Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Collision of Empires, The War on the Eastern Front in 1914 — Reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Collision of Empires, The War on the Eastern Front in 1914
by Prit Buttar
Osprey Publishing, 2014

Not too long ago I said that the statement that "historians have largely ignored the Great War's Eastern Front" was becoming a cliché. Prit Buttar's book puts another nail into the coffin of that trite statement.

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Prit Buttar is a well-known physician practicing medicine in the Oxfordshire area. As a general practitioner (GP) he has served on the GPs Committee of the British Association and appears on local and national television to discuss medical issues. But putting that illustrious career aside, Buttar is also a war historian author specializing in actions on the Eastern Front. Until this book Buttar has concentrated on World War II, giving us Battleground Prussia, The Assault on Germany's Eastern Front 1944-45 and Between Giants: the Battle for the Baltics in World War 2. After those successes he has decided to channel his efforts into a multi-volume endeavor about the Great War's Eastern Front. This book, covering prewar preparations and the first four months of the war, is the first volume.

In 424 pages the author details German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Serbian preparation for war and the execution of their individual plans to bring their enemies to defeat. He very accurately describes each nation's war capabilities, citing manpower concerns such as a lack of trained reserves on the part of every country except Germany, inadequate weapons reserves to arm mobilized forces, and the state of their capabilities to bring those things to bear. He makes special note of the state of railroads, citing Germany's extensive network and Russia's, Austria-Hungary's, and Serbia's lack thereof.

Interwoven into that list of capabilities and deficiencies is an assessment of the respective country's military leadership which he found greatly lacking in practical application despite the experiences the Russian generals had received at the hands of the Japanese only nine years before and the prolific musings of offensive war espoused by Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff.

Russian Troops on the March, 1914

The most engrossing part of the book is the description of the first battles between the Eastern Front kingdoms and empires. Buttar, using archival information, shows the attacks, counterattacks, and minor skirmishes in great detail. He  covers not only Tannenberg in detail but also Gumbinnen and Stallüponen in an equal light and seamlessly switches to the debacles of the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Poland and Serbia. The author clearly shows the truth of Napoleon's maxim, which I paraphrase, that even the most comprehensive war plans are all for naught when the first shots are fired. As evidence, Buttar unrolls commanders' indecisions, timidity, and ruthlessness in sacrificing lives for objectives that would be meaningless even if attained.

Collision of Empires is a must read for every Eastern Front historian. I look forward to the next volumes with great anticipation.

Michael Kihntopf


  1. I concur with the Mr. Kihntopf that this is a welcomed history on the opening months of the Great War on the Eastern Front. Highly readable and informative, I look forward to follow up volumes from author Prit Buttar.

  2. Good review, thanks Mike.

  3. After recently reading Solzhenitsyn's August 1914, I seem to recall seeing a review that suggested it was, at least in part, not an entirely accurate depiction of the Russian army at Tannenberg. Would be interesting to read this book and compare. Or to hear from anyone who has read both.

    Solzhenitsyn's book is a good narrative, for anyone looking to get into the Eastern Front. Reminded me of Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy. Although it sounds like Buttar's book is a gripping read as well!

  4. I had the opportunity to review August 1914 for this blog. One must remember that Solzhenitsyn was a novelist and added many elements to the overall story of Tannenberg; however, I think he did an excellent job of showing how a breakdown in communications between echelons can have catastrophic results. The Russian soldier was a well trained and equipped fighter but he was not well led. To too many officers he was a bumbling child who had to be disciplined into line where he was ignored. S. does a wonderful job of showing their resourcefulness and spirit undoubtedly modeled after the men he encountered in his service in Stalin's army and that's what he shows in each one of the characters who are stereotypical of the stratae that brought about the Revolution. I hope you enjoy Collision. I can think of only one fault in the work which is really quite typical for this type of work: commanding generals are given too much credit; staffs are ignored. But as I said, that's normal. Cheers

  5. I'm looking forward to this one,
    Are there any other recent works of quality on the eastern front? My copy of Norman Stone is well thumbed and annotated, but wants friends.