Friday, August 15, 2014

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings

1914 by Max Hastings. 

"The great lords have quarrelled, and we must pay for it with our blood, our wives and children" German POW to Countess Turczynowicz page 410.

Yeah I'm pretty much going to refer to the book as 1914 from here on out.  It's a damn long title.  1914 focuses on the year 1914 as you could have guessed, the first year of World War I.  A glance at the calendar should suffice as to why I've decided to review this book.   World War I was the end of a world order, of the empires and nations that fought that war 5 of them would suffer a collapse of government or utter destruction of the nation itself the entire European system suffered terrible injuries that it would never recover from.  That said, as an American, I've primarily been taught to view WWI as the prologue of World War II.  While in Europe I'm told World War I looms larger, which honestly makes sense given they fought it longer and paid a higher cost for doing so.

"Where a Serb dwells, there is Serbia"
Popular Serbian Catch phrase page 17

Anyways, Hastings starts before the war discussing the radical group the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist group whose goal was to drive Austria Hungary out of the Balkans and establish a Greater Serbia or Yugoslavia. The Black Hand was supported by elements within the Serbian government including the head of military intelligence Col. Dragutin Dimitrijevic aka Apis.  The Black Hand was a vicious group, responsible for a number of crimes before the war.  He goes into the domestic situation of each of the major combatants, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary.  A note is made of the social unrest simmering (and in Britain outright boiling) in all of these nations.  The German leaders are noted for outright stating that a good victorious war was just the thing to keep the Socialists under heel.  The assassination of Sophie and Franz Ferdinand by Princip is shown as the small match that lit the fuse.  Interestingly enough, Franz Ferdinand is shown to be rather unpopular among the nobility of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, but the fact that the heir to the throne (and his socially embarrassing Czech wife) was murdered by a Serb was too much to be borne.  This is where the gears began to turn.

Here Hasting begins a short examination of who should bear the blame of the war.  It's a matter of some disagreement and interestingly enough Hasting argues (somewhat convincingly) that the blame for the war lays on Austria Hungary and Germany in the main.  Mostly Germany though, as the Germans are shown to be perfectly willing to start a European wide war believing   A lot of the book is devoted to the months of June and July the build up of the war, showing the stances of the men in power a number of whom were rather blase about sending millions of men off to war.  An interesting note is that the President of France Poincare was in Russia or sailing back to France during most of the buildup to war, rendering him out of touch for the most part.

"You soldiers ought to be very please that we have arranged such a nice war for you" Foreign Ministry official to General Knox page 260.

Then the war starts, Hasting covers both the western and eastern front, although I feel he devotes just a bit more time to the western front (given that most of the people reading this would be westerners, I suppose that's forgivable).  I learned the most reading about the Eastern front, which was an appalling exercise of incompetence, beyond what I had even imagined.  The Austrian and Russian lack of a logistic system alone is enough to make a man weep!  Add in their officer corps and being a soldier in that army seems more like a punishment from an angry God, seriously folks this is so bad it would be comedy if it wasn't so damn heart breaking.  The Austrians alone would send half their army into Serbia only to get their asses whupped. The sheer level of idiocy on display should be enough to convert any believer of the superiority of nobility into a die hard Republican for life.  The Austrians would do no better against the Russians, whose army wasn't what I would call expertly lead.  The German army was the best army in the theater but even then it was plagued by over optimistic leadership and greatly inflated expectations.  Which often left them over extended.

"We must wait and see whether it will be such a nice war after all." General Knox's reply.

Over on the western front, we get a examination of the first French offensive and the sheer disaster it entitled. What really shocked me was how in the month of August both armies were willing to use tactics that were used in the American Civil War.  As in men marching in column and line to attack dug in troops with bolt action rifles and machine guns.   Slaughter doesn't begin to cover the results.  Thankfully everyone involved moved pass these tactics quickly but frankly they didn't have much of a choice!  Even has it stands, there are casualties like regiments of 57 officers and 2629 enlisted to 6 officers and 748 enlisted in a single day.  That's more than American forces in Iraq lost in a year.  While Hasting doesn't linger on this, he does call attention to the human cost of the war.  From German troops obsessing over finding francs-tireurs, civilians in occupied France and Belgium who were operating against them and the ruthless measures they took (burning whole villages over a rumor for example or taking thousands of hostages).  This book is very good at showing us just how awful and brutal the war was while not turning it into a show of horrors.

"The gentlemen pass without one car stopping to pick the most exhausted [casualties]. The major mustn't be late for his roast!" Edouard Coeurdevey French soldier page 529

Another subject of note that attracts my attention is the sheer indifference that the upper ranks showed to their men.  In the modern US military being treated in such a fashion by our leaders would seem practically unthinkable.  I didn't see my battalion CO often, but I knew he was up in the front somewhere when we invaded Iraq.  He wasn't chilling out in a hotel in Kuwait City.   I think I prefer our system.

1914 is a very good and informative book.  Easy to understand peppered with quotes like the ones I've been using throughout this review.  It is a thick book at 566 pages (but given the sheer amount of things to cover, I can't blame Hastings for that) but I don't think that's a problem.  Hasting does take positions on the matters of who started the war and whether or not things would have been any better if the Germans had won.  He asserts (although not much proof is given) that a Europe that saw Central Powers victory would be a worse off Europe than the one that saw Allied victory.  While I honestly agree with him, I feel he doesn't present much in the way of evidence for that and that does pull the score down. Additionally the jumping back and forth between the East and Western front is not something I've fond of.  I would have preferred to see each front covered completely before moving on the next one, but that's a personal preference.

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hasting gets a B+, it was greatly informative but not as much as Persian Fire. Then again, maybe WWI shouldn't be that much fun.

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