Lead book review

Why does Max Hastings have such a hatred for the British military?

David Crane is taken aback by the particular contempt Max Hastings appears to reserve for the British at the outbreak of the first world war

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914 Max Hastings

Collins, pp.628, £30, ISBN: 9780307597052

One of the great problems for any historian writing of 1914 and the slide into conflict is that everyone knows the causes of the first world war and those of us who don’t still imagine that we do. It is clear that no historian can simply ignore the causes and get straight down to the fighting, but with the best will in the world it is hard not to feel like some poor Easyjet passenger, stranded on a Gatwick runway and sadly watching the precious take-off slot slipping further into the distance while the cabin crew go though the familiar old pre-flight safety instructions that they know perfectly well nobody is listening to.

Serbian ambition, the internal incoherence of the Hapsburg empire, the Kaiser, Alsace-Lorraine , the ‘first blank cheque’, the ‘second blank cheque,’ Pan-Slavism, Ulster, mobilisation, uncertainty over Britain’s intentions, fear of decadence, fear of Russia, fear of socialism — none of them can be any more dodged than can the emergency doors or the oxygen mask. But when half the world seems to be writing about what happened in 1914, or should have happened and didn’t, it is an uphill struggle to make it fresh or interesting. It is immensely to Max Hastings’s credit that he manages to dispose of it all as economically as he does; but this huge, compelling, argumentative bully of a book only really hits its stride when the fighting starts, and the full catastrophe that the ‘absurdly amateurish’ 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip unleashed with the assassination of the unloved and unlovable Archduke Franz Ferdinand begins to unfold.

‘A bullet does not go precisely where one wishes,’ was how an apologetic Princip explained away the unintended murder of Franz Ferdinand’s morganatic wife, Sophie; but Hastings will have no truck with the idea that a chapter of accidents brought about the war, or with any liberal, guilt-ridden guff about equal moral and political responsibility of the warring belligerents. There is no reason to think that Germany was gunning for war when it gave Austria their ‘blank cheque’ for the extermination of Serbia, but they were certainly prepared to live with the consequences in the firm belief that they were in a stronger position to win any war against Russia and France in 1914 than they would be in the years ahead.

One of the great strengths of Catastrophe is the space and energy it gives to the less familiar theatres and aspects of the conflict — the barbarism of Austria’s Serbia campaign, the chaos of Galicia, East Prussia and Tannenberg, the Home fronts, the North Sea, German ‘beastliness’ — but like the fortunes of the war itself, the book stands or falls on the Western Front. From the start the Germans had gambled on the rapid and total defeat of France before turning their full attention to the east, and by the time they realised that no number of victories over Russian armies was going to win them the war, they were inextricably mired in the bitter stalemate in France and Belgium to which the strategic fantasies of Schlieffen and his disciples had doomed them.

It is the story of the Germans’ bid for a quick and crushing victory in the west, told with an equal richness of detail and sure narrative sweep, that is at the core of Catastrophe, and no story better deserves the name. In the popular imagination the first world war is always going to be associated with the miseries of trench warfare; but the trenches were the consequences of this first fluid phase of the war, a place of troglodytic sanctuary from a war of open movement in which 19th-century strategies and armies led into battle by mounted officers and bands playing came up against modern technology.

Eighteen thousand French and German dead in the Ardennes on 23 and 24 August alone, 329,000 French dead by the end of the year, 800,000 German dead or wounded in the same period, 150,000 Austrian, 16,000 British, more than half of Samsonov’s 230,000 Russians, killed, wounded or captured at Tannenberg in the last week of August — it is impossible, or at least it ought to be impossible, to write about the first world war without a sense of moral indignation at the waste and futility and stupidity of its leaders. But Max Hastings saves his particular animus for Britain and her army. There are precious few generals on either side of the war who escape his wrath, but if he is rightly contemptuous of Moltke and dismissive of his army commanders, the British seem to inspire something approaching a hatred — it is the only word to convey the level of hostility — that adds a startlingly bitter edge to this formidably impressive book.

