Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War

Oct 9, 2013

TV Show


We should break free of the cliché that World War I was futile, argues Max Hastings. "Germany in 1914, as ruled by the Kaiser and his generals and ministers, represented a malign force whose triumph had to be frustrated."


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us for what I anticipate to be a very special morning.

Our speaker is Sir Max Hastings. Today he will be discussing one of the most compelling dramas of modern times, one which he has majestically captured in his latest work, entitled Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War. This work tells us about the diplomatic events leading up to the outbreak of the Great War, along with an account of the first five months of the conflict.

Catastrophe 1914 was first published in London, just now in the States, debuting at number 14 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Inviting Sir Max to discuss this widely acclaimed historical work is no accident. You see, it just so happens that the centenary celebration for World War I coincides with the Carnegie Council's own Centennial. Accordingly, the opportunity to listen to one of the world's most brilliant historians discuss a topic that is so relevant to this organization's beginning is, in some ways, its own historical coming-together of two seemingly unrelated yet closely linked events.

The history of the Carnegie Council may be known to many of you, but, even so, it bears repeating, especially today. Briefly, this organization was founded in New York City in 1914, when Andrew Carnegie assembled a group of leaders from religion, academia, and politics, and appointed them trustees of an organization named the Church Peace Union. Mr. Carnegie hoped that by mobilizing these individuals, there would be an opportunity to promote moral leadership, and, in so doing, alternatives to armed conflict would be found. But before he could realize his dream, World War I broke out.

Since the time of this auspicious beginning almost 100 years ago, it has been our quest to honor Mr. Carnegie's legacy. We do so by exploring how shared ethical and moral values can be incorporated into action that in the end will enable us to confront today's challenges and achieve greater international understanding.

You can read more about our history by visiting our website at

On the morning of June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir-presumptive to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie arrived at the Sarajevo railway station, Europe was at peace. Later that day, Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian national. Thirty-seven days later, Germany, Austria-Hungary, on one side; Russia, France, and Britain, on the other; were at war.

The conflict that resulted in World War I would kill more than 15 million people, destroy three empires, and permanently alter world history, consequences that are still playing out today, especially in the Middle East.

One of the great mysteries of history is how Europe's great powers could have stumbled into this war. How did the Balkans, a peripheral region far from Europe's center, power, and wealth, come to be the center of a drama of such magnitude? Why did diplomacy break down? Why had European nations organized themselves into such opposing alliances?

If you have been searching for an explanation, you need not look any further, because in choosing the words that evoke the horror of the Great War, our speaker has masterfully described the indescribable, articulated the inconceivable, and explained the unanswerable, to confirm that the past is genuine prologue to the present.

To take us back to this dark period in the history of the 20th century, please join me in welcoming the celebrated historian, our guest today Max Hastings.

Thank you so much for joining us.


SIR MAX HASTINGS: Thank you so much, Joanne, for that very generous introduction. Also thanks to all of you for coming to hear me, at this unseasonable hour of the morning, talk about this rather grim and gloomy subject.

Every great historical event becomes shrouded in myths and legend—few more so than 1914, that summer whose sunlight brilliance mocked mankind by providing the setting for the outbreak of the first of the 20th century's huge calamities, what was then called the Great War.

Those days aren't quite as distant as some suppose. Remember, a few people still alive today lived through them, albeit as children. The year 2014 will mark the centenary of the drama, which profoundly influenced the history of the world. I spent the past three years writing a book describing both how the war came about and what happened on the battlefields during its first months, before the fronts lapsed into stalemate.

There's a widely held view—a delusion, as I shall argue—that the two world wars belong to different moral orders, that where 1939-45 was a good war, 1914-18 was a bad one, that the first conflict was so horrendous that the merits of the two sides' causes scarcely mattered. The British and American peoples have always had a vivid idea of what they think happened in World War II. Until 1941, Britain defied the vast evil of Nazism alone. Then Russia and the United States took the strain, encompassing the destruction of Hitler. The struggle was nothing like as bloody as its predecessor, so some people kid themselves, because the allies had better generals who understood that our soldiers should not be allowed to become futile sacrifices.

But our ideas about the First World War are much cloudier—and, indeed, thoroughly confused. Even among educated people, few have much idea why Europe exploded, though they may know that a Ruritanian bigwig with an extravagant mustache got shot in Sarajevo. The most widely held view is that the conflict was simply a ghastly mistake for which all the European powers shared blame, its folly compounded by the brutish incompetence of military commanders.

This is what I would characterize as the poets' view, first articulated by the likes of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen. Amid the mud and blood, they felt that no cause could be worth the slaughter. Today some British people, and perhaps also some Americans, feel almost embarrassed that we finished up on the winning side.

Yet my own opinion is somewhat different: while the war was assuredly a colossal tragedy, there was a cause at stake. Certainly Britain couldn't plausibly have remained neutral, while Germany secured hegemony over the continent.

Niall Ferguson wrote in perfect seriousness a few years ago that a German victory in World War I would simply have created something like the European Union half-a-century earlier—oh, yes, he did—that we the British, not to mention the United States, could have remained rich and unbloodied bystanders.

More serious historians, however, including some of the best German ones, see the 1914 Kaiserreich as a militarized autocracy whose victory would have been a disaster. I suggest that Western civilization has almost as much reason to be grateful that German ambitions were frustrated in 1918 as in 1945, despite the appalling costs and even if the outcome of the first clash proved to have a tragic impermanence, because Germany, this time under Hitler, had to be fought all over again a generation later.

