An Illustrated History of the First World War Hardcover – 1 Oct 2001
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
My complaints about the earlier book remain unappeased, but this illustrated edition at least provides a comprehensive visual sense of the Great War. Its inherited failings, in my opinion, are a duo:
(1) Very limited use of maps, either geographic or battlefield, coupled with extensive, extremely detailed descriptions of the geography and movements of battles. This will leave all but the student of the war skimming names and places that float disconnectedly in a vague, abstracted geographic space; somewhat similar to the way one reads an old Russian novel in which the blur of Raskalnikovovitches is cured only by a geneology. This book, illustrated or not, includes only the same, sparse count of 15 maps as the earlier text.
(2) Essentially no attention to the world beyond the battlefield. Keegan introduces his text with a decent description of the diplomatic flounderings that preceded the war, and also makes a sound case that military prerogatives propelled the early months' movement toward stalemate. But one does not get the sense that actual governments or peoples were anything other than bystanders to this war. Perhaps this is, indeed, the case, but I imagine a social or political historian would differ. This book remains a "Military" history, illustrated or not.
These flaws earned the earlier book only two stars. The additional one I propose for this volume is earned by the extensive illustration. In a Technicolor world of laser-guided, night-sighting weaponry, it is easy to bury "the old world" in black and white portraits of kings and tsars. This book suffers from having a few too many of those, but its solid selection of looking-you-in-the-eye soldiers, mud-at-your-ankles trench-shots and even the apparently scarce photos of battle-in-progress brings the gritty reality of this war to reality; black-and-white or not.
The illustrations are often only loosely associated with the chronology of the text - rarely could the text actually ask you, for instance, to "see figure 1" - which illustration shared the page and enhanced the text. This, of course, reflects the fact that the book is a bit of a "paste-up" - the illustrations were pretty much inserted into the pre-existing text. Furthermore, the body of illustrations seems needlessly padded with old shots of generals and leaders. Keegan (presuming he actually selected the photos and other illustrations), seems to have only casually pulled from the vast archive of period photos. The actual text would have been much enhanced by a more careful (albeit time-consuming) process of photo-selection that does not seem to have taken place. (It's actually more than likely that Keegan did not select the illustrations at all. He seems to have become a bit of "an industry" in the military history publishing business. Search on his name and you will find dozens of listings where he has been called upon to edit this or that or to write an introduction to someone else's work.) One imagines a very busy junior editor at work with these photos. Perhaps I'm too cynical - in which case credit Keegan with an only mediocre sense of the uses of illustration.
The book is enhanced, but also interrupted, in a sense, by short thematic groupings of photos and associated text such as "Communications" and "Military Medicine." These are interesting in their own right, but also highlight the fundamental problem of this book - it cannot be read in any fluid sense. The illustrations persistently call one away from a careful reading of the text but the illustrations alone do not come close to telling a coherent story. I found myself flipping ahead looking at photos and reading their supporting text and then backing up and reading only the text.
I remain unsatisfied by either Keegan book and will aim my search toward the few "atlases" of the War available for mapped military history and for less battle-focused texts to tell the whole story. Maybe recognizing that two or even three good books are needed here is at the core of my critique of this one, which tries to be more than it is. It remains for you to decide what you wish to own.