Read Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings Online


From the acclaimed military historian, a new history of the outbreak of World War I: the dramatic stretch from the breakdown of diplomacy to the battles--the Marne, Ypres, Tannenberg--that marked the frenzied first year before the war bogged down in the trenches. In "Catastrophe 1914, " Max Hastings gives us a conflict different from the familiar one of barbed wire, mud aFrom the acclaimed military historian, a new history of the outbreak of World War I: the dramatic stretch from the breakdown of diplomacy to the battles--the Marne, Ypres, Tannenberg--that marked the frenzied first year before the war bogged down in the trenches. In "Catastrophe 1914, " Max Hastings gives us a conflict different from the familiar one of barbed wire, mud and futility. He traces the path to war, making clear why Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily to blame, and describes the gripping first clashes in the West, where the French army marched into action in uniforms of red and blue with flags flying and bands playing. In August, four days after the French suffered 27,000 men dead in a single day, the British fought an extraordinary holding action against oncoming Germans, one of the last of its kind in history. In October, at terrible cost the British held the allied line against massive German assaults in the first battle of Ypres. Hastings also re-creates the lesser-known battles on the Eastern Front, brutal struggles in Serbia, East Prussia and Galicia, where the Germans, Austrians, Russians and Serbs inflicted three million casualties upon one another by Christmas. As he has done in his celebrated, award-winning works on World War II, Hastings gives us frank assessments of generals and political leaders and masterly analyses of the political currents that led the continent to war. He argues passionately against the contention that the war was not worth the cost, maintaining that Germany's defeat was vital to the freedom of Europe. Throughout we encounter statesmen, generals, peasants, housewives and private soldiers of seven nations in Hastings's accustomed blend of top-down and bottom-up accounts: generals dismounting to lead troops in bayonet charges over 1,500 feet of open ground; farmers who at first decried the requisition of their horses; infantry men engaged in a haggard retreat, sleeping four hours a night in their haste. This is a vivid new portrait of how a continent became embroiled in war and what befell millions of men and women in a conflict that would change everything....

Title : Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
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ISBN : 9780007519743
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 672 Pages
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Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 Reviews

  • Matt
    2019-01-24 03:49

    Max Hastings is one of the better World War II writer-historians working today. In books like Armageddon, Retribution, and Inferno, he manages to be both accessible and sophisticated. A general reader can enjoy his work, while a buff can learn something new. If you want a finely chiseled, conventional-wisdom-defying nugget to toss in your friend’s face while getting drunk with him at a bar, Hastings is the man to read. His presentation is terse, stripped-down, and shorn of bluster and encomiums. Hastings was once a war-correspondent, and it shows in his writing as he delivers sharp judgments, finds telling details, and eschews predictable retellings. He is unimpressed with wartime mythmaking, and unafraid to deliver an opinion. I haven’t always agreed with his conclusions, but at the very least he always got me thinking. When I read a book by Max Hastings, I know I’m reading a book by Max Hastings. In Catastrophe 1914, Hastings gets into his DeLorean and takes his talents back to an earlier war. With the centenary of World War I fast approaching, there have been a glut of new books about the July Crisis (referring to the period following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which somehow led to worldwide slaughter). I know this because I keep buying them, and my wife keeps giving me the stink-eye when she walks past my office and sees yet another book with “1914” in the title sitting on my bookshelf. (That’s when I tell her: “At least it’s not another book on the Nazis!). In this crowded field, Catastrophe 1914 jumped out at me, if only because of its pedigree. Having finished it, I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes its place alongside Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August as a Great War must-read.Catastrophe 1914 starts with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in July and ends with the Christmas truce of December. In between there is mobilization, Germany’s invasion of Belgium and France, Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia, the Russian invasion of east Germany, the Battle of the Frontiers, the Battle of the Marne, and finally a stalemate along the Western Front. This is a lot of ground to cover. Just listing it makes me remember all the stuff about the First World War that I’ve already forgotten. To get through all these topics in less than 600 pages of text, Hastings employs a telescoping approach to military maneuvers. He starts with a broad overview, generally at the corps level, and then zooms in to smaller detachments to capture the viewpoints of junior officers and common soldiers. The first of Kluck’s infantry began to push downhill towards the water, shielded along most of its unlovely length by drab houses, mine pitheads and industrial installations…Pte. Sid Godley was enjoying coffee and rolls brought to him by two Belgian children, with whom he made clumsy efforts at conversation, when their little party was interrupted by an incoming German shell. He recalled later: ‘I said to this little boy and girl, “You’d better sling your ‘ooks now, otherwise you may get hurt.” Well, they packed their basket up and left.’ Godley settled down behind his rifle. As the first Germans showed themselves, thousands of British soldiers opened fire, the rippling crackle of their musketry soon overborne by the crump of artillery. The Germans began crowding around the dangerous salient north-east of Mons, at Nimy, where the bridges were defended by the Royal Fusiliers, who had the 4th Middlesex to their right…Col. Hull, commanding the Middlesex, was a small-arms enthusiast who had taken pains to ensure that his men could shoot straight, and that day they did him proud. Successive German rushes were checked by murderous rifle-fire. Huddled grey-green corpses, surmounted by Pickelhaube helmets, soon littered the north bank. But Kluck’s men, in their turn, took up firing positions and were soon inflicting casualties on the ill-concealed British.To be sure, things get complicated. Even though Hastings makes an effort to avoid minutiae, there are times when his descriptions come to resemble an alpha-numeric soup of army groups, corps, divisions, etc. I think that’s just a reality of World War I writing. The battles were complicated. They were huge and messy and they took place over days and weeks. This isn’t like Gettysburg, where you can take a look at a couple of maps and figure things out. The titanic clashes of August 1914 are simply difficult to conceive. There are maps in this book, but they try to do so many things that it’s hard to decipher them. Far easier to follow are Hastings’s brief, oft-acerbic mini-biographies of the war’s chief players, which seldom failed to entertain. For instance, Hastings’s take on Edward Grey: Grey is usually depicted as a gentle, civilized figure who lamented the coming of war in 1914 with unaccustomed eloquence, and wrote fine books on birdwatching and fly-fishing. A widower of fifty-two, his personal affairs were less arid than most of his contemporaries assumed. He conducted a lively love life, albeit much more discreetly than his colleague Lloyd George; Grey’s most recent biographer identifies two illegitimate children. Some of his contemporaries disdained him. Sir Eyre Crowe, a Foreign Office official who was admittedly prone to intemperance, called Grey ‘a futile, useless, weak fool.’ The foreign secretary’s accustomed taciturnity caused Lloyd George, for one, to conclude that there was less to him than met the eye; that his economy with words reflected not strength of character, but debility. Grey spoke no foreign languages, and disliked Abroad. Although a highly intelligent man, he was also a narrow one, subject to violent mood swings. Yet from 1905 to 1916 he ran Britain’s foreign policy as a private bailiwick.One of the things that struck me about this book was its confidence. Having switched subjects, one might expect Hastings to display a less-sure grip. To the contrary, Catastrophe 1914 is written with the certainty of a man who has been writing about the Marne and Tannenberg his whole life. As previously noted, Hastings is not shy about airing his historical judgments. The chief verdict he delivers in Catastrophe 1914 is that the onus for the war rests on the Germans. In forming this view, Hastings rejects Tuchman’s mechanistic retelling, and takes a swipe at Christopher Clark’s recent (and well-received) The Sleepwalkers. I found Hastings’s German axe-grinding to be one of this book’s main shortcomings (though it is also the price you pay for choosing a book by this author). Hastings believes that Germany wanted war in 1914. He feels that Germany encouraged Austria-Hungary to give Serbia an impossible ultimatum, with the foreknowledge that Austria-Hungary would invade Serbia and precipitate general war at a time favorable to Germany (that is, at a time before Russia reached full strength). Certainly, this is a supportable argument. But Hastings doesn’t really support it. He just says it (as he tends to do). By starting his narrative in 1914, he ignores the fraught decade leading up to World War I, where half a dozen crises (e.g., Morocco I and II, the Balkan Wars) came and went without sparking a conflict. Hastings is also a bit disingenuous in framing his case. He downplays the culpability of Russia and France (two great powers) in tying their destinies to that of Serbia, a loose-cannon of a country filled with pan-nationalists who’d already fought two recent wars of territorial conquest. On a couple occasions, Hastings justifies Russia’s mobilization as an action necessary to protect Serbia from destruction. This interpretation naively makes Serbia into some kind of martyr, when in reality, Serbia’s military had an undisputed role in Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. They weren’t victims, they were instigators with their own imperial designs. Of course, disagreeing with Hastings is part of the fun of reading him. His thinly-veiled arrogance is part of his charm. He is always entertaining, and this volume is no exception. I expect (and hope for) many more titles on the Great War to be released in the coming years and months. I also expect that this one will float to the top, when all is said and done.

