Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings read by Simon Vance
From the acclaimed military historian, a new history of the outbreak of World War I—from the breakdown of diplomacy to the dramatic battles that occurred before the war bogged down in the trenches
World War I immediately 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, 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. He gives vivid accounts of the battles and frank assessments of generals and political leaders, and shows why it was inevitable that this first war among modern industrial nations could not produce a decisive victory, resulting in a war of attrition. 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.
After listening to “Blueprint for Armageddon”, I developed a keener interest in the Great War. However, my to read pile is more of a mountain range with an extensive network of mines. So i turned to the digital audio offerings from our public library.
There weren’t a lot. But Catastrophe 1914 was among them. And Simon Hastings had transformed The Problem of Pain into an enjoyable listen.
Tightly focused on the first year of World War I, Hastings’ narrative is quite different from the broad overview offered by Dan Carlin. This is really the story of the unready. Of old notions and old armies coming face to face with ugly new realities. The existential meat grinder was only just beginning to turn in 1914.
Hastings is critical of every party in the conflict. He ends to remind the reader that Germany bears almost the entire responsibility for the war. And while I’m no historian there is some truth to that. But even they were only individuals swept up in a complex context. He is frustrated by British complacency and caution. And he’s particularly dismissive of Russia’s organizational incompetence. Those are the drumbeats of the book. You’ll encounter them again and again.
However, you’ll also get personal testimonials from the men and women on the front lines as well as the generals in the rear. And this is married to the statistics one expects from military histories. Hastings does an admirable job of maintaining the sense of time, especially as collapsed as this moment is.
The catastrophes of 1914 were the failures. The failures of diplomacy, the failures to act quickly and decisively, the failures to adapt to modern warfare. The first year of The Great War set the stage of for the next half decade and it was terrifying.
Hastings attempts to salvage some hope from the grim reality by ending at or shortly after the famous Christmas truces. He tries to justify every belligerent. And while he allows that all war is tragic, he deems the sacrifice of millions worth it in the end.
Recommended for grognards, Europhiles, and modernists.