Book Review - Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War in 1914

Posted on on 24 March 2014
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Author: Sir Max Hastings
Publication Date: 12 September 2013

Publisher's Description

"From the best-selling author of All Hell Let Loose comes a magisterial chronicle of the calamity that befell Europe in 1914 as the continent shifted from the glamour of the Edwardian era to the tragedy of total war. In 1914, Europe plunged into the 20th century’s first terrible act of self-immolation- what was then called The Great War. On the eve of its centenary, Max Hastings seeks to explain both how the conflict came about and what befell millions of men and women during the first months of strife.

He finds the evidence overwhelming, that Austria and Germany must accept principal blame for the outbreak. While what followed was a vast tragedy, he argues passionately against the ‘poets’ view’, that the war was not worth winning. It was vital to the freedom of Europe, he says, that the Kaiser’s Germany should be defeated.

His narrative of the early battles will astonish those whose images of the war are simply of mud, wire, trenches and steel helmets. Hastings describes how the French Army marched into action amid virgin rural landscapes, in uniforms of red and blue, led by mounted officers, with flags flying and bands playing. The bloodiest day of the entire Western war fell on 22 August 1914, when the French lost 27,000 dead. Four days later, at Le Cateau the British fought an extraordinary action against the oncoming Germans, one of the last of its kind in history. In October, at terrible cost they held the allied line against massive German assaults in the first battle of Ypres.

The author also describes the brutal struggles in Serbia, East Prussia and Galicia, where by Christmas the Germans, Austrians, Russians and Serbs had inflicted on each other three million casualties.

This book offers answers to the huge and fascinating question ‘what happened to Europe in 1914?’, through Max Hastings’s accustomed blend of top-down and bottom-up accounts from a multitude of statesmen and generals, peasants, housewives and private soldiers of seven nations. His narrative pricks myths and offers some striking and controversial judgements. For a host of readers gripped by the author’s last international best-seller All Hell Let Loose, this will seem a worthy successor".

Centenary News Review

Reviewed by: Ashlee Godwin, Centenary News contributor

The debate over responsibility for the outbreak of the First World War has raged since the 1919 Treaty of Versailles apportioned blame, and thus the lion’s share of reparations, to Germany. As the centenary of the Great War comes into view, some scholars – like Christopher Clark (The Sleepwalkers, 2013) – have argued that it is no longer beneficial to talk in terms of ‘blame’, instead seeing the war as a tragedy that befell all of Europe.

Max Hastings certainly does not buy into this twenty-first-century interpretation of the debate. As he states in his latest work, Catastrophe: ‘The only untenable view of the July crisis is that the war was the consequence of a series of accidents’. In his view, Germany was deserving of most of the blame because it had the power to prevent the war, but did not try to do so. Nor does he believe the war to have been futile or, in Britain’s case, unnecessary, a view that has become fashionable – indeed, embedded in the British national psyche – since the ‘good’ war of 1939–45, during which Western civilisation was imperilled by fascism. Although the Kaiser’s autocratic regime cannot be compared to that of Hitler, Hastings argues, its dominance of Europe would ultimately have posed a significant, perhaps even existential, threat to Britain.

Catastrophe is a true tour de force, beginning in July 1914 in the imperial courts and Cabinet rooms of Europe – where mounting concern, miscalculation and, in some cases, duplicity reigned – and ending in December 1914, with the battlefront stretching from the Belgian coast in the west, down the Franco-German border to East Prussia, Galicia and the Balkans in the east. This unfolding narrative of turmoil along the front is punctuated by brief detours into the war at sea, in the air and on the home front.

The story of the First World War in its early months is an unfamiliar one of movement that is far removed from the trench warfare of the collective memory. Hastings deftly guides the reader, chronologically and geographically in turn, through the running battles played out between mass armies until the pace begins to slow, the ‘Race to the Sea’ is over, and the fighting calcifies into static lines as winter draws in. As Hastings shows, these months brutally exposed the weaknesses of the great armies of Europe and their military commanders, as nineteenth-century strategies collided with twentieth-century weapons. Nowhere is this more poignantly represented than in the image of ‘gleaming’ French officers – wearing pantalons rouges and bedecked in shining, silver curaisses and helmets – leading their troops into battle on horseback, brandishing swords against the strafing fire of German machine guns.

Hastings also carefully highlights what will be similarly unfamiliar ground for many British readers: that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) played only a supporting role on the Western Front during these early months, especially prior to the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 – but even then it received substantial support from French and Indian troops. It was only later in the war that the BEF, reinforced first with reservists and then with conscripts, became a more equal partner to the French. This was reflected not only in the number of battalions deployed following the outbreak of war – more than 1,000 each by France and Germany in comparison to Britain’s fifty-two – but also by the number of casualties sustained in the first five months. It is no surprise, therefore, that France suffered its greatest losses in August 1914 – with 27,000 lost in a single day – while Britain’s high watermark of loss came on the first day of the Battle of Somme in July 1916, when 20,000 were killed.

These overarching themes are intertwined within a narrative built around the human experience of war. Hastings proves a master at weaving together personal stories and military detail, ensuring that the ‘testimony’ of the ‘humble folk’ is heard and that individual voices and characters emerge clearly from the chaos of large-scale war. Indeed, one of the most moving passages of the book comes as soldiers of different nationalities describe their experiences of facing the reality of industrialised warfare for the first time.

However, it is a curious feature of the book that while Hastings devotes such attention to the experiences and emotions of ordinary soldiers, those who led them are reduced to all but two-dimensional characters. Kaiser Wilhelm is ‘a uniformed version’ of Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows. Sir John French – the BEF commander-in-chief – is scathingly dismissed as a ‘poltroon’. His French counterpart, Joseph Joffre, apparently transformed within a matter of days from ‘abattoir superintendent’ at Alsace-Lorraine to ‘allied saviour’ at the Marne. Yet there is little attempt to understand these characters, and their actions, in depth, which is an unfortunate weakness of the book.

There is a similar, although perhaps less significant, imbalance in the recounting of fighting on the Western and Eastern Fronts. While Hastings covers battles in the east that will be unfamiliar to many readers, including those fought along the Drina and the Danube, disproportionate space is given over to the Western Front, which also benefits from a level of detail and empathy not evident in other passages. Of course, the fighting on the Eastern Front has been covered in detail by authors such as Orlando Figes (A People’s Tragedy, 1997), but the disparity between the handling of the two fronts in Catastrophe is noticeable.

A final blemish is Hastings’ unswerving emphasis on German culpability and ‘beastliness’, as he calls it. Undoubtedly, German soldiers committed atrocities against civilians as they invaded France and Belgium, and they did so more frequently than their counterparts in other armies. However, the fact that such incidents are discussed in detail time and again while similar acts committed by Austrian soldiers against Serbs are mentioned only in passing raises suspicions – perhaps unfairly – that this might not be an entirely balanced account.

Nevertheless, Catastrophe is a seminal survey of the events immediately preceding and following the outbreak of the First World War, notable for its presentation of the diplomatic and the military as two acts of the same play. Hastings’ writing style, underpinned by his sound grasp of military matters, makes this complex and fast-moving tale accessible to all, while the book is clearly grounded in painstaking research. In this masterful synthesis of overarching narrative and detail, military strategy and human stories, Hastings has blended top-down with bottom-up history, with the sections dedicated to the Western Front making Catastrophe truly memorable. 

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