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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE 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.
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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.
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on 1 October 2014
I confess to being a fan of Mr Hastings' military books. I have always found them both readable and informative. This latest offering continues in that vein.
Although I am very interested in military history, my knowledge of WWI is limited and I felt that Mr Hastings would be able to broaden my understanding of this conflict.
I was also tempted by the fact that the book has a limited scope and is not an attempt to follow the war from start to finish. He covers events from the lead up to war, through to the point where the participants began to "dig in".
I was certainly not disappointed. The author covers the political developments in a clear and informative style whilst painting a very vivid picture of the personalities involved and their parts in the drama as it unfolded.
His coverage of the conflict in its early stage is atmospheric and extremely informative. Statistics are used to bolster the narrative which is never dry or stale.
He covers the various theatres of operations and includes some interesting accounts of the war at sea and in the air as well as on the home front.
If you want to know more about this tragic period in history then this is the book for you.
I sincerely hope he decides to follow up with further volumes on this subject.
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on 20 May 2014
Max Hastings's account of The Great War mixes strong narrative and analysis, a big picture view and telling detail, a blow-by-blow account and the wider context of the war. The effect is a compelling read and a clear picture of some of the complexities surrounding the period: the causes of the war, its conduct and its significance.
And this war is complex: long-term and short-term causes, the role of individuals and the role of institutions, the differences between having clearly defined objectives (eg annexing territory) and a willingness to push events along to see where they might go (eg Germany giving the Austro-Hungarians a blank cheque to deal with Serbia) provide a kaleidoscope of angles from which to approach the conflict.
Hastings provides a strong synthesis of accounts and overview. While he apportions blame - largely pointing the finger at Germany - he is also keen to show where different nations were at fault in different ways for their aggression or their failure to understand the consequences of their action (or in some cases inaction). Yet, while he is firm, if sometimes trenchant, in his opinions he is careful to show the basis on which he has reached his decisions.
There are a few weaknesses. While Hastings is strong on the opportunities the different players had to take a different course in the lead-up to war, he pays less attention to the longer-term causes. He captures the way Britain was caught between its focus on its empire and its desire to see a balance of power in Europe. However, at a time when Britain, France and Russia had all extended their influence in the world, I wonder if he is perhaps too quick to put Germany's actions down simply to militarism.
Catastrophe is based on a wide reading of different authorities and Hastings provides an excellent, sometimes gripping summing-up of the evidence and then direction to the jury.
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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.
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This books achieves the awe inspiring combination of fact and entertainment. His blend of hard military information infused with vignettes of the average foot soldier, peasants, disaffected and the everyman is very heady and brings strong emotion to a table normally only adorned with the dry biscuit of troop movements and engagements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential reading.
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on 12 March 2016
Overall this is a masterpiece of history writing. Several of these books tend to fall into the trap of considering what might have been, instead of what actually happened; this does not and concentrates on the events leading to the Apocalypse that sadly too few prophesized.

A mammoth 560+ page tome, it's more or less split in two halves, the first the events leading up to the declarations of war, the second the movements and subsequent battles up to Christmas 1914. Hastings's basic premise being that it was a just war - British interests simply could not stand aside and see Europe dominated by one Great Power, and had Germany triumphed, the peace settlement would have been Draconian, as it was for Russia in 1918.

The author also doesn't laud praise on the BEF either, rightly stating the size of the commitment being dwarfed by the French and Russians. The British soldiers themselves are not eulogised either, many instances of disgruntled men and sloppy leadership are highlighted. This is important as we in the UK are always told about our how our army saved the French in 1914, when it was they who suffered far worse. The much vaunted Schlieffen plan comes in for a very interesting revision - author opines that it was just not possible to get enough troops into the field to make it work.

One criticism; several quotes are printed in the full French, with no translation, something that doesn't occur with the same quotes in German or Russian which are translated. Why is this?

The conclusion is that if Germany did not actually cause the war, its leaders did nothing to stop it happening, which amounted to basically the same thing. Definitely not light reading because of the size and scope of its subject matter, but a marvellous read.
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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.
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on 11 June 2015
My first Max Hastings book, and I although I only got half way so far, it's been well worth it just for this fraction alone. A studious history of how international tensions grew prior to WWI corrects some widely held fallacies. The maneuvering of the Allies post-1900, combined with Russian support of an irritating Serbia, grow into an enveloping existential threat to Germany and Austria making them conclude that military action was their only survival strategy while Britain, devoid of an army (as today) but with control of the seas, prevaricated about land action and Italy, looking out for new colonies, waited to ally with whoever seemed likely to win. All sides emphasize their defense priorities, while building weapons inventories, and studiously avoid any suggestion of starting actual hostilities. In this unstable situation the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia was a gift from heaven for the Austrians who claimed it was sufficient Serbian government provocation for the war they were itching for. Privately the Austrians were glad to see the back of him.
A wealth of personal observations from the man in the street and the rookie troops, from all the combatant nations, reveals how the dreams of a rapid and glorious victory rapidly turned to carnage and stalemate, while the French administration initially tries to re-fight their most recent war, for example ordering the cavalry to charge German machine guns.
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on 1 December 2015
The thing one has to remember about Max Hastings is that he is a journalist turned historian - in other words, the truth should not (on the whole) be allowed to spoil a good story. He fell flat in a big way over his Normandy book -the regt which ran away was 6 DOW not the Tyneside Scottish - different battles too!) - also over the Oradour massacre in his work on 2 SS - Das Reich.

I think the quality of his work on this book is better but we still get traditional Hastings gems - like the completion of the Ludendorf Bridge (aka the railway Bridge at Remagen) in 1914 was one of the factors encouraging Germany to go to war. But according to other sources, It was not even begun until 1916 - and completion was not until after 1920.

Wherever does Hastings get these zany ideas?

However the book is a good read, and as long as you don`t expect the standards of a professional historian, it`s also very informative.

The appalling suffering inflicted on the Serbs by the Austro-Hungarians, and the miserable incompetence of the latter in trying medieval standards on their own population is vivid. Nobody reading Hasting`s account can easily avoid the conclusion that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a casualty of the First World War deserving of no grief.

My criticisms perhaps should be reviewed by someone with a better knowledge of WW1 - but on the whole I do not think anyone purchasing this book will regret it.

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