The Real German War Plan: 1904-1914 — Terence Zuber

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.

The Ostrogoths – Thomas Hodgkin

This is Volume III in a set of books reissued by the Folio Society – “The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire“ – that trace the invasions of the Roman Empire and Italy from the time of the Emperor Julian until Charlemagne in 800.  This volume takes the story up to the eve of the attempt by the Emperor Justinian to retake North Africa and Italy in 530 or so.

This period begins with Odovacar ruling in Italy and doing a reasonable job of it, as evidenced by the number of prominent Romans that joined the administration.  Meanwhile, the Ostrogoths were trying to find a place in the Balkans and the Eastern Empire.  In a replay of the situation with the Visigoths in th 470s, the east attempted to play the Ostrogoths off against other tribes in the area to reduce both.  As in 476, this didn’t work out again – Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king managed to beat the other and absorb most of the forces.  Finally, tired of the effort and possibly prodded by the Eastern Empire, the Ostrogoths moved out of the Balkans into Italy.

The Ostrogoths had a difficult passage, but in the end managed to scatter Odovacar’s forces and shut him up in Ravenna.  From that point, 490, Theodoric and the Ostrogoths ruled Italy.  It took a siege of several years for Ravenna to surrender.

Theodoric ruled Italy well also, being for the most part religiously tolerant.  Many of the same Roman grandees that worked with Odovacar ended up working with him.  But when Theodoric died in 526, problems began to appear.  The new king Athalaric was a child, and the Eastern Emperor Justinian had sent his general Belisarius to north Africa to take on the Vandals.  This he managed to do with dispatch, and the rule of the Vandals was over.

Theodoric’s daughter Amalasuntha was regent, and might have been a good one. But the Gothic leaders did not go along with her.  The first thing they did was interfere in the discipline she had over the king.  Once freed of her influence, the young king rewarded the leaders by drinking and partying himself into an early grave.

Events started to move quicker in 534.  Amalasuntha began to take steps to protect herself, shipping the treasury to a port in the Eastern Empire and sending assassins to deal with her rivals. She also began to negotiate surrender of Italy to Justinian secretly.  Justinian was also dickering with another Goth, Theodahad, who was willing to surrender North Italy for a price.

At this point the king died, and Amalasuntha decided to support Theodahad to be joint ruler with herself in the election of the next King.  This was a big mistake, as Theodahad was a scoundrel and soon had her strangled in her bath.  This was just the pretext that Justinian needed for war.

The Huns and the Vandals – Thomas Hodgkin

This is Volume II in a set of books reissued by the Folio Society – “The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire“ – that trace the invasions of the Roman Empire and Italy from the time of the Emperor Julian until Charlemagne in 800.  This volume takes the story up to the fall of the Western Empire in 476.  The two sections cover the years in the 430s and 440s when the Huns under Atilla dominated the scene, the latter covers the last twenty years when the hope of recovery was in an expedition to Africa to defeat the Vandals.  In the end two attempts were made – one by the Western Empire under Majorian and one by the Eastern Empire, and both were defeated by the Vandals.  After these disasters, the West was too weak to recover.

In the years before Attila, Hunnic mercenaries were a major factor in keeping the Germanic peoples occupying parts of Gaul and Spain in check. When Attila took over and became expansionist, this prop was removed.  Only desperate exertions and an alliance with the Visigoths managed to parry the Huns’ invasion of Gaul at the Catalaunian Plains (or Chalons).  The following year’s invasion of Italy was even more difficult to repel – this is the famous scene of Pope Leo the Great convincing Attila to spare Rome.

With Attila’s death, the threat of his invasion was gone, but the nations he had ruled soon broke free and became additional threats to Rome – the Ostrogoths, Lombards, Rugians were soon on the move for themselves.  With the West declining in power yearly as more land was taken and fewer taxes paid to support the army, the only hope for recovery was in an invasion of North Africa to recover the lost province from the Vandals.

The Vandals were led by Gaiseric, another of the huge figures of the time. It seems that only he could have turned the Vandals into a major nation – both before and after his life they were pretty easily worked over by their neighbors.  He died just a few years after Rome fell, so it is easy to imagine how with some luck, or slightly different circumstances Africa might have been retaken and financed a survivor regional state in Italy – much like the Eastern Empire survived to 1453.

