The book details the first battle of the First World War, the first Allied victory and the massive military humiliations Austria-Hungary suffered at the hands of tiny Serbia, while discussing the oversized strategic role Serbia played for the Allies during 1914. Lyon challenges existing historiography that contends the Habsburg Army was ill-prepared for war and shows that the Dual Monarchy was in fact superior in manpower and technology to the Serbian army, thus laying blame on Austria-Hungary’s military leadership rather than on its state of readiness.
He is the founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of Historical Heritage, which is working with the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina to digitize their endangered collections. www.fphh.org. He is also an associate researcher with the University of Graz in Austria.
A Mad Catastrophe by Geoffrey Wawro (2014)
Reviewed by WW1HA President Sal Compagno
Geoffrey Wawro is professor of history in Texas and has written a painful study of the role
of the Austro-Hungarian military in the first six months of World War 1. He relates how in
these first months the empire of the Hapsburgs was doomed to extinction. Most emphatically, he emphasizes the deliberate intention of the Austrian government and military in starting
the war. Revenge for the killing of the heir apparent, Austria knew attacking Serbia, whom
they believed instigated the assassination, would draw Russia in. Blatantly unprepared for
war, her infantry had little or no training, she attacked Serbia, only to be thoroughly defeated
three times by an inferior but determined enemy. Conrad von Hotzendorf, a palace General,
enjoyed the reputation as the most incompetent supreme military leader. Gen. Potiorek,
whose military experience was minimal, led the disastrous Serbian ventures.
The Hungarians were described by Wawro as continually undermining all the Austrian efforts
before and during the war. They refused to fund or modernize their joint armies nor were
they willing to cooperate in battle! When both faced the Russian army in the east, they were
unable to achieve even the the most modicum of victory. Exhausted by heat, long marches,
little food, they died or surrendered in thousands. Losing enormous territory, they begged
assistance from the Germans, who reluctantly complied. The first winter in the Carpathian
mountains saw their Austrian-Hungarian troops frozen. Gross incompetence by their leadership led to over 800,000 casualties in six months! The end of the empire was guaranteed. Wawro has painted a sorrowful & agonizing portrait of a mad reckless nation.
Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson (2014)
Reviewed by WW1HA President Sal Compagno
British historian Alexander Watson has written a voluminous book on the history of Imperial Germany and the Empire of Austria-Hungary in the First World War. He offer no excuse for their culpability in starting the conflict and places clear blame on Austria-Hungary more than
Germany, whose backing sparked the war. His judgement is clear, both created and
convinced themselves the war was necessary and just. Nevertheless, the war was one
of total illusions. Austria-Hungary was totally unprepared for a modern war and her
reverses on the battlefield in the first six months devastated her martial ability through
unbelievable incompetence. The result was a decent into the collapse of her empire.
Germany, as he states, bit off more than it could chew. Even its military prowess was
incapable of confronting a two-theater war. Brilliant in tactics, her strategy guaranteed
What renders his study most fascinating is the effect of the war on the peoples in each
country. To the Germans, Russia was the real threat with deep feelings of being overrun
by a barbaric hoard. This fear galvanized the German people to support wholeheartedly
their military effort extending the support to the Western Front. But the price was phenomenal. The war was not even a year old when food shortages became evident in both empires and grew progressively worse as the war dragged on. Stubbornly, they persisted in the downward spiral to total exhaustion. The Austro-Hungarian army, short of every valuable resource, became totally dependent on Germany. Her internal disintegration undermined her resolve to be a competent ally.
Watson is very careful and detailed explaining how the lack of resources, especially food, became so critical in both areas. An urgent & vociferous cry to end the war became paramount and unstoppable. He emphasizes how the last desperate and most blundering act when Germany allows unrestricted submarine activity brings in the United States & its failure ended any possibility of victory. With over 118 pages of notes, Watson has created a formidable study how both in military and domestic areas intertwined in a catastrophic war.
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.
Are you following this blog by Dennis Cross? This is the clearest explanation of how the dominoes fell in July 1914.
He said, then I said, then he said, then I said, etc.
Dennis tells a lot of stories that you might not have connected to the march toward war, including a famous murder trial in France that delayed the country’s attention to the approaching disaster.
Henriette Caillaux, the second wife of former French Premier Joseph Caillaux, was tried this month for the murder of Le Figaro editor Gaston Calmette following the magazine’s publication of private letters between herself and her husband written when both of them were married to others. She claimed that she had not planned to kill Calmette, only to teach him a lesson, but had been overwhelmed by passion. She told the court the shooting was an accident: “It is terrible how these revolvers go off when they begin shooting — one can’t stop them!”
No kidding, lady.
My thanks to Dennis for this blog post.
Michael Reynolds is associate professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. His 2011 book “Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires 1908-1918” received the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize for international history.
The Times Literary Supplement wrote of the book: “‘Shattering Empires’ is a fine book … it makes a valuable contribution not only to the history of Russian-Ottoman relations but also to our understanding of the intersection of nationalism and geopolitics in the age of imperial downfall.”
Here’s the ink to his page at the WW1HA website:
Richard Hamilton is a professor emeritus in sociology and political science at the Ohio State University. An Army veteran, he has written more than a dozen books, including three WWI books with fellow WW1HA 2013 Symposium speaker Holger Herwig.
“The Origins of World War I,” published by Cambridge University Press, was praised by the Journal of Military History:
Richard F. Hamilton, Holger H. Herwig, and their distinguished team of nine additional contributors prove triumphantly that indeed there is (more to say about the war). Building on a carefully crafted conference held at Ohio State University in 1999, their book focuses on precisely who, within both the major and several of the minor belligerent states of World War I, took the decisions to go to war, and how and why they reached those decisions.”
Here’s the link to his Symposium page:
Holger Herwig is a history professor at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written more than a dozen books, including “The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary” (Bloomsbury Academic), part of the Modern War series.
He also wrote “The Outbreak Of World War I (Problems in European Civilization Series),” published by Wadsworth Publishing.
Here’s his link:
Michael Neiberg is a history professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn. He is a dynamic and lively speaker as well as an expert. His books include “The Second Battle of the Marne” (Indiana University Press), part of the Twentieth Century Battles series. This battle took place from July 15 to August 9, 1918 — Ludendorff called Aug. 8, 1918, “the black day of the German Army.”
Mike Neiberg also wrote “The Eastern Front 1914-1920” and “The Western Front 1914-1916.” His pre-war book, “Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), was reviewed by Jay Winter for the Times Literary Press in these words:
“Neiberg’s story is a sober and chastening one, since it shows how wars take on a life of their own, in that the moral pollution they trigger lingers long after the diplomats have finished with the peace treaties supposedly ending hostilities…”
Here’s the link to his WW1HA Symposium page: