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“The First World War” by John Keegan Critical Essay

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Updated: Dec 22nd, 2019


The book The First World War by John Keegan is a historical book that narrates the situations before, during, and after the First World War. Therefore, this paper is an analysis of the whole book that explores different elements that have been brought out by the author as well as the goal that it aims to achieve.

The paper analyses the author by comparing the way he has written the book in relation to other writers who have written books on the same topic. The paper will find out the source of information that the writer has used in the effort to compare the same with what other sources have on the same topic. The paper will further analyze the book by going through its contents in terms of how the writer has presented them to the reader to determine whether he (the writer) accomplished the intended purpose of producing the book.

Summary of the Book

The book is divided into ten chapters that give a blow-by-blow narrative of the events that were happening then and how they were related to the war. The first chapter of the book gives a narrative of how life in Europe had taken shape based on the events that had shaped it. As Keegan reveals, the chapter provides an overview of leadership in Europe by showing how European countries worked with one another as a precursor to the war1.

As introduced by the author, the first chapter describes the destruction that happened during the four years of the war. It goes further to compute the numbers of people killed during the war as compared to the Second World War. Keegan states, “The Second World War was five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms”2.

The book describes how the war was planned, how it was fought, and the different motivational factors that made different countries take different sides. The book explains the pain that Germany, which was the main aggressor in the war, went through to the level of motivating Adolf Hitler to plan for revenge, which happened seventeen years later (Keegan 1998, 3).

The book states how the failures of an international court created fault lines that led to cracks between countries to pave way for aggression. Membership to the court was made voluntary, thus taking out the authority that the court could have on non-member states. Keegan finds that the war happened because of a systematic failure of diplomacy in the weeks preceding the war, a factor that could have been handled better (23).

According to Keegan (1998), the decision to go to war was a hasty one because of the way the war pronouncement was delivered to the commanding armies (31). The book gives a view of what was happening in different camps during mobilization and during the war. The book gives a picture of situations in the German and French camps, which were the main players in the war.

Keegan (1998) explains that the French people had a problem in mobilizing their reserves during the war while Germany was grappling with a mobility problem of its forces (37). The book simply paints the realities on the ground then and the difficult situations the combatants had to go through as they fought for their beloved countries.

The book details how the war was fought in different frontiers and tactics that the different factions of the war employed to destroy their opponents. As Bourne reveals, the author shows how a major French ship, namely Bouvet, was torpedoed, thus leading to a setback of one of the French movements in the war3.

These details paint a picture of how the war happened systematically, thus piecing together events that conclusively explain why certain situations happened, with the result being a loss or victory.

Other than narrating the event on the battlefront, the book gives a picture of the backroom events that the leaders of the different countries were engaging in such as making appointments, which had a bearing on the war. Keegan explains the behind-the-scene activities as the appointments that Kaiser was making in the ministry of defense and the army top leadership4. The book can therefore be described as a comprehensive diary of the First World War.

Critical Analysis of the Book

As the author of the book, John Keegan is one of the most respected British historians with a specialty for military history. Keegan was born in the family of John Patrick Desmond Keegan in the 1930s and passed on in 2012. The author can be described as a man of many hats due to his many different positions he has held in society.

Other than being a writer, he was a history lecturer and a journalist, thus giving him broad experience in his writing. The queen knighted the author in 2000 after receiving other honors mostly due to his war writings and reporting, thus acquiring the title of “Sir”.

Although Keegan has been seen as an accomplished writer and historian, he has also received criticism for producing uniformed work when he wrote Clausewitzian as Martel observes5. The author has been able to produce some of the most invaluable insights of wars that he witnessed and wars that he was not able to witness.

According to Downing, coming up with the kind of information that the author has brought out in the book requires very extensive research on events that happened in different countries6. Therefore, the author can be viewed as a researcher. The narrative that he brings out connects so many elements that are otherwise a summary of the war. The author introduces the book by describing his background, which shows readers the authority of the author to talk about the issues of war.

The author describes his family as one that is composed of war veterans who survived the First World War and the Second World War. The author’s father, uncle, and father in law were veterans of both or either wars. The author credits his relatives who were in the war for giving him invaluable first hand information. Such information can only be gained after a very long period of talks and from people who trust others.

The writer indicates that although his father, uncle, and father-in-law gave him a lot of valuable information concerning the war, they refused to give him the key graphic details of some war scenes. Such information is believed to be disturbing and not worth remembering for the people who went through the experience. Keegan consulted many sources, which have proven to be invaluable, when he was writing the book7.

Many of the sources of information he consulted can be described as authoritative on matters to do with war. The resources include the Royal Military Academy and Sandhurst, which is an excellent military college. Another library he consulted is the United States Military Academy, WestPoint, the London Library, and the Daily Telegraph.