I won't today detail events in the summer of 1914, but I'll offer a quick précis [summary].

On the 28th of June, the archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, was shot dead by a young Bosnian Serb terrorist. The men in charge of Austria felt no special sorrow for Franz Ferdinand, whom they disliked, but they saw in the outrage an ideal pretext for settling accounts with Serbia, a chronically troublesome little neighbor whose leaders incited their own minorities to revolt. Some Serbian army officers had provided the weapons and perhaps also the impetus for the assassination plot, though I think it's unlikely that the Belgrade government was involved.

One aspect of 1914 that is very important and seems, to our generation, incomprehensible: Most European nations regarded war, not as the supreme horror, but as a usable instrument of policy. Many interpretations of how the conflict came about are possible and deserve respect, but the only one that seems to me untenable is that it was accidental. Every government believed that it acted rationally in pursuit of its national interests.

Austria decided in the first days of July to invade and then break up Serbia. Because everybody knew that Russia regarded this Slavic nation as under the czar's protection, Vienna dispatched an envoy to Berlin to assure German backing if the Russians interfered. On the 6th of July, Kaiser Wilhelm and his chancellor gave the Austrians what historians call the blank check—an unqualified promise of German diplomatic and, if necessary, military support for crushing Serbia.

This was incredibly reckless. Some modern historians have produced elaborate arguments to deflect blame from Germany for what followed. But it seems to me impossible to escape this undisputed fact: the Kaiser's government endorsed Austria's decision to unleash a Balkan war. This predated everything the Entente Allies did.

Some serious historians, including several German ones, suggest that the Kaiser's regime intended from the beginning of the crisis to precipitate a general European conflict. I don't buy that. In July 1914, I think the Germans wanted their Austrian ally to crush Serbia without anybody else getting involved. They sought only a local war. But they were amazingly willing to accept the risk that a general European conflagration would follow. Germany was ruled, not quite as an absolute monarchy like the czar's Russia, but as an autocracy in which a partly unhinged emperor loved to posture while his generals planned from the premise that war had served Prussia well, with three great victories in the previous half-century over Denmark, Austria, and France.

They also recognized that democracy threatened their control of their own country. There was now a socialist majority in the German parliament, which was vehemently opposed to militarism and promised soon to end the Kaiser's dysfunctional personal rule. More than a few conservative politicians and soldiers believed that a triumph abroad could halt the advance of the socialist tide.

They also made a mistake typical of their age. They underrated the dominance their country was achieving through its industrial prowess without firing a shot on any battlefield. Germany was powering ahead of Britain, France, Russia by every economic indicator. But the Kaiser and his generals measured strength by counting soldiers. They were fixated by Russia's growing military might. Their calculations showed that as early as 1916, the Russians would achieve a decisive advantage. It was this prospect that caused Moltke, Germany's army chief of staff, to growl at a secret strategy meeting in December 1912 chaired by the Kaiser, "War, and the sooner the better."

In 1914, the Germans were confident that they could achieve victory over Russia and its ally France. They discounted Britain, third party in the Entente, because its army was tiny and, as the Kaiser cleverly remarked, "Dreadnoughts have no wheels!"

The Austrians duly declared war on Serbia on the 28th of July and started bombarding Belgrade. The Russians mobilized three days later. Apologists for Germany point out that the czar's armies thus moved before the Kaiser's did. But the Russian government saw no choice. The vast distances of their country meant that it must take longer for their forces to concentrate. They were terrified that the Germans would literally steal a march on them.

There is an argument that some historians whom I respect advance, and which we must acknowledge: the Russians should have left the Austrians to crush Serbia rather than widen the conflict. But I'm personally unconvinced by it.

A bizarre triumphalism overtook Berlin's corridors of power on the 31st of July. After the Kaiser signed Germany's mobilization order at his Berlin palace, with his unfailing instinct for the wrong gesture, he ordered champagne to be served to his suite. A Bavarian general who visited the War Ministry soon after news came of Russian mobilization noted, "Everywhere beaming faces, people shaking hands in the corridors, congratulating one another." Russia had acted in accordance with the avowed hopes of Germany's military leadership. The Kaiser's generals now merely expressed fears that France might decline to follow suit.

Wilhelm despised the French as a feminine race, not manly like the Anglo-Saxons or Teutons. This influenced his lack of apprehension about fighting them. The French knew that the German war plan required a swift smashing defeat of their own army before turning on Russia. Sure enough, Berlin sent a message to Paris saying that unless France surrendered its frontier fortresses to Germany as a guarantee, its neutrality would not be accepted. Instead and inevitably, the French mobilized.

As for Britain, even at this very late hour, most of its government and people opposed involvement in Europe's war. They had no sympathy for either Serbia or Russia. Some, instead, had a real fellow feeling towards Germany and its culture. In July, old Lady Londesborough, the first Duke of Wellington's great-niece, told Osbert Sitwell, in a fashion that echoed widespread sentiment, "It's not the Germans, but the French that I'm frightened of."

But then, suddenly, everything changed. Germany blundered. Its war plan demanded an assault on France through Belgium, of whose neutrality Britain was a guarantor. Berlin formally notified London of its intention to invade. Moltke was so sure Britain would come into the war anyway that he decided that marching through Belgium would change nothing. He could not have been more wrong.

