The First World War, John Keegan

The First World War

The dis-oriented author has done a great deal of reading about World War II. I know that in order to really understand World War II one must understand World War I and its aftermath. Therefore when I found a copy of John Keegan’s The First World War, in a used bookstore — I bought it.

Some time ago, I read Barbara Tuchmann’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Guns of August. Tuchman’s book focused on the opening month of the Great War. I had also read  Keegan’s book The Second World War. Most of my World War II reading has been stories of individual battles or campaigns. I have also read a variety of biographies, like William Manchester’s excellent MacArthur biography — American Caesar. What Keegan’s bok did for me was fill in the gaps, provide an overview of not just the battles but the war on all fronts — military and political.

Keegan’s The First World War really helped me to get the big picture of the Great War and its aftermath.

The First World War is the event that shaped the modern world. As Keegan describes it it was a war that should never have happened. Europe was enjoying a golden age  that would soon be destroyed perhaps never to be regained. The war saw the end of two great empires, the seeds of the end of a third and the beginning of Soviet communism. By the end of the war the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires would be no more and the British empire would begin to crumble though her final demise would come in World War II, really a continuation of World War I.

Keegan sets the stage for the war well. He goes into detail about the various alliances that dragged almost the entire world into the inferno. He also does a good job of describing the pressures on the home front. The Russian government fell to internal revolution during the war and the French and British government also experienced major shake ups.

If this war shaped the modern era, it is also the first modern war. Keegan is a military historian and he does an excellent job describing the military action at both a tactical and strategic level. Before reading this book; Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli, Ypres and even Jutland were just names to me. After reading Keegan I can close my eyes and see the places and events in my mind.

This is a powerful book with powerful lessons.

Halsey’s Typhoon gets 5 of 5 dis-oriented smileys  ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-) ;-(

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  1. That sounds interesting. I wish I had time to read books like you do. I am sure that seeing the french country side helped the visualization of things.

  2. I am pretty sick of authors like Stephen Ambrose and Keegan. Obviously great writers and fascinating storytellers with one huge gaping flaw in their publications, which is the lack of maps and overview charts to help visualize the description of events. I am constantly referring to the pathetic little map in my book trying to find where these events described took place and discover the movements that are being described. I recommend anyone to avoid these books like the plague before getting sucked into an unintelligible morass of words with no clear direction out.

  3. Keegan’s book is a worthwhile read. However, some of the perceptions shared seemed to be biased towards the British take on issues. Keegan also offers analysis on some themes that are sometimes questionable to say the least. He offers rebukes to those who attack the competence of WWI commanders. His three reasons these attacks are unfair are trivial and completely unrelated to the senior commanders like Joffre, Haig, Ludendorff, etc. He attributes attitudes or perceptions to some key figures, such as Petain, completely at odds with the view of other authors. Readers will need other sources to help them develop their own judgment concerning aspects of the Great War.

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