‘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.


On borders


German speakers then responded to the backlash by crossing out the Italian names and replacing them with doodles and offensive messages, according to Italys daily La Repubblica newspaper.

via Language Dispute: South Tyrol Locals Add Italian Names to German Signs – SPIEGEL ONLINE.

After World War I, the victors settled border changes.

via County of Tyrol – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


But It Is Still All Hell

Most vitally, war decides which ideal gets to be fought for again. War is regrettably a part of the human condition, and it is many awful things, but it is never meaningless.

via The new old lie by Thomas Bruscino – The New Criterion.

The Most Wicked Man in the World

Books published since the late 1920s accuse Zaharoff of more or less every crime in the book, up to and including starting the First World War for his personal profit. Subjected in October 1874 to stiff cross-examination in an English court, Zedzed claimed simultaneously to have been educated at Rugby—the great British public school that was the setting for Tom Brown’s Schooldays—and to have habitually carried a revolver since he was 7 years old. Later, he was accused of selling death-trap submarines to Greece at a time when he was demonstrably romancing heiresses in the United States.

via The Mysterious Mr. Zedzed: The Wickedest Man in the World | Past Imperfect.

‘Is There a Downton Bubble?’

I am an enthusiastic fan of the ITV program “Downton Abbey,” but is there a Downton bubble?

I digested Season 1 with gluttonous glee as it was broadcast last year by PBS, though few of my friends seemed to notice at the time. Now, of course, it has attained mania status, especially in the United States. But the widespread, seemingly ubiquitous popularity the program has enjoyed is not what I mean. Anyway, I could not, in good conscience, begrudge my friends the usually-wine-addled happiness I have indulged in

I am talking about my newspaper. Is it unreasonable to expect some restraint, some respite, from The New York Times, which seems to be exclusively populated by bookish, sweater-vested fans of Masterpiece Theater? In the past few days alone, I count a half-dozen references to the program in Times articles that otherwise have nothing (nothing!) to do with the Granthams or their servants. Enough!

In 2014 it will be a hundred years since the First World War began, and yet its presence in novels, films and television has never been greater — in “Downton Abbey

via Why World War I Resonates – NYTimes.com.

Pampering and décor to rival a grand hotel, if not a Downton Abbey, have long been the hallmark of such “amenities units,” often hidden behind closed doors at New York’s premier hospitals.

via Chefs, Butlers and Marble Baths – Not Your Average Hospital Room – NYTimes.com.

The “Upstairs Downstairs” details long familiar from novels, movies and television shows, and now from the popular “Downton Abbey,” seem to render us spellbound.

via Heiresses of Wharton’s Era in Fashion on Her 150th Birthday – NYTimes.com.

“So much modern stuff seems quirky and chipper. The Earl of Grantham wouldn’t approve,” he said, referring to the character played by Hugh Bonneville in the British TV drama “Downton Abbey.”

via Writing Desks — Shopping With Arthur Phillips – NYTimes.com.

It brought short, upper-crust tailored coats that would not have looked out of place in “Downton Abbey,” the top-ranked British snobs-and-servants television series.

via From Jil Sander to Burberry, there were men’s wear risks in Milan – NYTimes.com.

To the manner, and manor, born in an American version of Downton Abbey, Mitt and Poppy have a lot in common, warts and all.

via Maureen Dowd Columnist Page – The New York Times.