  • happy
    2019-02-20 06:39

    With this latest book, Mr. Hastings confirms my opinion that he is one of the two or three best military historians writing today. This is an excellent look the last half of 1914 as Europe spiraled into abattoir that became known as the Great War. He blends both high and low level views of the war to make a very readable volume.Mr. Hastings looks at the causes of the war- the strategic position of Germany and her desire to dominate Continental Europe, the weakness of Austria, Russia’s desire to be the savior to all the Slavs. France’s fear of Germany and her desires for empire. In telling the story of the beginnings of the war, Mr. Hastings emphasizes that most of Europe between the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand and the actual outbreak of war 6 weeks later, did not feel war was likely. There had been several other crisis’s in the recent past that seemed more likely to spark a war. In some ways war came as a surprise to most of the population of Europe.When the author starts telling the tale of the actual opening campaigns of World War I he is absolutely scathing in his assessment of the generalship of the various armies. He is especially critical of the Austrian High Command. In the Austrian Military, there seemed to have been a complete lack of professionalism throughout the officer corps. This showed up in there disastrous invasions of Serbia and Poland. The German commanders come off as professional at the tactical level, but without a strategic vision. Although Moltke is shown to be someone in over his head. He is portrayed as a commander that after the start orders are given, fails to keep a grasp of the situation. He allowed his armies to drift apart and with a more aggressive enemy, they could have come to disaster.On the British/French side, the British Commander, John French, is portrayed as almost as bad as the Austrians. Several times the author states that French should have been relieved. About the only British General that comes off well is the 2nd Corps Commander, General Smith-Dorian. The French Commander, Joseph Joffre, comes off pretty well. Even then, Sir Max finds major faults with his insistence on offensives into the Alsace and Ardennes and his failure to call them off when it became obvious they were not working. His major accomplishment seems to have been keeping his head, when all around him were losing theirs. One thing I hadn’t realized before reading this book is the age of the various senior commanders in 1914 – all were over 60 with some approaching 70!He also takes on the reports of German atrocities. He does admit the German Army shot civilians in Belgium and France. However he blames it on the German fears of irregular warfare such as had occured in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. He says this colored the German command's view and almost everyone was viewed as a guerillia.It telling this story, Mr. Hastings makes good use of first person accounts from generals, private soldiers and the occasional civilian caught up in the maelstorm. His telling of the exhaustion of the invading Germans as they neared the Marne puts their defeat in context. He also praises the French effort and their determination not to quit. The author also debunks the legend of the Taxi cabs to a certain extent. Yes troops were conveyed to the front in taxi cabs, but there weren’t very many of them, about a brigades worth - 4000 or so.About the only fault I have with the book is the author’s tendency to leave quotes in French untranslated. This is a fairly common occurrence that I found distracting. I give this a very hearty recommendation and would rate 4.5 stars if Good Reads allowed partials.

  • WarpDrive
    2019-01-22 04:56

    A masterpiece of impeccable scholarship. Exhaustive, very detailed and informative, beautifully researched, well written, riveting, an absolute pleasure to read and highly recommended to anybody interested in a serious, comprehensive treatment of the events leading to the start of WWI, and also of the major events of the first 5 months of the war, up to Christmas 1914. It is simply one of the best books that I ever read about WWI; pity that it stops at the end of the year 1914. I really wish the brilliant author had written other books, one for each year of WWI.The author has certainly strong opinions and personal perspectives about some events and characters of the story, and I found his perspectives about the causes of the war a little simplistic (and a bit too focused on the proximate causes rather then the more structural deep reasons behind this conflagration). However, his points are always well argued and supported, and his scholarship is generally beyond reproach.All aspects of the war are treated with masterful clarity and often with an impressive level of detail; in particular I was pleasantly surprised by how the author brilliantly explained the following aspects of the war: - the political structures of the main belligerents, with particular focus on the complex and ambiguous relationship between civilian and military authorities- the associated social, cultural and even psychological aspects; the role of war propaganda at home and at the front, and the increasing sense of disillusionment, futility and dismay developing among troops of all belligerents after the initial weeks of the war - the unexpectedly critical role played by logistics issues in the war, and the initial unpreparedness of all belligerents to cope with the huge demands of modern warfare- the lack of coordination between the allied powers of both coalitions and the serious bungling of the commanders in chief and of many generals of both opposing factions. In particular, the amateurish botch-ups of Churchill in WWI, driven by an overly inflated sense of ego and of adventure, were quite appalling. The performance of the British Expeditionary Force's commander was also an absolute disgrace. The rivalries and lack of coordination between the individual generals in the Russian army were not negligible in contributing to the Tsar's army defeats. And Moltke's absences and total personal inadequacy to run the German offensive in France were significant. All was topped by the dismal performance of the Austrian generals, which was possibly the worst - the rapidly changing nature of the war, from a "gentlemen war" reminiscent of 19th century warfare, and characterized by relatively rapid movements of troops, to a war of attrition/exhaustion reliant on defensive entrenchments, field artillery and ruthless discipline (especially in the Western front) - the deep structural weaknesses (economic, politic, social and military) of the Hapsburg empire - the individual moral and human aspects of the war, vividly brought to life by several first-hand accounts rendered by officers as well as common soldiers from all parties involved- the persistence of deep and hideous class differences within the armies of all countries involved, not just of the Central Powers but also of the Entente Alliance- the initial reluctance of the British to impose a blockade, in order to prevent a potential collapse of international trade and a clash with the economic interests of the USA- the idiosyncrasies and peculiar nature of naval warfare during the initial stages of the war- the precarious and inefficient nature of reconnaissance, communication and intelligence technology and strategies, which caused what Carl von Clausewitz called "Nebel des Krieges" (also known as "Fog of War" in English) to be an important factor in warfare during the first phases of WWI The more technical military aspects are treated at a perfectly balanced level of detail (generally at "Corps" level), and are usually well supported by clear accompanying maps (especially in relation to Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne, and 1st Ypres), which will please many military history buffs. The only minor complaint I have is that the the Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes battles in the East are not covered in much detail (comparatively speaking), while the overall narrative is a bit over-weighted towards the role played by the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in the Western Front. Generally speaking, there are so many interesting and surprising details and facts brought to life by the author, that it is simply impossible to list them all in a review - I could only list a small subset, so I can only invite the interested reader to savor the author's knowledge and compelling writing, so clearly transpiring in this book. In summary, it is an absolutely rewarding and beautiful read. A well-deserved 5-star rating - 600 pages of utter pleasure for the lover of serious history. I am happy that I bought this masterpiece, and I will definitely read more books by this author.

  • Manray9
    2019-02-19 02:53

    Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War is an outstanding achievement by noted historian Max Hastings. Hastings revisits the course of events from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand through Christmas 1914 and in doing so revises the conventional wisdom on German and Austrian war guilt for the Great War. As Hew Strachan wrote in the NY Times: “(Hastings’) fans will recognize the trademarks: trenchant and Olympian judgments that eschew quirkiness in their pursuit of common sense and that are supplemented by extensive quotations from lower-grade participants: the victims and workhorses of others’ decisions.” All true, and much to his credit and unlike other writers, Hastings does not focus on the Western Front. He gives due emphasis to the war in the east, as well as the fighting in the Balkans. This is not only good history, but an entertaining reading experience too. Catastrophe 1914 is one of my top books of 2013

