The First World War

By John Keegan

During the recent crises in the Balkans, the cautionary point was often made that the same region was the cradle of the First World War. And while there were good reasons for thinking such a tragedy unlikely today, the analogy still had a claim on our attention.

After all, few people living in Europe at the beginning of this century, enjoying peace, prosperity and an unchallenged position of global cultural dominance, would have predicted the lights going out. In 1914 “war came out of a cloudless sky, to populations which knew almost nothing of it and had been raised to doubt that it could ever again trouble their continent.”

In hindsight, some kind of conflict was inevitable, especially given the massive arms-building programs of some of the great powers. What no one could have foreseen was the extent of the destruction. The usual rough estimate is 10 million dead, with the total tally of casualties and refugees being several times this number.

Is it any wonder, given the pointlessness of the slaughter, that there has been so much debate over the origins of the First World War? What was unthinkable at the time remains a mystery.

And slaughter it was. While there have been wars with with longer casualty rolls, the First World War hs always been recognized as setting the standard for the waste of human life on the battlefield. Even reading about such debacles as the Somme and Passchendaele is an effort. The reality is beyond imagining.

In his excellent history of the war, John Keegan provides an overview of all of the major personalities, engagements, strategies and technologies involved. His approach avoids confusing and repetitive detail by presenting general essays on broad subjects (The Strategy of the Western Front, War at Sea) before focusing on their particular application. The result is a triumph of perspective, giving the reader an understanding of the events from various points of view.

While a slight bias may be detected in Keegan’s focus on the British experience, overall he is remarkably inclusive, giving equal attention to the less-explored action on the Eastern front, as well as discussing campaigns in minor theatres such as the African colonies.

His perspective is also historical, placing the war in a context that looks ahead to the necessary adaptations in strategy and tactics of the Second World War, and back to the examples of antiquity. When Keegan tells us that the Russian army at Tannenberg repeated “the mistake made by the Spartans at Leuctra, by Darius at Gaugemela, by Hooker at Chancellorsville,” it gives the event an added interest and significance.

The one complaint I did have was with the maps, which in a book like this are more than just cosmetics. Readers of military history know that there is no substitute for clear, well-drawn maps showing troop movements and the location of key positions. In this volume, however, the maps are not clearly labeled and contain too much distracting and irrelevant information.

Aside from this, Keegan, who is already widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost military historians, has to be commended. He has gone where countless others have gone before, but has still managed to write a history that is authoritative, insightful, and a pleasure to read.

At a time when everyone seems to be complaining about the death of history as a shared body of knowledge and public memory, it is nice to see a book like this enjoying some success. On a couple of occasions – Gallipoli, Vimy Ridge – Keegan uses the word “epic” to describe the battles being fought, by which he means an event that enters into the national consciousness and so becomes part of a collective identity. This was another unforeseen result of the war, and has to be measured alongside the human loss, collapse of political structures and principles, and general acceptance of industrial barbarity. It is the importance of unintended consequences like these that makes history all the more valuable in our shortsighted and increasingly forgetful century.

Review first published August 21, 1999.


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