Challenge of Battle – Adrian Gilbert

The Real Story of the British Army in 1914

As a believer in the recent revisionism on the First World War, I often am annoyed by the way the war is reported in most histories.  The standard view is a Liege, a dash of German offensive, Mons, the Marne, then Ypers.  After that you have some Verdun, a bit of Somme and the British offensive in Flanders in 1917 and then the crisis of 1918 and victory.  Notice the relative lack of discussion of anything French.

This book was refreshing because while it was a history of British operations and the army alone, so the lack of mention of the primary allied partner is excusable, at least it did not recycle the overblown depiction of the combat power of the BEF at Mons and actually described anything between the Marne and Ypres.  And it is overall a great depiction of an army introduced to a new sort of warfare, and how it dealt with and eventually survived the process.

Like all armies in 1914, the actual results were a mixed bag.  When troops had good positions and artillery support, they held well and inflicted severe losses.  When turned or unsupported by guns, they could be pounded themselves.  The BEF was a good outfit, but the tasks it had to take on meant it eventually was destroyed in the process.  When the British next took the offensive, it would be with essentially a new army raised for the purpose.

A very good corrective to the standard gung-ho treatment.

A Mad Catastrophe – Geoffrey Wawro

The Outbreak of World war I and the collapse of the Hapsburg empire

The East Front in WWI is very unrepresented in the historic literature, but some new books are coming out for the centennial.  This book centers on the first year of the war effort of Austria-Hungary in WWI, where a whirlwind of bad planning, poor preparation, foolish decisions, and political flaccidness led to an uninterrupted series of disasters in the field that led to them becoming an arm of the German war effort.

The strength of this book is the background it gives on Austria-Hungary, which is pretty rare.  The internal political strains are an important factor in why the army was allowed to lag behind other major powers.  All the powers would find themselves not prepared for the kind of war WWI turned out to be.  Austria-Hungary was unprepared for the last war before that.

Austria-Hungary was unique in having the worst initial war plan.  As much as you might scoff at the supposed Schleiffen Plan, or the .French Plan XVII, what the A-H army planned to do bordered on the insane.  Feeling the need to invade Serbia to punish them for killing the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, they diverted a major part of the army South to Serbia.  But given the rapid increase in Russian units on the other front, this army was then planned to be shipped right back north across the entire country to face the Russians!

Despite the lack of many forces, the A-H army attacked the Russians in the Polish salient right off.  While this had some initial success, the half of the Russian army not tied down by the troops being shuttled to Serbia and back were able to attack into the rear of the advancing troops and send them tumbling back and away.

The offensive into Serbia was an embarrassing failure from the start.  The land is extremely rugged, and the A-H army didn’t have much artillery that could handle the vertical slopes.  The first offensive fell apart.

And if at first you fail, well, do it all over again.  For the rest of the autumn, the army tried and failed to defeat the Serbs, and the Russians as well.  None worked, and the cost was disastrous.  Even the Germans could not prevail and push the Russians out of Poland, having to retreat twice.  The Austrians were pushed back to the top of the Carpathian mountains.

Ironically, the betrayal of the Central Powers by Italy the next year would lead to a resurgence of a sort by A-H.  Many of the varied ethnic minorities in the nation were ambivalent or worse about fighting the Slavic Serbia or Russia.  But all could agree to fight the hated Italians, who were as unready for serious warfare as Austria-Hungary had been the year before.  The savage battles of the Isonzo – twelve in all, creatively named the First through Twelfth Battles – would at least give the country a taste of victory to match the losses.

Verdun – John Mosier

The Lost History of the most important battle of World War i, 1914-1918

John Mosier is one of the group of ‘revisionist’ historians who have collectively helped fill in the gaps that are created by the standard line of historiography that has dominated the field for as long as I have been reading about it.  Even when I had no additional information, I was vaguely aware of the limits in the West Front dominated, England-centric view which starts with the Schleiffen Plan – BEF – Mons – Marne – Ypres – Verdun – Somme and so on.  In this view the French hardly seem to be involved in the war at all!  Surely they had something to do with it.  Also, the million or so Americans somehow never get mentioned.

Mosier’s theory, first brought out in “The Myth of the Great War”, is that much of the history is distorted.  The Germans maintained a large tactical advantage over the French and especially the English throughout the war, based on better tactical flexibility and integrated use of large caliber artillery pieces with the ground forces.  The Allies did not catch up partly because they ground up their experienced soldiers repeatedly in yet another big push.  The Americans were able to match the Germans tactically because their large, fresh forces were taught by the French mountain troops to use similar tactics to the Germans themselves, and broke the stalemate in the Allies favor.

