The fact that a century has passed since the tragic summer of 1914 does not limit the fascination with which so many study the outbreak of World War I. It never ceases to intrigue me, and I suspect many others as well, to read about the rising tensions of years before 1914, the Sarajevo assassination which triggered the actual conflict, the missteps and miscalculations that dragged country after country into the fighting, and most of all the first few battles that preceded the long, disastrous stalemate that lasted until 1918, the consequences of which still affect us today. Among the many accounts of the early war Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, published in 1962, still stands head and shoulders above the rest. But now at last it has a near equal companion: Max Hasting's Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War.
The book begins with a Prologue on the Sarajevo assassinations, then recapitulates the diplomatic and military position of the various European powers before tracing the grim descent into conflict. Hastings chooses to begin his chronicle of the real fighting with the Austrian invasion of Serbia, which often gets overlooked in order to focus on the Germans, Russians, French and British. But the movements of the major powers, including the early battles of the Marne and Tannenberg and the bloody engagements at Ypres and Lodz, get plenty of attention, as do the naval maneuverings (including German shelling of British coastal cities and British aerial bombardment of Cuxhaven) and the actions of nations like Italy which remained non-belligerent in 1914. Hastings has little time for the arguments of some modern revisionist historians, arguing that a quick German victory would not just have led to a Common Market 50 years early (as Niall Ferguson and others have maintained) but would instead have been disastrous, not just for the Allies but for the world. Similarly, Hastings dismisses arguments that stories of German atrocities were exagerrated and argues that they really did occur, but puts them in context by pointing out that mistreatment of subject or colonized peoples was practiced by many nations. His caustic descriptions, like the Austrian generals who were better waltzers than fighters, are as amusing as they are perceptive.
Max Hastings is a journalist and editor as well as a military historian. He writes clearly and lucidly and has the ability to make the most confusing of battlefield maneuvers understandable to civilians. He is able to give insight into the characters of such disparate characters as Sir Edward Grey, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Tsar Nicholas II, Conrad von Hotzendorf, or General Ferdinand Foch with a few well chosen anecdotes and vignettes. I also appreciated his ability to describe small, seemingly unimportant moments that give color and vitality to his account: mobilization orders being announced in the German city of Freiburg by a trumpeteer, for example, or the way a Russian village elder explained to confused peasants that they had to leave their fields because the Father Tsar needed their help, and especially his many quotes from letters and diaries from newly enlisted soldiers (including some disguised women!) and their loved ones. The segments dealing with civilians coping with the conflict were interesting as well, but not surprisingly the most affecting sections dealt with the killed, wounded, and imprisoned soldiers and their sufferings. The book ends in December 1914 with a description of some of the unofficial "Christmas truces" and with the dawning recognition that the war was going to be a long drawn out affair, fought mainly in trenches with no hope of rapid movement for years to come. It's an appropriately somber finish for this excellent history, which will receive pride of place next to Tuchman in my bookcase.
on October 28, 2013
I've read "Das Reich" and "Overlord," both of which left a deep impression on me that compelled me to take on his 600-page account of 1914.
This work both overlaps with, and takes off from, Tuchman's "Guns of August." Hastings acknowledges his indebtedness to her work in a preface, and so he opens the door to the inevitable comparisons. Some of that influence is seen in his mirroring Tuchman's habit of using untranslated French, which continues to tax my long-forgotten high-school knowledge. His work is like "The Guns of August, September, October, November, and December," and so filled in many holes in my understanding of the events of 1914. Like Tuchman, he goes light on the origins of the war and the breakdown of negotiations after the assassination of Ferdinand and gets right into the more exciting fighting, which he describes well, but somehow without Tuchman's gift.
Hastings includes a variety of sources and perspectives from first-hand eyewitnesses (diaries and letters are prominent throughout), which reveal how the war affected everyday people. Hastings does have a gift for using these sources to show that the war's truths were clearly evident to a few who lived them. Yet, his account is somewhat rambling at times, and his broader themes remain lost under the heavy weight of details. I missed the biting, revisionist criticism of "Overlord," or the coldly factual, pared down, but damning journalism of "Das Reich." He puts much of the blame for this war on the Germans, but even that conclusion is weakly argued and fumbled a bit in awkward diction; this is not the Hastings I remember or fell in love with.
Strong points included his descriptions of fighting around Ypres and Galicia; the early naval action in the North Sea; home front events and medical care; and a curious fascination with the veterinarian aspects of the war. He covers the British, Austrians, Germans, French, Serbians, and Russians, in that order of prominence; his lightness on the French is doubly peculiar because of his obvious facility with and love for that language. Another curiosity is that Tuchman largely ignored the North Sea to focus on the Goeben, whereas the reverse is true of Hastings.
