From the acclaimed military historian, a 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.
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Winston Churchill wrote afterwards: ‘No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening. The measured, silent drawing together of gigantic forces, the uncertainty of their movements and positions, the number of unknown and unknowable facts made the first collision a drama never surpassed. Nor was there any other period in the War when the general battle was waged on so great a scale, when the slaughter was so swift or the stakes so high. Moreover, in the beginning our faculties of wonder, horror and excitement had not been cauterized and deadened by the furnace fires of years.’ All this was so, though few of Churchill’s fellow participants in those vast events embraced them with such eager appetite.
In our own twenty-first century, the popular vision of the war is dominated by images of trenches, mud, wire and poets. It is widely supposed that the first day of the 1916 Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest of the entire conflict. This is not so. In August 1914 the French army, advancing under brilliant sunshine across a virgin pastoral landscape, in dense masses clad in blue overcoats and red trousers, led by officers riding chargers, with colours flying and bands playing, fought battles utterly unlike those that came later, and at even more terrible daily cost. Though French losses are disputed, the best estimates suggest that they suffered well over a million casualties in 1914’s five months of war, including 329,000 dead. One soldier whose company entered its first battle with eighty-two men had just three left alive and unwounded by the end of August.
The Germans suffered 800,000 casualties in the same period, including three times as many dead as during the entire Franco-Prussian War. This also represented a higher rate of loss than at any later period of the war. The British in August fought two actions, at Mons and Le Cateau, which entered their national legend. In October their small force was plunged into the three-week nightmare of the First Battle of Ypres. The line was narrowly held, with a larger French and Belgian contribution than chauvinists acknowledge, but much of the old British Army reposes forever in the region’s cemeteries: four times as many soldiers of the King perished in 1914 as during the three years of the Boer War. Meanwhile in the East, within weeks of abandoning their harvest fields, shops and lathes, newly mobilised Russian, Austrian and German soldiers met in huge clashes; tiny Serbia inflicted a succession of defeats on the Austrians which left the Hapsburg Empire reeling, having by Christmas suffered 1.27 million casualties at Serb and Russian hands, amounting to one in three of its soldiers mobilised.
Many books about 1914 confine themselves either to describing the political and diplomatic maelstrom from which the armies flooded forth in August, or to providing a military narrative. I have attempted to draw together these strands, to offer readers some answers, at least, to the enormous question: ‘What happened to Europe in 1914?’ Early chapters describe how the war began. Thereafter, I have traced what followed on the battlefields and behind them until, as winter closed in, the struggle lapsed into stalemate, and attained the military character that it retained, in large measure, until the last phase in 1918. Christmas 1914 is an arbitrary point of closure, but I would cite Winston Churchill’s remarks above, arguing that the opening phase of the conflict had a unique character which justifies examining it in isolation. My concluding chapter offers some wider reflections.
The outbreak has been justly described as the most complex series of happenings in history, much more difficult to comprehend and explain than the Russian Revolution, the onset of World War II or the Cuban missile crisis. This part of the story is inevitably that of the statesmen and generals who willed it, of the rival manoeuvres of the Triple Alliance – Germany and Austria-Hungary with Italy as a non-playing member – against the Triple Entente of Russia, France and Britain.
In today’s Britain, there is a widespread belief that the war was so horrendous that the merits of the rival belligerents’ causes scarcely matter – the Blackadder take on history, if you like. This seems mistaken, even if one does not entirely share Cicero’s view that the causes of events are more important than the events themselves. That wise historian Kenneth O. Morgan, neither a conservative nor a revisionist, delivered a 1996 lecture about the cultural legacy of the twentieth century’s two global disasters, in which he argued that ‘the history of the First World War was hijacked in the 1920s by the critics’. Foremost among these was Maynard Keynes, an impassioned German sympathiser who castigated the supposed injustice and folly of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, without offering a moment’s speculation about what sort of peace Europe would have had if a victorious Kaiserreich and its allies had been making it. The contrast is striking, and wildly overdone, between the revulsion of the British people following World War I, and their triumphalism after 1945. I am among those who reject the notion that the conflict of 1914–18 belonged to a different moral order from that of 1939–45. If Britain had stood aside while the Central Powers prevailed on the continent, its interests would have been directly threatened by a Germany whose appetite for dominance would assuredly have been enlarged by victory.
