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MHQ Reviews: A Mad Catastrophe

By Anthony Paletta 
Originally published on Published Online: May 13, 2014 
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A Mad Catastrophe
The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire
by Geoffrey Wawro. 472 pages.
Basic Books, 2014. $29.99.

Reviewed by Anthony Paletta

Though it's universally accepted that the collision of 20th-century technology and 19th-century tactics dealt an immense and grisly shock to virtually every power in the First World War, one fact remains underappreciated: The blow almost certainly fell most harshly on the power that launched the war—Austria-Hungary. Geoffrey Wawro's A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire offers a fascinating addition to the military and diplomatic scholarship surrounding Austria-Hungary's inept move toward war and its incompetent execution of the conflict. While plenty of attention has been paid to the fairly comprehensible diplomatic calculations that led the Dual Monarchy to war, in the larger histories of the war the typically brief summations of Austro-Hungarian planning and strategy gloss over what, in Wawro's unrestrained prose, was "a bloody, reckless disaster from beginning to end."

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The catalogue of collapse that was the Austro-Hungarian war experience had its origins in a military establishment that never seemed to have grasped the lessons of the 1866 Austro-Prussian war; in the a budgetary stranglehold induced by the establishment of a dual monarchy; and in a continual unwillingness of the Hungarian state to consent to any modernizing military expenditure. In 1914, Wawro notes, Austria-Hungary had one in 132 eligible men under arms, while France had one in 65 and Germany and Russia about one in 90; even Italy had mustered more of its population than Austria-Hungary. The Habsburgs possessed one gun per 338 soldiers; Germany and France had one per 195.

Compounding this error in the early years of the war, the feeble Habsburg force was deployed in the most ineffective fashion possible. Its mobilization had to wait until its command's summer holidays were over. Then, despite a massive threat on the Eastern Front, the Habsburg commanders concentrated disproportionate force on the Serbian front, but on both fronts, the Austro-Hungarian attacks were soon repelled with immense casualties.

That's a common story of war for any power. The difference in the case of Austria-Hungary was that it evinced an almost complete failure to learn any lessons from its early mistakes, continuing to squander the trained core of its army within the first year of the conflict.

Wawro's comprehensive indictment of the Austro-Hungarian conduct of war closes in 1916, just as German units, armaments, and direction came to supplant them in nearly every theater of consequence. As a reader, having become so accustomed to a string of misfortunes, I would have found Austro-Hungarian success, even under close German oversight, at least comparatively interesting. But the stories of the Galician and Serbian campaigns are undertold in A Mad Catastrophe. Within its span, however, Wawro's book is an excellent account of where plunging over a cliff will land you: in pieces.

Anthony Paletta writes the Spaces column for the Wall Street Journal and contributes to Metropolis, The Awl, and The Daily Beast.


2 Responses to “MHQ Reviews: A Mad Catastrophe”

  1. 1

    [...] me at Military History Quarterly on "A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire" Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like [...]

  2. 2
    Rich says:

    Wawro also paid particular attention to Hungarian obstruction to just about every pre-war proposal for army modernization and enlargement coming out of Vienna. Budapest maintained an oversized ethnic chip on its shoulder. For instance, in a move that would do absolutely nothing positive in the coming war, on or around 1910 the Honved stopped German language instruction to officers in training and forbade it even being spoken in the field, opting for Hungarian – a language notoriously difficult to understand and unrelated to just about every other language spoken by an already polygot army. I could cite several other what I call chippy or bush league moves perpetrated on Vienna by Budapest that undermined A-H army fighting strength and cohesion.

    Budapest never stepped back from its zero sum game stance vis a vis Vienna's desires for more Austrian based, German speaking units. In my humble opinion, the Hungarian's maintained a short sighted, parochial outlook that saw any move by Vienna toward updating A-H military effectiveness as a threat to their status as co-equal partners. If Budapest was not the direct beneficiary of a given army reform plan, then fight it, kill it. Hungary was millstone wrapped around the neck of an already not exactly spritely A-H army. A-H would have been better prepared in 1914 if one or two grown ups in the Budapest parliament stood up and said Stop bleating about nonstarters like perceived Rumanian irredentism in Transylvania and take a look at the expanded construction of Russian railroads and the need for A-H to increase light and heavy arms manufacture.\n
    Wawro got this aspect right. The common A-H soldier paid the ultimate price for Budapest's betrayal when the guns lit up in August 1914.

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