‘The First World War,’ Twice

The First World WarThe First World War by John Keegan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The First World WarThe First World War by Hew Strachan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Sort of accidentally, I read these books at the same time.

Each one has 10 chapters, so there was a natural rhythm to it. That is not to say it was a well-thought-out plan. I started Mr. Keegan’s book in the fall, having always wanted to read it. I had read his “Face of Battle” and “The Great War and Modern Memory,” which (I know) gets to be a lot of the shooting and the groaning, but they are both quite good. “Modern Memory,” especially, is a great introduction to the poetry and novels that came out of the war.

Mr. Keegan is, above whatever his credentials are in the military sciences, a gifted and elegant writer.

After reading Mr. Keegan’s introduction and first chapter, I realized that Hew Strachan was expanding his popular one-volume history into a three-volume doorstop. After thumbing through the shorter book, I recognized a few points of differing opinions when compared with Mr. Keegan’s book.

So, I sat in my overstuffed armchair and began to read more and, like Robert Frost would say, way led on to way. I finished Mr. Strachan’s book on a snowy Saturday, just a day after wrapping up Mr. Keegan’s.

It was an interesting exercise, though not exactly recommended. Here again, the shooting and the groaning gets to be a lot after a while. But it was interesting to go back and forth between two top-notch historians. And it really was a back-and-forth. The books don’t exactly cover the same material in the same order, and so a reader comes away with a singular, zigzagging understanding.

Each book, in and of themselves, though, is recommended. Mr. Keegan is the better writer, and for me that made all the difference. He digresses occasionally from a conventional narrative to write essays on leadership, morale, what-have-you — pageslong stretches submerged in the writing at what seem like just the right moments.

These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great.

via The Millions : A Review of The First World War by John Keegan.

Mr. Keegan is lyrical and mournful, beginning and ending his book with a description of English garden-cemeteries in a scarred French countryside. Speedbumps of military box scores (i.e, so much artillery vs. this much artillery) occur regularly. But most of the book is written movingly, and while he is probably qualified to dissect tactical problems, he dismisses such efforts as a waste of time.

It is elegantly written, clear, detailed and omniscient.

via The End of the World.

Mr. Strachan’s book, if you ask me, probably commands more information. It is said to be a boiled-down version of the to-be-written doorstop.

His perspective is that the war was a truly global one, and that it defies the efforts of traditional historians to understand it. While this aspect is not exactly ignored by Mr. Keegan, Mr. Strachan devotes whole chapters to the fighting in Africa, and the Middle and Far East.

He also remarks that the standard histories forget the “war’s other participants,” apart from the soldiers: namely, “diplomats and sailors, politicians and laborers, women and children.”

via THE FIRST WORLD WAR by Hew Strachan | Kirkus.

I am not sure it’s worth saying which point of view seems better.

Mr. Strachan does not have the elegance of Mr. Keegan, but he is probably more comprehensive. There probably is more raw information squeezed into the pages of his book, and an attentive reader may profit more. But in this well-ordered assembly of data, there emerges little of the pathos and poetic style of Mr. Keegan.

Neither book, if you ask me, will bring the reader any closer to understanding why it all happened. Mr. Keegan applies the historian’s judgment that comes with time; Mr. Strachan says the historian needs to try to go back in time. Both views seem sensible; neither leads to digestible conclusion.