So, Hastings delivers a general history of 1914 that describes the events well enough for the uninitiated.
on October 8, 2013
Sir Max Hastings is a distinguished British historian. In "Catastrophe 1914" Hastings examines the beginnings of World War I and follows the battlefield fighting of that ominous and crucial year in twentieth century history. We see how the war began with the spark being lit at Sarejvo Bosnia with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, 1914. Ferdinand was the heir apparent to the tottering throne of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. With his death the allies of Serbia: the Triple Entente nations of Great Britain, France and Czarist Russia were at war against the Triple Alliance powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.
The military chapters discuss in generalized prose the battles of the French Frontier, Mons, Ypres, Tanneburg and others in the opening months of the sanguinary world conflict. Hastings is good at covering the actions on both the Western and Eastern fronts. Hastings is also adept at succinctly describing the character and leadership of such leaders as: Joffre of France; Molkte of Germany and Sir John French of Great Britain. Sir Max allows us to eavesdrop at high level strategy sessions in the capitals of the belligerent powers from Berlin to Paris to Vienna to London.
The book is over seven hundred small printed pages; includes countless photographs of the period and includes an impressive bibliography and footnotes.
Hastings is a former journalist who writes with the skills of a novelist and the erudition of an expert on World War I.
This book is history writing at its acme. Excellent and well recommended!
on January 4, 2014
While World War II is commonly seen as the closest thing ever in real history to an epic conflict of Good versus Evil, the prevailing view of World War I has been rather different. During and immediately after the war itself, the standard view was that the "Great War" was itself a Good vs. Evil conflict, a battle of "autocracy" versus" "democracy"; that the Kaiser's Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary were clearly at fault for starting the war (a view reflected in the "war guilt" clauses of the Treaty of Versailles) and that the Germans were guilty of a series of "beastly" atrocities.
Soon after the war and continuing up to the present, though, the popular view of WW I has shifted. Now, the conflict is commonly seen as having been set off by a series of accidents and national rivalries with no one side clearly more at fault than the other; the "Germa atrocities" are considered to be mostly a product of war hysteria and pro-Allied propaganda; and the horrible losses of life from four years of trench warfare are seen as basically useless and made worse by the utter stupidity of Allied generals..In this view, the soldiers who survived were left utterly disillusioned and embittered. The war might better not have been fought, or ended quickly, even if the result had been a Central Powers victory enabling Germany to dominate Europe.
One of the purposes of Max Hastings' account of the run-up to the war and the first few months of actual fighting (Aug-Dec. 1914) seems to be to challenge the revised view. Call it a "neo-traditional" view. As Hastings sees it, Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany were after all at moral fault, if not for deliberately seeking the kind of total war that ensued, at least of deliberately and knowingly risking such a war in order to achieve their imperial ends. To Hastings, the German atrocities against civilians in Belgium, France and on the Eastern Front were real and morally significant, if not in the same league with the Nazis in the next war. The high casualties were more or less inevitable given the situation, rather than being solely a result of generals' blundering. (By the way, one impression given here is that whatever mistakes the French and British generals made, they were absolute military geniuses compared to the utterly hapless generals of Austria-Hungary.) Most of the Allied soldiers did not turn against the cause; if not a glorious crusade, it was at least a dirty job that needed to be done. And, in Hastings' view, the soldiers were right; imperial Germany needed to be defeated, even at great human cost, and the victory was not totally futile even if it did lead to a new and even greater war.
In all honesty, I'm not enough of an expert on World War I history to judge for certain which side of this debate is right. But Hastings makes a good case for his viewpoint in the course of presenting a readable narrative of early part of the war, incorporating many eyewitness accounts and human-interest touches. (I should note that, even though Hastings considers the Germans and Austrians to be the "bad guys" in the war, he treats with sympathy the individual Germans and Austrians he writes about.). I can recommend this book as a good and informative read, if not necessarily the last word on the more controversial aspects of WW I.
I fell in love with Max Hasting's writing style with his 1984 book "The Battle for the Falklands". However, I didn't find this book as easy to follow as that one.
The first section of the book provides the social background for the interpersonal relationships (or lack thereof) among the political players. Hastings also gives the social rationale for the anarchists' assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which prompted the war.
The book then delves into the description of the major campaigns of 1914, concluding with the stalemate that led to the immobile trench warfare for which the war is most famous for.
The type-setting made the text seem very dense. At 600+ pages, I guess the publisher needed to do something to keep the page-count down. Luckily for us, they chose to keep the outstanding photographs, maps and charts to illustrate the battles.
It's a good book to understand the political nuances that caused the war, but readers need to be aware they are only getting the first year of combat. I enjoyed it, but will leave the debate to the more scholarly as to whether Hasting's conclusions are correct.
on September 29, 2013
This is another excellent book written by a very talented and erudite writer whose books have so far managed to attract many readers and admirers.
