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180 of 195 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "O piteous spectacle! O bloody times!
Whiles lions war and battle for their dens,
Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity." Wm. Shakespeare. King Henry VI, Part 3.

Max Hasting's "Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" is a masterfully crafted account of Europe's descent into the apocalypse known as the Great War. It is a study that focuses on Europe's sabre-rattling lions who led millions...
Published 12 months ago by Leonard Fleisig

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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Well written but superficial
This is a very well written introduction but Hastings is a journalist, not a historian. He makes unjustified leaps and confuses categories of information; for instance, he fails to distinguish between aggression in the political sphere and aggression in the military sphere, which seem to be rather different in terms of desirability and effect. He criticizes Christopher...
Published 4 months ago by interested bystander


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180 of 195 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "O piteous spectacle! O bloody times!, 13 Sep 2013
By 
Leonard Fleisig "Len" (Virginia Beach, Virginia) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (Hardcover)
Whiles lions war and battle for their dens,
Poor harmless lambs abide their enmity." Wm. Shakespeare. King Henry VI, Part 3.

Max Hasting's "Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War" is a masterfully crafted account of Europe's descent into the apocalypse known as the Great War. It is a study that focuses on Europe's sabre-rattling lions who led millions headlong into the valley of the shadow of death. It also provides a compelling parallel narrative of the lambs, civilian and soldier alike, who in abiding their enmity provided fodder for the carnage that inexorably followed.

Hasting has two stories to tell and he tells them well. The first third or so of the book covers the events leading up to the commencement of the war. The book starts, as many histories of WWI do, with a Prologue on the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. However, Hasting makes a compelling case for the notion that the events in Sarajevo were but the last link in a chain of events that led to the war. Hastings looks at Sarajevo as a pretext for a war that many European leaders, most notably those in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire, were hungry for; while other leaders (France, Russian and to a lesser extent Britain) felt a war was inevitable and did little to stop the march to war.

The remainder of the book is devoted to an account of the first five months of the war, from August through December, 1914. Those marked were marked by the great opening offensives, the Germans march through Belgium toward Paris, the Russian offensive in the East and the Austrian offensives in Poland and Serbia. The outcome of these battles, particularly in the west, drew the battle-lines over which the next three years of trench warfare were fought. The carnage was, of course, enormous and Hastings tells the stories of these great battles, the Marne, first Ypres, Mons, Tannenberg, and Poland, in a way that is thorough and elucidating. This is not a classic military history filled with the minutiae of these battles. However, Hastings provides sufficient details in clear prose to give the non military historian (such as this reviewer) a comprehensive picture of the scope of each great battle, and the geography and strategy of the warring sides.

Two aspects of the book stood out for me and warrant some attention. First, Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said that "[a] single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." It is quite easy, when looking at the canvas of a war that took millions, for an author or reader to focus on these huge losses and become desensitized to the great human tragedy at hand. Hasting, by focusing not just on the lions fighting over their dens but on the lambs who had to avoid their enmity avoids this problems. Hastings has interwoven into his big picture narrative vignettes of the stories of soldiers (on all sides) at the front and their loved ones at home. Hastings accomplishes this in a seamless fashion that does not distract from the big picture but which successfully manages to keep the readers eye also on the ongoing tragedy and folly of the war.

Second, while accounts of the action on the `eastern front' are legion for popular WWII histories, many WWI histories I have read pay scant attention to the great battles that raged in Prussia, Serbia and Poland. In fact the only complete narrative of Russia's disastrous offensive at the Battle of Tannenberg I have read came in a work of fiction, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's August 1914, which battle forms the centerpiece of Solzhenitsyn's (historically accurate) fictional narrative. Hastings examines the Battle of Tannenburg and the large offensives that took place in Galicia and Serbia.

