The First World War by John Keegan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There are not many books out there about the First World War, and there are even fewer good one-volume popularizations. This might be because the Great War lacks the pathos and the apparent aspects of heroism of its sequel European tragedy. There are no big names that stand out, neither are there many spectacular and critical battles. Nor are there retrospectively clear “good guys” and “bad guys”. The whole thing has the feeling of a mistake, a muddy, avoidable, immense waste of life in which millions of men were sacrificed along fronts that hardly budged, a pointless conflict which saw the dismemberment of three empires: the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian.
I’ve mentioned before that the Great War seemed to be prowling in the background of several books I had read recently: The Remains of the Day, Wittgenstein’s biography, and Logicomix. The truth was that I had plenty of general knowledge about the War but very little specific information. It knew it as an event that set the groundwork for the Second World War, but the actual waging of the war, its antecedents and its outcomes, were pretty vague in my mind. If that’s the case for you as well, Keegan’s book is the antidote.
Keegan’s The First World War is a straightforward narrative of the conflict, beginning with a brief cultural and political survey of Europe at the outbreak of war and ending with an explanation of how the outcome and terms imposed on Germany as well as the way national boundaries were re-drawn in its wake from the ruins of empires set the stage for the Second World War, which Keegan understands as a natural progression of the First. Both these topics– the causes and the results of the war– merit books of their own (which have likely been written), but they show the comprehensive ease that Keegan brings to his topic: treating cultural, political, economic, and technological aspects with enough depth as to be meaningful but never moving beyond the scope of a single-volume treatment.
Between these two chronological bookends, the narrative is that of the progress of the Great War itself, as divided and shifting as the scope of the conflict itself. Most chapters deal with progress (or lack thereof) on the Western Front and the details of the trench warfare involved. Keegan puts in a bit of biography, so that the many commanders involved become at least a bit multidimensional, as well as frequent quotes from letters and accounts of troops on the front. This is one of his great accomplishments of the work: humanizing those who fought, on both sides.
The work is slightly Eurocentric because those are the conflicts for which we have the most detailed sources and accounts, and Keegan draws on them to paint each pointless back and forth with specific details. He is careful to show, however, that the conflict was indeed worldwide. There is plenty of discussion of what was happening on the Eastern front as well, including the ultimate collapse of the Russian armies, and around the world. For example, the conflict in the Middle East, the assault on Germany’s African colonial holdings, and the naval battles of the North Sea are all chronicled. One of the interesting points that Keegan makes and that shapes subsequent narratives of the war is the contrast between the education and background of soldiers on the Eastern versus the Western front: the Eastern front soldiers were often illiterate peasants, so besides a very few surviving accounts such as those by Wittgenstein, our knowledge of the conflicts in the East is much more tenuous, acerbated by the fact that the antagonists in those regions– Russia and the Hapsburg Empire– disintegrated by the war’s end. The conflict there did not “set” in the cultural and literary imagination like the war in the West.
There is history of technology in this treatment as well, though not in detail and not in abundance (which is just about right for a general treatment). Specifically, Keegan discusses the construction of the dreadnought class of warship and their role in the conflict, as well as the coming of tanks used alongside infantry. In his discussion of tactics on the battlefield, he highlights the dawning strategy of armies being considered moveable fortresses and the difficulty in the essential coordination of artillary assault with ground attack. Artillary and massed armies– these were the primary format of the conflict.
The entire treatment is accessible, and the narrative momentum does not bog even when the conflict itself does. Keegan captures both the drama and tragedy of the entire war without simplifying or villainizing either side. Indeed, it is the courtesy and camaraderie often showed across lines even in the face of unmitigated slaughter that seems to strike Keegan most about life in the trenches. Empires died in the Great War, and millions of soldiers, for no clear reason. Yet to treat the whole thing as senseless mistake and therefore ignore it would also be a tragedy. Keegan accomplishes the very difficult by telling the story of the Great War without glorifying or dismissing it.