I am neither a regular reader of non-fiction nor an avid student of history but occasionally a fiction book prompts me to seek out more information on a specific topic and this audiobook may have just converted me to a far more frequent non-fiction reader. There was a lot of information in this book that was unfamiliar to me but it excelled at filling in the details around my existing framework of knowledge in a very well-paced and engaging manner with excellent narration.
Warnings, Disclaimers, and FYIs:
To start out with and in the interest of full disclosure, I received this book without charge from Blackstone Audio via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at www.audiobookjukebox.com. Not being an avid non-fiction listener (and often considering non-fiction something like medicine: a quick dose is sufficient followed by something to wash the taste away) that seemed like a pretty good way to expand my knowledge and listening horizons with minimal risk. Also of note (again in the interest of full disclosure and as proof that I occasionally swim in the shallow end of my personality pool) is that when I saw it was narrated by Robin Sachs I was even more interested. This book is 27+ hours long and let’s face it, if I’m going to listen to anyone murmur in my ear for that long, there are few narrators I’d rather have doing it than Mr. Sachs. As it turned out, he was just the icing on this audiobook cake because this was an incredibly engaging book. Not being a history buff, I have no basis for critiquing the accuracy of the content of this audiobook and can only speak to how well it communicated the information, how much detail there was, and how well it held my interest. That being said, I know a lot more now and I am startled by how very much I enjoyed this audiobook.
The structure of this book is perfect for the way I absorb and retain information. Starting with a day-by-day account of the events leading up to World War I, these detail-packed chapters are interspersed with “background” chapters that, as each country/region/personality is introduced, give the listener additional details on the historical pieces that play a part, including outlines of the Hapsburg dynasty, the Czarist succession leading up to Nicholas II (the last Czar), the French political situation pre-war, and much more.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the catalyst for WWI wasn’t news to me but the information woven in that covers the shifting powers in the region, who knew what in advance about the planned assassination, and the broader historical picture of the conflict between Serbia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary immediately provided me a far more solid grounding in the lead-up to hostilities. Particularly fascinating was all the points at which war could have been averted but wasn’t.
As the flow of battles and political wrangling reach the end of the first year of the war, the book pauses to briefly discuss the evolution of weaponry and why two critical inventions – the machine gun and barbed-wire – were partly responsible for extending the length of the war. Chapters covering the economics of funding the war, WWI and its impact on the poetry of a generation, and shell-shock (to name just a few) were clear and concise interludes that often described individual experiences and those unexpected victories or defeats on a smaller scale, adding to my interest in the narrative and bringing the story to life to an even greater degree.
The ponderous nature of the military infrastructure in place at the time is hard to imagine for a listener in the 21st century. Three nations whose military mobilization plans were so rigid that they simply could not be implemented without overreaching the lines drawn that might have minimized the scope of (or even prevented) the war was a mind-boggling thing for me to contemplate. That Germany could not mobilize without pushing troops across its borders, Russia couldn’t mobilize without (threateningly) staging troops on the German border, and Austria couldn’t mobilize into Serbia and hold the line in Belgrade (strictly as an issue of troop movement, not just orders) was appalling.
Miscommunication, lack of communication, ambassadors with their own agendas who acted in an inflammatory manner – all put me in mind of von Clausewitz’s dictum in his book On War that “war is fought by human beings” and it may very well have been an analysis of WWI that prompted him to write that. There are many examples of the all-too-human frailty of those who engage in war in this audiobook but the one that first struck me was the French general who asked for permission to move his troops because his study of German troop movements indicated that the Germans were moving into Belgium not just with the intent of taking ground but as part of a larger plan of wide encirclement of the French troops (which was exactly what they were doing). He was denied permission until it was mostly too late because of one man’s conviction, not based on study or actual troop movements, that the German troops simply wouldn’t do that.
As the war begins and the troop movements and battles are described, the pacing was enough to keep me glued to my earphones, let alone the information that was more detailed (and fascinating) that any of my previous encounters with this bit of history while in school. The shifting battle lines and various offensives were described clearly and concisely and held more than enough drama in their factual recitation without requiring dramatic phrasing or overly gruesome descriptions. In addition to the (for one primarily accustomed to news reports of modern warfare) unimaginable death toll on a sometimes daily basis, the scale of the weaponry described was unexpected. Huge guns that took ten train cars to transport and fired ten shells per hour? These types of details were woven into the stories of individual battles with perfect timing to keep this audiobook moving along. There was never a point at which the story bogged down and the audiobook didn’t seem as long as its run time. In fact, I was so caught up in the description of the initial battles between Germany and France (and the British Expeditionary Force) that I forgot about the Russians and when their troop movements were suddenly introduced, I almost groaned aloud on behalf of the Germans (as it turns out, of course, unnecessarily).
Multiple times while listening I found myself mentally shaking my head in astonishment and all but muttering aloud “I had no idea” over topics such as:
- The lack of communication between Austria-Hungary and Germany (Austria-Hungary’s ally) prior to Austria-Hungary mobilizing their army
- The misconception that Russia, although admittedly not capable of rapid mobilization, was incapable of fighting against Germany
- The idea that Germany needed to (and thought they could) knock out France w/in 6 weeks before Russia attacked
- That mobilization itself by Germany was a declaration of war
- The astonishing impact of misunderstandings on the initiation/course of war (e.g. Count Von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, met with the Russian ambassador and a miscommunication about what they were discussing lead to the ambassador believing Berchtold would not negotiate with Russia when in fact it was only Serbia they would not negotiate with)
- The description of the release of 168 tons of chlorine gas at the Second Battle of Ypres
- I was aware of the Armenian genocide but didn’t quite understand the scale or mechanics of it and the short chapter on the Ottoman pogrom was horrifying
- I had no idea that Russia, as part of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, relinquished so much territory w/ 50 million people(!) occupying it to puppet regimes put in place by Germany
- In 1916, the U.S. Army presence in WWI was smaller than the British casualty count in just the Battle of Somme
The summary given in the chapter covering post-Armistice (in November of 1918) was staggering. 9.5 million dead. 15 million wounded. That doesn’t even count the reverberating after-effects such as the deaths in Russia in what was essentially civil war and in the countries still in disorder and those still forming (Finland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Yugoslavia, Estonia, Latvia, Lebanon, Syria).
If you have even the slightest interest in the history of WWI, I highly recommend this audiobook and if anyone knows of audiobooks that do for WWII or Vietnam what this one does for WWI, I’d love to hear your recommendation.
In terms of minor distractions, (I’m not sure whether to call it a narration or production issue) the proofing edits were uncommonly noticeable in terms of the change in audio/acoustics (exactly how was “Picardy” originally pronounced that each instance of it had to be dubbed in later?) but that aspect notwithstanding, Robin Sachs provided the ideal narration for this audiobook. His non-fiction delivery is a clear and measured presentation of the information and he sounded much like I imagine the author, with his journalism background, would have if he was reading the material. The occasional quote from historical figures was given just the lightest touch of a “character” voice, which was ideal. Mr. Sachs let the text speak for itself, something it was more than capable of doing, and his mellow baritone imparted a sense of gravity while adeptly letting the drama, horror, and sheer humanity of the story clearly shine through.