Book review: A Mad Catastrophe

Austro-Hungarian troops.

Austro-Hungarian troops.

Reviewed by Len Shurtleff, WW1HA president

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire. Geoffrey Wawro, Basic Books, 2014, 472 pages, maps, photos, graphs, ISBN 978 0 4650 2835 1, $29.99. The author teaches at North Texas University and also wrote The Franco-Prussian War (Cambridge, 2005) and The Austro-Prussian War (Cambridge, 2007).

This is an artfully composed and thoroughly researched primer on an often ignored or minimized aspect of the Great War: The key role of the ramshackle Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Both the short- and long-term causes of its outbreak can be traced to the Habsburg worldview and the Empire’s fissiparous political structure situated astride Central Europe. Barely recognized as a great power, Austria-Hungary’s rudimentary industrial capacity was unequal to supporting a sustained conflict and its army ill-equipped and ill-trained to fight one.

The compromise of 1867, forced upon Austria in the wake of its massive defeat by Prussia, was the source of much of the Dual Monarchy’s weakness. The Hungarians, who, like some other constituent parts of the empire, had their own parliament and ministries, were generally uncooperative in paying taxes to support joint endeavors such as defense, starving the army of recruits and cash for training and modern artillery. In 1900, only one man out of 132 was a soldier compared to one in 65 in France, one in 94 in Germany and one in 98 in Russia. This yielded an army half the size of France or Germany and one-quarter the size of Russia’s.

Moreover, the army clung to outmoded tactics, attacking in massed battalion columns against repeating rifle and machine gun fire. In the years immediately prior to WWI, the Hungarians gave only lip service to the joint monarchy, paying only 34% of the common tax bill. In the opening battles of 1914, Austro-Hungarian arms suffered two million casualties and achieved nothing. Worse still, the army and government lost any sense of cohesion.

Lacking the industrial or financial base to sustain a long war, Austria-Hungary’s fatal decision to enter the war in the first place is exceeded only by its recklessness in mounting a series of futile offensives in 1914 and early 1915. Quick victory was beyond reach. As a result, its army was more than simply decimated, its best troops and officers were dead or captured by the spring of 1915 with no trained replacements available. Thereafter, Austria-Hungary scraped the bottom of the recruit barrel for boys and old men even as a new front opened against former ally Italy. The army was defeated not only by the Russians in Carpathia, but also by the outnumbered Serbs along the Drina River.

Whatever hope Germany had of winning the war was obliterated by the humiliating Austro-Hungarian defeats of 1914. Rather than concentrating its forces against the British and French along the decisive Western Front, Berlin was obliged to again and again come to the rescue in the East, chaining itself to the corpse of a collapsing Habsburg Empire.

Poppies at the Tower

Here are the photos I took at the Tower of London of the art installation “Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red.” I photographed the workers installing poppies, people watching and the spill of poppies from the Tower onto the moat.

It was very moving to walk around and overhear conversations: My granddad was in the King’s Rifles, my great-uncle was in the Navy, my grandmother always said, and more.






Over hill, over dale 2014

Lost sonsI’m on my way to London, and then to France. I’ll see the poppies at the Tower, an amazing photo exhibition and, of course, the Great War exhibit at the Imperial War Museum.

And then I’m going back to the Front.

I’ll be blogging from my adventures on the road, so keep an eye out for my updates.

Len’s Bookshelf: September 2014

These titles are recommended by WW1HA President Len Shurtleff:


The Dawn’s Chorus, Martin Richardson, Austin Macauley, 2014, 253 pages, ISBN 978 1 8496 3595 0, $13.95 pb. A wartime love story that opens with the Battle of Mons.

If England Were Invaded, William le Queux. Bodleian Library Oxford, 2014, ISBN 978, 224 pages, ISBN 978 1 8512 4402 7, $15 wraps. Originally published in 1906, this popular novel in the vein of Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands frightened many Britons at the height of the Anglo-German naval armaments race.


The 104th Field Artillery Regiment of the New York National Guard, 1916-1919: From the Mexican Border to the Meuse-Argonne, Pamela A. Bakker, McFarland, 2014, ISBN 978 0 7864 7915 3, $39.95 pb. This regiment was incorporated into the AEF’s 27th Division.

The Huns Have Got My Gramophone: Advertisements from the Great War, Amanda Jane Doran & Andrew McCarthy, Bodleian Library Oxford, 2014, 112 pages, ISBN 978 1 8512 4399 0, $25 hardcover. British merchants wasted no time in using the war to promote their products; these are some of their cleverest efforts.

 Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, Margaret Hall, Margaret R. Higonnet (ed.), Massachusetts Historical Society, 2014, 248 pages, illustrations, ISBN 978 1 9365 2007 7, $34.95 pb. Margaret Hall was an American Red Cross volunteer working at a canteen just behind the front in 1918. After the Armistice she traveled across France recording scenes of physical destruction and human suffering. The editor is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut and has written several other books on women in WWI.

Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I, Rose Hayden-Smith, McFarland, 2014, photos, notes, bibliography, index, ISBN 978 0 7864 7020 4, $39.95 hardcover. Examines the War Garden Commission, the U.S. School Garden Army and the Women’s Land Army as well as the Victory Garden program as voluntary efforts to increase wartime food supplies, creating a surplus for food relief to embattled Europe. All were part of a vast empire headed by wartime Food Administrator Herbert Hoover.

Railways of the Great War with Michael Portillo, Colette Hooper, Amberley Publishing, 2014, 160 pages, photos, ISBN 978 0 5930 7412 1, £20 hb. Stories of the railway war in the UK and behind the Western Front. Companion volume to a DVD of the same title, £11 from


For more recommended books, see Len’s Bookshelf at our website: