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The First World War

The First World War

3.9 21
by John Keegan

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The highest praise greeted the hardcover publication of this engrossing, brilliant book - THE definitive story of the Great War, the war that created the modern world, unleashing the terrors of mechanized warfare and mass death, and establishing the political fault lines that imperil European stability to this day.

Keegan takes us behind the scenes of the


The highest praise greeted the hardcover publication of this engrossing, brilliant book - THE definitive story of the Great War, the war that created the modern world, unleashing the terrors of mechanized warfare and mass death, and establishing the political fault lines that imperil European stability to this day.

Keegan takes us behind the scenes of the doomed diplomatic efforts to avert the catastrophe; he probes the haunting question of how a civilization at the height of its cultural achievement and prosperity could propel itself toward ruin with so little provocation; his panoramic narrative brings to life the nightmarish engagements whose names have become legend - Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli - as with profound sympathy, he explores the minds of Joffe, Haig and Hindenburg, the famed generals who directed the cataclysm.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 11/01/2013
A 2001 Knopf illustrated edition, with abridged text, is out-of-print but available from used-book dealers. (LJ 4/15/99)
David Frum
...[T]he magisterial English military historian John Keegan...writes of the war precisely as a war: uniquely horrible, but still intelligible in the same way that the Napoleonic Wars and the Second World War are intelligible.
The Weekly Standard
A masterpiece.
An elegant narrative by a distinguished historian.
Chris Barsanti
Keegan, the best popular military historian of our time, has chronicled the four-year cataclysm of World War I with his customary mixture of incisive analysis and compassionate commentary. Sometimes it’s all too easy to forget the apocalyptic forces WWI unleashed upon the world. The patina of Europe’s civilized aristocracy was swept away by the endless killing, paving the way for the more efficient barbarism and nationalist psychoses of World War II. This is Keegan’s theme, and while not a revolutionary one, it is convincingly delivered. He dismisses many revisionist studies of the war that would have one believe “if only” this or that had happened, the war would never have been fought. As in his other work, Keegan’s ability to clearly portray the plight of the individual soldier is what carries the book. Through all the accounts of strategies and battles, he never lets us forget these are people he is writing about. He acknowledges that in WWI, unlike other wars he has written on, heroism is not remembered and only graveyards remain: “[N]o brave trumpets sound in memory for the drab millions who plodded to death on the featureless plains of Picardy and Poland; no litanies are sung for the leaders who coaxed them to slaughter.”
...Keegan's ground-level focus makes us keenly aware of how battles are fought, won, and lost, and reminds us that like politics, all wars are local.
New Republic
For Keeganthe war is the "ultimate mystery."
Tony Judt
John Keegan is...perhaps the best military historian of our day....[He] explains better than most just why the Western Front was so murderous....The new world of Europe that would emerge from the experience was quite different: darkermore violentmore polarizedmore cynicalless sure of itself and less given to confident assertions of its own superiority and prospectsexcept in a poisonous ideological form. —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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 Cahners Business Information.
Keegan has attempted the formidable task of reducing to one volume the history of a war that he terms "a mystery." Lavishly praised and sporadically maligned by its various reviewers, this text is remarkably readable. Keegan has made his reputation as a military historian, and this book is, above all, a military history. Battles, troop movements and military strategy are the focus; social and political movements are mentioned only as they affect military decisions. While this concentration might disappoint some readers, it provides the framework that allows Keegan to contain his account within a single volume. The reader who starts with the first chapter, "A European Tragedy," and proceeds doggedly through to the last, "American and Armageddon," may sometimes find that Keegan is a bit repetitive in his explanations or his assessments of Allied or Central Power strategy. It is this very reformulation, however, that makes the book approachable by separate chapters and establishes its excellence as a reference book for high school students. Chapter eight, "The Year of the Battles," for instance, contains a gripping description of the battle of Jutland as well as sections on the 1916 battles at Verdun, the Somme, and on the eastern frontier. From Keegan's point of view, WW I was a European war. The American soldiers barely make it into the final chapter. The American reader, therefore, should be prepared for the Eurocentrism of the text, a potentially enriching counterpoint to our textbooks in American history. The book provides a minimal supply of maps, a brief collection of photographs, a full supply of citations, and an annotated bibliography. It belongs in every high school library.KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Random House/Vintage, 475p, 21cm, 98-31826, $16.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Patricia A. Moore; Brookline, MA, September 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 5)
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-John Keegan's account of the Great War for our generation. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
David Gress
At the end of his account of economics, strategy, war finance, patriotism, and morale, the war remains a challenge and above all a tragedy, but it is, at least, no longer completely mysterious.
National Review
Matthew Stevenson
...Keegan...brings to the writing of history an undergraduate's enthusiasm for his subjects....[He believes] that "if we hope to see war driven to its end, we must not shrink from seeing its causes addressed."
The American Spectator
Michiko Kakutani
...[The book is] a kind of companion volume to his...The Second World War....[H]is narrative is animated by sharply stated assessments of long-term strategies and short-term tactics, political goals and military means....Throughout...Mr. Keegan captures the anomalous, even surreal quality of war....a war that would transform "a prosperous continent"...[into] "death's gray land."
The New York Times
Keegan's skill is to present comprehensive history that's peppered with telling vignettes and profiles.
Business Week
The New Republic
For Keegan, the war is the "ultimate mystery."
Kirkus Reviews
In this sterling account of the tragic and unnecessary conflict that inaugurated a century of horror, British military historian Keegan (Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America, 1996, etc.) ranges from Olympian assessments of leaders to searing depictions of suffering common soldiers. The shattering effects of the "war to end all wars" have been depicted unforgettably by novelists and poets such as Hemingway, Remarque, Owen, and Brooke, but seldom so memorably by historians. Keegan remedies that with a traditional strategy-and-tactics study that is also informed by deep personal feeling for the subject (his father, two uncles, and father-in-law all served and survived). He consistently underscores the war's body blow to civilization, noting not only its staggering casualty rates (e.g., two out of every nine French soldiers who went to war never came home) but the chaos that gave rise to totalitarianism afterward. Keegan's versatility is evident on every page. He excels equally in explaining how the best-laid strategies went awry, in measuring commanders' strengths and weaknesses, and in discussing how technology had not yet developed enough to enable effective communications between the front and the rear in battle. He points out the unusual tragedies resulting from the war, such as secluded rural establishments where disfigured veterans could take holidays together, as well as its numerous ironic consequences. He renders all of this in somber prose that often rises to eloquence. Here he dispatches British general Douglas Haig: "On the Somme he had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors into the slough ofdespond." A narrative that yields insight at every turn on this near-endless stalemate, as well as serving as an object lesson on the dark mysteries that await even those best-prepared for war. (24 pages b&w photos, not seen; 15 maps) (First printing of 75,000)

