A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918

A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918

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by G. J. Meyer

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The First World War is one of history’s greatest tragedies. In this remarkable and intimate 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 twenty million people, and cracked the foundations of the world we live in today.

The First World War


The First World War is one of history’s greatest tragedies. In this remarkable and intimate 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 twenty million people, and cracked the foundations of the world we live in today.

The First World War is one of history’s greatest tragedies. In this remarkable and intimate 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 twenty million people, and cracked the foundations of the world we live in today.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A World Undone is an original and very readable account of one of the most significant and often misunderstood events of the last century. With an historians eye for clear headed analysis and a storytellers talent for detail and narrative, G.J Meyer presents a compelling account of the blunders that produced the world's first "great war" and set the stage for many of the tragic events that followed." —Steve Gillon, Resident Historian, The History Channel

"This is one of those books where you read every page.... Meyer organizes his book chronologically, and accompanies each chapter with a short background essay.... [A World Undone] has the very best qualities for this kind of comprehensive approach: a gift for compression and an eye for the telling detail." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“A comprehensive history aimed at the general reader....You finish this book feeling you’ve learned everything anyone reasonably needs to know about The Great War.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“Meyer breathes life into the human story within the Great War. He provides in-depth profiles of many of the political and military leaders of that era, and explains why they were so important....This is a literary vision of WWI that few of us have ever encountered. Simply put, this is historical reporting at its best.” —Smoky Mountain Sentinel

“Thundering, magnificent...this is a book of true greatness that prompts moments of sheer joy and pleasure. Researched to last possible dot...It will earn generations of admirers.” —Washington Times

"Especially suited for the interested American reader…. Meyer's sketches of the British Cabinet, the Russian Empire, the aging Austro-Hungarian Empire, the leaders of Prussia with their newly minted swagger, are lifelike and plausible. His account of the tragic folly of Gallipoli is masterful…. It should go without saying that in 2006 … [A World Undone] has an instructive value that can scarely be measured."—Los Angeles Times

"Accomplished with brio... [Meyer] blends 'foreground, background, and sidelights' to highlight the complex interactions of apparently unconnected events behind the four-year catastrophic war that destroyed a world and defined a century."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

Publishers Weekly
Meyer sets out to integrate the war's discrete elements into a single work of popular history and delivers a worthy counterpoint to Hew Strachan's magisterial three-volume scholarly project, The First World War. A journalist and author (Executive Blues), Meyer doesn't offer original synthesis or analysis, but he does bring a clear, economical style to the war's beginnings; the gridlock produced by the successes and failures of both sides; the divided military and political counsels that hobbled efforts at resolving operational and diplomatic stalemates; and above all the constant carnage, on a scale that staggers the imagination. Meyer provides brief, useful background on subjects from the Armenian genocide to the Alsace-Lorraine question-topics he considers crucial to an understanding of the war, but too cursorily explained in most popular histories. Correspondingly, he blends "foreground, background, and sidelights" to highlight the complex interactions of apparently unconnected events behind the four-year catastrophic war that destroyed a world and defined a century. Constructing a readable, coherent text in that format is a demanding challenge, accomplished with brio. (May 30) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This narrative history of the Great War by independent scholar Meyer (The Memphis Murders) fits into the recent historiographical trend of devoting increased attention to events outside of Western Europe. He tells the story with an interesting narrative twist: chapters on specific events are followed by "background" sections that detail a case study or theme that helps illuminate the major events of that chapter. For example, Meyer examines the significance of anti-Semitism and the place of Jews in German society since emancipation in a background piece after Chapter 22 on events in 1916. This innovative method has a number of advantages: readers not interested, for instance, in the sometimes tedious details of such matters as dynastic politics can stick to the main chapters, which usually focus on the quest for victory. It also, however, risks stripping the action of much of the historical context necessary for understanding developments (e.g., British commanders are discussed in a background section to Chapter 11). While Meyer has done a laudable job for general readers, his book does not offer specialists any new insights. Recommended for public libraries.-Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

June 28:
The Black Hand Descends

"It's nothing. It's nothing."
—Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Thirty-four long, sweet summer days separated the morning of June 28, when the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was shot to death, from the evening of August 1, when Russia's foreign minister and Germany's ambassador to Russia fell weeping into each other's arms and what is rightly called the Great War began.

