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October 05, 2007

Keegan and His Zigzags

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few questions for the history buffs among you?

I'm making my way through the early pages of John Keegan's "The First World War." Despite Keegan's rep as Our Greatest Historian of War, and despite the book's generally good reviews, I'm not liking it much. It seems all over the place, even half-baked. Keegan seems to me to be riffing as he makes his way through a lot of not-very-well organized notes -- "OK, here's my pile of 'what led to the war' index cards, now let's get through that ..." He's breezing his way along as he connects some dot or other to another dot or other, doing what he can to give the impression that he's building towards saying something significant. But he never actually gets around to putting the significance into words.

I recall having the same "this could really be better organized" reaction to his work when I went through his "A History of Warfare." But for some reason I had less trouble with the approach there. Maybe that was because that book was attempting something impossible ... Zig-zagging didn't seem like an unsensible approach when what he was taking on was all of human history. But here, with one finite subject ... Well, I find this book exhausting, bewildering, and off-putting. It seems accessible, and word-to-word it's certainly an easy read. But as the pages pile up it's feeling more and more like a jumble. I'd have thought that the book -- given its title and its easy language -- would be a good solid intro to the history of WWI, and I picked it up in the hope that that's what it would be. But it's coming across as a lotta chitchat about WWI for those who already know the story of WWI.

So, three questions. 1) Is this an unfair appraisal of Keegan's work generally? Is he better than I'm making him out to be? 2) Should I plug away at the book anyway? Will the effort pay off? 3) Can anyone recommend a better, more to-the-point intro to the history of WWI?

Hmm, I wonder if the Teaching Company offers a lecture series on the topic ... UPDATE: They do, though it isn't currently on sale. (Tip for those who want to make use of the Teaching Company's often-excellent products: Buy 'em only when they go on sale, and sooner or later they all go on sale.) In any case, has anyone been through it?



posted by Michael at October 5, 2007


Your experience is not unique. I tried reading the book a while back and just couldn't get into it. Which was disappointing, as WWI history has always interested me, and Keegan's earlier book The Face of Battle was a masterpiece.

Posted by: Peter on October 5, 2007 1:20 PM

Why don't yopu ask Lex, specifically? He's a pro on WWI.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 5, 2007 1:52 PM

Naturally, I'm prejudiced. But since you asked...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 5, 2007 2:11 PM

I don't know if this is a better book, but it's certainly extremely interesting. _Mud, Blood and Poppycock_ by Gordon Corrigan upsets an awful lot of the accepted myths of the First World War and does so in an easy-to-read, entertaining way. It concentrates on the British experience on the Western Front but includes the US entry into the war, minutiae about artillery ranges, and other topics.

The author is ex-Indian Army and, by placing much of what we "know" about WWI in the context of its time, shows that what _seems_ futile in retrospect actually made a great deal of sense at the time... and, anyway, it wasn't that futile. We simply have bought the myths promulgated by literary types who wanted to show how their sensitivity had been crushed by the military, and by politicians (notably Lloyd George) who wanted to get back at the military for being right when they were wrong.

These couple of lines over-simplify the book far too much, so I urge any of you who are interested in WWI to read it. You will come away with a different view of the "futility" of that war.

PS John Terraine has some excellent "revisionist" books on the subject, as well.

Posted by: Alex on October 5, 2007 2:39 PM

Keegan made his reputation with 1974's "Face of Battle," which thought through what it must have been like for the common soldier at Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme. It was a unique contribution. He followed it up with some good books like The Mask of Command about what it was like to be Alexander, Wellington, Grant, and Hitler. These are good books for movie people and historical novelists to read to get a sense of what it was like to be in battle.

But, while I haven't read his WWI book, I read his WWII book, which wasn't in the same class as his early stuff. I suspect these books are dreamed up by his publishers as something that will obviously sell, but they aren't his strong suit, which is micro-focus.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 5, 2007 3:31 PM

I'll third Steve S. and Peter on recommending "The Face of Battle". Because it is focused on such a narrow theme--what is it really like to be in battle?--it avoids completely the zig-zagging you're complaining of, Michael. I'm disappointed to hear, though, that Keegan hasn't maintained his quality in his works on the World Wars. He was also rather shaky in his prognoses and analyses of the Iraq War, if I recall correctly.

Maybe he's just getting old.

Posted by: PatrickH on October 5, 2007 4:39 PM

" _Mud, Blood and Poppycock_ by Gordon Corrigan": I second Alex.