This volume is about the brutish and hellish conditions under which miliions were to be found during 1914 in Europe. To be sure, Mr. Hastings does not doubt at all who was to be blamed for the start of the hostilities and by this is he much credit, again, to the Fischer thesis. In other words, the blame goes to Germany and he proves it again and again, dismissing all the other revisionist historians who tried to rebuke this claim. I must say that he is very convincing in presenting these arguments.
Sir Hastings also does a superb job in trying to convey the day-by-day ordeal and battles that soldiers and civilians alike had to undergo, and he offers the reader a very broad picture of everythings that happened on the front, be it the Western or Eastern one. This he does in a very simple language,which does not include a lot of military jargon and terms-a rare thing for a military historian.
He also analyzes the outcome of the first 5 months of the war, and is extremely critical of the BEF.
on July 24, 2014
There have been a slew of books published this year about World War I, largely due to the fact that we are “celebrating” the hundredth anniversary of the Great War. One of the better ones would be Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by the eminent military historian Max Hastings. Hastings as he did with his earlier study of World War II, Inferno: The World at War 1939-1945 - not only marshals the facts, but brings the events and personalities to life.
Hastings covers the traditional subject of whom and what started the war and does not shrink from an analysis of assigning blame for a war that most thought totally unnecessary. While there is considerable blame to be spread around, Germany ultimately tops the list. This analysis of ultimate blame is not so obvious when on so many occasions and in so many countries one finds “lions led by donkeys.”
Where many of the recent books stop with the start of the war, Hastings continues with a description and analysis of the war for its first five months up to the end of 1914. This is where Hastings really excels. As a celebrated military historian, he conveys his knowledge through his vivid battle descriptions and his astute analysis of their significance. The early battles, both on the western and eastern fronts, would set the tone for the next three years. Hastings analysis shows why a decisive victory was highly unlikely.
World War I would, like many a war, find armies and their leaders fighting in a manner consistent with earlier wars only to face technological innovations that would drastically change the equation. The end result is usually mass slaughter, as it was with World War I. With so many countries and people involved, the consequences were bound to be grotesque. Thus was it so here.
World War I, as Hastings points out, is at the same time fascinating, horrendous and illuminating. But ultimately what we are left with is an unnecessary war, led by fools, whose behaviors would help lead to an even more devastating war in the very near future.
on November 4, 2013
I would actually have given this 4.5 stars but it doesn't allow this. it is better than good but not excellent.
Catastrophe 1914 by Max Hastings is par for the course for this historian writer. What he does is create a narrative history that is easily accessible to the reader and gives a broad over view of events. By sticking just to events in 1914, a war of movement, the reader is not bogged down in slogging trench warfare. One gets a sense of how desperate the fighting was at various times from battle details. Creating a feeling of being there is where Max Hastings excels. There is, however, nothing new here for the veteran reader and some of the conclusions Mr. Hastings reach (such as the effect of a German victory early in the war) are questionable. Overall this is worth reading as it is a good read about the first year of WWI.
Hard as it is to believe, given that when I was younger there were still WWI veterans around, World War I, now approaching the centennial remembrance is becoming a subject of my own interest. Of course the Second World War is fascinating, but WWI was truly global, and far reaching and much has been forgotten.
Apparently Mr. Hastings has reached the same conclusion, as he has written this fine book. 1914 was a strange year as so much happened in so places that started a train wreck. Much like Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, this book describes the interrelated madness of monarchs, and nations.
Hastings is an excellent writer, and his descriptions and narrative are enjoyable to read. I enjoyed his weaving of this fateful year. Certainly, WWI was not just about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. I love how this book discusses outposts of WWI that go beyond the typical British, French German axis.
Well worth the read.
on September 10, 2014
I've read many of Max Hastings' books over the years, most of his World War II stuff, for instance, and I've generally enjoyed it. This book, though it's on World War I, continues the trend. I enjoyed the book and the way it was constructed, for the most part. Hastings concentrates on the start of the fighting itself, focusing on the opening moves on the battlefields and their impact on the rest of the war. The result is a fascinating look at how the fighting developed, with the author making sure to avoid looking back at the fighting from 1918 and imagining trench warfare from the beginning.
I did have one complaint, though. The maps are pretty inadequate, given how much detail is included in them. My rule is that there shouldn't be a place name in a book's narrative that isn't on a map, if you have maps. Military maneuvers that are depicted on maps should all be in the narrative, and vice versa. This book violates these rules both several times. The maps especially depict things like cavalry raids that are never mentioned in the text, and some of them are way too busy, with numerous villages that aren't in the text on the map. The text, by contrast, has places (villages and streams, typically) which are absent from any of the maps, near as I could tell.
One other annoyance: Hastings apparently speaks French, but doesn't speak German. This means that all of the German that appears in the text is translated, but he often produces whole sentences, sometimes several, in French without translation. I finally had to bookmark my French-English translator on my cellphone so I could continue reading this book; not something I found particularly appealing about it. I liked the book, but that I found annoying.