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Saturday 7 March 2015
Review: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel Germany and Austria-Hungary at War 1914 - 1918
This is a good book. 566 pages of text and 220 of apparatus. I discovered an enormous amount which I did not know, simply because Watson writes his history as if from the capitals of the losers, something which is rarely done. History belongs to the winners.
But in addition to what I learnt about Wilhelmine Germany and Hapsburg Austria-Hungary (Ottoman Turkey, the other main loser is omitted), I also read a very measured assessment of the criminality and destructiveness of the First World War, a war without any moral merit in which leaders simply chose to murder and starve millions of their own citizens in pursuit of - sometimes vague - Imperial ambitions - or, in Austria-Hungary's case, Imperial vanity. On the Allied side, Tsarist Russia approached the war in the same spirit, lusting after Austrian and Ottoman territory, pursuing its recurrent delusion that the way to protect its very long borders was to make them even longer.
There is also an important thread through the book which shows us that the other face of military discipline is military indiscipline. Soldiers do not do as they are told: they loot, burn, rape and kill women and children; they desert, mutiny and surrender. Watson documents this and gives the figures.
Nowadays, unreliable soldiers are replaced by missiles: we do not put boots on the ground. They always become boots in someone's face and soon there are no hearts and minds, except those of criminal elites, on your side. Trouble is, the missiles seem to hit the ground in such a way that they have pretty much the same effect.