John Keegan

From Wikiquote
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Sir John Desmond Patrick Keegan OBE FRSL (15 May 1934 – 2 August 2012) was an English military historian and journalist.


The First World War (1998)[edit]

All quotes from the British hardcover first edition, ISBN 0-09-180178-8, 1st printing
Bold face added for emphasis

  • 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.
    • Chapter 1, “A European Tragedy” (p. 3)
  • The First World War inaugurated the manufacture of mass deaths that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation.
    • Chapter 1, “A European Tragedy” (p. 4)
  • War’s rancours are quick to bite and slow to heal.
    • Chapter 1, “A European Tragedy” (p. 6)
  • Within fifteen years of the war’s end, totalitarianism, a new word for a system that rejected the liberalism and constitutionalism which had inspired European politics since the eclipse of monarchy in 1789, was almost everywhere on the rise. Totalitarianism was the political continuation of war by other means.
    • Chapter 1, “A European Tragedy” (p. 8)
  • It was broadly true that all European royalty were cousins; even the Habsburgs of Austria, most imperious of sovereigns, occasionally mingled their blood with outsiders; and since every state in Europe, except France and Switzerland, was a monarchy, that made for a very dense network of interstate connections indeed.
    • Chapter 1, “A European Tragedy” (p. 16)
  • The tragedy of the diplomatic crisis that preceded the outbreak of the fighting in August 1914, which was to swell into the four-year tragedy of the Great War, is that events successively and progressively overwhelmed the capacity of statesmen and diplomats to control and contain them. Honourable and able men though they were, the servants of the chancelleries and foreign officers of the great powers in the July crisis were bound to the wheel of the written note, the encipherment routine, the telegraph schedule. The potentialities of the telephone, which might have cut across the barriers to communication, seem to have eluded their imaginative powers. The potentialities of radio, available but unused, evaded them altogether. In the event, the states of Europe proceeded, as if in a dead march and a dialogue of the deaf, to the destruction of their continent and its civilisation.
    • Chapter 1, “A European Tragedy” (p. 23)
  • All European armies in 1904 had long-laid military plans, notable in most cases for their inflexibility. None was integrated with what today would be called a ‘national security policy’, made in conclave between politicians, diplomats, intelligence directors and service chiefs, and designed to serve a country’s vital interests, for such a concept of national leadership did not then exist. Military plans were held to be military secrets in the strictest sense, secret to the planners alone, scarcely communicable in peacetime to civilian heads of government, often not from one service to another.
    • Chapter 2, “War Plans” (pp. 30-31)
  • The effect exerted by paper plans on the unfolding of events must never be exaggerated. Plans do not determine outcomes. The happenings set in motion by a particular scheme of action will rarely be those narrowly intended, are intrinsically unpredictable and will ramify far beyond the anticipation of the instigator. So it was to prove with the Schlieffen plan.
    • Chapter 2, “War Plans” (p. 31)
  • Time, in all crises, is usually the ingredient missing to make a solution. It is best supplied by an agreement on a pause.
    • Chapter 3, “The Crisis of 1914” (p. 66)
  • The opening months of the First World War marked the termination of two hundred years of a style of infantry fighting which, with decreasing logic, taught that drill and discipline was the best defence against missile weapons, however much improved.
    • Chapter 5, “Victory and Defeat in the East” (p. 175)
  • The regulations of 1911 insisted that the riflemen of the infantry could ‘without the support of the other arms, even in inferior numbers, gain victory as long as [they] were tough and brave’. This was a view common to the continental armies, German, Austrian and Russian as well as French, the most ideological exponent of the ‘spirit of the offensive’, and was based not merely on affirmation but on an analysis of the nature of recent combat in, particularly, the Russo-Japanese War. It was accepted that high levels of firepower entailed high casualty rates; it was still believed that a determination to accept heavy casualties would bring victory.
    • Chapter 5, “Victory and Defeat in the East” (p. 175)
