The First World War

The First World War

by John Keegan

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Overview

The First World War by John Keegan

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375700453
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/2000
Edition description: 1 VINTAGE
Pages: 475
Sales rank: 122,376
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.02(d)

About 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 visiting professor of history at Vassar College. He is the author of twenty books, including the acclaimed The Face of Battle and The Second World War. He lived in Wiltshire, England until his death in 2012.

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 the obliterated 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.

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The First World War 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 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.
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.
billiecat on LibraryThing 7 days ago
Good, solid general history of World War I. Keegan covers the battles and campaigns, as well as the strategic implications on all fronts very well. However, like the war itself the book tends to bog down at times, with sections that aren't easy to follow. Keegan also gives the War at Sea short shrift, a serious omission given Germany's reliance on unrestricted submarine warfare. He does spend some time recounting the "Cruiser War" of Germany's cruiser-raiders, but only briefly mentions operations in the North Sea and the afore-mentioned U-boats.
HistoryMan on LibraryThing 8 days ago
I can,t agree with the review by rachelrichardson.First of all I think it is ridiculous and unfair to complain that a book about a war overemphasizes the military apect of that particular conflict.That's what war is 'all' about.The author is a military historian and therefore his emphasis will lie on the military apects. Secondly rachel complains that there is next to nothing in the book about the role of women during this conflict.Now women did'nt fight in any substantial numbers during the WW1 and therefore in a military history there is not much to tell about them.Of course you can write about the subject from another angle.WW1 was very important in the history of womenslib.Most men were at the front so women had to manage by themselves.As a military history of WW1 this book is very good.It explains better than any other book why it took so long to break the stalemate on the Western Front.Most of all it were military technologies that canceled each other out so no combatant could get a definitive superiority.All the war's fronts get their due but the battles where the British fought get special attention.This book's minor drawbacks are indeed as rachel writes a perspective that is to much Allied centred and the author seems to run out of steam as the end of the conflict is in sight.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have nit read the book but u really want to hopefully i will like it for my report
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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.