project, and if the author, in spite of his considerable gifts as a story teller, does not always quite pull it off, his is a worthy effort, nonetheless.

German troops holding first-line trench on the River Aisne
The tragic story of the epic clash of nations that Keegan recounts in "The First World War", is — because of the author's flowing prose and easy-to-follow chronological format — without doubt, the most compelling element of Keegan's ambitious enterprise. Thus, in spite of the work's comparative brevity (the book is only a little over four hundred pages long), its gracefully written treatment of this complex and far-ranging subject is surprisingly detailed. In fact, the author at least touches on almost all of the significant military events that occurred in both the major and secondary theaters of war. I would even go so far as to suggest that it is in his descriptions of the various ground campaigns that Keegan is at his best: his ability to bring a sort of descriptive order to chaos and to make the mayhem and confusion of the battlefield comprehensible to the reader is, perhaps, one of the author's greatest talents; and, in "The First World War", he does not disappoint. Moreover, Keegan also takes the time to include, along with his carefully constructed verbal pictures of the First World War's more famous land battles, a collection of short but illuminating vignettes on the conflict's various, but less well-known, naval engagements.

American troopship Tuscania,
sunk by a German submarine 6 Feb 1918
Keegan, being the experienced student of military affairs that he is, cannot resist including — along with his survey of the major events and significant actors that helped to shape the historical arc of the First World War — his insights and opinions on a number of other intriguing, but less obvious issues. For example, as part of his discussion of the opening days of the war, the author expands his description of the first clashes between the advancing Germans and the reeling Allies (the French, British, and Belgians, in this instance) to include his personal (and, I confess, unexpected) view that the Germans' "Schlieffen Plan" was essentially doomed to failure — because of insurmountable logistical and organizational problems — even before the first shot was fired. In addition, he also points to the military opportunities that were lost to both sides in the conflict because of a wide-spread lack effective strategic coordination between the different member nations of both the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey), and the Entente Cordial (the Allies). Moreover, given the sheer scope and lethality of combat operations during the First World War, it is only a matter of time before Keegan turns his attention to the cruel calculus imposed on all of the war's participants by the requirements of modern, industrialized combat. To this end, he looks first at the crushing societal and economic sacrifices that the various belligerents were called upon to make as they strove to produce the huge and ever-increasing quantities of manufactured war materiel that were consumed, with staggering profligacy, during the four years that the fighting continued. The numbers are all quite staggering, and in a particularly grim continuation of his discussion of the broad theme of national sacrifice, KeeganWar's thirty-five thousand hours of combat) that none of the commanders of the contesting armies seemed able to avoid. Finally, as the war ground its way from one bloodily inconclusive year to the next, the author considers the wide-ranging and increasingly desperate search — by military thinkers on both sides of the conflict — for a way to break the bloody stalemate of the trenches and to restore mobility to the battlefield. Some of the conclusions that Keegan draws from his observations are intriguing, and some are familiar, but in all cases they are presented without noticeable bias, and in a forthright and cogent manner.

  World War I graves at the front of
the Lorraine Troyon France cemetery.
In "The First World War", as has already been noted, Keegan's main focus is on revisiting the known and, in most cases, uncontroversial historical facts surrounding the conflict in question; however, the author's work also includes, as was alluded to earlier, an important subtext. This subtext, or parallel theme — which Keegan emphasizes both in the introduction and in the conclusion to his larger historical chronicle, and which threads its way through virtually every chapter of this work — is the author's touching account of the terrible human cost of the First World War. Millions upon millions of soldiers were killed between 1914 and 1918, and Keegan — by reflecting on the impact that the deaths of so many young men had on their communities, instead of by concentrating on the familiar (and almost incomprehensible) casualty tallies so common to other works on this topic — brings this point powerfully home to the reader. For John Keegan, as both an Englishman and a student of history, the most tangible and lasting reminders of the First World War are not really present at the sites of that war's now silent and deserted battlefields, battlefields that once overwhelmed the senses with their noise and violence, and which devoured the soldiers that contested over them by the tens of thousands. Instead, the author argues with moving earnestness, the most obvious signs of the tragic consequences of the "Great War" are to be found in the well-kept cemeteries and churchyards of the countless villages and towns that dot the landscape from one end of Europe to the other. It is, Keegan suggests, in these quiet places — where the dead from the First World War still rest — that the final, incontrovertible proof of the virtual destruction of an entire generation of young men can still be found. These silent dead — who perished, in their millions, on the battlefields of the "Great War" — were, the author makes clear, more than entries in some morbid and largely forgotten accounting ledger. Instead, Keegan reminds us that their deaths, besides creating a permanent gulf in the lives of both their friends and families, also profoundly and permanently affected the post-war trajectories of the societies from which they had been removed.

