g.j. meyer

Book cover for Bantam  |  Art Director: Marietta Anastassatos  |  Designer: Susan Zucker  |  Photographer: Margie Hurwich  |  Published 2014

The flamboyant and erratic Kaiser Wilhem II owned and loved to show off more than three hundred military dress uniforms. He would cheerfully change his costume a dozen or more times daily. One of the jokes that made the rounds in Berlin was that the kaiser wouldn’t visit an aquarium without first putting on admiral’s regalia, or eat a plum pudding without dressing as a British field marshal. He really could be almost that childish, even in 1914, when he was in his early fifties and had ruled Germany for a quarter of a century. Not surprisingly, many of the men who were sworn to serve him regarded him not just as immature but as mentally unstable.
—  G.J. Meyer, from A World Undone
By the time the [British] troops went over the top on July 1, more than 1.5 million shells had descended upon the German lines—a quarter of a million on the morning of the attack alone. A ton of munitions had been dropped on every square yard of German front line with the same spirit-crushing results that both sides had been experiencing at Verdun for more than four months. ‘Shall I live till morning?’ one of [General von] Below’s soldiers wrote in his diary. ‘Haven’t we had enough of this frightful horror? Five days and five nights now this hell concert has lasted. One’s head is like a madman’s; the tongue sticks to the roof of the mouth. Almost nothing to eat and nothing to drink. No sleep. All contact with the outer world cut off. No sign of life from home nor can we send any news to our loved ones. What anxiety they must feel about us. How long is this going to last?’
—  G.J. Meyer, from A World Undone

[British WWI General Douglas] Haig had eighteen divisions on the Somme by early summer, and two-thirds of them were used to form a new Fourth Army under General Sir Henry Rawlinson, who had been with the BEF from the start of the war. Rawlinson was a career infantryman— the only British army commander on the Somme not, like Haig, from the cavalry— and his ideas about how to conduct the coming offensive differed sharply from those of his chief.

Haig wanted a breakthrough. He was confident that his artillery could not merely weaken but annihilate the German front line, that the infantry would be able to push through almost unopposed, and that this would clear the way for tens of thousands of cavalry to reach open country, turn northward, and throw the whole German defensive system into terminal disorder.

Rawlinson, by contrast, had drawn the same lessons as [German General Erich von] Falkenhayn from a year and a half of stalemate. He thought breakthrough impossible, and that trying to achieve it could only result in painful and unnecessary losses. He opted for a battle of attrition, one intended less to conquer territory (there being no important strategic targets anywhere near the Somme front, actually) than to kill as many Germans as possible.

To this end he favored ‘bite and hold’ tactics similar to those with which Falkenhayn had begun at Verdun. Such tactics involved settling for a limited objective with each attack, capturing just enough ground to spark a counterattack, and then using artillery to obliterate the enemy’s troops as they advanced. Rawlinson and Haig never resolved their differences; rather, they opened the battle without coming to an understanding on what they were trying to do or how it should be done.

—  G.J. Meyer, from A World Undone