The First World War

Narrated by: James Langton
Length: 20 hrs and 22 mins
Categories: History, Military
4.5 out of 5 stars (252 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The First World War created the modern world. A conflict of unprecedented ferocity, it abruptly ended the relative peace and prosperity of the Victorian era, unleashing such demons of the 20th century as mechanized warfare and mass death. It also helped to usher in the ideas that have shaped our times - modernism in the arts, new approaches to psychology and medicine, radical thoughts about economics and society - and in so doing shattered the faith in rationalism and liberalism that had prevailed in Europe since the Enlightenment. With The First World War, John Keegan, one of our most eminent military historians, fulfills a lifelong ambition to write the definitive account of the Great War for our generation.

Probing the mystery of how a civilization at the height of its achievement could have propelled itself into such a ruinous conflict, Keegan takes us behind the scenes of the negotiations among Europe's crowned heads (all of them related to one another by blood) and ministers, and their doomed efforts to defuse the crisis. He reveals how, by an astonishing failure of diplomacy and communication, a bilateral dispute grew to engulf an entire continent.

But the heart of Keegan's superb narrative is, of course, his analysis of the military conflict. With unequalled authority and insight, he recreates the nightmarish engagements whose names have become legend - Verdun, the Somme and Gallipoli among them - and sheds new light on the strategies and tactics employed, particularly the contributions of geography and technology. No less central to Keegan's account is the human aspect. He acquaints us with the thoughts of the intriguing personalities who oversaw the tragically unnecessary catastrophe - from heads of state like Russia's hapless tsar, Nicholas II, to renowned warmakers such as Haig, Hindenburg and Joffre. But Keegan reserves his most affecting personal sympathy for those whose individual efforts history has not recorded - "the anonymous millions, indistinguishably drab, undifferentially deprived of any scrap of the glories that by tradition made the life of the man-at-arms tolerable."

By the end of the war, three great empires - the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman - had collapsed. But as Keegan shows, the devastation ex-tended over the entirety of Europe, and still profoundly informs the politics and culture of the continent today. His brilliant, panoramic account of this vast and terrible conflict is destined to take its place among the classics of world history.

©2012 John Keegan (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"Eloquent.... Mr. Keegan captures the anamolous, even surreal quality of the war." (The New York Times)

"The best one-volume account there is." (Civilization)

"Elegantly written, clear, detailed, and omniscient.... Keegan is...perhaps the best military historian of our day." (The New York Times Book Review)

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Best Military History of First World War

As of 2019, I own 40x books on The Great War (aka WW1); I can say that IMHO this is the best ‘single-volume military history’ of the First World War. This is no surprise since John Keegan is generally regarded as the gold standard for authors of military history. He is best known for his first book, the indisputable classic, ‘The Face of Battle’, and since then he had a stellar career with hit after hit in the military history genre. This book, THE FIRST WORLD WAR, was his most commercially successful book and for good reason... No one has written anything that compares.
(Keegan gives a similar treatment to the 1861 American Civil War & 2003 Iraq War in audible titles.)

Now that I’ve established that this is the best single volume military history on the market in print or in audiobook, it is important to understand the areas where this book is surpassed by others due to a specialty different from military history or a difference in length or scope.

For general readers with no background knowledge, who want a highly readable single-volume book on the war, I recommend ‘A World Undone’ by G.J. Meyer. For those interested in a book with a more refined focus on the military aspects of the war alone, there are a few good books by Peter Hart and one by Martin Gilbert (not yet on audiobook as of 2019), but this title by Keegan is certainly the best overall.

Other best-in-class single-volume NONFICTION books are:
1. ‘Pandora’s Box’ (Leonhard) for GENERAL History... like Meyer’s book but longer.
2. ‘Over Here’ (Kennedy) for DOMESTIC aspects of the war as it affected the USA.
3. ‘Castles of Steel’ (Massie) for NAVAL history with a strict scope of the war years (1914-1918). This strict scope is because Massie already wrote a classic on the PRE-war naval arms race between Great British Empire and German Empire called *DREADNOUGHT. Each title is thorough. Together these two books represent a comprehensive naval history of the conflict.
*Note: Dreadnought is not yet available on Audible as of June 2019. (Note to Audible: Record DREADNOUGHT!)
4. ‘The Pity of War’ (Ferguson) for ECONOMIC history of the war.
5. ‘July 1914’ (McMeekin) for the JULY CRISIS which precipitated the war’s outbreak. This is a well-researched forensic breakdown.
6. ‘The War That Ended Peace’ (MacMillan) on the JULY CRISIS, balances factors leading to war vs. peace. After all Europe had a century without a general conflict. Why did war occur when peace had prevailed in so many European political crises? Both proximate and ultimate causes are considered.
7. ‘Paris 1919’ (MacMillan) for the definitive history of the war’s CONCLUSION and the diplomatic calculus behind closed doors at the Paris peace conference.
8. ‘The Long Shadow’ (Reynolds) for LONG TERM IMPACT of the war in Europe & Russia leading to the Second World War, in the Middle East where today’s problems were born, and in bringing the USA into the world stage.
9. ‘The Guns of August’ (Tuchman) for an account of the JULY CRISIS and the OUTBREAK of the war (first month). A highly readable classic.
10. ‘The Great War in Modern Memory’ (Fussell) for analysis of the war’s impact on culture, literature, film, poetry, vocabulary, and values. This is a niche book but considered a classic of the criticism genre.