On the morning when the drama opened, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was making an official visit to the city of Sarajevo in the province of Bosnia, at the southernmost tip of the Austro-Hungarian domains. He was a big, beefy man, a career soldier whose intelligence and strong will usually lay concealed behind blunt, impassive features and eyes that, at least in his photographs, often seemed cold and strangely empty. He was also the eldest nephew of the Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph and therefore—the emperor's only son having committed suicide—heir to the imperial crown. He had come to Bosnia in his capacity as inspector general of the Austro-Hungarian armies, to observe the summer military exercises, and he had brought his wife, Sophie, with him. The two would be observing their fourteenth wedding anniversary later in the week, and Franz Ferdinand was using this visit to put Sophie at the center of things, to give her a little of the recognition she was usually denied.

Back in the Hapsburg capital of Vienna, Sophie was, for the wife of a prospective emperor, improbably close to being a nonperson. At the turn of the century the emperor had forbidden Franz Ferdinand to marry her. She was not of royal lineage, was in fact a mere countess, the daughter of a noble but impoverished Czech family. As a young woman, she had been reduced by financial need to accepting employment as lady-in-waiting to an Austrian archduchess who entertained hopes of marrying her own daughter to Franz Ferdinand. All these things made Sophie, according to the rigid protocols of the Hapsburg court, unworthy to be an emperor's consort or a progenitor of future rulers. The accidental discovery that she and Franz Ferdinand were conducting a secret if chaste romance—that he had been regularly visiting the archduchess's palace not to court her daughter but to see a lowly and thirtyish member of the household staff—sparked outrage, and Sophie had to leave her post. But Franz Ferdinand continued to pursue her. In his youth he had had a long struggle with tuberculosis, and perhaps his survival had left him determined to live his private life on his own terms. Uninterested in any of the young women who possessed the credentials to become his bride, he had remained single into his late thirties. The last two years of his bachelorhood turned into a battle of wills with his uncle the emperor over the subject of Sophie Chotek.

Franz Joseph finally tired of the deadlock and gave his consent. What he consented to, however, was a morganatic marriage, one that would exclude Sophie's descendants from the succession. And so on June 28, 1900, fourteen years to the day before his visit to Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand appeared as ordered in the Hapsburg monarchy's Secret Council Chamber. In the presence of the emperor, the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, the Primate of Hungary, all the government's principal ministers, and all the other Hapsburg archdukes, he solemnly renounced the Austro-Hungarian throne on behalf of any children that he and Sophie might have and any descendants of those children. (Sophie was thirty-two, which in those days made her an all but hopeless spinster.) When the wedding took place three days later, only Franz Ferdinand's mother and sister, out of the whole huge Hapsburg family, attended. Even Franz Ferdinand's brothers, the eldest of whom was a notorious libertine, self-righteously stayed away. The marriage turned out to be a happy one all the same, in short order producing a daughter and two sons whom the usually stiff Franz Ferdinand loved so unreservedly that he would play with them on the floor in the presence of astonished visitors. But at court Sophie was relentlessly snubbed. She was not permitted to ride with her husband in royal processions or to sit near him at state dinners. She could not even join him in his box at the opera. When he, as heir, led the procession at court balls, she was kept far back, behind the lowest ranking of the truly royal ladies.

But here in Bosnia, a turbulent border province, the rules of Vienna could be set aside. Here in Sarajevo, Franz Ferdinand and Sophie could appear together in public as royal husband and wife. It was a rare experience, and they were enjoying it as much as any pair of small-town shopkeepers on their first vacation in years. They were staying in the nearby seaside resort town of Bad Ilidz, and on Saturday they had browsed the local antique markets. They had started Sunday with mass in an improvised chapel at their hotel, after which the archduke sent a telegram to the children, Sophie, Max, and Ernst. Momma and Poppa were well, the wire said. Momma and Poppa were looking forward to getting home on Tuesday.

And now on this brilliant morning, the air crisp and clear after a week of rain and chill, the streets lined with people some of whom cheered and some of whom merely looked on in silence, Sophie was seated beside the archduke in an open car as they rode toward the town hall. They looked less imperial than like characters out of a comic opera: an overweight middle-aged pair, Franz Ferdinand faintly ridiculous in an ornate military headpiece and a field marshal's tunic that stretched too tight across his ample torso, Sophie's plump face smiling cheerily under a broad bonnet and the dainty parasol that, even in the moving car, she held above her head.

