The First World War

by John Keegan

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1863

Among his contemporaries, John Keegan is one of the most distinguished authorities on military history. Keegan’s many books on warfare are certainly among the most accessible in this field, and each of them brings a clarity of exposition to even the most complicated of campaigns and battles. With The Face of Battle (1976) Keegan redefined the very concept and approach to military history, giving warfare a reality and emotional presence that was almost novelistic in its power. In subsequent books such as The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare (1990), A History of Warfare (1993), and Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America (1996), he fashioned studies that brilliantly combined a comprehensive knowledge with a clarity of presentation. Keegan’s The Second World War (1990) is currently the definitive one-volume study of that conflict. Now he has turned his attention to a slightly earlier struggle, World War I.

The immediate cause of World War I was what the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had long feared: “a damn fool thing in the Balkans.” Specifically, the precipitating incident was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, capital of the Austrian province of Bosnia, on June 28, 1914. Monarchs had been assassinated before, including an empress of Austria and a czar of Russia, without bringing on war. This, however, was different. Austria-Hungary was anxious to use the incident to punish the small but threatening Serbian state to its south; Russia, self-proclaimed protector of the Slavs, was drawn into the dispute; France, Russia’s ally, was prepared to fight; and Germany, which had given Austria-Hungary a “blank check” in resolving the issue, half regarded war in 1914 as preferable to inevitable war later when its enemies, especially Russia, would only be stronger. Great Britain, whose military had been cooperating with the French since 1900, felt it could not allow German domination of the continent. Moreover, since the general staffs of all the nations already had their mobilization and war plans prepared down to the precise minute, Europe plunged into a war that would have a pause, but no real ending until 1945.

Behind this immediate cause were more profound and long-lasting ones. There was the scramble for colonies, which had brought France and Britain close to war in the closing years of the nineteenth century. There was the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, which threatened Great Britain’s undisputed control of the seas, upon which her empire (and indeed, her very existence) depended. There was the burning desire of the French for revenge over their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Perhaps above all, there was fear on the part of Germany that it was encircled by enemies, being denied its “place in the sun” (as Kaiser Wilhelm II phrased it), and compelled to strike first in order to survive as a great nation.

Still, as Keegan writes, “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” It was based on false premises, fueled by blatant misconceptions, and engendered by confusion and error. It could have been averted at any number of points along the tragic trajectory which arced across a generation and culminated in five fatal weeks in the summer of 1914. Keegan’s view is not merely historical hindsight; there was a widespread belief in prewar Europe that a general conflict should be impossible, not least because it would mean economic collapse, if not the end of civilization itself. Economists such as Norman Angell of Great Britain argued that the interdependence of European...

(This entire section contains 1863 words.)

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nations required that any war, should it ever come, be brief; otherwise, national economies would collapse within a matter of weeks. Added to this was a general sense of the triumph of rational globalization: The creation of the International Meteorological Organisation, the International Telegraph Union, and the first International Copyright Conventions were just a few examples of this sense that the world, at least the European world, had learned not only to communicate but also to cooperate.

Yet there was another side to internationalism, that of power politics and military necessity. By 1914, as Keegan demonstrates, both had reached a point where they made war not inevitable but surprisingly acceptable for rulers, cabinets, and generals. The seeming stability of Europe was undercut by a series of fissures that ran throughout the continent, from the Balkans to Ireland, and every state was conscious of real or imagined threats to its immediate stability and future greatness. Thanks to the spread of railroad networks and expanding technology, warfare had become increasingly a matter of timing and schedules. The ultimate expression of this is the Schlieffen Plan, devised by a German general for what the Reich considered the inevitable two-front war against France and Russia. The plan called for rapid mobilization, prompt concentration, and a smashing attack across neutral Belgium to defeat France within six weeks, after which the German army could turn on the slower-moving Russian colossus. Other nations had their own war plans that depended on prompt mobilization and rapid attack; by the summer of 1914, seemingly peaceful Europe was a network of war plans ready to be realized, and there were no statesmen strong enough, no rulers certain enough, to call them off.

So war came and was cheered in the capitals of Europe. Crowds knelt and sang the Russian national anthem before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The Kaiser was acclaimed by thousands in Berlin. In Paris the troops left for the front crowned with kisses and flowers. In Munich, Adolf Hitler, as he later recounted, “thanked Heaven out of the fullness of my heart for the favour of having been permitted to live in such times.” The common belief was that the war would be over by Christmas and the troops home before the leaves fell.

