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19 May 2010

Book Review: A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918

A fantastic overview of World War One. Meyer writes with integrity and style making even the most tedious details clear and understandable. Between each chapter describing the chronological events of the war, Meyer places chapters of "Background;" The Serbs, The Hapsburgs, The Hohenzollerns, The Romanovs, The Junkers, The Sea War, Genocide, Lawrence of Arabia, Ludendorff, War and Poetry (my favorite background chapter) Kaiser Wilhelm, etc. These chapters were invaluable to a reader like myself, who picked up this book in hopes of learning about a war about which I found I knew very little when I visited the National World War One museum in Kansas City. 

But it is an overview. Anyone wanting intricate particulars should probably find another volume. The detail Meyer manages to cover in some 600 pages is impressive but he refrains from tedious specifics on troop movements and battle maneuvers and implements of war (rifles are just rifles - no more specific than that). There are very few maps (which may be my one negative note) but without these details, the broad picture of the war is clearer, which is good because this is one of those wars (and indeed, perhaps all wars are, in the end, like this) where one spends most of one's time wondering what in the hell everyone was thinking and why in the hell they started fighting in the first place.

The futility of the war, as a whole, can be summed up in a quote Meyer uses to summarize the Second Battle of Artois; "As usual, the fight went on long after any chance of success had evaporated, with repeated French and British attacks neutralized by German counterattacks, casualties piling up, and nothing of importance accomplished."

There isn't just one battle of Ypres. There are four or five. I lost count. The generals didn't understand their new technology and how industrialization had changed the ways war "should" be fought; they just kept sending bodies into a mincing machine; rifles were still equipped with bayonets but there was no reason for them to be. War had changed. Strategy had not. And that is one of the many tragedies of this war.

French general Petain decried the old philosophy, writing that "this war would not be won by some breakthrough, some great and brilliantly executed conclusive battle. This was a war of attrition, and it required keeping casualties at a tolerable levels. 'Success will come in the final analysis,' he said, 'to the side which has the last man.'" No one listened.

Why the fighting started remains somewhat of a convoluted mystery that begs study of hundreds of years of European history to fully understand the complex systems of alliance in which Europe was embroiled at the turn of the 20th century. But why they kept fighting is clear; pride. Each country had saturated their citizens with propaganda about the enemy so completely and effectively that when it became clear that it would be impossible to win, negotiating peace was also impossible. How do you negotiate peace with the devil?

The Battle of Verdun is an excellent example of all the above points; the quagmire of history and the futility of the war as it was being fought and the pride that kept the war going long after it was clear no one could really win.

Verdun had been an important location since the Roman times (Verodunum meaning 'strong fort') Meyer writes in the "Old Wounds Unhealed" background chapter, that throughout history, "Any mass of warriors on the rampage in Western Europe was likely to find itself drawn to Verdun. Thus Verdun's whole history has been written in blood. Even Attila the Hun sacked and burned the place. When the quarreling grandsons of Charlemagne met in 843 to divide the Frankish empire, they did so at Verdun. Their agreement, the Treaty of Verdun, created three new realms. In the west was the Kingdom of the West Franks, which would evolve over time into France. The Kingdom of the East Franks became Germany. It is not much of an exaggeration, in light of this history, to say that not only France and Germany but also their twelve hundred years of struggle over the territories between the Meuse and the Rhine all were born at Verdun."

Meyer continues, "Anyone inclined to believe that some dark force beyond human comprehension intervened again and again to make the Great War long and ruinous would have no difficulty in finding evidence to support such a thesis. There is no better example than the Battle of Verdun, which in its length and cost and brutality and finally in its sheer pointlessness has always and rightly been seen as a perfect microcosm of the war itself."

Shell Shock. This was new. And a "singularly ill-chosen term." But in 1922 around six thousand British veterans were still living in insane asylums. Shell shock was simply the human reaction to the futility; "It remained inadmissible for physicians to suggest that a loss of the will to fight could ever be justified. The few who dared to suggest that it might be rational for a man to disobey an order that could not possibly lead to anything but sudden death - an order to climb out of a hole into a blanketing gunfire, for example - were likely to be dismissed." War had changed. Those who spearheaded its waging had not.

The rising malcontent is trackable nowhere better than in the poetry and letters of the soldiers and the silence of men of letters. At the beginining of the war, leading authors on both sides piped up with declarations of patriotism and noble verses describing the honor and glory of war. By 1917, they had all but fallen silent, as if saying there was nothing they could say. A young infantry officer, Roland Leighton, wrote to his fiancee, after she sent him a book of poetry declaring war purifying, patriotic and beautiful:

"Let him who thinks that War is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honor and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realize how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence. Who is there who has known and seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these."

Leighton was dead soon after he wrote the letter.

As the war entered its third year, desperation set in on both sides. "They were throwing everything they had - their people, their production capabilities, all the wealth accumulated over generations of industrial development - into the effort to destroy one another." Mutinies were rampant ("one official called the big French mutiny 'a sort of moral nihilism, an army without faith,' which is exactly what happens when people finally discover the futility of a system to which they have pledged allegiance") and though the generals had made some adjustments to how troops and materials were used, they all still pushed for the big breakthrough. Which never came.

And so it remained until Germany finally pushed things too far and stretched themselves beyond capacity; their soldiers were few, their citizens starving. They agreed to a negotiated peace and the Allies punished them so severely that the path was cleared for the discontent that allowed the rise of Hitler.

But that is another story.

"Historic events are often said to have 'changed everything.' In the case of the Great War this is, for once, true. The war really did change everything: not just borders, not just governments and the fate of nations, but the way people have seen the world and themselves ever since. It became a kind of hole in time, leaving the postwar world permanently disconnected from everything that had come before."


  1. Great review of very good book I'm just reading for the second time.

    One quibble
    "There isn't just one battle of Ypres. There are four or five. I lost count" Easily done but there were three, 1914, 1915 and 1917. Check out the numerous battles of the Isonzo - I've read many books on WWI and still am unsure just how many there were - at least six.

    BTW Meyer's books on the Tudors and the Borgias are also very good.

    1. oops sorry I got that wrong - the Georgette Offensive is sometimes called 4th Ypres