Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The First World War
reviewed by Jim Gallen

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

Keegan begins by setting the war in perspective as Europe's tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because it could have been stopped by a voice of reason and good will in the five weeks leading up to the commencement of hostilities. If Germany had stayed out of the buildup the assassination of Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand might have just sparked another Balkan War, this one between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. It was tragic due to the lives lost to war and pestilence but more so for the undermining of civilization and culture. The dead and wounded, as numerous as they were, were fewer than in the next war and physical damage was restricted to fairly small geographical areas. Often families were reunited intact, population was restored by natural increase and most lands remained as verdant and productive as before.

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.

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I picked up a few facts of which I was unaware — that Emperor Franz Joseph was initially against the war, that French generals had ordered the Eiffel Tower to be prepared for demolition in the event of imminent capture, that a sickening enthusiasm initially existed in the armies, and that the Marines were the most professional part of the Doughboy forces (but any Marine would have told me that).

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.

Jim Gallen


  1. This is a good reminder that no matter how many excellent books on WWI are coming off the presses now, it is well worth remembering and looking into some of the older, seminal works.that are still in print.

  2. It also comes out as an audio book, by Random House. It is, as it says on the box- "an Abridgment approved by the author." But its a good version and excellent listening to if you have a long daily commute. I had read the book back in 2001 but thought it would be a nice refresher and certainly helped in the long traffic waits. Keegan's grasp of things and his ability to explain complex issues simply and then put that puzzle piece into perspective in a grander sense is part of his appeal through the decades.

  3. Keegan's account of how and why the war ended is weak, and this weakness reflects a larger failing- a book written from a distinctively British angle. He views Britian as the victor and forgets the other Allies' contributions. Although this book belongs in anyone's library, it is an overview and not a detailed account- I would not call it seminal, there are others that are better,old and new..

  4. if religious would not so damaging; be careful, religious-demoniac-Enola Gays-little boy-fat man-sick homo-vices-religious go saying in "their" global media that "World War III has already begun"...because Humankind escapes from religious, and religion no more, Humankind go to a best Future; demoniac religious would give a pity