Hastings hates British complacency about her military past, he hates British chauvinism, he hates Britain’s patronising attitudes towards her allies, he hates Britain’s love of turning retreats — Corunna, Dunkirk, Mons — into moral victories, he hates her continuing penchant for ‘gesture politics’, and he is damned sure that he is going to leave no treasured national myth unexploded. For the officers who only arrived in France in 1915 there already seemed something heroic about the men of the BEF; but in Hastings’s hands even the old saw of lions led by donkeys is turned on its head, with the VCs they win ‘soft’ VCs, the battles they fight ‘little battles’ and even Mons — the jewel in the Old Contemptibles’ crown — little more than a sideshow of a sideshow.

‘Dodgy’ battalions in the Ypres Salient, wholesale abandonment of weapons and positions, pusillanimous leadership, a reluctant showing at the Marne, a navy that couldn’t fire, politicians who knew nothing of war, it all makes for chastening reading.  Anyone travelling down the 900-odd Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries that mark the line of the old Western Front from Ypres to the Aisne might be forgiven for thinking otherwise, but Britain no more won the first world war by herself than it did Waterloo and here is chapter and verse. Whatever happened later, it was the French who saved France in 1914 and saved it in spite of everything our own Sir John French could do to scupper the alliance, and with the centenary looming it is important to be reminded of that.  ‘No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening’, wrote Churchill, and Hastings does full justice to its appalling drama. He is, unashamedly — thankfully — a historian in the Barbara Tuchman tradition and Catastrophe is rich in unexplored sources from every side of the conflict and every theatre of the war. He is wise, too, to end the book where he does, with the German defeat at Ypres. I, for one, could not take much more and — more to the point — I’m not sure the author could either. If the performance of the old army that died at the First Ypres can reduce him to such frustration, God knows what, the 2nd and 3rd Ypres, Loos, Gallipoli, Kut and the Somme might do.

It is going to be a long five years of grim anniversaries, so triumphalists might want to pencil in 8 August 2018 — Ludendorff’s ‘black day of the German army’ — for the next centenary we can really look forward to.

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  • françois

    First i want to pay homage to my grantfather who fight in the 1914 battle of Marne and was prisoner just after for 4 long and painful years.

    This war was really global and i am sad when i read a french or british press article or book too focusing on their troops war. The same goes for the millions of american who are conviced that the USA save France and won alone the WW1.

    I give you a little list of french movies to have a gallic “point de vue” ;
    Capitaine Conan – Bertrand Tavernier
    La Vie et Rien d’Autre – Bertrand Tavernier
    allons enfants – Jean-Jacques Annaud
    un long dimanche de fiancaille – Jean-Pierre Jeunet
    la grande illusion – Jean Renoir
    Fort Saganne – Alain Corneau

    sorry for my bad english

    • Francis P

      Andy Car Park (Francois).

      ‘ello, ‘ello. ello.

      • françois

        sorry i don’t understand your reply

        positive? negative? sarcasm?

    • Colonel Mustard

      You are quite correct. In its eagerness to perpetuate class war and convey history through the eyes of the modern Labour party the BBC and British “establishment” will forget the 1,397,000 poilu who died and focus instead on wickedly incompetent and ruthless aristocratic British generals (meme for the Tories) and Jarrow Marchers in uniform (meme for the Labour party).

      And it would be good if the BBC showed those films instead of their usual dumbed down and class war rubbish.

      • ottovbvs

        I wonder if you’ve read the book? Hastings is particularly critical of French but presents a very balanced view of Haig, Smith-Dorrien, Robertson, Kitchener and other British officers. He also basically endorses the military view, versus that of Churchill and LLoyd George, that the war had to had to be won in France and this inevitably involved a strategy of attrition. Go read the book.

    • stringwhinger

      Your english puts my French to shame. The sense of your message was very real

    • vince sparry

      thank you for this list.

  • Shorne

    Could Sir Max be adopting a controversial view so as to ensure he sells more books and hence makes more money…?

  • edlancey

    His take on contemporary events is nearly always wrong so I can’t see why anyone would trust his insight on historical events.