Suddenly there was a loud crack: the sound, as police investigators would later determine, of the percussion cap on a Serbian-made pocket bomb being struck against a lamppost. A small dark object was seen flying through the air: the bomb, thrown by someone in the crowd. It was on target, but the driver of the royal car saw it coming and accelerated, so that it fell inches behind the archduke and his wife. Franz Ferdinand too saw it, swung at it with his arm, and deflected it farther to the rear. It exploded with a shattering noise as the car sped off, damaging the next vehicle in the procession and injuring several people. A tiny fragment of shrapnel grazed Sophie's neck.

In the crowds along the route of the motorcade that day were six young men who had traveled to Sarajevo for the purpose of killing the archduke. Five of them, including the one who had thrown the bomb, were Bosnian Serb teenagers—youths born and raised in Bosnia but of Serbian descent. All five were sick with tuberculosis, curiously enough, and all were members of Young Bosnia, a radical patriotic organization linked to and supported by a deeply secret Serb nationalist group formally called Union or Death but known to its members as the Black Hand. Though the Black Hand had been active for years, Austria-Hungary's intelligence services still knew nothing of its existence. Its purpose was the expansion of the Kingdom of Serbia, a smallish and ambitious young country adjacent to Bosnia, so that all the Serbs of the Balkans could be united. Its ultimate goal was the creation of a Greater Serbia that would include Bosnia, and its members were prepared to use terrorism to achieve that goal. The assassins of June 28 had been assembled just across the border in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, armed with bombs and Belgian revolvers, and slipped into Sarajevo well in advance of the archduke's arrival.

June 28, as it happened, was an awkward day for a Hapsburg to be visiting Bosnia. It was St. Vitus Day, which for more than five hundred years had been an occasion of mourning for the Serbs. On St. Vitus Day in 1389 a Serbian kingdom that had flourished through the Middle Ages was defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo, on the so-called Field of Blackbirds. The Serb army was not merely vanquished but slaughtered. Soon afterward the kingdom ceased to exist. The Serbs became subjects—slaves, really—of their savagely harsh Turkish conquerors. Kosovo was avenged in 1912, when the Turks were driven out of the Balkans at last, but it would never be forgotten—certainly not while so many Serbs were still under alien rule. There could be no better day than this one to strike a blow against the oppressors—which now meant a blow against the Hapsburgs, the Turks being gone from the scene.

Between the throwing of the bomb and the motorcade's arrival at the town hall, the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and Sophie drove past three more members of the gang. They were armed but did nothing. Later two of them, after being arrested, made excuses for their failure to act. The third, probably the most truthful, said he had lost his nerve.

After a standard ceremonial welcome—the mayor, absurdly, didn't deviate from a script declaring that everyone in Sarajevo honored the archduke and was delighted by this visit—Franz Ferdinand announced a change in his itinerary. He insisted on going to the hospital where the people injured by the bomb had been taken. It was the right Hapsburg gesture, a demonstration of concern for servants of the crown. Franz Ferdinand asked Sophie to stay behind, out of any possible danger. She refused, saying that her place was with him. This did not seem reckless. The military governor of Bosnia, who was riding in the same car with the couple that morning, had already declared his confidence that there would be no further trouble. If he knew anything about the Serb fanatics, he said, it was that they were capable of only one assassination attempt per day.

The motorcade set out once again. The route originally planned by the authorities was still cleared of traffic, and the lead driver mistakenly took it rather than the road to the hospital. The others followed. They passed still another would-be assassin, but he too did nothing. When the governor, seated in front of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, discovered that they were going the wrong way, he ordered their driver to stop. The driver brought the car to a halt, shifted gears, and prepared to turn around. By a coincidence that has reverberated down the decades, he had stopped less than five feet from Gavrilo Princip, nineteen years old, the one remaining member of the assassination gang and its leader. Princip pulled out his revolver, pointed it at the stopped car, and fired twice.

Husband and wife remained upright and calm in their seats. The governor, seeing no signs of injury and thinking that they must have escaped harm, shouted again at the driver, telling him to turn around.

