van Meeteren on Wawro, 'A Mad Catastrophe'

Geoffrey Wawro
Rian van Meeteren

Geoffrey Wawro. A Mad Catastrophe. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 471 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-465-02835-1.

Reviewed by Rian van Meeteren Published on H-War (October, 2014) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

A Missed Opportunity

The battles fought in Serbia and on the eastern front in 1914 take a backseat to public and scholarly interest in the military history of World War I. While the number of books dedicated to the western front continues to increase, only a few monographs have been published on events in the east.[1] In particular, the great opening battles in Galicia and Serbia have thus far not been the subject of a dedicated study in the English language.[2]

The recently published book A Mad Catastrophe, subtitled The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, written by Geoffrey Wawro, professor of history and director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas, claims to fill this void In terms of coverage this is true. After four introductory chapters that cover Austro-Hungarian internal politics, the Balkan wars, and the murders in Sarajevo, the book has dedicated chapters that describe and analyze the main battles in Polish Galicia (Krásnik, Komaróv, Lemberg/Rava Ruska, the advance on Warsaw, Lodz, and the Carpathian Winter). Two chapters are devoted to the battles in Serbia. Endnotes to each chapter, a bibliography of consulted archives, a list of published sources, and an index are provided. A review of the sources reveals a striking omission of some important works. Neither the book Krieg im Frieden by Günther Kronenbitter, which describes the relationship between politics and the military in prewar Austria-Hungary, nor John Schindler’s article on the Serbian campaign are listed as source material.[3] Also there is no mention of the use of Russian or Serbian archival material. An additional flaw is that no "orders of battle" are provided and the scarce maps show positions only at the army and corps level. These maps do not match with the narrative that generally describes the action at the division level or even lower. Consequently it is often difficult to visualize and understand the sequence of events of the battles described.

The author tells the story from a particular Austro-Hungarian perspective. In earlier publications the author described the Austro-Hungarian army as weak and riven by the conflict between its constituting nationalities.[4] In this new book he seeks to describe the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s history between 1867 and 1918 as a “fatal degeneration” (p. xxi) resulting in its defeat and dissolution in 1918. The author’s zeal to demonstrate that the empire was moribund and its army woefully unprepared for what it faced is reflected in his writing style. Statements are often exaggerated or are in error, quotes are regularly given without sources, and some given sources do not or only partially support the narrative. For instance, when describing the operational planning against Serbia since 1908 the author offers this quote on pp. 102-103: “Lacking supplies, communications and a good overview, our only recourse will be a brisk, brave attack.” When going back to the reference it becomes clear that the original statement in the German language has not been translated literally and is definitely less foolhardy than the quote by the author.[5] A similar example can be found on p. 161 where the author writes that “an entire Serbian division wearing pike-gray Austrian coats” was observed. In the original source the referral is to the German Züge, which translates to “sections” or “platoons,” but definitely not to “division.”[6] It is also somewhat surprising to see a statement regarding the mobilization problems of the Austrian army supported by a reference to a French source published in March 1914 (!) and not to any other source (p. 132). Another example of selective referencing is found in the description of the Sarajevo assassination where the author writes, “The first (assassin) fired his Browning pistol at a range of thirty feet and missed” (p. 105). This statement is in direct contradiction to the accepted version that the first assailant threw a bomb. The quoted source is Rudolf Jeřabek’s book Potiorek, which clarifies that although General Potiorek mentioned a pistol shot in his report on the assassination, the report was mistaken. The noises Potiorek mistook for shots were produced by the activation of the hand grenade used by the first assailant.[7] Equally misleading is the author’s presentation of the German war plan as an all-encompassing war plan that called for “rapid mobilization and offensive use of German and Austrian war plans” (p. xx), while disregarding the fact that the German and Austrian chief of staff did not meet between 1892 and 1908 and that there had been hardly any joint planning prior to the war. At several places later in the book the author refers to the lack of cooperation between Germany and Austria-Hungary (pp. 64, 80, 125, 129).

On several occasions the author provides the reader with information that could be considered new as it has not been published elsewhere. Unfortunately, in these cases the author fails to back his statements with proof. Examples are his assertion that the Hungarian authorities “creamed” the army recruits to ensure that the best people were assigned to the Honvéd (the Hungarian militia) (p. 6) and the claim that decimation was used as punishment in the Austrian army (pp. 354, 359). Neither assertion is supported with evidence. Another example is his description of the alleged mass desertion of the Czech 28th K.u.K. regiment on April 3, 1915. On p. 359 the author mentions that the regiment was dissolved because it “left its place in the line in the Carpathians to surrender to the Russians, only to discover that the trench they thought was full of Russians was actually full of German infantry.” The author totally ignores the recent work by Richard Lein, whose archives-based reconstruction of the fights of April 3, 1915 conclusively demonstrates that there was no case of mass desertion.[8] There also were no German troops close to the location of the 28th regiment.

In light of the examples described above (and numerous others), I cannot recommend A Mad Catastrophe. An uninformed reader will get a distorted and exaggerated picture of the Austro-Hungarian army; a well-informed reader should be careful and trace any story provided in this book to original sources. Unfortunately, A Mad Catastrophe does not adequately fill the existing void in the literature devoted to the eastern front of World War I and should therefore be considered a missed opportunity.


[1]. The recent works G. Tunstall, Blood on the Snow (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010) on the Carpathian battles; R. L. DiNardo, Breakthrough (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010) on the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign; and T. C. Dowling, Brusilov Offensive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) are examples of recently published monographs on eastern front battles.

[2]. The battles in Galicia and Serbia in 1914 are discussed in more general works like N. Stone, The Eastern Front (London: Penguin, 1975); H. H. Herwig, The First World War (London: Bloomsbury, 1997); and H. Strachan, The First World War, Vol. 1: To Arms! (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). The only book that focuses on the Austro-Hungarian army exclusively is G. Rothenberg, The Army of Francis-Joseph (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1976), which covers the period 1815-1918.

[3]. G. Kronenbitter, Krieg im Frieden (München: Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2003); J. Schindler, “Disaster on the Drina: The Austro-Hungarian Army in Serbia, 1914,” War in History 9, no. 2 (2002): 159-195.

[4]. See, for instance, G. Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe 1792-1914 (New York: Routledge, 2000), 222, where the author states: “Every reverse in Serbia and Poland was accompanied by massive defections, as Austria-Hungary’s Slavic regiments (the bulk of the army) exhibited a distressing tendency to surrender rather than fight”; and G. Wawro, “Morale in the Austro-Hungarian Army: The Evidence of Habsburg Campaign Reports and Allied Intelligence Officers,” in Facing Armageddon: The First World War Experienced, ed. H. Cecil and P. H. Liddle (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, Pen & Swords Books Ltd., 1996), 399-412.

[5]. Rudolf Jeřabek, Potiorek (Graz: Verlag Styria, 1991), 99-105.

[6]. Joseph Schön, Šabac! (Reichenberg: Heimatsöhne im Weltkrieg 1918), 26.

[7]. Jeřabek, Potiorek, 83-84.

[8]. R. Lein, Pflichterfüllung oder Hochverrat? (Wien: Lit Verlag GmbH & Co, 2011), 53-201.

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