When the lamps went out in Europe
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.