That decision caused the British government to send an ultimatum to Germany committing the country to fight unless the invaders drew back, as, of course, they didn't. On the 4th of August, Britain became the last major European power to enter the struggle.

It must be wrong to attribute exclusive responsibility for what happened in 1914 to any one nation, but in considering what happened, I'm driven back again and again to a simple truth: scarcely any decent historian thinks the British, the French, or even the Russians wanted a European conflict. The Germans, on the other hand, although they did not want the big war they got, certainly willed a Balkan one, which led to everything else, and which they could have prevented at any moment during July by telling the Austrians to stop. That's why they seem to me most blameworthy.

What followed in the ensuing four years was so appalling for mankind that some people suggest that Germany's triumph would have been a lesser evil. But the Kaiserreich's record abroad was barbarous, even by contemporary standards. Berlin mandated in advance, and applauded after the event, the 1904-07 genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of German South-West Africa, an enormity far beyond the scope of any British colonial misdeed and responsible for 100,000 deaths. Though some German socialists denounced the slaughter, the Kaiser decorated the senior officers who carried it out.

During the Germans' 1914 invasion of Belgium, their army committed systematic massacres of 6,400 civilians, about which I'll say a little more later.

A few historians argue that Britain could have remained neutral in 1914 and prospered mightily by doing so. But the dominating instincts of Germany's leadership would hardly have been moderated by the victory on the continent that would almost certainly have been the consequence of British neutrality. The Kaiser's regime didn't go to war with a grand plan for world domination, but its leaders quickly identified massive rewards as their price of granting an armistice to the allies.

On the 9th of September 1914, when Berlin saw victory looming, Germany's chancellor drafted a shopping list. France was to surrender to Germany its entire iron ore deposits, the frontier region of Belfort, a coastal strip from Dunkirk to Boulogne, which was to be resettled by German veterans, the western slopes of the Vosges Mountains. Her strategic fortresses would be demolished and huge cash reparations paid. Luxembourg would be annexed outright, Belgium and Holland transformed into vassal states, Russia's borders drastically shrunk, a vast colonial empire created in Central Africa, together with a German economic union extending from Scandinavia to Turkey.

While other German leaders proposed different demands, some of them even more draconian, all took it for granted that they would not stop fighting until their nation had ensured its hegemony over Europe. Had the Kaiserreich vanquished its only important continental rivals, it seems fanciful to imagine that its rulers would afterwards have offered a generous accommodation to a neutral Great Britain or acquiesced in a global status quo still dominated by British financial interests.

Machiavelli observed that wars begin when you will, but do not end when you please. Could any responsible Allied government between 1914 and 1918 have granted such a peace as Germany sought and such as it imposed on the Russians after its 1917 victory over them? It remains hard to see how Allied statesmen could have extracted themselves once the struggle began, until there was a decision on the battlefield.

The poets' view that the merits of the Allied cause became meaningless amid the horrors of the struggle has been allowed drastically to distort modern perceptions. Many veterans in their lifetimes deplored the notion that Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon spoke for their generation. One revisionist was an older British soldier named Henry Mellish. He wrote in 1978 that he utterly rejected the notion that the war was one vast, useless, futile tragedy worthy to be remembered only as a pitiable mistake. Instead, wrote Mellish, "I and my kind entered the war expecting a heroic adventure and believing implicitly in the rightness of our cause. We ended greatly disillusioned as to the nature of the adventure, but still believing that our cause was right and we had not fought in vain."

Almost every sane combatant recoiled from the miseries of the battlefield, but this didn't mean that they thought their country should acquiesce in the triumph of their enemies. George Orwell wrote, with his accustomed insight, 30 years later that the only way to end a war quickly is to lose it.

It's a myth that Europeans welcomed the outbreak in 1914. Most were appalled. But some romantics and nationalists did enthuse, among them an Austrian housewife, who wrote lyrically in her diary about the grandeur of the times, the superb spectacle of the world bursting into flames.

Elsewhere, however, there was a terrible dismay, and not only on the eastern side of the Atlantic. An Indiana newspaper editor wrote, with a disdain widely shared across the American continent, "We never appreciate so keenly as now the foresight exercised by our forefathers in emigrating from Europe." [Laughter]

In one Isère community of France, two police automobiles carried the order to the church square at 4:30 on the afternoon of the 1st of August. Immediately the local bell ringer summoned the population. The village teacher described the effect:

It seemed that suddenly the old feudal tocsin had returned to haunt us. Nobody spoke for a long while. Some were out of breath, others dumb with shock. Many still carried pitchforks in their hands. The women asked, ‘What can it mean? What's going to happen to us?' Wives, children, husbands—all were overcome by anguish and emotion. The wives clung to the arms of their husbands. The children, seeing their mothers weeping, started to cry too. Most of them men resorted to the café to discuss the practical issue of how the harvest was to be got in. Then the young and even not-so-young boarded their trains and went to join the armies.

Winston Churchill wrote after it was all over:

No part of the Great War compares in interest with its opening. The measured, silent drawing together of gigantic forces, the uncertainty of their movements and positions, the number of unknown and unknowable facts made the first collision a drama never surpassed. Nor was there any other period in the War when the general battle was waged on so great a scale, when the slaughter was so swift or the stakes so high. Moreover, in the beginning our faculties of wonder, horror, and excitement had not been cauterized and deadened by the furnace fires of years.

