Watson’s splendid book combines great evocative power (and flashes of sharp humour) with the ethical authority of the best history writing. The story it tells is unsettling, because it resists any attempt to encompass the death and violence of war within a narrative of redemption. It recalls instead a war that never really ended, but rather spilled out into cascades of further violence whose toxic effects are still with us today.
Watson vividly evokes daily life during the siege: the food shortages that led to the slaughter of 10,000 horses; the ubiquity of prostitution including celebrated courtesans like “Ella and Hella”, who may or may not have been Russian spies; and the unprecedented airmail service that delivered soldiers’ postcards from within the besieged city. Before surrendering to the Russians, the Habsburg command blew up the fortifications – “a final act of Götterdämmerung” – so that the enemy would not be able to use them. According to one commentator, the explosions were “horrible … and yet of such sublime greatness that the destruction of Pompeii or Herculaneum could not have offered a sight more awesome”.
Alexander Watson tells this story beautifully, giving the reader a vivid sense of the city, its exotic ethnic and cultural mix, its churches and synagogues, hotels, waterworks, theatres, cinemas and cafes, as well as the cavernous forts in which the defenders ate, slept and cowered. Thanks to formidable research in archives in six countries and the use of a host of printed primary sources, he is able to bring to life the people, both civilians and soldiers, who lived through these events, and illustrates their experiences with poignant vignettes. His exposure of the breathtaking incompetence of the Austrian high command is both shocking and hilarious; his wit and keen sense of the ridiculous alternate with his evident compassion in describing this black farce.
...another superb account of the Central Powers’ war – which by any measure of suffering, savagery and incompetence was no different from the Allies’ – and a rivetingly detailed drama of life under siege (which has deservedly won the Wolfson History Prize). It is excellent history, a marvellously readable, though tragic, story of its time and of how the clock can be made to turn backwards under siege conditions; and in its account of the Habsburg commanders’ unshakable vanity, philandering and cockiness it has plenty of modern resonances as a parable of arrogant exceptionalism, imperial conceit and perilous isolationism.
Watson’s account of these men’s experience of battle is a brilliant distillation of their letters, diaries and memories. The voices of the siege convey its horror and the terror of men who had to endure it and suppress their fear of death. On both sides officers endeavoured to steady the ranks with appeals to patriotism and religious fervour. As Russian infantrymen prepared to storm a fort, a general assured his men that “God and the prayers of all Russia” were with them.