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on January 18, 2003
John Keegan' "The First World War" is one of those rare books which combine the thoroughly researched descriptions of history, technology and means of warfare with nuances of psychology and mystery of the Great War. Keegan starts with the overview of diplomatic positions of the Great powers involved in the war (although his analysis of origins is on his own admission is just a summary of prior work), then proceeds to the breakout of the conflict. In subsequent chapters Keegan covers every year of the Great War on the Western, Eastern, Middle Eastern, Italian and Mediterranean theatres of war in a thorough and scholarly fashion. Very soon a pattern emerges - a static trench warfare on the Western front, in-conclusive war of movement on the Eastern front with untold unaccounted casualties, diversionary operations on the secondary theatres costing significant resource drain, and pointless war of heroics, despotism and bravery on the Italian front.
What I like particularly about the book is the analysis of military strategy and tactics of the main participant in the manner which somebody without training in military science can easily comprehend. Keegan points out how lack of communication, rigid bureaucratic organization and the lack of appreciation of the tactical variability of the war caused British failures to command a decision at Somme in 1916 and Ypres and Flanders in 1917; how ill-prepared was French army for defensive operations due to its romantic "esprit de corpes"; how Russian lack of coordination, material supply and organization lead to horrendous losses on the Western front. Germans came out as good fighters, allowing their field commanders high degree of freedom, yet weak strategically, unable to concentrate the efforts on a single point of the decisive breakthrough. Keegan touches on the naval warfare as well, specifically Jutland, but since navy in the Great war played mostly static positional role, he does not spend much time there.
Overall, I found his book fair and non-biased; essentially without any political agenda. Keegan is more interested in uncovering the mystery of the war as the source of human suffering, then finding a particular side to blame. To this degree this is a rare book.
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on July 22, 2006
As a one-volume narrative outlining the major events of the First World War, this book succeeds. It is a great introduction to the war. I wish, however, to state my reservations about the book.

One oddity is that the first three chapters cover the events leading to the war, but the last chapter ends abruptly with the armistice. It would have been nice to have a chapter on the Treaty of Versailles.

The book incorporates two previously published articles, as the acknowledgements acknowledge. This leads to the repetition of certain data, as it appears that they were not sufficiently edited to fit in with the rest of the book.

Keegan is British, and it is obvious. He emphasizes repeatedly how the British army was never defeated by the Germans except in one campaign. The Australians are praised as the world's greatest soldiers without further elaboration. He explicitly blames Germany's naval construction campaign preceding the war for the war itself, presumably because it challenged Britain's benign supremacy. The deaths of British soldiers are lamented with poignancy that overflows into sentimentality.

To be fair, the book was written for a British audience, and these excesses are much more modest than they might have been. Keegan seems to have tried hard to be evenhanded, and these excesses are largely superficial and forgivable.

Lastly, Keegan admits that this book does not break new ground. A glance at the endnotes reveals that most of the material from this book was taken from secondary sources. Each chapter seems to have come from three or so books. Thus, this is not a work of history so much as a gloss on history written by others.
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on December 13, 2000
Keegan does it well! This book illuminates the war to end all wars and captures the sweep of the first global conflict. Keegan details the primary causes and the primary instigators of the conflict. You really come to understand how about 15 individuals and a lot of national pride led to the deaths of millions. While not a truly "modern" war, many of the instruments of death were well hoaned (e.g. the rifle, the machine gun and artillery). This book describes the horror of trench warfare, details the attacks and defenses, the general's attempts to break the stalemate, the mathematics of attrition, the political motivations, and most importantly, the effect on nations that established the groundwork for the second world war. No modern history, military history, or the 20th century history collection is complete with out a text such as this! Keegans book is dense and detailed, well researched, and yet understandable and a pleasure to read!
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on March 26, 2000
Keegan does a fine job of illustrating the conflict of WW1 with strokes that are wide enough to give 'the big picture' clarity while also delving into several campaigns and stories that will give the reader some intimate knowledge of the subject. His book was used as a text in a college level history course, which is where I read it, and helped a great deal.
The accounts of lesser know theaters of conflict are certainly some of the book's high points. My favorite section was a the German, Paul Lettow von Vorbeck, who was in charge of the German forces in German East Africa. Keegan describes how Vorbeck waged a guerrilla war against English forces for the duration of the war. It is great reading. There are other chapters equally insightfull.
Overall, the Keegan rarely becomes traped in the minutia of detail, though at times the various armies, regiments, battalions, and dates can become a bit thick. This is a book that needs about one or two days inbetween chapters for thought fermentation. You need to let it all sink in before moving on, otherwise the details slip away.
I highly recomend this book to anyone who knows little about WW1 and wishes to learn more- or, like myself, someone who thought that they knew most of what there was to know (and was wrong).
Professors everywhere: get books like this one for classes, they are better than texts, cheaper, and more enjoyable to read! Plus, we students will learn more in return.
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on May 20, 2007
One of the best known military historians writing today is Sir John Keegan. A former faculty member at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, Keegan is now the defense editor for "The Daily Telegraph." He made a name for himself as a historian with "The Face of Battle."

