The First World War by John Keegan
The sheer magnitude of World War I exerts a morbid fascination: soldiers mobilized, casualties, ship tonnage sunk, shells fired all number in the millions. Plus, the fates of thousands of infantry going over the top, resigned to terrible numbers of dead, wounded, and missing moves us with their devotion and the losses felt by their families and societies. Because the war caused such losses and basically imploded European civilization, we wonder if one-volume history can begin to explain the war.
But I think Keegan, perhaps the most famous military historian still alive and working, writes about the war clearly and accurately in only about 400 pages. The book is written concisely, with clear chronological organization. He covers the different places the war was fought, even Africa. He judiciously quotes from diaries and letters the experience of foot-soldier, provides insight into the generals’ way of thinking, and gives a succinct valuation of politician PM David Lloyd-George. He gives about the right amount of information on tactics and strategy, but fans of, say, Stephen Ambrose or Ken Burns may end up a little numbed by the pesky Roman numerals of this troop and that troop. Naturally, he emphasizes the British experience, but his treatment of the Russian Revolution is as detailed a summary as a general reader needs for such a big subject.
Keegan also argues against the “general as donkey” point of view. He asserts that they did not have benefit of radio communication that generals enjoyed during WWII. They could do little more than sit back and wait until they heard how their plans were working out. Generals simply did not know during Gallipoli, the Somme, and Passchendaele how messed up things were on the ground. This made planning inflexible with subordinates having no choice but to follow the plan, even while realities changed on the battlefield by the half-hour.
Keegan also wonders why people tolerated it. After the disaster of the Somme, people within and without the military seemed to adopt the attitude to “See It Through” so that those who died would not have died in vain. Keegan does not address the sociological and psychological sides of the war, but I think readers who want a comprehensive overview of the military side of the war won’t go wrong with this clear and accurate book.
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