Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch
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Two Awful Wars, One Awesome Author
July 9, 2015 -- Today is a crucial day in 20th-century military history. It's the day in 1914 that Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph received a report on the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the event that sparked World War I. And in 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily, which preceded D-Day by almost an entire year.
I mention these two events because I know a military historian who can persuasively write about both conflicts. I speak of Sir Max Hastings, the Oxford don, journalist, historian and prolific author. I first commented on three of his books last December and would like to recommend two others as perfect summer reading for historically inclined travelers.
CATASTROPHE OF THE CENTURIES
The all-encompassing role that World War I has played in shaping the next hundred years is brilliantly explored in Hastings' epic 2013 tome, Catastrophe: 1914, Europe Goes to War. Ambitious and exhaustively researched, it recounts in great detail the bungling and often malevolent missteps that would carry the combatants into what became the world's bloodiest conflict up to that time. Millions of soldiers and civilians on both sides paid the ultimate price.
The cause-and-effect decisions that played out between early August and the end of December in 1914 led to four years of battlefield butchery and unspeakable carnage. The war also led the victorious Allies to reshape national boundaries and make the errors that helped spawn World War II, the Vietnam conflict and subsequent events in the Middle East. It is highly unlikely that the world would have been exposed to murderous dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot if World War I could have been avoided.
It is in this context that Hastings tackles still-provocative questions such as who actually caused the war and what national and regional political factors led to the grim conflagration. Hastings pulls no punches about the former: He blames the Germans for either starting the war directly or allowing it to gather momentum by supporting the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire and the unacceptable demands it placed on Serbia, which ignited the fire that eventually consumed Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa.
The invasion of Serbia by Austria-Hungary brings Russia into the picture on the Serbian side and eventually lures France and Great Britain to the Allied cause. The German Kaiser and the Hapsburgs, who ruled polyglot Austria-Hungary, are joined by the Ottoman Empire, where the Turks ruled huge swathes of Central Asia and the Middle East.
The early battles in 1914 on the Western Front, such as the brutal week-long first battle of the Marne and the first of three battles at Ypres, are savage and set the stage for the trench warfare that defined World War I. Instead of massive, mobile troop movements, gains and losses were etched in bloody feet and yards. Early maneuvers often followed 19th-century formations in which infantrymen marched across open fields led by drummers, pipers and even bands. Machine-gun fire soon imposed 20th-century realities on the hapless combatants regardless of whether they were on foot, mounted or blowing a bugle.
Meanwhile, there's also been heavy fighting on the Eastern Front, with the Russians taking a beating all over the map, especially at Tannenberg in what was then known as East Prussia. The Germans' resourceful use of railroads to move troops enabled them to almost completely destroy the Russian Second Army during the five-day battle. The new, mechanized rail tactics brought more glory to the old lion Paul von Hindenburg and his chief aide Erich Ludendorff. These senior generals eventually direct the entire German war effort and, subsequently, the country. A weary, worn-out Hindenburg, who'd been called out of retirement again in 1925 to lead Germany, was the man who turned the reins of government over to Hitler in January, 1933.
Hastings also comments frequently, without restraint, on the almost uniform incompetence of the senior officers on both sides of the fray. He is singularly critical of British Field Commander Sir John French and his reluctance to commit his forces to the battle, even when such a decision could have influenced an outcome. Helmuth von Moltke the Younger of Germany is roasted for his failure to act decisively in the early days of the war and he is soon relieved, presumably by the Kaiser. Topping his list of incompetents on the French side is Joseph Joffre.
These are just a few of the highlights of this highly readable book, which covers more than 600 pages. It never fails to hold the readers' interest, whether by the page or minute. Particularly engrossing are Hastings' pointed and poignant quotations from real-life participants including a private on the front lines, a first lieutenant at an army hospital and a four-star general. Their words provide the reader with an unusual third dimension, bringing him or her even more closely into the gripping narrative.
AN OVERVIEW OF OVERLOARD
Hastings' 1984 book, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, covers the hectic weeks approaching D-Day on June 6, 1944, and the subsequent battle for Normandy. As with Catastrophe, Hastings' deftly uses interviews with real-life participants in the deadly struggle. Soldiers of all ranks from private to general have their say about the most important campaign of the Second World War.
This brilliantly researched and written account of those decisive days often reads like a novel and it provides a broader perspective on the events. For example, Hastings feels that the German Army acquits itself extraordinarily well, especially considering they are undermanned and under-equipped in the battle against the combined forces of the Americans, British and Canadians. In fact, Hastings leaves little doubt that he believes the Germans and the Japanese are the best fighting forces in the field.
Hastings argues that the German commanders, both at high and lower levels, were generally superior to their Allied counterparts. German equipment, such as tanks and mobile artillery, was also superior, but overwhelmed by American industrial production. He is also critical of the long-held belief that complete Allied control of the skies above Normandy was the critical factor in the ultimate outcome. He attributes the Allied victory to several factors, not the least of which is the inexorable flow of men and machines that fueled our fighting machine.
Personally, I've always been taken aback at how the Germans were unable to pinpoint the Allied buildup that would carry our troops onto the Normandy beaches on D-Day. Assuming that German intelligence operations were still active, even if limited, you'd have thought that Germany would have correctly identified Normandy as the location of the D-Day landing. Yet the German high command, and probably Hitler himself, continued to cling to the belief that the invasion would be at Calais, the closest French territory across the English Channel from Britain.
I've only scratched the surface of the riveting insights that Overlord offers, but there is one more fascinating issue: the role of British field commander Sir Bernard Montgomery, probably the most controversial figure in the Allied high command. Hastings isn't particularly enamored of Montgomery. He paints him as cold and insensitive, often giving himself high praise for a victory that had not yet been achieved. Hastings describes a man who often dissed his superiors, particularly his boss, Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower. And Hastings offers detailed commentary on the ultimate controversy: Montgomery's probable failure to close a trap on the Nazi forces in Normandy. That may have allowed several hundred thousand Germans to escape and helped prolong the war by many months.
Overlord will leave thoughtful readers revisiting and rethinking what they believed they knew about the protracted and deadly conflict that became the crucial moment of the Second World War.
This column is Copyright © 2015 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2015 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Martin B. Deutsch. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.