CATASTROPHE Europe Goes to War 1914
By Max Hastings
Published by William Collins
ISBN: 978 0 00 739857 7
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
In Flanders Fields is not a conventional museum. There are no rows of artefacts which might be construed as endorsing war. Sure, there are uniforms and some weapons, but they are incidental. The museum is a memorial to the horrors of what happened in the years 1914-1918 and a reminder of just how reckless people can be. Before it was revamped there used to be a large quote on show from the man we like to think was always looking forward. In a quote from 1921 HG Wells tells us “Every intelligent person in the world knew that disaster was impending and knew no way to avoid it.” The thing is Wells was, like so many of his time, a reactionary; a powerless frustrated observer of calamitous events. His short story The Land Ironclads of 1903 featured armoured vehicles we picture as tanks conquering a battlefield and we mark him out as a visionary. It’s a nice image. Meanwhile other men of his era were making plans to conquer battlefields of their own. Wells invented worlds while others changed ours forever. We feel the effects of the Great War today at its worst in conflicts big and small raging in countless places from Old Testament lands to East African shopping malls. The Great War assured the death of the age of empires, but the vacuum has never been pretty, let alone filled.
How did the war happen? Was it really so simple that a hot headed Slav shot dead an archduke and then a dubious cast of monarchs and militarists got on their collective high horse and led millions to their deaths? Er.. No.
Fortunately we can follow events in this superb book by Max Hastings. The road to war and the first four terrible months of conflict are explained in a vibrant chronology as the chief actors in the drama – the men who changed the world – are laid bare as they played out their roles in the calamity. We find there are men to blame, not so much the virtual boys like Gavrile Princip, however iconic his role is, but the people who encouraged him and worse, the men who might have injected calm into an ever heated situation; but didn’t.
Keen cyclist Private John Parr of the 4th Middlesex was scouting for the enemy with a mate when they came across some Uhlans. He is said to have stayed behind to hold the Germans off while his pal rushed off to report the encounter. Private Parr is buried at the St Symphorien Cemetery near Mons and is recognised as Great Britain’s first combat casualty of the Great War. He had lied about his age to enlist and was just sixteen years old
When the fighting starts it might come as a shock to see so many men die in open warfare. Great War assumptions are fixated on the crass incompetence of the Allied and specifically British generals in breaking the stalemate of trench warfare. In the period up to Christmas 1914 the Germans suffered 800,000 casualties losing thousands in repeated often hopeless assaults. For all the bitter sadness of Britain’s losses on the first day of the Somme in 1916 these were surpassed by those of the French Army on the 22nd of August,1914, during the Battle of the Frontiers when 27,000 men died marching into battle as a 19th century army, often with colours flying and bands playing. They wore blue coats and red trousers while the cavalry was still equipped with shiny helmets and breastplates familiar to Napoleon Bonaparte. For all this the notion that only the Germans were attuned to new technology is a falsehood, for all the belligerents were gathering machine guns and new means of slaughter, it was just that the Germans had spent more effort integrating them. Much is made of the Schlieffen Plan and it dominates many of the generic books we read about the Great War and indeed many about the Second, when it comes to the invasion of France. Minds are fixated on it and the great scheme looks stunning on maps then as now. There is less mention of the malignant influence of Moltke the Younger, the architect of Germany’s war plans, East and West. He wanted the war and he got one. He modified Schlieffen and made it his own. The problem for Moltke is the old classic – no plan survives first contact and neither the Belgian, French or Russian armies did precisely what he expected once hostilities kicked off. The French, reckless in the extreme, had their own design – Plan XVII – and Joffre sent thousands to their deaths implementing it for little or no gain. And yet when the time came he produced the victory on the Marne which saved France and altered the course of the war. The British were there, too, but not in anything like the numbers of their chief ally and led by a man seemingly unprepared to do anything at all. History, quite rightly, does not look kindly on the record of Field Marshal John French who after all his failings was replaced by Douglas Haig. But this was some time off.
In the East, the Austrians who initiated the war, proved themselves hopeless; while the Russians, with huge resources but poor coordination amidst ridiculous petty jealousies between commanders could never carry off a complete victory. The collapse of two Imperial houses was set in train. I found accounts of the Eastern campaigns a genuine eye opener. Mr Hastings correctly describes the Western Front as the ‘cockpit’ of the war, but the scale of the fighting in Poland and Galicia was immense and the additional nightmares of anti-Semitism, looting and all manner of nastiness just add to the mix and offer a portent of nightmares to come decades into the future. At sea the Royal Navy was all powerful but still finding it’s feet and a full on showdown with the Kaiser’s fleet ‘Der Tag’ remained a dream to be fulfilled in 1916. The submarine menace was just beginning to present itself. The realities of air power were only just beginning to make themselves felt but the whole nature of war was on the verge of a revolution. The merits of aviation as means of reconnaissance had been recognised by all sides but the development of fighters and bombers were another matter.
After the Marne and the Aisne the West saw First Ypres, that great encounter battle, and the little city took on its place in our mythology. In time John French would assume its name as a title after Haig had shunted him out. As the ennobled Earl of Ypres he became embroiled in all manner of unedifying situations relating to his war record for the remainder of his life. Moltke, too, was swept aside, dying in ignominy and other generals failed the test. More were waiting to fill their boots.
There is no question that the Great War continues to excite emotions we don’t apply to World War II. The problem we have is our slideshow of the conflict is fixed in so many stereotyped images. It’s almost literally hung up on a metaphorical barbed wire entanglement dominated by a manufactured aura of futility scarcely recognised by the men who did the fighting. Trenches, poetry, lions and donkeys – they are just all over it and you will have so much trouble navigating through a fog of subjectivity in these upcoming four years of commemoration and dubious profiteering about to hit us. The war needs measured explanation and there is much of it about, but there will be shameless dollops of tosh. If it isn’t in print it will be with us in all manner of revels with the likes of son et lumiere events commemorating the real and imagined taking place in famous towns. On Facebook the other day you could read the reaction to an American ballet company’s plans to interpret the conflict in modern dance. One poor soul lamented “Please Sir, can I have my war back?” The loser in all this is the history itself. The Great War has suffered more than every other conflict from interpretation while the accounts of the people who were actually there seem to have become secondary. We saw a brief respite in the UK during the fading years in the lives of the last few centenarian veterans but the way to insure that accurate history wins out over tosh is to find your way to books like this one. Max Hastings is probably best known for his histories of the Second World War, but should he decide to enter the fray with another account of the Great War I’d be very pleased to see it.