The First World War

John Keegan, 1934-

Book - 1999

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New York : A. Knopf 1999, c1998.
Item Description
Originally published: London : Hutchinson, c1998.
Physical Description
xvi, 475 p., [24] p. of plates : ill., maps
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
John Keegan, 1934- (-)
Review by Booklist Reviews

/*Starred Review*/ World War I is a cataclysm shrouded in "mystery," as Keegan aptly describes it. Renowned for a dozen superb military histories, he enhances his premier reputation with this volume. His analytic superiority separates Keegan from most other military historians (yet Barbara Tuchman may best him as a narrator in her classic The Guns of August, 1962). Here his skill, as with his previous subjects, results in one of the best books about the war. As we now know, World War I exploded out of the blue: many since 1914 have pointed at innumerable causes. Ranking high among them are the war plans prepared by military chiefs, most notoriously the one drafted by Germany's General Schlieffen, purporting to guarantee a lightning victory against the entente powers. The Schlieffen Plan, Keegan notes, contained two fatal flaws. The first was technical: Schlieffen himself could not resolve how to move on land the 200,000 troops he knew were necessary to envelop Paris. The second was strategic: it ignored possible British intervention. Nevertheless, the Schlieffen Plan was all the Germans had on the shelf in the event they faced a monumental diplomatic defeat, which they did following Russian mobilization on July 31, 1914, and the plan thus became, argues Keegan, "the most important official document of the last hundred years." The plan's failure initiated the second mystery of the war, the stubborn prosecution of trench battles. Most of Keegan's text is devoted to trench warfare, which hindsight reckons a quasi-criminal enterprise, and the generals ordering it have languished since in disreputable obscurity. What kept men and nations going? Why weren't generals more imaginative? Keegan's answers accord a nuanced assessment of the ghastliness of the front, incorporating both technical factors and the more elusive factors of morale and comradeship. The war still seems perplexing, but Keegan's first-rate history brings it closer to being understandable. ((Reviewed March 15, 1999))Copyright 2000 Booklist Reviews

Review by Choice Reviews

There has been a rebirth of interest in WW I recently, perhaps because of the realization, as the century ends, of the degree to which subsequent events grew from the consequences of those four terrible years. Keegan's aim is both to synthesize the literature and provide analysis and perspective for the general reader. A skilled practitioner of popular military history, he very largely succeeds. The book is smoothly written, and Keegan is not shy at passing judgment. Throughout, he maintains pace, balance, and a command of the wide range of secondary sources on which his narrative rests. Specialist military historians will probably dissent from his dismissive assessment of the tactical innovations on the Western Front, the subject of so much recent work. And it is curious that the great accomplishment of the British Army in the "last Hundred Days" gets so little notice from a British military historian. Nonetheless, Keegan's book is now the best starting place for students or general readers who want to begin to understand what remains, even by the 20th-century's generous standard, one of the most appalling of wars. Copyright 1999 American Library Association

Review by Library Journal Reviews

A 2001 Knopf illustrated edition, with abridged text, is out-of-print but available from used-book dealers. (LJ 4/15/99) [Page 52]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

Esteemed military historian Keegan places the disastrous and still puzzling events of 1914-18 into a superb narrative. He is especially good at explaining the most befuddling part--the war's beginning, which he relates not with tired, powder-keg metaphors but with fresh analysis showing that, among other things, the reticence of European diplomats to use the telephone instead of traditional letters and cables allowed events to speed out of control. (LJ 4/15/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Review by Library Journal Reviews

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. So begins a thorough military history of the Great War by distinguished historian Keegan (e.g., Fields of Battle, LJ 5/15/96). Keegan clearly contrasts the frenetic period of 1914, when huge fronts burst forth across Europe, with the paralyzing, deadly trench warfare of the following three years. The dizzying violence of 1917 and 1918, in which four great empires (Russian, Ottoman, Hapsburg, and German) quickly collapsed, is described with particular vigor. While focusing on armies, battles, and generals, Keegan doesnt ignore the human suffering of the drab millions who plodded to death on battlefields like the Somme and Ypres. Barbara Tuchmans The Guns of August (1962) still offers the best description of 1914, while Martin Gilberts The First World War (LJ 11/15/94) gives more weight to diplomatic history. Any library owning these three titles has a solid basic World War I collection. Recommended for all libraries.Bob Persing, Univ. of Pennsylvania Lib., Philadelphia Copyright 1999 Library Journal Reviews

