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.

Patton and Rommel – Dennis Showalter

Men of War in the Twentieth Century

I picked this book up for a couple of odd reasons.  Neither was wanting to read yet another biography of George Patton and/or Erwin Rommel.  That being said, this is a good biography of the pair of them.

My first reason was that I had seen that Robert Citino, whose books I have been reading recently, really talks up Showalter‘s work and I don’t think I have ever read his stuff.  The second reason was that it reminded me of an old computer game about the Normandy Breakout (it might have been called Patton vs Rommel) where each turn a little cut picture of an angry Rommel or Patton yelled at you for doing too many frontal attacks!

The book has good balance between the early years of both Generals and WWII, something that is often left out of shorter biographies.  It gives good context.  Showalter is respectful of his subjects without being worshipful, a pitfalls that biographies often fall into.

I think I will be looking out for other books by Showalter in the future.

Quest for Decisive Victory – Robert M. Citino

Subtitled “From Stalemate to Blitzkrieg in Europe, 1899-1940″, this book traces the dilemma facing war planners as the increasing firepower of infantry and artillery drove wars into stalemate.   The issue started to become apparent in the Boer War at the turn of the century, when the initial moves of England’s army were baffled by smaller, more mobile forces, resulting in serious losses.  The 1905 Russo-Japanese war showed the tendency for the forces to resort to entrenchments, which by WWI managed to reach from end to end of many fronts, resulting in a static front and high losses.

After WWI, all armies realized that the tank and aircraft were going to be key developments in the future.  The winners, however, tended to have institutional politics affecting the decision-making…usually it was the cavalry branch not wanting to be run out of business.  The integration of air power was also often limited by politics, with the air power advocates over-selling the importance of strategic air bombing by claiming that bombing of cities alone would win any future war.  This fear of mutual destruction by air drove a lot of the Allied hesitation in the early parts of WWII.

Ironically, the very act of dismantling the German Army after the Treaty of Versailles helped Germany avoid these issues, as the tiny army was inadequate for conventional answers, and the small size drove out the entrenched careerists that clog up the works in normal times.  That, and the German national bias toward combined arms and tight integration and quick wars aided them in finding the right solution – the Panzer Division, with mobile infantry, artillery, and tanks in unison, along with tactical air power at the point of attack.

The interwar period described here in detail is interesting, and Citino adds a dash of correction to the claims of the post-war “Armor Evangelists” like J.F.C Fuller and Lidell Hart and even Heinz Guderian to have seen the entire solution from the start.  He adds in the contributions of other, lesser known men like Hans von Seeckt.

Like Citino’s other books, this is an interesting and valuable history. It gives you a fresh look at even topics that have been rehashed time and time again.  I have a second book that seems to be a continuation of this one – “Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm”  that I will soon be giving a look to.

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.