After the failure of the second attempt in 468, the end was rapid. The Visigoths in Gaul began to expand again, while Ricimer, the generalissimo in the West defeated the Eastern Empire backed Emperor Anthemius in 472.  His own candidate, Olybrius soon died, followed by Ricimer himself.

After this, the end was at hand. A sign of the times is when a current Generalissimo decided to quit and go back to ruling his Germanic tribe rather than the Empire – which was limited to Italy by now. A few more spasms, and finally the leader of the Germanic units of the army, Odoacer, decided to dispense with the farce and become ruler himself to give his troops land in lieu of pay.

Why did Rome fall?  The real question is how had it survived for so long?  One major answer is that through its history, Rome was able to use the efforts of different regions to support the whole – and those it was conquering not so long before.  Hadrian was from Spain, Septimus Severus from North Africa, a whole raft of great Emperors from Illyria.  But in the late 300s and 400s, the empire needed to fully use the Goths and Germans to defend itself, but never could manage to give them full power.  Couple this with the increasing estrangement of the East, removing financial support and there you have it


The Mucker Series – Edgar Rice Burroughs

I read these three novels on the Kindle – “The Mucker”, “The Return of the Mucker” and “The Oakdale Affair”.  Billy Byrne is, oddly, not a smart or educated fellow, but instead a small time thug.  He starts making a place for himself in the criminal gangs of Chicago.  But this happy life is aborted when he is named the killer of a shopkeeper by the police.  He’s innocent, and only a warning from a cop that he saved from a beating allows him to escape.  He flees to San Francisco, and is shanghaied onto a ship and becomes a sailor.

This is actually good for him, as the lack of drink and hard work gives him some pride.  However, the ship and crew are involved in a kidnapping conspiracy to grab the daughter of a rich man for ransom.  At first he hates and resents her, but as time goes on he begins to try to win her respect.  The escaped ship is wrecked on a Pacific Island inhabited by a tribe of strange Japanese Samurai – Headhunter crossbreeds.  When the girl is kidnapped, Billy rescues her and together they live on the island, where she teaches him to speak and behave better.  Weeks later, her father and fiancée arrive at the island and are captured too. Billy rescues them, and leads the savages off after being severely wounded.  Believing him dead, the others escape the island, leaving him behind.  But Billy does survive, and eventually makes it back to the US and becomes a fighter.  He and the girl meet and even though in love, Billy leaves her to marry the man of her class.

In the second book, Billy goes back to Chicago and is arrested.  He escapes and becomes a hobo, along with Bridge, a poetic gentleman hobo.  They drift down to Mexico, where the country is torn by criminal bands.  There they run into the girl and her father, who apparently have just as bad a selection of vacation spots as ever.  Billy has to save pretty much everybody, and get them to the US.  There, instead of being arrested he finds that the true killer has confessed and he is cleared.

The third book is only related by the character of Bridge – it is a ‘hobo chic’ story of a young girl escaping a marriage by becoming a hobo, a proto “Scooby Doo” mystery haunted house, a gypsy and a semi trained pet bear, and a couple of murders and robberies and kidnappings to solve.  If it sounds confusing, it is.  In the end, it is revealed that Bridge is a rich guy and he and the runaway girl have fallen in love.  Presumably they return to a life of status, or maybe they go on being hobos.

Like all of Burroughs’ works, these books read easily.  Billy’s personal growth in the first book is a nice change of pace.  The other two are more conventional stories with the standard hero-girl-adventure-love arc that is pretty common in stories of this era.

The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914 – Terence Zuber

World War I is one of the most frustrating wars to read about that I am aware of.  Even from the start I was wondering why virtually every history seems to ignore the fronts the French fought on, even though they covered far more miles than the British did.

Yet every history seems to go Liege – Mons – Marne – Ypres and it isn’t until the Germans attack Verdun that you hear about the French again.  Yet somewhere between those lines they fought and lost a million men or so.

Even the details you do hear seem strange – the French attacked entrenchments machine guns.  Since these battles were fought in Belgium and France, the Germans must have carried the trenches along.  Somehow they forgot to carry them to the next big battle at the Marne, though.

This is where this book comes in.  Given the worthlessness of most histories, Zuber is starting over with the actual unit reports by the regiments involved to see what they wrote at the time about the actions.  While this gives you only a ‘gnats eye view’, it shows that the descriptions of these battles don’t fit the conventional view.

