Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War

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A New York Times Notable Book of 2013
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year

World War I evokes images of the trenches: grinding, halting battles that sacrificed millions of lives for no territory or visible gain. Yet the first months of the war, from the German invasion of Belgium to the Marne to Ypres, were utterly different, full of advances and retreats, ...

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A New York Times Notable Book of 2013
A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of the Year

World War I evokes images of the trenches: grinding, halting battles that sacrificed millions of lives for no territory or visible gain. Yet the first months of the war, from the German invasion of Belgium to the Marne to Ypres, were utterly different, full of advances and retreats, tactical maneuvering, and significant gains and losses.

In Catastrophe 1914, acclaimed military historian Max Hastings re-creates this dramatic year, from the diplomatic crisis to the fighting in Belgium and France on the western front, and Serbia and Galicia to the east, and shows why it was inevitable that this first war among modern industrial nations could not produce a decisive victory. Throughout we encounter high officials and average soldiers, as well as civilians on the home front, giving us a vivid portrait of how a continent became embroiled in a war that would change everything.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

It was Winston Churchill who wrote, "No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening." It was as if in response to the words that Sir Max Hastings has written one of the most brilliant history books I have ever read. That a historian best known for his Second World War narratives would be able to create such a masterpiece about this earlier global conflict still boggles my mind. Catastrophe 1914 manages to be both an erudite history of the myopic leadership that led to a war that killed 9 million people and a completely arresting account of how common people experienced this unfolding cataclysm. The wealth of arresting historical detail is nothing less than astonishing; I reread numerous paragraphs just to re-savor their richness.

—R.J. Wilson, Bookseller, #1002, New York NY

The New York Times Book Review - Max Boot
…Max Hastings does an excellent job of assembling a chronicle of the war's first few months, from August to December 1914…He does not break new historiographical ground, but rather skillfully marshals evidence assembled by several generations of scholars into a highly readable narrative that should—but won't—be the last word on the subject…Catastrophe 1914 brilliantly shows how, within its first few months, World War I came to assume the dispiriting and bloody form it would hold for the next four years.
The New York Times - Hew Strachan
An outstanding historian of the Second World War, Max Hastings has made a victorious foray into a conflict with which he is less familiar. His fans will recognize the trademarks: trenchant and Olympian judgments that eschew quirkiness in their pursuit of common sense and that are supplemented by extensive quotations from lower-grade participants: the victims and workhorses of others' decisions…Catastrophe is a book written with an eye cocked to the Anglophone audience and its inherited half-truths about the war. By taking a pan-European perspective, Mr. Hastings punctures these with directness and brio.
Publishers Weekly
Hastings's latest invites consideration as the best in his distinguished career, combining a perceptive analysis of the Great War's beginnings with a vivid account of the period from August to September of the titular year. Those were the months when illusions died alongside hundreds of thousands of people. Hastings (Inferno) considers Germany principally responsible for starting the war, asserting that German victory would have meant that "freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit." Hastings notes, "Every society experienced successive waves of jubilation and dejection," a condition shared by the generals and the politicians who found war easier to initiate than to resolve. He is particularly successful at reconstructing war-zone fiascoes from the perspectives of those who bore their brunt—the soldiers on the frontlines. On the front lines, "foolish excess of personal bravery" was juxtaposed with questions like, "Won't the murdering soon stop?" While "rape, pillage, and arson" were commonplace, "new technologies created many opportunities and difficulties"—but far more of the latter. The fighting around Ypres, Belgium, in October and November epitomized both the combatants' determination and their "unbounded power to inflict loss and grief upon each other." "There was never a credible shortcut" to the suicide of a civilization. Agent: Peter Matson, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Sept. 25)
From the Publisher
“Colossal. . . . The first five months of [WWI] have never been told with quite this much drama, sensitivity and poignant detail. . . . A worthy addition to the literature of [WWI]. . . . At a breathtaking pace, the reader is transported to battles in Belgium, France, Serbia, Poland and Prussia. . . . Hastings’s book is the perfect example of what a good journalist can add to the study of war. . . . We need authors like Hastings to remind us of how the best of human spirit can be squandered by the worst of human motive.”
The Washington Post

Catastrophe 1914 brilliantly shows how, within its first few months, World War I came to assume the dispiriting and bloody form it would hold for the next four years.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Hastings is in top form. . . . A lively and opinionated account. . . . [Hastings’s] 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.”
The Christian Science Monitor
“Absorbing and compulsively readable. . . . Superb. . . . Like an eagle soaring over this vast terrain, Hastings swoops in and out, spying broad features and telling details alike.”
The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“[Hastings is] an outstanding historian . . . a victorious foray. . . . Tuchman has been supplanted.”
The New York Times

“Hastings over the past two decades has become the contemporary premier historian of 20th-century war. . . . The real strength of this story is how Mr. Hastings portrays the principal characters, not as stereotyped tyrants, greedy empire builders or mindless militarists, but rather as very real human beings with as many flaws as virtues.”
Washington Times

“Highly readable. . . . What makes this book really stand out is Mr. Hastings’ deliberate efforts to puncture what he labels the many myths and legends of the events of 1914. . . . His deep research, insightful analysis, and wonderful prose make this an excellent addition to his long library of titles.”
New York Journal of Books

