Previous issues
Contact Us

Winter 1999 cover

National Observer Home > No. 41 - Winter 1999 > Book Review

The First World War

by John Keegan

London, Random House, 1998, pp. 456 with endnotes, bibliography and index

It may be argued that the twentieth century began not on 1 January, 1901 but on 28 June, 1914, the day on which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. This event was the immediate cause of the outbreak of World War I, a war that in turn shaped directly and indirectly most of the course of this century's history. This recent monograph on this war by John Keegan, author of a number of works of military history and sometime Senior Lecturer in Military History at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, is timely: 85 years have elapsed since the beginning of the war, thereby placing it outside of living memory to all but a handful of people.

Keegan treats his subject matter mainly in chronological order, from the long term causes (the arms race, nationalism, etc.) and the short term causes (the assassination and diplomatic crisis that ensued) to the armistice at the end of 1918.

Perhaps the major strength of this work is that Keegan successfully provides a detailed coverage of most of the theatres of conflict, from the major conflicts, such as Verdun and the Somme, to the obscure conflicts, for example those in Mesopotamia and Africa, in the space of one volume.

A knowledge of these conflicts, as Keegan's analysis emphasises, is necessary in order to understand the overall progress of the war. Thus, Russian successes against the Austrians, and to a lesser extent against the Germans in June and July 1916, can be partly explained by Austria's preoccupations with campaigns against the Italians and Germany's need to fight both the French at Verdun and the British on the Somme.

Keegan's summations on the progress of the war at the end of his discussion of each year are also useful, as they give the reader an insight into the overall position of the war. Despite the eventual Allied victory, for much of the war Germany was the more successful nation, particularly, it could be argued, for the years 1915 through to 1917.

Although the attempt to "bleed the French army white" at Verdun failed, as the Germans lost almost as many troops, the Allies failed effectively to break the German line either in the Verdun counteroffensive or on the Somme.

Germany, in 1915 and for parts of 1916 into early 1917, was able to defeat the Russian army and finally render it an ineffective fighting force, whilst at the same time to support a weak ally, Austria Hungary, from military collapse.

Keegan's analysis demonstrates a thorough knowledge of both subject matter and scholarly debate. Thus, when he is discussing the landing at Anzac Cove, Keegan touches on the question why the Anzacs were landed one mile north of the original beach. He raises the two suggestions commonly offered: a last minute change of plans or a mistake, but argues that the evidence for either interpretation is inconclusive (compare page 263). Keegan generally acknowledges the role the Australian troops played. Though they accounted for only a small percentage of the total number of troops in the war, their role in certain engagements was critical, for example the counterattack at Amiens on 4 April 1918 (page 433).

Many popular understandings are challenged in The First World War. For example, many people are of the opinion that the Russian army in the war was a totally ineffective fighting force that was hopelessly undersupplied. Whilst the Russians suffered severe defeats, for example the battle of Tannenberg in 1914, it was able to win some significant victories, particularly against the Austrians and to a lesser extent the Germans in 1916. Furthermore, whilst the Russian Army was badly equipped and chronically under supplied in 1915, so too were the other armies (although not to the same degree). By 1916, however, Russia had effectively mobilised its economy for war production; it was the impact of this mobilisation that was a significant factor in the two Russian revolutions of 1917.

Another theory that Keegan challenges is the belief that the Allied Generals were a collective of incompetents who needlessly sacrificed the lives of thousands of troops for little if any gain. Keegan acknowledges that certain generals were incompetent and that others accepted casualties that few modern generals and military strategists would accept. However, as Keegan emphasises throughout The First World War, it took both sides a number of years to determine the best strategies of fighting a trench war effectively.

Hitherto, trenches had been used by armies mainly as short term defensive positions. It seems that the British army was the first army to use trenches in the First World War, in August/September 1914; they had learnt of their effectiveness from the Boers in the Boer War.

One of the main problems encountered by troops trying to penetrate the enemy's trench system was the lack of communications during the course of a battle between front line troops and headquarters: all too frequently, the enemy were able to counterattack effectively with reserve troops whilst the attacking army awaited responses to messages sent to headquarters.

Thus, however elaborate the battle plans were, this lack of communication did not give the generals the flexibility needed during a course of a battle.

The tank became the weapon that finally enabled the British to break effectively through trenches. Whilst the tank was first used in 1916, it was not until 1918 that the British perfected the art of using tanks and infantry to penetrate the German lines.

Despite the suffering that the Great War brought, both to the participants and their families and to their countries, and the terrible sufferings that this war unleashed in the way that it set the scene for the rest of twentieth century history, Keegan's work ends with the positive hope that by reflecting on the example of the Great War, the horrors that have characterised this century may not be repeated in the next century.

Michael Daniel

National Observer No. 41 - Winter 1999