20 September 2014

An Illustrated History Of The First World War by John Keegan, Book review

  • Hardcover: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (October 30, 2001)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375412592


John Keegan's The First World War was everywhere praised, and became the definitive account of the war that created the modern world. The New York Times Book Review acclaimed Keegan as "the best military historian of our day," and the Washington Post called the book "a grand narrative history [and] a pleasure to read."

Now Keegan gives us a lavishly illustrated history of the war, brilliantly interweaving his narrative--some of it derived from his classic work and some of it new--with a brilliant selection of photograps, paintings, cartoons and posters drawn from archives across Europe and America, some published here for the first time. These images take us into the heart of battles that have become legend: Ypres, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme. They show us the generals' war and the privates' war--young soldiers, away from home for the first time, coming of age under fire.

We see how a civilization at the height of its power and influence crippled itself as the faith in progress, rationalism and liberalism that had prevailed in Europe since the Enlightenment was shattered. We see how four empires--the German, the Russian, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman--collapsed, and how the seeds for the Second World War were planted. Keegan tells how ambition, mistrust and failures of diplomacy and communication all played a part in allowing this conflict to set ablaze what was then the world's most prosperous society. And he describes how the effects of this war lasted long after it ended; its ghosts still haunt Europe today.

An Illustrated History of the First World War carries us across the Europe of nearly a century ago, revealing the devastation, camaraderie, political machinations and battlefield maneuverings that changed the world. It presents the essential cast of that cataclysmic drama, from the decision makers at the top--Haig, Joffre, Hindenberg, Pershing--to the troops in the trenches. Through its unique amalgam of pictorial and narrative brilliance, the book illuminates the war as no other work has done.

My thoughts:

For those of you interested (as I am) in the "War That would End All Wars', there are many sites to check out on the Internet along with libraries offerings for a start.
The British Royal Legion 'Every Man Remembered' is one of the latest I have visited where I found that more than 800 British women also died during this conflict and are included in this remembrance. 
Note: This particular campaign was inspired by a British Explorer Scout who wrote to the legion after visiting a WW 1 Belgian cemetery.

2014 is of course the Centenary of the Great War and perhaps or because of this, history buffs and families from every affected continent are looking into available records. It is absolutely amazing to see how much has in fact been preserved, from first count remembrances to diaries, letters, documents and best of all, photographs.

On a note of worth, the last of WW 1 veterans, Florence Green, AAF, passed away on 4 February 2012 whilst the last combat veteran, Claude Choule, BRN died in May 2011 and Harry Patch,  the last veteran to serve in the trenches died in July 2009. 

With the advent of computerized records, folks all over the world are now able to research family members' military records. I noticed the last Belgian veteran C. Camillus Barbary passed away in September 2004 at the age of 104 years. The stories they could tell...

Back to John Keegan, a well respected name in this particular field and his latest 'Illustrated History of the First World War', which is nothing but short of magnificent in its extensive compilation. This visual record begins with the worldwide crisis of 1914 and its impact on the European theater, particularly the stalemate which emanated as both sides struggled to win the war. 

Keegan's research enabled him to produce an amazing amount of photographic records focusing not surprisingly often on the battlefields aspects and the stark aftermath of such warfare reality. One look at those trench soldiers and you will have a feel for the miserable conditions in which this war was waged and its senseless horrors.

However Keegan did not stop there, and inserted enough solid documentation about the hierarchy behind major front line decisions, some so innate as to puzzle the average reader, to satisfy any student of the period along with a fair amount of maps. 

Additionally the writer recorded the effects on civilian life during these four years of conflict for which I am grateful as a Belgian citizen, the grand daughter of a veteran serving under Albert 1. Best described as a tiny army, Belgian troops under the command of their King heroically defended major strong points until the last 60,000 survivors retreated along the coast to the estuary of the Yser river where on 27 October 2014, he ordered floodgates to be opened. The resulting inundations formed a barrier stopping the German army' advance.

From 1914 until the Armistice warfare was staged on every continent, leaving for future generations countless reminders of this conflict as shown in this illustrated record.

(Painting source: The Angels of Mons by W. H. Margetson)

Finally I would like to stress that along with the political and economical effect throughout and beyond this war, Keegan reminds the world that the military leaders of this horrific conflict were mere men presented with a near insurmountable problem, that of breaking a strong fortified front with weak, inadequate means. Errors, dreadful mistakes were made and we can only hope we have learned something from those. 
Never again would engagements be conducted in the same apathetic way.  

Excellent and well worth 5 stars!!

Note: This was a library loan and all opinions are mine only.


  1. This sounds like a must read for anyone interested in WWII.

    1. WW 1 has left its mark on the world for generations and will not soon be forgotten. Neither are the photos recorded in this book!
      Thanks for stopping by Dear and hugs to the pooch,


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