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.

Advertisements

WW1HA 2013 Symposium speakers: Richard F. Hamilton

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:

http://ww1ha.org/2013symposium/richard-hamilton.html

WW1HA 2013 Symposium speakers: Michael S. Neiberg

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:

ww1ha.org/2013symposium/michael-neiberg.html

 

 

Memorial Day 2013

More than any other modern war ’14-’18 lives in the memory as the ultimate example of a mismatch between what was at stake and the price that was paid. It is the war of the ‘lost generation’, sacrificed for a cause which, in hindsight, is difficult to pinpoint.”

Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Belgian historian and Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, quoted on http://messines1917.blogspot.be

ruins

2720717111_1ab5a8d2cb_z

Fort Luserna

Kerry Dwyer is a Brit living in France with her family. One of the things she blogs about is her walking tours — she calls them ramblings, I would call them hikes. On an innocent vacation to the Alps, she came upon the remains of the Austrian Fort Luserna, which played a grim role in World War I.

Kelly writes: “I find the history of wars very disturbing. It was not something that I expected of this holiday although maybe (I) should have given the location.”

From an account posted at Moesslang.net, with an English translation by Jim Haugh:

“At the start of the Italian/Austrian war most Austrian units were already fighting on the Russian front. As a result, the Austrian border with Italy was protected mostly by volunteers who were not even part of a regular army unit. Soldiers ages ranged from 16 to 80.  …  They were often armed with older rifles and equipment and logistics so terrible that many times soldiers wives would bring food to the men in the trenches. ”

Here’s an account of the fighting in this part of the Front, with many interesting photos of the Austrians’ secret weapon.

http://www.moesslang.net/WW1%20Fortification%20History.htm

Here’s Kerry’s description of her walking tour of this part of Italy, with photos of the ruins of Fort Luserna:

http://kerrydwyer.net/2012/07/17/fort-luserna/

 

 

 

 

Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo!

The Athlete of the 1920 Games was Nedo Nadi of Italy, who swept the gold medals in the five fencing events, a feat still unequalled. Until swimmer Mark Spitz came along in 1972 and won seven, Nadi held the record as the athlete to win the most gold medals at any Olympics.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLSupbH8tts

According to SportsReference.com:

 “Nedo Nadi was lucky in the foil event. He won ten of his eleven final parties, but lost to Roger Ducret of France. With Ducret only having to beat the last-placed fencer in the pool, he was expected to win the gold, and Nadi withdrew crying. In his euphoria, Ducret failed to concentrate for his last match and was beaten by Speciale of Italy, leaving first place for Nadi.”

Nadi’s younger brother Aldo won four medals at the 1920 Games. He shared three team golds and won the silver, behind Nedo, in the sabre competition.

The Nadi brothers and others benefited from Hungary being banned from the Games, because the Hungarian fencing team traditionally was a strong competitor.

The Nadis turned pro after the Olympics.

“A Farewell to Arms”

Are you reading along with the War Through the Generations’ Hemingway read-along?

The readers are up to Chapter 10, but you can jump right into the discussion:

http://warthroughthegenerations.wordpress.com/2012/06/08/week-1-ernest-hemingways-a-farewell-to-arms-read-a-long/

I reread it a couple of summers ago. I rarely read anything a second time, but I appreciated it much more than the first time I read it. But my introduction to Hemingway was “The Old Man and the Sea,” which caused me to loathe him, and finding out that I liked his work at all was a pleasant revelation.

How about you? You’ve read it? You’re reading it? You wouldn’t read it if the alternative were fighting the Battle of Caporetto?

Caporetto, which began in late October 1917, was a stunning defeat for the Italians. The faltering Austro-Hungarians were under the command of the Germans, who attacked in greater force than expected and caught the Italians off-guard. For most of the battle the Italian infantry had no artillery support. Some Italian units held their positions, but eventually the entire army had to retreat. They lost more than 300,000 men, 90 percent of them prisoners. (What did the Austro-Hungarians do with that many prisoners all at once?)

Hemingway’s description of the retreat makes for the clearest, vividest scenes in the novel.

Here’s a link that presents the battle in detail:

http://www.worldwar1.com/itafront/caporetto.htm

Image

Austrian troops preparing to attack.

Image

Italian troops in their trenches.