  • The 1914 battles in the Eastern Front therefore closely resemble those fought by Napoleon a hundred years earlier, as indeed did those of the Marne campaign, with the difference that infantry lay down rather than stood up to fire and that the fronts of engagement extended to widths a hundred times greater. The duration of battles extended also, from a day to a week or more. The outcomes, nevertheless, were gruesomely similar: huge casualties, both absolutely and as a proportion of numbers engaged, and dramatic results.
    • Chapter 5, “Victory and Defeat in the East” (p. 176)
  • What was the issue was not the combatativeness of the British soldier but the still colonial outlook of their commanders, who expected decisive results for a comparatively small outlay of force and shrank from casualties. French generals, from a different tradition, expected large casualties, which their soldiers still seemed ready to suffer with patriotic fatalism. The British soldier, regular, Territorial, wartime volunteer, was learning a similar abnegation, while their leaders were coming to accept that operations in the new conditions of trench warfare could succeed only with the most methodical preparation. The qualities of dashing improvisation that had brought victory in mountain and desert for a hundred years would not serve in France.
    • Chapter 6, “Stalemate” (pp. 212-213)
  • By the end of 1915, none of the original combatants was fighting the war that had been wanted or expected. Hopes of quick victory had been dashed, new enemies had appeared, new fronts had opened.
    • Chapter 7, “The War Beyond the Western Front” (p. 223)
  • The failure of the generals of 1914 had largely been a pre-war failure. They had had the wit to adapt to the technologies ready to hand, particularly that of Europe’s many-branched real net work, to their purposes. They had lacked the wit to perceive the importance or potentialities of new technologies, among which the internal combustion engine and wireless-telegraphy, as radio was then called, would prove the most important; they had, indeed, lacked altogether the wit to perceive the problems to which such new technologies would be the solution. No such charge could be laid against the admirals of the years before 1914. With foresight they had divined the significance of the developing technologies likely to affect their service and had applied them to it with exactitude. Admirals have traditionally had a reputation as seadogs and salthorses with little ability to see far beyond the bulwarks of their ships and little desire to change anything within them. Nineteenth-century admirals are commonly thought to have opposed transition from sail to steam as fiercely as generals opposed the abolition of scarlet coats. Nothing could be further from the truth. When the admirals of the Royal Navy were persuaded that sail had had its day, they displayed a ruthless lack of sentimentality for the beauty of pyramids of canvas. The sailing navy was abolished almost overnight after the Crimean War, in which steam gunboats had devastated wooden walls.
    • Chapter 8, “The Year of Battles” (pp. 279-280)
  • Plans made without allowance for the intentions of the enemy are liable to miscarry. So it was to prove in 1916.
    • Chapter 8, “The Year of Battles” (p. 299)
  • The basic and stark fact, nevertheless, was that the conditions of warfare between 1914 and 1918 predisposed towards slaughter and that only an entirely different technology, one not available until a generation later, could have averted such an outcome.
    The first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, was to be an awful demonstration of that truth.
    • Chapter 8, “The Year of Battles” (p. 316)
  • The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.
    • Chapter 8, “The Year of Battles” (p. 321)
  • The system of communication itself denied any rapidity, let alone instantaneity, of communication when it was most needed, which was in the heat of action. The most important of the novelties of modern warfare in our own time has been the development of surveillance, targeting and inter-communication in real time, which is to say at the speed at which events unroll.
    • Chapter 9, “The Breaking of Armies” (p. 339)
  • All worked excellently, until fighting began.
    • Chapter 9, “The Breaking of Armies” (p. 339)
  • How easy it is, in retrospect, to see that that was so, how difficult at the time to except the fallibility of governments and general staffs. The fundamental truth underlying dissatisfaction with systems and with personalities in all countries was that the search for anything or anyone better was vain. The problem of command in the circumstances of the First World War was insoluble. Generals were like men without eyes, without ears and without voices, unable to watch the operations they set in progress, unable to hear reports of their development and unable to speak to those whom they had originally given orders once action was joined. The war had become bigger than those who fought it.
