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Britannia rules in World War I history

THE FIRST WORLD WAR By John Keegan Alfred A. Knopf 475 pp., $35 THE PITY OF WAR By Niall Ferguson Basic Books 563 pp, $30

History is perhaps Britain's most popular and contentious intellectual product. With its deft writers, global past, tradition of debate, high-grade journals and television productions, and proximity to matters continental, Britain bears a historical awareness unknown in America.

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The tradition continues: Witness these two British-oriented but quite different histories of World War I. John Keegan, the author of a dozen military histories over 20 years, offers a comprehensive - though conventional - chronological narrative of the war's campaigns and battles. The predictable names appear: French and Haig, Joffre and Foch, Ludendorff and Hindenburg, Brusilov and Conrad von Hotzendorf. So do the predictable battles: the Marne, Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele, Caporetto, and those on the Western Front in 1918. But the tactical causes of the butchery of trench warfare, which left some 9 million dead and fatally weakened democracy in interwar Europe, is a question that remains unanswered. Why were the Entente commanders so poor, and their German counterparts so capable? Keegan offers no opinions.

If Keegan recounts the same old story in the same old way, then Niall Ferguson fairly glories in a virtuoso display of brilliant alternatives and what-ifs that dismiss traditional opinions, scattering glittering digressions far and wide and condemning all received truths.

He disagrees that the war was inevitable, the result of decades of militarism and secret diplomacy. To the contrary: It was British diplomacy, i.e., that of Lord Grey, which was at fault.

But if so, what drove him to error? Was Britain fearful of an expanding German fleet? There was no need, Ferguson contends; the Royal Navy was still supreme. But as to why the British nevertheless were apprehensive, he sidesteps the question. Why did men fight? Again, a sidestep, but this time into blatant improbability: that risking their lives was to some degree exciting, even exhilarating. While this may have been true in the first months, it was not as the butchery continued.

In any case, the sources - letters home, memoirs, and novels from the few literate soldiers - are too thin to provide definite answers. So it is with the killing of prisoners, an unpleasant fact of war that shocks Ferguson. Again, scattered facts drawn from a few books written long after the event offer little real proof.

Nevertheless, this has been received as a virtual masterpiece of revisionism and insight. Of course, reversing all received opinions helps achieve notoriety and reputation, and Ferguson certainly has done that, even as he has fulfilled the historian's role by raising new issues. But if Keegan follows the beaten path too closely, Ferguson's obsession with the new often becomes an end in itself.

*Leonard Bushkoff is writing a book for Yale University Press about the CIA's involvement with American and British intellectuals.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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