REVIEW: A World Undone – The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918 (2006)

A book by G. J. Meyer

After my double shot of trips to the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, I kind of got onto a kick learning about that particular period in world history. First I read The Great War by Hew Strachan, and found it to be an unpolished mess that was trying to hard to showcase the author’s hot-takes on the war rather than actually inform. I held my breath, crossed my fingers, then jumped into A World Undone – The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918 by G. J. Meyer. This book is, without a doubt, better than the former in almost every way for a myriad of reasons. Without doing a point-for-point comparison to the other book, I will address some of the reasons I liked it so much.

“On a summer day in 1914, a nineteen-year-old Serbian nationalist gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. While the world slumbered, monumental forces were shaken. In less than a month, a combination of ambition, deceit, fear, jealousy, missed opportunities, and miscalculation sent Austro-Hungarian troops marching into Serbia, German troops streaming toward Paris, and a vast Russian army into war, with England as its ally. As crowds cheered their armies on, no one could guess what lay ahead in the First World War: four long years of slaughter, physical and moral exhaustion, and the near collapse of a civilization that until 1914 had dominated the globe.”

I think I enjoyed this book so much due to not only the information, but how that information is presented. Not only is it arranged chronologically from the beginning to the end of the war, but special chapters are inserted between main chapters as ways to add background information. For example, let’s say the author is talking about how The Russian Revolution is starting to brew; he might take a step aside and discuss the death of Rasputin for a mini-chapter or the Romanov line etc. These serve as an overview for an upcoming chapter, and a way to avoid bogging down the main narrative with sideways diversions. By doing this, the author has found a way to educate the reader on the facts, and give sufficient background information without using an index or footnotes. This makes this book far more readable than almost any war book I’ve read in a while, and keeps the book quite engaging. The author states this was his goal from the outset, and I feel he achieved this goal.

This is probably my favorite World War I book I’ve ever read, granted that isn’t coming from a wide selection as of yet. Some of these books concentrate too much on things the author feels is important, or will pique mass media interest, example – D-Day or The Battle of Gettysburg. Others want to either say “everyone else is wrong about the war”, or hyper-fixate on one thing like an entire book on belt buckles or something. Meyer avoids all these pitfalls and makes one of the most informative war books I’ve come across. If you are looking to learn more about this time period, this is definitely the book I’d recommend.

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