As Frenchmen were called to join their units in a mass migration of conscripts going to war in August 1914, one man recalled that they shouted “All aboard for Berlin! And what fun we’ll have there!” Millions of men marched off to World War I thinking it would be over in a few weeks or a month. They wore a gaggle of uniforms, the French having only recently abandoned the blue tunics that they had worn since the time of Napoleon.
Max Hastings, one of England’s foremost military historians, has written an excellent and thorough account of the first few months of the Great War. He follows the lead up to the conflict, and the early battles in France, Serbia and what was then Russian Poland.
This story has been told before, in Barbara Tuchman’s 1962 Guns of August, among others. Hastings seeks to provide some new conclusions and analyses about the opening events of the war. He looks, for instance, at to what degree Serbia was complicit in the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke, which set in motion the hostilities. He analyzes a French diplomatic visit to Russia on the eve of the war, and concludes there was no conspiracy in it. In most of his conclusions, as about the failings of military leadership, Hastings often remarks so-and-so “was no worse than others.”
This is an eminent middle-of-the-road account.
Where the book is strongest is in its opening chapters on the events that escalated to war, and the characters who led the various masses of men into the carnage that followed. Hastings notes, for instance, that among the Hapsburgs’ ruling elite “most of them had traditionally escaped military service.”
In fact, it is his examination of the Austrian determination to destroy Serbia in revenge for the nobleman, murdered by a Serbian terrorist group in what was then Austrian occupied Bosnia, that is most interesting. Few recall today, because of the horrors of the Holocaust, how many civilians were executed in 1914. When the Austrian army invaded Serbia, it carried out hangings and mass killings of Serbian civilians not only in Bosnia, but all along the invasion route.
“A striking feature of the many executions of civilians carried out on the Eastern Front, especially by the Austro- Hungarians in Serbia, is that they were photographed and the images published.”
Hastings concludes that this was a clear policy directed from above. One Austrian officer recalled “I met a column of 30 assembled for execution. They were accompanied by a crowd of people, including Prince Odescalchi and Lieutenant Weiss, who could not refrain from boxing the ears of the poor wretches, bound as they were… the execution place was at the edge of the woods… the [condemned Serbs] had to dig their own graves. Then they were sat down in front of the pit and bayoneted five at a time.”
When one considers the horror of men being bayoneted to death in mass executions, it is hard not to conclude that this evil, perpetrated by a “civilized” European power like Austria, by cultured princes from Vienna, was a foreshadow of the Holocaust. We assume that the Holocaust leapt forth from Europe, from some primeval demon set lose by Nazism; but when whole armies engage in slaughtering civilians in 1914, genocide is only one step further. In Belgium, the Germans rounded up civilians in retaliation for what they thought was guerrilla activity, and killed hundreds of people in numerous towns.
Hastings’s account of the opening events of the war concentrates on the British. This is probably not a surprise; he is a British historian and the sources are readily available, and in English. The British contingent was the smallest of the forces sent to war, based as it was on a professional army, rather than mass conscription.
Its commander, a man named Sir John French, is depicted as weak and prone to panic. After his army was defeated near the Belgian border and forced to retreat towards Paris, he cabled his French allies: “I feel it very necessary to impress on you that the British army cannot under any circumstances take its place in the front line for at least 10 days.”
Hastings, looking at the failure of the British commanders, concludes “the best that can be said of the limitations of Britain’s generals is that most of their counterparts of all the rival armies exposed large shortcomings.”
The opening months of the war set in motion worse things to come. The trench life that marked the period, of millions of men hiding in muddy earthworks, using machine guns to slaughter their enemies, became the hallmark of the Western Front. New technologies, such as the airplane, were put to use. Huge body counts, sometimes nearing 10,000 killed in a single day, were horrific, and would lead to 10 million deaths in the next years. Unfortunately, Hastings is not often a colorful writer; the reader only rarely gets glimpses into who these commanders were. The details are all there, such as one French general who lost three sons in the war; but the emotion is lacking. The book gets bogged down in the details of some of the fights, without giving the reader a larger understanding of the canvas of battle.