Profile, £25 Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 By Max Hastings William Collins, £30 or Order at a discount from The Independent Bookshop

Book review: The War That Ended Peace, By Margaret MacMillan

Piers Brendon salutes complementary histories of a descent into the abyss

These two books promise to be among the finest additions to the huge literary monument being raised to mark the centenary of the First World War.

Get this book at the discounted price of £18 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Both are vivid, gripping and scholarly, and they complement each other in illuminating ways. Margaret MacMillan provides a big picture of Europe between 1900 and 1914, a time of increasing international tension that was also, in Stefan Zweig's phrase, a "Golden Age of Security". Max Hastings focuses on the year 1914 itself, describing the transition from peace to a war of movement that finally bogged down in the mud and blood of the trenches.

All this is familiar territory and it must be said that MacMillan's volume, in particular, contains no real surprises – apart from her assertion that the battle of Omdurman saw the defeat of the army of the Mahdi, who was actually long dead. Still, she does give a wide-ranging and well-balanced account of the co-existence of an old world dominated by tradition, hierarchy and rural life, and the new world of cities, telephones, cars, aeroplanes, dreadnoughts and cultural innovation. She skilfully outlines the pressures towards peace during the Edwardian era (among them prescient fears of military stalemate and mutual destruction) as well as tracing the path to war.

Nothing was inevitable, she rightly says, and chance played its part. But naval rivalry was the crux of Anglo-German antagonism. Grand-Admiral Tirpitz believed that Germany was engaged in a life-or-death struggle for a place in the sun, which could only be won by a powerful fleet. The British thought their survival as a great power depended on ruling the waves. So they out-built Germany in the dockyards and ended their diplomatic isolation. The Entente Cordiale was a calculated defensive measure and not, as royalist historians like to imagine, an initiative inspired by Edward VII. In fact, he blighted it by trying to insist that French leaders visiting him should wear court dress, including knee breeches.

Kaiser Wilhelm, though, seriously exacerbated animosities. Aggressive, unbalanced and indiscreet, he ran round the continent, said the Foreign Office, like someone scratching a Lucifer match against powder barrels. During the Boxer uprising he urged German troops in China to imitate Huns and take no prisoners.

He contributed to the various crises, notably in Morocco, which helped to fortify the two alliance systems dividing Europe. He connived at war plans which, though not rigidly determined by railway timetables, wrecked his hopes of avoiding a general conflagration. After the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kaiser gave his ally carte blanche to exact vengeance on Serbia, which had spawned the assassins.

Max Hastings also blames Wilhelm, whose marginalia on official documents were as erratic as they were splenetic, the exclamation mark being "his favoured instrument of policy-making". The Kaiser could never bring himself to take the one decision – withdrawing his support from Austria-Hungary – that would have prevented Russia and then France from entering the conflict. And he agreed to the violation of Belgian neutrality, without which Britain might have not have fought at all. There is plenty of evidence to show that the German leaders were willing to go to war in 1914, says Hastings, in the hope of winning a speedy victory before military conditions turned against them.

Hastings is shorter on nuances than MacMillan. He dismisses the notion that the Great War was a vast, futile tragedy as the "poets' view" of Armageddon without mentioning the romantic belligerence of, say, Rupert Brooke. On the other hand, Hastings is more original, lighting up dark areas such as the Galician front, introducing new minor characters into the story and, above all, writing with marvellous cogency and trenchancy. He sees things clearly and articulates them without hesitation, reservation or deviation.

Thus Britain had to prevent Europe from being dominated by Germany, whose treatment of Belgian and French civilians was indeed beastly. The Schlieffen Plan, whereby the bulk of the German army aimed to knock France out of the war with a right hook through Belgium before the Russian steamroller could get moving, was fundamentally unsound. Reliant on boots and hooves, opposed by modern firepower, soldiers could not make a decisive breakthrough. Field Marshal Schlieffen was "a fantasist who brought doom upon his foolish disciples".

Hastings is equally tough on the generals who made their forces attack in the manner of Roman legions. Neither author fully explains why the top brass failed to learn the lessons of recent battles such as Omdurman, where British rifles and machine-guns had mown down massed ranks of Dervishes, and Colenso, where Boer Mausers had mown down massed ranks of Britons. In 1914 such visible offensives produced a staggering butcher's bill: on 22 August, 27,000 Frenchmen were killed, a much greater loss than that suffered by British troops on the first day of the Somme. Hastings calls the first British commander-in-chief on the western front, General French, "a poltroon". The best he can say about Douglas Haig, his successor, is that he was able "to preside over carnage without spoiling his lunch".

Hastings deals with all aspects of the war. He is particularly good on the pervasiveness of secrecy and propaganda, known in France as bourrage de crâne or skull-stuffing, which made civilians sceptical about all official information. He colourfully depicts Winston Churchill's attempt to save Antwerp, one of the least successful of his "daredevil pranks". But Hastings is at his best on the battlefield itself. Here advancing men felt that they were entering "the jaws of hell" while those retreating looked like "ghosts in Hades expiating by their fearful endless march the sins of the world".

What caused the war and how it should have been fought, if at all, are questions that cannot finally be resolved. But these books make a valuable contribution to a debate that will rage with special intensity over the next few years.

Piers Brendon's most recent book, 'Eminent Elizabethans', is published by Vintage

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works