Cover image of "The First World War," a history of World War I

Historians frequently write of “the Long Nineteenth Century” from 1789 to 1914. In The First World War, the acclaimed military historian John Keegan shows how dramatically the events of 1914 to 1918 capped that period. The “Great War” led to the dismemberment of the four empires that had defined European politics for hundreds of years: Austro-Hungarian, Turkish, Russian, and German. And it pushed Europe in a straight line to the even greater cataclysm of the Second World War. In many ways, historians note, World War I was the defining event of the twentieth century. And Keegan’s history of The First World War is an indispensable guide to understanding how it all came about and how it was waged.

The American role in context

History textbooks in American schools understandably emphasize the role of US troops in bringing the war to an end on the Western Front. And there is no question that American intervention on behalf of the exhausted Allies was decisive. The United States dispatched more than two million fresh troops to northwest Europe in the closing months of the war. Fifty-three thousand “doughboys” died there, and nearly 300,000 more suffered wounds, many of them disabling. But the US entry into the conflict was merely one episode in the first war in history that was truly global. Fighting, often intense and bloody, unfolded in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, in China and the South Seas, and even off the coasts of both North and South America. It’s a much bigger story, and Keegan tells it well.

The First World War by John Keegan (1998) 528 pages ★★★★☆

Map of the two hostile alliances in 1914, the beginning point in this history of World War I
This map shows the two alliances that faced each other at the outbreak of WWI: the Central Powers (the Triple Alliance) in yellow and the Triple Entente in red. However, Italy declared neutrality when war broke out and later joined the Triple Entente (the Allies). And Turkey later joined the Central Powers. Image: John D. Clare

A focus on high-level decision-making

Keegan’s account runs only to five hundred pages. It’s far too little space to tell the whole story. For example, there’s no discussion of the role of espionage in the war. Keegan does discuss the important role of new technology. But it’s far from a full account of the machines that played such a huge role in determining the course of events both on land and on the sea. And Keegan understandably focuses on the decision-making at the highest level that determined the course of events. There’s not enough room to do much more.

Admittedly, espionage played a minor role in the Great War. The interception of the Zimmermann Telegram that helped propel the USA into the conflict and the use of aerial reconnaissance may have been the only two strategic contributions. But new technology was often decisive in the field. Consider the innovations that surfaced in the war:

  • machines guns
  • tanks
  • U-boats
  • poison gas
  • trucks and automobiles
  • barbed wire
  • mines
  • flamethrowers
  • field radios
  • telephones
  • aircraft

These things constituted the high tech of the age.

An emphasis on the role of the generals

Keegan begins with a detailed account of the complex diplomatic maneuvering among the major combatants in the weeks following the assassination of the successor to the Austrian throne. And in discussing the fighting that ensued, he reveals the back-and-forth discussions among the generals and politicians on both sides. Lower-ranking officers intrude from time to time. But Keegan devotes most of his attention to such pivotal military commanders as Erich von Falkenhayn, Erich Ludendorff, Paul von Hindenburg, Douglas Haig, John French, Ferdinand Foch, Joseph Joffre, Paul von Rennenkampf, Alexander Samsonov, and Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. If some of these names are familiar and others aren’t, it only shows how what we’re taught about World War I in the United States is limited and distorted.

Who started World War I?

The Treaty of Versailles that brought an end to World War I ascribed the blame for starting the war to Imperial Germany alone. But as Keegan (and many others) show, the story is not so simple. In discussing the diplomacy of June, July, and August 1914, he makes it clear that Kaiser Wilhelm II and Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, chief of the German General Staff in 1914, were far from alone in precipitating the war. Tsar Nicholas II and Austrian commander Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf contributed to the talks in ways that were equally unhelpful, if not more so much of the time.

About the author

Photo of John Keegan, author of this history of World War I
Sir John Keegan. Image: Rex – The Guardian

John Keegan (1934-2012) was the preeminent military historian of the twentieth century although he never served in the military. A childhood illness had weakened him. He limped all his life. His father was an Irish World War I veteran who was gassed at the Battle of the Somme.

Keegan was the military affairs officer of the British newspaper The Telegraph and wrote more than twenty books. His work covered war and battles that spanned the ages, from prehistory to the twenty-first century. For twenty-five years he was also a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

Keegan was born in London in 1934 and died in Wiltshire in 2012 after a long illness, survived by his wife, their two daughters and two sons.

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