Book review: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914

By Nigel Jones

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British writer Max Hastings.
British writer Max Hastings.

Like one of Field Marshal Haig's family whiskies, Max Hastings is a dram that steadily improves with age. His own trenchant views on war, and caustic opinions of the commanders who ran them, tended to obtrude too obviously in his early work, suggesting that if only he had been present at key military conferences costly errors would have been avoided.

However, Hastings' recent massive volumes on his specialist subject, World War II, have shown why his position as a leading military historian is now unassailable. They demonstrate not only his always formidable grasp of the nuts and bolts of logistics and strategy and an authoritative narrative sweep, but a new humane note of empathy.

In this enormously impressive new book, Hastings effortlessly masters the complex lead-up to and opening weeks of World War I. As a historian, his objective is twofold: to pin the principal blame for launching the catastrophic conflict where it rightly belongs: on Austria and Germany; and to argue unashamedly that Britain was right - politically and morally - to fight it.

In advancing these arguments, Hastings takes on two foes: first, revisionist historians such as Cambridge's Professor Christopher Clark, who have recently sought to exculpate Germany and put tiny Serbia in the dock as the chief villain, for organising or conniving in the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo - the spark that gave Vienna and Berlin a perfect excuse to set off the conflagration.

Hastings' second adversary is more amorphous: what he calls "the poets' view" of the war as a futile struggle for a few blood-drenched yards of mud, which wasted a whole generation, solved nothing and which Britain should have steered clear of, allowing those funny foreign fellows to slaughter each other without compromising its splendid isolation.

This view, propounded by various powerful voices, from the great economist John Maynard Keynes in 1919 down to the scriptwriters of the television comedy Blackadder Goes Forth, has been hammered so relentlessly into our heads that it is now the received opinion on the war. So much so that the British Government seems unsure how to mark next year's centenary of the conflict, both for fear of upsetting the Germans and because public opinion generally regards it as a senseless, unmitigated tragedy.

Hastings, who received a knighthood in 2002, will have none of this. He shows how the Austrians coldly set out to destroy Serbia; how Berlin gave Vienna a "blank cheque", assuring it of German support; how both countries ignored the certainty that Russia would pitch in on the side of its Slav protege, Serbia; and how Germany's autocracy, under its mentally unstable Kaiser, deliberately pushed Europe over the edge. Germany recklessly gambled that Britain would stay out of the war, and that even if it did not, they could, anyhow, win it within weeks by knocking out France, before turning to deal with Russia: the same pipedream Hitler pursued a quarter of a century later.

Hastings pushes the parallels between the two wars even closer. He details the barbarities perpetrated by the Kaiser's armies as they marched through Belgium, showing that such atrocities, though smaller in scale than the Nazis' crimes in 1939-45 (6000 civilians murdered rather than six million), were inflicted in the same wanton spirit. With irrefutable logic Hastings argues that if it was right for Britain to wage war in defence of Poland in 1939, then it was also correct to take up arms in defence of Belgium in 1914.

Coming to the war itself, Hastings is as magisterial as we would expect. He does not confine himself to the fighting in France and Flanders - where he inclines to minimise the role of Britain's small professional army in comparison with the vast hordes of conscripts set tramping across Europe by the continental belligerents. Instead, Hastings soars across frontiers to take in every theatre, describing half-forgotten campaigns on the Drina and Danube rivers with the same verve and elan that he brings to the more familiar clashes at Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and Ypres.

But it is the voices of ordinary folk that resonate loudest and longest: the conscripted clerks and scholars torn from their ledgers and books, never to return; or the wives and children, suddenly wondering where their next meal would come from, such as the family of the Russian soldier Ivan Kuchernigo. "His 5-year-old daughter sat in his arms, pressing against him and saying, 'Daddy, why are you going? Why are you leaving us?

Who's going to earn money and get bread for us?' She embraced and kissed her father whose own tears were soon flowing." This is a magnificent and deeply moving book and, with Hastings as our guide, we are in the hands of a master.

Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings (William Collins $39.99)

- Daily Telegraph UK

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