Sunday, July 24, 2011

#44: The First World War by John Keegan

Knopf, 1999: 475 pages

The first line of this text is "The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict." All wars are tragic and many are unnecessary; Keegan emphasizes the reasons why on the first page. It was unnecessary because the chain of events and decisions that produced it could have been stopped at multiple points. It was tragic not only because of the lives lost (close to 10 million of them) but also that it "destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent." (1)

In this day and age it is easy to look at early 20th century Europe and decry the lack of democracy, the stark separation of social classes and the other inequalities that were part and parcel of the early 19th century. For Keegan, the "second world war...was unquestionably the outcome of the first." (9). No one can argue against this assertion. At the end of World War I, monarchies disappeared (Ottoman Empire, the Tsar, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and the German Kaiser). They were replaced by Turkey and multiple Middle Eastern states (Iraq being one), the Soviet Union, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Weimar Republic. Besides Turkey, this is not and impressive list of democracies/operable nations/areas of quiet. One could argue that the cataclysm of World War I set up the rest of the 20th century quite nicely in terms of totalitarianism, body counts and technological destruction.

Keegan is a military historian of great skill and long experience; if you are looking for a superb (perhaps the best one volume) narrative history of the war, this is the book you should start with. It is also peppered with comments such as this, describing the effect of 20,000 deaths for the British Army alone on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916: "The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered." (299) Keegan's account is not an anti-septic one, devoid of any judgments or opinions. He considers (for the time) recent scholarship and the bibliography is excellent. He treats the African and Asian theaters, which are all too often dropped completely in favor of the Western Front.

One opinion that I have often held is that the U.S. does not quite understand the impact of World War I as we came to that particularly destructive party very late, in 1917. For example, the U.S. suffered 116,516 deaths in World War I; there were 53,402 combat deaths. This in approximately 19-20 months; more Americans were killed in World War I than in Vietnam. At the height of the fighting in France in 1918, roughly 2-300 Americans per day were killed. This number is immense, but consider the butcher's bill for France at the 1916 battle of Verdun: some 60,000 dead in 10 months. This does not take into account the nearly 100,000 missing. Most Americans would be quite shocked to realize that the U.S. had troops in Russia from 1918-1920 fighting the Bolsheviks, or to know that the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe is not at Normandy. It is in Meuse, where roughly 14,000 U.S. servicemen from the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918 are buried.

It is a shame that WWI is not viewed in this country as being as "important" in some way as WWII. I agree with Keegan that the "rancours and instabilities" remaining from WWI led to the "continuation" of the war in WWII. (423) To understand 20th century European History (appeasement in the 1930s in particular) as well as much of 20th century Middle Eastern history (Palestinian Mandates, dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire) one needs to start with World War I. Keegan's text is an excellent source with which to begin.

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