  • Max
    2019-02-10 09:46

    In 1910 British General Henry Wilson told military students that a European war was likely. One student responded that such a war would take “inconceivable stupidity on the part of statesmen.” The general replied “inconceivable stupidity is just what you are going to get.” The responsibility for WWI is endlessly argued. Catching almost everyone by surprise, the war began precipitously as events quickly spun out of control. On June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo in Bosnia, recently annexed by Austria-Hungary, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by dissidents. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia and declared war exactly one month later. A bloodbath ensued that engulfed Europe resulting in 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians dead. Hastings spends over 500 detailed pages telling us how it started and tracing the first few months of the war.Austria-Hungary, long annoyed by Serbia and afraid of its pan-Slav vision, wanted more than retribution for the assassination. Austria-Hungary was widely seen as weak and fractured. It wanted to colonize Serbia to demonstrate strength and expand its empire. Its military leaders were overconfident and chafing at the bit to start a war with Serbia. They banked on alliance partner Germany to bail them out if Russia went to Serbia’s aid. Once Germany committed its support, Austria Hungary quickly planned its invasion of Serbia.The German army, unlike Austria-Hungary’s, was disciplined, organized and prepared. The Germans were ready for war, plans in hand. Army Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke considered a European war inevitable and that time was not on Germany’s side, believing Russia would get stronger in years to come. He believed France had to be taken out first in any general war, then Russia. While his erratic boss, Kaiser Wilhelm, bounced back and forth about war, Moltke did everything in his power to encourage Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia and precipitate a wider war.On the other side were Russia, France and Britain. Russia did not want war but could not stand aside and let Austria-Hungary take over Serbia, subjugating its Slavic brethren. The Russian army, while large, was not prepared for war and there was fear of revolution. French leaders were always suspicious of the Germans. France was in alliance with Russia knowing that in any war Germany would attack them first. The French pinned their hopes on Germany having to fight on two fronts. British leaders were clueless and completely preoccupied with the Ulster crisis which was approaching civil war in a deeply divided Britain. Britain had a huge navy and vast colonial territory but a tiny army. The French and Russians felt with Britain on their side they could win. The Germans discounted Britain as unlikely to enter and not having much to contribute if they did.On July 23, 1914 the Austrians issued an ultimatum to Serbia that Serbia could not possibly accept. Regardless, Austria Hungary had already made the decision to go to war and on July 28 declared war on Serbia. Russia responded by mobilizing its troops. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia and on August 3 declared war on France. On August 4 Germany invaded Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany. WWI was underway little over a month following the archduke’s assassination before which a major European war was far from almost everyone’s mind.Moltke adopted the existing German war plan, the Schlieffen Plan named after his predecessor. It called for an envelopment of the French army proceeding quickly through Belgium and Northern France. It would not lead to success. The rapid advance could not be supported with adequate logistics. Horses and carts were the main transport when railroads were not available. Railroad infrastructure favored the French. Moltke was indecisive and moody and had to please the difficult Kaiser. Moltke stayed in Luxembourg far removed from the action. His commanders often acted on their own waiting for communication. Early victories against French outdated tactics and abysmal strategy made the Germans more overconfident than they were when they started.The French Chief of Staff Joffre had his own plan; Plan XVII. It was totally misguided and resulted in heavy losses from senseless French attacks against well defended German positions in central and southern France. Joffre ignored German troop movements in the north. Despite initial defeats, however, he kept his composure and wits, finally recognized the German plan, redeployed his forces north, and engineered the battle of the Marne which forced a German retreat. In September the Kaiser replaced Moltke with his personal favorite, Falkenhayn. He massed German forces to try a breakthrough at the Belgian town of Ypres. The German attacks went on relentlessly for weeks and both sides endured heavy losses. The allied lines barely moved as the British Expeditionary Force, French and Belgian troops held on. This bloody battle would characterize the rest of the war. All participants were quickly learning what worked and what didn’t. Early twentieth century arms favored defenses and trench warfare became the norm for the next four years. On the Eastern front, Austria-Hungary’s ill equipped, ill led and fractious army stalled with heavy casualties against tiny Serbia. Eventually Serbia would fall to overwhelming numbers. Austria-Hungarian forces were also humiliated by the Russians in Galicia (SW Poland). The Russian army was devastated by the Germans at Tannenberg in East Prussia. Russia’s disorganized and poorly led forces were no match for the Germans, but with a much larger population Russia would stay in the fight until revolution in 1917. Hastings’ coverage ends in 1914. His battle narratives are filled with accounts of individual soldiers. We read in their own words the gruesome details of the war. We see how patriotic can do attitudes quickly shifted to dismay then grim acceptance. Hastings’ portraits include the countless hapless civilians rooted out of their homes and left with nothing. Across Europe women and children were deprived of their breadwinners, their livestock, fuel and other resources to supply the armies. Hastings even gives us accounts of the vast numbers of unfortunate animals used or caught up in the fighting.I’ve read several books on WWI, enough to know the causes of the war are open to many different interpretations. I find Hastings’ views as credible as any I’ve come across. How Europe could proceed in five weeks from a widely shared perception of an ongoing sustainable peace to all-out war is intriguing and frightening. It’s never lost on me when I consider the current state of international relations. The other thing that stands out is the brutal nature of the war, the immense loss of life and the acceptance of both; although for this there are parallels. Hastings does a thorough job. As in another of his books that I liked, Inferno, about WWII, the accounts of the participants distinguish his work. Through these he imparts the feel of being on the front and also how it felt for loved ones waiting at home. For those who have read many WWI books, Catastrophe 1914 may get lost among the many offerings. For the uninitiated it may seem too detailed. For myself, somewhere in between, I found it very worthwhile.

