- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 12, 2006


By G. J. Meyer

Delacorte Press, $28,

704 pages


On a midnight vessel out of Yalta some years ago, I stood on deck surrounded by darkness, until suddenly in the far distance I began to see a light, shining not at the ship, but a beam rising until at last it was a blinding circle of light in the sky.

It was a stable, round shaft of light with absolutely nothing else in view. But as I watched it growing, slowly it dawned on me where we must be, and what the light was: A memorial to all the men who were killed in battles at the Dardanelles and Gallipoli in World War I. As the ship slid silently past the light the captain sounded a horn, recognizing heroism of long ago.

All of this came back to me in these later years as I picked up G.J. Meyer’s thundering, magnificent new book, “A World Undone.” For all the pages, all the history crammed into this incredible work, it is the first genuine World War I history since Barbara Tuchman’s splendid epic, “The Guns of August.”

“A World Undone” does not wait until August to begin. We are quickly introduced to all the major characters, from Russian royalty to British prime ministers, to military leaders from Germany and England and Austria and Italy, along with French politicians and their opponents. There are 111 major characters cited and identified.

As it says on the fly-leaf, “The First World War is one of history’s greatest tragedies. In this remarkable account, author G.J. Meyer draws on exhaustive research to bring to life the story of how the Great War reduced Europe’s mightiest empires to rubble, killed 20 million people and cracked the foundation of the world we live in today.”

As most of us already know, on a summer day in 1914, a 19-year-old Serbian nationalist gunned down the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was visiting Sarajevo. In less than five weeks, while the world slumbered, came an avalanche of ambition, deceit, fear, jealousy and missed opportunities. During that time, Austro-Hungarian troops marched into Serbia, German troops streamed toward Paris, and a vast Russian Army plunged into war with England as its ally.

With crowds cheering their armies on, no one could guess what lay ahead: four long years of deadlock and slaughter, physical and moral exhaustion and, finally, the near collapse of a civilization that until 1914 had dominated the globe.

Even within the belligerent countries, politicians and generals fought bitterly over how to end the stalemates, and government after government fell. The book in hand shows that when it was over, a new era of total war had begun, and the stage had been set for the 20th-century’s long list of catastrophes.

Mr. Meyer tells us some things, teaches others — that the Romans, for example, would not have been surprised to learn that a great battle took place at Verdun, two millennia after they had turned it into a strong fort, a military center and a base to which they could withdraw whenever necessary. Thus, says Mr. Meyer, “Verdun’s whole history has been written in blood. France and Germany had met there some 1,200 years ago, 1,200 years of struggle over territories and the Rhine River — all at Verdun.”

During the Battle of Verdun, the Germans had almost total air control but failed to make use of their opportunities.

We listen carefully as the Germans make proposals to Mexico to permit unrestricted submarine warfare as an effort to keep the United States neutral. Americans, meanwhile, listened carefully for invitations for peace, but none were heard.

The photograph of German soldiers advancing over ground packed with shell holes is a stunning illustration of war. The photograph of French troops, taken prisoner, being marched to the rear by their German captors is equally impressive. There is a photo of the Russian negotiator, Leon Trotsky, giving up his dealings with the enemy. Even Corporal Hitler, winner of two Iron Crosses, faces the camera.

By contrast, one may also find the dashing figure of General Douglas MacArthur, facing us and exuding a confidence that he can do anything whatsoever that might be needed.

This is a book of true greatness that prompts moments of sheer joy and pleasure. It is researched to the last possible dot, and one hopes it may be read, understood and appreciated as the story of how the war affected the shattering events that were to come.

One thing is certain. It will earn generations of admirers.

Ambassador Robert M. Smalley (Ret.) was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

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