The book is comprehensive in nature. Anyone reading it has to testify of the depth of work that the author did after so many years of research based on the enormous amount of war information that has been brought out in the work. As Mombauer observes, the author starts by laying a historical foundation of the situation during the years preceding the war by explaining the governance structure in Europe at the time and explains the network that had been created by international marriages8.

The book explains the territorial boundaries that existed then and the disputes that came from the intermarried people. An aspect of the book that makes it convincing is its nature that pieces together activities that were happening all over Europe, which were a culmination of the war. Mombauer (2013) states, “the First World War was not just a war that erupted out of the blues, but a projected activity that had been anticipated over a period of time”9.

The book shows how different countries were coming together to form alliances because of belligerence from other countries based on how armies and weapons were being stocked for an eventual war. Many works about the world war are usually based only on the actual war without looking back into years before the war10. This way of presenting history leaves so many unanswered questions that the later generation cannot answer.

Therefore, the book by Keegan provides a comprehensive coverage of the key issues pertaining to WWI. Keegan credits editors from the Daily Telegraph and librarians from other libraries who gave him assistance in coming up with the book because it was only after consulting such custodians of information that he was in a position to make better use of resources by accessing the relevant materials.

The book has been expertly prepared so that the contemporary reader of the book understands what the writer is talking about and that he or she can connect events as they unfolded during the First World War. The book had been divided into ten chapters that handle different topical issues about the same war.

This systematic arrangement of the book makes it easy to read because it directs the reader to the events that happened together with how they happened. The book is also full of illustrations and photographs from the battlefield. The writer has been able to provide photographs of people in the war such as leaders and combatants11.

This strategy has been a reinforcement of the facts the writer has given because there are too many names of individuals and places as mentioned in the book. This situation can attract confusion to the reader, thus making him or her fail to understand the author’s message. Therefore, the writer’s strategy of giving a face to an individual creates a better mind picture that boosts the reader’s ability to comprehend.

The book has illustrations of maps, which indicate where different battles happened. They also indicate the movement of troops during the war. Such a map connects the reader to the information being given, thus making the understanding of the book easy. Although the book is described as comprehensive concerning the information it has provided, it can be tiresome to read it because it provides too much information, especially descriptive information.

The book delves into too many fine details of events, thus making it laborious to read for some people. Too many names have been provided that are not necessarily important on the perspective of the war12. The book dwells into particulars that informed choice of certain people to positions before, during, and after the combat.

However, the narrative of the book is good because it flows and connects seamlessly as the reader goes through it. This strategy is important to a reader because there is minimal risk of him or her getting confused with the information being provided. The language used in the book is simple to read and understand, thus making it recommendable for general reading.


The book First World War by John Keegan is worth reading for anyone who is interested in understanding European politics and world politics in general. The author brings out many ignored events that open up the reader’s mind to an understanding level as to why certain events happened the way they happened during the war.

The author has provided an unbiased presentation of the war events in an honest way based on the supporting information of photographs of various people who experienced the war. Many writers tend to be influenced by their own biases when writing as a way of enhancing ideologies that they believe in or want to propagate. Keegan published this work at a very advanced age. Thus, he saved the best for the last in sharing the accumulated knowledge.


Bourne, Stephen. Black Poppies.” History Today 63, no. 10(June 2013): 51-57.

Downing, Taylor. “The world at War.” History Today 63, no. 10(Jan 2013): 20-22.

Keegan, John. The First World War. London: Hutchinson, 1998.

Martel, Gordon. Origins of the First World War. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Mombauer, Annika. 2013. “The Fischer Controversy, documents and the Truth About the Origins of the First World War.” Journal of Contemporary History 49, no. 2(March 2013): 290-314.


1 John Keegan, The First World War, (London: Hutchinson, 1998), 11.

2 Keegan, The First World War (London: Hutchinson, 1998), 3.

3 Stephen Bourne, Black Poppies,” History Today 63, no. 10(June 2013): 53.

4 Keegan, The First World War (London: Hutchinson, 1998), 188

5 Gordon Martel, Origins of the First World War (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2008), 24.

6 Taylor Downing, “The world at War,” History Today 63, no. 10(Jan 2013): 21.

7 Keegan, The First World War (London: Hutchinson, 1998), 78.

8Annika Mombauer, “The Fischer Controversy, documents and the Truth About the Origins of the First World War,” Journal of Contemporary History 49, no. 2(March 2013): 298.

9 Mombauer, “The Fischer Controversy,” 293

10 Martel, Origins of the First World War (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2008), 34.

11 Keegan, The First World War (London: Hutchinson, 1998), 219

12 Bourne, Black Poppies,” 53

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