When the lamps went out in Europe

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Loosley

And as Rus­sia’s poorly equipped and badly led ar­mies headed to the front in Poland, the com­man­der of all the tsar’s ar­mies, Grand Duke Michael, told his Bri­tish mil­i­tary li­ai­son of­fi­cer that he wanted to have done with the war as quickly as pos­si­ble so as not to miss the shoot­ing sea­son about to start in Bri­tain. It was a dif­fer­ent shoot­ing sea­son that was com­menc­ing and it was to last four blood-soaked years.

Diplo­macy could have pre­vented World War I. To solve the cri­sis brought on by the as­sas­si­na­tion by Serb ter­ror­ists of the heir to the Aus­trian throne, Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand, in Sara­jevo, Bri­tain of­fered a four-power con­fer­ence, which the Cen­tral Pow­ers re­jected. Iron­i­cally, the slain arch­duke was the only se­nior fig­ure in Vi­enna de­ter­mined to avoid war.

War was cho­sen as the pre­ferred in­stru­ment, with Aus­tria de­liv­er­ing an ul­ti­ma­tum to Ser­bia, backed by an un­con­di­tional Ger­man guar­an­tee fool­ishly promised by chan­cel­lor Theobald von Beth­mann Holl­weg. The Ger­man em­pire had been born out of mil­i­tary ag­gres­sion. The Kaiser’s army was a sharp tool of state­craft and suc­cess­ful wars against Aus­tria and then France had seen 19th-cen­tury Ger­many emerge as a se­ri­ous strate­gic power.

An Aus­trian dec­la­ra­tion of war on Ser­bia brought Rus­sia into play as the guar­an­tor of pan-Slavic so­ci­ety in the Balkans. Rus­sian mo­bil­i­sa­tion meant Ger­many en­tered the war and Bel­gian neu­tral­ity was an early vic­tim. Bri­tain had guar­an­teed Bel­gian neu­tral­ity and, to the con­ster­na­tion of the Kaiser and his ad­vis­ers, Bri­tain hon­oured the un­der­tak­ing.

‘‘ The lamps are go­ing out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life­time,’’ Ed­ward Grey, Bri­tain’s for­eign sec­re­tary, ob­served poignantly.

Most peo­ple are fa­mil­iar with the slaugh­ter on the Somme or Ver­dun in 1916 but the heav­i­est ca­su­al­ties of the war ac­tu­ally oc­curred in 1914. Hast­ings drives this point home. In­com­pe­tent gen­er­als, such as John French of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force, were early found want­ing. Hav­ing failed dis­as­trously in his of­fen­sives in Al­sace, the French com­man­der, Gen­eral Joseph Jof­fre then re­alised the na­ture of Ger­man strat­egy and rose to meet it. Ger­man lo­gis­tics could not re­alise von Sch­li­ef­fen’s plan and, af­ter suf­fer­ing fur­ther hor­rific ca­su­al­ties, both sides set­tled into the trench war­fare that would grind on for four long years: from the North Sea to Switzer­land.

Hast­ings writes: ‘‘ Tran­scend­ing all else is the prob­a­bil­ity that Sch­li­ef­fen’s vi­sion of a grand en­vel­op­ment was in­ca­pable of ful­fil­ment by an army de­pen­dent for mo­bil­ity on the feet of its men and the hooves of its horses.’’

One of Hast­ings’s great strengths is to mar­shal his read­ers in the trenches them­selves. Bat­tle is joined, and eye­wit­ness ac­counts ac­com­pa­nied by bru­tally hon­est anal­y­sis en­able the sights and sounds, if not the ter­ror of the fight­ing, to be­come real. But read­ing of the con­stant slaugh­ter be­comes ex­haust­ing. It is dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend how sol­diers fought on so bravely for so long.

Hast­ings’s other con­sid­er­able strength is the rapier-like de­struc­tion of un­de­served rep­u­ta­tion. Here, he punc­tures Grand Ad­mi­ral Al­fred von Tir­pitz: ‘‘ Tir­pitz, far from be­ing the ar­chi­tect of his na­tion’s naval great­ness, proved merely to have per­suaded his mas­ter, the Kaiser, to waste prodi­gious re­sources on an enor­mous armed yacht squadron.’’

Was World War I worth the ter­ri­ble butcher’s bill? Hast­ings’s own grand­fa­ther had com­rades who doubted it. But the au­thor does not, as he de­clares a Ger­man vic­tory would have had ap­palling con­se­quences for Euro­pean democ­ra­cies and the world.

None­the­less, for hu­man­ity the out­break of the Great War was in­deed cat­a­strophic. Hast­ings is ut­terly con­vinc­ing in telling a hor­rific tale so graph­i­cally and so well.

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