28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Prit Buttar's latest book does all those interested in the Great War a valuable service, he reminds us that the war was every bit as nasty and bloody on the Eastern Front as on the Western Front. For far too long the focus on the latter has led to a serious imbalance and ignorance about the true nature of the war.
Churchill wrote a book about the Eastern Front, it was entitled: 'The Unknown War'. It was an apt title for while many can name three battles on the Western Front I doubt if many can name more than one, if that, in the East. There is still no official Soviet history of the army's performance in the war. German accounts are heavily biased, a bias that was transferred to that over-rated writer Liddell Hart.
The popular image of the war is a massive convulsion that transformed parts of France and Belgium into water filled trenches, where thousands were killed by gas, snipers or shells. This image is, of course, true as far as it goes but it fails to convey the full picture. Trench warfare has always been a somewhat dubious motif for the war because in the East another very bloody war raged on a vast scale. Static warfare did take place but the vastly different landscape allowed for the use of cavalry and the finding and use of flanks. The ratio of troops to space was also totally different. Some areas were vast swamps, dense forests while others were flat and open. The enormous Pripet Marshes forced the Russians to operate as two independent commands. The Carpathian mountains formed a formidable barrier in the south. The different topography forced armies to use different tactics whereas on the Western Front the tactics remained uniform until 1918.
It is worth noting that deaths were a higher percentage of German casualties in the east than in the west.
The author explains how the Eastern Front armies were very different to those on the Western Front. They did not operate in very similar ways as did those in Flanders. The Russian army, for example, was riddled with factions while that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was to a great extent the creation of one man's vision.
There were other important differences that impinged on operations, for example the weather. This played an important role as it did in the Second World War. No armies on the Western Front had to suffer the intense winters that their counterparts did in the East.
Much more could have been made of another major difference in the Eastern Theatre, namely the strong anti war movement in Russia. This was deliberately fostered by the bolsheviks and to a degree financed by them. This seriously hampered the war effort.
Lloyd George believed that if Russia had been given adequate help she could have hastened Germany's defeat. His arguments are not convincing. In any case her allies had serious resource problems to contend with at home. It was not shell shortages that led to Russia's defeats at Golovin and elsewhere it was incompetence and disorganisation. Also, by 1917, Russian superiority on her front was almost comparable with the Western Power's superiority in France in 1918. By 1916, Russia was producing 4,500,000 shells a month compared with Germany's 7 million and an Austro-Hungarian output of 1 million.
It was not material problems that caused battles to be lost, it was bungling and bickering plus a belief in fortresses. It was administrative weaknesses not economic ones that caused disaster after disaster.
An interesting account that ends in 1915. The author spends far too long discussing matters like the assassination and the German General Staff when more detail on the different tactics, administrative problems and command and control problems would have been of far greater interest. At least we are spared being told wrongly that the Archduke's car could not reverse because it had no reverse gear. It had, and it can be clearly seen on the car to this day. Most of the otherwise best accounts of the assassination make this silly error, the authors have obviously never been near Sarajevo!
The maps and bibliography are sound. The latter includes some relatively new archival evidence.
Read in conjunction with Irving Root's: 'Battles East', this account will help to remind readers that, as in WW2, the Eastern Front played a key role in the outcome of the Great War.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Now that the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 has passed, we are inundated with all manner of books about various aspects of that conflict - some of which are refreshingly new. Of these, I found this particular work to be exceptional. Even if we are not fully acquainted with specific details, most people seem to know something about WW1 - most notably the Western Front, trench warfare and the emergence of the tank. It would appear that few, however, know anything at all about the Eastern Front - with some, perhaps, confusing the subject with the Far East.
In this first-rate work by an author not previously known to me, we learn a great deal about the bitter fighting between the three mighty empires of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia. It is a work where names previously unknown slowly become as familiar as any others from this period in history. How ironic, for example, to learn that a failure of cooperatioin between Russia’s senior commander’s Rennenkampf and Samsonov led to the defeat at Tannenberg. It brought to mind ‘the war between the Allied generals of WW2’ - but I digress.
This is a thick book of 470 pages packed with narrative and information supported by 17 maps appearing when relevant to the text. There are also two sections of glossy b&w historic photographs from the period (32 images altogether) showing leading personalities and war scenes. The book itself, however, commences with 5 pages of ‘Dramatis Personae’ in which the names and positions held by the leading players are all listed in alphabetical order by country. Very useful!
Commencing with one of the most educational ‘Introductions’ I have read in a long time, the chapter headings are repeated in order to indicate the contents - as follows; (1) The German War Machine, (2) The Russian Steamroller, (3) Austria-Hungary - the other Sick Man of Europe, (4) Over the Brink, (5) The First Battles (Stallopönen and Gumbinnen), (6) Crisis of Command, (7) Tannenberg, (8) The Illusion of Victory (Galicia August 1914), (9) The Battle for the Masurian Lakes, (10) The Reality of Defeat (Galicia September 1914), (11) A Bloody Sideshow (the Serbian Front), (12) Mud and Blood - Autumn in Poland, (13) Łódź, (14) The First Christmas and (15) Disappointments and Illusions. The work then concludes with an Appendix of place names, Notes, Bibliography and Index.
