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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful but flawed overview of WW1, 16 Aug. 2010
This review is from: First World War (Hardcover)
Having previously read A.J.P.Taylors book "The First World War" I found Keegan's account preferable. They are both overviews, (the reader looking for detailed accounts of for example the Gallipolli landings or the sea war needs to look elsewhere) but Keegan writes in a more straightforward style without Taylor's cute and irritating comments and he explains in clearer terms the reason for the German defeat.

As he says (referring to the situation in July 1918), "Merely to make good loses suffered in the attacks so far, the German high command calculated, required 200.000 replacements each month but, even by drawing on the next annual class of eighteen year olds, only 300.000 recruits stood available." They just couldn't take the vast human losses involved in this new type of warfare.

Drawbacks to the book are his view that the First World War " ... destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent...", which has to be a doubtful statement. The rickety Austro-Hungarian empire was benevolent but certainly not optimistic and it lay at the root of the problem. A closer look in Brigitte Hamann's book, " Hitler's Vienna, A Dictator's Apprenticeship" reveals the chaotic nationalist, communist and racial polarization that was breaking the Empire apart and generating WW1 (and WW2).

He also contradicts himself, saying that, "Most of the accusations against the generals of the Great War - incompetence and incomprehension foremost among them - may therefore be seen to be misplaced." and, "Nothing in human affairs is predestinable, least of all in an exchange of energy as fluid and dynamic as a battle." while at the same time showing that;

- They (the generals) knew that the Germans had deep bunkers. If they had tested their main strategy of intensive bombardment they would have found that most remained undamaged.

- If they had tested the effects of shelling on barbed wire they would have found that it mostly remained impassable. Again not what they assumed.

- They had seen the tremendous loss of life in attack but didn't consider building approach trenches to the German lines reducing the width of non-man's land as Brusilov did in Russia.

- They didn't think through the effect of the 10 minute delay between the lifting their artillery bombardment and the initiation of an attack . It allowed the Germans to lift machine guns from their deep bunkers and have them set up and ready.

I don't see how Keegan can exempt the Allied generals from blame while at the same time illustrating failures that could have been anticipated with testing and thought.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 16 Dec 2010, 13:47:25 GMT
J. Duducu says:
I am not sure Keegan was trying to "exempt generals from blame" I think that section of the book is trying to contextualise the generals with the times and the technology, which is an important point. Haig was not one of the greatest military generals of all time, nor was Foche or Ludendorff but the "lions led by donkeys" tag is equally unhelpful and is a misconception that is too often repeated. Still, a very measured review so a helpful vote for you!

Posted on 24 Oct 2011, 17:49:55 BST
Last edited by the author on 24 Oct 2011, 17:53:42 BST
Indeed, a measured review, but history is much more fun when you recognise that our ancestors were no stupider than you or I, not fools who were too stupid to "test" or "think through" their strategies.

There were some attempts made by patrols to find out whether bunkers had been destroyed. The evidence was inadequate and mixed.

Barbed wire had been a massive problem in 1915. On this occasion the generals went to great effort to adapt the available technology to the problem, as intelligent people do in any era - by field guns firing shrapnel at them, which required careful practice so that the shell sprayed its load at exactly the right distance and height. It was one of the reasons why Rawlinson insisted on shelling for a week. Barbed wire was still a problem at the Somme on the VIII Corps sector where British artillery was weakest, but not elsewhere. Later in the war barbed wire ceased to be an issue as it was pulverised with HE shells equipped with a graze fuse so they exploded in the air as soon as they scraped the wire (rather than an impact detonation which would be more suited to shelling bunkers).

The digging of approach trenches by Brusilov isn't really comparable as No Man's Land was only a few hundred yards across at the Somme, whereas in the east it could be up to a mile in width. Some divisions did experiment with having their men lie down in No Mans Land.

The 10-minute delay seems to refer to the delay after the detonation of the Hawthorne Mine - again on VIII Corps sector. Elsewhere they moved on to bombarding further back German lines, a mistake but an embryonic version of what later became the huge rolling barrages of later in the war. and given the lack of battlefield radios in 1916 not something about which much could be done. Given that the artillery bombardment had failed to suppress defending artillery and machine guns (see below) it wouldn't have made much difference, and the Germans were actually able to shoot a long way into the Allied trenches. Robin Prior (2005) argues that up to 30% of British casualties were behind their own lines, giving rise to the widely-believed myths about the British troops advancing to their deaths in parade ground order.

The bottom line is that the bombardment failed prior to 1 July 1916. Earlier attacks (Neuve Chapelle and Loos) had come tantalisingly close to some kind of breakthrough, only to fail as the Germans were able to bring up men and guns and seal the breach, so the fatal decision was made to attack on a wider front. By 1916 German defences had strengthened, and the Allied bombardment, although bigger than ever before, was spread too thin, with too many guns firing shrapnel and often poor quality shells - failures of the munitions industry. But it just wasn't as obvious as it is with hindsight that, for reasons to do with accuracy of artillery, the density rather than the length of shelling was the key factor. As time went on generals on all sides figured out, largely by trial and error, that a short intense bombardment with gas & HE, followed by a creeping barrage of shrapnel, was optimal, followed by a standing barrage to repel German counterattacks, and more sophisticated methods (air spotting, flash spotting, banks of microphones etc) to locate and duel with enemy artillery. This began during the Somme and advanced as more and more artillery became available.