Posted by: dearieme on October 5, 2007 6:19 PM

No expertise to offer here - it's not my period. I did, though, have to teach a course once which covered both world wars. Aaaghh! I don't find war history dull or pointless, as some women appear to do, but lectures on wars are among the most alarming to have to give, because, sure as shootin', there's going to be some war buff in the class to tell you that your facts are wrong or your theories out of date, on every battle from Hastings to the Bulge. Especially if you teach anywhere near a military base, when your class may well be full of young soldiers, always recognisable by their short hair and their ability to follow instructions regarding their papers.

Posted by: alias clio on October 5, 2007 6:47 PM

I've read both of Keegan's world war books (I and II) and, yea, he's highly over-rated. I don't know what the best WWI book is, but I bet that there's a great one out there, and that it was written a long time ago (>fifty years ago). Anybody know?

Posted by: Luke Lea on October 5, 2007 9:57 PM

Michael, Wikipedia has a wonderful piece on WWI that is concise and yet detailed enough to satisfy you on many points. Check it out...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on October 5, 2007 10:27 PM

I must heed Tatyana's call -- but I am proudly an amateur not a pro on these subjects.

I agree with Steve Sailer's comments about Keegan. He has become a brand.

It is tough to recommend just one book on WWI. We are in an era of historical revisionism and rediscovery. Too few realize that 1914-1918 was the hinge of modern history. WWI was when the wheels came off of our civilization, and it has never really recovered.

I may respond to this with a CB post since it raises good points about the excellent but limited Keegan and I need little excuse ot write about World War I.

If I had to recommend one book only, it would be an older one, Corelli Barnett's older book The Swordbearers, which seems to be out of print.

I notice that Michael Howard has one of those "very short introduction" books. I ordered one. That will be reliable. Without even having read it, but having read most his books, I am inclined to recommend that one as an introduction.

I had several posts about World War I which may be of interest, e.g. here and here, and here. In each case the CB backbenchers, a/k/a regular commenters, weighed in profitably. That always happens when we post about military history.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 6, 2007 3:27 PM

Another book I have not read yet is Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy by David Stephenson. It got a rave review from Benjamin Schwartz in the Atlantic, whom I have found to be reliable. He says it is “the best single-volume history of the war ever published”. I bought it, and it is sitting there, and I will get to it ... . It may be more dense than Michael wants for an intro.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 6, 2007 5:38 PM

John Terraine is good. Also, Niall Ferguson's "The Pity of War" is revisionist, from a totally different standpoint. And yes, in my opinion, Keegan is over-rated. Even "The Face of Battle' was only pretty good, in my opinion...

Posted by: tschafer on October 6, 2007 9:59 PM

I found G.J. Meyer's "A world Undone: The Story of the Great War" a much better narrative than Keegan's. Meyer offers good analysis of the continual friction between the German commanders and how it effected their decisions. He does the same for the French, British, Russian, Austrian and to a lesser extent, Italian as well. Overall, it is one of the best books on WWI I have read. When one considers the overall lack of tactical and strategical imagination of WWI, it is not surprising that many books come across dry and difficult to read. He clearly favors Petain over Foch and articulates the French fascination with the suicidal "cult of offfensive" very well. I believe he captured the essence of Pershing, resolute, but not particularly imaginative or even insightful as a commander. Overall, the most readable of the WWI narratives I have read.

Posted by: william suddeth on October 7, 2007 2:35 AM

"...When one considers the overall lack of tactical and strategical imagination of WWI..."

No. That is a common but false view.

These men were confronted by situations far worse than they could have imagined possible, even though, contra the mythology, they had studied the wars before 1914 and they knew quite a bit about the effects of the new weapons.

The British, French and Germans all introduced innovations throughout the war. There was no failure of imagination. There was to the contrary a desperate and ceaseless effort at improvisation. World War I was the seedbed of technical and doctrinal innovation that set the pattern for warfare down to the current day.

The French and British leaders are accused of making "pointless" attacks, a view made in a vacuum, a supposed lack of imagination. But looking at each case, rather than generalities, the question becomes much harder. To pick one example: Why did France persevere with costly attacks in 1915? Historians have condemned these "wasteful" efforts, with seemingly good cause. Were the generals stupid? Oblivious to the loss of hundreds of thousands of men? Was Joffre a moral monster or an imbecile or both? Unlikely. Why then? Because their ally, Russia, was being cut to ribbons by the Germans, and was begging them for help, and they needed to help and support their ally Russia in any way they could. The French commanders had only bad options and they took the lesser one -- suffer high casualties, possibly save Russia, so the Germans cannot put their full weight against France. None of us would like to be the man standing in a room full of officers, waiting for orders, looking at you, knowing that the lives of thousands of your soldiers will be lost, and that the fate of your country turns on your decision.