  • Mike
    2019-02-20 04:31

    I hate to do it but I can only give Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War 4 Stars, definitely a step down from my normal man-crush on everything Max Hastings scribbles down. I had to take away a star for the buildup to August 1914. It may be unfair but I read Tuchman’s The Guns of August a short time ago and was riveted at her account of the road to war. Sir Max’s account was simply not as good. At times, I practically had to prop my eyelids open with toothpicks. Tuchman had me on the edge of my seat while I just had to plough through Hastings’ account. Sir Max shines after the war begins as he brings his sharp focus on the men and women in the midst of the battles and movements, from the lowest grenadier up to the generals, bureaucrats, politicians and monarchs. This account takes you to the end of 1914 and covers all the fronts and some of the naval engagements. I particularly liked his accounting of the battles in Serbia and on the eastern front, primarily Poland and Galicia. Surprisingly, the Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes campaigns are not covered in much detail.If I have one major complaint on the book, it is the limited focus on the French and overexposure on the BEF. The page count does not measure up to the scale of what each country brought to the fight.Sir Max always focuses his skeptical eye on all the players and most do not measure up. He covers all the major players and many I had not heard of before. In particular, the Hapsburgs and Serbians are covered in greater detail…which is nice because they started the whole damn thing. The course of the war is often related from the soldiers’ accounts and letters. The home front is also covered by the spouses and children of the fighters. Maps of the front positions and specific battles are sprinkled throughout and are pretty good.Why were the Germans so ready to go to war? And did anyone recognize what the ultimate impact of modern, industrial war would be? Here is Hastings’ explanation:(view spoiler)[ There seem several explanations. First, Germany’s rulers, like many men of their generation, accepted the role of war as a natural means of fulfilling national ambitions and exercising power: Prussia had exploited this cost-effectively three times in the later nineteenth century. Georg Muller, head of Wilhelm’s naval cabinet, told his master in 1911, ‘war is not the worst of all evils’ and this belief pervaded Berlin’s thinking. The Kaiser and his key advisers underestimated the magnitude of the dominance their country was achieving through its economic and industrial prowess, without fighting anybody. They were profoundly mistaken to suppose that European hegemony could be secured only by the deployment of armies on battlefields. But paranoia was a prominent feature of the German psyche at this period — a belief that the country’s strategic position, far from progressively strengthening, was being weakened by the rise of socialism at home and the Entente’s military capabilities abroad. Many German bankers and industrialists were morbidly convinced that the Western democracies were bent upon strangling German trade. Berlin’s ambassador in Vienna made initial attempts to cool the Austrian government’s bellicosity, but the Kaiser scribbled on his reports: ‘Who has authorised him to do that? It is extremely stupid!’ The Germans knew it was overwhelmingly likely that the Tsar would throw his protective mantle over Serbia — Nicholas had earlier committed himself to doing so. But Moltke and Bethmann Hollweg viewed Russia, to the point of obsession, as an existential threat; and if they had to fight Nicholas’s army, they preferred to do so sooner rather than later. On 20 May 1914, sharing a railway compartment between Potsdam and Berlin, the chief of staff told Foreign Minister Jagow that within a few years Russia would be winning the arms race. If the price of anticipating such superiority was also to be a clash with France, Russia’s ally — which Moltke assumed — the General Staff had planned meticulously for such a prospect, and professed to be confident of victory. Bethmann was a natural government official rather than a leader. Lloyd George later recalled conversations with him during a 1908 visit to Germany to study its health-insurance law: ‘an attractive but not an arresting personality ... an intelligent, industrious and eminently sensible bureaucrat, but he did not leave on my mind an impression of having met a man of power who might one day shake destiny’. Bethmann was also a vacillator, especially about the rival merits of peace and war. In 1912 he returned from a visit to Russia alarmed by the evidence of its rising might; and during the following year was heard to advocate a pre-emptive conflict. In April 1913 he lectured the Reichstag on the looming ‘inevitable struggle’ between Slavs and Teutons, and warned Vienna that Russia was bound to join any conflict between Austria and Serbia. In his better moments, however, the chancellor recognised the perils posed by a clash of arms. On 4 June 1914 he told the Bavarian ambassador that conservatives who imagined that a conflict would enable them to reassert their own domestic power, crushing the hated socialists, were mistaken: ‘a world war with its incalculable ramifications will strengthen social democracy; which sermonizes the virtues of peace’. War, he added, could easily cost some rulers their thrones. In tangled harness Bethmann, the Kaiser and Moltke made the critical decisions. Germany actively encouraged the Austrians to attack Serbia, and Berlin’s three principal actors made no attempt to manage events in such a way as to avert a wider calamity; therein lies the case for their culpability for what followed. It seems mistaken to argue that they entered the July crisis bent upon precipitating a general European conflict; but a pervasive German fatalism about such an outcome contributed largely to bringing it about. The Social Democrat leader August Bebel, a hero to millions of workers, delivered an impassioned warning following the 1911 Agadir crisis. “Every nation will continue to arm for war until a day comes at which one or the other says “Better a terrible end than a terror without end” [A nation may also say] “If we delay any longer, we shall be the weaker instead of the stronger. Then the catastrophe will happen. Then in Europe the great mobilization plans will be unleashed, by which sixteen to eighteen million men, the finest of many nations, armed with the best instruments of murder, will take the field against each other. The Gotterdammerung of the bourgeois world is approaching.”(hide spoiler)]Some modern historians blame the Russians as the instigator of this world war. Here is Hastings’ argument against the blaming of Russia for starting the war:(view spoiler)[ The Russians made little attempt to conceal their extended preparations. The Tsar told the Kaiser without embarrassment on the night of 29 July, in one of their personal ‘Nicky—Willy’ communications: ‘the military measures which have now come into force were decided five days ago for reasons of defence on account of Austria’s preparations.” Those who today attribute to Russia principal responsibility for war are obliged to rely on the same argument as did the Kaiser in July 1914: that the Tsar should have preserved wider European peace by allowing Austria to conduct a limited war to crush Serbia. Such a case can be made; but it seems essential to acknowledge its terms, rather than attempt to construct a spurious indictment that the Russians were guilty of duplicity. The most important dates in the July crisis were the 23rd, when Austria made explicit its commitment to destroy Serbia, and the 24th, when Russia began to take active measures to respond. Unless or until evidence is forthcoming that the Serbian government was complicit in the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand, or that Russia had prior knowledge of the outrage, the Tsar’s commitment to resist the attempt to extinguish Serbia seems justified. The best reason for Nicholas to have held back was not doubt about the legitimacy of Russia’s action, but caution about the menace posed by belligerence to his own polity.(hide spoiler)]Atrocities were mainly committed by the Central Powers on both western and eastern fronts. The shooting of civilians and destruction of towns and villages in Belgium and France by the Germans is well covered but Hastings brings to light the actions by the Austro-Hungarians as well:(view spoiler)[ He described how, on 17 August, his column was fired upon from a cornfield behind the front. Austrian patrols sent to investigate returned with sixty-three prisoners; they claimed that some women and children among them were caught carrying rifles, and that they had found a priest in possession of grenades.‘An hour later: Pallavicini wrote, ‘only a mass grave was visible. In order not to upset [our] soldiers by [the sound of] shooting, these people were bayoneted to death. The priest’s beard had supposedly been ripped off —our men were that angry after the atrocities committed [against them]. In the afternoon I motored to Losnitza, where fourteen [Serbs] swung from a gallows. Oberstleutnant Kokotovié had given orders to hang them. From rooftops our troops were still being fired upon. The hatred for us is boundless, and everyone is our enemy. The population is so deceitful that I must always anticipate being shot down by a child or an old woman, though to our faces they appear servile ... We are not fighting against an army of 300,000 but against a whole nation. This seems a war driven by religious fervour. The priests are the worst agitators and monasteries the main centres of agitation.A striking feature of the many executions of civilians carried out on the Eastern Front, especially by the Austro-Hungarians in Serbia, is that they were photographed, and the images published. This was because, far from being a source of embarrassment to Vienna, the punitive killing of alleged francs-tireurs or spies was an important aspect of its policy; Conrad wanted as many people as possible to know about them. Hangmen presented bodies for the camera like sportsmen displaying animal trophies. An Austrian officer in Serbia recorded on 24 August: “I met a column of thirty [alleged francs-tireurs] assembled for execution. They were accompanied by a crowd of people including Prince Odescalchi and Lieutenant Weiss who could not refrain from boxing the ears of the poor wretches, bound as they were. We tried to restrain them but it was absolutely impossible. The execution place was at the edge of the woods behind the monastery. The [condemned Serbs] had to dig their own graves. Then they were sat down in front of the pit and bayoneted five at a time, three infantrymen stabbed each. A gruesome spectacle. Odescalchi behaved like a wild animal and would have liked to take part. It was terrible to see earth being heaped on the victims while some still lived — and indeed tried to climb out of the grave — and to see some of those rising from the grave.(hide spoiler)]The far-flung French and British possessions are called upon to provide manpower for the meat grinder, despite the fact none of the colonies or member governments had a say in whether to go to war in the first place. Using the empires to add men to the fight:The French:(view spoiler)[ Further north on that same dreadful 22nd, the French Fourth Army advanced up a forest road through the Ardennes which led through the village of Bellefontaine One regiment, led by Charles Mangin, headed onwards until, as they approached Tertigny, the Germans opened fire from neighbouring woodlands. Bitter fighting followed, Mangin led a bayonet charge, while street fighting developed in Bellefontaine, which came under heavy shellfire That evening, French survivors retired to the edge of the forest, having lost eight company commanders and more than a third of the regiment France had always planned to exploit its colonial mercenaries to make good its shortfall of white manpower Mangin wrote in a deplorable book he published in 1910, La Force Noir ‘In future battles these primitives, for whom life counts so little and whose young blood flows so ardently, as if eager to be shed, will certainly display the old “French fury” and will reinvigorate it if necessary.’ Now that war had come, Moroccans, Senegalese and Algerians were indeed hurled foremost into its flames By 1918, France’s black soldiers had suffered a death rate three times higher than that of their white comrades, because they were so often selected for suicidal tasks.(hide spoiler)]The British:(view spoiler)[ Two Indian divisions joined the right of the BEF’s line on 22 October. The reinforcement was desperately needed, and the first Indian soldier to win a VC was a Baluchi, Sepoy Khudadad Khan, who gained his medal manning a machine-gun in Hollebeke. It was widely suggested, however, that the Indian corps was ill-suited to continental campaigning. Frank Richards, who had served for years in the subcontinent, wrote later with a ranker’s contempt: ‘native infantry were no good in France. Some writers in the papers wrote at the time that they couldn’t stand the cold weather; but the truth was that they suffered from cold feet, and a few enemy shells exploding around their trenches were enough to demoralize the majority’. Indian Cavalry Corps commander Lt. Gen. Mike Rimington declared scornfully that his men were ‘only fit to feed pigs’. This was grossly unjust; Indian troops taught the rest of the BEF the art of patrolling. But there was a core of truth in the view that it was brutal, even in the British Empire’s hour of need, to expose mercenaries from the far side of the world to the appalling cultural shock of the struggle in Flanders.(hide spoiler)]Overall, the casual slaughter and waste of men and material in huge amounts is well covered by Sir Max. The French and the Germans on the Western Front fight each other to a standstill at fearful losses:(view spoiler)[ The Germans lost 283 killed and 1,187 wounded in the action at Virton, but French casualties were many times heavier. On two occasions, entire formations broke and ran; the dead lay stacked like folding chairs, overlapping each other where they fell. As always, the mounted men were slaughtered: two brigade commanders fell, along with every officer of one regiment; another lost a third of its strength. That evening, Third Army’s commanders at first harboured delusions about renewing the attack next day; their men were ordered to entrench, employing their only tools to hand — mess tins. But it was soon recognised that regiments almost bereft of leaders were unfit to fight again. A survivor, stunned by his experiences, stood muttering again and again, ‘Mown down! Ah ... Mown down!’ The broken, units evacuated Virton, whose inhabitants afterwards suffered severely at the hands of the Germans, who accused them of signaling to French artillery. The Kaiser gave both his son and Prince Rupprecht the Iron Cross First and Second Class.The fighting on this one day, the 22nd, cost the French army 27,000 men killed, in addition to wounded and missing in proportion This was a much larger loss than the British suffered on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which is often wrongly cited as the First World War’s high-blood-mark Other advances upon Longwy and Neufchateau were shattered in similar fashion to those further south The casualties in August 1914 were not merely statistically more terrible, but dealt the French army a blow from which it never fully recovered — it is remarkable that it recovered at all Fourth Army commander Langle de Cary observed laconically to Joffre: ‘On the whole, results hardly satisfactory’. More than a few senior officers lost offspring both Foch’s only son and his son-in-law perished. The C-in-C urged a renewal of the assault, but Langle ignored him and withdrew.(hide spoiler)]I strongly recommend this excellent book as a companion to Tuchman’s book. The combination will give you a very strong understanding of the war from the start until the end of 1914.

  • Steve
    2019-01-27 02:35

    Catastrophe deserves more than 3 stars. Probably 4 or even 5, but I have to say this is one of longest reads I've had in some time. I think I've been reading this, on and off, for two months. It isn't the writing, since if anything Hastings has grown as a writer. His critical voice, his eye for the suffering soldiers and civilians, the calling out of stupid generals and politicians, is as good as it gets. And on top of that, "Catastrophe" brings some much needed attention to events in the East (Tannenburg, Galacia). In addition Hastings, in a classy gesture, tips his hat to the great Barbara Tuchman, whose The Guns of August has stood for so long as the go-to popular history of WW 1. But it's a history, Hastings reasonably asserts, badly in need of an update. A lot has been uncovered since Tuchman wrote her book. One revelation is that all the participants destroyed or tailored records in order to show themselves in a better light. The re-assembling of this history has, I imagine, been painstaking, though to be honest I didn't read anything in Hastings' effort that changed my impressions of the war. In short, the Germans and Austrians wanted war. And they got it. And Hastings delivers it. At least the first five months, though it felt at times like five years. Hastings is very deliberate in letting the participants speak. This approach does create a real on-the-ground feel for these battles and events. What gets lost however is momentum in the narrative. Maybe this is by design, since the end pages are devoted to the endless trenches, and endless death. No one was going anywhere far for the next few bloody years.