All this was so, though few of Churchill's fellow participants regarded those vast events with such eager appetite.

Many British people were at first uncertain whether they had entered the war on the right side. But opinions hardened fast when reports emerged about the conduct of the German invaders of Belgium. Yes, some of the stories of maimed babies were fictions, mere crude propaganda. But the most modern scholarly research shows that beyond burning Leuven, several other towns, and many villages, the Germans shot in cold blood, those hostages or, in alleged reprisals, some 6,400 perfectly innocent Belgian and French civilians of all ages and both sexes.

One among many German diarists, an officer named Count Kessler, wrote on the 22nd of August: "The inhabitants of Seilles attacked our pioneers building a bridge across the Meuse, killing 20 of them. As a punishment, approximately 200 citizens were court-martialled and shot." The story of the attacks was a fantasy, but the executions were cold fact.

It's not necessary to persist in detailing such episodes. The latest research catalogues 129 major atrocities during the first weeks of the war, a grand total of 6,427 civilians deliberately killed. While it's mistaken to compare the Kaiser's regime to that of the Nazis a generation later, its conduct in 1914 scarcely suggests that its victory would have been a triumph for European civilization.

As for the way the war was fought, almost every modern scholar agrees that it's an illusion to imagine there was ever an easy path towards winning it, even had commanders of Napoleonic gifts led the armies. In any struggle between great 20th century industrial nations, an enormous amount of killing and dying had to happen before one side or the other prevailed.

What distinguished the Second World War from the First wasn't that Britain and its allies had better or more humane commanders in the later conflict, but that between 1941 and 1945, the Russians accepted almost all the sacrifice necessary to beat the Nazis—27 million dead—and were responsible for 92 percent of the German army's total war loss. Although, heaven knows, it didn't seem so to those who were around at the time, the Western allies paid only a small fraction of the blood price of winning World War II. By contrast in 1914-18, the British and French people paid a much heavier forfeit, double that of 1939-45 for us, more than triple for France.

In the early weeks of the 1914 war, battles were fought utterly unlike those that came later, and indeed more like the clashes of Napoleon's era than those of the 20th century. Every nation launched almost immediate offensives, save the British, whose little expeditionary force was still in transit when the armies of France first clashed with those of Germany.

The most costly single day of the entire 1914-18 conflict was the 22nd of August, when the French lost 27,000 dead.

Many people associate 1914-18 with wire, trenches, mud, and tin hats. Yet those early battles weren't remotely like that. In the late summer of 1914, France's army advanced to the attack across virgin countryside wearing red trousers and blue overcoats, led by bands playing—yes, bands—flags flying, and officers mounted on chargers wearing white gloves and waving swords.

In one clash on the morning of the 22nd of the August, in thick fog, French columns marched north through the village of Virton, just inside Belgium. Cavalry trotting ahead approached a farm at the top of a steep hill and met enemy fire. A day of chaos and blood ensued. The Germans started to advance, ordered by their officers to identify themselves in the murk by singing national songs. Their opponents likewise struck up "La Marseillaise," which proved the last tune that many of the choristers ever sang.

Suddenly, dramatically, the mist lifted. The French infantry, cavalry, and artillery batteries found themselves exposed, in full view of the German gunners on the hilltop. A slaughter followed. The infantry tried to renew their advance uphill in short rushes. French field service regulations assumed that in 20 seconds attackers could run 50 yards before an enemy could reload their rifles. They were wrong. A survivor of Virton observed bitterly:

The people who wrote those regulations have simply forgotten the existence of such things as machine guns. We could distinctly hear two of those 'coffee-grinders' at work; every time our men got up to advance, the line got thinner. Finally, our captain gave the order, ‘Fix bayonets and charge!' It was midday by now, and . . . devilish hot. Our men, in full kit, started running heavily up that grassy slope, drums beating, bugles sounding the charge. We were all shot down. I was hit and lay there until I was picked up later.

That evening, a survivor, stunned by his experiences, stood motionless, muttering again and again, "Mown down! Mown down!"

Further north on that same dreadful 22nd of August, another force advanced up a forest road in the Ardennes. France had always planned to exploit its colonial mercenaries in a war to make good its shortage of white manpower against Germany. In 1910, a general named Charles Mangin had written a deplorable book entitled La force noir [The Black Force], in which he said about France's black soldiers: "In future battles these primitives, for whom life counts so little and whose young blood flows so ardently, as if eager to be shed, will attain the old French Fury."

Now war had come, and Moroccans, Senegalese, Algerians, and such like were indeed hurled foremost into the flames. By 1918, France's African troops had suffered a death rate shockingly higher than that of their white comrades because they were so often selected for suicidal tasks.

One of the first felled was the Third Colonial Infantry Division on the 22nd of August. Its units advanced in column through the village of Rossignol and thence up a narrow road into a forest named d'Anlier. The French had not reconnoitered. Horse, foot, and guns simply marched into the midst of the woodland, led by the Chasseurs d'Afrique. German troops among the trees waited patiently until the whole division was committed and then unleashed a torment of fire, which within minutes shattered the formation. Trapped on the narrow track, horses, men, carts, guns milled in chaos until the lucky men contrived to surrender. The division lost 228 officers and 10,272 other ranks, including 3,800 made prisoner.