These men faced challenges and had responsibilities beyond what any of us will ever have to endure. We must avoid the temptation to be armchair Napoleons, where arrows on maps show later generations what seem to be "obvious" solutions. We must use cultivate and use our historical imagination, cast ourselves back to July 1914, or July 1916, and look forward, into the void of the future, the black and impenetrable fog of war, not knowing, not seeing the consequences to come, only knowing what we know, having lived what we have lived up to then, and from that standpoint try to understand these people and the decisions they made. When I do that, I find it hard to cast the first stone at men like Haig and Joffre.

Posted by: Lexington Green on October 7, 2007 3:08 PM

I'm glad that I'm not the only one who feels that way about Keegan's book on The First World War. Keegan turned a very interesting topic into a very hard slog. [It reminded me of Kissinger's quip that a benefit of being famous is whenever you are boring at a dinner party the other people think it's their fault.] Thanks for bringing this up. It has sparked some great recommendations from various readers.

Posted by: Michael Wade on October 7, 2007 3:37 PM

I read the book and liked it. For another view, try Sir Basil Liddell Hart's, The Real War."

Posted by: Ned on October 8, 2007 10:57 AM

Test, due to losing a long comment the other day.


Posted by: Nar on October 8, 2007 11:27 AM

I have been a Keegan fan for ages, but I have to agree with Steve Sailer. Keegan is excellent when he talks about concepts and styles of warfare. That is why "The Face of Battle", "The Mask of Battle", "History of Warfare" etc are so good. But he is not as good in writing straight narrative history. Sailer is probably right - the WW I and WW II books are probably something his agent and publisher sold him on.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on October 8, 2007 11:40 AM

Um sorry, that's "The Mask of Command". It occurred to me after my earlier comment that each of us who struggles in some form of endeavor has things we do well and others that we don't do so well. Keegan is the same. To those who say Keegan is "overrated" I would say that it is similar to saying something like, "Mark Rothko's portraits REALLY suck."

Posted by: Reid Farmer on October 8, 2007 4:43 PM

Looks like I should try again. Keegan is, as has been noted by others, pretty spotty. When he's good--as in Face of Battle and Mask of Command--he's very good, and when he's bad--WWI,
Fields of Battle (the one about American history?)--he's atrocious. His account of Shiloh in the last-named is such a hash I was embarrassed for him, and I thought his History of Warfare was marred beyond redemption by a wilfull misreading of Clausewitz.

The WWI book was thoroughly unbalanced as far as coverage of the different years and geographical areas. IIRC, he spends about half the book on the first year of the Western Front.

I'll second others' suggestion to read Ferguson's Pity of War. Another revisionist take, one that's loathed by many because the author is not even a historian like Ferguson but a mere literature prof, is John Mosier's Myth of the Great War.


Posted by: Narr on October 8, 2007 5:33 PM

Ever since you posted this, I've been tempted to go back and look through my copy of Keegan on WWI. But I haven't, so I can't discuss his writing stylistically.

What I remember positively from his book, however, was:

(1) His analysis of why the Von Schlieffen plan was never gonna work (insufficient mobility of marching footsoldiers to execute the giant wheel envisioned and deal with an unsubdued Paris) which suggested that things got started with a huge miscalculation.

(2) He was pretty even-handed on the fundamental technological limitations that the generals on the Western Front faced: to wit, that the only tool they had to deal with entrenched machine guns, i.e., artillery, couldn't adjust to changing battlefield conditions because of a lack of speedy communications, a problem obviated a couple years after the war by the development of portable radios.

So he seemed to make a reasonable effort on the substance front, whatever his failings on the style front.

To skip over to Lexington Green's comment, I would have to say I agree. Most wars are fought with the technology available before the war that has been thoroughly mastered by the various armed forces involved. This was largely the case for, say, the Civil War or WWII. In WWI, on the other hand, there was an endless list of new technologies introduced during the war: the airplane, the tank, gas warfare, etc., to say nothing of fairly radical advancements in utilizing artillery and portable machine guns. This makes WWI a very different organizational problem than, say, WWII.

What I took from a lot of reading on WWI was mostly that it was a huge case study in diffusing new approaches through monstrously large organizations and then managing their use effectively--and WWI armies even got a lot better at that, after some initial groping around.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 9, 2007 3:25 PM

Fellow Teaching Company addicts can join my Yahoo groups and phpbb forums:

Some of my new Yahoo groups:

Teaching Company forum:

Robert Hazen's "Origins of Life" forum

Doug van Orsow

Posted by: Doug van Orsow on October 25, 2007 6:42 AM

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