Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Monday Library Post, belated - 8/30/10 + Keegan Review

So, I did make it to the library yesterday, but somehow I did not make it to the blog. Two books to add to my pile this week:

James Benn - Rag and Bone
This is the fifth of Benn's Billy Boyle WWII mysteries. They follow the career of Billy Boyle, Irish-American and distant cousin of Eisenhower. Family connections place Boyle on Eisenhower's staff, because it's supposed to be a safe place to ride out the war. Instead, Eisenhower uses Boyle to clean up difficult messes. Benn has done some very good research for these books, and includes a lovely author's note with each to explain where the history comes from and where he has stretched things a little. I think this one will almost certainly have to be near the end of the series, as Boyle is involved in looking into the Katyn Forest massacre, which didn't come out until near the end of the war. Also, I think I may well have missed one, and so will need to go back and see if I can find Evil for Evil.

Alex Archer - The Spirit Banner
If you were reading during my trip to DC last month, you recognize the author of this - this is another of the Rogue Angel books, and I'm reading it to see if the formula for the series holds up - also, does Ms. Creed continue to substitute large quantities of food for sex? Maybe not a question for the ages, but certainly a question for an hour or so of reading...


Review of:

John Keegan - The First World War
Keegan's book is considered to be one of the best works on the war as a whole, and I think it deserves that accolade.  Keegan is an excellent historian, military, popular, or otherwise.  This book is exceedingly well researched and cited, and yet remains accessible to most readers.  Keegan does use some unusual sentence constructions, not quite passive voice, but convoluted twisting of the subject and verb. Not all the way through the book, because that would make the whole thing unreadable, but every once in a while there will be this odd sentence that Keegan has dropped in the reader's path, like a land mine. A thing to watch out for.

Keegan also uses very long chapters - the book is over 400 pages long, and there are only 10 chapters. Each chapter has some subdivisions, but it does make it hard to find organic stopping points in the work. I don't know if this is a flaw, necessarily, but it might be off putting to a purely casual reader.

It would be tragic if a casual reader, upon encountering one of Keegan's odd sentences, or perusing the book, found the length of the chapters off putting, because, by and large, Keegan's work is beautifully written. His descriptions of battles are clear, his descriptions of politics and wrangling between the authors of the war are more so.  His portrayal of the soldiers is sympathetic, and his portrayal of their commanding officers, while less sympathetic, is not as nasty as some other historians of the First World War.  This is, indeed, a point which Keegan is quick to make - in several of his periodic historiographical digressions, Keegan points out that the commanders in the war, especially the top generals, have not been well treated by history.  Keegan does not go out of his way to salvage the reputation of generals like Haig and Joffre, but nor does he go out of his way to savage them - refreshing.

This book abounds with short digressions, historiographical and otherwise.  While I have, in past reviews, complained that books were too short to contain such digressions, this is certainly not the case with Keegan.  This is a massive book - as one might expect, given the scope of the conflict that Keegan is attempting to cover - and he uses the space masterfully, expanding his points carefully and clarifying areas where he thinks readers might get lost.

Even given the length of this book, there is room for more. Keegan is a British historian, and so the British Army is given pride of place throughout the book. Historians and budding historians-to-be would be well advised to find histories of the war from a French perspective, and from the perspective of the "Dominion" powers - Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. A German history, a Russian history, and an Italian history would also probably be a good idea.  That being said, Keegan covers all of the various and diverse theaters of the war, including the Pacific (Japanese capture of German positions in China and elsewhere) and post-Tsarist Russia (both the landing of Americans and British troops in the far North and the landing of Americans and Japanese in the Far East).  The non-standard theaters - the Mid-East, Pacific, and Russian theaters - are not covered in the same depth as the Western and Eastern fronts, but this is entirely justifiable - the fact that they are included at all is admirable.

I have only a few complaints.  The first is that, as a Canadian, I felt that the Canadian troops were given short shrift here, which probably reveals the effects of my early education more than a lack in the text. I will be seeking out a Canadian history of the war, however, to fill in the gaps for my own purposes - watch for that. Second, Keegan, or his editor, needed to include more maps! I see no particular reason that each battle described could not have had a series of small sequential maps, instead of the more general maps which were included. The maps which were included (and there were many - just not nearly enough) were clear, well drawn, and easy to read, but I would gladly have sacrificed some of the glossy photos (very nice!) for more maps, if that was what it took. Finally, I wanted more on the air war. Keegan barely mentions this aspect of the war.  My desire to read more on this topic may, again, be a reflection on my own inclinations rather than a lack in the work, but, in this case, I don't think so. Aerial combat was entirely new during WWI, and added a third dimension to the battlefield. I think there could easily have been a sub-chapter on the air war, perhaps as part of a chapter on the technology of the war - a fuller explanation of tanks, the new sorts of artillery, gas weapons, the U-boats - actually, now that I think about it, this was something that was missing from the book as well.

A brilliant book nonetheless, a fantastic place to begin an investigation of the First World War, and heartily recommended to established historians, historians in training, and the purely curious.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your take on the book.

    I'm on pause with it for now, as other items require reading rather more urgently, but I will keep a lookout for the strengths and weaknesses you mention.

    Although I won't ever consider Keegan's sentence structure a weakness. Your landmine simile is good. I appreciate them like a linguistic version of scrambling down a steep incline. In retrospect the destination was predetermined but damn if it didn't make a couple of zigs and zags along the way.

    As someone who has "Shock Troops" by Tim Cook on the shelf (Unread, but waiting) I share your doubts regarding the possibility of bias after a steady diet of Remembrance Days and Don Cherry. That sentence sounded more cynical that I meant it, but the past couple of years I've been witness to a few too many poor assemblies on November 11th (and one really, really excellent one: it actually discussed the legitimacy of the RAF and USAAF firebombing of Dresden). This same issue is what rankled more than a few veterans when here in Ottawa the War Museum included the possibility of Canadian involvement in what some have called a war crime. I notice that Cook is a curator at the War Museum, and a google search presents me with "Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars" another Canadian Military History book destined to languish on the shelf and prod my guilt.

    TL/DR: I liked your review and will definitely keep it in mind when I get a chance to get back to it.