I recently finished reading a very good book on World War I: A World Undone by G.J. Meyer. A World Undone is a long book, but a very readable one. Meyer has organized the book chronologically; six parts cover the pre-war period and each of the five years of the war. Each part is broken up into a number of chapters with each but the last chapter of each part being followed with a “Background” section. The background sections are quite useful; they provide information on subjects like personalities, cultural groups, and technologies that might not fit well into the narrative chapters but provide further understanding of the war.
I would readily suggest this book to anyone that is interested in reading about World War I but doesn’t have much prior knowledge of it. Having read The First World War by John Keegan and Hew Strachan’s The First World War, I wish I would have read Meyer’s book first. In my mind it is a much simpler read and would make for a better introduction to the war before reading the other two books. Instead of covering one theater of the war then another, jumping around in time Meyer covers the war in chronological order. This makes it easier to understand how what was happening on one front impacted how the war was being fought on another. Neither does Meyer get bogged down into technical details about battles or weaponry. He generally keeps unit discussions at the Army level but no lower than Division level. He also keeps weapon terminology general; referring to rifles, tanks, artillery, etc. rather than referring to specific manufacturers or models that some readers. Rather than getting into the detail of what happened, Meyer deals more with why something happened and what the follow on effect was. He also does a good job of dealing with who made things happen, getting into the personalities of the political and military leaders and the relationships between them. The end result is not a book that describes the details of the war but describes the dynamics of the war from the dysfunction that was the roots of the war through the combat to the dysfunction that followed the war.
As much as I enjoyed A World Undone, I thought it had three shortcomings. It deals with the Western and Eastern Fronts as well as Gallipoli but only mentions the Middle Eastern front in passing and barely mentions the African front. Given the impact the war had on modern Middle Eastern history in particular (the roots of many current problems areas can be found in the division of the Middle East after WW1); Meyer certainly could have spent more time on them. With the exception of the submarine war, the book also shortchanges the Naval War; battles such as the Heligoland Bight and Jutland are mentioned in passing as are naval leaders. The post-war actions of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow aren’t even mentioned! The Air war also receives passing mention. Given the huge technological changes in aviation during the five year span of the war and the changes military aviation brought to the battlefield, the air war deserves more attention. That said, keeping things short on these topics kept the book from becoming longer than what it is. With the exception of the war in Africa, there is also enough mention to whet one’s appetite for more information these topics, which is exactly what an introductory book should do.
I read the Kindle version of the book and my biggest gripe is one that doesn’t affect the printed versions. The maps in the Kindle version are simply unreadable and therefore useless. The poor resolution of the maps make it hard to take what you’re reading, combine it with the maps and develop a mental image of movements and geographical ebb and flow of the war. To be honest, at times it came close to ruining the read. Quite simply, if you are going to read this book, don’t buy the Kindle version, buy an old fashioned printed version.
Other than the map issue, I thoroughly enjoyed reading A World Undone and recommend it as a good starting point for anyone that wants to start learning about World War 1. After reading this book, it would be easier to follow other books such as Keegan’s and Strachan’s and it might even make you want to move on to other books such as Robert Massie’s Castles of Steel (if you wanted to learn more about the WW1 Naval war). Overall, I would give the book a 4 out of 5 but the map issue reduces the Kindle version to a 3 out of 5.