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The Book “The First World War” by John Keegan Critical Essay

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Updated: Dec 3rd, 2020

John Keegan was an author of British war history books. Besides, he was also a lecturer and a journalist. He was born on 15 May 1934 and died on 2 August 2012. His books cut across “the 14th to 21st century history of armed combats from air, maritime, land, and military warfare intelligences”. His books reflect themes of war psychology.

His major writings include Who Was Who in the World War II, Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America, The Iraq War, and The First World War among others.

In The First World War, John Keegan explores various war-related themes. One of the major themes is the manner in which the war progressed out of the failure of diplomacy and communication resulting in the escalation of bilateral disputes into a global conflict.

This theme is prevalent in all chapters. It is developed through narrations, analysis, and critical assessment of military conflicts in a fashion that is not anticipated of a person untrained in military operations. Keegan is also committed to narrating different events that took place in the Second World War where he shows how the different pieces fit together.

In developing the above two themes, Keegan relied on secondary materials as evidenced in the footnotes of the book. Hence, his book is not based on a first-hand experience on the first world events. Indeed, he was born in 1934, which is much later after First World War. Nevertheless, he narrates the events and military strategies of the First World War in a manner that reflects a first-hand experience in the war. Where could he have gotten this experience?

Is it from his father who served in the war? He is not clear on this issue. Through the vivid description of the First World War, military strategies and tactics prove that John Keegan is an expert in the field of military history. However, his sympathy and strong position that Britons were not defeated in the war gives an unbalanced account of the implications of the war. As he later proves in the book, many Britons lost their lives in the unnecessary war.

Based on its inclusion of legendary names in military such as Gallipoli, Sheds, and Somme, The First World War provides an incredible insight into the military tactics in the war especially the roles played by technology combined with geography in enhancing the success of combat attacks on targets.

Although Keegan’s book creates hilarious description of military operations in a manner that its readers envy, he is quick to establish his position on the First World War. He does this through inclusion of a humanistic perspective on the impacts of the war. For instance, he cites the names of people such as Nicholas II and Haig who made it possible for what he terms as “unnecessary war to build up.”

Referring the First World War as unnecessary gives a loose inference that Keegan did not support the war. Hence, he criticizes its inappropriateness in terms of having the repercussion of loss and devastation of human life. This position is important upon considering the need to respect people’s rights to life. However, the emergence of the bill of the right to people’s life across the globe is owed to the occurrence of the First and the Second World War.

In fact, the world civilization has been shaped for the past almost one century by the experiences of the First World War especially on matters of international relations, which focus on maintaining global peace via the global peace accord. In this extent, opposed to the Keegan’s view, the war was necessary. It acted as a tool for shaping the current state of global civilization.

Based on the above argument, it sounds reasonable enough to argue that the First World War does not only serve the purpose of providing historical accounts of successful and fateful military tactics and war intelligence but also the purpose of criticizing decisions to address multilateral and bilateral differences through military confrontations.

Keegan’s queries on the motivation of First World War makers such as Joffre and Haig support this inference, yet various events that translated to the war would have been curtailed “had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.” According to Keegan, the war was tragic since it claimed the lives of more than 10 million people globally while still destroying Europe’s “the benevolent and optimistic culture.” It also gave an opportunity for the occurrence of the Second World War.

Counterarguments offered by Keegan on the factor that contributed to First World War raise scholarly interrogatives. He argues that the war was unnecessary by attributing the rapture of bilateral differences, which could have otherwise been resolved through diplomatic efforts during the First World War, to war makers such as Haig and others. In a counterargument, he claims that these war makers did not send their troops deliberately in fatal battles.

Communication challenges made it impossible for them to evaluate the danger that was ahead in the battlefronts on the lives of the troops. Compared to other British war history books, this position portrays a practical explanation of why Britain was easily lured into war as early as 1914. However, Keegan used the theory of Gallipoli, Paachendaele, and Somme war disasters to explain other major war disasters during First World War.

To him, the decision to send troops into deadly war fields was informed by the ineptitude together with incompetence of generals akin to the poor garnering of military intelligence that was attributed to poor communication5. The question that emerges here is; how could the war have continued without attacks and retaliations?

According to Keegan, at the time when the First World War ended, three major empires felt its negative impacts. The Russian, Ottoman, and Hungarian empires had collapsed completely. He adds that devastation implications of war not only influenced the three empires. In fact, Europe was affected in such a severe way that its culture and political institutions still learn and/or remain informed by the First World War.

Keegan is quick to point out the weakness of the First World War’s historical coverage including his own composition. He highlights an immense sympathy for all people who fought for peace through undying efforts despite the fact that history did not record their contributions.

The second major theme explored by Keegan in his book The First World War is the narration of events that took place. The book documents Greek’s war campaigns together with the manner in which the allies almost lost the war. Accounts on France’s missions for evacuation of Britons from France together with other chronologies of the First World War happenings and/or how the different events fitted cutely together are also given an incredible treatment.

While giving the accounts for these events, he does not forget that he is dealing with military history. Therefore, he poses to provide a detailed explanation of what it implies by being a soldier who takes central locations in a battlefield. While this position offers an explanation for the realities that took place on the ground during the First World War, it also offers invaluable aspects, which make the book convey the central theme it was designed: to narrate the experiences of fighting in a global war.

Keegan explains that the war emerged from various decisions, which were not analyzed critically to evaluate their implications. He accuses the German generals of having instigated the war claiming that, not even one of them thought that simple incidences could have led to a global war.

Indeed, he writes that all military professionals who were caught up in the First World War “died in their thousands at Ypres not because of an ideal or self-sacrifice, but because it was expected of them and, in any case, there was no alternative.” The revelation establishes a major weakness of Keegan’s book. It scores highly in providing explanations on how the war initiated together with how it was an incident-gone-badly.

He plays the role of the involvements of the world’s superpowers in the initiation of the war claiming that they were only caught up in a conflict that was caused by German generals, Serbian nationalists, and Balkans. While the accounts of how the war began are solid, the story of how it was brought to a halt is weak.

The book is authored from a British dimension. It forms a memory for British soldiers whose success is not substantive to account for the human lives that were lost although they emerged winners. However, its political, cultural, and institutional relevance lives to date.

The First World War by John Keegan is a must-read book for people who are interested in military conflict studies. John Keegan is a great scholar in the military history. The book perhaps portrays him as the best military historian of the 21st century. It is authored in an elegant manner, thus carrying vivid details of the accounts of the First World War. It gives clear and omniscient explanations of military tactics.

The book gives thrilling narrations of the initiation of the First World War, records its impacts, discusses the manner in which it was executed, and sums by offering details on how the allies emerged the winners. The manner of writing of the book paints a clear picture that reflects accurately how the war unfolded on the ground. Through the description of the effects of the war on the lives, politics, and culture of Britons, the war sounds like a big mystery that engulfed the world.

However, according to Keegan, it could have been prevented from occurring. On reading the whole epilogue of the First World War, questions emerge why men and women agreed to fight under unspeakable war conditions. Why did it occur? Why did it occur for so long while leaders were aware of the large loss of human life on a daily basis?

Anyone seeking any response to these questions needs to read the full text of John Keegan The First World War. Keegan does not underrate these questions. Rather, he addresses them directly in details in a contemporary context such that any military history nonprofessional reader would find easy to synthesize.


Keegan, John. The First World War. London: Vintage, 2000.

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