In 1918, a memorial was erected on the site by the father of one of the dead, an officer named Lieutenant Paul Feunette. The grieving parent never forgave himself because he had responded to his son's prewar sowing of wild oats by insisting that he should join the Chasseurs d'Afrique to sort him out. In such a fashion, in a dozen battles along the frontiers of France, did 27,000 young Frenchmen perish on the 22nd of August without gaining a yard of ground. One general wrote laconically to Joffre, the commander-in-chief, "On the whole, results hardly satisfactory."

The next day, the British endured their own first little action on the canal at Mons, just inside Belgium. They fought gallantly enough, but, heavily outnumbered, they had no choice but to retreat that night.

Three days later, at Le Cateau, they staged another rearguard action which resembled a battle out of the Napoleonic wars. Nobody had trenches. The Germans advanced across stooped cornfields against British infantry and artillery deployed in full view to meet them. The slaughter was nothing like as severe as the French had faced, but British losses at Le Cateau were as heavy as they suffered a war later on the 6th of June 1944 on D-Day in Normandy. Germans found that when they did the attacking, they suffered just as heavily as their enemies.

Then the British and French alike found themselves retreating, retreating, southwards across France, towards Paris, under a blazing sun and occasional thunderstorms in the face of apparently invincible German masses. In the last days of August, it seemed overwhelmingly likely, not least to the Kaiser and his generals, that Germany was on the brink of absolute triumph.

It wasn't easy for the Allied armies to hold together amid a retreat that threatened to become a rout. Straggling and desertion became big problems. On the evening of the 26th of August, a British cavalry officer rode into Saint-Quentin and was shocked to find two battalions of British infantry lying exhausted, simply waiting to be taken prisoner. Incredibly, the colonels of the Warwickshires and the Dublin Fusiliers had given the town's mayor a written undertaking of surrender to be presented to the enemy to spare Saint-Quentin from a battle. Major Tom Bridges, the cavalry officer, hastily retrieved this damning piece of paper and somehow herded the infantrymen back onto their feet, shuffling along the road to rejoin the army.

Three weeks later, the two colonels were cashiered for "conduct unbecoming officers and gentlemen." One of them, John Elkington of the Warwicks, age 49, responded like a figure out of romantic fiction by enlisting as a private in the French Foreign Legion, with which he lost a leg and won the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War). After the war, King George V pardoned Elkington and awarded him a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) in recognition of his gallantry in pursuing rehabilitation. But the colonel lived out the rest of his life as a recluse and refused ever to wear his medals.

Humbler soldiers who cracked suffered even harsher fates. Both the British and French resorted to drastic sanctions against those who decided it was all too much for them. One such was Private Thomas Highgate of the Royal West Kents. On the afternoon of the 6th of September, the day the French began their huge counteroffensive on the Marne, which rolled back the Germans from the gates of Paris, an English gamekeeper on the Rothschild estate just south of the capital, surprised Highgate in a shed. The soldier made a personal decision that the glories of the Marne weren't for him, and he was wearing stolen civilian clothes, which damned him.

Highgate was shot by firing squad on the 8th of September, a ceremony watched by two companies of his comrades, following an order from the corps commander. That officer wanted the execution to have the maximum deterrent effect, and the orders to the provost marshal specified that Highgate should be killed "as publicly as possible." And so he was.

Today such punishments are thought to have been barbaric, and victims received posthumous pardons from the British government.

To me, this is a moral conceit, to pretend that we can retrospectively impose on our forefathers the more humane values of the 21st century. What would you have done if you had been a British or French general fighting a struggle for national survival and leading an army in danger of collapse? What's sometimes forgotten, it seems to me, is that men who run away in wars deserve our sympathy, but they also put at risk a host of their mates, who must do double duty and sometimes make double sacrifice to compensate for those who flinch.

I won't be so cruel as to say that Thomas Highgate and his kin deserve their fates, but I will say that if I had been a commander in that distant era, I might have made the same decision on the 8th of September 1914. If soldiers had believed there was an acceptable way to get out of that ghastly clash of arms, who wouldn't have taken it?

I have written a good deal about the predicament of women. In the early months of the war, their role was grotesquely constricted. Some female patriots decided that if insufficient young men were volunteering for military service, women could do their bit by shaming them into doing so. A young man called Bernard Hamley was playing golf with a friend on Wimbledon Common and just congratulating himself on a fine tee shot when two girls came out of the clubhouse. One said sharply, "That was a good shot, wasn't it? I hope you will be making as good a shot against the Germans," before presenting both players with white feathers.

The young men then identified themselves as officers of the London Rifle Brigade on embarkation leave. Hamley told me in 1963, "The young females were somewhat crestfallen and made some inadequate excuses."

But many women across Europe felt a profound sense of frustration that their own contribution to the war effort was initially confined to knitting for the troops. The fruits of their labors were sometimes cynically received.

Corporal Egon Kisch catalogued a consignment that reached his Austrian unit in Serbia in November: warm underwear—of course, only knitted nonsense—neatly embroidered gloves, wristlets with a heart stitched in red, mittens to fit baby elephants, kneepads for storks, and similar stuff. Corporal Kisch was grudgingly grateful, but said he would have preferred cigarettes.

That genteel British magazine The Lady strove to help women address unexpected social problems thrown up by the war. In its "Daily Difficulty" column of the 10th of December 1914, it raised a dilemma facing a cat-owning woman who houses a dog for an officer who goes to the front. When the dog starts killing her cats, what should she do? The Lady asserted authoritatively that she had a responsibility to ensure that the dog was properly quartered, but might reasonably seek another home for it.

