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Book Review: A Mad Catastrophe by Geoffrey Wawro

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire by Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the first book I have read about WWI that does not treat Austro-Hungary as an afterthought after the outbreak of the fighting in August 1914.  In fact, Austria-Hungary and the course of the fighting in Serbia and Galicia in the first year of the war is the central theme of the book.  Dr. Wawro applies his usual exhaustive research methods to exploring the course and cause of the Austro-Hungarian demarche to war in 1914.  Given that World War I is also one of my areas of specialty in historical study I won’t say that I agree with him 100%, I rarely do.  However, he provides an insightful look into the reasons why the Austro-Hungarian army failed so miserably in 1914 despite being considered one of the more powerful armies in Europe.

The book itself consists of 385 pages of text with illustrations and maps scattered throughout.  There are 40 pages of notes, a four page bibliography and an extensive index.  The body of the text is divided into 14 chronological chapters that run from the pre-war years to the end of the war.

The main focus of the book is the months leading up to the outbreak of war, the pre-war  diplomatic maneuvering, and the disastrous performance of the Austro-Hungarian army against both the Serbs in Serbia and Russians in Galicia.  He describes the tactical and structural reasons for Austrian failure quite well.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Austrians or Germans were at fault for the outbreak of the war.  That is quibbling however, as an argument can certainly be made that the Central Powers bear the lion’s share of the blame.  I just happen to disagree with that interpretation.  Dr. Wawro however, makes a powerful case that Austria is to blame for the war  by the way they frittered away the opportunity for a localized war with Serbia because of internal and external political considerations.

I found it odd that he excoriates the Austrian Army for clinging to outmoded notions of the utility of the bayonet charge in the face of machine guns and quick-firing artillery.  He almost makes out as though the Austrians were the only army to have this idea, which is false.  No European army had anticipated the destructive and defensive potential of these developments prior to 1914.  The Austrians were not the only ones.  The French in particular are notable for their “cult of the offensive” in 1914 which caused the French to suffer massive casualties in the opening months of the war as they launched fruitless mass infantry attacks into the teeth of German machine guns only to be mown down like hay for the harvest.

French Tirailleurs of 1914
French Tirailleurs of 1914

He criticizes the Austrian Army for their choice of a blue-gray uniform that did not provide much in the way of camouflage in the forests of Serbia or the Galician plain.  Blue-gray is actually much better than the sky blue greatcoat and bright red pantaloons that French troops wore without even mentioning the bright fez and baggy pants of the French Tirailleurs Sénégalais of 1914.  The Austrians were not alone in doing stupid things.

Perhaps the biggest failure the Austrian’s can be accused of is their lack of equipment, especially artillery given the way the rest of Europe was armed and their poor efforts at making their multi-ethnic army effective.  Dr. Wawro is absolutely correct that Austrian Army had apparently learned nothing from their drubbing at the hands of Prussian in 1866.  The Austrians had done little to improve integration of ethnicities in the army.  The efforts at integration were also hamstrung by the internal politics of the empire and Franz Joseph’s continual capitulations to the Hungarians after the founding of the dual monarchy.

All in all this is an excellent book that belongs on the shelf of every World War I scholar.  It provides a look at the major belligerent that is largely ignored in most English language scholarship and that played the central role in how, why, and when the war began.

A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire is a long overdue look at an important facet of World War I.  Dr. Wawro is the scholar to give that facet the treatment it deserve and he does so outstandingly.  I highly recommend this book.  If you only buy one of the flood of World War I books that appear in this year of the Centenary Commemoration of the outbreak of war, this should be it.

  • Andrew

    The Serbs had just got done with the Turks, so they were already “warm.”

    Honestly, I’d never want to fight the Serbs because unlike the rest of Europe (and America) who talks a good game about taking on the Muslims, Serbia has been doing it for over 700 years.


    Only he is lost who gives himself up for lost

    —Hans-Ulrich Rudel

    • http://www.military-history.us/ Cincinnatus

      As Wawro so amply points out the Serbs were also worn out and short of able bodies because they had recently fought two wars. They were short of ammunition and most of their troops were without weapons. The Austrians beat themselves in 1914 because of poor tactics and failure to make use of the advantages they did have. It was not that the Serbs were so good it was the Austrians who were even worse.

    • Andrew

      But they got guts, them there Serbs. Sometimes guts are more than enough.