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Posted on Oct 15, 2013 in Books and Movies

Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War – Book Review

By Steven M. Smith

catastrophe-1914-coverCatastrophe 1914: Europe Goes To War. Max Hastings, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 640 pages of text, 40 pages of photographs, 21 maps, 28 pages of notes, and 9 pages of bibliography. Hardback, $35.00.

The enduring images of World War One are of the trenches and nearly static fronts. But that is not how WWI started. Catastrophe 1914 tells the story of how the war started and its first few months, through December 1914, when the war was dynamic and forces maneuvered over Europe. This is an intimate view using the letters and diaries of common civilian and lower-level military participants as well as their leaders.


In the Introduction, Hastings briefly describes the major histories of WWI and how his book is different. Catastrophe 1914 combines diplomatic, military, and personal narratives to answer the question, “What happened to Europe in 1914?” At the end of the Introduction he describes how, in 1963, he was an assistant researcher on the BBC 26-part series, The Great War. This experience put him in personal contact with many veterans of the war and gave him access to archives.

The assassination is covered by the Prologue. There we find that Austrian Archduke “Franz Ferdinand was not much loved by anyone save his wife.” Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 angered Russia and neighboring Serbia. Serbia’s military intelligence encouraged anti-Austrian elements but, “Beyond guns, bombs and cyanide suicide capsules, there is no hard evidence about what further support or direction Princip (Gavrilo Princip, assassin of the archduke and his wife, Sophie] and his comrades received”. Modern readers will see similarities with more recent events in the description of how intelligence about the assassination failed to get to the archduke’s security detail. “Officials were later said to have devoted more energy to discussing dinner menus, and the correct temperature at which to serve the wines, than to the guest of honour’s safety.” From what we know now, the immediate reaction was muted as “most of Europe received the news with equanimity, because acts of terrorism were so familiar.”

Reymond Recouly of le Figaro “recorded a general view that ‘the crises in progress would soon recede into the category of Balkan squabbles, such as recurred every fifteen or twenty years, and were sorted out among the Balkan peoples themselves, without any of the great powers needing to be entangled.”

“The Archduke’s funeral service … lasted just fifteen minutes. The old Emperor made little pretense of sorrow about his nephew’s death, though he was full of rage about its manner.” So little fuss was initially made that “Foreign observers expressed surprise the Viennese mourning for the heir to the imperial throne was perfunctory and patently insincere.”

Chapter 1 sets the stage by describing the situation in Europe between 1895 and 1914. Europe had been at peace since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The British foreign policy of “balance of power” had encouraged the formation of defensive alliances, with the idea that an aggressor would be isolated and facing a coalition. “In the years before 1914 European allegiances were not set in stone: they wavered, flickered, shifted. The French entered the new century with a possible invasion of England still docketed in their war scenarios. The British believed for a time that Russia might abandon the Triple Entente and join the Triple Alliance.” Germany and England were friends enough that at “the 1914 Kiel Regatta (just before the assassination), some German sailors swore eternal friendship to their visiting counterparts of the Royal Navy.”

With this background, how did WWI start? Hastings lays the blame mostly at the feet of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and his chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke. He describes how the two of them sent messages to Vienna pledging their support even if Austria-Hungry started a war. Germany and Austria knew that an attack on Serbia would mean war with Russia and France, but the kaiser expected England to remain neutral. That expectation was nearly met as the British prime minister and his cabinet argued for weeks about whether to support France with troops or even to send out the Royal Navy to patrol the North Sea and English Channel. The kaiser was so convinced that England would remain neutral, as they had during the Franco-Prussian War, that he authorized the attack through Belgium. Since 1839, England had made Belgium’s neutrality a main part of their European foreign policy. The British warned Paris and Berlin not to invade Belgium. When Belgium refused the kaiser’s demand for passage of German troops and Germany attacked, England shifted dramatically from paralyzing indecisiveness to outrage. When the German prime minister received Britain’s declaration of war, he told the British ambassador, “‘all for just a word – “neutrality” – just for a scrap of paper’. The phrase passed into history. A host of Germans professed to regard British intervention as a betrayal.” Later, Hastings writes, “The war had not been precipitated by popular nationalistic fervour, but by the decisions of tiny groups of individuals in seven governments.”

Most of the 1914 military leaders had not seen combat in at least 40 years and had spent time and money building armies and navies. Nearly all of the senior military leaders from all sides were over 60 years old with some in their 80s. Even so, “in that era politicians of all nationalities expected to leave strategy and military science exclusively in the hands of their soldiers, an abrogation they would lament before they were much older.” The countries mobilized their forces with more men volunteering than they could equip, let alone train. “Gingerly toes dipped in the war’s inaugural trickles of blood. … The fantasies of the first days of war were now overtaken by terrible realities.”

Unlike most of the books I’ve read on WWI, Hastings does not neglect the Balkans, especially since that is where the fighting started. The descriptions of battles are mostly first person from participants on every side. What struck me was the similar language used by all the soldiers describing their first experience of being under enemy fire.

“As they approached the Drina river, men were bemused by what [Corporal Egon] Kisch described as ‘big, buzzing flies’ filling the air. Then these innocents grasped that they were hearing their first passing bullets.” The description of the carnage as the few modern artillery pieces and machine guns devastated the close-order, Napoleonic-like formations. For example, in the August battle of Morhange, in Alsace-Lorraine on the French-German border, 43,000 French troops assaulted a prepared German position. They had 5,000-10,000 casualties in a few hours. Reading the excerpts from the letters and diaries describing the first battles and their encounter with death on a mass scale made me realize why the people of that time called WWI the “War to End All Wars”.

Catastrophe 1914 is an easy book to read. Hastings’ experience as a journalist shines here as his descriptions are vivid and short. Chapters are broken into linked, self-contained stories that made the book easy to dip into for information on a specific event. Reading the book, I found myself stopping periodically to think about the stories I had just read. I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in WWI’s beginnings. It is a good book whether you are interested in diplomacy, military strategy, or personal stories of soldiers in combat.

Steven M. Smith has been an Armchair General contributor since 2010. He has a life-long interest in history especially the Napoleonic and Victorian periods. He was the owner of The Simulation Corner gaming retail outlet in Morgantown, West Virginia, until 1983. He is currently a member of the Historical Miniatures Gaming Society and works for Lockheed Martin in Baltimore, Maryland.

1 Comment

  1. I just read this book, and had recently read Blood and Thunder about the battle of Kursk, both books are reminders that modern war can be mass murder and little more. Of course there is courage, endurance, skill, but in these two books tell of the abject carnage caused by man on his fellow man with contemporary weapons. I enjoy military history but it is important to remember that there is little glory in war as it has been fought in the last hundred years. Survival may be simply a matter of luck or having the better technology. The casualties and consequences of battle rarely justify the brutality and destruction. As much as I like military history, these books left an impression with me that wars should only be fought when all other modes of settlement have been exhausted and only when real vital interests are at stake. God forbid if the USA needs to fight an enemy with anywhere near parity in force or armaments.