I have ended my narrative of 1914 with the story of the First Battle of Ypres in October and November. In a western corner of Belgium, the French and British held the line against huge and apparently endless German attacks, at the cost of leaving most of their men, the old sweats of Britain's professional army, to repose forever in local cemeteries. The Allied victory at Ypres, for victory it was, frustrated the Germans' last attempt to achieve a war-winning breakthrough in the West in 1914. But it was purchased at such cost in suffering and sacrifice that nobody felt like celebrating.

Ypres was the first true trench battle of the war, fought amid mud and blood and sometimes waist-high water. Those who took part, who had been accustomed to the idea that a battle was something that lasted one day or two or three and now discovered very, very differently, found it impossible to imagine that such a struggle could continue for many more weeks, far less for four years.

We're today sometimes tempted to look upon those words "Rest in Peace" carved on so many gravestones as a mere cliché. But to those who experienced Ypres and all the ghastly battles that followed, the words had a real and profound meaning. A Grenadier Guards officer wrote about a friend and comrade killed in November:

When I think of poor Bernard's utter weariness, I left him in his trench in the early morning and wished I could take his place, he was so done. I think of him now at peace, away from all this noise and misery. And though it must be terrible for his wife, poor thing, it can't be bad for him and must comfort her to know he can rest at last.

Words of that sort had a profound meaning for millions of men who experienced the horrors of Ypres.

Let me finish where I started, by emphasizing my own belief that, while the First World War was an unspeakable catastrophe for Europe and those who had to fight it, it's mistaken also to consider it, from an Allied perspective, to have been futile. In the summer of 1918, the Allies, now including the United States, belatedly achieved a great victory on the Western Front, which led to the armistice Germany was obliged to accept in November.

No sane person could suggest that next year, 2014, should become an occasion for celebration of the conflict or indeed of that victory. But I should like to hope that our respective societies can break free from the weary, sterile futility clichés and acknowledge that if Allied victory in the First World War led to a most imperfect peace, as do most conflicts, the best argument for welcoming the outcome of the First World War is to consider the alternative consequences of a German victory. Germany in 1914, as ruled by the Kaiser and his generals and ministers, represented a malign force whose triumph had to be frustrated.

All deaths in all wars are cause for lamentation. But the only credible alternative to the huge sacrifice made by the Allies was that a German military dictatorship prevailed, whose arbitration would have been vastly more draconian for Europe than the flawed treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919.

Thank you all very much indeed.


QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

Perhaps it's outside the scope of the 1914 narrative, but you did not include one aspect of the war whose consequences we live with to this day and that Joanne mentioned in her introduction, which is the Ottoman Empire. Can you say something about that?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: I deliberately left it out because my wife says I shouldn't write books that people can't hold up in bed.

I decided at quite an early stage that this is about Europe goes to war. I think if I were giving you a glib one-sentence answer, it would be that the Ottoman Empire's involvement in the First World War had enormous consequences for the future of the Middle East. I think it had rather fewer consequences for the outcome of the First World War.

One thing that Western Front generals had right was that there was only one place that it was going to be decided, and that was on the Western Front. What happened in other areas, as I say, had huge consequences for regional history, but I think it's more debatable what their—and certainly I'm not one of those who thinks that the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 could have saved the czar's Russia. I think it was beyond salvation.

It's a huge subject but I haven't done it in my book, because it really would have become impossible to hold up in bed.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

You have obviously done an enormous amount of research. But I wonder how your interpretation differs from Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: Barbara Tuchman had enormous influence on me as a young man. I remember being shocked, in the late 1960s, to hear an academic dismiss Tuchman as hopelessly unscholarly. But I would say that Tuchman wrote a brilliant essay and narrative history.

It would be a little presumptuous of me to say that I hope to emulate Barbara Tuchman, but I hope at least to follow Barbara Tuchman and to do a version of events. First of all, I've tended to focus on a lot of stuff consciously different from what she did, in order that one didn't write the same book 60 years on. But also quite a lot more stuff has come out in the intervening years, so there is more.

One thing one has to say about 1914, which fascinated me—I went to an Anglo-German conference quite early in writing the book, about three years ago. A German historian said, "I think we all agree that the July Crisis of 1914 was the most complex series of events in human history." And so it was. Everything that I discovered in the ensuing three years confirmed that that German historian was right.

This is my take on what happened. I have the utmost respect for others who offer different takes. One has to remember, for a start, after 1918, it wasn't at all like 1945, where the Allies physically occupied Germany. As soon as the Allies got going on the issue of war guilt at Versailles, the German Foreign Office conducted a stupendous weeding and bonfire of archives, of everything in their archives that might possibly be used to argue—and, of course, nobody knows exactly what was removed or destroyed. They know the bonfire took place. In the same way, a lot of stuff was lost in the various revolutions.

For example, Christopher Clark, in his book The Sleepwalkers, which came out last year, takes a rather different view from me. He says, for example, that Austria was justified in invading Serbia, which I find impossible to accept.

In the end, you are driven back. There is so little evidence. For example, we have virtually no evidence of what took place at what we now call the summit between the czar and President Poincaré at St. Petersburg in the last week of July. So much of it becomes speculative.

That's why I cling to the issue of the blank check. The blank check is not the disputed issue. That was something that did take place.

