A Review of The First World War by John Keegan

July 21, 2004 | 2 books mentioned 2 2 min read

My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author’s voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I’m auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that’s why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan’s vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I’ve read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn’t know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan’s descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won’t be disappointed by John Keegan.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.


  1. I find that in general Keegan shortchanges the French (who had far more soldiers in battle than Britain) and Americans in favor of British this and British that. His “descriptions of the realities of the life of a WW1 soldier” are entirely British. And there were some Germans and Austrians (and Russians) also involved in this war. Keegan gives them scarcely a glance. His limited focus is offputting.

  2. Keegan’s bias towards British perceptions slant analysis. His analysis of key themes is sometimes questionable and occasionally unsupportable. For example, his arguments against negative views of First World War generalship are irrelevant to discussion of the senior commanders. Blame for the lack of preparedness at Verdun, the tragedy of the British Somme offensive, the defeat of the Russians at Tannenburg, the pointlessness of the Michael offensive, or Austria’s collapse on the Carpathian front should be attributed to Joffre, Haig, Samsonov, Ludendorff, or Conrad. Planning and launching these foolish efforts that killed hundeds of thousands of men was not the result of “the point of junction of telephone lines” being destroyed by artillery fire. Keegan fixates on proving Schlieffen’s plan was fatally flawed – not a difficult task when the plan’s author admits as much. Moltke’s failures to adhere to the plan he adopted and updated are given short shrift. Keegan writes with what appears to be scarcely concealed disdain of some key figures, such as Petain or Kluck. Although a worthwhile read, the reader may find issues to question.

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