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• Excerpt: "The First World War" by John Keegan
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John Keegan's
'The First World War'



World War I created the modern world. It ushered in new ideas that have shaped our times -- new approaches to psychology and medicine, radical thoughts about economics and society, modernism in the arts. But it also ended the peace and prosperity of the Victorian era and unleashed for the first time demons of mechanized warfare and mass destruction. By war's end, most of Europe lay in rubble, three great empires had collapsed, and over 10 million people were dead. There is little wonder why the postwar world spoke of a "lost generation" with its parents united by a common grief.

Such panoramic tragedy was unnecessary, according to "The First World War," (Vintage, 2000) John Keegan's 14th book and the fulfillment of his lifelong dream to create a one-volume account of the Great War. The imminent historian contends that World War I could have been avoided; all it would have taken was one break in the five-week sequence of events that preceded the first clash of arms. Superb in its analyses, eloquent in its prose, this volume is destined to take its place among the classics for those who study war.

Backdrop: A Different World

Analyzing the social and political climate of Europe in the first years of the 20th century, Keegan presents a world dominated by nationalism and competition for colonies. In 1914, the industry of creating soldiers flourished and military alliances drove diplomacy. There was no international organization to mediate disputes -- no means of modern communication to speed dialogue among competing powers.

"The tragedy of the diplomatic crisis that preceded the outbreak of the fighting in August 1914, which was to swell into the four-year tragedy of the Great War, is that events successively and progressively overwhelmed the capacity of statesmen and diplomats to control or contain them," he writes.

Keegan details the crisis of 1914 and the war plans of each of the major powers, concentrating on Germany's Schlieffen Plan, which he describes as pigeonholed, inflexible and innately flawed. But given consequences of the plan's execution persist to this day, it was on of the most important documents written by any country in the first decade of the 20th century. Keegan writes that it was largely responsible for the war's protraction. By the time the kaiser alone could have put the brakes on the Schlieffen Plan during the crisis of 1914, he found he did not understand the war machinery he was supposed to control, panicked, and allowed the flawed plan to determine the course of events.

Battle by Battle, Man by Man

The majority of Keegan's book is devoted to a one-by-one analysis of the great battles of World War I -- Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme, etc. In exquisite detail that will delight historians and tacticians alike, he recreates the nightmarish conflicts and sheds new light on the strategies and tactics employed, paying particular attention to the contributions of technology and geography.

Throughout, Keegan never forgets the human element of "The First World War." He delves into the thought processes and personalities of the men who directed the troops. Hindenburg, Joffre, Haig -- all are scrutinized by his merciless scalpel.

Keegan reserves his personal sympathies for the average man, innocently caught up in the horrors of war -- "the anonymous millions, indistinguishably drab, undifferentially deprived of any scrap of the glories that by tradition made the life of the man-at-arms tolerable," he writes.

In the end, he declares World War I a mystery. That so prosperous a continent at the height of its wealth and power chose to sacrifice it all in so horrible a conflict is baffling. That men cast into intimacy in the trenches forged bonds of mutual dependency and selfless sacrifice greater than any friendships ever made in times of peace is the ultimate riddle of World War I. "If we could understand its loves, as well as its hates," writes Keegan, "we would be nearer understanding the mystery of human life."

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