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Thursday, May 26, 2016

The First World War, by John Keegan

This is a re-read for me.  I first read John Keegan's "The First World War" in 2002 while preparing to team-teach a course on military history and conflict.  I was assigned to read the book (among others) and prepare a report on how to best utilize the material included in the book for the course.  The translation to that would be, "well, we don't have enough time this semester to read the entire text, so try and 'steal' as much as you can from it."  It did not go well.  The book, for the most part, is an excellent example of historiography but not a good narrative for the common student.  Historians praise it and for good reason; it is an excellent account of tactics and policy, an account without equal packed with statistical information and a great lineal map of events.  It is not my top choice on the subject, but I respect John Keegan as one of the most important historians of the 20th Century.  His style is dense, not (once again) for the common reader.  If you decide to pick up this volume, please be mindful that you will send several hundred pages trying to track down and keep pace/sense of the so many players on the battlefield.  A thumbnail sketch would go something like this, "And the reserves of 'such and such' unit, seeing that the first line was in retreat, connected with 'such and such' unit of Indian and Australian volunteers and countered at 'such and such' place but were quickly turned around.  To the east, 'such and such' unit, under the command of Ludendorf fell under attack from 'such and such' with the support of artillery from 'such and such' unit mostly composed of Romanian volunteers who had been set free by the 'such and such' after being held as prisoners..."  I am not trying to criticize wantonly.  The truth of the matter is that I enjoyed reading this book.  I do not, however, recommend it for the common reader who might just happen to see the "National Bestseller" heading on the cover and think this would be the book to enlighten them on the critical knowledge about the conflict.

Keegan is, as I said, a master of his craft.  The research is thorough to an extreme.  The writing well-organized but dense.  The closing part of the book, detailing the accounts of surrender by Germany is a painful reminder of human ambition coming to a crashing halt against reality.  The loss of life (highly detailed throughout the book for literally every single battle of the war) is hard to comprehend.  The Battle of Verdun, for example, offered staggering losses for both sides.  To think that governments back in the early decades of the 20th Century were willing to stomach such voluminous losses should be a reminder of where we are as a race today.  Millions of human lives sacrificed on the altar of political ego and historical vendettas.  "A History of the First World War" by A.J.P. Taylor (which I reviewed HERE) touches in more detail regarding the political egos driving the entire war effort, particularly in England.  To think that politicians would be willing to send young men to die with such coldness in their hearts and for their own political career gains should give us all pause.  In that sense, John Keegan masterfully concludes his volume with the following view, "But then the First World War is a mystery. Its origins are mysterious. So is its course. 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 achievements, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all of it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict? Why, when the hope of bringing the conflict to a quick and decisive conclusion was everywhere dashed to the ground within months of its outbreak, did the combatants decide nevertheless to persist in their military effort, to mobilize for total war and eventually to commit the totality of their young manhood to mutual and existentially pointless slaughter? Principle perhaps was at stake; but the principle of the sanctity of international treaty, which brought Britain into the war, scarcely merited the price eventually paid for its protection. Defense of the national territory was at stake also, the principle for which France fought at almost unbearable damage to its national well-being.  Defense of the principle of mutual security agreement, underlying the declarations of Germany and Russia, was pursued to a point where security lost all meaning in the dissolution of state structures. Simple state interest, Austria's impulse and the oldest of all reasons for war-making, proved, as the pillars of imperialism collapsed about the Habsburgs, no interest at all."  

If you are an American reader looking at this volume as inclusive of the effort by the United States, you better look somewhere else.  While Keegan gives credit where credit is due, and even goes as far as praising my beloved U.S. Marine Corps, the coverage of the American effort is limited in scope.  This is not because Keegan does not care about it, but rather because when faced with a collective account of the events, the American effort is really small, only a tiny fraction of what happened in the last year of the war.  The Americans provided the overwhelming balance in numbers for the Allies at a time when Germany and its allies could not replace their losses as quickly.  There is no account of American troop movement or explicit contribution or accounts of heroism, etc.  Again, I don't think this is the book for that.  "The First World War" is a comprehensive account of ALL of the war, not just specifics. There are other volumes dedicated to American action in the war, and even illustrated books with detailed movement, maps and battle accounts of the doughboys' contribution.

"The First World War" is, unfortunately, not a book I will be reading again soon.  I will certainly hold it in high esteem for critical reference material and research but not for re-reading again and again.  John Keegan is a professional historian, not a writer purposefully going out of his way to entertain anyone, or molding his narrative to cater to reader engagement rather than historical accuracy. 

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