Collision of Empires (Prit Buttar; Osprey Publishing) is a clear and accessible history that attempts to address a common lack in accounts of the Great War that began a century ago this year: they tend to be centered on the Western Front and the staggering meat-grinder that static trench warfare became as outmoded tactics collided with the reality of machine guns and indirect-fire artillery.
Concentration on the Western Front is understandable in the U.S. and England; the successor states of the Western Front’s victors have maintained good records, and nationals of the English-speaking countries were directly involved there. But in many ways the Eastern Front story is more interesting, especially in the first year that Buttar chooses to cover – less static, and with a sometimes bewilderingly varied cast. And, arguably, larger consequences. The war in the east eventually destroyed three empires and put Lenin’s Communists in power in Russia.
Prit Buttar does a really admirable job of illuminating the thinking of the German, Austrian, and Russian leadership in the run-up to the war – not just at the diplomatic level but in the ways that their militaries were struggling to come to grips with the implications of new technology. The extensive discussion of internecine disputes over military doctrine in the three officer corps involved is better than anything similar I’ve seen elsewhere.
Alas, the author’s gift for lucid exposition falters a bit when it comes to describing actual battles. Ted Raicer did a better job of this in 2010’s Crowns In The Gutter, supported by a lot of rather fine-grained movement maps. Without these, Buttar’s narrative tends to bog down in a confusing mess of similar unit designations and vaguely comic-operatic Russo-German names.
Still, the effort to follow it is worthwhile. Buttar is very clear on the ways that flawed leadership, confused objectives and wishful thinking on all sides engendered a war in which there could be no clear-cut victory short of the utter exhaustion and collapse of one of the alliances.
On the Eastern Front, as on the Western, soldiers fought with remarkable courage for generals and politicians who – even on the victorious side – seriously failed them.