Excerpt from The First World War by John Keegan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The First World War

by John Keegan

The First World War
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  • First Published:
    May 1999, 475 pages
    May 2000, 475 pages

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A European Tragedy

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the demobilised front fighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would realise seventeen years later: "It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain . . . No, we do not pardon, we demand--vengeance!"

The monuments to the vengeance he took stand throughout the continent he devastated, in the reconstructed centres of his own German cities, flattened by the strategic bombing campaign that he provoked, and of those - Leningrad, Stalingrad, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London - that he himself laid waste. The derelict fortifications of the Atlantic Wall, built in the vain hope of holding his enemies at bay, are monuments to his desire for vengeance; so, too, are the decaying hutments of Auschwitz and the remnants of the obliterated extermination camps at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. A child's shoe in the Polish dust, a scrap of rusting barbed wire, a residue of pulverised bone near the spot where the gas chambers worked, these are as much relics of the First as of the Second World War. They have their antecedents in the scraps of barbed wire that litter the fields where the trenches ran, filling the French air with the smell of rust on a damp morning, in the mildewed military leather a visitor finds under a hedgerow, in the verdigrised brass of a badge or button, corroded clips of ammunition and pockmarked shards of shell. They have their antecedents also in the anonymous remains still upturned today by farmers ploughing the bloodsoaked soil of the Somme - "I stop work at once. I have a great respect for your English dead" - just as the barely viewable film of bodies being heaped into the mass graves at Belsen in 1945 has its antecedents in the blurred footage of French soldiers stacking the cordwood of their dead comrades after the Second Battle of Champagne in 1915. The First World War inaugurated the manufacture of mass death that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation.

There are more ceremonial monuments. Few French and British communities lack a memorial to the dead of the Second World War. There is one in my West Country village, a list of names carved at the foot of the funerary crucifix that stands at the crossroads. It is, however, an addition and an afterthought. The cross itself was raised to commemorate the young men who did not return from the First World War and their number is twice that of those killed in the Second. From a population of two hundred in 1914, W. Gray, A. Lapham, W. Newton, A. Norris, C. Penn, L. Penn and W. J. White, perhaps one in four of the village's men of military age, did not come back from the front. Theirs are names found in the church registers that go back to the sixteenth century. They survive in the village today. It is not difficult to see from the evidence that the Great War brought heartbreak on a scale never known since the settlement was established by the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest and, thankfully, has not been known since. The memorial cross is, the church apart, the only public monument the village possesses. It has its counterpart in every neighbouring village, in the county's towns, where the names multiply many times, and in the cathedral of the diocese at Salisbury. It has its counterpart, too, in every cathedral in France, in each of which will be seen a tablet bearing the inscription, "To the Glory of God and in memory of one million men of the British Empire who died in the Great War and of whom the greater number rest in France."

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Excerpted from The First World War by John Keegan. Copyright© 1999 by John Keegan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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