Review: Catastrophe

Catastrophe by Max Hastings

My rating: of 5 stars

If not the most pointless of all wars, certainly the most pointless that killed the most people. Can’t argue with that. What you can argue with, what I thought emerges from Max Hasting’s look at the first few months in the lead up to and the first few months after the start of the First World War – is what caused it. But then, I thought, the ‘what caused it’ angle is something we’ve all become too accustomed with, living in the 2000’s, maybe. We’re all looking for the smoking gun the whole time, for someone to point at and blame. There are no accidents anymore, someone must be guilty/responsible! It couldn’t have ‘just happened.’ Well, from this book, I’d say the First World War did just happen. Everything was in place for something to happen, and equally as many people wanted and looked forward to something happening, as didn’t.

Problem was, they were the wrong people, looking forward to the wrong war, the wrong reasons at the wrong time. A 19th – even 18th in some cases – Century war, fought in the 20th Century. With the wrong tactics, the wrong weapons and the wrong ideas of how to put it right. Everything that could go wrong, did. However, the people for whom it was a ‘Catastrophe’ weren’t those who wanted the war, they were those who it was decided, should fight it. Certainly there are here tales of silly officers committing ‘glorious’ suicide by charging 20th Century machine-gun posts on horse-back with sword drawn…but, the world is better off without fools like that, than with them in charge. They were doing later generations a Darwinian favour.

Before the war, it seems alliances changed and shifted the whole time. It’s hard to keep track of sometimes – me reading and them at the time. Stepping back, he seems to say that Germany’s ambitions for dominance and empire were already being achieved through their growing industrial and economic dominance. They didn’t need a war. But the under-employed, old-fashioned ruling class, certainly did. To ‘clear the air.’ Britain seems almost reluctantly drawn in, and countries went to war because it was either expected of them, or their allies were going to war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, well…there was really no saving them. So many years of in-breeding has never bred a bigger bunch of arrogant, out of touch idiots masquerading as buffoons ever. It doesn’t feel right though, to even try and make light, or fun, of those in charge (as ‘Blackadder’ did, to my annoyance and contempt at the time, I’d like to point out). Because their arrogance and ineptitude and failure to realise that the world had turned and left them behind, on both sides, resulted in people, the enemy and their own, hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands of people, dying.

Another book on the first world war I’ve seen, but not read as yet, has it about right for me, after reading Catastrophe, called it’s called Sleepwalkers. They didn’t really seem to know where they were going, and were completely un-able to stop. Seems silly to say that? Can’t believe it? Read the book, you’ll agree with me.

The marshalling of facts and evidence here, is again (after reading All Hell Let Lose), is astounding. He has some team of researchers out there, does Max (as there’s surely no way he has the time to go finding every little nugget presented in his books). But the final pulling together, the links made, the ease of reading and understanding, is – even in my limited experience of his works – all Max and always to be admired. I bet even his shopping lists are a wonder to behold. He is looking at, presenting, the situation that lead up to war and then the process of the first few months. The book stops as the trench-warfare that would come to dominate and stagnate the majority of the war, is beginning. Max always seems to let you draw your own conclusions, his style, to me, never seems to present his version, though it must, as he is determining what to include or leave out. But I never, ever get the feeling he is saying ‘look, this is why.’ I feel like I have come to my conclusions. I did, however, enjoy his taking the ‘War Poets’ down several pegs. That was good.

There was, as I say, no ‘magic bullet’ so there’s no point in looking for one. If you know what happened at the end of WWI and/or have read any about the start of WWII, you’ll know that the war to end all wars, was the fuck-up to end all fuck-ups, that started the next one. The lesson there for the learning, was how to stop the thing happening again. But they didn’t and it did.

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