John Keegan was born in
1934. He was stricken with Tuberculosis at an early age. His disability
rendered him unable to enlist in the military, but he had a natural curiosity
for military engagements. Though Keegan was unable to fight himself, he was
immersed from a young age in the military life. His father, uncles, and
extended relatives all fought in World War I and survived to tell their personal
accounts of the war. Keegan grew up listening to first-hand accounts from the
battlefields of World War I. Keegan attended Wimbledon College and transferred
to Oxford in 1953. He majored in Military History and the Theory of War. Prior
to his passing, Keegan had a vast resume in the field of Military History. He
was a leading lecturer at Royal Military Academy and Sandhurst. He was a
history professor at both Vassar College and Princeton University. He also
worked as a Defense Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (Snowman, 2000).
During his lifetime, Keegan wrote more than a dozen books on Military History
and the Art of Warfare. He is considered an expert among his peers.
John Keegan’s book “The First World War” has tree
underlying themes that relate to the First World War and its impact on the
European world as well of many of its neighboring countries. Kegan uses his
research, eye witness accounts, and vast knowledge of military history to build
a case for each theme in the book. Keegan purposes that the First World War
could have been avoided and thus was tragic in nature. He shines a light on the
civil disturbance and heightened racial tensions that was left in the wake of
the war. He also provides insight as to how the First World War was the leading
cause of the Second World War (3).
Keegan believes that the First World War could have been
easily avoided if a sense of altruism had prevailed at any point during the
early stages of war. Since good will failed to prevail, the war, and the loss
of lives as a result of said war, is tragic in nature. Keegan points out that
the first conflict claimed millions of lives, and left countless other people
in emotional turmoil. It also had a devastating impact on Europe’s typically
hopeful and peaceful culture. Prior to 1914, European disagreements had been
settled with a fair amount of logical diplomacy. Keegan identified closed
military plans that surmised any crisis that was lacking in a logical
diplomatic solution would led to general war as a key factor in Europe
inability to avoid war. In the past, European counties had dealt with issues of
national and economical interest with great diplomacy. However, Keegan pointed
out that this was not the case in the crisis in Austria-Hungary in June 1914.
Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand
was assassinated at Sarajevo. This assassination extended beyond a mere crisis
of national attention to a crises of national dignity and respect.
Austria-Hungary was one of the weaker powers in the early 20th
century European world. Keegan eluded that because of this, the seemingly senseless
murder of their Archduke appeared insolent to other countries. Even at this
point, the war could have been avoided if this tragedy had been met with
logical diplomacy. However, the response of European nations was to ready for
battle. Keegan discusses the Schlieffen plan as an example of the international
mindset and tension that took over after the assassination. Russia began to
move troops to the German border. In response, Germany invoked the Schlieffen
plan which called for an attack on France and Russia. This resulted in Britain
declaring war on Germany in August of 1914 (43). Now that war had been
declared, the world soon turned to tragedy as countless lives would be loss,
and European land would soon lay in waste.
underlying theme throughout Keegan’s book is the civil disturbance and heightened
racial tensions that was left in the wake of the war. Keegan shows a vast
difference in pre-war and post-war Europe. Pre-war Europe enjoyed favorable
national and international relations with other countries. They had an overall
respect for constitutionalism. Pre-war Europe had a strong representative
government and a mutual respect for the law. Keegan proves that all those
qualities disappeared after the war. Post-war Europe held little confidence in
the eyes of the world. Countries including Russia, Italy, Germany, and Spain
began to abandon the ideals of constitutionalism and liberalism (8). Following
World War I, a new government system was formed which rejected the
constitutionalism that had been the driving force behind European politics
since the fall of monarchy in 1789. This system was called Totalitarianism. Totalitarianism
gave way to dictators and war lords which pushed Europe further into
segregation. Keegan credits the roots of the permanent division of the European
people to the formation of a new frontier in 1915. The new frontier was
fortified earthworks which separated warring states. These separations went
much deeper than the earth. The European people also developed fortified emotional
separations between themselves and their once neighbors. The loss of lives and
mental anguish that was experienced by the European people would not go away at
the end of the war. These lasting bitter memories served to drive a permanent
wedge between the European countries.
Keegan suggest that World War II was a direct effect of
World War I. At the end of the First World War, the German people were
discontent with the way they were viewed by other nations. Germany, as well as
other European countries, was left in economic decay after the war. The system
of government was also unstable at this time. The post-war instability in
government gave rise to Fascism in Europe. The Nazi party rose out of the
Fascist regimes throughout Europe. Following World War I, the Germans were
forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty had stiff consequences for
Germany. They had to pay reparations for those wronged by the war, and they
were stripped of land and territory. Germany’s colonies were divided up among
the allies, and some of its territory was given to neighboring countries.
Germany also had strong restrictions placed on its military and productions
(424). This did not set well with the Germans, especially the Nazi party. The
post-war treatment of Germany brewed a resentment which led Adolf Hitler,
backed by the Nazi party, to begin a military campaign to reverse the Treaty of
Keegan gives great insight to trench and naval warfare
that would be valuable in the classroom. The battle fields looked different.
Prior to World War I, infantry stood up to fire at the enemy fronts; however,
during World War I the infantry laid down to fire at the enemy front during an engagement.
Keegan shows the introductory use of earthworks to fortify cities during World
War 1. These earthworks consisted of long trenches deep enough and wide enough
to fit a front line infantry. The trenches were surrounded by barbed wire,
sharp sticks, and shrapnel to prevent the enemy from entering the trench (176).
Keegan also explains how naval warfare became an important part of battle
during the war. Ironclad steam ships had replaced sails and provided for fierce
fighting on the high seas. Keegan describes in detail how the battle of Jutland
is the largest and last purely surface encounter in naval history (270).
Keegan’s insight of the battle between the German High seas Fleet and the Royal
Navy would be very beneficial in teaching naval history.
Keegan paints a picture of how one avoidable war became a
juncture to another war. World War I has mysteriously unexplainable roots.
Europe was at the heights of its success as a nation yet decided to rick all
its accomplishments on military actions and ultimately war (426). He shines a
light on the civil disturbance and heightened racial tensions that was left in
the wake of the war. Europe was changed forever. Although Europe had
experienced peace and stability pre-war, post-war saw vast changes. World War I
opened the door for poor treatment of lower class citizens, the decimation of
racial and ethnic minorities, and wide spread hatred.