Review – ‘Ring of Steel – Germany and Austria-Hungary at War 1918’ – Alexander Watson

Anyone familiar with Alex Watson’s book on morale, ‘Enduring the Great War’, will know that this book will be written to a high standard of scholarship. It is not a military history, rather an exploration of what motivated the Central Powers into War and what kept its armies and civilians going once they had embarked on that course. It is a particularly important correction to the Britocentric approach to the recognition of the centenary of the war, a period which is producing a particularly disappointing crop of books, many of which are less than worthwhile.

It is particularly interesting in its attention to Austria-Hungary. Indeed, in Watson’s slant on the outbreak of war, the Habsburg Empire was truly the key player, its need to go to war driven by its internal incoherence. Similarly of particular interest is the very clear account of Germany’s war aims, what happened in the East behind the front lines, and the examination of the collapse of German morale. If there was any ‘stab in the back’ it was the criminal incompetence of the Central Powers’ management of their own food supplies, a far more potent problem than the allied blockade. Watson draws clear pointers as to both the similarities of the techniques of the the military dominated German regime’s attitudes to the lands it conquered and those of the Nazi regime, but also the limitations of drawing such similarities.

A significant section of the book focuses on the food issue, and there is a danger of the reader disappearing under the sheer weight of facts. This is the section of a long book which is particularly lengthy. If one was to make any other criticism then it would be that the discussion of Austria-Hungary seems more rounded than that of Germany, but that may be an artefact of the issue that readers will be more familiar with the former than the latter. However, Watson is a fine and engaging writer, and the detail is  testimony to his mastery of areas of which many historians of the British Army remain in ignorance.


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