Learn more Download now Shop now Browse your favorite restaurants Shop now Shop now Shop now Shop now Shop now Learn More Shop now Learn more Shop Fire Shop Kindle Learn More Shop now Shop now Learn more

on 7 November 2013
Sorry to side with the underdog but do people really pay £30 (the price stated on the cover) just to read page after page of French troops trying to cut off the ears of German prisoners and Austrians bayoneting Serbian villagers to death?

With all the critical accolades received and considering that there are thousands of First World War titles on the market, you would expect any author writing on the subject to produce a work that's both new and outstanding.

Quite apart from the fact that it is not a history of the war but only of the first five months (August - December 1914), Max Hastings' "Catastrophe" repeats all the standard cliches we have been fed by other authors without offering any new insights into the causes or other aspects of the war.

The Times says, approvingly, that Hastings amalgamates personal details with strategic arguments. That sounds about right to me as his new book turns out to be a jumble of military and biographical data and personal opinion assembled rather haphazardly and for no clear purpose other than to reinforce ingrained misconceptions about the war.

The first doubts appeared when reading (on page xix) that a Russian foreign ministry official told the British military attache "we have arranged such a nice war for you". Were Russia's manoeuvres a trap to ensnare the Germans so that the British could go in for the kill? Isn't it a fact that Britain (and its ally France) had been bolstering Russia as a rival to Germany, well knowing that a war between the two would inevitably lead to British involvement? Why doesn't the author explore this likely possibility or properly investigate the exact intent and purpose of the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia and other British machinations? A strangely uninvestigative approach for a much-acclaimed journalist, I think.

From introduction to conclusion, the reader is led through a maze of stories worthy of the Daily Mail, along an all too predictable path outlined by questionable and unsubstantiated claims. It is not for nothing that Hastings is in the employ of that illustrious paper.

The book is peppered with glaring inconsistencies and contradictions. The improbable assertion that the history of the First World War has been "hijacked by impassionate German sympathisers" clashes with the reality that the market has long been dominated by titles like "Catastrophe" that are not even remotely pro-German.

The notion that there were no war preparations on the British side after the 1911 Committee of Imperial Defence is refuted by the fact that Churchill developed the 15-inch gun for battleships, created a fast division, built warships powered by oil instead of coal, bought 51 per cent of the Anglo-Persian oil field to supply and finance his ships, expanded the Royal Navy Air Service, built naval air stations, etc., etc. - all with war on Germany in mind. Churchill himself said so when presenting his naval estimates for 1912-1913 to parliament.

The author believes that a German victory would have been "detrimental to European freedom, justice and democracy". He might be right on that point. But what if Russia had beaten Germany and imposed its own militaristic, autocratic and repressive regime on much of Europe - as it eventually did after the Second World War?

And how does the claim that the outcome of the war was "good" fit in with the earlier claim that the war was an unmitigated catastrophe?

Post-war election slogans like "Make Britain a country fit for heroes to live in" clashed with the reality that the heroes returning from the front had no say in anything that mattered to them at home.

The claim that the new Anglo-Saxon world order was better than the old is contradicted by the fact that the world was thrown into unprecedented economic, social and political turmoil leading to communism, fascism and - surprise, surprise - another devastating world war.

And let's face it, if Sir Max can lecture us on who is paying Labour's bills (see his Daily Mail article of Tuesday), he could just as well divulge who paid for the war. After all, it was common knowledge at the time that the Allies were saved by J P Morgan's Anglo-French loan of 1915 followed by further credits and loans. Mail owner Lord Northcliffe himself is on record for saying that the war was won within the walls of Morgan Grenfell, the London branch of Treasury agents J P Morgan. So why the sudden secrecy?

Finally, isn't it ironic that Belgium, the country we allegedly fought to defend, has become the centre of a new European empire whose love of freedom, justice and democracy is being questioned by an ever rising number of its citizens?

As for Britain, where is the democracy if our history is hijacked by the press and other vested interests? To add insult to injury, the same establishment that started wars "to keep the Germans out" has let others in without any of us being asked. In fact, our political leaders have long ceased representing the electorate.

I'm afraid "Catastrophe" is another missed opportunity for history writers to give the politics and the spin a miss and give us some plain facts for a change.
2020 Comments| 65 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on 31 October 2013
Sir Max Hastings' new book on the first year of World War One will be widely read, because of the forthcoming centenary of the start of World War One, because of Sir Max's reputation as a popular historian, and because the book has already been serialised in the Daily Mail.

Hastings tries to prove that the millions of deaths were not in vain, because it was necessary to beat the aggressor power Germany. He asserts that Germany started it, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary.

For example, the British ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, sent a telegram to the Foreign Office on 24 July 1914, summarising the result of the French Premier Poincaré's visit: "France would not only give Russia strong diplomatic support, but would, if necessary, fulfil all the obligations imposed on her by the alliance." France and Russia had agreed that when Russia went to war against Germany and Austria, France would fulfil her commitment to Russia. This telegram was concealed from the world for ten years.

Hastings claims that, unlike the German government, "the Asquith government told the truth as it saw this." In the real world, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith repeatedly lied to Parliament that Britain had no secret obligations to France or Belgium. For example, Grey claimed on 11 June 1914, "There were no unpublished agreements." Again, on 3 August, "I have assured the House - and the Prime Minister has assured the House more than once - that if any crisis such as this arose . . . that we would have no secret engagement which we should spring upon the House."

This, despite the secret naval agreement with the French government, and despite the secret military agreements with the French and Belgian General Staffs for British troops to intervene in Belgium early in the war. In a private letter to his ambassador in Paris, Grey noted, "there would be a row in Parliament here if I had used words which implied the possibility of a secret engagement unknown to Parliament all these years committing us to a European war ...."