From the Publisher
At once the most readable and the most original of living military historians."--The New York Times

It takes a disciplined and enormously well-read scholar to bring order and meaning to the complexity of the Great War. It takes the artistry of a gifted storyteller to craft such technical detail into a page-turner. Mr Keegan does exactly that." -The Wall Street Journal

One of the foremost military thinkers today.-- Must reading for the Department of National Defence, politicians and anyone concerned about the future and the inherent nature of the human species." -Ottawa Sun

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One: A European Tragedy

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the demobilised front fighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would realise seventeen years later: "It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain . . . No, we do not pardon, we demand—vengeance!"

The monuments to the vengeance he took stand throughout the continent he devastated, in the reconstructed centres of his own German cities, flattened by the strategic bombing campaign that he provoked, and of those—Leningrad, Stalingrad, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London—that he himself laid waste. The derelict fortifications of the Atlantic Wall, built in the vain hope of holding his enemies at bay, are monuments to his desire for vengeance; so, too, are the decaying hutments of Auschwitz and the remnants of theobliterated extermination camps at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. A child's shoe in the Polish dust, a scrap of rusting barbed wire, a residue of pulverised bone near the spot where the gas chambers worked, these are as much relics of the First as of the Second World War. They have their antecedents in the scraps of barbed wire that litter the fields where the trenches ran, filling the French air with the smell of rust on a damp morning, in the mildewed military leather a visitor finds under a hedgerow, in the verdigrised brass of a badge or button, corroded clips of ammunition and pockmarked shards of shell. They have their antecedents also in the anonymous remains still upturned today by farmers ploughing the bloodsoaked soil of the Somme—"I stop work at once. I have a great respect for your English dead"—just as the barely viewable film of bodies being heaped into the mass graves at Belsen in 1945 has its antecedents in the blurred footage of French soldiers stacking the cordwood of their dead comrades after the Second Battle of Champagne in 1915. The First World War inaugurated the manufacture of mass death that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation.