The layout is carefully designed to explain what needs to be explained and then take the reader through the events in the order in which they occurred. Although I do regard myself as ‘well read’ on military matters in general, I found the book all the more fascinating because the subject of the Eastern Front was new to me and, therefore, all the more welcome. Overall, it is a complete education into the subject and led to a number of personal ‘enlightements.’ As a shipwreck historian, I am more conversant with the warships of the period although I did not previously know that, for example, the well-documented German battlecruiser SMS Moltke was named after the German general of that name who features in this work and I mention this snippet only to underline the value I am able to place on such an informative work. Of more relevance, perhaps, is the fact that I did not previously regard the former Austro-Hungarian Empire as quite the military force it was at the outbreak of WW1 and will, therefore, now look upon elements of that history with renewed interest.
If the work were to be improved there are instances where it gets bogged down with trivia and occasionally loses the natural flow of the read. There were a few instances where I found myself referring back in order to confirm who was fighting who - and which commander was being described. Nevertheless, those were neither painful nor too frequent and not worthy of downgrading the book from a well-deserved 5 Star rating.
British army major (retired)
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 15 July 2014
I previously enjoyed Buttar's book on the Baltic States in WWII, and I looked forward to reading this when I saw that it would be released a few weeks after I finished 'Between Giants'. I wasn't disappointed by another excellent book, but this work has more obvious limitations. In particular, I felt that the balance between military history and political and social history leaned rather too far in favour of guns and maps in this volume. Buttar's work on military history is excellent and itself strikes an ideal balance between the differing military perspectives on the conflict, and the book is well worth reading for this reason alone.
Reading it though, I occasionally longed for Buttar to zoom out completely and find out what politicians in Petrograd, Vienna and Budapest, and Berlin all had to say about the conflict by Christmas of 1914. Were civilian politicians in control at this point? Did civilians really understand just how serious the military limitations were? Was there yet any significant degree of opposition to the war at this stage? I'd hesitantly guess "No" to all of these, but it's a shame we don't find out in this volume. Likewise, even though the political bickering in the military is well covered in all three countries, civilian political bickering - especially in Austria-Hungary - is something I'm hoping will be in future volumes.
On the other end of the scale, Buttar hasn't yet covered the lives of civilians and societies in the war zones as he did in the way which made 'Between Giants' so appealing. Almost certainly this is because this volume (part of a series) ends around Christmas 1914 and there can't be the sources specific to that five month period alone to really justify a proper treatment when there will be space and time in later books. That Buttar draws specific attention to Habsburg atrocities in the first offensives in Serbia and the experience of Germans fleeing before the Russians in Prussia (events specific to 1914) suggests we'll see plenty on occupied Poland and Western Ukraine in the next volume.
Last nitpick - the maps are a little crummy, especially on Kindle. I highly recommend readers to load up relevant maps on your phone or computer to pore over.
Rereading this is a deceptively negative review; don't read it the wrong way. If you're interested in the topic it's the book you need to read. Rather than dissatisfaction with the book, my criticisms are a reflection of an imbalance of high quality work on the military side of things - I want more reading, not less! I'm confident I'll be satisfied though, as should you.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 3 August 2014
Excellent military history of the first few months of fighting on the Eastern front in 1914. Whilst there have been some excellent books on the Eastern front of WW1 available in English, some such as Norman Stone's "The Eastern Front 1914 - 1917" are concise and lacking in detail despite some superb analysis of the events or others like Holger H. Herwig's magnificent book "The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914 - 1918" tel the story as part of a more comprehensive overview of the world war. Buttar's story is richly detailed in terms of the military action and is a true history of the Eastern Front in giving due prominence to the campaigns in the South East (Galicia, the Capathians) and Serbia, too often it is almost as if there was no Austria-Hungary whilst Serbia fares even worse. I say military history, as the book is very focused on the military campaigns and further clearly focused on the East. That may sound an obvious statement that the book is focused on the East given the title however one of the most important aspects of the Central Powers strategy in the war was the balancing between East and West. At various times the troops and resource demands of one front played a key influence over events in the other. Whilst the book does include some consideration of this strategic conflict it is a little light, hopefully the next volume will expand upon this as the relationship between Falkanhayne and the Eastern duumvirate of Hindenburg - Ludendorf was crucial to the conduct of the war. Something which may surprise some is that given for many years people in the West tended to consider the Eastern front as a war of manouvre and of striking German successes is that the war in the East was also marked by inconclusive engagements, heavy casualties and attrition. Whilst the East did indeed see advances which were much greaters than those seen in the West for most of the war this was more as a result of the greater area and lower force density than to any great generalship and for the most part initial gains were quickly followed by by a stabilisation of fronts and a return to attritional warfare. Another