Review: Collision of Empires

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.

24 thoughts on “Review: Collision of Empires

  1. Gee…the slaughter of millions….the rise of International Communism…the setup for a second World War even worse than the first…poison gas…yet I am grateful.

    My maternal grandfather was born into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1890. When the Great War started, he was drafted into the service of His Imperial Majesty Franz Joseph. You all may prattle on about your puny .44 Magnums and .50BMGs – bah!! Grandpa carried a 42 – centimeters, that is. He had worked for the Austrian railways prewar, and so was put on the crew of one of those railroad car mounted guns that were all the rage back then.

    Apparently the Russians were not impressed with this massive display of firepower. They captured the gun, the crew, and grandpa. He was promptly put into a POW camp.

    At the camp, there was this cute little Russian woman whose job it was to bring food to the prisoners. One thing led to another, and cute little Russian woman became my grandmother. So…no World War I, no me. If I catch any of you guys heading into the Way Back Machine, thinking you’ll save the world a lot of trouble, I’ll be dragging you out by the hair. You’ll find me on the sidewalk in Sarajevo, yelling, “Go Gavrilo! Go!”

    • >My maternal grandfather was born into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1890.

      Very much the least bad place in Eastern Europe at that time to be Jewish, or so I’m given to understand. Galicia?

  2. Many view WWI as the first instance in history in which multiple complex systems entered into large scale war as combatants, as opposed to prior wars which tended to be binary and reflect the influence of key individuals. The normal chaos, unpredictability, and random chance of warfare tended to be washed out by the scale and complexity of this conflict and system behavior was seen to dominate. In other words, the conflict took on a life of its own, as if two newly created entities were each struggling for survival and dominance. It is also interesting that the war was essentially evolutionary and not so much ideological.

  3. Another good book on the run-up to WWI is ‘The War That Ended Peace’ by Margaret Macmillan. It does not neglect the eastern powers.

  4. Readers looking for a solid introduction to the causes of WWI (as opposed to a highly advanced treatment) will be well-served by David Fromkin’s “Europe’s Last Summer”

    Fromkin does an excellent job connecting the assassination to the war, a connection that most Americans seem to find baffling, by demonstrating that there were really two agendas and two wars–Austria’s and Germany’s–which eventually merged into one large-scale war.

  5. >Very much the least bad place in Eastern Europe at that time to be Jewish

    That’s interesting: my paternal family is Jewish; and they, by contrast, lived in the *worst* place: the Russian Empire (specifically, Zaporizhia/Zaporozhye and Chi?in?u/Kishinev).

  6. >My maternal grandfather was born into the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1890.

    Very much the least bad place in Eastern Europe at that time to be Jewish, or so I’m given to understand. Galicia?

    No, grandfather identified as Austrian, and his native language was German. OTOH, after his capture, he was permitted to send a postcard to his family to show that he was alive and well. The picture shows him standing behind a seated Russian soldier. It is addressed to someone in Belz, which was a shtetl town in Western Ukraine. (It is possible that mail was not permitted to travel further west due to war conditions.)

  7. If you have the chance, I highly recommend a visit to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, MO. As far as I know, it’s the only full-scale museum in the U.S. dedicated to the Great War.

    They have displays that cover the detailed movements of units in every major battle of the war, political background, etc. It’s absolutely worth the trip.

  8. As a corrective to this obviously deficient history of the Great War, allow me to recommend a book I just finished reading, namely, CATASTROPHE 1914 by Max Hastings, which can be summarized as follows.

    1. The war was the result of dastardly German militarism. Since the Kaiser didn’t forcibly stop Austria from invading Serbia, the Germans are entirely to blame for making British lads travel to the continent and die.
    2. Moltke was a psychological train wreck wholly unsuitable for command.
    3. French was a psychological train wreck wholly unsuitable for command.
    4. Churchill was an excitable loon wholly unsuitable for command of any unit larger than a company.
    5. If it were not for the brave and heroic British Expeditionary Force defending freedom, justice, and democracy, the Germans would have broken through the French lines and conquered the continent.
    6. The French did a little fighting too. So did the Russians. The Serbs killed lots of Austrians. None of this had any serious effect on the war.
    7. The death of millions was worth it in the end, because Germany is bad.

  9. Mastiff and VD: Fromkin also assigns primary responsibility to the Germans in his book that I mentioned in my previous comment. I found his reasoning and evidence quite compelling.

    • >Fromkin also assigns primary responsibility to the Germans

      The case Buttar makes (and which coincides with my own previous view of the matter) is a bit more nuanced.

      I don’t think the Germans drove or manipulated the Austro-Hungarians into war. The Austrians thought they wanted a war to supply their fractious polyglot empire with a reason to pull together rather than fly apart. It wasn’t German pressure that moved them to issue Serbia an impossible ultimatum; they’d been looking for an excuse to solve that “problem” for a while.

      I think it is fair to say that the Germans thought they could exploit Austria’s casus belli to achieve their main geostrategic objective, which was basically to punch out Russia before it got too big to punch out. But I wouldn’t say “responsibility” lay there; it would be as fair to claim Gavrilo Princip was “responsible”.

