THE FIRST WORLD WAR

By John Keegan

Knopf. 475 pp. $35

OVER THERE

The United States in the Great War,

1917-1918

By Byron Farwell

Norton. 336 pp. $27.95

THE PITY OF WAR d

By Niall Ferguson

Basic. 563 pp. $30

Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis

Even by the grisly standards of the war-ravaged 20th century, the casualty figures of World War I still have the capacity to astound. In the opening phase of the war, 329,000 French soldiers were killed in the space of two months (August-October 1914) in the Battle of the Frontiers and the Marne. And in the Battle of the Somme (July-November 1916), 194,451 Frenchmen, 419,654 British and more than 600,000 Germans were killed or wounded. By war's end England had lost 1 million men killed, Russia 1.7 million, France nearly 2 million and Germany more than 2 million. Counting the other countries involved in the war, including Austria, Italy and the United States, more than 9 million men perished in World War I.

Apart from the mind-numbing statistics, World War I defined the 20th century. Old empires -- German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian -- toppled in its wake, and Britain was left severely weakened. It generated seven decades of communist rule in Russia and bequeathed world economic power to the United States. Because the Allied victors failed to curb German power, it paved the way for the leadership of Adolf Hitler and another world war.

Three new works on World War I have recently been published by very distinguished authors. Two of them -- John Keegan's The First World War and Byron Farwell's Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-18 -- are informed, insightful narrative histories for the general reader that draw liberally from national archives, libraries, memoirs, battlefield diaries and letters. Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, on the other hand, is less a history than a compendium of revisionist ideas concerning the causes and conduct of the war.

According to John Keegan, previously a senior lecturer in military history at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and author of 13 books of military history including The Face of Battle and A History of Warfare, "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 . . . ."

Firmly believing that it was World War I that permanently damaged the entire "national and liberal civilization of the European enlightenment," Keegan casts a cold eye upon those governments that allowed the war to break out. He cites the heated naval rivalry between Germany and England as Germany, starting in 1900, sought to build a fleet capable of engaging the Royal Navy in battle. As German power grew, France's old fear -- that Germany would recapture the Alsace-Lorraine region it lost to France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 -- made her increasingly wary. And Germany had its seemingly intractable Schlieffen Plan, a masterpiece of rigid, chessboard thinking by which it would invade France in a huge flanking movement across neutral Belgium. Then there was the Balkan Problem: all those Slav minorities in Serbia, straining toward separate nationhoods from Germany, Austria and Russia.

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent of the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated with his wife by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, animosities between nationalistic Serb minorities and their Austrian rulers ignited. Within weeks, writes Keegan, the incident triggered a military response from Serb-allied Russia against Austria. Since France was allied with Russia, etc., etc.

Alliances aside, Keegan perceptively points to the tragic neglect of modern communications devices at the diplomatic level as a primary cause of the war. "Honourable and able men though they were," he maintains, the diplomats "were bound to the . . . written note" and 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 the radio, available but unused, evaded them altogether."

Once the war started, the telephone and radio proved altogether useless on the battlefield. Since commands could not be communicated to troops, maneuvering was halted -- and the trench system was born. By the winter of 1914-15, the trenches stretched 475 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland. From now on, Keegan writes, the war would be a static one of two opposing forces regarding one another across perhaps 200-300 yards of "no man's land" until the order was given to go "over the top" of their trench to frontally assault the enemy in fruitless attacks that were frequently suicidal.

The author cites a survivor of just such an operation, a futile British assault upon a heavily defended German position at the Battle of Loos, France on September 25, 1915: "Never had machine guns had such straightforward work to do . . . . they traversed to and fro along the enemy's ranks; one machine gun alone fired 12,500 rounds that afternoon. The effect was devastating. The enemy could be seen falling literally in hundreds" in the area which came to be known as the "corpse field of Loos."