This book, Verdun, is following the same view of the war, but has centralized the focus to the area around the fortified region around Verdun.  He widens the scope to the battles in the region in 1914 and 1915, where the city was nearly surrounded in the first offensives, then subsequent September 1914 German offensives again nearly isolated the city, followed by frantic French counteroffensives that bled them white while gaining nothing.

Then came the German major offensive in 1916 that is better known, although Mosier convincingly contends that many major incidents are misunderstood.  Then came the Nivelle offensive, which claimed to push the Germans back to their start line.  There was only one problem – it didn’t, and they knew it.  So for the next year the French had to attack in that area under Petain and could take no credit, since they were taking the positions that they were supposed to have been taken the year before.  However, the small, limited goal offensives did rebuild the morale of the army.  They took positions, and the leadership didn’t bleed them to death doing it.

In 1918 the Americans came, and in separate operations on either flank of Verdun swept the Germans back in the St Mihiel offensive and then turned and ground them out of the Ardennes tangles in the Meuse-Argonne offensives.  They were able to beat the Germans in major operations, which was something the French lacked the strength to do.

As in his other book, this is not a tactical level account of individual battles, but more of a military and political analysis of these battles and the war around it.  But it makes sense, and fits with some of the other new historians’ theories too.

Infantry Attacks – Erwin Rommel

Yes, this book was written by that Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’.

In the early 1930s, Erwin Rommel, then a middling officer in the small German army, wrote this book about his experiences as a small unit leader in World War I to help train new officers in what works and what does not work in war.  Rommel had received several medals for his actions so a lesson coming from him would be that much more impressive.

Rommel fought in France, Romania, and Italy, often in difficult terrain in operations carried out on a shoestring. The story of each action describes the situation, and what the unit did and how it worked out.  After each is a quick summary listing some lessons that could be derived from the battle.

But it isn’t just a dry tactical lesson – he also goes into the personal details of how he and his men felt at the time, how it felt to be stuck in a tight place like a mountainside without much food or equipment during these actions.  I suppose in a way that might be just as essential a preparation for a new officer as the arrows on a map.

The book shows in miniature the traits that he would use to thwart the Commonwealth in the Western Desert and France in the next war.  Making activity and enterprise overcome an enemy with a superiority in numbers and materiel.  If the Allies had read this, they might have had an idea of what they were in for.

Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm – Robert M. Citino

The Evolution of Operational Warfare

This book completes the set started by The Quest for Decisive Victory, tracin operational warfare during the 20th Century.  Like the first, it hits the major wars but adds in some new examples that may perhaps be less well known – like the Indo-Pakistan War in 1971.

It also showcases the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s as an example of operational failure.  Interestingly Vietnam gets mixed reviews.  The set-piece battles show that the US could still match up in conventional battle, but the rest of the war shows deficiencies in the strategic goals and tactical methods in play.  In a way it was similar to the Germans in the USSR in World War II – the operational wins couldn’t save the situation that the lack of planning put the troops into.  In the case of Vietnam winning the guerrilla war would have taken more intensive use forces on the ground and thus more losses and likely even extending the conflict beyond the borders of South Vietnam.  This was something that the country wasn’t willing to do.

There’s even a quick overview of the war that never happened – a Soviet offensive in Germany in the 70s or 80s.  Missing that one was a good thing for both sides.

Together, the two books make a great survey of the conflicts of the century and where things went right or wrong and why.

Vanished Kingdoms – Galicia

This chapter in Norman Davies‘ history of vanished states in Europe is a bit more problematic than the others.  The “Kingdom” of Galicia was formed as a way for Austria to organize the provinces stolen from Poland in the partitions in the late 1700s.  It also made the Emperor of Austria a triple monarch instead of a dual one.  But it seems a stretch to call this swath of Polish/Ukrainian turf a lost kingdom in any real sense.

Also in contrast to the other tales of states that rose to near greatness and influence, Galicia seems to be described here as more of a charming tourist destination with colorful peasant dances and quaint cultural sights – and low prices!  Book your tour now!

While there is some information about the history of the province as a sleepy border area and a site of war in the first World War, it all felt a bit flat.  The other chapters in this book were major or at least important players in the history of Europe.  This one is not, and the pages might have been better spent on another state that was important.