    • >Did you read the Kindle version or hardcover? If you read it on the Kindle, are the maps, photos etc readable?

      eARC, Adobe proprietary format read with Aldiko on my Android phone. The maps were truncated to the right. I debated mentioning this, but there were other indications that I was not looking at the final polished rendering of the text.

  10. > eARC, Adobe proprietary format read with Aldiko on my Android phone. The maps were truncated to the right. I debated mentioning this, but there were other indications that I was not looking at the final polished rendering of the text.

    Thanks. I think I’ll play it safe and get the hardback.

  11. esr: “I don’t think the Germans drove or manipulated the Austro-Hungarians into war.”

    The War of 1812 has been called “The War of Faulty Communication.” I am tempted to call the Great War “The War of Too Much Communication.” Or perhaps too much ego, too much posturing, and so forth.

    I’ve gotten about halfway through _Dreadnought_. Recommended, but be prepared to spend some serious time getting through it. I was side-tracked before I could finish it. Based on that book, I would say that key conditions over the decade or two prior to 1914 that created the war, but were almost accidental.

    In particular, Wilhelm II wanted a navy, because that was the thing that a major European state would have in the late 19th century. Never mind that almost landlocked Germany had lousy access to the sea, or that it was well positioned to dominate Europe without needing a navy. Likewise, he wanted German colonies in Africa because respectable Great Powers had African colonies.

    But his High Seas Fleet didn’t have the range to project power onto the oceans. In practice, that meant that Britain was the only target it could hit. This wound up as a more-or-less self-fulfilling prophecy in Wilhelm’s mind. The British responded to this accordingly by being sure that the Royal Navy could handle it, and by being diplomatically wary of Germany.

    Without the touchy personal politics between Wilhelm and his British relatives, without the British/German tension created by the unneeded and very expensive fleet, the Great War is much smaller because the alliances are smaller. I think that you get an Eastern Front, but no Western Front, no British or American involvement, and even French involvement looks like a question mark to me.

    I could even picture a British-German alliance replacing the British-French one, assuming that there is no German navy and no German overseas colonies. Britain and France had been at war off and on for hundreds of years, while Britain had ties to Germany through the ruling house from Hanover.

    If you pile your cards high, they will eventually fall with the big crash. Worrying about the proximate cause of the crash is pointless. The ultimate cause is that you built a large, unstable pile…or in this case, political situation.

    • >I could even picture a British-German alliance replacing the British-French one, assuming that there is no German navy and no German overseas colonies.

      That almost happened anyway, though how close it came has been buried under two subsequent World Wars’ worth of anti-German propaganda. Until right up to the outbreak of the Great War there was lots of friendly contact among the British and German navies, and it’s clear from period sources that a lot of people in the military (as opposed, perhaps, to their political masters) expected an “Anglo-Saxon” alliance to develop. At the time there were still men living who remembered their fathers’ stories of the Napoleonic naval war against France…

  12. Until right up to the outbreak of the Great War there was lots of friendly contact among the British and German navies…

    During the month between the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the Austrian ultimatum, Wilhelm went on a yachting holiday in the North Sea. Both the Royal Navy and the High Seas Fleet were conducting routine maneuvers there. Someone (possibly several people in both Britain and Germany) had a nightmare: what if Wilhelm, who held the rank of Admiral in both navies, decided to assume command of the fleets and order joint maneuvers?

    But there was a huge amount of popular British suspicion toward Germany before WW I. See the 1903 spy thriller The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, in which there is a German plot to invade Britain. There’s a lot of it in Kipling. When William Came, Saki’s novel of a future Britain conquered by Germany, appeared in 1913.

    • >[Kaiser] Wilhelm, who held the rank of Admiral in both navies

      That I did not know. I suppose it’s related to the fact that it took World War I to get the British royal house to change its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor. And that George V and the Kaiser were cousins.

  13. I was wondering that as well, Mastiff.

    @ESR: I think Fromkin’s thesis and your view are actually very closely aligned. The two wars he discusses are Austria versus Serbia and Germany versus Russia. The objectives of each were very different, as you well know.

  14. That is to say, I may be doing Fromkin a mild disservice by writing that he assigns responsibility to Germany. That’s my interpretation of his work, but he is very careful as a historian.

  15. I’ve read Dreadnaught a couple of times, and in light of that, have occasionally felt that its ending on the literal eve of war is as good a place as any to leave off; sort of a historian’s versions of the quote from Snow Crash: “After that, it’s just a chase scene.”

  16. I’d like to recommend a book that’s sort of related to the topic, but a good bit older: “Count Luckner: the Sea Devil” (by Lowell Thomas; pub. Doubleday, 1928).
    I must admit that for an understanding of the war, it’s worthless for the same reason it’s interesting.
    The subject/narrator was a member of the German nobility who ran off to sea at thirteen and a half years old, eventually ending up serving in the German Navy.
    During “the War”, the Germans decided to send a ship into the Pacific and South Atlantic as a raider, since the disruption in traffic far removed from the war would make shipping more expensive.
    But they could not refuel such a ship, so they ended up sending a square-rigger (the Seeadler), and Luckner was the only naval officer who had experience under sail.
    The first few chapters narrate how he ended up in that circumstance (with plenty of yarns); the bulk of it details his time as captain of the last sailing ship in military use, and several boat voyages and ruses.

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