One of the great problems for any historian writing of 1914 and the slide into conflict is that everyone knows the causes of the first world war and those of us who don’t still imagine that we do. It is clear that no historian can simply ignore the causes and get straight down to the fighting, but with the best will in the world it is hard not to feel like some poor Easyjet passenger, stranded on a Gatwick runway and sadly watching the precious take-off slot slipping further into the distance while the cabin crew go though the familiar old pre-flight safety instructions that they know perfectly well nobody is listening to.
Serbian ambition, the internal incoherence of the Hapsburg empire, the Kaiser, Alsace-Lorraine , the ‘first blank cheque’, the ‘second blank cheque,’ Pan-Slavism, Ulster, mobilisation, uncertainty over Britain’s intentions, fear of decadence, fear of Russia, fear of socialism — none of them can be any more dodged than can the emergency doors or the oxygen mask. But when half the world seems to be writing about what happened in 1914, or should have happened and didn’t, it is an uphill struggle to make it fresh or interesting. It is immensely to Max Hastings’s credit that he manages to dispose of it all as economically as he does; but this huge, compelling, argumentative bully of a book only really hits its stride when the fighting starts, and the full catastrophe that the ‘absurdly amateurish’ 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip unleashed with the assassination of the unloved and unlovable Archduke Franz Ferdinand begins to unfold.
‘A bullet does not go precisely where one wishes,’ was how an apologetic Princip explained away the unintended murder of Franz Ferdinand’s morganatic wife, Sophie; but Hastings will have no truck with the idea that a chapter of accidents brought about the war, or with any liberal, guilt-ridden guff about equal moral and political responsibility of the warring belligerents. There is no reason to think that Germany was gunning for war when it gave Austria their ‘blank cheque’ for the extermination of Serbia, but they were certainly prepared to live with the consequences in the firm belief that they were in a stronger position to win any war against Russia and France in 1914 than they would be in the years ahead.
One of the great strengths of Catastrophe is the space and energy it gives to the less familiar theatres and aspects of the conflict — the barbarism of Austria’s Serbia campaign, the chaos of Galicia, East Prussia and Tannenberg, the Home fronts, the North Sea, German ‘beastliness’ — but like the fortunes of the war itself, the book stands or falls on the Western Front. From the start the Germans had gambled on the rapid and total defeat of France before turning their full attention to the east, and by the time they realised that no number of victories over Russian armies was going to win them the war, they were inextricably mired in the bitter stalemate in France and Belgium to which the strategic fantasies of Schlieffen and his disciples had doomed them.
It is the story of the Germans’ bid for a quick and crushing victory in the west, told with an equal richness of detail and sure narrative sweep, that is at the core of Catastrophe, and no story better deserves the name. In the popular imagination the first world war is always going to be associated with the miseries of trench warfare; but the trenches were the consequences of this first fluid phase of the war, a place of troglodytic sanctuary from a war of open movement in which 19th-century strategies and armies led into battle by mounted officers and bands playing came up against modern technology.
Eighteen thousand French and German dead in the Ardennes on 23 and 24 August alone, 329,000 French dead by the end of the year, 800,000 German dead or wounded in the same period, 150,000 Austrian, 16,000 British, more than half of Samsonov’s 230,000 Russians, killed, wounded or captured at Tannenberg in the last week of August — it is impossible, or at least it ought to be impossible, to write about the first world war without a sense of moral indignation at the waste and futility and stupidity of its leaders. But Max Hastings saves his particular animus for Britain and her army. There are precious few generals on either side of the war who escape his wrath, but if he is rightly contemptuous of Moltke and dismissive of his army commanders, the British seem to inspire something approaching a hatred — it is the only word to convey the level of hostility — that adds a startlingly bitter edge to this formidably impressive book.
Hastings hates British complacency about her military past, he hates British chauvinism, he hates Britain’s patronising attitudes towards her allies, he hates Britain’s love of turning retreats — Corunna, Dunkirk, Mons — into moral victories, he hates her continuing penchant for ‘gesture politics’, and he is damned sure that he is going to leave no treasured national myth unexploded. For the officers who only arrived in France in 1915 there already seemed something heroic about the men of the BEF; but in Hastings’s hands even the old saw of lions led by donkeys is turned on its head, with the VCs they win ‘soft’ VCs, the battles they fight ‘little battles’ and even Mons — the jewel in the Old Contemptibles’ crown — little more than a sideshow of a sideshow.
‘Dodgy’ battalions in the Ypres Salient, wholesale abandonment of weapons and positions, pusillanimous leadership, a reluctant showing at the Marne, a navy that couldn’t fire, politicians who knew nothing of war, it all makes for chastening reading. Anyone travelling down the 900-odd Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries that mark the line of the old Western Front from Ypres to the Aisne might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but Britain no more won the first world war by herself than it did Waterloo and here is chapter and verse. Whatever happened later, it was the French who saved France in 1914 and saved it in spite of everything our own Sir John French could do to scupper the alliance, and with the centenary looming it is important to be reminded of that. ‘No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening’, wrote Churchill, and Hastings does full justice to its appalling drama. He is, unashamedly — thankfully — a historian in the Barbara Tuchman tradition and Catastrophe is rich in unexplored sources from every side of the conflict and every theatre of the war. He is wise, too, to end the book where he does, with the German defeat at Ypres. I, for one, could not take much more and — more to the point — I’m not sure the author could either. If the performance of the old army that died at the First Ypres can reduce him to such frustration, God knows what, the 2nd and 3rd Ypres, Loos, Gallipoli, Kut and the Somme might do.
It is going to be a long five years of grim anniversaries, so triumphalists might want to pencil in 8 August 2018 — Ludendorff’s ‘black day of the German army’ — for the next centenary we can really look forward to.