There are more ceremonial monuments. Few French and British communities lack a memorial to the dead of the Second World War. There is one in my West Country village, a list of names carved at the foot of the funerary crucifix that stands at the crossroads. It is, however, an addition and an afterthought. The cross itself was raised to commemorate the young men who did not return from the First World War and their number is twice that of those killed in the Second. From a population of two hundred in 1914, W. Gray, A. Lapham, W. Newton, A. Norris, C. Penn, L. Penn and W. J. White, perhaps one in four of the village's men of military age, did not come back from the front. Theirs are names found in the church registers that go back to the sixteenth century. They survive in the village today. It is not difficult to see from the evidence that the Great War brought heartbreak on a scale never known since the settlement was established by the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest and, thankfully, has not been known since. The memorial cross is, the church apart, the only public monument the village possesses. It has its counterpart in every neighbouring village, in the county's towns, where the names multiply many times, and in the cathedral of the diocese at Salisbury. It has its counterpart, too, in every cathedral in France, in each of which will be seen a tablet bearing the inscription, "To the Glory of God and in memory of one million men of the British Empire who died in the Great War and of whom the greater number rest in France."

Nearby, certainly, will stand a memorial to the locality's own dead, itself replicated in every surrounding town and village. France lost nearly two million in the Great War, two out of every nine men who marched away. They are often symbolised by the statue of a poilu, defiant in horizon blue, levelling a bayonet eastward at the German frontier. The list of names on the plinth is heartrendingly long, all the more heartrending because repetition of the same name testifies to more than one death, often several, in the same family. There are similar lists to be seen graven in stone in the towns and cities of most combatant nations of the Great War. Particularly poignant, I find, is the restrained classicism of the memorial to the cavalry division of the Veneto that stands beside the cathedral of Murano in the lagoon of Venice, bearing row after row of names of young men from the lowlands of the River Po who died in the harsh uplands of the Julian Alps. I am touched by the same emotion in the churches of Vienna where severe stone tablets recall the sacrifice of historic Habsburg regiments now almost forgotten to history.

The Germans, who cannot decently mourn their four million dead of the Second World War, compromised as the Wehrmacht was by the atrocities of the Nazi state, found a materially, if not morally equivalent difficulty in arranging an appropriately symbolic expression of grief for their fallen of the First, since so many lay on foreign soil. The battlefields of the east were closed to them by the Bolshevik revolution, those of the west made at best grudgingly accessible for the retrieval and reburial of bodies. The French and the Belgians found little room in their hearts or in the national soil for the creation of German war cemeteries.

From the Audio Cassette edition.

Meet the Author

John Keegan was for many years senior lecturer in military history at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and has been a fellow at Princeton University and a professor of history at Vassar College. He is the author of thirteen previous books, including the acclaimed The Face of Battle and The Second World War. He lives in Wiltshire, England.