The seventeenth-century diarist John Aubrey wrote: ‘About 1647, I went to see Parson Stump out of curiosity to see his Manuscripts, whereof I had seen some in my childhood; but by that time they were lost and disperst; his sons were gunners and souldiers, and scoured their gunnes with them.’ All historians face such disappointments, but the contrary phenomenon also afflicts students of 1914: there is an embarrassment of material in many languages, and much of it is suspect or downright corrupt. Almost all the leading actors in varying degree falsified the record about their own roles; much archival material was destroyed, not merely by carelessness but often because it was deemed injurious to the reputations of nations or individuals. From 1919 onwards Germany’s leaders, in pursuit of political advantage, strove to shape a record that might exonerate their country from war guilt, systematically eliminating embarrassing evidence. Some Serbs, Russians and Frenchmen did likewise.
Moreover, because so many statesmen and soldiers changed their minds several times during the years preceding 1914, their public and private words can be deployed to support a wide range of alternative judgements about their convictions and intentions. An academic once described oceanography as ‘a creative activity undertaken by individuals who are ... gratifying their own curiosity. They are trying to find meaningful patterns in the research data, their own as well as other people’s, and far more frequently than one might suppose, the interpretation is frankly specula- tive.’ The same is true about the study of history in general, and that of 1914 in particular.
Scholarly argument about responsibility for the war has raged through decades and several distinct phases. A view gained acceptance in the 1920s and thereafter, influenced by a widespread belief that the 1919 Versailles Treaty imposed unduly harsh terms upon Germany, that all the European powers shared blame. Then Luigi Albertini’s seminal work The Origins of the War of 1914 appeared in Italy in 1942 and in Britain in 1953, laying the foundations for many subsequent studies, especially in its emphasis on German responsibility. In 1967 Fritz Fischer published another ground- breaking book, Germany’s Aims in the First World War, arguing that the Kaiserreich must bear the burden of guilt, because documentary evidence showed the country’s leadership bent upon launching a European war before Russia’s accelerating development and armament precipitated a seismic shift in strategic advantage.
At first, Fischer’s compatriots responded with outrage. They were members of the generation which reluctantly accepted a necessity to shoulder responsibility for the Second World War; now, here was Fischer insisting that his own nation should also bear the guilt for the First. It was too much, and his academic brethren fell upon him. The bitterness of Germany’s ‘Fischer controversy’ has never been matched by any comparable historical debate in Britain or the United States. When the dust settled, however, a remarkable consensus emerged that, with nuanced reservations, Fischer was right.
But in the past three decades, different aspects of his thesis have been energetically challenged by writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the most impressive contributions was that of Georges-Henri Soutou, in his 1989 work L’Or et le sang. Soutou did not address the causes of the conflict, but instead the rival war aims of the allies and the Central Powers, convincingly showing that rather than entering the conflict with a coherent plan for world domination, the Germans made up their objectives as they went along. Some other historians have ploughed more contentious furrows. Sean McMeekin wrote in 2011: ‘The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.’ Samuel Williamson told a March 2012 seminar at Washington’s Wilson Center that the theory of explicit German guilt is no longer tenable. Niall Ferguson places a heavy responsibility on British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey. Christopher Clark argues that Austria was entitled to exact military retribution for the murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand upon Serbia, which was effectively a rogue state. Meanwhile John Rohl, magisterial historian of the Kaiser and his court, remains unwavering in his view that there was ‘crucial evidence of intentionality on Germany’s part’.
No matter – for the moment – which of these theses seems convincing or otherwise: suffice it to say there is no danger that controversy about 1914 will ever be stilled. Many alternative interpretations are possible, and all are speculative. The early twenty-first century has produced a plethora of fresh theories and imaginative reassessments of the July crisis, but remarkably little relevant and persuasive new documentary material. There is not and never will be a ‘definitive’ interpretation of the coming of war: each writer can only offer a personal view. While I make plain my own conclusions, I have done my best to rehearse contrary evidence, to assist readers in making up their own minds.
Contemporary witnesses were as awed as are their twenty-first-century descendants by the immensity of what befell Europe in August 1914 and through the months and years that followed. Lt. Edward Louis Spears, British liaison officer with the French Fifth Army, reflected long after- wards: ‘When an ocean liner goes down, all on board, great and small alike, struggle with equal futility and for about the same time, against elements so overwhelming that any difference there may be in the strength or ability of the swimmers is insignificant compared to the forces against which they are pitted, and which will engulf them all within a few minutes of each other.’