  • Jambo25

    He displays the same dislike for his own country in his other histories. I’ve simply stopped reading him. Few people came out of the start of WW1 with much credit. Few had fully foreseen the path the war would take. From the Somme, however, onward many Germans, at least, knew they had a tiger by the tail with the BEF. What is seen as an unmitigated disaster by the British was also seen as such by the Germans. By 1917/18, the BEF had become the most efficient killing machine in the, to then, history of war and developed doctrines of fire and movement and all arms warfare normally ascribed to Guderian and the Wehrmacht in the 30s. Haig was possibly the greatest British general between Wellington and the present day.

    • Gareth

      Haig was a moron.

      • Jambo25

        I’m glad to see you give a considered opinion based on evidence and deep thought.

        • paulus

          History is not facts its a set of opinions supporting facts. no people esp the Briitish.. change their facts to support an opinion.

          Well as I just read that little piece: 800.000 Germans, 200,000 odd french men and 16,000 Britons were dead. I know it sounds dreadful but these type of ratios were very good.

          I would have starved them as exactlly as those decision were taken, because if you do not take them.. your own children die. What must be done must be done. It is better one man stands to account than a million people pay a price.

          The stale mate was not broke on a battle field alone although the British Army did. there were other factors as just as powerful. .

      • Barakzai

        Ah, the pervasive Lloyd George poison.

        For me, John Terraine’s ‘Douglas Haig – The Educated Soldier’ remains definitive.

      • IainRMuir

        A four word biography?

        I notice you haven’t referenced your sources.

        • george

          What’s this ‘referenced’? You Brits are all ‘up with Britain/England/Scotland/Wales’ until it comes to idiom, and then you swallow every latest American backformation and neologism. Beautiful!

    • mikewaller

      I largely agree with this. I was born in 1944 and have long since come to recognise that we are very, very small when compared with those who fought WW2, but they, in their turn, were smaller than those who fought in WW1. After all, between 1914-18 the British army hung on in France for the entire duration and was not skittled out in a few weeks. Similarly, rather than playing second fiddle to the Eastern Front, they played first fiddle and hung on in even after the Russians had capitulated. Put at its crudest, any fighting body that manages to inflict casualties on German armies at very close to 1 to 1, is a pretty formidable force and cannot have been been that badly led. Their misfortune was to have been caught in a war at a point in history when the artillery and the machine gun made attacking so appallingly costly.

      Able historian though MH is, he made clear to us some years ago that his own military career was rather more like a Whitehall farce than a catastrophe. I think military leaders are often too harshly dealt with those (myself included) who cannot really comprehend the pressure they are under. From a British standpoint, the Falklands War is generally well regarded, but the simple mistake of bringing the Atlantic Conveyor in to be unloaded in daylight rather than leaving it until after dark so that the Argentinians could only have caught it in the morning, empty, was potentially catastrophic. Ditto the humane decision to leave the Welsh Guards a little longer in relative comfort on the Sir Galahad, rather than disembarking them immediately. Other spheres do not have this kind of immediate lethality to their decision making. Indeed one wonders how “Gareth” (below) would perform in such situations.

      • Jambo25

        By the end of the war the BEF had got the artillery war off pat. The British artillery was more formidable and dangerous than Bruch muller’s. Creeping barrages and sudden fire ‘storms’ smashed German positions to bits. Infantry, artillery and armour worked in conjunction covered by massive numbers of aircraft. Very reminiscent of German Blitzkrieg tactics in WW2. Some Briish units had even converted heavy tanks into makeshift armoured personnel carriers.

        All this was done under the moronic command of Haig and his corps commanders.

        • Gybb

          Yes, The Battle of Amiens 1918 was a prelude to Blitzkrieg. We then promptly decided to unlearn and deskill, whereas Germans like Guderian paid full attention.

  • S&A

    Max Hastings is a wannabe soldier. He tried to join the TA as a para and was sacked (I notice that he didn’t try and join a line infantry unit afterwards, or find some alternative trade). That might have something to do with his animus towards the Army.

    • Pootles

      There may be something in this. He also came in for real criticism when he ‘liberated’ Port Stanley, when it wasn’t entirely clear that the Argies were, in fact, going to throw in the towel. The British Army were very cross with Max.

      • S&A

        His fellow journalists in the Falklands didn’t take to him too well, either.

        • rtj1211

          All of them were on an ego trip so who cares what any of them thought, eh?

  • Thaddeus Stone

    Hastings loves to bash the British in his books – it plays well in his biggest market: The USA. I’ve given up reading his stuff.