Four years later, they were still in the trenches. The trenches, those great gashes across the face of Europe from the English Channel to the Swiss frontier, had not been there when the war began in the summer of 1914. For a while, as Keegan brilliantly and clearly explains, it had all been a war of movement and maneuver. The German armies wheeled through Belgium as Schlieffen had ordained and drove within forty miles of Paris, forcing back the French army and the British Expeditionary Force. Then the British slowed the German advance at Mons, and imperturbable Marshal Joffre stopped them at the Battle of the Marne. Before autumn, both sides had begun digging in, and by the spring of 1915 the trench lines were in place and would remain essentially intact for the rest of the war, despite wave after wave of attack and counterattack and terrible losses. Not until after four years of attrition and the arrival of the Americans in 1918 was the stalemate broken.

That is how many historians of World War I present the story, and while they are not wrong, they have not given enough of a perspective to help make sense of this world-altering conflict. Keegan goes beyond the presentation of strategies and tactics, battles and encounters, and biographies of generals and politicians, to examine the underlying causes of how the war came to be what it was instead of what its planners and participants expected it to be.

The fundamental problem, as Keegan explains, is that by 1914 the planning and direction of warfare lagged slightly but fatally behind its execution and delivery. The almost unlimited firepower available to armies in the forms of heavy field artillery, disciplined rifle fire, and, above all, the machine gun, could not be properly directed by an attacking general. Similarly, any breakthrough by an advancing army was almost never properly exploited but was allowed to be surrounded, contained, and driven back. For almost the entire war, with exceptions only at the very beginning and at the end, the defense enjoyed almost complete supremacy over the offense.

The reason was communication, or, more properly, the lack of communication. The intensive artillery bombardments that preceded an infantry attack were often ineffective because they could not be “spotted,” that is, directed by observers either on the ground or in the air. The reason: Land telephone lines were often cut and always unreliable, and airplanes had no radios. The “creeping barrage” that was supposed to protect attacking infantry by moving ahead of it and keeping the enemy pinned down in his trenches also failed for exactly the same reason. When there was a breakthrough, this lack of communication hindered a rapid response. In 1916 at the Somme River, after initial British success early in the morning, it was more than six hours before headquarters could receive that information, prepare the appropriate orders, and have the orders returned to the frontline troops. By then it was far too late.

Keegan notes that, contrary to much popular opinion, generals of World War I were not (with a few exceptions) stupid. They recognized that events on the battlefield had escaped their control. Their response was to impose greater rigidity and tighter scheduling, planning increasingly intricate attacks down to the minute and trusting that all would unfold exactly as their timetables demanded. Given the essentially chaotic, ever-changing nature of warfare, this was an unrealistic expectation, and the results were the repeated and repeatedly futile attacks that decimated a generation of young European men.

It was not until technology and tactics changed that the stalemate could be broken. The Allies turned to the first, developing the tank as a form of armored and mobile artillery and machine-gun support that could advance with the attacking infantry, opening gaps for them to pour through. Tanks worked well, especially in the psychological impact on the Germans, but they were prone to breakdowns and limited in range. Their time would have to wait for the next war. Tactics, on the other hand, offered more immediate possibilities. First the Germans and then the Allies turned away from massive blocks of attacking troops to smaller, more mobile groups that could infiltrate the enemy lines, probing for weak spots and exploiting them. These “storm troop” tactics prefigured the concept of Blitzkrieg that would prove so successful for Germany in World War II. In the end, however, it was neither technology nor tactics that decided World War I. Rather, it was the exhaustion of the Europeans and the apparently limitless numbers and energies of the arriving Americans. The war ended because, for the moment, Europe simply could fight no more.

Within a generation Europe would fight again. World War II, Keegan concludes, was a continuation of World War I, made all the more vicious and destructive because of the bitterness and passion engendered by the earlier conflict. In 1914, the countries of Europe had gone to war for a variety of reasons. Few of those reasons seemed to matter very much by 1918, because by then the war had destroyed one world and created another—the modern world that would last at least for the remainder of a bloody and restless century.

Sources for Further Study

American Scholar 68 (Summer, 1999): 137.

American Spectator 32 (July, 1999): 70.

Booklist 95 (March 15, 1999): 1258.

History Today 49 (May, 1999): 54.

Library Journal 124 (April 15, 1999): 118.

The New York Review of Books 46 (August 12, 1999): 36.

Publishers Weekly 246 (May 17, 1999): 63.

The Spectator 281 (October 10, 1998): 44.