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by John Keegan

Pub Date: June 5th, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40052-4
Publisher: Knopf

In this sterling account of the tragic and unnecessary conflict that inaugurated a century of horror, British military historian Keegan (Fields of Battle: The Wars for North America, 1996, etc.) ranges from Olympian assessments of leaders to searing depictions of suffering common soldiers. The shattering effects of the “war to end all wars” have been depicted unforgettably by novelists and poets such as Hemingway, Remarque, Owen, and Brooke, but seldom so memorably by historians. Keegan remedies that with a traditional strategy-and-tactics study that is also informed by deep personal feeling for the subject (his father, two uncles, and father-in-law all served and survived). He consistently underscores the war’s body blow to civilization, noting not only its staggering casualty rates (e.g., two out of every nine French soldiers who went to war never came home) but the chaos that gave rise to totalitarianism afterward. Keegan’s versatility is evident on every page. He excels equally in explaining how the best-laid strategies went awry, in measuring commanders” strengths and weaknesses, and in discussing how technology had not yet developed enough to enable effective communications between the front and the rear in battle. He points out the unusual tragedies resulting from the war, such as secluded rural establishments where disfigured veterans could take holidays together, as well as its numerous ironic consequences. He renders all of this in somber prose that often rises to eloquence. Here he dispatches British general Douglas Haig: “On the Somme he had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors into the slough of despond.” A narrative that yields insight at every turn on this near-endless stalemate, as well as serving as an object lesson on the dark mysteries that await even those best-prepared for war.