Hastings writes with authority and erudition. He also writes with a clean, engaging prose that made wading into the trenches of a complicated subject both an educational and enjoyable experience. Hastings has written a compelling and authoritative account of the first year of the `war to end all wars' and I recommend Catastrophe to anyone with even a remote interest in the subject matter.
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58 of 64 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very thorough account of the first 5 months of the war., 21 Oct 2013
By 
Bobby Smith (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (Hardcover)
I have always found the events leading up to WW1 more than a tad tiresome, with issues such as the Balkan Wars, the arms race, German militarism etc wearing down the reader. This book, however, has managed to lend these events a fresh feel that can appeal to those not keen to investigate the minutiae of such detail. Most of the book, in fact, deals primarily with the military campaigns of the first 5 months, with coverage of huge battles in Serbia, Poland and the Western Front. Mr Hastings also includes the war at sea and the fledgling struggles of airmen to show the worth of their machines. The brutality of the Germans in Belgium is correctly documented and the treatment of prisoners also gets a mention. Lastly, the home front gets coverage, alongside tales of women giving out the 'white feather' to men who had not joined up. In short, this is an admirable book that never loses sight of the human cost of war, with some often poignant and moving excerpts from letters used to illustrate the sacrifice of the men at the front.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Blame Game, 20 May 2014
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Max Hastings's account of The Great War mixes strong narrative and analysis, a big picture view and telling detail, a blow-by-blow account and the wider context of the war. The effect is a compelling read and a clear picture of some of the complexities surrounding the period: the causes of the war, its conduct and its significance.
And this war is complex: long-term and short-term causes, the role of individuals and the role of institutions, the differences between having clearly defined objectives (eg annexing territory) and a willingness to push events along to see where they might go (eg Germany giving the Austro-Hungarians a blank cheque to deal with Serbia) provide a kaleidoscope of angles from which to approach the conflict.
Hastings provides a strong synthesis of accounts and overview. While he apportions blame - largely pointing the finger at Germany - he is also keen to show where different nations were at fault in different ways for their aggression or their failure to understand the consequences of their action (or in some cases inaction). Yet, while he is firm, if sometimes trenchant, in his opinions he is careful to show the basis on which he has reached his decisions.
There are a few weaknesses. While Hastings is strong on the opportunities the different players had to take a different course in the lead-up to war, he pays less attention to the longer-term causes. He captures the way Britain was caught between its focus on its empire and its desire to see a balance of power in Europe. However, at a time when Britain, France and Russia had all extended their influence in the world, I wonder if he is perhaps too quick to put Germany's actions down simply to militarism.
Catastrophe is based on a wide reading of different authorities and Hastings provides an excellent, sometimes gripping summing-up of the evidence and then direction to the jury.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Endgame, 6 Jun 2014
By 
Brian Hamilton "brianhamilton14" (Scotland, UK) - See all my reviews
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This books achieves the awe inspiring combination of fact and entertainment. His blend of hard military information infused with vignettes of the average foot soldier, peasants, disaffected and the everyman is very heady and brings strong emotion to a table normally only adorned with the dry biscuit of troop movements and engagements.

Finally, we can read about the confused beginnings and the slow awakening that a world altering struggle was unfolding.

The reviews that have gone before are correct in their plaudits and the praise heaped upon Hastings are justly given, he is a man of strong intellect, cutting insight and is able to grasp disparate elements and describe in a way that is straightforward without being patronizing or 'dumbing down' the content.

I can see myself reading his other works for the sheer majesty of his writing and the towering aspirations that he loftily commands.

As it says on the blurb, 'we are at the hands of a master.'

Never have I read a book that has tackled a potentially arid subject with such emotion and humanity.

This should be an essential read for anyone with even the slightest bone of interest in their body about where we are today and what has shaped our modern world.

Essential reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Descent into massacre, 4 Jun 2014
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As usual from this author, an in depth analysis of the circumstances leading to the First World War, as told by those leading the various nations, and the ordinary soldier, sailer and civilian. The stories are interwoven into a single narrative, leaping from area to area, country to country.

I'm struck by the ineptitude of many of the very senior generals, in not being able to cope with modern warfare on an industrial scale. The soldier at the front seemed able to adapt, although their officers less so, and also less tolerant of war intervening into their comfortable lives.

From a British perspective, I'm also struck by the small contribution of the country to the war in 1914, in comparison to the millions of Frenchman, Russians and Germans to the conflict. Even so, the parochialism and nationalism of many of the counties involved, many resenting their allies more than their enemies!