Suddenly a thin stream of blood came spurting out of Franz Ferdinand's mouth.

"For heaven's sake!" cried Sophie. "What's happened to you?" Then she slumped over, her head falling between her husband's knees. The military governor thought she had fainted, but somehow the archduke knew better.

"Sophie dear, Sophie dear, don't die!" he called. "Stay alive for our children!" Other members of the party surrounded him, struggling to open his tunic to see where he had been shot. "It's nothing," he told them weakly. "It's nothing."

Gavrilo Princip meanwhile tried to shoot himself in the head but was stopped by a member of the crowd. In the struggle that followed, he managed to swallow his vial of the cyanide that all the members of the gang had been given. The cyanide was old: it would make him vomit but not kill him. He was quickly captured.

Within minutes Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were both dead. (Princip, in prison, would express regret at Sophie's death, which he had not intended; the bullet that killed her had passed through the door of the car before striking her in the groin and severing an artery.) The news caused a sensation, of course, but there was little sense of crisis. In Vienna the eighty-three-year-old emperor, Franz Joseph, seemed almost grateful when he heard. He had long regarded Franz Ferdinand as a nuisance, not only because of the marriage problem but also because of the archduke's unpleasantly advanced ideas. (He had even wanted, ironically, to give the Hapsburgs' Slavic subjects, the Bosnian Serbs included, a voice in the governance of the empire.) Apparently Franz Joseph believed at first that the Sarajevo murders had simplified things, had even put them right. "A higher power," his private secretary would remember him saying, "has re-established the order which I, alas, could not preserve."

Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, when he learned of the assassination, ended his sailing vacation off the coast of Norway and headed for home. He did so more because he and the archduke had been friends than because he foresaw an emergency; he and his wife had been guests at Franz Ferdinand and Sophie's country estate just weeks before.

From his royal yacht the Standart, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia declared three weeks of mourning in honor of the slain archduke. Beyond that he showed little interest; he had other things on his mind. His ten-year-old only son had a few days earlier twisted his ankle in jumping aboard the Standart for a family cruise in the Gulf of Finland. The injury activated the hemophilia that the boy had inherited from his mother, who in turn had inherited it from her grandmother, Queen Victoria of England. By June 28 he was in intense pain from internal bleeding. His parents, not for the first time and not for the last, feared for his survival.

The murders aroused little interest in Britain and France. Both countries were focused on other stories, London on a crisis over Ireland, Paris on a sensational murder trial that combined sex with political scandal. And assassinations were not unusual in those days. In the two decades before 1914, presidents of the United States, France, Mexico, Guatemala, Uruguay, and the Dominican Republic had been murdered. So had prime ministers of Russia, Spain, Greece, Bulgaria, Persia, and Egypt, and kings, queens, and empresses of Austria, Italy, Serbia, Portugal, and Greece. People had grown accustomed to such things and to expecting that their consequences would not be terribly serious.

Across the Atlantic in the United States, yet another killing of people no one had ever heard of in a place no one had ever heard of could hardly have seemed less important. President Woodrow Wilson had only somewhat more interest in European affairs than most of his fellow citizens, though he was inclined to believe that he might be the man to enlighten the Old World and save it from its foolish ways. During the summer his personal emissary, a Texan who styled himself "Colonel" Edward House despite never having served in any military capacity, spent two months visiting the capitals of the great powers and conferring with some of their most important men. "My purpose," House confided to his diary, perhaps somewhat smugly, "was to plant the seeds of peace." What he found, he reported to Wilson, was "militarism run stark mad. Unless someone acting for you [it is not difficult to guess who he thought that someone might be] can bring about a different understanding, there is some day to be an awful cataclysm."

Meet the Author

G. J. Meyer is a professional writer whose bylines have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, Harper’s, and many other newspapers and magazines. While working for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship by Harvard University. He is the author of two nonfiction books, The Memphis Murders, recipient of an Edgar Award for Nonfiction, and Executive Blues. Meyer lives in New York City.

