A World Undone: Read it. It’s Good. (or I Suck At Writing Titles)

Note: So this is a change of pace for the blog, from all the talk about games, game music, and even anime. But honestly, I always wanted this blog to be a general topic one. I intentionally segmented it from 100 Days Of Megashock! for that very reason. It’s just that as it turns out, all I wrote about so far was on games, game music, and anime because, well, most of my activities are games and some anime. Anyway, onto the topic.

Books. I don’t read a lot of them, not as much as I should. The number of books I have ever read can be counted on two hands (and most of them were probably for school/college work). I want to read more. It’s just that I’m encumbered by the huge amount of games, movies, tv shows, and other, more accessible, lazier types of media (or worse, sleep).

Books, while non-interactive, are not really passive, not only because the reading itself needs ample attention, but because you can’t read a book while doing something else. This may sound like an audible ad but I went with “audiobooks” so that I can “read” while doing other stuff, like driving to & from work, and while working, or waiting in line at a subway, eating at a subway, you get the point.

Why history? Why World War I? Why this book in specific? Honestly, this was all just happenstance. I was tired of listening to gaming and comedy podcasts and wanted to listen to something else. I learned about Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, which at the moment is covering World War I. So I listened to it and really enjoyed it. And then in one of the Audible ad bumpers, he suggested A World Undone as a good introductory book on World War I. I listened to all 28 hours of it, liked it, and thus decided to write something about it. Call it a review or just some random musings about it. So here we are.

As you probably know, World War I was a huge deal, to put it lightly. It’s a war that encompassed most of the World (specifically the old world, with Europe, Asia, and Africa. But mainly Europe), involving several nations across many fronts for 4 long years, killing millions, and affecting many more. It’s a magnanimous event that violently erased the old era for the modern one. The war involved the empires (yes, empires) of Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungry, Russia, and the Ottoman empire. By the end of the war, only the British empire remained. The rest were disbanded as a direct consequence of the war, or as the final finishing blow to a decades-long downward trajectory (or with the Ottoman empire, centuries long). In a pure numerical sense, World War I did not have as many total casualties as World War II, nor did it last as long, but the end of the war itself had an immense contribution in setting up the ground for the Second World War within the years between (which was around 20 years, a short time considering how huge of an event both world wars had). Germany’s loss and settlement for peace at the end of The Great War created a “stab-in-the-back” myth,  in which the belief was that Germany would have never lost if not due to the betrayal of inside agents. This belief was used by the Nazi regime as propaganda.

Obviously, World War I is a massive topic in history, but author G. J. Meyer tries to present a comprehensive view of the war in A World Undone. And for the most part, he succeeds. I now have a clear understanding of the proceedings that lead to the war (from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, all the way to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919). I learned about the main figures of the war on all sides, from Gavrilo Princip, Franz Ferdinand’s assassin, to Winston Churchill, who pushed for the development of what would become the modern armored vehicle (which were kept secret from the public by hiding them under sheets and claiming that those big round objects were just “water tanks”, hence why they are called “Tanks” today), to Erich von Ludendorff, the German commander in the army for most of the war, responsible for Germany’s biggest military successes in Belgium and the Eastern front, but was also responsible for exhausting Germany’s resources towards the latter half of the war, ultimately leading Germany to have no option but to succumb to peace talks with the Allied forces, an option Ludendorff fought against right until his reassignment in October 1918, mere weeks before the whole war officially ended. An edifying experience, certainly.

A British Mark I tank. The oval shape of the hull makes them look sort of like water tanks (especially when covered with a tarp), which is exactly what the British officials claimed these odd-looking machines were.

I just have a few problems with the book. I can’t really call them criticisms because part of the issue falls on what actually happened in the war.

You see, World War I is a war of stalemate, specifically in the western front between Germany and France. For nearly the length of the war,  the front was ablaze with an innumerable amount of battles, leading to hundreds of thousands of casualties, most leading to very little military gains, gains that would then be taken back by the opposing side soon after. One day, Germany executes an offensive to take one part of France. The next, the Entente force takes back that same land in a counter-offensive. And It goes on and on, year after year, with no big changes. And that is reflected on a part of A World Undone, an honestly not-that-interesting part. I suppose that itself is one of the sad tragedy of The Great War, that so many people were pushed by their leaders to throw away their lives at machine gun fire (or face getting shot by their own commanders if they disobey), all for naught, a lesson that remained unlearned by very rigid, very arrogant generals on all sides of the conflict. That’s just the nature of trench warfare.

However, there were some generals who understood that such tactics were not only disregardful to the value of human life, but was also tactically deficient. Australian General John Monash understood that, and he attempted to change the thought process of how to properly use infantry in this new era of war, an era that introduced the machine gun fire and artillery on a massive scale. And one that, at least for the first year or so, predated technological inventions that could counter such defensives, like tanks, or airplane bombing (though airplanes were used during the war but mainly for reconnaissance),  or even advanced mobile radio communication. Monash proclaimed in his book “The Australian victories in France in 1918” on the role of infantry, that rather then throw infantry at a hail of open machine gun fire and artillery, that infantry should advance under the solid protection of ally machinery, everything from machine guns to tanks to artillery to airplanes, all working in coordination. This Military thinking is what lead to Germany’s defeat in the Battle Of Amiens on August 8th, 1918, a defeat that lead Germans to believe that the war is lost, “the black day of the German Army”, as Ludenforff would call it.

General Sir John Monash of The Australian Army

But there were also plenty of personal stories from people who fought in the war in A World Undone, about a soldier’s daily life on the trenches, or about a civilian living in the warring states. The book veers a bit on the political and grand military side of the war, which I suppose is necessary if the goal is to recall the whole war from start to end. And there may have been not enough time to delve into each personal recounting of the war in-depth. But the stories that are in are very interesting, and always harrowing. They do a great job contrasting the somewhat cold and distanced talks of military and political strategy, about army divisions, planned offensives, and political parties  by showing the true hellish nature of the fronts in a clear manner.

The audiobook was read by Robin Sachs, an English actor known for appearing in a few movies in the 1990s like The Lost World: Jurrasic Park, and for appearing in the Babylon 5 series. He passed away last year sadly, but his most recent work was actually in Video Game Voiceover. He does a good job reading the book, differentiating his voice clearly when speaking as certain historical figures. Although parts of it can get quite monotonous, partially because the book covers a lot of those unending offensives and defensives that don’t lead to much (aside from more casualties), which after a while start to sound the same. Again, this may sound almost disrespectful, belittling all the countless lives lost during those offenses, but this is just a reflection of the way the war was, and how it treated those fighting in the different fronts. World War I was monotonous.

So yeah, if you want to read about one of the biggest conflicts in human history, one that shaped the modern world, and the one directly leading to World War II, the biggest conflict in human history, then G. J. Meyer’s A World Undone is a great read.

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