  • Joseph
    2019-02-21 07:27

    Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War is nearly twenty-six hours of audio book covering the last six months of 1914. Last year being the 100th anniversary of The Great War has seen many WWI histories published. I look to each of the many I have read for something new or different. Granted writing a book takes a great deal of effort, but if it does not produce new knowledge, what is the point? Most of the new histories do take up one or two pieces of new information, like the value of railroads in mobilization or presenting cases against long held beliefs. Hastings brings to the table a few thoughts and ideas that are not always thought about. Horses for example. In the early mechanized age, internal combustion was not very dependable, especially in the field. Granted the Marne Taxis have become legendary for delivering 4,000 troops from Paris to the Marne "to save Paris." This did indeed happen, but there were already over 150,000 soldiers in position. Although the help must have been appreciated the number of soldiers did not make a practical difference. Horses were still key in moving artillery, supplies, and providing fodder as cavalry units charged into machine guns. It was easier for governments to conscript people than horses as horses were still valued on farms. Horses on the battlefield provided other challenges too. They quickly became corpses from enemy fire and mistreatment (intentional or not) and littered the battlefield. Armies barely had time to move or bury humans, and no time bury tens of thousands of horses. Britain alone lost nearly half a million horses in the war -- one for every two soldiers killed. Most animals just rotted on the battlefield. Hastings blames Germany for the war and the atrocities, particularly in Belgium. He states that current thinking is that the atrocities were not as bad as reported, in reality they were. Austria-Hungary was also relentless with dealing with civilian populations, horribly so. The Eastern front of the war is covered in more deal than most histories, which is important because that is where the war started. But both Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the reason for the war, slip out of the common historical view. Serbia was ill-prepared for war, not in experience, but material. Austria- Hungary was simply a mess living on faded glories of the past. Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War is a detailed history of the start of WWI. With such detail of the opening six months, it is easy to see how the war evolved and stalemated. Although there is some mention of the alliances, Hastings shows it was more the leadership, civil and military, of Europe that caused the problems and allowed the war to be fought in the first place. Very well done.Read and reviewed strictly for personal use, not for any author or publisher.

  • Jerome
    2019-01-29 01:36

    An exhaustive but readable account of the events of 1914. Hastings begins with the assassination of Ferdinand to the diplomatic machinations of the July crisis, to the outbreak of war in August. Hastings covers all the military actions of 1914 with the right amount of detail, including those events that have been largely forgotten, such as the Austrian invasion of Serbia that actually marked the beginning of the war’s military actions. His treatment of the British Expeditionary Force is very good and he shows how they repeatedly escaped disaster due to luck, sheer French manpower, and German fumbling.Hastings’ writing is clear and moves along at a crisp pace. He provides fair and insightful portraits of all the statesmen and generals that shaped the beginning of the conflict. He also gives good coverage to the experience of civilians. The book’s most memorable and vivid parts deal with the immense suffering that the war brought to ordinary people. Contrary to what Christopher Clark has argued in his recent work, Hastings casts doubt that Europe “slept-walked” into war or that the beginning of the war was just a series of blunders and accidents. Hastings argues that all belligerents went to war for what they saw as genuine threats, and viewed such a course of action as inevitable. Also contrary to what Clark has argued (and more in line what Sean McMeekin has argued), Hastings places blame on Germany for the outbreak of war. He’s not always convincing, but his case for it is clear and readable. Hastings shows how Europe’s statesmen preferred to persist with dangerous policies rather than accept the consequences of admitting their implausibility and failure. This makes the “sleepwalking” thesis more questionable.One of the most striking parts of the narrative is Hastings’s treatment of the war’s morality and the justifications used to prosecute it. In our popular imagination, the alleged merits of the Entente cause became meaningless amid the horrors of the war and the incompetence of those who prosecuted it. Hastings disputes the notion that the First World War was more morally ambiguous than the Second, and that nothing could have justified its massive bloodletting.. He details several episodes of German atrocities during the invasion of Belgium. Excesses are committed by all armies that have ever engaged in war. But far from denying them, as Hastings points out, many German government and press organs sought to justify them. Notably, retaliatory executions of hostages was made into official German policy, and was unmatched in scale in Western Europe during that era. Hastings also finds Germany primarily responsible for the outbreak of war due to its failure to restrain Austria’s belligerent activities. Hasting frequently records French phrases and expects the reader to know what they mean. My schoolboy French was usually enough to puzzle out the meaning, but it was irritating nevertheless.

  • Jean Poulos
    2019-02-16 02:35

    I have spent the past three years reading everything I can get my hands on about world war one. Now that we are on the brink of the one hundredth anniversary of the Great War many new books are coming to market. “Catastrophe 1914” is one of them. In 1930 Sir Winston Churchill wrote “No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening”. Max Hastings’s book addresses only the last six months of 1914. The book is well researched and Hastings draws on a wide range of documents and firsthand account to chronicle the events. The major strength of the book is how Hastings portrays the principal characters, not as stereotype but as real human beings with as many flaws as virtues. The author uses excellent narrative skill as he provides the wide-lens approach to the broad political and economical environment, but he also pays close attention to the details of his characters and their lives that makes for a human story. As you read the book you can see how the author rejects the long held academic theories about the war. He goes step by step and destroys the myths about the war’s beginning, and briefly destroys the theories about the consequence of the wars ending and also about what if German had won. Hasting sketches the steps by which Europe descended into war, he does not break new historiographical ground but rather skillfully outlines evidence by several generations of scholars into a readable narrative that is highly understandable to the lay reader. The author covers both the Western and Eastern fronts of the war as they were entirely different wars being fought at the same time. Hastings held me spellbound throughout the book. If you are interested in WWI history this is an excellent book to provide you with understanding and insight as well as wet your appetite for more. I read this as an audio book. Simon Vance did an excellent job narrating the long book.

  • Manchester Military History Society (MMHS)
    2019-02-11 04:52

    A good wide ranging solid account of the first year of World War 1 covering both the strategic view and the view of the men and women in the front lines. Also some myth busting of the early performance of the BEF.It was good to see attention to the often over looked eastern front.I found some of the language Hastings uses a bit too smart for my liking. For example he keeps mentioning the German host when talking about the German armies. Maybe it's just me, but I found this quite irritating.Nonetheless it's made me want to read more about the WW1 eastern front, for example I hadn't heard about the Siege of Przemyśl, the longest siege of WW1.Can anyone recommend any books as I'm surprised to see no obvious books in english on Tannenberg?

  • Walter Mendoza
    2019-02-05 07:31

    Catastrophe 1914, is an cronicle about the WWI. The author examining the beginnings of the WWI, the Sarajevo assassinations, and follows the battlefield fighting; the hellish conditions of the trenches during the 1914. The book covers whom and what started the conflict, the describes in vivid detail, the terrible tragedy of war. Well researched, with internal doccuments of the Triple Entente nations and the Triple Alliance. The major events from politics and military strategy, to the experiences of the infantery soldiers. Well written, an brilliant study and analisys; one of the best. I recommend this book.

  • Charles Inglin
    2019-02-02 07:44

    An excellent account of how Europe went to war in 1914 and the first months of the war. Max Hastings presents, I think, a fairly balanced accounting of the arrogance, pig-headedness, chauvinism and just plain stupidity that propelled Europe into a total war which would destroy three monarchies. I would perhaps quibble with his laying a greater amount of blame on Germany and somewhat less on France. While Kaiser Wilhelm could, had he been a more sagacious and stronger man, have stopped the march to war, the machinations of now largely forgotten French diplomats to insure that war started, and with it the chance to revenge the defeat of 1871, was somewhat glossed over.Well illustrated is the overall poor quality of the higher commanders on all sides, including the Germans. Despite the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War which demonstrated the vast technological advances in the killing power of rifles, machineguns and artillery, tactical thinking was still heavily influenced by the Napoleonic Wars, with disastrous results. With most of the combatant armies having spent almost a hundred years largely involved in fighting colonial wars, the sheer butchery resulting from two forces with armed with the latest in weaponry shocked everyone, and the senior commanders had no answers except to do the same thing over and over with ever greater numbers of troops. But as Hastings points out, they had few options. Even when one side managed a local breakthrough, the communications, transportation and logistics technology to exploit it didn't exist and wouldn't until World War II. And the heavy losses incurred early in the war insured that politically neither side could negotiate an end without gaining enough to justify the losses. So they were condemned to fight to exhaustion or political collapse.So, the moral of the story is, wars are easy to start, but incredibly difficult to end.