    • Chapter 9, “The Breaking of Armies” (p. 347)
  • Little ground was gained, much life lost.
    • Chapter 9, “The Breaking of Armies” (p. 388)
  • Lightning victories, experience tells, store up evil consequences, usually for the victors.
    • Chapter 10, “America and Armageddon” (pp. 411-412)
  • The accidents of military geography also began to work to the Germans’ disadvantage. The nearer they approached Amiens, the more deeply did they become entangled in the obstacles of the old Somme battlefield, a wilderness of abandoned trenches, broken roads and shell-crater fields left behind by the movement of the front a your earlier. The Somme may not have won the war for the British in 1916 but the obstacle zone it left helped to ensure that in 1918 they did not lose it.
    • Chapter 10, “America and Armageddon” (p. 433)
  • It is one of the many graveyards which are the Great War’s chief heritage. The chronicle of its battles provides the dreariest literature in military history; no brave trumpets sound in memory for the drab millions who plodded to death on the featureless planes of Picardy and Poland; no litanies are sung for the leaders who coaxed them to slaughter. The legacy of the war’s political outcome scarcely bears contemplation: Europe ruined as a centre of world civilisation, Christian kingdoms transformed through defeat into godless tyrannies, Bolshevik or Nazi, the superficial difference between their ideologies counting not at all in their cruelty to common and decent folk. All that was worst in the century which the First World War had opened, the deliberate starvation of peasant enemies of the people by provinces, the extermination of racial outcasts, the persecution of ideology’s intellectual and cultural hate-objects, the massacre of ethnic minorities, the extinction of small national sovereignties, the destruction of parliaments and the elevation of commissars, gauleiters and warlords to power over voiceless millions, had its origins in the chaos it left behind. Of that, at the end of the century, little thankfully is left. Europe is once again, as it was in 1900, prosperous, peaceful and a power for good in the world.
    • Chapter 10, “America and Armageddon” (pp. 450-451)
  • But then the First World War is a mystery. Its origins are mysterious. So is its course. Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict? Why, when the hope of bringing the conflict to a quick and decisive conclusion was everywhere dashed to the ground within months of its outbreak, did the combatants decide nevertheless to persist in their military effort, to mobilise for total war and eventually to commit the totality of their young manhood to mutual and existentially pointless slaughter?
    • Chapter 10, “America and Armageddon” (p. 456)
  • Principle perhaps was at stake; but the principle of the sanctity of international treaty, which brought Britain into the war, scarcely merited the price eventually paid for its protection. Defence of the national territory was at stake also, the principle for which France fought at almost unbearable damage to its national well-being. Defence of the principle of mutual security agreement, underlying the declarations of Germany and Russia, was pursued to a point where security lost all meaning in the dissolution of state structures. Simple state interest, Austria’s impulse and the oldest of all reasons for war-making, proved, as the pillars of imperialism collapsed about the Habsburgs, no interest at all.
    • Chapter 10, “America and Armageddon” (p. 456)
  • Consequences, of course, cannot be foreseen. Experience can, by contrast, all too easily be projected into the future. The experience of the early warriors of 1914–18 – the probability of wounds or death, and circumstances of squalor and misery – swiftly acquired inevitability. There is mystery in that also. How did 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, find the resolution to sustain the struggle and to believe in its purpose? That they did is one of the undeniabilities of the Great War. Comradeship flourished in the earthwork cities of the Western and Eastern Fronts, bound strangers into the closest brotherhood, elevated loyalties created within the ethos of temporary regimentality to the status of life-and-death blood ties. Man whom the trenches cast into intimacy entered into bonds of mutual dependency and sacrifice of self stronger than any of the friendships made in peace and better times. That is the ultimate mystery of the First World War. If we could understand its loves as well as its hates, we would be nearer understanding the mysteries of human life.
    • Chapter 10, “America and Armageddon” (p. 456; the last three quotes comprise the entirety of the last page of the book)

External links[edit]

Wikipedia has an article about: