Cover image for The First World War
The First World War
Keegan, John, 1934-2012.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1999.

Physical Description:
xvi, 475 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
General Note:
Maps of Europe and the world at war in 1914.
Subject Term:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
D521 .K345 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
D521 .K345 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
D521 .K345 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
D521 .K345 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
D521 .K345 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The First World War created the modern world. A conflict of unprecedented ferocity, it abruptly ended the relative peace and prosperity of the Victorian era, unleashing such demons of the twentieth century as mechanized warfare and mass death. It also helped to usher in the ideas that have shaped our times--modernism in the arts, new approaches to psychology and medicine, radical thoughts about economics and society--and in so doing shattered the faith in rationalism and liberalism that had prevailed in Europe since the Enlightenment. With The First World War, John Keegan, one of our most eminent military historians, fulfills a lifelong ambition to write the definitive account of the Great War for our generation. Probing the mystery of how a civilization at the height of its achievement could have propelled itself into such a ruinous conflict, Keegan takes us behind the scenes of the negotiations among Europe's crowned heads (all of them related to one another by blood) and ministers, and their doomed efforts to defuse the crisis. He reveals how, by an astonishing failure of diplomacy and communication, a bilateral dispute grew to engulf an entire continent. But the heart of Keegan's superb narrative is, of course, his analysis of the military conflict. With unequalled authority and insight, he recreates the nightmarish engagements whose names have become legend--Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli among them--and sheds new light on the strategies and tactics employed, particularly the contributions of geography and technology. No less central to Keegan's account is the human aspect. He acquaints us with the thoughts of the intriguing personalities who oversaw the tragically unnecessary catastrophe--from heads of state like Russia's hapless tsar, Nicholas II, to renowned warmakers such as Haig, Hindenburg and Joffre. But Keegan reserves his most affecting personal sympathy for those whose individual efforts history has not recorded--"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." By the end of the war, three great empires--the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman--had collapsed. But as Keegan shows, the devastation ex-tended over the entirety of Europe, and still profoundly informs the politics and culture of the continent today. His brilliant, panoramic account of this vast and terrible conflict is destined to take its place among the classics of world history. With 24 pages of photographs, 2 endpaper maps, and 15 maps in text

Author Notes

John Keegan, May 15, 1934 - August 2, 2012 John Keegan was born in London, England on May 15, 1934. He received a degree in history from Balliol College, Oxford in 1953. After graduation, he went to the United States on a grant to study the Civil War. When he returned to London, he wrote political reports for the United States Embassy and in 1960 was appointed as a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, England, a post he held for 25 years. During this time he also held visiting professorships at Princeton University and Vassar College. In 1997, he began working for the Daily Telegraph as a defense correspondent and then military affairs editor. He also contributed to the American website National Review Online.

During his lifetime, he wrote more than 20 books about military history, the majority of which focus on warfare from the 14th to the 21st centuries. His works included Barbarossa: Invasion of Russia, The Face of Battle, A History of Warfare, Who Was Who in World War II, The Second World War, The American Civil War, The Mask of Command, and The Iraq War. He was knighted in 2000. He died on August 2, 2012 at age of 78.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

In a riveting narrative that puts diaries, letters and action reports to good use, British military historian Keegan (The Face of Battle, etc.) delivers a stunningly vivid history of the Great War. He is equally at easeÄand equally generous and sympatheticÄprobing the hearts and minds of lowly soldiers in the trenches or examining the thoughts and motivations of leaders (such as Joffre, Haig and Hindenburg) who directed the maelstrom. In the end, Keegan leaves us with a brilliant, panoramic portrait of an epic struggle that was at once noble and futile, world-shaking and pathetic. The war was unnecessary, Keegan writes, because the train of events that led to it could have been derailed at any time, "had prudence or common goodwill found a voice." And it was tragic, consigning 10 million to their graves, destroying "the benevolent and optimistic culture" of Europe and sowing the seeds of WWII. While Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War (Forecasts, Mar. 8) offers a revisionist, economic interpretation of the causes of WWI, Keegan stands impressively mute before the unanswerable question he poses: "Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?" Photos not seen by PW. 75,000-copy first printing; simultaneous Random House audio. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

There has been a rebirth of interest in WW I recently, perhaps because of the realization, as the century ends, of the degree to which subsequent events grew from the consequences of those four terrible years. Keegan's aim is both to synthesize the literature and provide analysis and perspective for the general reader. A skilled practitioner of popular military history, he very largely succeeds. The book is smoothly written, and Keegan is not shy at passing judgment. Throughout, he maintains pace, balance, and a command of the wide range of secondary sources on which his narrative rests. Specialist military historians will probably dissent from his dismissive assessment of the tactical innovations on the Western Front, the subject of so much recent work. And it is curious that the great accomplishment of the British Army in the "last Hundred Days" gets so little notice from a British military historian. Nonetheless, Keegan's book is now the best starting place for students or general readers who want to begin to understand what remains, even by the 20th-century's generous standard, one of the most appalling of wars. R. A. Callahan; University of Delaware