But coming back to your question about Barbara Tuchman, I still think she's absolutely wonderful. I read The Guns of August again when I started writing this. She had that terrific energy in her writing. It was inspirational to a whole generation.

QUESTION: Philip Schlussel.

Would you comment, please, on the British and French colonial desires for the German empire in Africa and the Ottoman areas and how that led to their acquiescence to join the war?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: I don't think that any sort of imperial ambitions influenced the British and French in 1914. In the course of the war, all the nations involved, as the cost in both life and treasure became ever greater, scrabbled to see what they could get out of it to justify this horrendous sacrifice.

As you know—and, by implication, are saying—the British and French especially got very excited about the Middle East and about the potential for picking up bits of the Ottoman Empire. This led to all sorts of complex consequences—on the whole, entirely malign consequences.

But this evolved in the course of the war. In rather the same way, by 1917, Bethmann-Hollweg, the Kaiser's chancellor in 1914, had decided that Germany should seek a compromise peace. But the generals had him out the door in about 20 minutes, because they were still determined on victory, because the price had become so high.

The British weren't really interested in the African colonies, which actually were worthless. They took them, because in those days the British were still stupid enough to take anything that was lying on the table that wasn't actually nailed down.

But the Middle East is a hugely complex issue. There have been any number of excellent books written in recent years about the struggle that really began in the early years of the 20th century, before the war, with everybody eying the Ottoman Empire, including, of course, the Germans. Whole books have been written about rival German and French ambitions for control of the Dardanelles and so on and so forth.

But I have said explicitly in my book that I don't think that, for example, Russo-German rivalry for the Dardanelles had any influence in what they did in 1914. It had increased the climate of suspicion and dislike between the two countries, but there's not a shred of evidence that anybody thought in 1914, "Oh, this is our chance to . . . " As the campaigns developed, once the war had begun, just as the Germans started coming up with these ideas, the Russians started to think in terms of a campaign to get them to the Dardanelles and to physically seize control. But that all evolved in 1915.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

Another phase of the First World War that has its echoes in the future, and even today, is the events in Ireland. I'm just wondering, to what extent was the First World War the spark that set that republican revolution

SIR MAX HASTINGS: Fantastically—and I have quoted in my book—a significant number of leading British players said, in the last days of July and the first days of August—including Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, who even said it in the House of Commons—that one good thing about the European crisis was that it was deflecting attention from Ireland. With hindsight, this is a fantastic thing to say.

One thing about politicians generally is that they find it very difficult to address more than one crisis at a time. My hero among British historians is Michael Howard, now 90, but still razor-sharp and the repository of enormous wisdom. Michael, who, because he is a neighbor of mine and we talk all the time—I mention him not because he's responsible for my manuscript, but we discuss it—one of the things he said to me at quite an early stage is one must never forget that because the European war happened, we didn't have a civil war in Ireland. But we must remember that in 1914 people really did think that a civil war was going to happen in Ireland, and it really could have happened.

I was quoting to Joanne an extraordinary example, which I have mentioned in the book. When the war broke out on August 4, a lot of British aristocrats offered facilities to the government, including their houses as hospitals—most of which had to be turned down because the drains were so inadequate. But the Duke of Sutherland said that he could provide a fully equipped medical facility staffed by 40 doctors and nurses in Victoria Street in the middle of London.

They were all baffled at the idea that on August 9th, this facility was available at the ducal house. An admiralty official was sent round to look at it. He was absolutely stunned. He found it was all there, all right. The Duke of Sutherland had established this medical facility to support the Ulster volunteer force in the looming Ulster civil war.

Yes, its impact was enormous. To quote Michael Howard again—which I never apologize for doing—he hates counterfactuals and he refuses to take seriously any historian who engages in them. He says the duty of historians is to tell people what did happen, not what might. The moment you move one variable, so many alternatives become possible that the whole thing becomes meaningless.

Therefore, I rather share that view that the Irish situation was so complex that it's fantastically hard to say what might have happened in Ireland. Maybe home rule for the whole island would have come about, and peacefully, and maybe the rest of Irish history, and the British, would have been happier. But I'm rather of Michael's persuasion. There are so many possible variables.

Certainly what is important is that the British government only started paying serious attention to the European crisis—not that they could do that much about it anyway—on about the 25th, 26th of July, because they were completely fixed on the Irish crisis. You've got a conference at Buckingham Palace that had broken down. The prospects of civil war, just because it didn't happen—one should never forget, they thought it was going to happen.

The Time's leaders [lead articles] I have quoted in the book, right up to about the 27th, when they talked about no solution to the crisis, did not mean the European crisis; they meant the Ulster crisis.

QUESTION: Anthony Fallaice.

Maybe you could speak to the U.S. involvement. From the perspective of a U.S. policymaker, did our involvement make sense, given the flaws in Versailles, the loss of life, et cetera?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: I think it probably did make sense in terms of the good of the world, because it brought the whole thing to a conclusion. It might otherwise have gone on much longer. The American military contribution was actually not significant, but the American economic and naval blockade contribution was enormous. The blockade only really, really started to work, importantly, towards Germany when America came in. Very interesting stuff.

There's a book, Planning Armageddon, that came out about a year ago, an excellent book about British blockade policy that's based on a lot of original research in the British archives. Until I read it, I hadn't realized that the British didn't dare introduce a really serious blockade in the early stages of the war because—you all probably know this better than I do— Wilson was initially very alarmed that war in Europe was going to have a very downside effect on the American economy. He therefore took a very tough line with the Allies about the blockade. For example, he insisted that the U.S. cotton crop must continue to be shipped to Europe. Cotton, as you all know, is a key component of explosives. American cotton was still being shipped to Germany for a couple of years, and a lot of other stuff, too.

