Book review: “Catastrophe: 1914″

Royal Irish Rifles in the trenches during World War I.

Royal Irish Rifles in the trenches during World War I.

By Jim Tortolano/E Pluribus Unum

Of all the great conflicts in the last 100 years or so, the one that seems the most pointless and heartbreaking is World War One. In his new book “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War,” Max Hastings paints a vivid and depressing portrait of a continent destroying itself in what amounted to a vain game of military chicken.

While the war of 1914-1918 didn’t rival the second worldwide conflict for sheer horror, it exceeded it in sheer blind stupidity. As Hastings tells it, powerful nations let themselves be drawn into a war that would ultimately destroy or cripple them, for reasons which today would seem trivial or irrelevant.

As anyone who stayed awake during sophomore world history, the war started when a Serbian nationalist killed the heir apparent to the Austria-Hungary throne. When the Austrians attacked Serbia, Russia came in on the Serbs’ side.  That brought in the French, who were allied to the Russians, and the Germans, who had a pact with the Austrians.

The English jumped in with the French and then … a world war.

No one expected the war to last more than a few weeks or months, and so none of the belligerents were truly prepared. When stalemate set in, the nations involved had shortages of medical supplies, ammunition, food and good sense.

Hastings strips away any notions of great generalship or noble heroism with his careful research into the diaries of soldiers both high-ranking and in the trenches. It’s not that there weren’t some examples of good leadership and extraordinary sacrifice, but the war revealed too little of the former and far too much of the latter.

1914He writes of a war starting with too many officers exposing themselves recklessly on the battlefield, as if war was some kind of sport. Cavalry charging machine guns. French infantry dressed in gaudy uniforms with red trousers.

Then the officers (especially the generals) switch to “chateau generalship” where they sit in calm comfort many miles behind the lines, sipping wine and consigning hundreds of thousands of men to their death in pointless attacks.

Although Hastings spends hundreds of pages describing what a waste of blood and treasure this war was, he doesn’t take the commonly-held view that it didn’t really matter who won here. A German victory, he decides, would have been bad for democracy in general and Europe in specific.

A master military historian, Hastings makes the inevitable suspenseful and the mundane fascinating. Although this book covers only the opening of the war, it sets the tone for a conflict rich in horrifying repetition.

Despite the limits of the time frame covered, this is the best book on World War One I’ve encountered.

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