Review of “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War” by Max Hastings

August 2014 marked the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. It also marked the onslaught of numerous additional books on the subject. Stealing a march on that inevitable blitz, Knopf published Catastrophe, 1914: Europe Goes to War, by the distinguished British historian, Max Hastings. As he has done several times before (e.g. Inferno – about World War II), Hastings manages to take a well-covered subject and invest it with fresh energy and absorbing commentary.

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In describing the events that led up to the outbreak of hostilities, Hastings observes that Archduke Francis Ferdinand’s assassins went to their graves denying any involvement by the Serbian government. The execution of the plot was so amateurish that they may have been telling the truth. Hastings points out the irony that Austria used the assassination as a pretext to invade Serbia, risking war with Russia, even though the person killed to provide that excuse was the one man in the Austrian government committed to avert this precise eventuality.

Austria used the Archduke’s death as an excuse rather than a justification for war. Hastings paints a different picture from Chris Clark’s Sleepwalkers, which envisions the belligerents stumbling into the war through a series of accidents. Hastings thinks Germany was more than willing to go to war because (1) to wait would allow other countries, particularly Russia, to catch up with their military preparations; (2) they had had good success in using war as a natural means of exerting power; (3) they were paranoid about being surrounded by enemies; (4) a war and especially a triumph at war would halt the advance of the Socialists; (5) the retirement of Bismarck left governance in the hands of those who weren’t as adept at executing it; and (6) the Kaiser was probably clinically insane. Germany knew the Russians would not allow Serbia to be dominated by Austria or Germany and that the French would come to Russia’s aid, but they underestimated their enemies’ strength and thought they would win the war. They also mistakenly thought that Britain was too involved in the problems with her own colonies to get involved with continental affairs, and additionally, Hastings notes, Britain had no understanding of the strength that Germany had from its industrial growth; they only knew how to measure strength by military might.

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Hastings says that it is a myth that most belligerents expected a short war or that Europe welcomed the conflict: “The war had not been precipitated by popular nationalistic fervour [sic], but by the decisions of tiny groups of individuals in seven governments.”

Once the fighting began, the armies were simply not prepared for the nature of the combat that evolved. For example, at the beginning of the war, all the belligerents were led into action by commanders armed with swords and mounted on chargers!

The British did not build on their existing “territorial army,” but rather created a “New Army,” composed of novices. As Hastings laments, their “immolation in France . . . make[s] a sorry story.”

Hastings is highly critical of some of the principle military leaders of the war. He blames Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, for being instrumental in starting the war and criticizes him as an ineffective commander-in-chief who did not exercise sufficient control over his generals. [Many historians hold that Moltke, enamored of the possibilities presented the strategic outline of a possible war drawn up by his predecessor, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, actually hurried Germany into the war. The Schlieffen Plan was an outline for how to win a possible future war with both France and Russia, involving a thrust into Belgium followed by an envelopment of Paris.]

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Hastings gives significant emphasis to the initial repulse by the French of the German advance through Belgium and the almost-encirclement of Paris. He avers: “It is hard to overstate the significance of Joffre’s triumph of the will over Moltke in determining the fate of Europe in 1914.” However, he claims that a French repulse of the Germans around Verdun in the east about the same time as the battle on the Marne was nearly as important.

Despite the success realized by the French, Hastings does not have much use for Robert Nivelle, who became “a brief and disastrous commander-in-chief later in the war” for the French army. Hastings contends that while the French fought with courage and determination, their will to fight was stiffened by draconian sanctions enforced by firing squads. Germans executed far fewer of their men than did the Allies. Moreover, France’s black soldiers suffered a death rate three times higher than the white soldiers.

On the British side, Hastings has little respect for Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, whom he describes as “boundlessly foolish, childishly sullen.” But some of Hastings’s most scathing criticism is reserved for one of Britain’s most cherished heroes. Winston Churchill came up with a crazy scheme to reinforce Antwerp with Royal Navy marines, who knew nothing of land war:

…what took place represented shocking folly by a minister who abused his powers and betrayed his responsibilities. It is astonishing that the First Lords’s cabinet colleagues so readily forgave him for a lapse of judgment that would have destroyed most men’s careers.”

Winston Churchill in 1914

Winston Churchill in 1914

Although weapons technology in World War I had advanced, logistics had not; neither side could move its troops as quickly as needed. Nonetheless, although our perception of the Western Front is one of trench warfare, the first three months of the war was one of movement, with troops driven to exhaustion from constant shuttling, primarily by marching on foot.

British troops march towards trenches in the first Battle of Ypres, October 1914

British troops march towards trenches in the first Battle of Ypres, October 1914

But trench warfare has captured the imagery of World War I for good reason. Hastings devotes an entire chapter to the truly awful aspects of this style of battle. It amazes a modern reader to read the deprivations suffered by the vast majority of troops on the Western Front, detailed in the chapter aptly named “Mudlife.” By December 1914, it was clear to most of the participants that a stalemate had been reached. There was never a shortcut to victory. Hastings quotes George Orwell in explaining that the only way to end a war quickly is to lose it.

Unlike the war in the west, the war in the east was always a war of movement. Surprisingly, in light of what happened in the same area in World War II, the 1914 invasion of Prussia by Russia was characterized by humanity and restraint.

War in the air was new and glamorous, but exceedingly dangerous, primarily because the early airplanes were not reliable. For airmen, far more of them perished in accidents than from the enemy.

World War I also differed from previous wars in that throughout history, armies had been accustomed to fight battles that lasted a single day. But now, they had to cope with continuous engagement. Battles lasted for months rather than hours.

British troops in Ypres, scene of five gruesome battles

British troops in Ypres, scene of five gruesome battles

Hastings characterizes American military contribution to the war as only “marginal,” but he credits its entry in 1917 to exercising critical moral and industrial influence. But then, his book is only about 1914, not the entire war.

In conclusion, Hastings says it is a mistake to brand the 1914 rulers as “sleepwalkers.” He believes it is more appropriate to call them “deniers, who preferred to persist with supremely dangerous policies and strategies rather than accept the consequences of admitting the prospective implausibility, and retrospective failure, of these.”

Hastings also postulates that “the case still seems overwhelmingly strong that Germany bore principal blame.” Even if they did not actually bring the war about, they declined to restrain Austria, nor were they unwilling to jump in once hostilities began, because they believed they could through the war realize their ambitions for continental hegemony. If the allies had not won, Hastings emphasizes, European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit. Thus, he reasons, those who gave their lives in the struggle did not perish for nothing, “save insofar as all sacrifice in all wars is just cause for lamentation.”

Evaluation: This is an excellent and very readable book by an erudite historian of warfare who is also superb writer. Hastings has unearthed many original sources such as letters from low ranking officers or literate subalterns to illustrate his general themes. While he breaks no new ground, his astute and compelling account of an extremely important period of history is worthy of attention.

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: The book includes a good selection of photos and maps.

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2013

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