  • L Fleisig
    2019-02-20 07:32

    "O piteous spectacle! O bloody times!Whiles lions war and battle for their dens,Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity." Wm. Shakespeare. King Henry VI, Part 3.Max Hasting's "Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" is a masterfully crafted account of Europe's descent into the apocalypse known as the Great War. It is a study that focuses on Europe's sabre-rattling lions who led millions headlong into the valley of the shadow of death. It also provides a compelling parallel narrative of the lambs, civilian and soldier alike, who in abiding their enmity provided fodder for the carnage that inexorably followed.Hasting has two stories to tell and he tells them well. The first third or so of the book covers the events leading up to the commencement of the war. The book starts, as many histories of WWI do, with a Prologue on the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. However, Hasting makes a compelling case for the notion that the events in Sarajevo were but the last link in a chain of events that led to the war. Hastings looks at Sarajevo as a pretext for a war that many European leaders, most notably those in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, were hungry for; while other leaders (France, Russian and to a lesser extent Britain) felt was inevitable and who did little to stop the march to war.The remainder of the book is devoted to an account of the first five months of the war, from August through December, 1914. Those marked were marked by the great opening offensives, the Germans march through Belgium toward Paris, the Russian offensive in the East and the Austrian offensives in Poland and Serbia. The outcome of these battles, particularly in the west, drew the battle-lines over which the next three years of trench warfare were fought. The carnage was, of course, enormous and Hastings tells the stories of these great battles, the Marne, first Ypres, Mons, Tannenburg, and Poland, in a way that is thorough and elucidating. This is not a classic military history filled with the minutiae of these battles. However, Hastings provides sufficient details in clear prose to give the non military historian (such as this reviewer) a comprehensive picture of the scope of each great battle, and the geography and strategy of the warring sides.Two aspects of the book stood out for me and warrant some attention. First, Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said that "[a] single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." It is quite easy, when looking at the canvas of a war that took millions, for an author or reader to focus on these huge losses and become desensitized to the great human tragedy at hand. Hasting, by focusing not just on the lions fighting over their dens but on the lambs who had to avoid their enmity avoids this problems. Hastings has interwoven into his big picture narrative vignettes of the stories of soldiers (on all sides) at the front and their loved ones at home. Hastings accomplishes this in a seamless fashion that does not distract from the big picture but which successfully manages to keep the readers eye also on the ongoing tragedy and folly of the war.Second, while accounts of the action on the `eastern front' are legion for popular WWII histories, many WWI histories I have read pay scant attention to the great battles that raged in Prussia, Serbia and Poland. In fact the only complete narrative of Russia's disastrous offensive at the Battle of Tannenburg I have read came in a work of fiction, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's August 1914, which battle forms the centerpiece of Solzhenitsyn's (historically accurate) fictional narrative. Hastings examines the Battle of Tannenburg and the large offensives that took place in Galicia and Serbia.Hastings writes with authority and erudition. He also writes with a clean, engaging prose that made wading into the trenches of a complicated subject both an educational and enjoyable experience. Hastings has written a compelling and authoritative account of the first year of the `war to end all wars' and I recommend Catastrophe to anyone with even a remote interest in the subject matter.

  • Michael
    2019-02-08 03:50

    This is classic Max Hastings - history writing at its finest. Best known for his books on World War II, the author turns his sights to the outbreak of World War I and the initial campaigns in both the West and the East between August and December 1914. The result is an extremely well-written narrative that brings not only the political and military personalities to life but also conveys the horrors of the war as experienced by front-line officers, soldiers, and non-combatants. One of the strengths of Mr. Hastings' books is how he examines and assesses the decisions and performance of senior leadership, as well as conventional thinking (both at the time and since) about his chosen subject matter, but in a fair and balanced manner. Catastrophe 1914 is no exception - for example, his examination of whether the war "was worth it" is both refreshing and timely.

  • James Murphy
    2019-02-13 01:52

    This is an excellent, comprehensive account of Europe's stumble into war during the 2d half of 1914, beginning with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, explaining the diplomatic moves by all the parties involved which led to open warfare, the opening months of the war characterized by maneuver, and, with the inability of either side to force a decision, the beginnings of static warfare in the trenches by Christmas.Hastings spends considerable time describing the great social upheaval in the final few days before the armies marched. In fact, though his history is primarily a military one, it's comprehensive enough to include the impact of the war's outbreak on all the belligerent societies. Equally important to him is how those societies adjusted. What was the public mood? Expectations? How did people learn to live with the new reality of war?But it is a military history. Hastings covers all the important aspects of the opening campaigns, Eastern and Western Fronts. The narrative of the German attack through Belgium and France which culminated in the Battle of the Marne is told mostly from the perspective of the British units involved. Surprisingly, I thought, Hastings is sharply critical of British Expeditionary Force leadership during these opening campaigns. He's generally approving of French leadership and unit performance, but his narrative of the war's beginning focuses on the British for the most part, told from all the many angles: military, political, social, and personal.He completes his picture on Christmas Day, 1914. His analysis of the situation at that time is fascinating. And because he knows where the story went from there, as we do, too, he spends time explaining how the situation at the end of the year allowed the future events to come about. He uses the word catastrophe only once, but that's his judgment of what happened to Europe in 1914. Who was to blame? He concludes the war was caused primarily by Germany. Though it didn't seek to bring on the war, it failed to use its influence in restraining Austria-Hungary from going to war with Serbia, thus allowing that first dangerous domino to trigger all the military alliances which were in place among Europe's powers, leading Russia then France to mobilize and finally bringing Britain in when it invaded Belgium. Hastings writes that Germany allowed Europe to slide into a general war because it thought it could win. Perhaps as history the book doesn't give us much new information or break new ground, but it paints a very clear picture of the complicated maneuvering, diplomatic and military, during those 5 months. It's a picture well done and valuable for that.

  • Sean
    2019-01-23 02:53

    Hastings continues to impress -- at this point, I'd read anything he writes. A nice, in-depth history of the run-up to the war, and then a very detailed analysis of the first few months of the conflict. Both fronts are covered in great detail, as are the home fronts. For the armchair student of military history, this is the most interesting period of the war, with maneuver on a massive scale and competing militaries struggling, often unsuccessfully, to develop doctrine to cope with changes in technology and command & control.* He lays blame for the conflict at the feet of Germany, for agreeing to back the Hapsburgs carte blanche in their punitive expedition against the Serbs. Others, the Russians and Austrians included, share in this blame but to a lesser degree.* Hastings makes a strong moral argument for the necessity of the war against the Central Powers. Germany, despite lacking a premeditated plan to do so, demonstrated a commitment to expansionism at the expense of her neighbors. She also displayed brutal indifference to the peoples she conquered, bested only by German behavior in the conflict to follow.* Much of our conception of the war is influenced by the pacifist writings of the Remarques and the Owenses-- a pointless slaugther executed by hapless buffoons and despised by the ordinary man in the trenches. Not so, says Hastings. Granted, the war needn't have come, but once it did, most supported carrying on to the bitter end. The alternative was German hegemony over Europe. Given German behavior in occupied territories, fighting against this hegemony wasn't pointless or stupid, even if the cost was awful to bear.* Hastings is catty and doesn't reserve judgment. Look out, Moltke the Younger, you just got bitch-slapped.* If all you know about the war is muddy trenches, this book will be particularly enlightening.

  • Brendan Hodge
    2019-01-24 09:31

    Max Hasting's first book on World War One stands at an interesting point between existing books. It doesn't fall neatly into the existing genres of books focused entirely on the causes of the Great War, nor histories of the whole war, nor histories focused on a single battle. Even at the three quarters point reading it, I wasn't sure how this was working out. It is good on the start of the war (it was the Germans' fault) and on the initial battles of the Frontiers and Marne, but I've read other books which are as good on those topics. However, as I reached the end I came to the decision that doing a medium-depth survey of the entire first calendar year of the war, from its causes through the Christmas truces in the trenches, is a valuable and unique enterprise. I would strongly recommend the book, and to general readers as well as those particularly interested in World War One.

  • Socraticgadfly
    2019-02-11 07:27

    American readers: Take this British book with a grain of salt.Why? Because while Max Hastings is very good on military tactical issues, and solid on strategic ones in the first shifting of his pen from World War II to World War I, he's close to being all wet on geopolitical issues related to the start of the war.First, the good.Hastings gives more detailed coverage to the Eastern Front at the start of the war than do many WWI intros, which often talk about the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, and nothing else.Hastings also covers how the Russians rolled back the Austrians in Galicia.And, even more exposing the dry rot of the Hapsburg Empire, how Serbia, the cause of the war, also rolled back the Hapsburgs' two different early fall and late fall 1914 invasions.On the Western Front, he rightly faults Joffre's Plan 17 and has little good to say about Sir John French as the BEF commander. And, he notes how Moltke had weakened the original Schlieffen Plan even before the start of the war, how he weakened it further with Tannenberg worries, and how he had a nervous collapse before the two sides made their race to the Channel. He also notes that the French army, outside of things such as the rouge pantaloons, was not that much worse than the German, and how some German commanders, like Kluck and Bulow, as well as the royal commanders, were either too old (them) or not fully competent for general reasons (some of the royals).On larger strategic issues, he raises the issue of whether the Schlieffen Plan could even succeed with a pre-mechanized army. I say, just possible. The Germans would have needed to have more fodder ready for horses, and definitely more replacement boots for troops. If this AND an unaltered Schlieffen plan had been in place, the Germans might just have pulled it off.The one thing Hastings gets right on geopolitics is wondering why Germany didn't do a better PR job on the international law violations of Britain's blockade by extension later in the war.===Now the bad, and why this book gets just three stars.Hastings subscribes to the traditional German war guilt idea on the cause of the war, and from that, seeks to build a legal-type case for British intervention.First, on a "balance of powers" issue, you don't have to have German war guilt as a primary cause, or even No. 2 after simple balance of powers issues. Britain's early 1700s intervention in the War of the Spanish Succession, for example, didn't go looking for "war guilt."Second, related to that, is that his attempt to "pin the collar" on Germany is just wrong.Hastings engages with Christopher Clark's excellent new book, "The Sleepwalkers," but only to reject it, and Clark's labeling of Serbia as a "rogue state."I'll go one better than Clark, myself. I rarely use the term "cultural DNA," but with Serbia, having read books about the original battle of Kosovo and its aftermath, and seen the 1990s ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, I make an exception. "Rogue state" might be a bit mild; "semi-failed state" might be even better.Third, and related to that, Hastings talks about the would-be violations of international law that were in Austria's ultimatum to Serbia. True, but it had less such violations than NATO's 1990s ultimatum to Serbia. This issue got mention online at about the time Hastings' book was headed to press. Surely, he could have addressed it in the prologue, within modern book publishing time frames. And, he chose not to.Fourth, near the end, Hastings adds in what I can only call a "British imperialism whopper." In the last chapter, an epilogue though not officially titled as such, he claims the US contributed "little militarily" to World War I.True in 1917; not true in 1918, where the US had 1 million troops on the Western Front by early July and 2 million by the end of the war. Yes, the US was using Allied artillery and some other munitions and weapons; it was cheaper than shipping them, since an unoccupied France could make them onsite. At the same time, the US had been supplying warhorses for Britain and France from the start of the war.The increasing American flood of men spurred the desperation behind Ludendorff's Kaiserschlact, and the expected continuation of that into 1919 led to Ludendorff's collapse in October 1918.Beyond that, at St. Michel and elsewhere, American troops contributed significantly to the Hundred Days Offense that rolled back German gains from spring 1918.Without American intervention, Germany still couldn't have won the war. It might have been able to keep Austria propped up, and keep from losing, though.In addition to justifying British entry, despite his dismissal of American military contributions, I have the feeling that Hastings is trying to sell American readers on the worthiness of American intervention.Well, there, he's plain wrong. It's true that a German Mitteleuropa, while certainly nowhere near as bad as Nazism, wouldn't have been ideal. But, it would have been much less a problem for the US than for Britain. And, if achieved only at the price of Austro-Hungarian collapse, might not have been worth that much anyway.In any case, I've always said that we should have protested the British blockade by extension, on international law grounds, just as much as German submarine zones, then followed George Washington's warning against entangling alliances and let the Entente and Central Powers beat each other senseless.Hastings' "war guilt" and seeming British imperialism get this book knocked down from 4-plus stars to 3. His whopper about American intervention costs it another star to fall to 2.