Vivid battlefield accounts such as this, penetrating character portraits of such figures as the enigmatic British Field Marshal Douglas Haig and the despairing German Erich von Ludendorff, and an admirable reluctance to overstate his main point -- that World War I was unnecessary -- make Keegan's grand narrative history a pleasure to read.

In a sense Byron Farwell's Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917-18 amplifies Keegan's account of the American effort in World War I. Author of 12 other works of history, including Queen Victoria's Little Wars and The Great War in Africa, 1914-18, Farwell does not exhibit Keegan's easy familiarity with or encyclopedic knowledge of military history. Nevertheless, he does a good, informative job.

Farwell points out that America's entry into World War I was very gradual. It was only after the loss of hundreds of thousands of tons of American shipping, the sinking of several passenger ships -- including the Lusitania, in which 124 Americans perished -- and the discovery of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram, which revealed an alliance between Germany and Mexico that encouraged Mexico to recapture its lost territory in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, that the U.S. Congress, with President Wilson's approval, finally declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917.

Farwell informs us how woefully unprepared America was upon its entry into the war. Initially, it could not even raise one 28,000-man Army division. "Among the armies of the world," he writes, "the United States ranked sixteenth, just behind Portugal." Like Keegan, Farwell gives us excellent descriptions of the trenches and of what it was like for the soldiers to inhabit them. And also like Keegan, Farwell draws upon participants' letters and diaries to give the reader dramatically vivid descriptions of combat in key battles such as the Second Battle of the Marne, the liberation of the hard-fought-over Saint Mihiel salient, and Gen. John Pershing's fierce attack on the Meuse-Argonne front to prevent a massive German retreat. In his battlefield narrative Farwell makes the point that because of their relative lack of combat experiences, the U.S. "doughboys" paid dearly.

In summing up America's contribution in World War I, Farwell cites British military historian Basil Liddell Hart: "The United States did not win the war, but without their economic aid . . . without the arrival of their troops to turn the numerical balance, and . . . without the moral tonic which their coming gave, victory would have been impossible."

The Pity of War, by Niall Ferguson, is probably one of the most controversial histories to come along in decades. Eschewing the narrative history form, Ferguson, a fellow in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford and author of The House of Rothschild and Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, offers a bold, revisionist account of the Great War. Through a careful marshalling of economic and social evidence, along with charts, graphs and various forms of statistical aids, Ferguson attempts to show that because Germany (rightly) feared French and Russian militarism, it understandably made a preemptive strike against France in August 1914. (This idea is contrary to every considered opinion about the origin of World War I, which holds that it was German militarism that started the war.)

Ferguson further contends that it was England's decision to intervene -- "nothing less than the greatest error of modern history" -- that created the global conflict. If England had just "stepped aside," the author opines in one of his toweringly imaginative "counterfactuals," "continental Europe could have been transformed into something not wholly unlike the European Union we know today -- but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars . . . . Bolshevism might have been averted . . . . And there plainly would not have been that great incursion of American financial and military power into European affairs which effectively marked the end of British financial predominance in the world. . . . "

There's more: "With the Kaiser triumphant, Adolf Hitler could have eked out his life as a mediocre postcard painter and a fulfilled old soldier in a German-dominated central Europe about which he could have found little to complain." Just beneath his counterfactual history of an averted Nazism and Bolshevism and the onset of a benevolent, German-dominated Europe lurks Ferguson's own desire for a return to the good old pre-1914 days when Europe was peaceful, the British Empire was potent, and the United States was just a minor economic irritant across the Atlantic. While there is merit in looking at history creatively and perhaps formulating theories on "what might have been," there is something peculiarly disingenuous about this book and something that strongly suggests a hidden agenda.

As for me, I'd rather take my history straight -- from a John Keegan or a Byron Farwell.

Chris Patsilelis frequently reviews books on military history.

CAPTION: American infantrymen of the 1st Division in Cantigny, France on May 28, 1918