Max Hastings makes the case that the war was largely the fault of the Germans being unwilling and unable to resist the descent into conflict. Once committed to war, all countries - sadly - were in until the end of the conflict.

Thought provoking, a very worthwhile read to stem the tide of over patriotic remembrance this year.
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96 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The First Industrial War, 14 Sep 2013
By 
Dr Barry Clayton (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (Hardcover)
'The statesmen were overwhelmed by the magnitude of events. The generals were overwhelmed also---They were pilots without a chart, blown before the storm and not knowing where to harbour'. (A J P Taylor, 1963).

Despite the passing of years, the Great War continues to haunt and fascinate. The forthcoming centenary promises to open a floodgate of new books, articles, films and TV productions. Regarding the latter one hopes they will be on different lines to 'Oh What A lovely War', and 'Blackadder'. These were entertaining but historically warped and very biased.
Sir Max Hastings's latest book on the war is the third so far to be published so far this year. Eight more are promised by December, more will follow next year.

The author is a former journalist, and editor. He has written many books on war, for example,the Korean War and WW11. The latter include excellent accounts of:Bomber Command, Churchill, Overlord and the war against Japan. His book 'All Hell Let Loose' was received with general acclaim. In addition, he has written books about the countryside (which he loves)and an Anthology of Military Quotes.
Max writes fluently and with verve. His style is elegant almost reaching the standard of Sir Michael Howard. He is, therefore, eminently readable. This means he appeals to the non-specialist reader in particular, and it is this audience that his books aim to attract. The specialist can admire his books but will learn little new from them for Hastings is essentially a synthesiser, and narrator of existing work. Unfortunately, because of this he attracts from some parts of the academia, as did the late and great Alan Taylor, a degree of criticism. A common claim is that he is 'unscholarly'. Many academics, it has to be said, do not like historians who become 'popular'. In his introduction Sir Max makes it clear he is very much aware of this.

The Great War, to give it its proper title, was a pivotal event that helped to shape the years that followed. The horrendous casualty figures, which Hastings of course quotes meant that the war is regarded by many to this day as futile. Critics forget that no one knew that the war would be so horrendous, although the effect of the maxim on colonials ought to have given food for thought. I am glad that the author disagrees. As Grey said on 3rd August 1914 if we had stood aside we would have failed in our obligation to Belgium and let down France. If Germany had won the war we would have been threatened by her hegemony of Europe, and our sea lanes and trade would have been put in jeopardy. The author is in no doubt that this meant we had to go to war. British honour (old-fashioned word today) was involved.
Today, many even object to the forthcoming planned centenary events, arguing as does Professor Evans (a leading Cambridge historian), that they smack of jingoism.

Hastings also is in no doubt that Germany was the major cause of war breaking out. The evidence is very clear on this point. The assassination was as the Germans said 'a heaven sent opportunity' to begin what they had planned in outline since the early 1900's. Four successive British military attaches reported between 1903-1913 that Germany was intent on war. Germany undertook an unprovoked invasion of Belgium, a country not involved in the dispute between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. Of course, other things racked up the tension such as: political and diplomatic incompetence that caused fissures, arms races on land and sea, fear of encirclement,Serbian ambitions and an unstable Balkans all played a part. As Prof Clarke has written in his recent work there was also indeed a degree of diplomatic'sleepwalking' involved (there always is). But there had been many worse international conflicts involving Germany and France after 1900, these had all been resolved peacefully.
Wars are the result of human decisions. No one had to go to war. The sad truth is that many in Austria-Hungary and Germany welcomed the chance to go to war in 1914 to settle old scores (the assassination was an excuse, there had been some 6 assassinations in the area that year alone) and achieve long-held aspirations. Militarism, as Sir Michael Howard as shown, was rife in Germany pre-1914. Many German scholars have also exposed the massive influence of the German military on decision-making in the weeks before war was declared. The Kaiser was a weak, unstable man easily led. It was a misfortune for Germany that he ruled at this time.