Booklist Review

World War I is a cataclysm shrouded in "mystery," as Keegan aptly describes it. Renowned for a dozen superb military histories, he enhances his premier reputation with this volume. His analytic superiority separates Keegan from most other military historians (yet Barbara Tuchman may best him as a narrator in her classic The Guns of August, 1962). Here his skill, as with his previous subjects, results in one of the best books about the war. As we now know, World War I exploded out of the blue: many since 1914 have pointed at innumerable causes. Ranking high among them are the war plans prepared by military chiefs, most notoriously the one drafted by Germany's General Schlieffen, purporting to guarantee a lightning victory against the entente powers. The Schlieffen Plan, Keegan notes, contained two fatal flaws. The first was technical: Schlieffen himself could not resolve how to move on land the 200,000 troops he knew were necessary to envelop Paris. The second was strategic: it ignored possible British intervention. Nevertheless, the Schlieffen Plan was all the Germans had on the shelf in the event they faced a monumental diplomatic defeat, which they did following Russian mobilization on July 31, 1914, and the plan thus became, argues Keegan, "the most important official document of the last hundred years." The plan's failure initiated the second mystery of the war, the stubborn prosecution of trench battles. Most of Keegan's text is devoted to trench warfare, which hindsight reckons a quasi-criminal enterprise, and the generals ordering it have languished since in disreputable obscurity. What kept men and nations going? Why weren't generals more imaginative? Keegan's answers accord a nuanced assessment of the ghastliness of the front, incorporating both technical factors and the more elusive factors of morale and comradeship. The war still seems perplexing, but Keegan's first-rate history brings it closer to being understandable. (Reviewed March 15, 1999)0375400524Gilbert Taylor

Library Journal Review

A noted historian's definitive account. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

School Library Journal Review

Gr 9 Up-John Keegan's account of the Great War for our generation. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From Chapter One: A European Tragedy The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the demobilised front fighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would realise seventeen years later: "It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain . . . No, we do not pardon, we demand--vengeance!" The monuments to the vengeance he took stand throughout the continent he devastated, in the reconstructed centres of his own German cities, flattened by the strategic bombing campaign that he provoked, and of those--Leningrad, Stalingrad, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London--that he himself laid waste. The derelict fortifications of the Atlantic Wall, built in the vain hope of holding his enemies at bay, are monuments to his desire for vengeance; so, too, are the decaying hutments of Auschwitz and the remnants of the obliterated extermination camps at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. A child's shoe in the Polish dust, a scrap of rusting barbed wire, a residue of pulverised bone near the spot where the gas chambers worked, these are as much relics of the First as of the Second World War. They have their antecedents in the scraps of barbed wire that litter the fields where the trenches ran, filling the French air with the smell of rust on a damp morning, in the mildewed military leather a visitor finds under a hedgerow, in the verdigrised brass of a badge or button, corroded clips of ammunition and pockmarked shards of shell. They have their antecedents also in the anonymous remains still upturned today by farmers ploughing the bloodsoaked soil of the Somme--"I stop work at once. I have a great respect for your English dead"--just as the barely viewable film of bodies being heaped into the mass graves at Belsen in 1945 has its antecedents in the blurred footage of French soldiers stacking the cordwood of their dead comrades after the Second Battle of Champagne in 1915. The First World War inaugurated the manufacture of mass death that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation. There are more ceremonial monuments. Few French and British communities lack a memorial to the dead of the Second World War. There is one in my West Country village, a list of names carved at the foot of the funerary crucifix that stands at the crossroads. It is, however, an addition and an afterthought. The cross itself was raised to commemorate the young men who did not return from the First World War and their number is twice that of those killed in the Second. From a population of two hundred in 1914, W. Gray, A. Lapham, W. Newton, A. Norris, C. Penn, L. Penn and W. J. White, perhaps one in four of the village's men of military age, did not come back from the front. Theirs are names found in the church registers that go back to the sixteenth century. They survive in the village today. It is not difficult to see from the evidence that the Great War brought heartbreak on a scale never known since the settlement was established by the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest and, thankfully, has not been known since. The memorial cross is, the church apart, the only public monument the village possesses. It has its counterpart in every neighbouring village, in the county's towns, where the names multiply many times, and in the cathedral of the diocese at Salisbury. It has its counterpart, too, in every cathedral in France, in each of which will be seen a tablet bearing the inscription, "To the Glory of God and in memory of one million men of the British Empire who died in the Great War and of whom the greater number rest in France." Nearby, certainly, will stand a memorial to the locality's own dead, itself replicated in every surrounding town and village. France lost nearly two million in the Great War, two out of every nine men who marched away. They are often symbolised by the statue of a poilu , defiant in horizon blue, levelling a bayonet eastward at the German frontier. The list of names on the plinth is heartrendingly long, all the more heartrending because repetition of the same name testifies to more than one death, often several, in the same family. There are similar lists to be seen graven in stone in the towns and cities of most combatant nations of the Great War. Particularly poignant, I find, is the restrained classicism of the memorial to the cavalry division of the Veneto that stands beside the cathedral of Murano in the lagoon of Venice, bearing row after row of names of young men from the lowlands of the River Po who died in the harsh uplands of the Julian Alps. I am touched by the same emotion in the churches of Vienna where severe stone tablets recall the sacrifice of historic Habsburg regiments now almost forgotten to history. The Germans, who cannot decently mourn their four million dead of the Second World War, compromised as the Wehrmacht was by the atrocities of the Nazi state, found a materially, if not morally equivalent difficulty in arranging an appropriately symbolic expression of grief for their fallen of the First, since so many lay on foreign soil. The battlefields of the east were closed to them by the Bolshevik revolution, those of the west made at best grudgingly accessible for the retrieval and reburial of bodies. The French and the Belgians found little room in their hearts or in the national soil for the creation of German war cemeteries. Excerpted from The First World War by John Keegan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Mapsp. ix
List of Illustrationsp. xi
Acknowledgementsp. xv
1 A European Tragedyp. 3
2 War Plansp. 24
3 The Crisis of 1914p. 48
4 The Battle of the Frontiers and the Marnep. 71
5 Victory and Defeat in the Eastp. 138
6 Stalematep. 175
7 The War Beyond the Western Frontp. 204
8 The Year of Battlesp. 257
9 The Breaking of Armiesp. 309
10 America and Armageddonp. 372
Notesp. 427
Bibliographyp. 449
Indexp. 457