Review by Library Journal Reviews

A noted historian's definitive account. Copyright 1999 Library Journal Reviews

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

In a riveting narrative that puts diaries, letters and action reports to good use, British military historian Keegan (The Face of Battle, etc.) delivers a stunningly vivid history of the Great War. He is equally at ease and equally generous and sympathetic probing the hearts and minds of lowly soldiers in the trenches or examining the thoughts and motivations of leaders (such as Joffre, Haig and Hindenburg) who directed the maelstrom. In the end, Keegan leaves us with a brilliant, panoramic portrait of an epic struggle that was at once noble and futile, world-shaking and pathetic. The war was unnecessary, Keegan writes, because the train of events that led to it could have been derailed at any time, "had prudence or common goodwill found a voice." And it was tragic, consigning 10 million to their graves, destroying "the benevolent and optimistic culture" of Europe and sowing the seeds of WWII. While Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War (Forecasts, Mar. 8) offers a revisionist, economic interpretation of the causes of WWI, Keegan stands impressively mute before the unanswerable question he poses: "Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?" Photos not seen by PW. 75,000-copy first printing; simultaneous Random House audio. (June) Copyright 1999 Publishers Weekly Reviews

Review by Publisher Summary 1

From the author of Fields of Battle comes a monumental history of the Great War that chronicles the events of the conflict from early diplomatic efforts to avert war, through the nightmarish campaigns and battles, to the end of the war and the repercussions of World War I. Reprint. 150,000 first printing.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

A history of the Great War chronicles the events of the conflict from early diplomatic efforts to avert war, through the nightmarish campaigns and battles, to the end of the war and its repercussions.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

The definitive account of the Great War and national bestseller from one of our most eminent military historians, John Keegan.

The First World War created the modern world. A conflict of unprecedented ferocity, it abruptly ended the relative peace and prosperity of the Victorian era, unleashing such demons of the twentieth century as mechanized warfare and mass death. It also helped to usher in the ideas that have shaped our times--modernism in the arts, new approaches to psychology and medicine, radical thoughts about economics and society--and in so doing shattered the faith in rationalism and liberalism that had prevailed in Europe since the Enlightenment. 

The First World War
probes the mystery of how a civilization at the height of its achievement could have propelled itself into such a ruinous conflict and takes us behind the scenes of the negotiations among Europe's crowned heads (all of them related to one another by blood) and ministers, and their doomed efforts to defuse the crisis. Keegan reveals how, by an astonishing failure of diplomacy and communication, a bilateral dispute grew to engulf an entire continent.

But the heart of Keegan's superb narrative is, of course, his analysis of the military conflict. With unequalled authority and insight, he recreates the nightmarish engagements whose names have become legend--Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli among them--and sheds new light on the strategies and tactics employed, particularly the contributions of geography and technology. No less central to Keegan's account is the human aspect. He acquaints us with the thoughts of the intriguing personalities who oversaw the tragically unnecessary catastrophe--from heads of state like Russia's hapless tsar, Nicholas II, to renowned warmakers such as Haig, Hindenburg and Joffre. But Keegan reserves his most affecting personal sympathy for those whose individual efforts history has not recorded--"the anonymous millions, indistinguishably drab, undifferentially deprived of any scrap of the glories that by tradition made the life of the man-at-arms tolerable."

By the end of the war, three great empires--the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman--had collapsed. But as Keegan shows, the devastation ex-tended over the entirety of Europe, and still profoundly informs the politics and culture of the continent today. His brilliant, panoramic account of this vast and terrible conflict is destined to take its place among the classics of world history.