on 11 November 2014
In the century that has passed since the outbreak of World War 1, thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of books have been written about the war, examining its history in great detail from a wide range of perspectives. So, we can hardly expect any major new revelations. Sir Max Hastings focuses on and succeeds in producing a detailed account of the events leading to the outbreak of the war and the first four months of fighting, describing the military and social impacts. To his great credit, he avoids the modern tendency to political correctness and offers forthright opinions on several subjects. These include where responsibility lay for the outbreak of the war (mainly Germany in Hastings's opinion) and the qualities of leadership of the British Expeditionary Force (in general poor and worse in the case of its leader, Sir John French).
When it comes to assessing the book, I believe it is better to draw a distinction between the overall content, balance and quality of writing and the opinions offered. Dealing with the latter first, I enjoyed the directness of Hastings's opinions even if I do not agree with some of them. They add colour to the book and are well argued and presented. I happen to agree with his biting criticism of British leadership but not with attributing the majority of the blame to Germany. In spite of his censure of Germany's leaders, Hastings writes evenly about the behaviour of German soldiers. This is all the more creditable as it is well recognized that history is written by the victors and there is a natural tendency for their views and attitudes to prevail in subsequent history while the weaknesses, faults and mistakes of the losers gain disproportionate attention.
Like most other writers, Hastings makes scant reference to Belgium's appalling record as a colonial power in Central Africa in the decades prior to war. Muscular diplomacy was practiced by most countries in western Europe throughout the second half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. Britain was hardly a passive bystander having built up an intimidating fleet to protect its colonial interests. If we take a systemic view of the situation in 1914 rather than a simple cause and effect perspective, the outbreak of war was an unintended consequence of multiple causal events with no single one being directly responsible. It is too simplistic to ascribe the majority of the blame to a single nation.
Turning to the content, I was struck by how marginal were the descriptions of the Battles of the Masurian Lakes and Lodz. The former merited a scant paragraph and the latter little more. In his introduction, Hastings commented that deciding which aspects of the fighting to include and which to omit was difficult. Given his readership is likely to be UK-centric, it is inevitable that his writing accordingly focuses more on the fighting in France and Belgium. Even so, given the scale of these two battles, I would have expected a little more detail, at least as much as given for the Battle of Tannenberg. Nor did I find any reference to the pursuit of SMS Goeben and SMS Breslau and the political consequences of their escape to Turkey.
But these are minor criticisms and should be set against the considerable strengths of the book. The fighting between the Austro-Hungarian and Serbian armies is discussed in nice detail. Hastings conveys especially well the courage of the soldiers directly involved in fighting and the appalling conditions under which they had to fight. His descriptions of the impact on communities through which armies passed and those directly affected by fighting are also notable. Hastings includes an interesting perspective of the important influence of the fledgling air forces even in the first months of fighting.
Overall, the descriptions of key events and personalities, blending of anecdote and formal discussion and fluency of writing make for a thoroughly enjoyable book. There are other books which may be more objective or offer greater detail on specific aspects of even this relatively short period but Hastings's book is among the best I have read on this terrible war.
on 27 June 2014
In the opening salvo of publications marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, Max Hastings’ book has been an early victor, with critical acclaim buttressed by commercial success. Continuing the approach adopted in previous works on the Second World War, Hastings ranges widely across his subject matter, describing the motives and actions of the majors players, and the consequences of the decisions made on high upon those at the sharp end. A particular strength is the sheer number of voices brought into play, not only soldiers of all ranks but those of civilians caught up in the conflict, so often forgotten in conventional military histories.
The opening chapters necessarily deal with the origins of the war. The Allied insistence at Versailles in 1919 that Germany accept responsibility for initiating hostilities was the first encounter in a bitter historiographical war of words whose intensity continues to the present. While some historians have focused on structural factors – nationalism, imperialism, the arms race and the alliance system – these elements only created the tense backdrop to international affairs in 1914; in the end, it was human agency that led to war.
The traditional modern orthodoxy that the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary were the prime movers behind the outbreak of war emerged in the 1960s through the work of German historian Fritz Fischer, at the time the subject of fierce controversy in his homeland. There have been some recent challenges, the most convincing coming from the Cambridge-based Australian historian Christopher Clark, who is sympathetic to Austria-Hungary’s claim for damages against the rogue state of Serbia, arguing that if blame is to apportioned then all the main combatants held a smoking gun.
Hastings refutes such notions, advancing the case that ‘Germany bore principal blame’, that the Balkan crisis was converted into world war as a result of ‘ill-conceived Austrian design, with German support’. While I believe his case against the Central Powers is possibly ‘too’ well-argued – I don’t think it ever possible to get to the full truth in this matter – there can be little doubt that the German government failed to prevent the outbreak of war, while some of its leading lights actively sought a military decision in 1914.
Following on from Hastings’ thesis on the culpability of the Central Powers is his argument that Britain was right in joining France and Russia to prevent what he contends would have been a militarist German domination of Europe. Many believe the First World War to have been a terrible and futile waste of life; Hastings makes a good case that while the war was certainly terrible it was ultimately not futile.
In terms of the campaign narrative, the war on the Eastern Front is well represented – with new material for Anglophone readers – and due attention paid to the initial Anglo-German naval encounters and the opening stages of the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany. At the heart of the book though is Hastings’ account of the fighting in the West: the great German drive through Belgium and France; the catastrophic French offensives during the Battle of the Frontiers; Joffre’s recovery and French victory on the Marne; the Race to the Sea and the bitter fighting around Ypres where the British made their first military contribution to the Allied cause. Winston Churchill famously described the opening phase of the war as ‘a drama never surpassed’, and Hastings has done justice to the drama in this substantial volume: magisterial in tone, rich in anecdote and human detail, and resolutely sure in its interpretation of the complex events of 1914.
on 16 January 2014
World War 1 is in some ways more fascinating than WW2, and there are plenty of us who have read a lot on the subject. For that reason I didn't really fancy this. I thought it might be a rehash of stuff I already knew.
However, I must say that Max Hastings has done a quite brilliant job. The book is extremely readable, with so many details of personal experience, that I don't think I have read anything that comes close. hastings has not only assembled first hand accounts from the British, French and German angles, but also Russian, Serbian and all the rest. There is so much in there that I had no idea about.
Hastings makes an impassioned case that the War in 1914 was not a pointless "lambs to slaughter" situation. Soldiers went into with their eyes open, knowing what they were fighting for. Furthermore, he makes a good case that although Britain and France were certainly worse off after the War, they had saved the continent from German domination, which was the only alternative.
A point which Hastings does not make explicitly, but certainly comes through from the text, is that the big loser was Russia. In 1914, Russia was growing economically at 10% a year and modernising rapidly. By 1916, the Germans would not have dared take them on. Yet Russia was wrecked by the war, and further, spent 70 whole years with its people's lives wrecked by Communism.
I would recommed this book to anyone interested in history.
'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.