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.
Historians, armchair generals, and conspiracy theorists have spent the past century refighting the war, and Hastings engages those debates, adding another layer of vitality to the book. He disputes the idea that a series of mistakes caused the war, instead planting the blame squarely on Germany. He has little time for Niall Ferguson's "it's all Britain's fault" stance or Samuel Williamson's indictment of the Austro-Hungarian elites. From the beginning, all of the powers suffered from a mismatch of ambition and fighting capability. France made the most blunders in the first three weeks, a streak Germany then replicated. He argues that the much-vaunted Schlieffen Plan should be thought of as a strategic concept, rather than a bulletproof formula for victory that the German high command failed to execute correctly. Along the same lines, Hastings rejects the argument that a failure of vision and fortitude prevented a decisive German victory in 1914. The Allies would have had to suffer a complete collapse, and, despite France's and Britain's initial ineptitude, that didn't happen. Hastings also doesn't mince words when it comes to Britain's war effort, judging it embarrassing and unprofessional. He dismisses the notion that Russia's August offensive determined the outcome of the war by forcing Germany to transfer forces east. France won the Battle of the Marne not because the German high command made mistakes but because French army exploited its advantages in logistics and communications.
Hastings also tackles the question of how the invading armies treated civilians. The Austrians engaged in stunning brutality against the Serbs, using summary reprisals against guerrilla warfare, which they regarded as dishonorable. Thousands of Serbs were shot and hanged, either as examples or in retaliation. Equally obsessed with sabotage, the German army also acted with "systematic inhumanity" in France and Belgium, murdering civilians in large numbers. During and after the war, controversy swirled around the question of whether Germany really committed atrocities on the Western Front, after some reports were revealed to be exaggerated or fabricated. Hastings, however, believes there is no doubt that the German army behaved in an inhumane fashion. On the Eastern Front, Jews were demonized by both sides, leading to the seizure of property and charges of aiding the enemy. As the Russian army advanced, pogroms followed, leaving hundreds dead in Galicia.
"By the end of 1914, the war had ceased to seem interesting or rewarding to any but a tiny proportion of its participants," writes Hastings. It had become "a profoundly distasteful duty, borne with varying degrees of stoicism." The armies on the Western Front had dug in to their positions, inaugurating the era of trench warfare, with its no-man's-land, gas masks, and perpetual dampness. In the East, Russia struggled to hold its position against the better-organized and better-equipped German army. Despite rumblings about a peace settlement, the armies remained in the field as 1915 dawned. "It remains hard to see, however, by what means its statesmen could have extracted themselves from the struggle once it began, in advance of a decision on the battlefield," writes Hastings. An armistice in the fall of 1914 would have required making concessions and ceding territory to Germany, something Britain and France couldn't abide as long as the chance for victory remained.
Hastings closes the book with a lament about how the war poets, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and others, have shaped the way successive generations regard the conflict. For the poets, the horrors experienced by the soldiers and the incompetence of the army leadership negate the moral arguments for waging war. Hastings doesn't buy it. "To argue that the Western allies should have accepted German hegemony as a fair price for deliverance from the mudscape of Flanders seems as simplistic and questionable a proposition now as it did at the time to most of those who fought for Britain, France, and Belgium." Once war was unleashed, the outcome mattered. To declare it a futile exercise, as the poets charged, diminishes the sacrifices made by 8.5 million dead and 21 million wounded. Hastings also can't stomach what German victory would have meant for Europe. "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."
Hastings's foray into the First World War yields a lively and opinionated account of the early days of conflict, one that lacks the romanticism that can bedevil military history. There's nothing sentimental about his version of events. His vivid rendering of the first months of a cataclysm that grows more distant with each passing year makes the book a worthy addition to the canon. Whether or not you agree with his contention that Germany shoulders the blame, anyone interested in the war, and the questions it still raises, will relish watching Hastings wade into battle.
Meredith Hindley is a historian living in Washington, D.C. She is a senior writer for Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and her work also appears in Salon, Lapham's Quarterly, and the New York Times.