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The First World War 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was great for me, especially since I didn't know the causes of World War I as much as for WWII. Keegan gives a full explanation of the incident that triggered it and the context behind all of it. Then, he provides an excellent account of the war from the first days to the very end. He also tells us more about the most important men involved in it without forgetting to tell us about more than just the battles and their technical side. This book is a great overview of the conflict, its causes, its meaning and its consequences.
otwgwg More than 1 year ago
Started by trying to listen to the CD: Ugh!!! Worst I've ever heard! Prebble is mush-mouthed. And what's worse, the content/context of the text he is reading is such that without the 15 maps included in the printed version, one is quickly lost among movements of obscurely-named divisions and armies advancing to and retreating from equally obscure villages, rivers and mountains. So, alas, I was forced (by curiosity and a burning desire to find maps of what the hell Keegan's talking about) to the used bookstore. There, having confirmed that, indeed, Keegan (or, more likely, his editor) had the sense/decency to include the aforementioned 15 maps in the book, I purchased a copy. Yeah, Keegan covers the whole four years, including the basic events which led to its unnecessary start. But, alas, I believe that many, many authors have done so more logically, cogently and readably: See Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August" and, for the battles on the Gallipoli peninsula (and the key to success/failure, the sea-battles in the Dardanelles and Sea of Marmara -- facets which Keegan almost completely ignores), see Alan Moorehead's "Gallipoli". Then there is Keegan's voice, which is often confusing, with verbs, adverbs, and modifying phrases reversed in order or distantly removed from their object in long, convoluted sentences not familiar to the ear expecting standard English. Sentences more reminiscent of Faulkner than of Hemingway. Thus, Keegan's points, perhaps critical to the outcome of a given action or subsequent reaction, are often obscurely or overly referenced and conditioned, though apparently not intended to be under-emphasized, through the insertion of names, places, dates, ground conditions, weather, preceding events, or other numerous and relevent (or not) facts, are lost. If you like that previous sentence, you'll love Keegan! I speculate that Keegan dictated the text, and that it was only lightly edited. On several occasions, facts are repeated verbatim three or four pages apart. His references to direction - north, south, east and west - and to rivers, towns or other landmarks are often inconsistent with those implied by the maps. Are the maps wrong? Is Keegan picturing a battle in his mind which does not match reality? I got through it. But as a result, I am convinced that there was a whole lot more to (and perhaps a whole lot different than) World War I than Keegan tells us -- or perhaps than he knows. --- gwg
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Keegan continues his string of excellent historical war accounts. This work is remarkable in many ways, but its greatest asset is the author's ability to distill the massively, complex history of the Great War into a single volume. His insights are often fresh and perceptive. I particularly enjoyed his personal histories and wish he'd included many more. And the questions raised on his last page are truly important. The work's few minor flaws need not dissuade neophyte or experienced readers. It suffers most seriously from a deficit of maps. A standard atlas remedies the problem, but I suspect Mr. Keegan overestimates American understanding of world geography. Civilian privations are given slight shift. And I believe Mr. Keegan's generosity toward Generals French, Haig and Joffre (at a minimum) is far too complimentary. They are responsible for the wholesale butchering of countless innocent soldiers, as the author so well documents. But their cavalier, unsympathetic dispositions are inexcusable, regardless of Mr. Keegan's attempts to explain of their points of view. Yet this history is very much worth reading. I followed with great interest Mr. Keegan's Near and Middle Eastern discourses. He proves himself a master of the history of sea warfare in his presentations of naval battles and technologies. He deftly positions Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, Hindenburg and many other important personalities in their appropriate roles. We are again in debt to Mr. Keegan for this concise, excellent book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story is interesting even after almost 100 years, but the author abuses English grammar badly. For example, he commonly splits compound verbs not just with a single adverb (bad enough), but by phrases and even sentences, so that the subject noun is separated by its verb by as many as 4 and 5 lines of the writing. Moreover, faulty reference is common. Both examples (and a number of others could be cited) result in difficult reading, and the need to re-read many of the sentences and even paragraphs. And that is demanding too much patience from the reader. Obviously, Keegan needs a much better, and possibly more forceful reviewer/editor.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
too much detail not enough insight
glauver More than 1 year ago
When he writes of the common soldiers caught in the endless horror of WW1, Keegan's writing comes alive with compassion, but his portraits of the generals lack depth and we don't get to know them as individuals. Another flaw is his uneven coverage of the conflict; although the Russian and French fronts well, he neglects much of the action in other theaters. He begins to tell of the war in Africa, leaves it, and never returns. He also says little of the events in the Middle East, a struggle that set the stage for today’s Arab-Israeli tensions. By no means is this a bad book, but I recommend G. J. Meyer’s A world Undone as a better starting place for the average reader or student.
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ToddS1982 More than 1 year ago
I listen to a lot of audio books; this is the fastest narrated one I have yet heard. The speed was less than ideal for the complex subject material, which tended to the dry side with its details of military maneuvers. The book is recommended more for those who specialize in military history, especially strategy and tactics, than it is for the general public.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The First World War does not seem to demand the attention as does the second. A book such as this puts them together in the proper context. The Great War as the precursor to the Second World War. Keegan decribes the theaters of operations, the complex personalities, and the poltics in enough detail to understand the terrible conflict. He may be the greatest living historian and this may be his most impressive work to date.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Keegan again proves himself one of the world's finest military historians. His methods are virtually flawless, and the portrait he paints of the first war is so vivid in its sheer foolishness and desperation that the reader is almost drawn to tears by the conclusion. A must read for any student of military history, serious or casual.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The greatest compliment that I can give this book is that it made me want to read more about the causes of the Great War, and how it was fought. It is a wonderful introduction for anyone even slightly interested in one of the great defining events of the last century. Hopefully it will effect others the way it did me, and lead them to explore other perspectives of this horrible and destructive war. In understanding what and how this happened, perhaps we can understand how to avoid such man-made catastrophies in the future
Guest More than 1 year ago
Keegan does a great job providing the background events leading up to the war as well as a detailed history of the war's first 2 years. Book could use a little more detail re events of 1917-18 and American involvement in the war.