Like his book on the Battle of the Frontiers, this is a new look at World War I..or rather in this case the planning of the Germans on how to act in the war that everyone was expecting after the win in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. And as in that book, the revision is backed up by an analysis of copies of the actual war plans and exercises the Germans performed in the period before the war.
I picked up this book on Kindle – the first new book I have done that with. Before I was reading huge collections of public domain books. I have no complaints with the edition, the maps were as visible as can be expected from a unit the size of a paperback book. I will have to view it in the Kindle Viewer on a larger screen and see how it improves.
The first figure to topple is the Schlieffen Plan itself. Schlieffen, who was in charge of the planning in the beginning of this period, is the author of the German Master Plan to swing the right wing through Paris and destroy the French in one huge battle.
The first interesting fact that comes out is that the exercises Schlieffen performed, none were of this plan. There were also other problems.
First, at the time Schlieffen crafted this plan, the French had a superior artillery arm, the recoilless ’75. Since the gun did not recoil, it could fire much faster than the German equivalent. It also could add a gun shield to protect the crew. Until the Germans produced a matching gun, going to war would lead to defeat.
A second issue is the plan itself. In order to have enough forces, the plan had to invent over twenty new divisions that did not and never did exist, and even then found that this preponderance of force did not allow the plan to work.
A third strike is that the plan itself, which was not found in any official location, was written after his retirement! It seems clear that this was some sort of thought experiment rather than a real plan.
Apparently at some point after the war, this was put forward as the supposed plan – whether to make a case for war guilt against Germany, or for surviving staffers to use to club the former high command for screwing up the ‘perfect plan’ isn’t clear.
After knocking down the supposed actual plan during this entire period, Zuber then trots out the actual plans for this period, and reports of exercises testing out these plans. None resemble the Schlieffen Plan. They adapt with time to changing political events – at one point some plans assume the Italians would deploy divisions to help out on the Western Front. Some are predicated on war with Russia alone, and thus remain on strict defense on the Western Front. As time went on, this plan became unrealistic and only one War Plan remained – deploy most forces to the west, defeat the French on the frontiers and then redeploy forces to stop Russia.
Not surprisingly, this is just about how it went when the war started.
This puts a bit of a nail in the coffin of a lot of the critiques of Moltke the Younger in the campaign – the transfer of troops east was not a critical lapse away from a perfect plan but following the actual plan, be it good or bad. In the Frontier book Zuber himself relates how the High Command lost its grip on the Army Generals and the Generals lost their grip on the situation. Given the situation, leading huge armies for the first time, this isn’t all that shocking.
Zuber also relates to a lesser extent the evolution of the French plans, and how they became more offensive in character with time. Oddly, though, the massively criticized after the fact French emphasis on Elan could not have had any effect on the early battles, as the manuals were not published and distributed until just before the war, and the lax French training standards meant that virtually no troops would have been influenced by them. And in his book on the Frontier Battles he shows that in fact, the French were often hesitant and confused in unexpected combat situation and that caused the huge losses, instead of the legend of ‘bayonet assaults onto trenches’ in these early battles.
Many of the readers of the book are irritated at Zuber’s relating that the German plan was less offensive in character than the French. Personally, these kind of issues bore me, as losers always get the guilt. But it is true that the French plan was to strike the Germans fast, and in the war itself the first battles were all on German turf. Would the Germans have advanced too? Sure.
Look at the Politicians for who does or does not get the guilt for starting the War. Plans are just Plans. In this period, the USA had plans for fighting Canada and invading it, fighting the British Navy, and so on. And Canada had plans for invading the USA. That’s how the world works, then and now.