Any capable historian can with ease lay the blame on any agency. You simply choose the evidence that 'proves' your case. There will, therefore, never be agreement as to the causes. No one has yet blamed Britain though I remember a PhD student trying, and failing.
Sadly, although it was widely read, few decision-makers took heed of Ivan Bloch's magnificent work that argued that in the next war the defence would predominate and that, given the revolution in weaponry, the result would be suicide. The 'lessons' of the Russo-Japanese war were also brushed aside because it was believed they 'were only applicable to orientals'.

Hastings book covers only the first year of the war. It does not dwell on tactical details, these have in any case been readily available in many other books for at least 50 years. His chapters focus on an outline of the major battles from August to December 1914. In so doing he criticises, a little unfairly, the British commanders involved (they were remember as well prepared for this 'new war' as we are today for a nuclear war), punctures a number of myths ( there are many ) about, for example, the so-called heroic actions during the Mons retreat, and, like Gary Sheffield has shown, he believes Haig was a far better general than some historians have claimed. All the battles are described in typical Hastings style but they add very little to our existing knowledge. To be fair, how could they given the fact they have been trawled over many, many times.

The author mentions the German atrocities in Belgium. These amounted to over 6000 murdered deliberately. These have been verified for some time now. He does not, however, mention the atrocities committed by the French in Alsace. Whether we would have behaved differently on German soil will, of course, never be known. The actions of some of the Allies in the Second World War were hardly in line with the Geneva Convention. We should not forget German appalling atrocities in SW Africa some years earlier. The Kaiser decorated those responsible. The brutal Brest Litovsk Treaty also demonstrates German intentions after victory as does her notorious September Programme which laid out the lands she would occupy once having defeated France.

I would have welcomed more on the critical importance of the Belgium decision to flood the Yser. This stopped the Germans capturing the Channel Ports. If they had succeeded, the political consequences would have been incalculable.

Also one day the importance of the dire educational standards of our conscripts will be given the attention it deserves. It caused massive problems for trainers and was a major reason for the adoption of the much criticised 'wave' tactics. These were necessary in order to try and control huge numbers under fire. German conscripts were far better trained and educated. This enabled the decentralisation of authority to NCO's, and the development of stormtroopers.

The book ends with the end of mobile warfare and the beginning of 475 miles of stalemate ( but not on the Eastern Front) What the author fails to point out however is that the military stalemate was accompanied by what turned out to be an equally crucial political and diplomatic stalemate on all sides. As a result the military exerted more and more influence on the war.

It is good to see the Eastern, Galician and Turkish Fronts given their due. They were very important but are so frequently overlooked. They have still not been given their full due. As in the Second World War, these Fronts had a major effect on the nature of the fighting and the eventual outcome

On casualties, as horrific as they were, it is important to place them in context. Previous wars/rebellions had in fact led to more deaths than this war. For example, the Taiping rebellion resulted in some 20 million dead. All statistics are in any case estimates. No one knows, or ever will know the true figures. In 1919 the world flu pandemic left around 21 million dead. What was different about the Great War was: the sheer size of the armies, the new technology,the geography,the length of the war and its global nature. Since the murderous Napoleonic wars all the wars up to 1914 had been limited ones, although the Russian-Turkish and Russo-Japanese had been exceedingly nasty. We forget that the Normandy campaign was a very, very bloody affair and the Allies were not facing the cream of the German army. If Haig was a 'butcher' as the snipers claim, then so was Montgomery, and he faced an easier opponent in far easier circumstances.
We should also remember that the French suffered proportionately far more than any other belligerent. It is very difficult to find a village that does not have a memorial to the dead. Skits on the war would never be allowed in France.

I would have liked, given a book of 672 pages, to have seen far more space devoted to a very crucial aspect of this, indeed any, war namely logistics. It was logistics that scuppered the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan (in fact we now know there was no PLAN as such), and it was the Allies superior administration of the supply chain (thanks to Sir Eric Geddes, an ex Railways chief)that brought victory in 1918. Siege warfare placed enormous demands on logistics. The Allies had more resources and used them more effectively. The French railways were better than the German and they utilised interior lines.