Hastings writes, accurately for once, "The war had not been precipitated by popular nationalistic fervor, but by the decisions of tiny groups of individuals in seven governments." That is, it was not caused by nationalism, as the common lie goes, but by the ruling classes of both sides.

He shows that finance capital followed its usual priority of maximum profit for itself: "the City of London continued to finance and insure many cargoes destined for Germany."

The soldiers of both sides should have taken George Bernard Shaw's advice - "shoot their officers and go home to gather their harvests and make revolutions in the town." This would have saved immeasurable suffering.
2828 Comments| 50 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on 12 October 2013
[Explanatory Note: Due to the complexity of the arguments involved on both sides of the debate this review has undergone some expansion on account of which it may slightly exceed the average number of words encountered in Amazon book reviews. But I hope you will read it anyway.]

For fairness' sake, Hastings probably deserves at least one star for his literary effort. Unfortunately, his book purports to be a work of history and in my view this is where the trouble starts.

The fact that the book has been serialized by the Daily Mail - a tabloid dedicated to systematic and obsessive Jerry-bashing since the 1890s ("Under the Iron Heel," "The Invasion of 1910," etc.) - makes it legitimate to ask whether it might not be a work of propaganda.

As noted by other reviewers, Hastings hardly presents any new material, is selective in his choice of sources, while his interpretation of the evidence and his conclusions must, to say the least, be open to debate.

Briefly, there were two main aspects to the war. One was the Russo-German conflict which was about influence in the Balkans and clearly had nothing to do with Britain. The other was the Anglo-German conflict triggered by Britain's declaration of war against Germany, which led to world war proper.

To Hastings' argument that Germany encouraged Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia there is the counter-argument that alliances with France and Britain encouraged Russia to mobilize against Austria and Germany.

Moreover, even if Germany had been responsible for starting the Russo-German conflict (a European war), it wouldn't follow that Germany was also responsible for the conflict with the British Empire (a world war).

Hastings himself admits that Germany "did not enter the war with a grand plan for world domination," that it "didn't seek to contrive a general European conflagration" and that it "preferred not to fight Britain."

Yet he insists that Germany was "largely" to blame all the same. To Hastings' mind, it was entirely natural, prudent and wise for Russia to back Serbia, for France to back Russia and for Britain to back Russia and France, but not for Germany to back its ally Austria and oppose its adversaries Russia and France. He also appears to imply that it was alright for Russia to mobilize against Austria and Germany as it wasn't really intended as a sign of aggression, but not for Germany to mobilize in response.

Debunking the Belgium myth

Britain's central argument revolving on alleged obligations to Belgium, on which Hastings' narrative is based, is one of the most obvious and fatal flaws in the book. Due to the fact that France was allied with Russia, war with Russia meant war with France. To avoid fighting a two-front war, Germany had to try to knock France out of the war first for which purpose it was forced to advance through Belgium (the quickest and easiest route). This was duly pointed out to the Asquith government. Nevertheless, Britain chose to respond by declaring war on Germany.

The official establishment line - which, as we can see is backed by the media and by journalists-turned-historians like Hastings - is that Britain's declaration of war was in fulfillment of its obligations towards "neutral" Belgium.

The objective and impartial examination of the available evidence shows that this view is inconsistent with the facts.

First, although Belgium's neutrality had been established through the 1839 Treaty of London - signed by Britain, Austria, France, Germany (Prussia) and Russia - you don't need to be an expert on international law to see that the treaty did not put Britain under legal obligation to defend Belgium by military means (John F C Fuller, Kosiek & Rose, etc.).

Article 7 of the Treaty simply states: "Belgium shall form an independent and perpetually neutral State."

This is a deliberately vague document that far from being about the defence of Belgium by the five powers was in fact about them imposing neutrality on Belgium for their own agendas, as evident from the second sentence in the article stating

"It [Belgium] shall be bound to observe this neutrality towards all other States."

The emphasis is on Belgium to observe neutrality, not on the five powers to defend or enforce it.

As Niall Ferguson correctly points out, the British leadership itself acknowledged that according to the above treaty Britain at best had the right, not the obligation, to intervene (Pity of War, pp. 62-3).

Second, as openly admitted by Foreign Secretary E Grey in his Commons speech of 3 August (the day before Britain's declaration of war), the British government's position since 1870 had been that the Treaty of London was not binding on every party when it was against the interests dictated by the current situation (see Appendix A, below). Hastings mentions the speech and Grey's opposition to Germany's invasion of Belgium, but not his remarks regarding Britain's traditional (and true) position on the issue.

Similarly, as pointed out by Christopher Clark in The Sleepwalkers, it was accepted by the British government that it was strategically necessary for the Germans to pass through Belgium in the event of war with Russia and France (Belgium being the only way around the French frontier forts) and few had any objections. Again, Hastings is silent on this.

The inevitable result is that readers are denied vital information and the chance to ask why a long-held position suddenly changed or why the case was being grossly misrepresented by leading papers and other propaganda outlets with close links to pro-war elements in the establishment (e.g., posters showing the signatures on the treaty but not its contents, etc.).

Third, alternative views hold that when the Germans invaded Belgium it was discovered that in 1906 and 1912 secret agreements had been made between the British and Belgian military authorities. Although these agreements were euphemistically described by the British as "informal conversations", they clearly amounted to a military alliance between Britain and Belgium. Under accepted international law this meant that Belgium had ceased to be a neutral country (see Alexander Fuehr, The Neutrality of Belgium, 1915).

The Belgian archives' description of the above "conversations" as Anglo-Belgian Convention clearly betrays their true nature and shows that Belgium's neutral status had in fact already been violated by Britain itself.

Consequently, Britain's declaration of war was not motivated by any imagined legal obligations, but by its well-documented economic and military ambitions on the Continent and worldwide. This is confirmed by the fact that out of the main signatories Britain was the only one to declare war on Germany over Belgium and that in December 1914 Britain rejected Germany's offer to withdraw from Belgium in exchange for the Belgian Congo (see Appendix C).