It is hardly surprising then that Keegan decided to write a general account of World War I. During this conflict, the British Army grew to its largest size ever, but the four years of this war initiated the decline of the United Kingdom as a power in world affairs. The book presents the Great War in the elegant prose that readers have come to expect from Keegan.

The author brings his expertise to bear in many important ways. He shows that the von Schliefen Plan was intellectually flawed from the get go. It could never have worked. Technological limitations, primarily those in communication, made it almost impossible for commanders to exert the type of control they had had in the past, or would have again in the future. At the same time, weapons with heavy firepower and the wealth of industrial nations allowed the combatants to put huge armies into the field on a scale larger than ever before.

Keegan focuses primarily on the experiences of the British Army. The Germans receive second billing. The French get much less attention even though they had more divisions in the field than their allies on the other side of the English Channel. Western Europe is the main area that Keegan discusses. Naval warfare, the Eastern Front and operations in Africa and Asia get far less attention.

According to Keegan, the ultimate factor in the allied victory was the sheer number of American troops that began arriving in France in 1918. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF), though, faced many of the same problems that the British had faced earlier in the war. This situation is understandable. Both armies were small and existed primarily for maintaining order in far flung territories. Neither had enough officers with experience to lead and staff the large formations that were required to face the Germans.

The problem with this assessment is that the AEF clearly underperformed. While it is possible that the American military contribution might simply have been raw numbers, it was a factor that the Germans were capable of handling, at least at the operational and tactical levels.

So, another factor had to be at work. Some historians have argued that the British and French Armies, particularly the British, had improved over the course of the war, but Keegan rejects this view. He believes it was simple raw numbers that crushed the Germans. Mass industrialization is clearly an important factor in this war as Keegan shows in convincing fashion during the earlier stages of this book, but to believe that it is the only factor is taking a good argument a little too far.

Another issue with this book is the limited number of maps. This illustrated version is better than the original version, but Keegan's description of the terrain is an important feature of this book. The limited number of maps and quality makes it difficult to follow him at times. The photos are a major assesst that give even more weight to his descriptions.

In short, this book is a brilliant but flawed work.
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on February 25, 2000
Mr. Keegan is our foremost historian on European military history, and he is at the peak of his powers in writing about The Great War. As he relates in introducing this impressive volume, his interest in this catastrophic and utterly purposeless conflict started at a young age and remained highly personal throughout his life to the present day. The Great War was a shattering trauma to the families in the towns and villages where Keegan grew up. Still, today it eclipses in many ways the memory of even the Second World War (which Keegan convincingly argues cannot be understood without a grasp of the Great War that preceded it). To fit this story into less than 500 pages requires a quick pace. (Barbara Tuchman's account of the war's beginnings Guns of August is vital to supplement what is represented herein by Keegan). However, Keegan never neglects the necessary detail and personal aspects of events, never fails to impress the reader. The Western Front - the failure of the Schlieffen plan and the great "turnabout" and counter-offensive of the Marne, Loos, Verdun (again, for the necessary detailed understanding, see Alistair Horne's Price of Glory: Verdun - 1916) - is the focus, but the Eastern Front is not neglected. Keegan's description of the epic struggle between German and Slav (pieced together from scant sources since these lost souls - millions of lives thrown away in unremembered, epic struggles - left few records of their experiences), with the spectre of the Russian Revolution and the coming of the Stalinist state, leaves the reader with a shudder of revulsion (anticipating that this war of hatred would continue and accelerate to worse heights in the Second World War). The Eastern Front was, if anything, in many ways more horrifying than the trench warfare that wasted away - with no purpose or benefit to anyone involved in any way - a generation of manhood from France, Britain and Germany in the Western Front. All of Keegan's works are treasures for the interested reader. This volume is perhaps Keegan's best. It has a personal intensity that enhances the impact on the reader, while still maintaining due balance of storytelling and factual representation of academic research.
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on September 7, 2006
Having recently read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, I wanted to further my education on this period in history. John Keegan's overview of the military side of the Great War is well done, though I still felt like I needed to know more after finishing the book. Keegan's narrative, including the beginnings of and the slide into a continental, eventually a global war, is expertly woven. His book is primarily focused on the military aspects of the war, which is essential, but by focusing on just that, one doesn't get as complete a picture. This isn't the author's fault; I just prefer more inclusive studies of such wide reaching events as World War I.

To say that the First World War, like any war, was tragic is an understatement. It was a war that not only resulted in the loss of millions of lives, but affected the lives of so many others, i.e. their families and friends. The First World War was brutal, though as bad as it was, it would be eclipsed by its successor two decades later. Keegan's narrative is focused on the military efforts and strategies employed by both the Central Powers and the Allies, late in the war to include the United States. This book details the opening of hostilities in August 1914 on the Western Front where the Germans hoped to reach Paris and win the war in just over a month, to the beginnings of trench warfare that produced the stalemate in France, to the battles that developed on the Eastern Front from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean and interior areas of the Ottoman Empire. Sea battles, colonial engagements in Africa and other theaters of the war are mentioned as well.