  • Olethros
    2019-02-03 01:30

    -De lo interesantísimo a lo común pero notable.-Género. Historia.Lo que nos cuenta. El libro 1914. El año de la catástrofe (publicación original: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War, 2013) es un repaso al año 1914 en relación a la Gran Guerra, a las circunstancias nacionales entre los países implicados, a las reacciones tras el magnicidio en Sarajevo, a las actitudes que mantuvieron mientras escalaba la tensión y sus reacciones en el momento álgido para, después, sumergirse en la contienda a nivel táctico y operativo durante los primeros meses de la Primera Guerra Mundial.¿Quiere saber más de este libro, sin spoilers? Visite:

  • Peter
    2019-02-18 03:56

    In “Catastrophe 1914” Max Hastings—-a master historian of WWII—-ventures back in time to WWI. It begins with details of the buildup of tensions in Europe between the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy): increasing militarism, especially in a Germany that was effectively run by the Army under a Kaiser enamored of military pomp; creation of alliances tying countries together in military pacts; widespread labor unrest, revolutionary activity, and terrorism. The war began without any serious territorial or strategic aspirations-—national pride, long-held distrust and hostility, and justification of the expensive standing armies appear to have been the stimuli. The prewar question was not “Will there be war?” Hastings rejects Barbara Tuchman’s thesis (The Guns of August, 1962) that WWI was an accident—-a minor event triggered by a set of alliances that forced nations to go unwillingly to war. Instead, he argues, there was intent among some parties, particularly Austria-Hungary and Germany, who badly misjudged the consequences. While the war was unnecessary, it was no accident. So the real questions were “When will the war begin, and "What will be the match that lights the fire?” The year was 1914. Belgrade in Serbia--a small nation known as a seething cauldron of revolution and terrorism, fearful of Austria-Hungary’s intentions, and an ally of Russia in the Triple Entente--was the place, and the late June 1914 assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Dual Monarchy, was the match. Hastings notes with irony that had some other major figure been the target the war might have been avoided-—Franz Ferdinand was ardently opposed to any Austro-Hungarian military ventures. A period of ho-hum was followed in late July when Austria-Hungary gave Serbia an ultimatum designed for refusal. Serbia’s rejection led Austria-Hungary to declare war. Russia then declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany declared war on Russia, and France declared war on Germany. Britain declared war only after Germany invaded Belgium, a small nation protected by a treaty with Britain. The Italians joined the allies after putting their allegiance out to bid. So began the horrific bloodletting that took an estimated 29 million military casualties—-over 13 million killed, almost 11 million wounded, and almost 5 million missing or captured—-plus an untold number of civilian casualties. It also left much of France a barren area of shell holes, created a revolution in Russia that haunted the world for 70 years, and ended with the Treaty of Versailles that contributed greatly to WWII. This was clearly a butterfly effect, with a very small change creating massive disturbances. Hastings has always found space to be critical of the politicians and general command. Catastrophe: 1914 is no different. On the Western Front Sir John French, CIC of the British Expeditionary Force, was “pusillanimous,” retreating often and always faster than he ever advanced, complaining all the while about the lack of French assistance. Marshall Joffre, the French CIC and overall commander, an occasionally excellent commander, complained with good reason about the BEF but thought that courage alone would win the day and marched wave after wave of his soldiers into German machine guns. Later in the war Churchill created two disasters—-an ill-conceived defense of Antwerp and the massive folly of Gallipoli. Distrust among the allies was rampant, bringing to mind Napoleon’s view that the best way to win a war was to first defeat your allies The first month of war on the Western front was filled with German advances into France at the Battle of the Frontiers, but the Battle of the Marne in early September changed the picture dramatically. French forces, with little BEF support, stopped the German advance and forced a retreat, though with great losses. The Germans responded not by saying they had been outfought, but that they had been betrayed into retreat at the cusp of victory; Hastings eschews this notion. The Marne turned the tide because of French courage and tenacity.On the Eastern Front the Russians made the serious mistake of dividing forces, sending most against Austria-Hungary and the rest against Germany. They suffered a major defeat in at the Battle of Tannenberg. Thereafter the balance on the Eastern Front depended on the relative incompetence of the two armies: the Russians were more adept in the south than the Austro-Hungarians, but less capable than the Germans in the north.Again, as we know, the initial war of offense became a war of defense, with static lines defined by trenches separated by No Mans Land defining the positions at Ypres in Belgium, and thereafter. The year ended with a stalemate that lasted for four more years.It’s a tragic tale—a waste with consequences extending for many decades. As expected, Hastings does a masterly job of detailing the chaos. And we have four years of war remaining for him to define and detail.Reviewed Books by Max Hastings: Catastrophe, 1914: Europe Goes to War Bomber CommandInferno: The World at War, 1939-45 Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45 Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45

  • Edgar Raines
    2019-01-23 09:37

    Hastings is a wonderful writer and has mastered a substantial literature in French and German as well as English. I think he presents balanced arguments about the major questions regarding the coming and conduct of the war. He is not a supporter of "the sleepwalker" thesis. European statesmen were "deniers" who refused to recognize the dangers of the policies that they were pursuing. He further believes that a British failure to intervene would have allowed the Germans to defeat the French and Belgians in 1914. The only question for the British was would they permit the Germans autocracy to obtain a dominant position in Europe. Even so, it was the German invasion of Belgium that made it politically feasible for the Asquith government to intervene. I find Hasting's vivid portrait of the major commanders convincing. Moltke was, like the Kaiser, a weak man masquerading as a strong man. He was prone to second guess himself and virtually abdicated command to the field army commanders. Joffre "merits extreme censure for his for his Plan XVII assaults," but he also had the insight and strength of character, once he realized that the initial French attacks had failed, to discern how he might counter the German sweep through Belgium and then act to do so while under extreme pressure. French lacked the professional knowledge and psychological balance to command the BEF. Conrad was a man bewitched by his personal visions of glory, a fabulous willfully ignorant of the facts on the ground. If anything, he was more incompetent than Field Marshal French. The Russian commanders were consistently mediocre. Hindenberg was but a front for the public. Ludendorff was the brains of that duo, but while an excellent tactician he was no strategist. Hastings finds the time to explain tactics and equipment and how these effected the conduct of battle. One of the great strengths of this book is his description of how the common soldiers and civilians on both sides experienced the war. Hastings gives a great deal of attention to the Austrian campaigns in Serbia, which is a real contribution. The Austro-Hungarian and Russian campaigns in Galicia, involving many more men and arguably more important, somehow receive a much less detailed treatment. While Hastings gives more attention than many English-language writers to the French Army, still the BEF receives disproportionate attention. Thus Smith-Dorrien's II Corps at Le Cateau receives half a chapter while Franchet d'Esperey's attack at Dinant, equally if not more important to allowing the French Fifth Army to retire intact, one of the preconditions for a subsequent successful Allied conunteroffensive, receives half a paragraph.This is a very good book that comes close to being a great one. On a five point scale I would rate it a 4.5.

