I purchased Geoffery Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the Natrona County Library Book Sale this past spring. I was not expecting much of a selection to choose from at the sale, especially when it came to Eastern Europe. This was mainly because the city of Casper, Wyoming, the Natrona County seat, happens to a blue collar energy boomtown, not known to be a community of booklovers. Case in point, though Casper is the second largest city in the state, it only has a couple of bookshops, both with very modest selections. The best chance of finding books on Eastern Europe in the area is by checking the mailbox, after an order from Amazon. I thought the book sale would be low key, with the usual volumes of romantic novels, self-help tomes and celebrity biographies usually on offer at these events.
A Mad Catastrophe at a Bargain Price
Because my expectations were so low, I was shocked to find a hundred person long line had formed by the time the sale was due to open. Those who arrived at opening time were forced to wait upwards of an hour before entering the sale, as only a limited number of customers were allowed in at any time. Those who arrived earliest were the first to be allowed in to the sale. Soon they reappeared with shopping bags, baskets and carts filled with books. I began to grow a bit nervous that all the best volumes might be taken before I got inside. After 45 minutes of waiting I was permitted to enter. I was pleasantly surprised to find books on the history of the Serbs, the Poles and several that dealt with World War One in east-central Europe. These included a hard cover edition of Wawro’s book with a pristine dust jacket. The book had only come out a year before and dealt specifically with the Austro-Hungarian Army’s cataclysmic defeats in Serbia, Galicia and the Carpathians in the first six months of the war. I gladly purchased it for just five dollars. What a bargain!
I was interested to see what new information Wawro would bring to light concerning the Empire’s catastrophic performance in the opening campaigns. English language books on the Eastern Front of the war are extremely scarce. The most reliable scholarly work continues to Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front which was published in the 1970’s. A Mad Catastrophe was published just in time for commemoration of the war’s centennial, certainly not a coincidence. Like many books that I have purchased in the last several years, I did not read the entire volume cover to cover. I focused on the chapters concerning the Battles for Galicia and the Carpathian Winter campaign. Wawro illuminated the decisions, tactics and battles which occurred with many fascinating details. The book was well written, but Wawro could not help but take every opportunity to let the reader know just how bad the Austro-Hungarian leadership was. He had trouble hiding his opinions, to the point of bias.
Wawro used much of the narrative to point out every last flaw of the high command, both personal and professional. On many occasions Wawro would have been better off just letting the facts speak to the points he was trying to make. Conversely, Wawro pretty much ignored the Russian Army’s incompetence. They were victorious only because the Austro-Hungarian high command was so bad. Both sides were sorely lacking in leadership, common sense and discipline. The Russians were victorious because Austria-Hungary committed suicide with frontal assaults, multi-day marches that exhausted the troops and a lack of artillery support. If anything, it is a wonder that the Austro-Hungarian Army did not disintegrate. Of course the Russians played a large role in this because they were not capable of delivering the fatal death blow that a more competent army would have done.
A Family Affair – The Wawros & World War
The most gripping part of the book – in my opinion the best – had nothing to do with battles and tactics. Instead it came in the acknowledgments. This is not a section I normally read, but in this case I was certainly glad I did. Wawro used the first half of the acknowledgments to talk about his family connection to Galicia and his trips to the region while researching the book. He tells of his great grandparent’s immigration from Galicia to the United States in 1914. This occurred just in the nick of time to avoid the war. If they had waited a few months longer, it is likely that both of his grandparents would have perished. Reading this suddenly made me aware of all those voices which had been silenced by the war. In all likelihood, the history of the Eastern Front has been lost to westerners as much because of the massive casualties as any language barrier. How many stories were lost, would be historians killed and descendants never born because of the war. Thank goodness that the Wawros left when they did.
Family was the critical force in both Wawro’s interest in the Battle of Galicia and his field research. The most memorable part of the acknowledgments section comes when Wawro writes about the research trips he took with his mother together across the region. He says, “my mother…gamely rented a car in Vienna and drove with me all the way to Zabaraz sharing the potholes, watery beer, bribes, thefts, and other tribulations (including being struck and nearly obliterated by an army jeep at an intersection in Bukovina).” Wawro’s mother was well beyond senior citizenship when she traveled with her son to a wild and mysterious Eastern European backwater. She’s a lovably confused guide. Wawro recalls “an indelible memory of her in the passenger seat of our rented Opel, peering at grainy photocopies of old Habsburg general staff maps, patiently cross-referencing them with modern maps, and affecting not to notice as I slewed around country lanes roaring things like: ‘Mother, for the hundredth time, Hradec Kralove is Koniggratz.”
Deeply Personal – A Mother and Her Offspring
Judith Stoughton Wawro raised seven children after her husband died in a tragic accident that nearly killed her as well. An entire family matured and prospered under her tutelage, none more so than her youngest son, Geoffery. She kept up with him even when they were oceans apart. When he was lonely and depressed in Vienna, drowning in a sea of archives, Ms. Wawro installed Skype on her computer (she was in her mid-80’s) and called her son to perk up his flagging spirits. The acknowledgements section of A Mad Catastrophe makes it quite apparent that without the deep bond between mother and son, the book would likely have never been written. Family roots are an abiding inspiration for Geoffery Wawro. From grandparents to parents to son, several generations of Wawros crisscrossed the Atlantic, first in search of a better life and then in search of the past. It is a story almost too good to be true. Like the best kinds of history, its roots are personal, deeply personal.