The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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