Keegan's book is by no means perfect on this topic - he was writing at a time (1990s) when the Lions Led by Donkeys mythology was at its height amongst the public, and he is sceptical of the historians who were producing work on the development of British tactics during the war, and argues that the body count would not have reduced until aircraft and tank technology was available.

He is probably mistaken about this. The tragedy of 1 July 1916 has done a lot to fix in popular imagination the idea that the high casualties were caused by "incompetence", whereas even if true this actually soon ceased to be the case. 900,000 BEF soldiers died on the western front - not just the 20,000 on that day. A force as huge as Haig's would have suffered hundreds of thousands of dead in mutual shelling and trench raids even if he had never conducted a single offensive. Despite the improvements in tactics, stalemate still persisted in 1917. A third of all British losses were suffered in 1918 when the fronts were moving again. Far more soldiers died in the Second World War than in the First - just most of them spoke Russian - and when the Western Allies did get down to serious fighting in Normandy unit casualty rates were often comparable to those of WW1. British losses were lower in WW2 than in WW1 because, to be blunt, Britain did less fighting.

In reply to an earlier post on 29 Oct 2011, 14:19:13 BST
Last edited by the author on 29 Oct 2011, 17:53:56 BST
"... history is much more fun when you recognise that our ancestors were no stupider than you or I, not fools who were too stupid to "test" or "think through" their strategies."

I wouldn't say they were fools and Moltke seems to be in agreement with Keegan when he said, "In war with its enormous friction, even the mediocre is quite and acheivement." and its no doubt true that writing WW1 history with hindsight is a perilous business subject to intellectual fashions.

Neverthless, despite all the confusion and "fog of war", adaption to the new realities of WW1 didn't seem to have been an entirely random process. As you point out both sides were adapting to the new environment with for example more intensive artillery barrages and HE shells, but at critical periods, superior German deep bunkers allowed them to recover effectively from bombardment and repel attacks with equally well designed machine guns equipped by well trained crews.

Elsewhere in the war, Alistair Horne shows in his excellent book "The Price of Glory. Verdun 1916" Joffre's insistence on the almost Napoleonic "Attaque à Outrance" with its highly non-adaptive emphasis on infantry charges without retreat accompanied by mobile light artillery. It may be that the current intellectual fashion is to be "Non-Judgemental" but if one is obliged to make a judgement it would probably be that Petain saved the lives of many French soldiers when he reversed Joffre's rigid policies and accepted the realities of trench warfare.

The degrees of adaption to new technology in warfare is an interesting question and in the WW2 context I particularly like the example of "Oboe" in Brian Johnson's book "The Secret War". Writing about a radio signal triangulation blind bomb aiming system first used in 1941 he said, " "Before the advent of Oboe ....only some 23% of bombs dropped on the actual target: with Oboe , the figure rose to 70% which meant that Bomber Command's force had been effectively trebled.", a remarkable use of technology that for some reason came from Great Britain rather than Germany.

Or on the German side he describes the evolution of their allied night bombing countermeasures. He cites the example on 13th July 1944 of a German JU88 nightfighter that landed in error on a British airfield carrying aboard a surprising collection of unknown radars; FuG 220 "Lichtenstein" aircraft detection radar tuned to avoid the foil "window" that the British were dropping, a FuG 277 "Flensberg"set tuned to British bomber tail-warning radar (Monica) and a FuG 350 "Naxos"that homed onto British bombers H2S ground mapping radar.

In the modern context, a book like "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century" by P.W.Singer indirectly raises the question of how well current militaries are adapting their arms procurement and training to the modern battlefield. It suggests that at the very least they should re-evaluate the vulnerability of their newly ordered surface ships, but will their admiralties do it? And if so in which countries?

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Oct 2011, 16:18:26 GMT
Last edited by the author on 31 Oct 2011, 16:44:37 GMT
No reason to be surprised that the British made good use of aircraft technology in WW2. To return to WW1, the Allies led the way in tanks, mortars, artillery spotting and doubtless other things, and doubtless tried lots of other things which are forgotten as they didn't work. The idea that Allied generals didn't appreciate modern technology is widely believed but has little or no basis in fact. The same is largely true of tactics - it used to be common to assert that the Germans had turned some kind of corner by 1918, but their temporary successes of that spring owed a lot to massive superiority of numbers and their artillery and infantry tactics actually weren't all that different to what the British and French were using by then.

