Book Review – Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria in World War I by Alexander Watson

Lately (in the past couple of years, anyway), I’ve been reading a few World War I books, like The World Remade: America in World War I by G.J. Meyer and The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth.

One thing I haven’t really read much about, however, is how the war was waged from the Central Powers’ point of view (Austria-Hungary and Germany).

That changed when I started Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria in World War I by Alexander Watson.

Ring of Steel was published in 2014.

This book has a little bit about the military action, especially during 1916 and the Somme battle.

But it’s more about the other aspects of the war and how it affected society in these two empires.

Watson covers the war from its initial phases where the people, assuming that their countries were in the right and fearing the Russians on their eastern borders, were gung-ho for the conflict. As the war slogged on, the British blockade helped bring starvation and destitution to them, and anti-government protests became more and more common.

The book talks about the opening stages of the war, with the advances on the Western Front but also about Russian advances into both German and Austria-Hungarian territory in the East. While it does not shy away from German atrocities in the West, it also highlights the many atrocities that took place in the East as well.

“The invasions of Germany and Austria by Russia do not receive much mention in history books today. The victims have been largely forgotten, their suffering and the wrongs inflicted upon them disregarded. yet the importance of the Russian attacks cannot be overstated. The Tsarist army’s invasions in the east, far more than the contemporaneous German attack and ‘atrocities’ in the west, offer the closest link between the campaigns of 1914 and the genocidal horrors of the mid-twentieth century. Racial ideology, anti-Semitism and ambitious plans to remould and exclude populations, all hallmarks of later Nazi actions in the same region, characterized these operations.”

One of the points mentioned in the book often is the rising ethnic conflicts (anti-Semitism, but also between many of the other ethnic groups as well) , especially inside the Austria-Hungarian Empire, which was made up of many diverse ethnic groups. The Empire’s defeats during the first few months of the war stoked the fires of this conflict, especially when there were accusations of certain groups either helping the Russians or not doing enough to help the Empire.

Ring of Steel goes on to talk about mobilization in both countries, the increasing food shortages, and the German plans (and Austrian, though mostly as a subset of the German ones) for expansion at the end of the war. What would they be willing to settle for if peace talks were to actually take place?

This war of attrition had exhausted all sides and the idea that this was going to be a “short war” swiftly went away. Many history books talk about the effects of this on the soldiers and generals, and perhaps on the Entente side how it affected the population.

But what about the Central Powers?

Watson goes into great detail on that, using letters from soldiers to their families, or vice versa. Also used are journal entries from those waiting at home for news of their loved ones.

Watson also devotes an entire chapter on the ill-fated German decision to unleash unrestricted submarine warfare, and how fatal that decision was to the Central Powers’ war efforts. German admirals had predicted that unrestricted submarine warfare could starve the British people out of the war within six months, and would be worth the possibility of bringing the United States into the war.

It seems obvious in hindsight that there was no way this was going to happen.

The book ends, as it should, with the collapse of the Central Powers, the mutiny by German sailors who refused to carry out last-minute orders that would result in their deaths for no purpose. It also highlights a little bit of the post-war ethnic instability that took place in the East, something that’s talked about in more detail in The Vanquished.

Ring of Steel was a fascinating book. It’s extremely dense and took me a while to read, but every bit of it was interesting and a large part of it I hadn’t really known before.

Most books on World War I that I have read don’t really talk about the home fronts too much, or if they do it’s mostly about the Allied countries. There’s been nothing this in-depth on the Central Powers’ home fronts.

Not that these books don’t exist, but I haven’t read them.

One thing I was really pleased with was that each chapter (since they are long chapters) ends with a summary of the chapter. Not so much that you can just read the summaries and know everything, but enough that you can retain the main thrust of the chapter in your head.

This made writing this review a lot easier.

One thing that Watson does that made the book harder for me to read (so your mileage may vary) is that many of the paragraphs were extremely long. I found myself having to reread some of them because I was getting lost by the time I got to the end of the paragraph.

I’m not talking about having super-short paragraphs for those with short attention spans. I’m not that bad.

But many of these were just much longer than I am used to.

Maybe that’s common in academic books. I don’t know.

Anyway, if you have any interest in World War I, I encourage you to check this book out. It contains a lot of stuff that you may not have come across before.

Ring of Steel clocks in at 832 pages in hardcover, though many of those are notes. The book is definitely well-documented.

Give this one a try and let me know what you think.

I can think of a couple of people who may be interested (or may have already read it!)

5 Comments on “Book Review – Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria in World War I by Alexander Watson

    • I thought it would be right up your alley, considering your location and everything. It’s really interesting, and apparently the author’s main area of research (he’s a professor in the UK) is Eastern Europe, especially in World War I.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I definitely had a WW I reading phase… mostly during the centennials (so, 2014-2018). I think it’s because if I had been born a century earlier, chances are I’d be lying in a simple grave somewhere in France.
    I think the last one I read on the subject was David Stevenson’s 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read that one. It sounds good, though. I have a couple more in the pipeline, the next time I get back to World War I. But I’m reading some light stuff now, like a Star Trek book. LOL

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Book Review – Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria in World War I by Alexander Watson – THE FLENSBURG FILES

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