In the opening salvo of publications marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, Max Hastings’ book has been an early victor, with critical acclaim buttressed by commercial success. Continuing the approach adopted in previous works on the Second World War, Hastings ranges widely across his subject matter, describing the motives and actions of the majors players, and the consequences of the decisions made on high upon those at the sharp end. A particular strength is the sheer number of voices brought into play, not only soldiers of all ranks but those of civilians caught up in the conflict, so often forgotten in conventional military histories.
The opening chapters necessarily deal with the origins of the war. The Allied insistence at Versailles in 1919 that Germany accept responsibility for initiating hostilities was the first encounter in a bitter historiographical war of words whose intensity continues to the present. While some historians have focused on structural factors – nationalism, imperialism, the arms race and the alliance system – these elements only created the tense backdrop to international affairs in 1914; in the end, it was human agency that led to war.
The traditional modern orthodoxy that the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary were the prime movers behind the outbreak of war emerged in the 1960s through the work of German historian Fritz Fischer, at the time the subject of fierce controversy in his homeland. There have been some recent challenges, the most convincing coming from the Cambridge-based Australian historian Christopher Clark, who is sympathetic to Austria-Hungary’s claim for damages against the rogue state of Serbia, arguing that if blame is to apportioned then all the main combatants held a smoking gun.
Hastings refutes such notions, advancing the case that ‘Germany bore principal blame’, that the Balkan crisis was converted into world war as a result of ‘ill-conceived Austrian design, with German support’. While I believe his case against the Central Powers is possibly ‘too’ well-argued – I don’t think it ever possible to get to the full truth in this matter – there can be little doubt that the German government failed to prevent the outbreak of war, while some of its leading lights actively sought a military decision in 1914.
Following on from Hastings’ thesis on the culpability of the Central Powers is his argument that Britain was right in joining France and Russia to prevent what he contends would have been a militarist German domination of Europe. Many believe the First World War to have been a terrible and futile waste of life; Hastings makes a good case that while the war was certainly terrible it was ultimately not futile.
In terms of the campaign narrative, the war on the Eastern Front is well represented – with new material for Anglophone readers – and due attention paid to the initial Anglo-German naval encounters and the opening stages of the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany. At the heart of the book though is Hastings’ well-paced account of the fighting in the West: the great German drive through Belgium and France; the catastrophic French offensives during the Battle of the Frontiers; Joffre’s recovery and French victory on the Marne; the Race to the Sea and the bitter fighting around Ypres where the British made their first military contribution to the Allied cause.
Winston Churchill famously described the opening phase of the war as ‘a drama never surpassed’, and Hastings has done justice to the drama in this substantial volume: magisterial in tone, rich in anecdote and human detail, and confidently assured in its interpretation of the complex events of 1914.
William Collins, 666 pages, £30 (h/b)