KAISER WILHELM II ORDERED CHAMPAGNE AFTER DISPATCHING HIS TROOPS TO BATTLE
COUNT Alfred von Schlieffen, the 19th-century German master strategist, is said to have uttered these final words on his deathbed: ‘‘ Keep the right wing strong.’’ This is probably apocryphal but it reflects the absolute obsession of the Kaiser’s military with von Schlieffen’s concept of an invasion of France: wheeling around the northern French flank, violating neutral Belgium, and therefore advancing on Paris to win a quick victory.
Imperial German military doctrine held that, in 1914, defeating France in short order was the necessary precursor to being able to defeat the tsar’s Russia. All of this, of course, went horribly wrong. Max Hastings dissects and distils the diplomatic and military strategies of the European great powers in the turbulent year of 1914 with his expected skilful analysis and authoritative conclusions in his latest work, Catastrophe.
A new offering from Hastings is always cause for anticipation among military history buffs. Predictably, Catastrophe is outstanding and simply underscores Hastings’s enviable reputation as one of the great military writers, particularly given his publication just a year or so ago of All Hell Let Loose, the best singlevolume history of World War II yet written. Among his earlier books, both Armageddon (the destruction of the Third Reich) and Nemesis (the collapse of Imperial Japan) set new benchmarks for wartime scholarship. Catastrophe now may be bracketed with Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August or Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace as a compelling account of the outbreak of World War I.
The narrative pace in Catastrophe does not flag. Hastings moves easily between Western and Eastern fronts, detailing the unfolding military confrontation in all its dimensions, from royal palaces and the great offices of state through to humble private soldiers caught up in humanity’s first experience of industrial warfare and its emerging mass slaughter.
The men of all the fighting nations (and the women who nursed them) — Britain, France and Russia for the Triple Entente (and of course Serbia) and the Central Powers — Germany and Austria-Hungary — provide plenty of heroes, though Hastings does not fail to mention the phenomenon of desertion, which understandably overwhelmed some of the ranks as the horror of battle repeatedly enveloped them. Their families at home also routinely behaved with a stoicism and courage that continues to impress and baffle succeeding generations. But there are plenty of villains, overwhelmingly to be found among kings and commanders.
The German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, already challenged domestically, signed their death warrants when their monarchs ordered mobilisation. Stupidly, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered champagne after he had dispatched his troops to the railway stations for battle.
A soldier stares into a mine crater in the Somme, France, in 1917