It is also necessary for a balanced and objective analysis to consider the fact that Belgium itself was at the forefront of European imperialism and held extensive possessions in Africa which it subjected to brutal domination and exploitation. Even Hastings admits that the Belgians' behaviour in Africa was "consistently appalling" - though he conveniently spares us the details (like children having their hands cut off because their parents couldn't pay their debts to the Belgian rulers).

Adam Hochschild estimates that up to 10 million natives perished at the hands of the Belgian administration in the Congo (King Leopold's Ghost). Even a fraction of that would still exceed by far Germany's own atrocities in Belgium and France taken together.

Therefore even in moral terms the image of Belgium as an innocent victim in need of British protection can be safely dismissed as inaccurate and misleading, in other words, pure propaganda. None of this matters to Hastings who uncritically takes the "truth" of the establishment line for granted.

[Concerning alleged German atrocities in Belgium, it is worthwhile noting that Hastings has written a whole sub-chapter on "German Beastliness" where he states "Modern research shows that, while some press reports were fabrications, the German army in Belgium and France indeed behaved with systemic inhumanity" (p. 189). Curiously, Hastings fails to provide any reference for this mysterious "modern research," leaving the reader in the dark as to whether the source in question is reliable academic work or something sponsored by the Daily Mail.]

In the same vein, Hastings largely ignores the long-standing anti-German stance of sections of the British establishment and of media-influenced public opinion, as well as the fact that by 1905 the possibility of war with Germany was seriously considered by the Admiralty and the War Office.

J A Farrer in his England under Edward VII points out that in 1908 Sir John Fisher, the First Sea Lord, advised the King to back a policy of "Copenhagening the German Fleet a la Nelson." To his credit, the King didn't think that Copenhagening other people's fleets would have been a gentlemanly thing to do. Unfortunately, with advisers like Fisher and others, he came to believe that war against Germany was an immediate probability. Nor were Fisher and his clique isolated cases.

As Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert tells, Churchill himself (Fisher's friend and collaborator) had started to prepare the Royal Navy for war with Germany as soon as he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911, had made up his mind that Britain would enter the war on the side of France by late July 1914, that is, before Germany even declared war on Russia, let alone invaded either Belgium or France, and pressured the Cabinet into entering the war.

Ignoring Churchill's activities and his declaration, in a memorandum to the Cabinet, that peace was the best time to prepare for war, Hastings claims that there was no preparation for war after 1911, except "precautionary steps" - like earmarking Oxford University's Examination School for use as a hospital.

Hastings says that on 3 August, Lloyd George, a pivotal figure, "at last overcame his own doubts," accepting the case for war, and that Asquith asked Lord Kitchener, who was on his way to Egypt, to return to London.

Hastings ignores the (not irrelevant) fact that the person who was instrumental in Lloyd George's change of mind in favour of war as well as in Kitchener's recall to London and in putting pressure on the Cabinet (through threats of a coalition government based on support for the war), was Churchill. He finds it more important to inform the world that the Austrian intelligence chief was a homosexual and to discuss Edward Grey's love life - as if such details had anything to do with the war or helped the reader to form a better understanding of it.

Another key point overlooked by Hastings is that as Churchill's (and the Asquith government's) main concern was the defence of France - towards which Britain had no obligation - Belgium couldn't have been the true reason behind Britain's war declaration.

Incidentally, British assurances to France, given years before the war, can only have served to encourage France to back Russia and to leave Germany with no choice but to aim to knock France out of the war once the Russo-German conflict got started.

Whitewashing key figures, downplaying or ignoring their role and masking ulterior motives behind the war are just some among the many propagandistic devices - of various degrees of subtlety - deployed in Hastings' book. For example, in a rather crude attempt to stamp the reader's mind with the idea of German aggression as the source of all ills, the front jacket sports a stereotypical image of German troops on the offensive, which conveniently contrasts with the image of the idyllic world of upper-class Britain depicted on the inside of the cover (front endpaper) and whose blissful existence is about to be disturbed by the "Huns".

Ordinary, working-class people are nowhere to be seen except as wretched foot-soldiers defending the clique that oppressed, exploited and manipulated them for its own agenda. And where are the Americans, the Indians and many others who fought and died for the Allied cause? Where are the Africans mining the gold shipped to America in exchange for war loans? Have they all been airbrushed out of the story so as not to spoil the myth of brave England's single-handed victory?

On a more subtle level, having drawn the reader's attention to the fact that WWI pictures are mostly posed or faked, the book proceeds to label German photographs ("The face of the Western Front, winter 1914") as "posed" whereas British photographs ("Men of the Middlesex under fire") are advertised as among the "few authentic photographic images" available.

The content of the above photographs is equally revealing. While the "posed" German one shows Germans looking over the parapet when nobody is shooting (suggesting cowardice), the "authentic" British one shows British troops under fire (suggesting bravery). Combined with the systematic description of the Germans as paranoid, barbaric and given to atrocities, such propagandistic tricks cannot fail to achieve the desired psychological effect on unsuspecting readers. Lord Northcliffe, the anti-German owner of The Times and the Daily Mail - who doubled as head of the Propaganda Ministry - would have approved.

Let us have a better look at two of Hastings' central arguments revolving on German "paranoia" and "barbarism."

Were the Germans really as "paranoid" as Hastings claims? Well, they were hemmed in by a revanchist France in the West and by an expansionist Russia in the East. They could not expand in the North Sea or the Baltic because Fisher and Churchill were there, waiting to "Copenhagen" them. They could not expand in Africa, the Mediterranean or the Pacific because all that was "British territory." On top of everything, the imperialist faction in the British establishment was pushing hard for British union with America. How "paranoid" would Britain have felt in that situation?

