Thursday, February 11, 2010

No more talk, put 'em in the dirt instead

I thought I was more or less done with single volume treatments of the First World War. I read Tuchman, Keegan and the Ferguson books and have I a few more specialized works on the shelves. Well, it seems there is room for another single volume treatment, namely GJ Meyer's A World Undone. For most readers, I think it is one of the best, if not the best book to read on the war.

Among it's great selling points is that the book assumes little to no knowledge of military affairs. While this may disappoint some, most readers will be thrilled not to read page after page of corps and army movements requiring constant checking of maps. There is some of that to be sure. You can't understand the drama of the initial invasion and the Miracle of the Marne without the troop movements, but Meyer keeps the discussion at the level of what you need to understand.

Meyer also allows for those readers who have been away from European history for awhile. Between each chapter, he includes a mini chapter on a background topic. These include the rulers of Germany, the Hohenzollerns, the role of women and the Cossacks. This allows him to keep his narrative going at full speed and still provide additional context for those that want it.

You'll come away from this book understanding how the alliance system helped start the war and how it made it difficult to prosecute it effectively. On the Entente/Allies side, the views of the Russians, for example, prevented a quick and easy defeat of the Ottomans, while the Germans were constantly vexed by the plans of the Austro-Hungarians.

Like any popular history, I think it pays too much attention to the role of individuals. Meyers mitigates this by including discussion of factors which limited the actions of the powers, such as the pernicious effect of propaganda.

The book's length may daunt, but fear not, it is an easy read. Go get it.

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