    • Jeffrey Cash

      I say good for him-for too long the British have tried to claim the lion’s share of victory in its major wars-the Napoleonic wars, WWI, and WW2. It was Russia, France, and the Soviet Union played the definitive parts in those conflicts, respectively. The British generals were evil and useless in the First World War, especially that Butcher Haig, and noble if yet again useless in the Second World War (except for Slim of course). The British should be content with their greatest military achievement-conquering primitive peoples.

      • Colonel Mustard


        • Jeffrey Cash

          I said respectively….:)

          • Colonel Mustard

            And that is still wrong.

      • george

        I’m glad I don’t have to live in your skin. Or — more than that — your brainwashed mind.

    • george

      That’s a slur, I think. Educated Americans admire the British (English, Scots, Welsh). I cannot speak for Leftists.

  • Gybb

    Contemporary German accounts blame their early heavy casualties on massed British machine guns at Mons and Le Cateau. In fact, the British had very few machine guns in those early days (2 per battalion) and the German infantry was decimated by the rapid fire of the well trained Marksmen of the BEF who were paid more if they could perfect the ‘Mad Minute’ of 15 aimed kill shots…

    • Buchanear

      I beg to differ. Contemporary German accounts do nothing of the kind. The source of this myth is a quote lifted (and mistranslated) from the semi-official German monograph ‘Ypern 1914’ by the compiler of Volume I of the British Official History. In so doing, the compiler completely ignores several clear references to rifle and machine gun fire in the same publication. The Germans, who had machine guns on precisely the same scale as the British, were well able to differentiate the two. What the Germans actually state is a reflection of the tactics used by the BEF; namely to allow mass formations to close right up to the concealed British positions and then to pour lacerating fire at them at close range for as short a time as possible. This both conserved ammunition and increased the hit rate. Although the fifteen rounds a minute business is quite true, it was little used on the battlefield. At that rate an infantryman would shoot off the entire contents of his ammunition pouches in ten minutes – and forward resupply was a major issue during the early battles.

      • Bill Quango MP

        Very true. And it seems MH is in for a bashing for no particular reason.

        Despite victory the British Armies record in WW2 is very poor.
        Terrible defeats in Norway & France. Disaster in Greece and Crete. Total catastrophe in the far east, Singapore,Burma etc. Disaster in the desert except early against the Italians who were even more ill equipped than the empire troops.
        The RAF bombing campaign by 1942 had killed less German civilians than allied aircrew. The sea lanes were not secure and German bombers flew every night over UK cities until they went off to Russia.
        And even after American and Russian entry our record is patchy.
        The entire Italian campaign. The Bomber offensive on Berlin. The slow grind in Asia. Goodwood. Arnhem.

        No wonder a vote of no confidence was called for the governments handling of the war.

        The commonwealth’s early record was awful. It took a very long time for British forces to become proficient at what they had been master of in 1918.

        Same applies to British forces from 1914. it took a long time and a lot of disasters before arriving at victory.

        I believe Mr Hastings is only pointing this out.

      • Headhunter

        You have obviously never been on the receiving end of rifle fire from a company of British infantry of the line armed with Lee Enfields. (Nor have I but I have fored the weapon.) 5 rounds of .303 ammunition to a magazine, their drill was so efficient that the Germans thought we had machine guns. Fact.

        • Colonel Mustard

          The magazine held ten rounds which were usually loaded via two five round charger clips.

        • Buchanear

          How would you know my background? The original assertion concerned the contents of ‘contemporary German accounts’ and, unlike most who cling to these worn out myths, I have. As a result my response is based on what is contained in them. Although the rapid fire of 150 riflemen at close range was extremely destructive, it was clear to those on the receiving end that it could not have been coming from two single points (the fire of one machine gun in 1914 being equated to +/- the fire of 80 riflemen). Not only that, the sound of massed rifle fire is akin to an amplified version of cloth being ripped. The Vickers and indeed the MG 08 used by the German army had quite distinct cyclical rates and were, therefore, recognisable for what they were. Further proof concerns the clashes between the Germans and French forces, whose machine guns fired a twenty five round clip and were not belt fed. ‘Contemporary accounts’ speak regularly of German troops counting the rounds fired, then dashing forward during the pauses for reloading. I repeat, the German sources absolutely do not support this myth. Tell it to the Angels of Mons.