Those who claim we should have stayed out of the war, and that it was futile, show little historical knowledge or an understanding of how territorial aggression against an innocent small state was regarded in 1914. Then morality and honour meant something as Grey said in his Commons speech.
If we had stayed out, Germany would have won and established hegemony in Europe of a kind not seen since Napoleonic times. She would have threatened our command of the seas and our vital trade routes. Economic ruin would have followed. The evidence from German archives shows a war against Britain and her Empire would have occurred within a year. We had to fight to stop a very nasty state dominating Europe.

Few new insights then but still a tour de force about a Just War for the general reader. It is not definitive by a long way. It does not match, for example, the outstanding account by Hew Strachan (if only he had the time two write the next two volumes of his trilogy). Unlike Strachan and many others Max is not a trained professional historian. There is, however, in all his books a wealth of very interesting and anecdotal evidence. His writing is lucid, shrewd and at times very witty. The book is a vivid description and narrative of a terrible war. Sir Max tells a story, and tells it well.

The author demonstrates again his understanding of combat experience (I have often wondered if, despite his distinguished career, Sir Max would have liked to have been a soldier. As a former soldier, I believe he would have been a formidable member of the military profession). His dispatches from the Falklands were memorable.

The maps are, given the text, adequate, the photos stimulating but not new, and the bibliography includes most but by no means all of the standard works on the war. There is, however, a surprising lack of books by, for example, Bond, Bourne, Griffiths, Travis, Gilbert, Clarke and Stevenson.

The index has been tested and found sound.

Once the centenary has passed it is surely time for another armistice to be declared, this time on books about the Great War. Currently, there are more than 26,000 books on the war plus an equal number of articles. No war apart from the US Civil War has attracted such attention. Time, I think to call a halt unless, and this is unlikely, there is a major discovery of new evidence. Any new account can only be the result of someone's judgement using the available evidence. Brilliant interpretations yes, new revelations I think not. Professor Margaret MacMillan's eagerly awaited new book, due out soon, will be a very good example of this.

A book well worth reading, particularly for the non-specialist.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Read, 18 July 2014
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Very well written book and a cracking read which gave a strong sense of the context of the war and the developing views of soldiers and civilians on all sides. Hastings also I think is very good at not adopting a 'jingoistic' 'British perspective and concentrating on the failures of others, which makes it all the more surprising that when he outlines death rates by nation he omits to break down the British figures. These show that British troops from Scotland had a death rate of 26%, over twice the UK average and significantly higher than the French at 16%. My Scots Grandfather was an infantry solider during WWI. He was fortunately wounded: and decorated for saving men off the wire in no man's land. You really do feel for all of that social class and wider generation who were at the front line of this tragedy and no matter the number of clever arguments about the 'right' of longer-term British political objectives, you are still left with the feeling of utter tragedy and folly, and the careless attitude to life displayed by aristocratic, political and military elites of that day.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Well written but superficial, 28 April 2014
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This is a very well written introduction but Hastings is a journalist, not a historian. He makes unjustified leaps and confuses categories of information; for instance, he fails to distinguish between aggression in the political sphere and aggression in the military sphere, which seem to be rather different in terms of desirability and effect. He criticizes Christopher Clark's 'Sleepwalkers' but that book is, while not nearly as readable as this, a much more detailed, subtle and nuanced account of the subject; Clark's work shows how superficial and simplistic is Hastings' 'blame it all on the Kaiser' thesis. So this is a readable introduction to the topic but its conclusions cannot be relied upon.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book, 7 Jun 2014
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Comprehensive history that is is very readable and gripping. Well worth the effort to make it through to the end.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bit laboured in places but good account of early period, 7 April 2014
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Hasting's book focuses on the immediate pre war period and follows the early phase of the war through to Xmas 1914. Presents a detailed account of the often neglected French advance into Alsace and the so called race to the see which ended in deadlock that would lend ire for 4 years. Unsympathetic to most of the senior military and political figures it nevertheless presents the case that it probably would have made little difference if they had been more effective. Personally I found it a bit easy to put down at the end mainly because Hasting's does labour his point, that being that modern wars between equal powers cannot be win cheaply.
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Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914
Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings (Hardcover - 12 Sep 2013)
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