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Looking down upon the Tomb of the Portuguese Unknown Soldier at the Priory of Santa Maria da Vitoria at Batalha, Portugal, is O Cristo das Trincheiras (The Christ of the Trenches). Soiled, bullet-scarred, its legs blown off by shellfire, the life-size Christ hung on a tall wooden cross somewhere on the Western Front during World War I. It was salvaged after the war and, during ceremonies in 1958 to commemorate the Battle of Flanders, was offered to Portugal by the French government in recognition of the contribution made by the 55,083-man Portuguese Expeditionary Corps, which in 1917-18 had lost 2,086 killed, 5,224 wounded and 6,678 captured.

The crucified Christ was an appropriate symbol for millions of young men who died–too often anonymously–on battlefields throughout the world between 1914 and 1918, writes historian John Keegan in his ambitious one-volume overview The First World War (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999, $35). Of the British empire’s 1 million dead, the bodies of more than 500,000 were never found or were not identified. The French total of unidentified dead was 1.7 million. The largest monument to the unknowns, at Thiepval, records the names of 70,000 who perished in the futile Somme campaigns of 1916-17. And beyond the ribbon of British cemeteries running from the Somme to the North Sea (150 cemeteries surround Ypres alone), there lies a host of other men whose deaths are not commemorated–1.5 million soldiers of the Hapsburg empire, 2 million Germans, 460,000 Italians, 1.7 million Russians and uncounted thousands of Turks.

Little wonder, says Keegan in this eloquent, informed and vivid panorama of the unnecessary holocaust, that the postwar world spoke of a “lost generation,” whose parents were united by shared grief. The survivors were gripped with a sense of inexplicable escape, often tinged by guilt, sometimes by rage and–in the case of Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler–the desire for revenge.

Keegan takes the reader behind the scenes of the doomed diplomatic efforts to avert the catastrophe and endeavors to explain how a prosperous and enlightened Continent could choose to risk everything in the lottery of an internecine conflict in the Balkans. And yet the author believes that if prudence or common goodwill had somehow found a voice during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, 10 million deaths might have been avoided. Instead, says Keegan, World War I inaugurated the manufacture of modern mass destruction that World War II brought to a pitiless consummation.

Yet, as Keegan vividly illustrates in this epic narrative, World War I was more nightmarish than World War II in many ways–particularly in the shattered wasteland of the Western Front and in the mindless squandering of human life with negligible results. While Keegan’s study is both eminently objective and laced with profound sympathy, he minces no words discussing the inept French and British generals. Languishing in châteaux far behind the front lines and unwilling to shed their 19th-century mindset in the face of 20th-century weaponry, many of them callously dispatched wave upon wave of brave men on futile, suicidal assaults. Any gains made were in terms of mere yards while the casualty lists soared.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, in particular, is indicted by Keegan. Although a capable soldier and a leader of unshakable determination who deserves credit for taking much pressure off the French in 1917, the British army commander on the Western Front displayed an alarming profligacy. At the Somme on July 1, 1916, Haig, who is credited with the observation that “the machine gun is a much overrated weapon,” repeatedly sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation. By July 31, the Germans on the Somme had lost 160,000 men and the British and French 200,000, yet the front line had moved scarcely three miles in a month.

The author asks how the anonymous, drab millions of World War I–deprived of any scrap of the glories that by tradition made the life of men-at-arms tolerable–found the resolution to sustain the grim struggle and to believe in its purpose. Yet amid the despair, a unique comradeship, unlike anything in peacetime life, bound strangers into the closest brotherhood and elevated loyalties. This, Keegan reasons, is the ultimate mystery of the First World War.

As one would expect from the world’s most eminent military historian and the author of 12 other books, including the acclaimed The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command and Six Armies in Normandy, the story of World War I has never been told with more insight, sympathy and scholarly sweep than in these pages. Highly perceptive, eloquent and moving, this book is a powerful war memorial in itself.