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Catastrophe 1914

British journalist and historian Max Hastings explores the tumultuous and sometimes baffling early months of World War I.

October 4, 2013

Catastrophe 1914 By Max Hastings Knopf Doubleday 672 pp.

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Reviewed by Meredith Hindley for The Barnes and Noble Review

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Popular memory has shrouded the events of 1914–18 with more regret than glory. The First World War hollowed out a generation and left Europe with a set of festering psychic and political wounds that would rip open in a horrific manner two decades later. For many, it belied, as Wilfred Owen wrote, the old canard by Horace that it was sweet and noble to die for one's country. As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the war, the conflict continues to be the subject of relentless debate. Could the war have been avoided? Could it have been over in weeks rather than years? Was it a futile endeavor given the human cost?

Into the fray comes Max Hastings with Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, which explores the tumultuous and sometimes baffling start of the hostilities. The chaotic terrain of war is familiar territory for Hastings, who spent his formative years working as foreign correspondent for the BBC and the London Evening Standard, and who has published widely on twentieth-century military history, his most recent being the well-regarded "Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945."

Hastings sets himself the task of covering the first six months of the war on all fronts, from the bucolic fields of France to the unforgiving mountain terrain of Serbia to the empty plains of Russia. (He doesn't weasel out of the eastern campaign like Barbara Tuchman did.) He also broadens the focus beyond generals and statesmen to include grunts, ambulance drivers, and wives left behind. Through excerpts from diaries, letters, and memoirs, Hastings immerses readers in the giddiness of the opening days, when puffed-out patriotism and overconfidence drowned out voices expressing unease about the possible outcome. As the fighting begins, he summons a dismayed chorus of first-person accounts as soldiers, politicians, and sweethearts realize that the opening battles weren't going to yield a quick, decisive victory but rather serve as the prelude to a long, brutal nightmare. 

Hastings's narrative strategy handicaps him in the opening chapters, in part because of the nature of the conflict. He has to account for the machinations of the Entente (Britain, France, Belgium, Serbia, and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) while also capturing the common man. The story bogs down at times as each country and its citizenry receive dutifully equal coverage. But it's more than worth the slog through the first three chapters to arrive at the fourth, as the action moves to Serbia and the Austrians seek revenge for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. From here on out, Hastings is in top form as he describes how battles were won and lost at Cer, Liège, Mons, the Marne, Tannenberg, and Ypres. German forces come within forty-three miles of Paris, only to be pushed back by France and Britain. The Austrians take Belgrade but can't hold the capital city. Russia marches west and takes Galicia, but the German army forces the Russians to retreat from East Prussia.

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