World War I is a topic I was fairly ignorant of a few weeks ago, even though I lived my entire life in Kansas City. KC is the site of our nation’s premiere museum and monument to that war. It’s not a war that my generation has an easy grasp of – I grew up during the 70s and 80s when the boomers were (and still are) trying to deal with the Vietnam War, so its images constantly flooded movie theaters and television sets. Likewise, WWII was an easy war to grasp for me. The good guys and bad guys were clearly defined. The good guys were us, while the bad guys included the nut in the funny mustache who tried to take over the world and put people he didn’t like in concentration camps.
World War One existed farther back, over the horizon, murky and ill-defined. I had images of doughboys wearing gas masks in trenches surrounded by barbed wire – along with Snoopy getting shot up by the Red Baron, that was pretty much about it. I recently decided to rectify this and to fill the void in my personal and historical knowledge.
Finding the right book was, oddly enough, a tough go. After a few attempts with some others, I happened across A World Undone by G.J. Meyer, who is not a historian, or even an academic, but a journalist. That distinction helped a bunch, I think, as Meyer approaches the book not trying to frame the war in any sort of grand, sweeping statement, but in a just-the-facts-ma’am manner. Meyer has no judgment he’s making, no point of view to defend or shoehorn facts into. He just spends his time telling us the story of the war, and makes something as incredibly complex as World War One into something graspable and understandable.
Meyer doesn’t assume the reader already has intimate knowledge of the facts and players involved, so he goes into much-needed background of some of the major decisions, explaining why those decisions were made. Chapter interstitials go into a brief, casual history of some aspect of the war – the Romanov dynasty, the Ottoman Empire, trench warfare, Kaiser Willhelm – giving you enough information to explain why people did what they did, why they made those decisions, without ever overloading you, dispensing information efficiently and engagingly. There’s only so much even a talented writer like Meyer can do, as the war, at several points, turns into a series of failed offensives, both sides bogged down in a lethal stalemate, and the deaths mount to horrendous heights.
Granted, it’s not a small book – take a look at some of the other WWI books at your library sometime, most will easily put the Yellow Pages to shame – but for those with an interest in the era, it’s an excellent introduction.