Sunday, 23 March 2014

Catastrophe - A Book Review

This is what I've been reading recently.

It's very good so I thought I'd tell you a little bit about it. Please bear in mind that my 'book reviewing' skills are a little rusty!!?

The earlier chapters focus mainly on the geo-political situation in Europe, who was 'friends' with whom, who would support whom in the event of aggression, etc, etc. I had thought that these might be a little dry (being a gamer I'm more interested in war-war, not jaw-jaw) but instead they set the scene very well indeed and shed some light on what must be considered a rather murky period of European statesmanship. What would help is a 'dramatis personae' so as to better keep track of all the key players!

The established view seems to lay most of the blame for the Great War on the Germans and/or the Austrians. This book does not overturn that view although it does redress the balance somewhat by illustrating the fact that other European powers all contributed to the escalation of events, either by direct involvement, deliberate sabre-rattling or sometimes simple inaction.

The next few chapters deal with the mobilisation of the armies on each side, along with the opening battles and sieges, such as Liege, Mons and Le Cateau. Hastings tries to put the British contribution at this stage in to the wider context of conflict between two large European land powers. He doesn't downplay the BEF efforts by any means, but he does make it clear that the BEF was tiny (just 3% of allied strength) in comparison to the mighty French and German armies. A fact that is often overlooked by the British.

The text also describes how, in the opening moves of the war, many of the leading military strategists and senior officers on all sides made some astonishing errors. These occurred through hubris, ineptitude or just sheer foolish optimism. It is perhaps easy to be critical with the benefit of hindsight but even taking that in to account some decisions are still beyond understanding. Many of these leaders had never been involved in a major conflict or had served in campaigns utterly unlike that unfolding in Europe. War was changing significantly and rapidly, and many combatants were struggling to adjust.

The book highlights two crucial factors that do not always get the consideration they warrant; namely transportation issues and communication with the front line.

Transporting huge quantities of men and material required feats of logistics hitherto unknown. As battles developed and ground was captured, supplies lines came under enormous strain. Shortages of food, fuel, fodder and ammunition were common.

Communication - or the lack of it - often played a key part. Detailed military plans are all well and good, but as armies advance and the conflict develops it was almost impossible for high command to keep a firm grip on their forces. The enormous strain of command weighed heavily on most leaders, pushing many of them well beyond their limits.

Later chapters deal with topics such as
  • The frustrating attempts of the Royal Navy to engage the Germans who acknowledged that they were not on equal terms. Even so the RN still managed to display an astonishing level of over-confidence and in some cases, base incompetence.
  • The effects of the war on the home front as popular enthusiasm gave way to confusion and upset, the rise of women's movements, scaling up of production to support the armed forces insatiable demands for ammunition & equipment.
  • The fighting on the Germany's eastern border. Blundering Russian generals along with the return of Hindenburg, paired with the brilliant but erratic Ludendorff, saw the Russians crushed first at Tannenberg then the Masurian Lakes. Yet again it seemed that Europe's warlords were trying to fulfil their over-ambitious aims with inadequate forces, outdated tactics and insufficient supplies.
  • The early development of air reconnaissance and air warfare. Both the Central Powers and the Entente had been experimenting with air forces but the opening weeks and months of the war clearly demonstrated their potential for gathering intelligence.
  • Governments attempts to harness or restrict the press. This would be the first major conflict with a highly literate public and a mass circulation press. Reporting of the BEF's exploits was at first very tightly controlled, although a few officers letters made it in to the press. However, later in August 1914, as details of the retreat towards Paris became known, there was an outcry. Some called for withdrawal of the BEF, many others (amazingly!) criticised the French for a lack of fighting spirit. At the highest levels of allied military command there was significant discord. It's a wonder (and possibly a testament to Tommy/Poilu bravery!) that the German army was ever halted.

Anyway, hopefully that's given you some insight into what I've found to be a superb book. Highly recommended!


Moiterei_1984 said...

Seems to be a highly interesting book. Thanks for your thoughts about it. Looks like I have to get myself a copy.

The Kiwi said...

Great review. Looks like a good read.

Bedford said...

This will be interesting after watching Nial Ferguson's 'debate' on the subject of Britain going to war in WWI!

I thought that he was a little short sighted (Furguson), but he did at least make people think about the question.


Monty said...

Sounds like very interesting book. Most of all on a topic which wont let me go this year...


Sidney Roundwood said...

Great review, Matt. I bought this book for my Father-in-Law for Christmas , so I'm hoping he will hurry up and finish it!