Was British rule really more "enlightened" that that of Germany? Didn't British rule lead to near extinction of Native Americans? Weren't Australian Aboriginals labelled "vermin" and used for shooting and "pig-sticking" practice? Weren't the Boers put in concentration camps? And what to say of India? Didn't its leaders from Tilak to Mahatma Gandhi describe British rule as the "kingdom of Satan"? If British rule was so enlightened, why were there uprisings - from America to Ireland to India - against it? By implying that it was alright for Britain to dominate Europe but not for Germany, Hastings seriously undermines his already shaky claim to objectivity.

And what about the wishes of the European people? Did Ukrainians, Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians want to be dominated by Russia? Did Italians and Spaniards want to be dominated by France? Did Europe want to be dominated by Britain?

Hastings appears to forget that Germany already dominated Central Europe by default, that being its established geographic location, as well as having a large population (twice the size of France) and a fast-growing economy. This may have been inconvenient to France, Russia and Britain. But what exactly was Germany supposed to do? Can we honestly expect it to have given up industry and trade and become a nation of shepherds and farmers under British rule - and go the way of Ireland?

It's a shame Hastings didn't find time for the conclusion and aftermath of the war, because if he had he might have noticed, among other things, that Lord Robert Cecil, a key supporter of Churchill's pro-war machinations, was also involved in the promotion and creation of the League of Nations (he chaired the Supreme Economic Council of the Allied and Associated Powers during the 1919 Paris Conference that established the League and co-drafted the Covenant) which conveniently put Germany's African colonies under British control after the war.

Together with other omitted data, this demonstrates that far from advancing the interests of the British people (who gained absolutely nothing from it) the war actually served the agenda of vested interests.

Hastings casually and cryptically notes that US industrialists identified a "strong interest in an outcome that weakened global competition from Germany." A word or two on their identities and connections with the Anglo-American interests involved in financing both the war and the League of Nations might have proved instructive. Or else, if they (or the interest in question) were unconnected with the war, why mention them?

In any case, US interests cannot be left out of the war equation, because if France was backed by Britain, as Hastings himself concedes Britain in turn was backed by America. And here, again, Churchill who was half-American and had close links to US financial and industrial interests, played a pivotal role together with fellow Atlanticists in his entourage who all were bent on uniting the British Empire with America in order to dominate the world.

At the very least, Hastings could have mentioned that it was America who saved Britain in 1917 when a desperate Foreign Secretary Balfour reported to Washington, hat in hand, that the Great British Empire was on the verge of bankruptcy and losing the submarine war (see Balfour cable to Col House, 29 June 1917, etc.). American readers won't be too pleased to find that Hastings dedicates 5 words out of 600 pages to their country's decisive contribution.

Throughout the book, the "military expert" Hastings remains strangely oblivious to the fact that wars cost money which Britain didn't have. He tells us that the French Rothschilds donated £40,000 to the poor, but not that their London cousins and their US agents J P Morgan (who were also acting for the British government) financed British, French and other Allied war loans amounting to billions of pounds; nor that the Rothschilds who owned the arms manufacturers Vickers served as advisers to the Ministry of Munitions which was run by their associate Churchill, whose friend Bernard Baruch was chairman of the US War Industries Board and its Central Purchasing Commission and filled all the various WIB committees with his banking and industrial associates, etc. (see Appendix B).

The story of press baron Lord Northcliffe, who was at the forefront of the anti-German propaganda campaign, is no less revealing. Northcliffe was created a peer on the recommendation of arch-intriguer Balfour and was later appointed head of the Propaganda Ministry and, as Balfour's successor, of the British War Purchasing Mission to the US. While in America, he was in close contact with financial leaders and urged the "massed battalions of finance" to smother the enemy with war subscriptions.

Otherwise said, if we put together the facts left out by Hastings, we get a totally different story that is both more interesting and closer to the facts.

In sum, the war cannot be properly analyzed or understood without a clear overview of the broader historical background as presented, for example, by Niall Ferguson's excellent Empire which, incidentally, identifies Belgium as a convenient pretext used by the imperialists in the British government for their own purposes.

For a much more balanced and objective treatment of the historical evidence than that offered by Hastings I would recommend Ferguson's The Pity of War and Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers, while Ioan Ratiu's The Milner-Fabian Conspiracy and Docherty & Macgregor's Hidden History are a refreshing attempt at looking into the true motives behind Britain's decision to enter the war.

These motives were to do with the insistence, on the part of elements of the British establishment, on imposing British economic and financial hegemony on Europe and the world - a view that is consistent with Ferguson's Empire though not, unfortunately, with history according to Hastings and the Daily Mail.

The world will never become a better place unless and until we stop believing in history according to politicians and the press and stick to history according to the evidence. Let us not make 2014 an orgy of jingoism and hate but a celebration of peace, friendship and understanding among all nations on earth.

Appendix A

"I am not able to subscribe to the doctrine of those who have held in this House what plainly amounts to an assertion, that the simple fact of the existence of a guarantee is binding on every party to it, irrespectively altogether of the particular position in which it may find itself at the time when the occasion for acting on the guarantee arises. The great authorities upon foreign policy to whom I have been accustomed to listen, such as Lord Aberdeen and Lord Palmerston, never to my knowledge took that rigid and, if I may venture to say so, that impracticable view of the guarantee" - Prime Minister Gladstone, 10 August 1870, quoted by Grey, 3 August 1914, Hansard vol. 65, c. 1819.

Sean McMeekin correctly points out that most ordinary Britons and even most members of parliament would have been astonished to learn that their country might go to war over a treaty dating to 1839 (July 1914, p. 73).

Moreover, as Hastings himself admits, there was strong public feeling against British involvement up till Monday 3 August, that is, the day before Britain's declaration of war on Germany (p. 95). This shows that the long-standing pro-war machinations of Churchill and associates were an undemocratic entreprise serving the agenda of a tiny faction within the ruling class.

