Earlier this month was Remembrance Day, and in honour I read 'Catastrophe' by Max Hastings (who received a knighthood in 2002), on the history of WWI. The book describes the complex lead-up to and opening weeks of the First World War, before analysing the actual war itself. As a historian, Hasting's objective is not only to pin the principal blame for launching the catastrophic conflict where it rightly belongs (on Austria and Germany) but also to argue that Britain was politically and morally right to fight WWI.
Hastings shows how the Austrians coldly set out to destroy Serbia; how Berlin gave Vienna a “blank cheque”, assuring it of German support; how both countries ignored the certainty that Russia would pitch in on the side of its Slav protégé Serbia; and how Germany’s autocracy, under its mentally unstable Kaiser, deliberately pushed Europe over the edge. Germany recklessly gambled that Britain would stay out of the war, and that even if it did not, they could, anyhow, win it within weeks by knocking out France, before turning to deal with Russia at leisure: the same pipedream pursued by Hitler a quarter of a century later.
Hastings demonstrates the parallels between the two world wars, showing that atrocities such as the Kaiser’s armies as marching through Belgium , though smaller in scale than the Nazis’ crimes in 1939-45 (6,000 civilians murdered rather than six million), were inflicted in the same wanton spirit. With irrefutable logic Hastings argues that if it was right for Britain to wage war in defence of Poland in 1939, then it was also correct to take up arms in defence of Belgium in 1914.
Coming to the war itself, Hastings is also brilliant. He looks not just at the fighting in France and Flanders, but instead across the whole of Europe, describing half-forgotten campaigns on the Drina and Danube rivers with the same spirit that he brings to the more familiar clashes at Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and Ypres.
The book is also incredibly touching because he uses the stories of ordinary people which resonate loud and long with the reader: the conscripted clerks and scholars torn from their ledgers and books, never to return; or the wives and children, suddenly wondering where their next meal would come from, such as the family of the Russian soldier Ivan Kuchernigo. “His five-year-old daughter sat in his arms, pressing against him and saying, 'Daddy, why are you going? Why are you leaving us? Who’s going to earn money and get bread for us?’ She embraced and kissed her father whose own tears were soon flowing.” This is a magnificent and deeply moving book and Hastings has once again show his incomparable skills for writing history.