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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire Reviewed by Ron Drees

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I
and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire
by Geoffrey Wawro
Basic Books, 2014

If ever there was a manual on 1) how not to conduct foreign diplomacy, 2) how not to staff, equip, and train an army for modern warfare, 3) how not to liaison with a supposed foreign ally, 4) how not to strategize for an upcoming war, and 5) how not to initiate and conduct a war, this would be the book. Dr. Wawro begins iterating the problems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as early as the 1790s but concentrates on the period after 1859, when Franz Joseph lost his first war, to France, then his second to Prussia in 1866.

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One of the basic and probably insurmountable problems of the empire was the variety of nationalities and languages it encompassed. German-speaking officers had to contend with troops whose native languages included Czech, Polish, Slovenian, Ukrainian, Rumanian, Magyar (for the Hungarians), and eight other languages.

Perhaps the worst prewar event was for Hungary to basically reject any decisions made by the empire after 1867. From then on, Hungary refused to accept Austrian decisions and legislation about military spending or anything else. Thus the empire did not have enough machine guns, artillery, shells, ammunition, uniforms, or anything else with which to wage war. When confronted by Serbian peasants in 1914, whom they sought to "punish" for the murder of Archduke Ferdinand, Austrian leadership lost 300,000 men in three invasions by 15 December 1914.

Much of the disaster was due to the non-leadership of Army General Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf. General Conrad had no concept of modern warfare, kept his plans, if there were any, to himself, and did not coordinate with Germany. When the army got into serious trouble with the Serbs, and then Russia, he would plead with Germany for troops and assistance. By war's end, Austria had become a vassal to Germany.

Russia was a great ally of Serbia and fought the Austrians and Germans tenaciously. As a third of Russian troops did not have rifles, the results were mutually devastating. With far more replacements than its enemies, Russia would swarm its opponents even though its troops would die by the thousands.

The Empire's Troops Burning a Polish Village

Read this book to learn about Austria's hatred of Serbs and Serbia's inbred hatred of Austria. This mutual hatred contributed to bad Austrian diplomatic and military decisions and explains why impoverished Serbs could rout the supposedly better-equipped Austrian army. Much of the beginning of the War is explained here, which is what I appreciated, and is recommended as the first book to read to understand how the Great War began. This is also a vivid and painful description of the horrors of the Eastern Front due to weather, bad leadership, disintegrating morale, and miserable logistics, which are not frequently discussed, compared to the Western Front. Be prepared for an uninterrupted series of agonies — but a fine read.

Ron Drees


  1. The more I read about the history of the Balkans, the less sympathy I have for Serbia and Russia.....Austria may have been hapless, (the Hapless Hapsburgs?), but I now view them with much more sympathy.

  2. All of the shortcomings of the Austrian army and primitive state of Russia's military are true, but focused attention should be directed at the German High Command. They shrewdly took advantage of these circumstances, which they were well aware of, to start a war that they, the Germans, felt would be to their advantage. Their culpability has been masked by their propaganda, clever enough to be effective even until present times. Robert Warwick

  3. Interesting to see a "Polish village" being burned by imperial troops. Presumably the village was part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, the Russian third of what became a reconstituted Poland, dismembered and triply divided for more than a century, at war's end.

  4. "A Mad Catastrophe" is probably the best book I've read on the Eastern Front. It's engagingly written and very detailed, giving perspectives on the Austrians you don't get in other books. The description of the disconnect between the warmongering of the politicians in the summer of 1914 with the military giving the troops "harvest leave" as late as August in just one example. I read Norman Stone's "The Eastern Front 1914-1917" afterwards, which covers some of the same material. I realize it's considered the main source on the Eastern Front, but I found reading it a long slow slog in comparison. It's not nearly as detailed, or as interesting to read.