Summary: A history of an incredibly tragic and costly war.
One of the things I love about reading is learning about things that I know almost nothing about. European history is one of those areas. So I picked up A World Undone as an audiobook during a sale late last year. This is not a small book (816 pages or 28 hours in audio) and I split it in half, listening to the first half, then finishing a couple other books before returning to finish it.
A detailed history book like this is hard to review. I am not adequate to evaluate the history (although it seems to be well regarded.) There were long battle scenes that were difficult to understand (and I frequently consulted maps to see what was being talked about.) But overall, A World Undone is a very readable overview of a huge and important war. It did not take long for me to realize that much of my little knowledge of the war was wrong. So what follows is really just some thoughts that I had about the book and the war.
It is incredible to me how large the standing militaries were prior to the war and how quickly (and how large) the drafts were. Russia alone started with well over 1 million troops. Tiny little Belgium had more than 100,000 troops before anything started. At the height of the war individual battles had nearly 1 million troops on each side.
The supply and armament logistics were enormous. Literally thousands of tons of supplies were needed daily. There was an estimate that a single day of one particular battle used more bullets and artillery shells than all previous wars world wide combined.
This book is full of the small details. For instance Winston Churchill was the driving force behind the development of tanks. And they were called tanks because of fear that Germans would hear of their development. So the British intentionally put out the rumor that they were mobile water carriers for front line troops (Water Tanks).
But the focus is on the big story. And if there is a big story it is that World War I was unlike anything that had ever been fought before. There was a movement away from placing people in control of armies because of rank or nobility and a movement toward competence. (Not at all completely, there were more than several cases of competent leaders being replaced because of personality differences or petty jealousy, but the movement was started.) There was also a movement toward technology more than sheer numbers of troops. Use of planes, tanks, huge artillery, submarines, improved communications tools, etc., all played major roles in the war. But in the end it was really the numbers that mattered. The enormous numbers of troops meant that management was on a completely different scale than anything that had occurred previously.
A common theme of pretty much all of my limited military history is that commanders are often stuck in fighting the last war and not the current war. Previous wars were about two large armies coming toward each other and holding ground. But the ground holding tactics were disastrous in this war. Literally hundreds of thousands of men died without any real military objective being defined let alone achieved. It was not until late in the war the German officers started understanding the role of prepared retreats. Drawing the Allied forces into traps with well defended positions could have been used to a much greater extent, especially by French commanders. Over and over again it seems that the war was extended not for military reasons but for poor political ones.
I read history to influence my understanding of today as well as understand what happened in the past. Every war history I have read reiterates the fact that incompetent people at the top mean incompetent armies. And somehow there always seem to be incompetent leaders in places of major power.
Another modern lesson is that propaganda is dangerous to your own side. In WWI there was a lot of poor information. This was not all intentional. The French and British seemed incapable of honestly telling their own governments about the real numbers of losses let alone honestly reporting their opponent’s losses. Some of it was poor records and saving face and bad communications. But much of it was pure propaganda. When you tell your own people that you are winning. And you tell your people that the other side are perpetrating horrible war crimes then it makes it difficult to come to a negotiated peace. And in the case of WWI, there should have been a negotiated peace long before the actual end of WWI. But leaders feared their people because the people actually believed much of what was told to them (which was often wrong.)
Leaders also feared ending a war at a stalemate. Approximately 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians died (not including an additional 20 million wounded). And it was enormously expensive. In 1918 dollars the estimate is that WWI cost over $185 Billion on all sides (roughly $2.8 Trillion in today’s dollars). And that is only the direct costs, not the lost due to infrastructure, loss of earnings due to death or dismemberment, future medical or pension costs or other indirect costs. So leaders did not want to end a war without anything to show for it because it was so enormously expensive in lives and dollars.
Many Individual countries had even larger losses than average. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was effectively destroyed with 1 out of every 50 people dying in the war. Relatively minor countries like Romania and Serbia both had more soldiers killed than the United States. It certainly possible that Russia would not have been taken over by communists if it were not for the war (and communists opportunistic seeking of peace.)
War is horrible. Modern warfare is fought with relatively small numbers of soldiers. And it is horrible. But the descriptions of the slaughter of soldiers was graphic enough that I had to occasionally put the book down. Our ability to romanticize war certainly seems odd in the face of real history like this.