General Erich Ludendorf

Clearly, there is much about "The First World War" that I like. Nonetheless, although I acknowledge the book's numerous good points, there are also a number aspects about Keegan's treatment of his subject that I, "nit-picker" that I am, find personally disappointing. And while these elements would not, I suspect, trouble most readers; they do bother me enough that I feel compelled to at least catalog them so that my readers can judge their importance (or lack, thereof) for themselves.

For starters, the author, no doubt in an attempt to appear even-handed in his approach to his work, seems a bit over-generous in his treatment of General Erich Ludendorf. It is almost as if, impressed by the German general's military achievements during the first two years of the war, Keegan is inclined to skip over the clear evidence that, by 1918, the strain of command had pushed the ex-officio dictator of Germany to the edge of a mental breakdown. Curiously, the author is also strangely silent when it comes to the fact that, more than any other single individual, Ludendorf bears responsibility for the poisonous "stab in the back" military and political myth that emerged in Germany in the years immediately after the war.

Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig
Another important topic that receives surprisingly little attention in "The First World War", although it certainly had a bearing on the overall Allied conduct of the combat operations in the west, is that of the mutual dislike (almost loathing) and deep mistrust that characterized relations between the senior British commander, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and his civilian superior, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George. In fact, the prime minister's lack of confidence in Field Marshal Haig had become so deep-seated by the last year of the war that it very nearly led to Allied ruin in 1918 because of Lloyd-George's refusal to supply Haig with much-needed additional manpower: this, because of the prime minister's fear that, if he dispatched significant numbers of fresh troops to France, his senior general would squander them on yet another bloodily unsuccessful offensive.

Perhaps because I am an American, I was also more than a little nonplussed to see that some very important political actors are given astonishingly little consideration in "The First World War". Keegan's decision, for example, to largely ignore the significant (if often deleterious and confusing) effects of President Woodrow Wilson's diplomatic meddling on the sensitive negotiations between the Allies and Germany during the last months of the war seems odd, particularly given the amount of print that he devotes to the lead-up to the conflict. Such is also the case when it comes to Wilson's naive (and almost total) underestimation of the complex and Byzantine political dynamics that actually shaped the negotiations between the various Allied leaders at Versailles once hostilities had formally ended and much of the world's map was being redrawn. Moreover, the misguided and badly botched Allied military attempts to influence events in post-revolutionary Russia, and the toxic long-term political effects of these armed expeditions on post-war relations between the West and the Communist leaders of the newly-constituted Soviet Union are also passed over by the author with only the briefest of commentaries.