In a war between major powers both sides tend to adapt new technologies pretty quickly, as can be seen in aircraft design in WW1 - there was the odd blip like in 1915 when the Germans introduced the Fokker with interruptor machine gun, but the Allies soon copied it and by the end superior production was pulling them well ahead.

The dominant weapon of the WW1 battlefield was artillery, responsible for 60% of deaths. The Germans had the advantage to begin with - by accident, as they had stocked up on heavy artillery ready to reduce Belgian forts - and they did well in the opening stages of Verdun as Falkenhayn was deliberately attacking on a narrow front, aiming to sucker the French in and subject them to deliberate attrition - only to lose his advantage as he had to widen his attack onto the left bank of the Meuse. The British were a long way behind, largely because they had a much smaller army to start with, although a case can certainly be made that the Somme attack should have been reduced in width to something that could be given proper artillery cover - something the French were already doing and the British learned quickly after the fiasco of 1 July.

I agree about intellectual fashion but it always surprises me how little new there is to be said about WW1 - if you go back to older books (whether on the John Terraine or Liddell Hart part of the spectrum) they are usually a lot better informed and more balanced than bowdlerised popular myths. On the other hand some of the saner criticisms of Haig's generalship were made at the time and have never really gone away, eg. that, despite his later claim to have followed a policy of attrition, he was in fact always hoping that the decisive breakthrough was just around the corner, to the point where the politicians grew fed up with listening to him and after his death he ended up as a sort of Aunt Sally on whom politicians and the public could pin their guilt about the war.

That said, aggressive generals like Foch and Haig are the ones who win wars. Cautious generals like Petain avoid losing them. In 1916-17 Petain was the man of the hour - but not in 1918. If only there had been a "man for all seasons" who combined the abilities of both, or who, unlike Haig, had guessed correctly just how much bashing the Germans were going to need. The number of deaths probably wouldn't have been all that much less, but history would have been kinder to a general who had shown more prescience.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Nov 2011, 07:06:45 GMT
J. Duducu says:
I must say that this type of intelligent discourse is refreshing. All too often on Amazon discussions it turns into insults or inane statements. Thank you all.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Nov 2011, 19:59:52 GMT
Last edited by the author on 2 Nov 2011, 20:04:55 GMT
J.Duducu - I agree that the internet is full of inane and insulting commentary but its also enlightening to get raw reactions with little or no editorial spin. In the WW1 and WW2 context this is why I particularly like books derived from letters and diaries (e.g. War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke - presenting a much more nuanced portrait of Churchill, or Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II drawn from letters and diaries mostly on the Eastern front showing (despite some censorship) that they were loyal National Socialists and strongly supportive of Hitler - a fact played down in most post war history). With regard to WWI, I have copies of Charles Edmonds "A Subaltern's War" and Maurice Baring's "R.F.C. H.Q." first hand accounts which are unfortunately I have not yet had time to read.

Paul J. Barton - It seems to be true that major powers adapt quickly to new technology in wars but short periods of advantage can be critical like the British WW2 "Oboe" bombing system or the more important and obviously classic example of American nuclear weapons. The thesis of Brian Johnsons' book "The Secret War" is that the war between scientists and technologists is just as critical (or more so) as it can open up completely different strategy or tactics for the opposing forces. In any event traditional military valour is diminished and a general from WWI onwards would apparently need to have open mind for techological change as well as a positive aggressive attitude. "Men for all seasons" are obviously very rare and I would agree that their absence would account for the extent of real world chaos.

Posted on 27 May 2014, 16:46:25 BST
I think the optimism he refers to is the generally felicitous state of the Anglo world, in free trade, free speech and low taxes were a given.

There were many baleful consequences of the decision to go to war in 1914, not least the shocking loss of life, the vast expense and the bolshevik revolution, but in some ways he most damaging is that it set the western world firmly on the road to statism - it might well have got there anyway, but up to 1914 the tendency was towards liberalism (in the English sense) and free trade.

What came after has been a disaster in comparison.

Up to 1914 the world was getting richer faster than it ever has, and even permanently oppressed peoples like the Russians were getting richer and easing the weight of their shackles. That all ended with 1914.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 May 2014, 12:50:47 BST
Last edited by the author on 3 Jun 2014, 21:23:55 BST
I agreed with your opinion on the growth of statism.

The world certainly seemed to be at a critical point in 1914 and there is a general view (for example Bernd Widdig, "Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany (Weimar & Now: German Cultural Criticism)") that with better education, new technology, a growing middle class etc. the old aristocratic landed society leadership was finished.

The question was what/who would replace it.

The Bolshevik internationalists attacked the weakened Romanovs to establish a genocidal dictatorship against the Russians and Ukrainians and this led to the violent nationalistic reaction of Germany (and WW2) with the Germans resisting their own Bolshevik insurgencies.

The Anglo world incorporated modern society and technology in a renewed democracy but chose to follow fashionable Marxist/Socialist ideas such as industry being a "Prosperity Machine" controlled by government for the general good and we know how that turned out.
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