84 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars military history with compassion and sans political bias
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...
Published on January 18, 2003 by Boris Aleksandrovsky
109 of 115 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good for what it is
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...
Published on July 22, 2006 by Felix Sonderkammer
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84 of 85 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars military history with compassion and sans political bias,
This review is from: The First World War (Paperback)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.
109 of 115 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good for what it is,
This review is from: The First World War (Paperback)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.
67 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A readable text book!,
49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Comprehensive History,
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.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant But Flawed,
This review is from: The First World War: An Illustrated History (Hardcover)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.
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Great War - full of Sound and Fury,
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keegan's Formidable Skills are Focused on World War One!,
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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.
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good Narrative, No Maps,
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The First World War,
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.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Masterful and Subtly Themed - 4 1/2 stars,
Keegan's "The First World War" is more ambitious and more subtle than that. It explores the changing nature of modern war and shows how the inadequacies of the miltary establishments in dealing with technological warfare condemned a generation of young men to death on the killing fields of Europe.
The book's themes are presented chronologically. It graphically depicts the inevitability of the slide into War that came about through the separation of military planning from diplomacy. Keegan's analysis of the shortcomings of German staff work is masterful, eloquently reasoning that the Schlieffen plan could never have succeeded.
Keegan proceeds to look at each year of the war in terms of militry and technological evolution (1915 is the year of stalemate and war on other fronts, 1916 is the year of failed tactics, 1917 the year when losses had risen to such volumes that armies could no longer fight, and in 1918 as the American forces arrive, German social cohesion collapses).
In exploring these themes, Keegan presents magnificently realised picture of the war. People who are looking for a single volume, day to day account of the war will be disappointed. This is an exploration of the effects of technology on warfare - or on human interaction.
It could be argued that the book is overly Anglo-centric, that it does not do justice to the sacrifices of Russian and Dominion forces. That the war in Palestine and the Arab revolt are given short shrift. That there are not enough maps to illustrate the course of the war and of individual battles.
But that would be to miss the point of what the author is trying to achieve. This book is not about geography. It is about how the military establishment failed to deal with technology.
That is not to say this is a cold book. On the contrary, there is a melancholy and a sadness pervasive throughout that illustrates the author's love of life and his humanity.
I recommend this book to those who are willing to look at military history from a slightly different perspective.
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The First World War by John Keegan (Paperback - May 16, 2000)