        • mikewaller

          Military lesson: never attack when confronted by real scholarship.

          Mind you, people are very keen to hang on to much cherished myths. The business of the two fingers being shown to the French to prove the owners could still use a bow, seems to be another case in point. It was fairly recently reported that it could not be traced back beyond the mid-20th Century and, anyway, why did it switch from that to being consider vulgar. The best explanation I can offer came for my London childhood when a pal of mine expert in such things told me that it was a form of rhyming slang. The two fingers being initially held together and then moved apart represented ” two rockets went up and parted”, this rhyming with “farted”. Certainly at that time it was conventional to make a farting sound as one did it.

  • asalord

    I haven’t read Mr Hasting’s book but by the description in the article above he seems to have called the crimes correctly.
    It will make refreshing reading when,in the centenary years,we will be ravaged by politicians and others trying to outdo themselves in self-righteous one-upmanship.

  • William Beal

    WWI was full of what if’s. What if the British Army did not deploy at Mons. What if
    the French Army did not repel the German advance at the Marne, etc.,etc.. What if the war was avoided? Would Britain and Europe be different today? The war killed the
    cream of European youth who could have contributed so much to the nations
    they represented. The “war to end all wars” was simply a prelude to a much
    greater disaster which manifested itself in WWII.

  • mikewaller

    Much as I admire the anti-war poetry that was produced during WW1, it is obvious that it was a minority view because, were things otherwise, our forebears could not of endured those four long years. This is my attempt at a poem giving voice to that particular “silent majority”.

    Another Time

    We Flanders dead in silence curse
    The fools who think a poet’s verse
    Can give them all the reasons why
    We came to France to fight and die.

    Because we fought as we could see
    Our freedom hung on victory,
    We’re pained to learn that we’re each drawn
    A self-deluding, ill-lead pawn.

    Now poets are a special kind
    Whose words can shape the human mind;
    But one small point is sometimes missed,
    For want of grit, they’re often grist.

    We steady men who held the line,
    Clear in head and firm of spine,
    Did not march out as Empire’s sons
    And nor because we loathed the Huns.

    It’s just we knew Germanic will
    Would never, never have its fill.
    Once they’d consumed the Russian horde,
    They’d toast the Frenchman on his sword.

    Next, and at a time that they judged mete,
    They’d build the ships to roast our fleet.
    Then, all of Europe ‘neath their thumbs,
    They’d scour the world in search of plums.

    Men facing tigers know this rule:
    Attack by turn, he’ll eat you all.
    So, as fight we must, we chose a day
    With other Powers still in play.

    To our cold eyes your world is rotten
    As in it this stark rule’s forgotten:
    A course though deadly, hard and long
    By these alone is not made wrong.

    You moderns think you should be spared
    The kinds of suffering we all shared;
    Then be prepared, our young kin-folk,
    To bend you necks to foreign yoke.

  • Tominic_Grieve

    ‘cos he never served and has never known the pain/suffering/hardship/sacrifice yet like all armchair generals he thinks he knows best.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Won’t read it. Shan’t read it. John Lewis-Stempel’s Six Weeks tells you everything you need to know about the British Army in Flanders as a corrective to the left wing lies and myths that have proliferated since 1965 when Joan Littlewood brought her silly musical to the stage and denigrated the memory of 900,000 better men.

  • Headhunter

    Fromkin, in ‘Europe’s Lasdt Summer’ givers the definitive account of the real origins of WW1. Moltke is the villain.

  • Interesting there’s not one historian who has noticed that British politicians during this period couldn’t have done more to destroy the British Empire, even if they intentionally set out to do so!

    • Colonel Mustard

      Please remind me of the great and glorious achievements of the Irish Republican Army since 1919. The ones not involving terror attacks on innocent civilians or the murder of unarmed soldiers of course.

      • Huh? Why are you asking me this question? I would never have agreed to sever the union with the United Kingdom. How did you so mis-read my comment?

