In the words of noted military historian John Keegan, World War I was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. In the summer of 1914, Europe enjoyed peace and prosperity that depended to a great extent on international cooperation in the commercial, intellectual, philanthropic, and religious spheres. Keegan notes that a belief in the impossibility of general war seemed the most conventional of wisdoms. Yet, in a short time, the states of Europe proceeded, as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilization. Keegan concedes that the origins of the war and the course it took are mysteries. Why did diplomatic efforts fail? Why were certain strategies and tactics employed that, in hindsight, appear unrealistic, even futile? Keegan, the author of twelve previous books including The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, and The History of Warfare, helps us gain a much better understanding of personalities, decisions, and events in his authoritative and eminently readable overview, The First World War.
The author recreates the environment in which diplomats, without the benefit of modern means of communication, were unable to defuse the powder keg. At the time many countries in Europe required young men to receive military training, with the result that there were large armies of serving and potential soldiers. Keegan relates that All European armies . . . had long-laid military plans, notable in most cases for their inflexibility. The most important of these was the Schlieffen Plan in Germany, which Keegan considers to be the most important document written in any country in the first decade of the twentieth century, perhaps even the most important official document of the last hundred years. It was a plan for quick victory in a short war. Although it did not start the war, once this plan was adopted it determined where the war's focus would lie, and its flaws and uncertainties led to the widening conflict. But, Keegan emphasizes, even Germany had not wanted war. Although by 1915 there was a line of earthworks for 1,300 miles, the author points out that there was no standard trench system. Keegan details the differences in approach taken by different armies, depending on a wide range of factors. He disagrees with younger military historians who think that, as terrible as the early offensive was, it was part of a learning process that eventually led to the victories in 1918. The simple truth of 1914-1918 trench warfare is that the massing of large numbers of soldiers unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms, however they were trained, however equipped, against large masses of other soldiers, protected by earthworks and barbed wire and rapid-fire weapons, was bound to result in very heavy casualties among the attackers. The development of the tank and its effective use were significant assets to the Allies.
Keegan paints vivid portraits of the generals and the foot soldiers in the conflict. Of the former, Joffre Haig, Foch, Hindenberg, and others were widely regarded as great men in their time. As the memoirs and novels of the war were published, they seemed much less so. Technology that was adequate for mass destruction of life was inadequate to give the generals the flexibility that would have kept that destruction within bearable limits. The book includes major battle-by-battle accounts on both land and sea. Keegan also discusses wartime activity in Africa and the Middle East. The reader is assisted greatly by numerous maps.
This outstanding account of the war deserves a wide readership.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.