“Hastings argues persuasively that the war’s opening phase had a unique character that merits closer study. . . . Hastings ends his deft narrative and analysis by observing that the price of German victory would have been European democracy itself. Those who died to prevent that victory—despite the catastrophic decisions of 1914—did not die in vain.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Significant. . . . Hastings doesn’t mince words, and one of the chief pleasures of his very readable and engaging account is his mordant humor, and the precision with which he skewers his history’s many fools and mountebanks. . . . He is able to persuasively assess blame and responsibility.”
The Dallas Morning News

“Does the world need another book on that dismal year? Absolutely, if it’s by Hastings. . . . Splendid . . . Readers accustomed to Hastings’ vivid battle descriptions, incisive anecdotes from all participants, and shrewd, often unsettling opinions will not be disappointed. Among the plethora of brilliant accounts of this period, this is one of the best.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Hastings makes a very complicated story understandable in a way that few serious history books manage. An ideal entry into World War I history.”
Library Journal

“Invites consideration as the best in his distinguished career, combining a perceptive analysis of the Great War’s beginnings with a vivid account of the period from August to September of the titular year.”
Publishers Weekly

“Magnificent. . . . Hastings writes with an enviable grasp of pace and balance, as well as an acute eye for human detail. . . . Moving, provocative and utterly engrossing.”
The Sunday Times (UK)

“[Hastings’s] position as Britain’s leading military historian is now unassailable . . . enormously impressive. . . . Magisterial. . . . This is a magnificent and deeply moving book, and with Max Hastings as our guide we are in the hands of a master.”
—The Telegraph (UK)

“A seamless, vivid and compelling narrative. . . . Hastings is a master of the pen portrait and the quirky fact . . . His greatness as a historian—never shown to better effect than in this excellent book—lies in his willingness to challenge entrenched opinion and say what needs to be said.
London Evening Standard (UK)

“Compelling. . . . Told with an equal richness of detail and sure narrative sweep. . . . [A] formidably impressive book.”
The Spectator (UK)

“Forcefully reasserts the thesis of German guilt in Catastrophe. . . . Magnificent. . . . A splendid read.”
The Guardian (UK)

Library Journal
★ 11/01/2013
Given the personalities and circumstances (economic, social, intellectual, political, technological) that contributed to the explosion of battle, was war really a surprise? (LJ 10/15/13)
Kirkus Reviews
Does the world need another book on that dismal year? Absolutely, if it's by Hastings (Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945, 2011, etc.). After many accounts of World War II, the veteran military historian tries his hand, with splendid results. Most readers will be familiar with many of the facts. When Austria mobilized to take revenge on Serbia for its role in the June 1914 murder of Archduke Ferdinand, Russia protested. Austria's ally, Germany, warned it to keep its hands off. Russia's response was only mildly threatening, but it wasn't mild enough for the pugnacious German general staff. Deciding war was inevitable, they convinced a dithering kaiser, and the dominoes fell. Who's to blame? Hastings loves Barbara Tuchman's 1962 classic The Guns of August but agrees that her verdict--everything got out of hand; it was no one's fault--is passé. Hastings shows modest respect for the German school, which blames Germany; historian Sean McMeekin, who emphasizes Russia's role; and even Niall Ferguson, who believes that Britain should have remained neutral. He concludes that national leaders (mediocrities all, with a few frank dimwits) focused with paranoid intensity on selfish interests, that stupidity trumped malevolence, and that German paranoia won by a nose. World War I historians deplore the slaughter at the Somme and Verdun, but these pale in comparison to the final months of 1914, when modern weapons mowed down armies who still marched in dense masses led by mounted officers with colors flying and bands playing. Readers accustomed to Hastings' vivid battle descriptions, incisive anecdotes from all participants, and shrewd, often unsettling opinions will not be disappointed. Among the plethora of brilliant accounts of this period, this is one of the best.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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 (2011).

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.

Reviewer: Meredith Hindley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781482927634
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/24/2013
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Sales rank: 619,207
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 5.18 (h) x 1.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Max Hastings is the author of more than twenty books, most recently Inferno: The World at War, 1939–1945. He spent his early career as a foreign correspondent for BBC TV and various newspapers, then as editor of Britain’s Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph. He has received numerous awards for both his books and his journalism. He lives in the English countryside west of London.
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Read an Excerpt

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.
Max Hastings
Chilton Foliat, Berkshire
June 2013

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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 5, 2013

    Great book - well written and informative and gives a new slant

    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.

    14 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2013

    A New Slant

    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.

    12 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2013

    Outside of specific anecdotes of individual actions leading to a

    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."

    8 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 30, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    I very much enjoyed the coverage of the opening of hostilities i

    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

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2013

    Emminently readable

    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.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2013

    $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$ ???????????????????

    Why does it cost so much?

    2 out of 33 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2014

    Very Interesting

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 10, 2014

    highly recommended for those who enjoy history

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2013

    Did not and will not read this book. During his Book TV speec

    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.

    1 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2014

    If you're interested in WWI history, this is a really good book.

    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.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 23, 2013

    dull blowhard

    dull blowhard

    0 out of 26 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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