Once the nations became locked in strife I have emphasised the testimony of humble folk – soldiers, sailors, civilians – who became its victims. Although famous men and familiar events are depicted here, any book written a century on should aspire to introduce some new guests to the party, which helps to explain my focus on the Serbian and Galician fronts, little known to Western readers.
One difficulty in describing vast events that unfolded simultaneously on battlefields many hundreds of miles apart is to decide how to present them. I have chosen to address theatres in succession, accepting some injury to chronology. This means readers need to recall – for instance – that Tannenberg was fought even as the French and British armies were falling back to the Marne. But coherence seems best served by avoiding precipitate dashes from one front to another. As in some of my earlier books, I have striven to omit military detail, divisional and regimental numbers and suchlike. Human experience is what most readily engages the imagination of a twenty-first-century readership. But to understand the evolution of the early campaigns of World War I, it is essential to know that every commander dreaded ‘having his flank turned’, because the outer edges and rear of an army are its most vulnerable aspects. Much that happened to soldiers in the autumn of 1914, alike in France, Belgium, Galicia, East Prussia and Serbia, derived from the efforts of generals either to attack an open flank, or to escape becoming the victim of such a manoeuvre.
Hew Strachan, in the first volume of his masterly history of World War I, addressed events in Africa and the Pacific, to remind us that this became indeed a global struggle. I decided that a similar canvas would burst through the frame of my own work. This is therefore a portrait of Europe’s tragedy, which heaven knows was vast and terrible enough. In the interests of clarity, I have imposed some arbitrary stylistic forms. St Petersburg changed its name to Petrograd on 19 August 1914, but I have retained throughout the old – and modern – name. Serbia was commonly spelt ‘Servia’ in contemporary newspapers and documents, but I have used the former, even in quotations. Hapsburg citizens and soldiers are here often described as Austrians rather than properly as Austro-Hungarians, save in a political context. After the first mention of an individual whose full name is ‘von’, as in von Kluck, the honorific is omitted. Place-names are standardised so that, for instance, Mulhouse loses its German designation as Mülhausen.
Though I have written many books about warfare, and especially about the Second World War, this is my first full-length work about its forerunner. My own engagement with the period began in 1963, when as a callow school-leaver in my ‘gap year’, I was employed as an assistant researcher on BBC TV’s epic twenty-six part series The Great War at a salary of £10 a week, at least £9 more than I was worth. Programme writers included John Terraine, Correlli Barnett and Alistair Horne. I interviewed and corresponded with many veterans of the conflict, then merely entering old age, and explored both the published literature and archive documents. I embraced that youthful experience as one of the happiest and most rewarding of my life, and some of the fruits of my 1963–64 labours have proved useful for this book.
My generation of students eagerly devoured Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 best-seller August 1914. It came as a shock, a few years later, to hear an academic historian dismiss her book as ‘hopelessly unscholarly’. It remains nonetheless a dazzling essay in narrative history, which retains the unembarrassed affection of many admirers, including myself, in whom it contributed significantly to stimulating a passion for the past. Those days will exercise an undying fascination for mankind: they witnessed the last fatal flourishes of the old crowned and cockaded Europe, followed by the birth of a terrible new world in arms.
Chilton Foliat, Berkshire
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations ix
List of Maps xiii
1914 Chronology xxiii
The Organisation of Armies in 1914 xxv
Prologue: Sarajevo xxvii
1 'A Feeling That Events Are in the Air' 1
1 Change and Decay 1
2 Battle Plans 25
2 The Descent to War 41
1 The Austrians Threaten 41
2 The Russians React 54
3 The Germans March 75
4 The British Decide 85
3 'The Superb Spectacle of the World Bursting into Flames' 103
1 Migrations 103
2 Passions 110
3 Departures 126
4 Disaster on the Drina 138
5 Death with Flags and Trumpets 159
1 The Execution of Plan XVII 159
2 'German Beastliness' 187
3 Lanrezac Encounters Schlieffen 194
6 The British Fight 200
1 Mons 200
2 Le Cateau: 'Where the Fun Comes in, I Don't Know' 219
7 The Retreat 239
8 Tannenberg: 'Alas, How Many Thousands Lie There Bleeding!' 259
9 The Hour of Joffre 286
1 Paris at Bay 286
2 Sir John Despairs 290
3 Seeds of Hope 298
10 The Nemesis of Moltke 313
1 The Marne 313
2 'Stalemate in Our Favour 342
11 'Poor Devils, They Fought Their Ships Like Men' 356
12 Three Armies in Poland 386
13 'Did You Ever Dance with Him?' 411
1 Home Fronts 411
2 News and Abuse 434
14 Open Country, Open Sky 442
1 Churchill's Adventure 442
2 'Inventions of the Devil' 455
15 Ypres: 'Something That Was Completely Hopeless' 463
16 'War Becomes the Scourge of Mankind' 497
1 Poland 497
2 The Serbs' Last Triumph 509
17 Mudlife 515
18 Silent Night, Holy Night 541
Notes and References 567
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great book - well written and informative and gives a new slant on history. And will people stop spouting out about the cost of ebooks? That is not a review and it is idiotic. No one ever claimed ebooks were going to very cheap - some are, some aren't. If you are concerned about costs there is a building in your neighborhood called a library.
