The First World War
© 2000 John Keegan
The dawning of the 20th century seemed to promise nothing but good tidings for the civilized world; telegraphy and steam were knitting it together, economies were flourishing, and progress was on the march. Then an Austrian noble was shot, and everything went to hell. The First World War is a comprehensive history of the Great War, beginning with the optimistic state of Europe in the 1910s and ending with a retrospective. The text covers the war’s best known front, the western line of trenches gutting France, as well as every other, including the many varied struggles in the east (Germany v Russia, Austria v Italy, Russia v Austria, and Russia v the Turks just to name the principles; other fights in the Balks, like those in Greece and Bulgaria are also examined), across the world as colonies changed hands, and on the sea. Keegan’s success in taking a widespread conflict and delivering a concise narrative over it can’t be overstated.
Although the Great War began with confrontation between the Austrian-Hungarian empire and its Serbian neighbor, it broadened into a global conflict because of the dense web of alliances between European nations and ethnic hostility in the east. Germany supported Austria’s aggressive blame towards the Serbs for the death of Archduke Franz Ferninand, the Russians supported the Serbs, the French supported the Russians, and the British supported the Belgians who had the impudence to put up forts defending the best route from Germany to France: Belgium itself. In the east, a handful of Balkan nations loathed the great powers who wanted to rule them, or once had; Greek animosity toward the Turks brought them in. The great powers of the east, Russia and Turkey, also wanted a piece of each other. I’ve long resisted referring to the Great War as a world war, but after reading this there’s no doubt in my mind it fits: the complexity of fronts is mind-boggling. Although Austria-Hungary’s bellicose attitude toward Serbia initiated the conflict, I almost felt sorry for them considering how many fronts they were fighting on. Keegan’s skill is also obvious when addressing the human side of the conflict; his depiction of the Battle of the Somme drives home its obscene waste, but while he covers the miseries of the soldiers’ lives, he doesn’t villainize the generals. The First World War history and thoughtful commentary, as Keegan reflects on the difficulties inherent in commanding battles that took place across such massive fronts, and coping with the new technologies that turned traditional tactics into those inviting slaughter.
On the whole, I’m most impressed with the narrative and the history; there’s scant mention of airplanes, which I would say is odd in light of von Hindenberg’s claim, “No airplanes, no Tannenberg!”, but there’s a lot of history packed into this book and some elements have to be underplayed; airplanes’ role as scouts and artillery spotters can’t merit much in a book that has to cover campaigns like Verdun in only a few paragraphs. Another minor flaw is Keegan’s motivation for the United States being purely military, a response to submarine warfare; there’s no mention made of the amount of lending the U.S. was giving to the Entente powers. The work is excellent otherwise, definitely suitable for people who want a general introduction to the war.