  • Jonathan
    2019-02-11 07:34

    Is there anything really new under the sun to say about the outbreak of the First World War and the campaigns of its first 5 months? Well, no, not really, but that doesn't stop one of my favorite military historians from giving it a good go, and your reading this book will not go unrewarded. Taking into account the best of the last 20 years or so's historical research, Hastings has concluded that Germany and Austria bear the primary responsibility for the disaster that was WWI, and that preventing a German-dominated Europe was a worthwhile war aim, in spite of the heavy sacrifices. As he always does, Hastings peppers his narrative with peppery verdicts and conclusions on the decision-taking and war-making abilities of the various politicians and military leaders but, hey, what would a Max Hastings history book be without those judgements? It's part of the fun! Best of all, of course, is Hastings' mastery of the sources combined with his rich and creamy prose that makes reading his work so pleasurable. If you haven't read a good book about the causes of the war and how it played out in its first year since "The Guns Of August" then curl up with this one. You won't regret it.

  • Teejay
    2019-02-18 05:44

    I have nothing against Mr. Hastings, and I commend and admire the effort and meticulous research he invested in creating this.But I have never read a duller book. I lost count of the times I fell asleep trying to read it; one such event cost me $60 in cab fare after I missed my Metra stop. Even before that, however, I had commented on the abstruse method which which Hastings creates his sentences, with parenthetical and comma'd editorial, comparisons with other historians' views, and turning-around of the characters such that you need to go back and re-read each sentence just to maintain subject/verb congruity. Plus, he has the maddening (and snobbish) habit of refusing to translate from French to English, although he does so with every other language within scope of this book. Apparently, I am not sufficiently erudite to absorb a tome of this purported magnificence... So I will ascribe my reaction to my own inabilities, and not to Hastings's acumen. There is a wealth of fact, and well-reasoned editorial within these pages. Good luck staying awake for it.

  • Peter Mcloughlin
    2019-01-24 06:30

    It seems with the Centennial of 1914 this year a lot of books are coming out on the first world war. This one covers the July crisis and the diplomatic meltdown that lead to the opening catastrophe of the twentieth century. It then covers the mobilization and fighting in August the trench digging and stalemate after the battle of the Marne. The war up to the end of the year. It describes how Europe went from peace to a war that killed 10 million people and paved the way for an even worse conflict 25 years later. Hastings spends a lot of the second half of the book describing the conflict as it developed over the year militarily. There is a lot of detail here and is of much interest to a military history buff maybe a little too much detail. Trying to follow too many details makes it a little confusing for the reader but what is World War Ones beginning if not confusing and complicated. The author does a pretty good job of describing the social history as well.

  • Chris F
    2019-01-31 02:45

    Very good book dealing with the lead up to the beginning and first few months of WWI. It is well researched and written, and steers clear of the pitfalls that many books one WWI fall into. No one will agree with everything an historian has to say one this topic, as the evidence is open to different interpretations, but this book goes into a lot of depth and is better than many.

  • Judith Bienvenu
    2019-02-06 02:30

    It was pretty good. The author's objective was to have a lot of personal stories woven into the historical account, and that really didn't add a lot for me. Plus, he ends the book after the fronts stop moving (late 1914), and pays pretty much no attention to the later (albeit, more boring) trench warfare periods. I would have liked a more complete treatment.

  • Mark Gray
    2019-02-10 09:40

    As usual a thought provoking and well researched book from Max Hastings. He outlines the more mobile war of late 1914 which most of us know little about although the horror is starting to form which later developed into the static hell until the armistice

  • Jill
    2019-02-21 05:49

    August 2014 will mark the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. It will probably also mark the onslaught of numerous additional books on the subject. Stealing a march on that inevitable blitz, Knopf has published Catastrophe, 1914: Europe Goes to War, by 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. 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. Their 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 importantly, Hastings notes, had no understanding of the strength that Germany had from its industrial growth; they only knew how to measure strength by military might.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.] 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, who 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.”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.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.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.

  • Steven Hull
    2019-02-14 06:35

    They are all dead. A century after the outbreak of the Great War the combatants are gone, casualties of mortality. The eminent British historian Max Hastings has written Catastrophe 1914 about the first five months of that war, now known as World War I, to mark the centennial of the war’s beginning. The Great War forever upset the prevailing global order, killed eight million people, and still shadows today’s international affairs. “Catastrophe” aptly communicates what the war wrought during its first 150 days. Hastings believes that contrary to prevailing wisdom, the war was not inevitable and was no accident. Rather, naively arrogant decisions by the leaders and politicians of seven countries (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Serbia, Great Britain, France, and Belgium) disowned peace in favor of war. Germany’s blank guarantee to support Austria-Hungary in any actions she might take against Serbia in the wake of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination put the decision for war in the hands of its most corrupt and decrepit belligerent. German overconfidence in her ability to defeat France drove her recklessness. The British initially were distracted, having all eyes on the unrest in Ireland, but they rapidly surged into the fray once Belgium’s neutrality was violated. And France? She fought to recapture national pride and international legitimacy lost as a consequence of the defeat suffered at Prussian hands two generations before.Hastings, being the loyal British subject, blames Germany for causing the catastrophe. This, however, is not supported by events leading up to war. The intervening years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the outbreak of the Great War was the high tide of imperialism and colonization. Europe mercilessly divided up the third world. Even Japan and the United States participated on the periphery of this contest for foreign spoils. Competition for resources and prestige led to arms races, naval competitions, and a series of “crises” that by the summer of 1914 left Europe a powder keg that the Archduke’s assassination ignited. Hastings also ignores the influence of the ever-present sources of strife within and among the European powers, including ethnic friction, historical hatreds, and competition among the various monarchies for prestige. Although Hastings promised to marry the Great War’s military and diplomatic histories, he abandons this goal and concentrates instead on the military history. The result is a deftly crafted tour-de-force of combat on the Western and Eastern fronts and the war at sea. Hastings presents an abundance of tactical and strategic detail and personal anecdotes from the war’s participants. The horrible price in men, animals, material, and civilians is featured. The grinding slaughter was neither anticipated or mitigated by civilian and military leaders who seemed to be out of their league, flailing in a new kind of war refereed by artillery and the machine gun, not courage, national arrogance, or mediocre statesmanship. The ‘people’ were simple pawns and suffered greatly. The civilians marooned on the battlefields were driven from their homes, pillaged by both sides, and summarily executed for known and fabricated reasons. The citizen armies were, bluntly put, little more than machine gun and cannon fodder. By December 1914 the Western Front featured 500 miles of trenches from Switzerland to the North Sea, and exhausted and diminished armies facing each other across a new terrain feature, the paradoxically named “no man’s land”. The Eastern Front started out and remained the battlefield of the incompetents—Russia and Austria-Hungary. Even the Germans, despite the victory at Tannenberg, struggled. Five months of war and monumentally bad senior military leadership left this front a shambles of broken men, broken armies, and the seeds of future social upheaval. The Great War had quickly evolved into a merciless slugfest, with the movement of armies measured in centimeters and lost and damaged lives numbered in millions. Catastrophe 1914 is high quality history, something that Max Hastings has been known for throughout his career. His academic British prose is stilted and boorish at times, but his research, ideas, and thought processes are first rate. A consummate Monday morning quarterback, or perhaps football goalie, he is harsh on military and political leaders--sometimes overly so. Yet, many of these leaders were not up to the task of modern industrial war. They habitually wasted thousands of lives for little or no gain. He is particularly hard on Britain. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, for example, is shown as an impulsive, glory-seeking leader ignorant of geography and the nature of the fighting. The following year he would feature these weaknesses in the Dardanelles campaign at a place called Gallipoli. It would take Hitler and World War II to save Churchill from the purgatory of his Great War failures. The British Generals were not much better. Sir John French headed the small British Expeditionary Force. He was too old, too scared, too cautious, and unable to adjust to the scale and intensity of the fighting. The French had Joffre, who came within a breadth of loosing the war in the first month by engaging the Germans in the wrong place, yet recovered in time to blunt the German offensive’s right wing as it cascaded towards Paris in early September. When courage and firmness were indispensible, Joffre had both in abundance. A final administrative point—the book’s maps of army movements, so important to understand battles in space and time, could have been much better. Detail was often lacking and more maps would have been useful. This deficiency was unfortunate, since Hastings’s informative and cohesive prose deserved better graphic accompaniment. This book is an excellent description of the first five months of the Great War, which ultimately determined the nature and length of the following four years of the conflict. Hastings demonstrates why war is such a waste; why second and third-rate political and military leaders, especially ones with nationalistic, ethnic, and historical axes to grind are especially dangerous; and why generations without their “war” are susceptible to the siren call of martial glory, easy victory, and the inevitable disillusionment that engulfs everyone drawn into the vortex of “their” war. Unfortunately, the early massive sacrifices begat a stubbornness and allegiance to sunk costs that assured the death and destruction would continue until the exhaustion of the combatants forced the emergence of peace four years hence. Are there lessons for us in all of this? We have already experienced, on a smaller scale, how we too can be led to war. The Bush administration and the Neocons invaded Iraq in 2003 for the wrong reasons and accomplished little. The result was eight years of death and destruction on both sides. Beware—we may experience this again if a new generation of young, fresh political and military trigger pullers, oblivious to the harsh realities of war, have their way with Iran, Syria, and Russia. Once the fighting begins, the outcomes and the costs in blood and national treasure are not to be anticipated, regardless of the assurances of the perpetrators. The Great War is but another example of this truism.