In my view, it is clear from the text that Hastings is aware of the role played by a tiny clique (Churchill, Grey, Northcliffe, etc.) in pushing Britain into the war, but that he chooses not to put his facts (Churchill's bellicosity, Grey's speech, Northcliffe's machinations) together and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Appendix B

The involvement of Rothschild, J P Morgan and associated interests in financing the Allied war effort and the profits they made from the war have been dealt with by respected historians and scholars and ought to be beyond dispute.

Niall Ferguson in his The House of Rothschild has shown that a loan of £1.7 million to France was agreed through the Rothschilds in the first weeks of the war, followed by advances totalling £8 million between October 1914 and October 1917.

On 1 August 1914, the Rothschilds requested a loan of $100 million to the French government from their US agents J P Morgan & Co. In October 1915, J P Morgan arranged a $500 million Anglo-French loan, etc.

As Ferguson points out, the war boosted demand for Vickers guns, New Caledonian nickel, South African (De Beers) diamonds, etc., all of which meant gains for the Rothschilds who owned those and other companies and the same applies to Morgan and associated US banking and industrial interests.

Interestingly, in a 1915 speech, J P Morgan partner Thomas W Lamont declared that the war enabled America not only to make lots of money but to become a creditor nation which would replace the pound with the dollar as the international basis of exchange.

As Britain acted as banker and financier for France and other Allies, its total war expenditure came close to £10 billion the bulk of which came from America. In exchange for US loans, vast quantities of South African gold were shipped to London and then to Ottawa and other Canadian ports where it was made into bars and transferred to J P Morgan's accounts in New York and Philadelphia.

The direct result of these manoeuvres was to hugely increase America's gold reserves and expand its credit facilities, transforming it into a creditor nation virtually overnight and, eventually, into the world's new financial superpower - exactly as predicted by J P Morgan.

That US interests financed and profited from the war is indisputable. What remains to be established is whether they also had a hand in instigating the war. Suffice it to note for now that J P Morgan and associated interests on both sides of the Atlantic were heavily involved in a network of organisations set up for the purpose of drawing Britain and America closer together economically, politically and militarily. Notable among these was the influential Pilgrims Society whose New York branch had J P Morgan himself as vice-president, while the London branch was headed by Northcliffe's friend and collaborator Field Marshall Lord Roberts, a leading figure in the pro-war faction.

Admittedly, all this shows that there was much more to the story and it would certainly spoil the carefully-constructed war mythology. But this is no good reason for historians to suppress historical facts when their duty should be to inform, not mislead, the readers.

Appendix C

Memorandum by British ambassador to Russia, Sir George Buchanan, 15 January 1915, cited in A J P Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, Oxford, 1954, p. 535 and note.

Also New York Times, 4 August 1915, "Von Jagow Planned Partition Of Congo":

"Certain German publicists ... [one of whom was a "well-known statesman"] ... have been quoted as saying that Belgium might preserve her territorial entirety in Europe provided certain commercial concessions were made, together with the cession of the Belgian Congo" ("Von Jagow Planned Partition Of Congo," New York Times, 4 August 1915).

And Hansard, vol. 90, c. 1241 - 20 Feb. 1917:

"... the Allies - if Germany were to buy the Belgian Congo - could get complete restoration, including Belgium, with Antwerp, and also Serbia ...".

This proposal was rejected, as was an earlier one (of 29 July 1914) to respect Belgian and French territorial integrity in exchange for British neutrality, which the British government chose to dismiss as "crude and almost childlike" (Hastings, Catastrophe, p. 77).

Similarly, in August 1914 the Belgian government requested the Spanish government to approach the Germans with a request for the neutralisation of the Congo basin during the war. The Spanish consulted the British ambassador who told them that the British government "could not entertain" such a proposal (Hansard, vol. 74, c. 1445 - 14 Oct. 1915).

The fact of the matter is that Britain's imperialist clique aimed to control Africa "from Cape Town to Cairo." Already in 1907, Churchill was busy building a gigantic railway system to "catch the whole Congo trade" (M Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, p. 190) and an Anglo-Belgian Cape to Cairo Railway was planned to pass right through the Belgian Congo.

But it gets even better. The imperialists' main concern was not trade but natural resources. Copper ore had been discovered in the area earlier and, in 1906, the British Tanganyika Concessions, which was run by Cecil Rhodes partner Sir Robert Williams, and the Rothschild-associated Société Générale de Belgique, Belgian's dominant bank, set up the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga to mine copper in a 15,000 square kilometers area containing the world's largest copper deposits. Large-scale production started in 1911.

In 1912 and 1913 diamond deposits and a gold field of "exceptional richness" were discovered in the Belgian Congo by Forestière Minière du Congo, a Belgian-American concern co-owned by King Leopold of the Belgians, the Société Générale and Guggenheim (the mining and smelting giant), Ryan (banking and industrial magnates) and other New York interests ("Diamonds Found In Congo," New York Times, 23 September 1912; "Gold In Belgian Congo. Field of Great Richness Discovered in Katanga Province," New York Times, 5 August 1913).

All the key imperialists in the pro-war faction (Churchill, Lord Milner, Daily Mail owner Lord Northcliffe, etc.) had close links to Rothschild, J P Morgan, Guggenheim, Ryan and associated interests who in turn had close links to the Belgian Congo and other African colonies.

On the US side, Edward R Stettinius, partner of Rothschild agent J P Morgan, was put in charge of American war purchases for the Allies.

John D Ryan, president of Anaconda Copper, became Assistant Secretary of War and head of the copper-buying committee.

Paul D Cravath, Thomas F Ryan's lawyer, was made legal adviser to the American War Mission to Europe.

Baruch, Churchill's friend and partner of J P Morgan, T F Ryan and the Guggenheims, became chairman of the all-powerful War Industries Board.

