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.