August 1999

Table of Contents


The War to End a World

by Woody Arbunkle

Chateau Wood, Ypres, 1917


If one sets aside, for a moment, the awful bloodshed and suffering, there's something strangely quaint about the First World War. While it ended a mere twenty years before the Second World War, it might as well have been a century that separated them.

At the beginning of the First World War, young British soldiers wishing to express their sentiments wrote patriotic verse, which was in turn published in the newspapers as front-line reports. By the end of the war, when an awful chasm had opened and shown the soldiers deep, hideous truths about suffering and hatred, they took up their pens and wrote disenchanted verse, which was in turn published in the newspapers as front-line reports.

Throughout it all, the vehicle of expression remained constant, and a number of poets--Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others--found their true voices in the muddy trenches of Belgium and France.

By the 1930s, the poets had been replaced by professional journalists. And the literary-minded writers to emerge from the Second World War were novelists, not poets. Instead of Owen and Sassoon, we got Norman Mailer and James Jones. Poetry had been supplanted by journalism as the vehicle of documentary information, and it even lost its place as the vehicle for artistic expression.

The First World War

John Keegan
475 pp.
$32.00 order now logo


That the two--poetry and documentaries--might have been considered related at one time seems unthinkable to modern readers, who, in turn, witnessed the rise of television as the dominant documentary medium in the Vietnam War. Today, it seems, we're at least two steps removed from the Great War; instead of the War Poets or even the print journalists, the Persian Gulf War gave us the Scud Stud.

And that is at least one reason why the First World War seems so distant today: it marked the end of the nineteenth century and much of what it stood for. And standing at the end of the twentieth century, we seem uncertain about what will replace what we ourselves have thought of as our world.


Of course, it's hard to ignore, even briefly, the bloodshed and suffering that occurred in the First World War. The French suffered nearly two million casualties in the conflict, the Germans slightly more. And Serbia lost fifteen percent of its population (compared to two to three percent of the British, French and German population). Indeed, John Keegan, in his admirably scholarly new history, The First World War, argues that the abiding sense of wrong virtually guaranteed that the Second World War would happen. German soldiers killed in France and Belgium were not accorded the same respect given the British dead, and the terms of surrender left an abiding grudge among the Germans who would seize power with Hitler a mere fifteen years later.

Still, for all the links Keegan skillfully draws between the two wars, an Age (and a century) died in 1918. In both choice of clothing and choice of transportation, the war began as an engagement little different from the Napoleonic wars. For every three men, there was one horse, and as Keegan points out, the French at least had yet to modernize their uniforms:


The heavy calvary wore brass helmets with a long horsehair plume, the light calvary frogged jackets and scarlet trousers; some of the heavy calvary were burdened with breastplates unchanged in pattern from Waterloo. The light calvary of the Armée d'Afrique were dressed in sky-blue tunics, the Sphahis in flowing red cloaks, the Zouaves in baggy red breeches and Turkish waistcoats. Most conspicuous of all, because of their numbers, were the infantry of the metropolitan army. Under long, turned-back blue greatcoats, their legs were encased in madder-red trousers tucked into calf-length boots. All was made of heavy wool; the stifling weight of antique uniforms was to prove one of the additional ordeals of combat in the sun-drenched autumn of 1914.


The Belgian calvary was no better prepared for modern warfare: they "still wore early nineteenth-century uniforms, crimson trousers, fur busbies, [and] Polish lancer caps," and their few machine guns were pulled by teams of dogs. (That wasn't the limit of animals' roles in the war: communication on land, of course, was executed largely by carrier pigeons.)

As Keegan argues, the failures of the first year's combat were largely due to the generals' failure to comprehend and adapt to technological changes that were happening before the war began.


They had the wit to adapt the technologies ready to hand, particularly that of Europe's many-branched rail network, to their purposes. They had lacked the wit to perceive the importance or potentialities of new technologies, among which the internal combustion engine and wireless-telegraphy, as radio was then called, would prove the most important; they had, indeed, lacked altogether the wit to perceive the problems to which such new technologies would be the solution.


Only the British, with their hard-won experiences in the Boer War, were really prepared for the sort of dug-in fighting the armies would see as the Germans advanced westward.

All that changed, of course, and quickly. As Keegan notes, steel helmets were soon introduced into most armies, "the first reversion to the use of armour since its disappearance in the seventeenth century. The opening months of the First World War marked the termination of two hundred years of a style of infantry fighting which, with decreasing logic, taught that drill and discipline was the best defence against missile weapons, however much improved."

By the time it was all over, four years later, millions would be dead, and three empires (the Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian) would disappear. Chemical warfare would be introduced, as would the use of tanks and bomb-carrying airplanes. And perhaps most importantly, Keegan writes, "totalitarianism, a new word for a system that rejected the liberalism and constitutionalism which had inspired European politics since the eclipse of monarchy in 1789, was almost everywhere on the rise."

All that remained, it would seem, was for a global war to turn its attention to civilians in urban areas. And that, as it turned out, would be a scant two decades' wait.


The First World War is a heavily researched and painstakingly complete book, meant to be read attentively by serious students of military history. As such, it lacks the immediate, easily digested appeal that made Stephen Ambrose's recent bestselling Citizen Soldiers and D Day: June 4, 1944 so popular.

And the reason is quite simple. Ambrose's recent bestsellers are personality-driven, Keegan's strategy- and tactics-driven. Where Ambrose's subjects are foot soldiers and paratroopers with individual names and stories, Keegan's subjects are more often long-forgotten generals with plans and initiatives. Keegan largely ignores matters of personality even among his planners, with rare exception. (He tells us, for example, that Marshal Joseph Joffre, who began the war as the chief of the French General Staff, was "heavily overweight [and] devoted to the table and allowed nothing, even at the height of the crisis in 1914, to interrupt lunch.")

But Keegan is resoundingly successful at defining the reasons the war was fought the way it was on a variety of fronts--from the Germans' dogged execution of its Schlieffen plan in Western Europe to the politically popular but ultimately costly Allied campaign in the Dardanelles. And although as a British historian, Keegan often favors the British side of the war, his final chapter on the American presence and the power shift it helped bring to the post-war world is quite strong. (The American army was only the seventh largest in the world when it entered the First World War, and it hadn't participated in large combat operations since Lee surrendered to Grant fifty-one years earlier. By the war's end, though, American ground forces numbered close to four million--a critical buildup, given the Germans' inability to replace its own troops at anywhere near that rate.)

In short, as an explanation of how a epoch-ending war was waged, Keegan's The First World War is definitive. Click here to find any book!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents


Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999
riverrun enterprises, inc.