The First World War by John Keegan is history as a story. Keegan is a journalist, and it is said that journalism is the first draft of history. (The first draft of anything is usually rubbish, so that is why I don’t read the papers.) And a good way to look at this book is as a journalist going back over the previous drafts and making the story tighter. This isn’t a book that probes deeply into the causes of the war or comes to any profound conclusions about its effects. It is just the story of what happened. If that is what you want, this is what you get.
And what a story.
There’s a lot to tell and the only way to make it both interesting and coherent is to jump from the overall strategic level down to the personal level and back again. This is done with great skill. But inevitably with so me any theatres of war to cover it is easy to get a bit lost.
It works better in some places than others. I found it very easy to get an idea of the Gallipoli campaign, which it turns out wasn’t just all about Winston Churchill. It was much more about helping Serbia. It makes more sense when you bear that in mind. In fact it is easy to forget that protecting Serbia was the original cause of the war.
The battle of Jutland gets a very good account which puts a titanic conflict into a few pages without losing the drama. The Germans came a lot closer to breaking the British control of the North Sea than they had any right to expect.
The matter of fact style of writing is sometimes feels a bit mundane by comparison with the subject matter. Surely the first war where air power proved significant calls out for a bit more comment? The the fall of the Russian Empire does come across a bit like a local election result. Nobody had ever even considered transporting an army of millions across an ocean before.
But the compensation is that the overall pattern of the conflict is clearly told. And that is dramatic enough in its own way. For a start, there was every chance that the Germans could have won. Their u-boats came close to preventing supplies getting to the allies – Britain in particular. Perhaps another hundred submarines would have been enough to deliver victory. The Germans succeeded in knocking Russia out of the war. If that had been achieved a few months earlier maybe the troops freed up would have been decisive.
Above all, if their last great offensive in 1918 had made it to Paris would France have collapsed and forced Britain to sue for peace. Unlike the second world war when there was never really any chance of Germany avoiding defeat let alone achieving any kind of success, the first world war really was open to any outcome until summer 1918. Once the Americans started arriving in numbers the balance switched and it became just a matter of time.
But by then empires had collapsed. New countries appeared on the map. Communists and Socialists were now in government. Radical political ideas across the spectrum became influential. Away from politics technology had been revolutionised. Men were now used to mechanised transport and in particular the aeroplane. Men and women had become used to working in the new factories that had sprung up. The world was different to how it looked before the guns started firing. And a break had been made with the past. Things that had been unchallenged before were up for grabs. The modern world had arrived.
This book doesn’t really give the full picture of just what an upheaval the First World War was. If you want to get into that you’ll need to look elsewhere. But if you want a clear readable account that tells the basic story of what happened in not too many pages this is a pretty good read.