Book Review: A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire


by Geoffrey Wawro

New York: Basic Books, 2014. Pp. xxiv, 450. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.99. ISBN: 0465057950

The Hapsburg Monarchy Self-Destructs

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 liaise with a 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, the author of The Franco-Prussian War and many other excellent works, 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.

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, Romanian, Magyar (for the Hungarians) and eight others, using several different alphabets.

Perhaps the worst pre-war event was when Hungary basically rejected 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 between August 12 and by December 15, 1914.

Much of the disaster was due to the non-leadership of Army General Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf. General Conrad had no conception of modern warfare, monopolized planning, and failed to 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. Before the 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, though its troops would die by the thousands

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 the impoverished Serbs could rout the supposedly better equipped Austro-Hungarians. Much of the beginning of the War is explained here, which is what I appreciated, and this is recommended as the first book to read to understand how the Great War began. It 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.


Our Reviewer: Ron Drees is an archivist, retired from processing the collection of Dr. Michael DeBakey, the world-famous cardiologist at the Baylor College of Medicine. His interest in history dates back to junior high school with an emphasis on American military history, particularly the Civil and World Wars. He has written several reviews for Michael Hanlon's blog "Roads to the Great War", about the catastrophe that still shapes the world. His favorite WWI book is Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919 which tells how the tragedy was compounded by setting the stage for even greater misery. He lives in Houston with his wife of 42 years, Lin, a retired librarian, and their Sheltie, Hannah. He had a grandfather who was a teamster on the German side in WWI, his first boss had been a Marine at Iwo Jima, virtually the only survivor of his company, and his brother-in-law had been at Inchon. Ron’s previous reviews include Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918, Beneath the Killing Fields: Exploring the Subterranean Landscapes of the Western Front, Tirpitz and the Imperial German Navy, Between Mutiny and Obedience: The Case of the French Fifth Infantry Division during World War, The Kaiser’s U-Boat Assault on America, This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, 1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, and After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France After the Great War.



Note: A Mad Catastrophe is also available in paperback and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Ron Drees   

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