The First World War
by John Keegan
Vintage, first published in 1998
The Great War Centennial is spawning a plethora of books focusing on one or another aspect of the war, but sometimes readers want the whole scene in a good one-volume work. John Keegan's reputation suggests that his The First World War would fit that bill, and it does not disappoint. Keegan has crafted a thorough exposition of all fronts: Eastern, Western, Gallipoli, colonial, maritime, and aerial. Each facet is examined in its military, political, and personal components. Out of necessity he moves quickly so as to cover everything without becoming bogged down in details.
|Mobilization in Paris, August 1914|
However, confidence in constitutionalism, the rule of law and representative government, was shaken with disastrous consequences for the following century. The moral initiatives of Christendom that had ended slavery and begun to protect the rights of labor were weakened. The businesses and railroads that united the continent were derailed. The Ottoman massacre of Armenians provided a precedent against which subsequent atrocities could be justified. Germany was left defeated and vengeful with Corporal Hitler in its midst while Russia was covered by a glacier of repression.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of this book is the way it deftly leads the reader from battlefield to battlefield, switches fronts, takes to the seas and air while always weaving the narrative into the overall story of the war. Keegan helps us comprehend how the war of movement morphed into life in trenches and then explains that life in words that paint pictures in the mind's eye. His description of the use of gas enables its nature and effects to emerge from the fog of a war that seemed so unearthly.
This tome helps pull disparate facts together. I had heard of the Schlieffen Plan, but Keegan tells how it was changed by Moltke, was not executed properly and, therefore, failed to bring the swift victory against France on which its success hinged. Battles that were just places to me — Ypres, Tannenberg, Verdun, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, St. Mihiel, all became pieces in the great puzzle of the Great War. Mere names: Joffre and Pétain, French and Haig. Ludendorff and Hindenburg became people. By the time I reached the end I had a much greater understanding of the Great War as a whole, its origins, its flow, and its conclusion.
The First World War was first published in 1998. With years of additional study, archives opened, letters found, and the last veterans feted and interviewed, why should we still value a book of this vintage? Each era interprets history in its own lights. As our world view changes so too does the way we appreciate the past. Trying to understand an historical event the magnitude of the Great War solely through contemporary works is like gazing at the sun only at noon and thinking that you have seen the whole day. Any serious student of the First World War must explore it through the eyes of the many people who have looked back on it. Thus Keegan's The First World War has a crucial part in any Great War study.