The German Way of War – Robert M. Citino

This is the first in a trilogy that examines the way Germany (and before unification, Prussia) made war from the Thirty Years War up until the first years of the Second World War.

In the Thirty Years War Brandenburg-Prussia was a scattering of principalities in North-East Germany with no secure borders. Nearby were much larger and more powerful states like Sweden and Poland.  A strong and well-trained army was a way to keep enemies at bay, and a source of income in these days of mercenary armies.  A country as poor as Prussia was could not easily sustain this kind of force on its own resources.

Picking and chosing its sides to fight on also was a way to grow Prussia itself.  But these sides had to be carefully chosen, as the country could not sustain a long war itself.  An example of this was the Wars of Frederick the Great, where fast campaigns to grab a province (Silesia at the start of the War of the Austrian Succession and Saxony at the start of the Thirty Years War) were the opening of the war.  Frederick managed to hold onto Silesia, but was nearly brought to ruin during the Seven Years War.

Tactically, the Prussians needed a fast decision, so they relied on fast marching and decisive attacks to gain the day.  To limit bloodshed, they tried to use outflanking moves to gain access to the rear and avoid a long campaign.  The fact that Prussian troops could appear out of nowhere and attack hard put a damper on the spirits of the opposing French or Austrian or Russian troops that made the advantage even greater.

To support this kind of army, a kind of collegiate common outlook was cultivated in the aristocracy of Prussia.  Commanders needed to be aggressive and be able to take initiative in reaching the common goal.  As the marching columns needed to be on their own frequently, these leaders were encouraged to act as they thought best – even if this went against the overall master plan.    Loose cannons were rarely punished even when the errors cost battles or lives.

Prussia had a major setback when it was crushed by Napoleon in 1806.  The reforms were to add a staff officer to the command tent that paired a good thinker with a noble general  to provide a better mix of plan versus man of action.  But the man of action was in charge and still could override the plan at will.

Even as Prussia grew, it still felt itself to be a small state surrounded by larger ones.  Its war plans were still to strike hard and fast, and to use a short, limited war to gain its ends.  Bismarck was able to do this to unify Germany by striking the Austrians and French one at a time, but after that nations learned to group together.

As always, the German plan was to grab a province fast and strike the opposing armies hard to win a short war – in 1914 to hit the French hard and then turn on Russia.  This time it did not work, and the long war against all comers led to defeat.  This just reinforced the German feeling that wars needed to be quick and decisive, which led to the experimentation with tanks and airborne forces to break the stalemate.  Ironically, the limits on the army imposed by the Allies after WWI probably helped this process out, as the small size led to a concentration on theory and good cross-fertilization of ideas.  Perhaps a better idea would have been to force them to keep a few thousand generals over the age of sixty in charge instead!

These young Turks were the core of the German Generals that began the Second World War with a bang.  For a time, the quick blow worked and the armies took country after country.  But the ideology of a limited war by the army tied to the Nazi ideology of permanent societal change was always a bad pairing – there was no way to make a quick peace with just a province or two changing hands here.

And with that. the Germans were out of their depth even from the start.  The need for resources that were exposed to attack led to campaigns all over the map – Norway to protect the Swedish iron shipments, the Balkans and North Africa to protect Romanian oil…it was never a German priority to think these things through before getting into a war.

There was a story I read once that in WWI the Germans were shocked to find out that the supply of certain vital military supplies needed to fight the war came from Chile and France!  It was only due to breakthroughs by the chemists that they could fight the war without running out of ammunition.

The book ends with Barbarossa.  Why attack Russia?  The Germans were already stalemated in Britain and North Africa.  To win in North Africa would require a major change in logistics or a sea invasion of Malta, or both.  It was almost a sense of frustration that the army turned to striking Russia – this was the kind of war they were trained to fight in!

The only problem was that it was one they couldn’t win, as the poor roads, maps, and the ability of the Russians to raise more and more troops to face them made the limits of German war-making apparent early on.  And when the Russians became as battle seasoned as the Germans were, the handwriting was on the wall.

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 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.

Knight’s Cross update


I’ve progressed in this biography of Erwin Rommell, the famed German general, through his part in the first World War. The author did not spend a great deal of time here, but there was more detail than is usual on his actions as a junior officer in the war. It is interesting how similar on a smaller scale he was to his exploits later on a larger stage – the urge to attack even when in an uncertain position, the feeling that the rear areas and lines of communication would work themselves out, the unconcern with facing superior numbers of enemy.

To his credit, it pretty much always did work out for him.