A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918, by G. J. Meyer

I’ve read a number of single-volume histories of WWI over the years but the short review of THIS one is simply: if I’m asked for a recommendation, Meyer’s work is the one I’ll provide.

WWI is a massive, convoluted mess of a conflict to try to shrink down to one book. Previous attempts that I’ve read (Keegan and Gilbert’s come to mind) are good in their own ways, but lack either a proper focus on what I think are the real lessons of the war (absolute shit leadership across all countries on both the political and military levels, and the frankly nauseating loss and destruction that resulted from that), in favor of a too-detailed focus on the military campaigns which, with few exceptions, amounted to: they tried the same thing that failed 20 times prior and, to everyone’s surprise, it failed again. Or I plain didn’t like the writing. Even a GOOD book on the entirety of WWI is, let’s be honest, gonna be a slog. So the author has to bring some writerly chops to the endeavor or it’s going to be a failure.

One example of how Meyers tries to deal with this hit me with his choice of title for Chapter 18:

Gallipoli Again, and Poland, and…

That’s the actual full chapter title. I can see maybe some particularly ass-wedged people thinking the author is making light of absolutely dreadful events, but I read that and was like “Yes, EXACTLY”. It conveys the awful repetitive nature of the mistakes and follies being committed by frankly everyone with any authority whatsoever on either side of the conflict by that particular point in the narrative. The book was bordering on feeling like a slog at that point, not through any fault of the writing, but simply because there’s no way to not read what boils down to “the Entente/Central Powers launched another offensive. It achieved 1/16th of its planned first day goals after two weeks of brutal combat, then bogged down into final failure. Three hundred thousand men died. Nine months later, they tried the exact same plan again to the same effect” for the fifth straight time and not feel like you’re in some awful, blood-soaked Groundhog Day that is also somehow… kind of boring.

Meyers alleviates the stultifying banal brutality with Background chapters that are interspersed in between each chapter of the main narrative. These intermissions are used to do little deep dives into specific topics, such as the life of long-ruling but ill-fated Emperor Francis Joseph I of Austria-Hungary, or the Armenian Genocide, etc.

Alternating between the main narrative and these targeted topics gives Meyers a good way to give the reader a break from the aforementioned numbing slog of incompetency and disaster that was this entire war, so I applaud that choice.

By the end of the book, I felt like I had had my knowledge of this conflict strongly refreshed and, in some areas, somewhat enhanced. Meyers focuses more on the personal relationships (which were frankly almost always animosities, and almost always to the detriment and death of tens of thousands of regular soldiers. God, the general and politicians in this war FUCKING SUCKED even by the already-low historical standards of generals and politicians) and how those impacted strategy and tactics than the other generalists in this field, and I think to better effect. Going into great detail on the 17th failed offensive of a given front doesn’t really tell the reader much new; explaining why a specific leader chose to do so and how that led to their eventual and long-overdue sacking much, much later at least provides a bit of payoff that Ypres II or Brusilov IV fails to.

Meyers does dig deeper into the actual military doings at the front once some leaders who saw that new things needed to be tried achieved enough personal power to do so; rolling artillery barrages, concentrated tank drives, shock assaults… the inventors and deployments of these various tactics that actually managed to move the front lines are discussed in adequate detail.

In the end, while Meyers doesn’t bring any particularly new interpretations or primary source material to this book, he does make the right authorial choices regarding what of the voluminous available matter should be focused on, and how to tell that story well. I give this book a solid 4/5 recommendation.