Military maneuvers south of Jerusalem,
before the Turkish Declaration of War.
March past Zeki Bey,
the Military Commander of Jerusalem, 1914
Finally, and most troubling of all — if for no other reason than that Keegan shows an uncharacteristic orthodoxy in this instance — is the fact that the author spends a good three chapters defending the widely-accepted but, in my view, panglossian hypothesis that World War I was actually all a tragic and easily avoidable blunder; that the conflict that suddenly erupted in August, 1914, was really the unintended result of inept diplomacy and bureaucratic inertia; and that it was these factors, when taken together, that pushed the leaders of the Continental Powers, against their collective wills, inexorably towards armed confrontation. To defend this version of historical events, Keegan points to the economic and cultural interdependency of the Continental Powers, and to the important family relationships that linked the various European ruling dynasties. This popular contemporary theory that somehow the stability, peace, and prosperity of the early 20th century's European Belle Epoch were all thrown away purely by accident, I find particularly disappointing coming from a historian of Keegan's stature. This is especially galling because Keegan, for whatever reason, largely ignores those historical factors that undercut this "tragic accident" hypothesis. As a counter-argument, I would suggest that he and the other proponents of this romantic view of the pre-World War I relations between the major Continental Powers are really only able to make this case if they ignore the deep economic, social, religious, and ethnic fault lines that ran just below the surface of European life. Moreover, I would add that the steadily building political pressure from these various sources — along with the "zero-sum" character of traditional Old World diplomacy and Britain's implacable opposition to the continental hegemony of any other single European state (whether that country was France, Russia, or Germany) — had, by the summer of 1914, already pushed the competing Continental Powers perilously close to the brink of a general war. The fact that the flash point for that war ultimately came in the Balkans is not surprising; however, the spark that lit off World War I could just as easily have come in Poland, in Colonial Africa, or in response to the sudden collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Finally, although the author makes no mention of this issue, the German possession of the formerly-French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine (seized as a result of Germany's victory in the Franco-Prussian War) virtually guaranteed that another war between France and Germany was bound to happen.

British soldier and horse wearing gas gear
In terms of the book's physical presentation and graphics, I am afraid that "The First World War" warrants, at most, a gentleman's 'C'. It is not that the book has any glaring problems, it is only that, from the dust cover to the type face, it is simply a bit unoriginal and nondescript. As might be expected given the nature of its subject matter, "The First World War" contains sixteen pages of period photographs. And although a few of these illustrations were new to me, the majority of the plates seem to have come from the usual archives and were already quite familiar. The most serious criticism that I have of the graphic presentation of this work, however, has to do with the fifteen maps included with the text. The cartography is simple but clear; the problem is that a good half of the maps are either misplaced in terms of the text, or, if properly situated, contribute little of value to Keegan's narrative. Certainly, the book's editor probably bears some responsibility for this failing, but the "lion's share" of the blame — though it pains me to say it — must still go to the author.

Damage at Verdun, France
In the end, even if "The First World War" can quite fairly be described as part war memorial and part history, it remains a highly readable yet carefully-crafted overview of a conflict that, more than any other in the modern era, transformed the political and cultural face of Europe, if not of the world. It is, by no means, Keegan's best or most insightful work. In addition to the criticisms already voiced above, the work suffers from two additional failings, neither of which are trivial: for one thing, Keegan uncharacteristically relies almost exclusively on secondary sources and offers almost no original scholarship of his own; and for another, there is a certain amount of repetitiveness to the author's treatment of his topic that, while not really that off-putting, is a bit distracting. Still, in spite of its several flaws, "The First World War" can nonetheless be viewed as a useful historical reference, particularly for those individuals who are interested in a fairly detailed recounting of the major events of 1914-1918, and for whom a single-volume study is more than sufficient. My overall verdict on "The First World War" is that it is probably a weak choice for the serious student of the "Great War" because, in spite of Keegan's graceful prose and sometimes interesting insights, it actually fails to deliver anything in the way of new scholarship. On the other hand, to both the military history buff who has only a passing interest in World War I, and to the casual reader who enjoys an occasional foray into the realm of historical non-fiction, I feel comfortable in recommending this book highly. It may not be perfect, but it is still an excellent and informative read.


  • It's worth remembering that far more people from the British Empire died in the First World War than in the Second.

  • Greetings Silent Hunter:

    You are, of course, quite right. In terms of the casualties from the "Great War" and their impact on both England (approximately one million war dead) and the rest of Europe (France and Germany, by themselves, each lost two million men; and that's not to mention the huge numbers of dead in the east and in the south), I think that the effect was very similar to the impact of one-in-six being killed during our own Civil War, and the effect of such horrific losses on American post-war life.

    Best Regards, Joe

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