CATASTROPHE 1914: Europe Goes to War. By Max Hastings. Knopf. 563 pages. $35.
Despite the undeniable romance of flying colors, proudly worn uniforms, patriotism and often disturbingly beautiful killing machines, war is a nasty business for those who fight.
In July of 1914, the outbreak of hostilities in Europe was greeted with “glee” by some, but, other than a few wise heads, somber acceptance and a belief that the affair could be neatly concluded in a matter of months by most.
It was not to be. As winter descended, “a pervasive stench created by unburied corpses, excrement and seven million sets of water logged clothing and boots, unchanged for weeks overhung the Western Front from Switzerland to the sea,” a horrific reality that would grind on for four more years.
The First World War, the “Great War,” the “war to end all wars,” produced millions of casualties, toppled monarchies and changed the geo-political map of Europe and beyond.
The fact that it has been overshadowed, certainly in the popular mind in this country, by its successor is unfortunate. The seeds of the second are so firmly planted in the events of the first that it could safely be said that one cannot be fully understood without knowledge of the other.
To characterize the whole era as a “thirty years war” is not far off the mark, and that perspective would add clarity to any examination of the period.
Max Hastings, British journalist and author of “Inferno: The World at War 1939-1945,” has endeavored to both describe the political and diplomatic forces that pushed the armies of the Triple Entente and the Central Powers into the field, and provide a narrative, in some detail, of the various battles that took place on the Eastern and Western Fronts in 1914.
The bare bones of the saga, the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Franz Ferdinand, by Gavrilo Princip, a Serb; the harsh Austrian “ultimatum” to Serbia in response; Germany’s offer of a “blank check” of assistance to Austria; Russian mobilization in support of her Slavic brothers; the entrance of Russia’s allies, France and, more slowly, Britain, is deepened here by Hastings’ choice to alternate between a panoramic view of the time and place, and brief, vivid portraits of individuals and incidents.
Thus, images of the crack German army flowing like “lava” over Belgium, the Austro-Hungarians preparing to move with “Ruritanian incompetence” and Russia marching west with “one of the most exotic military hosts the world has ever seen” are interspersed with telling thumbnail sketches of kings, commanders and ordinary soldiers to great effect.
Hastings’ account of the men on the ground learning a new way to fight seems to linger in the mind the longest.
Eventually, according to him, the war would be a contest between rival machine guns and artillery but, in 1914 on the Western Front, it was a question of riflepower against men “exposing themselves in plain view.”
The author’s depiction of soldiers ramming clip after clip into their hot weapons as the bodies piled up in front of them is all too accurate a lead in to the familiar characterization of World War 1 as a “banquet of slaughter.” Yet, it is a tribute to Hastings that he manages to preserve space for individual heroics or simple tales of young soldiers serving their country.
The book contains a helpful chronology of events, information concerning the organization of armies and a generous sprinkling of maps.
Hastings’ clean, but evocative style keeps the pace moving through what is, after all, a big, big story, though the details of some battles require extra attention.
He is very clear about his slant. World War 1 was not a tragically pointless exercise for which all the powers share blame, nor was it one that benefited no one.
Germany, he states, bears primary liability and, had she won, any peace terms she dictated would have been infinitely worse than what some consider the draconian Treaty of Versailles (which Hastings calls “clumsy”).
“Catastrophe” is an excellent introduction to an often-forgotten war whose outcome, particularly in the trouble Middle East, haunts us to this day.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.