On the British side, Churchill was made Minister of Munitions, Lord Northcliffe was made head of the British War Purchasing Mission to the US (as well as of the Propaganda Ministry), etc., etc.

The fact is that while British politicians talked of going to war over "Belgian neutrality," their financial and industrial backers (and likely instigators) were motivated by their mining and other interests in the Belgian Congo, German South-West Africa (where diamonds had been discovered in 1908), South Africa (where the Rothschilds and associates held extensive diamond, gold and other interests), etc.

The more we look at the evidence ignored by Hastings and the Daily Mail the more difficult it becomes to believe that Britain went to war over "Belgian neutrality" and not over world supremacy (including Belgian colonial possessions controlled by the same tiny Anglo-American clique that financed and supplied the war).
5150+ comments| 72 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on 16 September 2013
Max Hastings is an opportunist historian, as well as being a populist one too (with a strong right-wing bias that comes through much of his writings). There is nothing wrong with being populist - A J P Taylor was a populist historian, though the difference is that Taylor was credible, even if subsequent and more recent research shows some of his analysis to be flawed because he didn't have access to material that's more recently come to light. The difference is that Hastings often seems so keen on being a popular historian that his works often seem shallow and lacking in substance (but this does make for easy reading).

As for opportunism, I would suggest that this is evidenced by the fact that this is Hastings' first book on the First World War. Coincidence? I think not! Nothing wrong with this, but it makes one sceptical about the validity of a work. How authoritative is the work? As another reviewer has already pointed out, the list of references and sources do not include many notable authorities on this period.

Hastings likes his wars! Often, as here, he shows his lack of balance and objectivity; a 'good' story, almost akin to fiction, is preferable to historical scholarship (which probably explains why few of Hastings books are cited except in very general terms). Here, for example, he lays the 'blame' for the start of the First World War squarely on German shoulders, but in so doing he ignores many of the more subtle and seemingly insular events from about 1880 onwards by all major European powers that together contributed to the start of this appalling event that was the First World War.

Indeed, Hastings claims to demonstrate what led to the outbreak of war, but restricts himself primarily to events during 1914 alone. This narrow approach ignores many other factors that, as mentioned above, pre-date 1914. And what reason is there, other than as a filler (!?!), to include the first five months of the war? What relevance or connection is there between the origins and causes of the war and the first few months of actual fighting, following the declaration of war?

There will be many who will be 'cashing-in' on the fact that next year is the 100th anniversary. As inevitable as this is (and sadly so), I would advise discretion in judging what is of real value if a genuine understanding of this awful conflict is wanted. On this basis, I would not recommend Hastings' book, but would strongly recommend Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers - How Europe went to War in 1914. In this reviewer's opinion Clark's book is the finest and likely to be the definitive work on the years leading up to the First World War. It is also very readable.

As for an understanding - or an attempt at understanding the First World War itself - I would advise readers to consider Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker's 1914-1918 - Understanding the Great War. In my considered opinion this is outstanding! It is one of the finest interpretations of the First World War. It is sympathetic and without prejudice or bias. This and Clark's book will be all you will need other than books about battles, campaigns or the war's aftermath.

Addendum (for context, see comments added to this review):

No reviews on Amazon are entirely objective as they do not conform to academic standards that are considered the norm in learned journals. Indeed, for a website like Amazon why should they be? So let's be clear about one thing: all reviews on Amazon are the personal opinion of the reviewer. Rightly or wrongly this is an indisputable fact.

I have no intention of defending my review, but I would ask some to read more carefully the opinions of others, not the least Max Hastings himself. He says on the Channel 4 interview mentioned in the comments secition that oral evidence is extremely unreliable, yet in many of his books he relies extensively on oral evidence (or 'interviews' as he often refers to them). Such hypocrisy is unbecoming of someone who wants to be taken seriously as an historian (even if so rarely cited by those with far greater academic credibility). Even Dr Clayton, who in his review gives Catastrophe a questionable five stars, has a list of omissions and criticisms, not the least his observation that Hastings relies on anecdotal evidence. Five stars for a book that has so many 'faults'??? Rhetorically, does this not demonstrate the obvious subjectivity of reviews on Amazon? Furthermore, the list of omissions identified by others actually supports my poor opinion of this book!

What I fail to understand is the purpose or aim of Hastings book. It leaves out so much in terms of events that led to war, because so much context is missing, yet deals significantly with the war itself up to the end of 1914. Once war was declared fighting was inevitable, so...??? But does this book inform or contribute to our understanding of why? I think not. So, what's it's aim, beyond, in my opinion, cashing in on the coming anniversary???

It is very sad - and unfortunate - that populist historians are able to influence those who are otherwise preoccupied to delve deeper in search of whatever truth may be accessible. This distorts opinion and understanding, and gives future generations nothing to learn from. 'Gung-oh!' might be a good read for a schoolboy, but it's not good for informed debate.

By the way, my questions are entirely rhetorical!
2323 Comments| 70 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on 25 September 2013
This isn't history as far as scholarship goes, in fact it makes some dangerous and false claims regarding the outbreak of war and is dismissive of the machinations of Russia and France that hemmed Germany in. Compared to academics writing on the subject there are a plethora of stories and a curious leaping about from the front line soldier to the civilian or general which gives it colour - drawn largelly from the press. As the centenary approaches many books will be published on the subject - the danger is that the popular, erroneous account such as this will be read in favour of the comprehensive scholarship offered by the academic community. If you want to read about what took Europe to war in 1914 make it Professor Christopher Clark's book and for an even more detailed account of the July Crisis read Sean McMeekin.
4747 Comments| 52 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on 16 January 2014
"War not only creates a supply of news, but a demand for it ... A paper has only to put on its placard `A Great Battle' for its sales to mount up" - Kennedy Jones, co-founder and manager of Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail

"I run the paper for the purpose of making propaganda and with no other motive" - Daily Express proprietor Lord Beaverbrook

The above remarks (and many others) encapsulate and expose the true role of our esteemed press. We have been conditioned to think that a paper's purpose, be it broadsheet or tabloid, is to supply us with news. This, indeed, the press does but not before adding a good measure of propaganda, distortion and plain lies to further the agendas of its owners and their collaborators among the political class.

