Book Review – Catastrophe: 1914

Catastrophe: 1914 by Max Hastings

This year is probably a centennial that no one really wants to commemorate: the start of World War 1. The technology for killing had advanced much farther beyond military strategy, leading to horrific casualty figures. But the war (also known as “The Great War”, “The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy”, and “The War to End All Wars”) should be studied, as it is responsible for shaping the 20th century.

British historian Max Hastings has written a fantastically researched and extremely readable account of the first several months of the conflict. He has dug deep into the archives – not just in Germany, France, and England, but in eastern Europe and the Balkans as well to get information from periodicals, journals, diaries, and private letters. While giving plenty of information on the battles and strategy, he also gets down to the level of individuals, both on the front and at home.

Unlike most other popular books on the war, Hastings tells of the situation on the Eastern Front as well as in France and Belgium. It doesn’t get as much coverage, since there weren’t battles on the same scale as in the West. But the death toll and destruction was no less.

Hastings generally avoids putting his own personal views into his narrative, but occasionally he pops up with a few asides. The war really was Germany’s fault, he maintains. They were the ones who goaded Austria-Hungary into going to war with Serbia, and when the conflict should have remained nothing more than the Third Balkan War, they made it a continental one. The Schleiffen Plan wouldn’t have worked, since Germany wasn’t up to managing the logistical and communications needs of such a grand strategy. And plenty of people knew that the war was stupid and was going to lead to disaster. While he occasionally makes the point that Germany had to be defeated because Europe would have been worse off if they had one, Hastings doesn’t mention what Germany’s post-victory plans were.

The book adds some insights for the armchair historian. There was ineptness on all sides in the commanders, not just on the part of the French. For example, German generals von Moltke and von Bulow never properly coordinated their plans, leaving a gap in their lines that the British were able to poke through. Speaking of the British, Winston Churchill’s disastrous assault on Antwerp should have gotten him canned. Or at least put a stop to any further plans of his (like the invasion of the Dardanelles).

There are a number of maps, but they are probably at too great a level of detail when it comes to showing the movement of armies. I found them confusing. The photo sections try something different. Instead of simple head shots of the various important figures, full-length photos are arranged into collages. The result is, well, different.

As we should all know, World War I led to the end of most European monarchies, the rise of Naziism and Communism, and World War II. It was a watershed in world history, so it is to our benefit to learn more about it. Max Hasting’s work here is a welcome and worthy read.

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