Book #9 & #10 regularly make Top 100 all-time lists for non-fiction titles.

John Keegan’s book covers all of these angles in depths which vary from several pages to a whole chapter and I never felt like he skimped on a topic too much. He did a great job balancing many aspects in a single volume.

Audible vs. Hardcover
John has a habit of writing SOME run-on sentences which makes me have to reread the sentence a few times to dissect the sentence structure. This is much less of a problem with the Audible version since the narrator uses his inflection to guide the listener through these long sentences. This is one aspect where the Audible spoken version is clearly superior to the written version... for me.

Other excellent titles of interest not available by Audible (yet): World Crisis (Churchill; Note: 1 of 5 volumes available on Audible), My Experience in the World War (Pershing), Coming of the War 1914 (Schmitt), First World War (Gilbert...also military history), Dreadnought (Massie), Ring of Steel (Watson).
Note: These first 3 titles were written during the interwar period so authors have no knowledge of the ferocious Second World War that is coming. This makes for a different perspective from post-1940 titles.

I hope this review helps put some context around this excellent book about a grand historical topic.

If you like the way Mr. Keegan writes, I recommend the titles already cited, especially ‘The Face of Battle’ as well as the Audible title ‘A History of War’.

65 people found this helpful

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Waited a long time for this

I've waited for this on Audible for over 20 years! I check every year and by chance today I found it was just released yesterday! This was my first introduction to The Great War, it is fascinating and complex. The opening chapters about the behind the scenes preparations are astounding; hiding gold reserves, the development of the railroad transportation system (and the origins of Russia using a different a different rail gauge, which came into play not until WWII), and of course the military theory of the time which became immediately outdated as soon as the fighting broke out. The first hour is really about the society at the time in Europe, the scientific advancements, and the spirit of cooperation through science, academia, and setting international standards to unify the continent's business, financial markets, industry, and infrastructure. This is John Keegan so the book is very copious, technical, and at times scatalogical - moving from the advancement in ordnance and artillery strategy into a battle scene from the War. This is a detailed analysis of the War and the society at large and political thinking at the turn of the century; a scholarly work and not and introduction for beginners. (I recommend "the gold standard" Guns of August first, which gives a very clear narrative about the diplomacy and treaties between the monarchs which started the whole thing.) But I can't emphasise enough how excited i am to finally hear this from Audible! I will listen over and over again, and my vast library of WWI books is finally complete with John Keegan's masterpiece. Absolutely fantastic.

7 people found this helpful

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Disappointed

It was dull, dull, dull
The sample was the most interesting part. The over emphasis on statistics gave it a sterile feel. It needed humanity!

3 people found this helpful

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great ww1 book

has everything you want in a world war 1 novel. definitely worth the purchase
Keegan is a great author.

2 people found this helpful

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Details, details, details ....

This is not the first book to reach for to get a basic understanding of the history of WWI. I listened to the entire book. The author appears to be so concerned with deluging the reader with so much minutia that he forgot to tell the story. I honestly couldn’t follow most of it. This is better for someone who is already a WWI expert. The narrator is excellent.

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Too detailed

This probably works as a hard copy book but trying to listen to it didn't work without being able to refer to maps, charts, etc. I was not able to keep track of things and wasn't able to finish it.

1 person found this helpful

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Great for political tones, terrible for facts.

This book downplays ever nations achievements with the exception of the British; as far as the author is concerned, they were the only people who knew how to fight a battle. He routinely misses key technological and tactical advances on both sides and fails to highlight pivotal moments of the war such as the French Alpine Corps assault in the Vosges. The the author takes a lazy, haphazard attempt at quoting casualty statistics which were halfheartedly researched from primarily British sources such the BEF and the French army suffered 600,000 casualties on the Somme and the Germans also suffered an equal 600,000 casualties fighting a defensive battle. Any French history of the war paints a much different picture in terms of numbers and tactics as well as overall strategies. This account draws the wrong conclusions and lessons from strategies involved and tactics employed. I will give credit in terms of the pre-war political atmosphere is concerned, that portion of the book was well done. Otherwise this book as a Anglophilic an account of the war as you can get.

5 people found this helpful

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Doesn't tell the truth about the Armenian Genocide

The author cowardly blames the Armenians for the genocide committed against them by the Turks because they dared try form their own nation in which they wouldn't be persecuted for their religion and instead they were murdered for it. Somehow though according to this book it was their fault because they sided with Czarist Russia against the Ottoman Empire. Disgraceful failure of not knowing history or worse simply ignoring it.

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Unknown facts

This audio book opened my eyes to many unknown facts about WW1. It was a good listen that greatly increased my knowledge of WW1 and helped me better understand the impact it had in the cause of WW 2.

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My Thoughtson This Story

All Of my life, I have nesrd very little about the First World War. I always wondered why. After having listened to this book, my questions have been answered. According to the authero, John Keegan, there wasn't a good reason for the war. That's what I always heard. I did find some of the information contained within this book quite interesting. I found myself looking up the events on the internet for more information. So, I must admit, it captured my imagination. As I always say when reviewing a book, it did have parts of the story that dragged on, but not too badly. IT was written in a more statistical way, that is, told the numbers of armies, dead and wounded and thoughts behind each battle but it left out, for the most part, personal accounts from soldiers in it. There was a couple. All in all, I did enjoy the book.