Make no mistake, the press doesn't heap praise on anyone for nothing. Max Hastings must have been of some service to it for its spokesmen to style him "the most outstanding journalist in Britain" (Sunday Times). That in itself is blatant media hype. But you know that something isn't right when they take to saying things like "with Max Hastings as our guide we are in the hands of a master" (Telegraph).

Hastings, a staunch supporter of Tony Blair's notoriously dysfunctional administration, who only recently joined the ranks of "right-wing" Daily Mail, our master and guide? What's going on? Has Hastings turned centre-right or the Mail centre-left?

Hard to tell nowadays whether a paper is right or left or, for that matter, right or wrong - especially since Mail editor Paul Dacre (like Hastings, a former Labour supporter) has been a close chum of Gordon Brown. What is certain is that if you mix blue, yellow and red you get ... brown. Brown, in more than one respect, is the predominant colour of Hastings' "Catastrophe" and, by the looks of it, the colour of our elite-engineered political, economic and social future - if we're lucky to have one, that is.

The Telegraph may call the book "enormously impressive." This reader was not impressed and knows no one who honestly is. This is not to say that no belletristic skill can be discerned here and there. But, like the centenary commemorations that we can be sure to drag on for years to come, "Catastrophe" is a highly politicised and grossly slanted exercise in propaganda.

Its narrative seems designed to make sure that readers get lost in catchy details (like a juvenile audience watching a horror film) and miss the wood for the trees along the way. Hastings, our media-appointed "master and guide," masterfully guides us exactly to where his paymasters wish to have us. He takes full advantage of the public's ignorance or indifference to historical fact to dish us old canards - like Belgian neutrality as a cause of war.

The truth is that Belgium never was the sole, or even the most important, reason for Britain's entry into the war. Foreign Secretary Grey's speech on the eve of it (3 August) says it all: it was "from the point of view of British interests" complete with "trade routes" (code for colonial interests) that he based and justified the government's case for war and from the same viewpoint that he asked the House to consider the matter. Belgium was nothing more than a transparent fig-leaf.

To turn things around and construct "Belgian neutrality" as paramount is to stretch, bend and twist it too far. In the real world, empires don't launch world wars over the "neutrality" of a small country. Wars are fought for political and economic reasons (trade interests and resources) and the "Great War" was no exception, as pointed out by authorities from Lionel Curtis to John Darwin and Niall Ferguson. If we think about it, who should command more authority, the historian of empire or the journalist turned military historian whose expertise, by the way, is World War II?!

The true bone of contention was neither Serbia nor Belgium but colonial interests - the oil-rich Middle East and, above all, Africa which, let's not forget, was another theatre of war. As late as June 1918, Lord Milner, Britain's chief imperialist and principal director of strategy in Lloyd George's war cabinet, said that the battle was "for Southern Asia and, above all, for Africa." It wasn't just by accident that Germany's African colonies ended up divided among Britain, France and Belgium in the same piratical way the gold-rich Transvaal had been wrested from the Boers.

While military expertise may qualify the author to write on military aspects of conflicts like World War I, it has no bearing on the knowledge of diplomacy and power relations within and between governments as well as between the latter and other interested parties (such as business interests), knowledge, that is, required to establish the true causes of such conflicts. Hastings' views on culpability for the war must be regarded as his unauthoritative, personal opinion.

But even as personal opinion his conclusion is hampered by his method which is that of the propagandist, of the polemicist and of the biased judge who bars the defence from presenting its evidence to the court.

In his haste to come to a preconceived, establishment-approved conclusion, Hastings does not pause to reflect on the implications of secret Anglo-French agreements or to consider independent evidence such as that of Belgian archives showing that that country's diplomatic representatives were unanimous in their suspicion of British intentions:

For instance, in 1906 the Belgian minister at Paris, A. F. G. Leghait wrote of "England's desire to envenom matters to such an extent that war should be rendered inevitable"; in the following year, the Belgian minister in London, Count Lalaing, wrote that "It is evident that official circles in England are pursuing in silence a hostile policy which aims at the isolation of Germany"; and, in 1909, the Belgian minister at Berlin, Baron Greindl, wrote: "Colonel Barnardiston [the British military attaché in Brussels] asked us, in substance, to associate ourselves with an English and French aggression against Germany." All this opens up a startlingly different vista to that painted by Max Hastings.

The same archival evidence ignored by him proves that by 1912 Belgium had caved in to British and French pressure and placed herself on the side of the Entente through secret conventions, thereby technically forfeiting her neutral status. What's more, thanks in no small measure to King Leopold II - a business partner of international industrialists and financiers - she had become the fiefdom of foreign interests that dominated her economy, controlled her colonies and sponsored the war.

Unsurprisingly, though grateful to have been liberated, many in post-war Belgium felt that their country was run by foreign bankers, a feeling shared with many a nation, great and small, across Europe - hence the universal rise of nationalism.

Political philosophy is another discipline outside Max Hastings' area of expertise into which he haplessly blunders when he insists that post-war European democracy was preferable to German rule. As German rule in Europe never happened, this is baseless speculation that belongs to the "what-if" genre of pseudo-historic publications and is designed to muddle the issue while deflecting attention from the stark realities on the ground: Communist Russia, for one, was anything but democratic while the rest of Europe (including Britain), having incurred crippling war debts, fell under the domination of international banks and their collaborators in the City of London and other capitals - most categorically not a situation conducive to authentic democracy.