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World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The book offers perspectives from all the important stakeholders of WWI in an impartial manner. The comprehensive overview helps the reader understand why the war happened, why it could have been avoided, and why it was so tragic for so many people. The author does a good job of depicting the political and military egos involved, and the reader can learn many lessons about war strategy, good or bad. May future generations avoid these terrible miscalculations!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have previously read many books about the First World War. Nevertheless, his book included many interesting stories and anecdotes that I had never read before. Very well written and easy to read. The background chapters on key figures added greatly to the story. History buffs (like myself) will enjoy this book.
glauver More than 1 year ago
Meyer is very good at picking telling anecdotes to illustrate the horror of the conflict. One that stands out is the incident of the French soldiers bleating like sheep as they were forced into another hopeless attack at Verdun. This may not be the final word on WW1 but it is a fine account for the general reader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a remarkable book. It not only clarified the politics and issues that led to WWI, it provided clear eyed view of a period in which Europe and much of the world was unevenly moving away from age old empires toward today's modern nations. It was a pleasure to read.
JCMars More than 1 year ago
A really fantastic overview of the war, with helpful mini-chapters to fill in backstory and provide insight into major players. It was a breeze to read and wove a compelling and readable narrative out of the many conflicts and events that took place. I read this as my first real foray into reading about WWI and came away feeling that I was equipped with both greater knowledge and curiosity about the subject.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you want to understand WWI and know little more than what is taught in today's dismal public schools, this is the book to read. A single assassination engaged a bizarre set of interlocking forces to start a senseless war. In this case, 'senseless' is not pacifist hyperbole. WWI was entirely hollow of reason. This book explains the fine details while reviewing the important trends and histories of that time. After reading the book you'll know that 100 years ago, mobilizing for war was the same as going to war. You will know that only Austria wanted a war. You will realize that Germany was the last European country to mobilize and the primary beligerent, Austria, was the most inept and first to give up. It is often written that WWI sowed the seeds of WWII. The reader will learn just why that is true. The only fault I can find with A World Undone is that in addressing an entire war in a relatively small number of pages, the human impact is missed among the macro events. A small nit.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Even though the book is non-fiction it is so well written and full of insight that you just keep turning the pages to see what's next even though you know how the story ends.
TopMyCat More than 1 year ago
This summer marks 100 years since the start of this horrific war. It altered Western history in profound ways. I was looking for a book ghat woild be accessible and help me understnand how such a war was possible. A World Undone met what I was looking for. It reads like a novel, moves quickly, and explains the complexity of the events leading to war. I came to understand the key players and their motivations, characters, and human flaws. Well worth reading.
55T-Bird More than 1 year ago
For an overview of the war from start to finish, including causes and consequences, this is an essential book.  G.J. Meyer presents the conflict without obvious bias to either side which allows the reader to evaluate the facts and really understand why this conflict is so important in the scheme of world events.  I found myself sympathizing with all of the belligerents as they fought on while trying to make sense of the chaos and the dying.  This war changed the whole world and its impact continues to resonate today; this book will help the general reader understand why. As an added note, this is the second “overview” book that I have read by G.J. Meyer (also read The Tudors).  He does an excellent job of writing overviews of a particular era.  My wish would be that one day he would take on WW2 in similar fashion.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have long been fascinated by World War I but most people today know little about the conflict nor is it well covered in high schools or colleges anymore. One of the problems is that almost every book on World War I assumes the reader knows about World War I and the history of Europe at the time. Unfortunately, today, almost 9 decades since the end of WWI, nearly every veteran and person alive during the war has died and the general knowledge is just not out there for most books on WWI to be easily read by a nonstudent of Great War history. That is why this book is such a great addition to WWI literature. It is written in a very readable style that provides an excellent overview of almost every aspect of the Great War but also provides enough background material of European history that someone who knows very little about WWI will not get lost and will learn a great deal. The WWI specialist will not find any great new insight here, but a general reader who wants to learn more about a neglected period of important history will come away with a great understanding of WWI and how it contributed to WWII and the war on terrorism of today.
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This is one of the best historical books you could ever read. Just read it. You won't be disappointed.
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After reading this insightful tome, I can understand more clearly why the current world is so messed up politically. Between deception and complete ignorance on the par3t of many world leaders prior to, during and immediately after "the Great War," and the radical religious motives of some modern sects, it is completely understandable how we're in such a world-wide mess today. And with the inept leadership in the White House since January 2009, the light at the end of the tunnel is incredibly dim!
Guest More than 1 year ago
this the best book i have ever read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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