Catastrophe : Europe Goes to War 1914, Hardback
5 out of 5 (1 rating)


The Amazon History Book of the Year 2013 is a magisterial chronicle of the calamity that befell Europe in 1914 as the continent shifted from the glamour of the Edwardian era to the tragedy of total war.

In 1914, Europe plunged into the 20th century's first terrible act of self-immolation- what was then called The Great War.

On the eve of its centenary, Max Hastings seeks to explain both how the conflict came about and what befell millions of men and women during the first months of strife.

He finds the evidence overwhelming, that Austria and Germany must accept principal blame for the outbreak.

While what followed was a vast tragedy, he argues passionately against the 'poets' view', that the war was not worth winning.

It was vital to the freedom of Europe, he says, that the Kaiser's Germany should be defeated.

His narrative of the early battles will astonish those whose images of the war are simply of mud, wire, trenches and steel helmets.

Hastings describes how the French Army marched into action amid virgin rural landscapes, in uniforms of red and blue, led by mounted officers, with flags flying and bands playing. The bloodiest day of the entire Western war fell on 22 August 1914, when the French lost 27,000 dead.

Four days later, at Le Cateau the British fought an extraordinary action against the oncoming Germans, one of the last of its kind in history.

In October, at terrible cost they held the allied line against massive German assaults in the first battle of Ypres.

The author also describes the brutal struggles in Serbia, East Prussia and Galicia, where by Christmas the Germans, Austrians, Russians and Serbs had inflicted on each other three million casualties.

This book offers answers to the huge and fascinating question 'what happened to Europe in 1914?', through Max Hastings's accustomed blend of top-down and bottom-up accounts from a multitude of statesmen and generals, peasants, housewives and private soldiers of seven nations.

His narrative pricks myths and offers some striking and controversial judgements.

For a host of readers gripped by the author's last international best-seller All Hell Let Loose, this will seem a worthy successor.


  • Format: Hardback
  • Pages: 672 pages, illustrations (black and white), maps (black and white)
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: European history
  • ISBN: 9780007398577



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This is a magnificent account of the run up to and first five months of the First World War. The author recounts in detail the sequence of events leading up to war from the point of view of all the major participants (including the Serbs). Once war breaks out, he also covers events on all the major European fronts, again including Serbia, whose fight for survival involved the whole nation in a ferocious way that astonished the numerically far superior, but showy and complacent Austro-Hungarian army. This is a timely reminder that the war in Europe was not just about trenches in Belgium and northern France, though these, are of course, given due coverage. The author's headline conclusion is that, while there was incompetence, naivety and self-aggrandisement to varying degrees in all countries' leaderships, Germany bears by far the heaviest burden of guilt for having underwritten through its "blank cheque" Austria-Hungary's desire for a limited war to crush Serbia and being careless about the probability of such a war spreading more widely; and German war leaders had plans to develop German domination of the continent that could not reasonably be tolerated by other countries. It should not be forgotten that Germany was effectively a military dictatorship at this time, with the socialist-dominated Reichstag having little real power and no influence over defence or foreign policy, whereas Britain and France, for all their many faults, were functioning democracies.In fact, I think, of all countries, Austria-Hungary bears the most responsibility, on the principle that the country that first provoked the war through its ultimatum to Serbia that was designed to be rejected, and then bombed Belgrade, is the first guilty party; though in the West, the revival of the Schlieffen Plan and the violation of Belgian neutrality point to German guilt, exacerbated by an overmighty military leadership and a vainglorious and possibly clinically insane Kaiser. Other countries, it might be argued, could have done more to try to stem the tide of events, though it is clear that once war became inevitable, British neutrality was not a viable option.I learnt a great deal from this book and could write a very long review. Hastings is a superb writer of military history, giving equal coverage to the political and military dimensions, and also to the human perspective of the ordinary soldier and civilian (while pointing out that the human perspective of the sufferings in the trenches has often tended to cloud judgements about the war's aims and objectives). The maps are excellent, very detailed but clear, and there are some interesting photographs. Thoroughly recommended.

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