Britain - as Hastings implicitly admits - was run by a small gang of imperialists with close links to colonial interests, who controlled the Foreign Office and the military and brazenly acted without the knowledge or approval of either parliament or cabinet; a situation that can scarcely be construed as democracy and that, to the country's great misfortune and disgrace, has remained unchanged and unchallenged down to our time. The myopic and opportunist Hastings turns out not to be a very reliable master and guide, after all.

Hastings is not particularly accurate with his sources, either. For instance, on page xix, he writes: “A bantering Russian foreign ministry official said to the British military attaché on 16 August: ‘You soldiers ought to be very pleased that we have arranged such a nice war for you’”. Under Notes and References (p. 567), he attributes this quote to Sir Alfred Knox, “With the Russian Army 1914 – 1917”, vol. I, p. 45. Unfortunately, according to the source, the foreign ministry official in question, Muraviev, addressed that remark not to Knox but to Kotsubé (probably Count Paul de Kotzebue) who was serving as aide at the Russian general staff HQ.

At any rate, if you want a truthful and in-depth account of how the country (and the Empire) was run by a bunch of ruthless upstarts like Lord Milner in collaboration with degenerate elements of our aristocracy like Churchill and his entourage, who were inspired by a very low opinion of democratic practices, then the guide to go to is not Hastings but Carroll Quigley and his unsurpassed "Anglo-American Establishment."

It must also be said that the anti-war poets Hastings chooses to disparage in his book were not being "unpatriotic" but merely anti-imperialist and with full justification. Though their views were often tinged with Marxism which was in vogue at the time, they were right on one point. Having an empire may boost a nation's ego and standing in the world. But empires are prohibitively costly to run and have a tendency to end up being kept at the taxpayers' expense, while the resources milked from subjugated territories invariably line the pockets of the vested interests that control them, from Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company to De Beers, Anglo American and other pillars of imperialism. The same applies to wars of imperial defence or expansion (often one and the same thing) like the one described by Hastings.

Another key fact about empires is that their wars serve to deflect attention from domestic issues. As arch-imperialist and Boer War architect Cecil Rhodes put it, "the Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists." Wars "for democracy" abroad are a sure means of diverting energies from the struggle for democracy at home.

In light of this, media-generated historiographic publications like "Catastrophe" clearly mythologise the past and politicise history by investing it with a political meaning serving the interests of the ruling elites - international finance and its political collaborators. The toxic mytho-dynamics they set in motion seeps through into the political and cultural arenas and from there into all aspects of national life.

Without wishing to seem unnecessarily harsh or controversial, I therefore venture to suggest that the true function of "Catastrophe" is to deflect attention from inconvenient political realities, both past and present, and to reinforce the control of the classes over the masses.

As shown by the undignified spat between Tristram Hunt and Michael Gove over the Centenary, patriotism has come to mean blind support for our political rulers, for their self-justificatory apologias and for their self-congratulatory and self-serving public rituals and celebrations that have become our replacement religion and national obsession. The mass propaganda has left an indelible mark on the national psyche: hundred years on, we still compulsively detest the "Hun" and fight futile wars in Afghanistan.

Nothing exposes the fraudulent nature of our "wars for democracy" more clearly than the fact that, in 2008, while British troops were risking life and limb to liberate the country from the Taleban, the treacherous Labour administration was caught out planning to set up military training camps for thousands of Taleban fighters "to make them swap sides." Now we are being told by our military commanders that the minute we get out of Helmand the place will be back in the hands of the Taleban!

When will we wake up to the reality that our political masters have sold us down the river time and again, are doing so as we speak and will carry on doing so in the future? Like the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing, our leaders may change their coats (from red to yellow to blue and back again) but not their obnoxious habits.

And their habits won't change because we are paralysed by an entrenched "Nanny-State-knows-best" attitude and, like a submissive wife who puts up with an abusive husband, we choose to stay chained to the system and suffer the leadership's affronts in silence, unprepared and unwilling to break free "till death us do part" - or till we get replaced with others.

As noted by J. A. Hobson, vested financial interests manipulate the patriotic forces generated by politicians, business and the press. Love for one's country is cunningly transformed into obedience to the ruling order - as if the nation and the self-interested and hopelessly out-of-touch political elites were one and the same. "We're all in this together," we hear the City and Westminster intone. The reality is that some of us get RPGs and IEDs (and come home in a box) and others get the trough.

So, it's fair to say, enough is enough. In 2014 we have come to stand at the crossroads of history again, at the decisive point in our nation's life where we must ask ourselves: do we want another hundred years of the same or has the time come to ditch the establishment, the media and the political parties that legitimise and support its rule? Do we want to follow Hastings and his ilk into a murky future permanently tainted by an ignominious and bloody past or move on to a brighter one that brings new life and new hope?

There is no greater enemy than the enemy within the gates and it is on our own home turf that the real battle must now be fought and won. With the elections round the corner and the prospect of another blue-yellow coalition or, God forbid, another red government looming ever larger and closer, this is no time to dither. Make your decision now and show the establishment and its propaganda machine the door.

P.S. Equally revealing are Hastings' thoughts on other topics, such as Christianity and Islam:

"The Crusaders were brutes, whose conduct was far more barbarous than that of their Muslim foes, who taught them to wash" (Daily Mail, 21 June 2014, p. 16).

"The most celebrated Saracen, Saladin, became a byword for justice, humanity and generosity at a time when our own King Richard "the Lionheart" ordered 2,500 captives to be butchered in cold blood, while his men roasted alive a Muslim captive before the walls of Acre" (ibid.).
1111 Comments| 23 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
VINE VOICEon 13 September 2013
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.
88 Comments| 196 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 October 2013
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.
88 Comments| 66 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 September 2013
'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.
44 Comments| 95 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse
on 7 January 2016
'It waz the Germans wat started it' says tabloid journalist & non historian Max Buffoon. Him & Paxo must be laughing all the way to the bank.
66 Comments| 4 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Report abuse

Sponsored Links

  (What is this?)