As December 1914 drew to a close in Europe, neither side in the war, which had begun in August, had managed a strategic breakthrough. Any early romantic ideals of war by soldiers and civilians had been replaced by terrible realities: death, destruction, suffering and hardship for thousands. In Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, a deeply researched and eminently readable overview of the breakdown of diplomacy and the first five months of conflict, military historian Max Hastings expertly explains the events of the war up to that point. Of the many theories of the origins of the war, he thinks the only untenable one is that it was the result of a series of accidents. “The leaders of all the great powers believed themselves to be acting rationally” and pursuing attainable objectives, he argues. He prefers the term “deniers” for those leaders rather than “sleepwalkers,” which indicates they were not conscious of their decisions.

Hastings details the evidence that shows that, although other nations were responsible in some ways, Germany bore principal blame for starting the war. The great question for him is: Who was making key decisions in Germany about going to war? Many in Europe assumed there would be a war, and it is a myth that many expected it to be a short one; in fact, soldiers everywhere anticipated a protracted conflict. Even though the horrors they experienced in those first few months diminished much of their early enthusiasm, nations which have paid the huge moral, political and financial price for entering a conflict are rarely interested in stopping as long as they think they have a good chance of winning.

“A dominant theme of the campaigns of 1914,” Hastings writes, “was the mismatch between the towering ambitions of Europe’s warlords, and the inadequate means with which they set about fulfilling them.” Among other concerns, there were chronic shortages of food, clothing and weapons. Thousands of draught and pack animals were used for every form of transport and were often victims of incompetent or brutal handling. Telephones, a major means of communication, were in short supply.

Commanders on both sides greatly underestimated their opponents. All of the armies involved had an exaggerated belief in human courage and the will to win, believing that those qualities could overcome the power of modern technology. On August 22, the French army lost 27,000 men, casualties on a scale never surpassed by the army of any other nation in a single day of the war. The best estimates are that France suffered well over a million casualties (killed, wounded, missing or captured) in the first five months of the war, including 329,000 dead. The Germans had 800,000 casualties during that same period.

The author’s broad canvas includes discussions of important subjects, such as the crucial role played by the Royal Navy in denying victory to Germany in 1914 by keeping Allied commerce going. He notes that Great Britain was the only major power to have a parliamentary debate on entry into the war, but the lawmakers were not invited to vote on the matter. There is a focus on the Serbian and Galician fronts, usually not well known by Western readers. Other subjects include civilian atrocities, war profiteering, class distinctions and harsh discipline in the military.

Hastings has been a foreign correspondent and a newspaper editor and is the author of several highly acclaimed works, including Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945. He gives us a realistic and unsentimental view of war and its consequences not only for combatants, but also for the civilians who were caught up in circumstances that changed their lives forever. This excellent authoritative account is a major triumph.

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