Received history has had it that Europe sort of "blundered into" WWI, the whole thing being a tragic accident. Hastings takes a rather different view. He theorizes there was nothing accidental about it, and nobody "blundered" anywhere. Austria was quite deliberate about slapping down Servia (Serbia, nowadays) and in search of an excuse. They knew they had a strong ally in Germany to guard their backs. They knew how everybody else could be expected to react, and when everybody did so there was no surprise. (The nearest thing to a surprise was America - for some reason - getting into it.) Hastings is a great writer and excellent historian, and this book does not disappoint on either count. He takes a cold-eyed, but precise look at the causes of the tragedy, and comes away with a less romantic, but probably more accurate view of causality than we usually get.
Outside of specific anecdotes of individual actions leading to and during the first months of the First World War, there is not much actual "history" here. Hastings writes an extremely Anglocentric account, despite purporting to give a cat's eye view into the events leading up to the war and the events taking place in the four months thereafter. He spends much time discussing England, Churchill , civil unrest in Northern Ireland and labor issues in the UK; so much so, that one would think this was a history of Great Britain in 1914. While constantly giving his inadequately-supported opinion that Germany was to blame for the war and would have deprived Western Europe of "freedom, justice and democracy" if it had won. While Germany certainly imposed a harsh (and highly opportunistic) settlement on Russia, this was in response to the Bolshevik take over of Russian, and a long held German feeling of "superiority" over its eastern neighbors. Most evidence points to a German war aim of economic dominance over Western Europe through a trade system favorable to Germany. There is no credible evidence that Germany would have imposed regime change or territorial cession upon England and France, as indeed those countries imposed upon Germany, along with war guilt, economy-crippling reparations, and a long occupation of the Saar by France, during which they siphoned off its economic benefits for themselves while trying to machinate a plebiscite to gain the mineral-rich territory for themselves. While the draconian Versailles treaty directly led to the rise of the Nazis and to WWII, Hastings summarily dismisses the treaty, its later effects and the doom it inflicted upon the vanquished as "a clumsy peace settlement." Finally, Hastings even goes so far as to conclude that the United States' entry into the war was militarily insignificant, while continually over-emphasizing Britain's importance, especially in the first months of the war. A fair read for WWI trivia, but not so much for "history."
I very much enjoyed the coverage of the opening of hostilities in the east - in particular the thrashing, short lived as it was, the Serbs gave the Austrians. Anglocentric? maybe, but a brutally honest Englishman
It has been 100 years since WWI, the war to end all wars. Has humanity learned anything since? Hopefully it may have learned not to repeat the mistakes of the past. However, we must understand the past and its lessons first and foremost, and this book is the best book on WWI since Tuchman's "The guns of August". It reads like a first-hand narrative of the actual battles told from the perspective of all the participants. I never knew the role that Serbia and Austria played in starting the great war, or the reluctance of the English to fully support the French forces during August and September of that year. This is a book not only for those interested in history, but for those who enjoy an intimate look at war and its deadly consequences. It is as relevant today as any book I know to demonstrate how little wars can lead to world wars.
If you're interested in history, this is a great book. Very readable for what might seem to some as a dry subject. While there are many books on WWII, this is the first readable and comprehensive book I've seen on WWI. Highly recommended.
I've enjoyed all Max Hastings books that I have read and this is no exception. This is fairly comprehensive, but does center its attention on the UK.