        However, even though your reply to me had nothing to do with the content of my comment, you managed to insult the Irish Defense Forces, so a little history lesson is in store, a history lesson that to this day is clouded in silence:

        5,000 Irish soldiers were requested by the Irish government to go “AWOL” to assist their British cousins across the Irish Sea, knowing when they returned home to Ireland the Irish government might not be able to admit to the operation. How about that for bravery? Not merely bravery in volunteering to fight the Axis powers, but bravery in the knowledge that when they came home they very might be pilloried as traitors.

        Read the Dailymail article, “Irish soldiers branded deserters for fighting alongside Britain in WWII are finally pardoned”


        • Colonel Mustard

          SinnFein was created in 1905 before MI5 (established in 1914) even existed and it was created by Irish men and women.


          Even Wiki has a better appreciation of the longevity of the IRA than you do:-


          “Reactivated by the British” indeed! Absolutely barmy. I should have guessed you are from the USA and a conspiracy theorist:-


          • “SinnFein was created in 1905 before MI5…”

            The MODERN Sinn Fein! Though I suspect it always was a British creation from the beginning.

            “I should have guessed you are from the USA and a conspiracy theorist”

            You’ll have to do better than an ad hominem, but thanks for the advertisement of my website!

  • hsscor

    I have read Hastings book and his position is in no way controversial or new, he is just describing the reality of the BEF in 1914. It was a small colonial army, not a large continental army. The advantage the British troops had was that they were highly trained and well equipped, they were not a mass of conscripts like the Germans or French. Hastings takes issue with the fact mass mobilisation did not begin in Britain earlier. So the tiny size of the british force meant their contribution was always going to be limited in the initial battles, although that did not stop the French relying on the British to guard their left flank. From 1915 onwards we saw the attempt to tranform the british army from a colonial police force to a mass continental army, this partly led to the disaster on the Somme, in which masses of inexperienced troops were lost in a battle that took place largely on the orders of the French high command

  • country_exile

    I know – from a very reliable first hand source – that he was very lucky to escape a serious kicking from Ian Bruce, who was defence correspondent of the Glasgow Herald during his stint covering the Falklands War.

  • ottovbvs

    Surfing the comments here it’s clear few have actually read Hasting’s book. Yes he makes some critical but objective comments about the quality of British generalship and the relatively insignificant military contribution of Britain early in the war but they’re all entirely accurate and reasonable. Much more important and unlike most other historians he faces up to the realities of exactly how the war started (assigning proper culpability to Austria-Hungary and Germany) and why it was impossible to stop once it was underway without a decisive result on the battlefield. This is likely to prove the best book on the background to the war and its early months of this cycle. It’s an outstanding piece of work.

  • Dudley George

    Our government is paying for large numbers of schoolchildren to go and look at the battlefields, so I read.

    Hopefully the standard of teacher the schools send over is better than those we came across when we went over to France last time; in more than one location.

    I was so disgusted at one graveyard that the sensible and telling questions being raised by the teenagers were not being answered that when the teachers cleared off to the cafe, I gave the class a talk-through. What battle the men had taken part in, when that took place and why etc. Most importantly, they were invited to look at the ages of the teenagers buried there and think about that. And I’ve never taught in my life!

    Suggest every teacher going out there is made to read at LEAST this book and one of the excellent books on the Somme campaign. That way the background to Yypres and Thiepval memorials will make some sense to them – so perhaps to their pupils .

    Maybe Collins can put forward a proposition to Mr Gove???..

  • Richard Would

    So many experts….

  • John Byde

    The author has a point. I’ve just finished Armageddon about the last year of the war and am really struck by Hastings’s contempt for Montgomery in particular and the British Army in particular. The faults he discusses about both have legitimacy, but and he criticizes the US military in similar terms. However, he never mentions the very real successes of the BA and Monty. It’s strange and disappointing because apart from this, it’s an excellent book.

    • John Byde

      Sorry – “The British army in GENERAL” !

  • vince sparry

    britain’s army was not nearly as accomplished as its navy that’s for sure

  • Rathiraj

    The British created wars that their men didn’t really fight, they had colonial troops as cannon fodders. Therefore the horror of war did not reach the British in the way it made the Germans, French, Australians, Indians, etc, suffer. It happened in both the World Wars. The British never gave credit to the people who died for their cause,