I couldn’t find a good map so I will have to use words.  It is August 21, 1914 and the Germans are moving into France and Belgium.  The north part of the front is extending west with three armies forming the right wing ( I, II, III ).  The south front is north-south from Switzerland in Alsace-Lorraine (VI, VII armies).  In the center, IV and V are trying to keep the two ends linked.  At this point the Germans and French begin to move in contact.

But here the V army decides to attack in a south-west direction at the French rather than directly west to cover IV army’s flank.  This exposes IV army, right where the French battle plan has the best two armies attack north.  Strategically, things could not be better – the army they are striking is unready, the other is out of position to help.

But instead of a French victory, a disaster results. Even though on the offensive, the French stumbled onto German units unexpectedly.  Rather than attacking “to the utmost”, most units were pinned down by fire from rifles and artillery and cut up severely.  In general, the German units were better trained, and managed to get the upper hand in these engagements.  Support arrived for the front line units on the German side, while the French mid-level and high command had little to no idea of what was happening.

So rather than foolishly attacking, the French never really got any attack started at the tactical or strategic level.  Soon the two central armies were reeling back.  On the German side, the V army fumbled its chance to rupture the line entirely, and the French armies were allowed to reel back in defeat and break contact.

Rather than having some master plan, the German high command changed its plans and hesitated to follow up.  This is understandable, as no one was ready to fight at this scale on either side.  Luckily for them, the well-trained units pulled off the win without much help from higher up.  The French failures continue from high command to small units.  While the troops were brave enough, the failure of reconnaissance and mid level command meant each unit was caught off guard and fought alone, often in bad positions.  While they stayed put, the opposing German units maneuvered to make their situation even worse.

So I didn’t know a lot about these battles, and what I did know turned out to be false.  The French Plan wasn’t a bad one, and the Germans gave them an opening. But when push came to shove, the French were not able to defeat the Germans, because they were not well-trained enough in the kind of fighting the 20th Century required.

Notable Historical Trials III – Aaron Burr

Another Chapter down in the Folio Society’s trials book.  This one is about the rogue Vice President, Burr.  No, it isn’t about his shooting of Alexander Hamilton, but about his being arraigned for attempting to either set up and empire out of the Midwest USA or out of the Spanish posessions adjacent to it.

It seems like in the end, the government jumped the gun on this one.  Jefferson hated Burr, and did not wait until he had actually done something overt to grab him.  This seemed to be the crux of why he ended up being acquitted of treason, but still maligned by the people of the country afterward.

The Artillery Service in the War of the Rebellion – John C. Tidball

This work is a newly reprinted collection gathered from a turn-of-the-20th century journal. Tidball was a veteran of the Civil War, serving with the horse artillery in the East.  He stayed with the army and became a teacher of artillery, writing the Army Manual on the subject.

The book is an overview of the organization of the artillery and its practice in battle during the war.  Tidball is very critical of the lack of organization – the scattering of batteries under infantry officers, the absence of staff and higher ranks to administer for the guns, and the lack of promotion for gun officers, and when they did get promoted they became infantry officers!

There is a partly funny anecdote showing some of the confusion – at one point the War Department was refusing to allow artillery generals, saying that batteries were companies and so few companies needed no general. and the Army was saying that the artllery needed no officers above Captain, since they were regiments and the only officers needed above the regimental level were Generals.

He traces in early battles how, ironically, artillery tended to do better when ccnfusion shook the guns out of the tight lockdown with small units and allowed them to act as a more independent arm. The Army of the Potomac was lucky in that they always had one unit, the Artillery Reserve, that acted in that fashion.  The Western armies had to ‘discover’ this in the confusion of each battle.

With time, the armies reorganized into a system where batteries were collected at the Corps level and some moderate command and staff were given to control the guns, taking the responsibility from the infantry commander.  While the ranks weren’t as high as they probably should have been — personally I think that a battery should be considered as a regiment, and so be led by majors and colonels.  This would let corps level officers be colonels and generals, and outrank battery commanders, and would let the chief of artillery for an army be equivalent to a corps commander in rank.

In any event, it is an interesting look at the arm, and of the battles viewed from the side of the gunners.  I’m especially interested because my ancestor served in an artillery battery in the war.