A wealth of anecdotes and a scarcity of narrative This is a well-written and well-researched book, with a multitude of "we-were-there" quotes from observers and participants in the events described. The author writes well, and his two books (Retribution and Annihilation) about the end of the Second World War are true gems. Unfortunately, the trees overwhelm the forest in "Catastrophe 1914". After reading the book I still am unsure why the war started, other than to say that each country's allies supported each other. True, but insufficient. Why then didn't war break out during the first and second Balkan Wars? Why not over Morocco in 1911? This was never explained. Also, the use of quotes was used too much, as it interfered with the flow of the narrative in places. I agree that in many places the quotes did illuminate what happened, but I also think that in other places the quotes obfuscated rather than clarifying events. Conclusion - a very good book for quotes but less successful as a history.
I found this book on World War I in its first 5 months engrossing at many times, though my appreciation was tempered in some respects. The first 100 pages or so provide a relatively concise introduction to the the state of Europe before war broke out--the alliances between nations, its political and military leaders, as well as the rapid pace of scientific and technological advances that could be considered either promising a brighter future or threatening established order. What is commonly cited as the spark that set off the war, the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in June of that year is described as playing “the same role...as might a wasp sting on a chronically ailing man who is maddened into abandoning a sickbed to devote his waning days to destroying the nest,” but not a real cause of the war, which was a result of tensions that had been building up through prior years. The narrative then dives into the conflict on the western and eastern fronts. Key campaigns--Austria’s shocking setback after attacking Serbia, “the miracle on the Marne” that prevented the German from occupying Paris, the German victory over Russia at Tannenberg, the drawn-out and inconclusive standoff in the area around Ypres, and more--are described in some detail. Along with these accounts, Hastings points to the many shortcomings of the various military leaders. He is brutally critical of the initial commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, John French, whom he accuses of defeatism, “moral collapse,” and at one point “his shamelessly base attempt to desert France.” Towards the end of the book, after imprinting on the reader’s mind the image of armies sunk into muddy trenches, hungry, exhausted, surrounded by corpses of men and the many horses also killed, and maddeningly stalemated, Hastings offers his wider view of the conflict and some provocative comments. On the enduring question of which nation was most to blame, he answers forcefully: Germany, since “Even if it did not conspire to bring war about, it declined to exercise its power to prevent the outbreak by restraining Austria.” And on whether the millions who died were fighting to no purpose he says, “[I]t would be entirely mistaken to suppose, as do so many people in the twenty-first century, that it did not matter which side won. The allies imposed a clumsy peace settlement at Versailles in 1919, but if the Germans had instead been dictating the terms as victors, European freedom, justice, and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit.” On the other hand, at times the book seems a grab-bag of information, some paragraphs skipping from one subject to another in a somewhat helter-skelter fashion. And though the copious quotations from combatants’ letters and journals illustrate much of the experience of war (sights, sounds, smell, all generally ghastly), the sheer number of them eventually seemed repetitious, an unrestrained catalog of misery (which, admittedly, may have been exactly what Hastings intended). Meanwhile, because the book is concerned primarily with the year 1914 alone, one naturally will have to look elsewhere for the rest of the war’s story, and I had to wonder why only these first few months were treated. Eventually, though, I came around to the view that the limited scope was to show how grand plans for quick victory failed horribly, leading to a deadlock that took over 4 years to break.
If you're interested in WWI history, this is a really good book. If you'e buying ebooks, it's reasonable to expect that the cost should be somewhat lower than the print version. The books are obviously cheaper to produce and distribute. On top of that, you're buying somewhat less than a print version. You can't give it away, for example. Lending is restricted, if available at all. And, as far as I know, you can't re-sell it. I love ebooks, especially the fact that I don't have to worry about storing my collection, but I do find these and other restrictions bothersome.
Did not and will not read this book. During his Book TV speech, Hastings referenced a particular theory pronounced by another writer, NF. Instead of criticizing the theory, which is perferctly acceptable, Hastings made the comments that "serious historians" do not accept this theory, thereby implying that NF is not a serious historian. It is unprofessional and arrogant for Hastings to refer to a competitor as something other than a serious historian, even if Hastings disagrees with the competitor's theory. We all disagree with various theories of histories. That is one of the things which makes history interesting. However, a snotty personal attack on another writer with whom Hastings competes for book sales is a disgusting example of British arrogance. Hastings is, as another reviewer commented, a "blowhard." He will not be getting my American dollars.
Why does it cost so much?