Actually, after about the first year, Wilson realized that, far from being bad news for the American economy, this was actually terrific news for the American economy. Everybody was booming, producing armaments for the Allies.

But it's a very difficult question to answer: Did it serve U.S. interests? I think it probably, broadly, did, because it did bring the whole thing to a conclusion. But whether, in a narrowly American sense, America could have stayed out, I don't know. It's a hard one. I think you as Americans are better placed to judge than I am.

QUESTION: George Paik.

Thank you, first of all, for a bracing analysis that's a little different from what we have heard.

As I think it through, it almost sounds as though, from, say, 1880 on, if one were to guess, that two outcomes would have been possible in Europe: either some sort of German hegemony of some ugly aspect or some version of World War I. I don't know if that's necessarily so. I hate to get into counterfactuals, given what you have said.

The other thought is that both circumstances sort of reflect industrialization. I don't know if that made it inevitable or not.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: I think there are two or three points. One is, I do look at what happened in the Cold War. I was born at the end of 1945. My father wrote me a letter, which he gave me when I was 21—the world as it then seemed to him at the end of 1945. He and most of his generation thought it was entirely plausible that there would be a nuclear war with the East—because they all assumed that Russia would get the bomb pretty soon—during my lifetime.

When we consider that somehow Europe—well, the world—managed to avoid a nuclear holocaust through the Cold War, it does tend to incline one to think that nothing is inevitable. But as I also said, I do think it was critical to the fact that there was war in 1914—and not, for the sake of argument, in 1954—that it derived from the fact that in 1914 nations were still accustomed to look on war as a usable instrument of policy.

As to what one could have done beforehand, there was such a climate of fear—again directly comparable with the Cold War at its worst—that the morbid fears of the Germans, the belief in encirclement and their fear of Russia and so on—there are so many things that are uncertain.

There are one or two things that seem to me near certainties. One near certainty that seems to me extraordinarily droll—if Germany could have avoided a war in 1914, I can't see any way in which its dominance of Europe could have been prevented over the ensuing 20 years, because its economic and industrial achievement was so terrific that I think it was going to leave the British and everybody else way behind. But again, at that point most of them just didn't see economics. They didn't see economic forces in quite the same way as people are sophisticated enough to see them now.

But I cannot see how a German hegemony over the continent could have been resisted if they had not gone to war in 1914. That's not relevant to anything in particular, but it seems to me a droll thought.

QUESTION: Mike Koenig.

I would like to hear you make some comments about the Italian Front, the Italian-Austrian Front. In response to Mr. Berenbeim's question, you made a point that the Ottoman side was pretty peripheral. There has been no mention of the Italian side. But Italy, in fact, suffered just as many casualties as Britain did—proportionately far more casualties than Britain did. And it was the Austrian surrender to Italy, and the agreement in the surrender that Italy and its allies had right of passage across Austria to Germany and full use of the Austrian road and rail network, that I think in many ways is what really precipitated German collapse.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: The simple answer to why I haven't mentioned it in my book is that my book only goes out to Christmas 1914.

On the other hand, you sound like a man who has read that excellent book The White War. Frightfully good. There are surprisingly few very good books in English about the Italian Front.

If anyone doesn't know about it, it is explicitly about the Italians in World War I. It's a horrendous story. They were potty [crazy] to come in in 1915, because by then the horror of the war was entirely apparent. They came in purely in pursuit of territorial gains. Again, by that time, by everything they had seen, it was an act of madness. There was a contest in incompetence on the part of all the high commands, but the Italians are right up there with the first team as incompetents—General Cadorna and so on and so forth, these dreadful offensives.

If any of you want a really fascinating holiday, go and visit the Dolomites. They have now admirably restored a lot of these trenches and positions. They fought some of these battles at 15,000 feet, the Austrians and the Italians. Both sides enlisted alpinists to climb up these positions. You can walk to these positions, which are fantastically beautiful to see.

It's quite incredible. Before the enemy even came into it, they were living in these unspeakable conditions, even worse than the Western Front.

One is just dumbfounded by the tragedy of the Italian experience and how they went on and on. I mean, it's horrendous. But it is a fascinating story.

I'm not sure—again, it's not susceptible to any objective—if the Italians hadn't come in, whether that might have improved the chances for those central powers. I don't know. Again, there are so many different variables.

But the one thing one can say confidently is that just as Germany had most to gain from not having a war in 1914, the Italians had everything to gain from not going to war in 1915, as they did again in 1940. If they had stayed out in 1940—look at Franco, who died in his bed, a very unpleasant dictator. I think Mussolini could have survived in Italy if he had stayed out of the war.

Anyway, again, this is getting into counterfactuals.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you for a wonderful discussion. It was terrific. Thank you so much.

SIR MAX HASTINGS: Thank you so much for having me.

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MAR 2, 2003 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 17.1 (Spring 2003): Roundtable: Evaluating the Preemptive Use of Force: Striking First: A History of Thankfully Lost Opportunities [Full Text]

Although much of this roundtable focuses on the legal status of preemptive war, international law has rarely, if ever, constrained governments from initiating hostilities.

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