lesson for some will be the generally dreadful performance of Conrad, for some reason Conrad enjoyed a splendid post war press in some quarters and many in the West traditionally swallowed the idea of a brilliant general let down by a poor army not worthy of his command. Whilst the Austro-Hungarian Army did indeed suffer from many issues its troops often fought courageously and suffered truly appalling losses fighting ill concieved and strategically deficient offensive battles. Conrad's obsession with the offensive, his detachment from the realities of the front and total failure to consider the capabilities of his own troops to execute his grandiose schemes which may have looked elegant in a text book make it very difficult to understand how he enjoyed such a generally positive press in so many quarters. The book clearly gives much attention to Hindenburg and Ludendorf and highlights that this relationship was a true marriage and not one of a brilliant Ludendorf alongside an empty figurehead of Hindenburg as often portrayed. Hindenburg's steadiness under pressure and imperturbability were an ideal compliment to Ludendorf's high energy and nervous disposition which the sum of the two parts resulting in a formidable combination. Thankfully the book avoids the usual clihes about the Russian army and its generals and demonstrates that whilst there were serious issues with command the Russian army fought bravely and was far from being the fodder for easy German victories often portrayed. The Kindle edition has those annoying typos that dog the format but at the price is such a bargain it would be wrong to make too much of these. What is a more pertinent criticism of the Kindle edition is that as a result of the poor map reproductions and lack of good links to these maps it can be very difficult to follow the narrative as the story describes movements on the battlefield. The narrow focus on military activity means that some important dimensions (economic management, diplomacy, the inter action between different fronts) are either absent or lacking but as a military history this is a first class book. Highly recommended.
on 14 February 2015
I bought this book as my knowledge of the war in the East in 1914 was poor., especially from the Russian perspective The book certainly provides a mass of factual information on the background and the lead-up to war in 1914, but lacks any real descriptive depth about the dynamics of the situation or real character analysis of the key players. A when and where book, but sadly not much of a why, it felt as if the events were described with all the literary flair of a railway timetable. A shame, as the author has clearly dome his homework. It would be a much better book if written by someone with the style of Lynn McDonald for example.
on 1 March 2015
This book set out a very clear prestige on this aspect of world war 1 that I knew very little about. Given that I don't know Russian,German or any eastern language I found some of the individual place names & surnames hard to decipher ( is he a German or an Russian etc) .
But the narrative flow is very clear. The analytical comments on the deeper cultural & organisational aspects were the best part of the book.
Overall a very good book.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 19 August 2014
Historically important and educative book. But hard to read and follow as the author mixes formations and commanders names between protagonists such that it is hard to follow which side is which in any particular episode. Many Corps and Army numbers and commanders names are similar on both sides so it if often hard to make out who is attacking and who is defending. And the maps and the sweep of the actions are too broad brush to be much help.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 12 July 2014
... not as engaging as the author's previous two books, mainly due to a much smaller number of first-person accounts. Military history buffs and wargamers will no doubt be delighted, but it does rather lead some of the battles and engagements to be movements of brigades, divisions, corps and the like.
That observation aside, this plugs a huge gap in WW1 history - and it's particularly strong away from the battlefield in painting pictures of the commanders, their skills and, more often, their shortcomings.
Where books abound on every clash and skirmish in the West, the Eastern Front, with a few exceptions, is often an literary wilderness. This is the first of several volumes by the end of which the Eastern Front of WW1 should no longer be what Churchill called 'the Unknown War'.
There's some * very * impressive research that has gone into this - and some particularly obscure sources unearthed - which will mean Collision of Empires will become a standard volume on WW1 and the opening moves in the East. Importantly, this is not just a story of Tannenberg, or Russia vs Germany, rather Russia vs the Central Powers, ensuring a very comprehensive overview of battles and campaigns on a vast scale.
So a very worthy addition to Great War literature, but it might be a tad dry in places for the general reader.
on 6 March 2015
This is a World War 1 story of movement and titanic clashes, of cut and counter thrust and of massive casualties despite the lack of trenches. A must read for students of history and for people who want to understand more of a war that to this day casts a shadow over us all.
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2014
An excellent account of the less well known Eastern front actions of 1914. Clear and well written, pointing out the just what went wrong in the rush to war and the early fighting, detailing the great battles that swept to and fro at such cost and for so little gain. The immense losses on the eastern front show that great offensives were no less murderous than trench deadlock when old tactics met new weapons. None of the commanders, or the politicians, come out particularly well from these accounts, and some are rightly shown as disastrous.
I would say that this is a better account of the Eastern fighting than in Max Hastings' (admittedly wider) "Catastrophe" which covers the same time period. Perhaps needed a few more maps - indeed the only issue I have with this, as with all Kindle books, is that it is awkward to switch from text to map & back again. That's not a fault with the book itself.