Mr Hastings is a famous journalist and here he combines journalist mush with some concise historical comment- but the book is sadly conventional in the modern idiom through its depreciation of everything to do with the British expeditionary force.
The early chapters are quite good and present the descent into war in a fairly concise way. The early battles in Serbia and the 'battle of the frontiers' are covered better than in most English language accounts. However, although Tanenberg is well described the battle of the Masurian Lakes is hardly touched on, whilst the campaigns in Gallicia and Poland are reduced to a vague overview based on letters and newspaper articles of the time. Towards the end there are chapters like 'Did you ever dance with him?' that amount to a sentimental hash of letters from people on the home front that I found tedious and over- long. In fact, due to content of this kind the whole book becomes over long.
Its not surprising that the most detailed accounts cover the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and here I became very annoyed. Call me an old fashioned patriot if you wish, but this attempt to rubbish every aspect of the BEF- not just the dodgy generalship, but the effort of common soldiers as well- I found very distasteful. This is of course the conventional modern way, but there is much here that simply is not true. It is, for example, ridiculous to claim the British were not outnumbered at Mons and Le Cateau: the numbers on the immediate front may have been similar, but behind the foremost German waves were many more- as the BEF knew very well.
I'm not at all surprised Sir John French did not trust the French army- which was precipitously retreating along side him. There was every reason to believe the French were about to collapse as they had done in 1870 and that the BEF would be over- run along with them. What was French supposed to do- stand heroically and be engulfed by Klucks multitude? Hastings finally has to admit that the BEF efforts on the Chemin des Dames were of critical importance, and if the British commanders had allowed the tiny BEF to be destroyed in the early weeks there would have been nobody to fight the Battle of Ypres- and no, the French army did little to share the credit that for that victory as Hastings claims: their contribution was restricted to a much less hotly contested area to the south of the front. It is interesting to note that when General Jofre had the chance to ensure Sir John French would be dismissed he did not take it. But more distasteful to me are the extended accounts of BEF deserters and others who did not distinguish themselves. All armies had to confront the fact that, on 'the day', not all their soldiers would walk willingly towards almost certain death.
There is a whole lot of wisdom after the event in this book and a good deal of armchair generalship- and I'm somewhat surprised by that, given Max Hastings undoubted knowledge of modern day military conflicts.