704 pages, Delacorte Press, ISBN-13: 978-0553803549
A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G.J. Meyer takes a lens from far above what is happening, attempting to show the over-arching reasons why certain things happened. He is more likely to discuss the idea of Ludendorff creating a flexible defense, rather than having troops in a rigid and fixed front line, than he is to talk about what happened at a certain hill or dale. You get the overview – why were the Germans almost successful in 1918 after years of stalemate – rather than they took this town or this fort. When a city is mentioned, he tells you why this place was important (for example, Amiens is where most of the French Railways came together and had the town been lost, France would not have been able to move troops and might have needed an armistice).
Starting with a day-by-day account of the events leading up to World War I, these detail-packed chapters are interspersed with background chapters that, as each country/region/personality is introduced, give the reader additional details on the historical pieces that play a part, including outlines of the Hapsburg dynasty, the Tsarist succession, the French political situation pre-war, and much more. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the catalyst for WWI wasn’t news to me, but the information woven in that covers the shifting powers in the region (who knew more about the planned assassination than they let on at the time) and the broader historical picture of the conflict between Serbia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary immediately provided a far more solid grounding in the lead-up to hostilities; particularly fascinating was all the points at which war could have been averted but wasn’t.
As the flow of battles and political wrangling reach the end of the first year of the war, the book pauses to briefly discuss the evolution of weaponry and why two critical inventions – the machine gun and barbed-wire – were partly responsible for extending the length of the war. Chapters covering the economics of funding the war, WWI and its impact on the poetry of a generation, and shellshock (to name just a few) were clear and concise interludes that often described individual experiences and those unexpected victories or defeats on a smaller scale, adding to my interest in the narrative and bringing the story to life to an even greater degree. The ponderous nature of the military infrastructure in place at the time is hard to imagine for a listener in the 21st Century. Three nations whose military mobilization plans were so rigid that they simply could not be implemented without overreaching the lines drawn that might have minimized the scope of (or even prevented) the war was a mind-boggling thing for me to contemplate. That Germany could not mobilize without pushing troops across its borders, Russia couldn’t mobilize without (threateningly) staging troops on the German border, and Austria couldn’t mobilize into Serbia and hold the line in Belgrade (strictly as an issue of troop movement, not just orders) was appalling.
As the war begins and the troop movements and battles are described, the pacing was enough to keep me riveted. The shifting battle lines and various offensives were described clearly and concisely and held more than enough drama in their factual recitation without requiring dramatic phrasing or overly gruesome descriptions. In addition to the (for one primarily accustomed to news reports of modern warfare) unimaginable death toll on a sometimes daily basis, the scale of the weaponry described was unexpected (huge guns that took ten train cars to transport and fired ten shells per hour?) These types of details were woven into the stories of individual battles with perfect timing to keep this audiobook moving along. There was never a point at which the story bogged down and the audiobook didn’t seem as long as its run time. In fact, I was so caught up in the description of the initial battles between Germany and France (and the British Expeditionary Force) that I forgot about the Russians and when their troop movements were suddenly introduced, I almost groaned aloud on behalf of the Germans (as it turns out, of course, unnecessarily). Miscommunication, lack of communication, ambassadors with their own agendas who acted in an inflammatory manner – there are many examples of the all-too-human frailty of those who engage in war in this book, but the one that first struck me was the French general who asked for permission to move his troops because his study of German troop movements indicated that the Germans were moving into Belgium, not just with the intent of taking ground, but as part of a larger plan of wide encirclement of the French troops (which was exactly what they were doing). He was denied permission until it was mostly too late because of one man’s conviction, not based on study or actual troop movements, that the German troops simply wouldn’t do that.
Meyer takes on an enormous task in this book as he tries to tell not just what happened leading up to and through WWI, but the important historical background to give the events context; he does so by pairing a “Background” chapter with what we can call each “Events” chapter, and using this creative way to write about what is already a huge tableau. It provides the unfamiliar reader some context, but is inevitably frustrating to those who have gone deeper; by utilizing this structure, Meyer has taken on the task, for example, of summarizing the over 1000 year history of the Hapsburg Empire in ten or fifteen pages. So, over-generalizations and the occasional plain error creep in (for example, at one point Meyer states that Russia had never been made to compromise with other European states – apparently glossing over their defeats by Napoleon and the entire Crimean War). These grate on the reader who has read more on each of these Background chapters. That being said, in a book for a general audience for whom this is perhaps their first introduction to European history of the period, this is an enormous achievement. World War I was the death knell of one kind of civilization and the launching of several competing models of other ways to organize a national community. It deserves study, and this work is an excellent start.