Keegan is quite good in outlining the military aspect of the war, but the personalities and people who fought don't always come through as well as I had hoped. Also, I think it's fair to admit his own prejudices in favor of the British efforts in the war, which let's face it, we're all biased towards one side or the other. I found it quite remarkable how the Germans were able to hold it together for so long, considering that for a time they were fighting on two fronts. Not that I think they were on the right side of the war, but they had men who fought and suffered like anyone else. The soldiers on all sides seemed to persevere, even after the deplorable casualty figures incurred from such major offensives as at the Somme, Verdun and other battles on both fronts. There were periods of near mutiny on the French side, discontent in the German homeland as the demands of the war effort drained its resources, and of course revolution in Russia that threatened to spread to other regions.

It's hard to summarize such a complex and widespread topic as this, but this book is worth reading. I've often thought of how it seems the First World War has been forgotten, considering how much is written on the Second World War, hence my interest in learning more about the former. Keegan's book lacks certain qualities found in Tuchman's, though neither book is all inclusive on studying the First World War. Keegan excels in writing about the battles fought and the ideas underpinning them, but as I mentioned earlier, I didn't get as good a grasp for the people, both in high command and those who fought in the trenches. His bibliography also seemed to lack for primary sources in my opinion. To be fair, no one book has all the answers. This book does demonstrate Keegan's abilities in writing military history. A good read.
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The most wonderful aspect of John Keegan's impeccable writing style is that it is always used in service to the telling the story at hand, in this case the story of the First World War. As Keegan argues, the combinaion of influences and social and economic forces leading to the outbreak of the First World War demark the embarkation point for the onset of the modern world, so understanding the forces at work in causing it, and in fueling its progress and conflagration against all logic, rationality and useful purpose, are critical in attempting to understand the 20th century.
World War One was clearly, from its onset, a war quite unlike all those that had proceeded it. It was conducted with a intensity and ferocity unprecedented in the modern world, largely due to the introduction of the large-scale use of mechanized implements of war such as the relative wealth of the nations involved, the more robust health of its average citizens (due to improved sanitation, food supplies, and public health), and the implementation of weapons such as tanks and machine guns. This, then, really is a definitive history of the the First Word War.
Keegan's forte, of course, is in describing and explaining the nature of the military conflict itself. This he does with precision and a sense of the sweeping panorama on which this war is being waged. Thus, there are descriptions of activiteis in places as far flung as Verdun and Gallipoli, and we watch with a mixture of amazement and horror as we see the murderous stalemate develops along the relatively stable battle-lines of the fields and forests of the Somme. He also helps to shed new light on the conduct of the hostilities in terms of the tactics employed and the way in which the new technolgies were so savagely employed.
As always, Keegan draws out our innate interest in the individual personalities contributing to the development of the war crisis, and then in directing and conducting the war, and makes us better appreciate how their personalities and frailties lead each of them into the kinds of tragic actions that doom so many to death. For years the daily "Butcher's Bill" was extracted as wave after wave of infantry were slaughted with machine guns, mortors, and artillery, and for little or no substantive gain for either side in terms of miltary advantage. The new war was a more horrible war from the average citizen's point of view, and Keegan underscores this, as well.
Of course, Keegan points this out at a number of points quite poignantly; it is the anonymous millions who lived and died in the trenchs so bravely and yet so uselessly that deserve our compassion. This, then, is an interesting, well-documented, absorbing, and worthwhile book and is definitely one any serious student of modern war and the 20th century will want to read and have in his or her library.
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on December 8, 1999
In my mind a comprehensive, factual explanation of the military aspects of The Great War. Keegan does not dwell excessively on the political aspects that contributed to the conflict, but he correctly points out that it need not have happened, and that the combatants were woefully unprepared to prosecute such a war. I would give it more stars, but for the glaring absence of adequate maps.
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on May 7, 2000
World War I is actually the beginning of World War II, and it amazes me how little attention this conflict receives. Keegan is enamored by The Great War (his father was in the British Army), and it shows. As an overview to an initiate, the tome succeeds admirably. The author begins by attacking the diplomatic disaster which parcipitated the conflict. Each personality is critiqued and criticized with literary zeal. I particuraly liked Keegan's description of a crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, the war itself takes center stage, and everything from opening manuevers of the Schleiffen Plan, to trench stalemate, and the final German offensive in 1918 are described in detail. Perhaps this detail will be too light for a grognard, but it IS a general history. I really enjoyed Keegan's fair treatment of Russia's armies underrated performance against the Germans (post Tannenburg until The Revolution). Are there problems? Well, maps are scarce. This fact does not hinder enjoyment of the book, but does leave alot to the imagination. Beyond that, I find little wrong with it. If you do not know much about this period, I believe it is an excellent prelude to prepare the reader for a better understanding of a much neglected period of 20th Century history.
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