|Second wave of British troops |
leaving trenches on the Somme
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|
|American troopship Tuscania, |
sunk by a German submarine 6 Feb 1918
| World War I graves at the front of |
the Lorraine Troyon France cemetery.
|General Erich Ludendorf|
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|
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
|British soldier and horse wearing gas gear|
|Damage at Verdun, France|