Thursday, August 14, 2014

World War I Recent Reads: Decisive Battles Edition

In The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2009), Holger H. Herwig wrote, "The Marne was the most significant battle of the twentieth century." (p. xi) It really wasn't a single battle, but a collection of bloody engagements that marked the opening two months of the war in the west and set the tone of the conflict to come. Herwig covers the French offensive into Lorraine, known as the Battle of the Frontiers (which, like the Marne, was made up of many engagements), as well as the German attacks to the north through Belgium and in the center towards Nancy. The casualties were enormous, and the German drive on Paris was stopped. The soldiers dug in and settled into their trenches, and there would be no appreciable move in the front lines until 1918. This is an exciting read, well argued and sourced. To me, Herwig's account depicts the campaigns as a series of errors and missteps. None of the commanders come off well, with Helmuth von Moltke coming off the worst. Herwig gives attention to the German fascination with the Battle of Cannae, Hannibal's crushing victory over the Romans in 216 BCE. This fixation with a decisive knock out punch made it difficult for the Germans officers to play the kind of small ball warfare that developed. They let opportunities slip away so that they the could try to set the stage for the next attempt at a Cannae-like victory. One other thing I learned in this: I did not know that the original Schlieffen Plan called for Italians to man the Lorraine front against the French, while more German soldiers would be put in the main attack force through Belgium. Of course, the Italians opted out of their alliance with the Central Powers, and the Germans had to guard their own frontiers.

In Breakthrough: The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915 (Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger, 2010) Richard L. DiNardio covers the decisive battle of the eastern front. In fact, he argues that the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign re-set the war on all fronts in Germany's favor. The Central Powers regained the upper hand that they lost on the Battle of the Marne, and dealt the Russian army a blow that they did not recover from. Unlike Moltke's grand plan to reach Paris in one swift movement, Field Marshal August von Mackensen's plan moved from one objective to the next as a series of independent offensives. The first target was Przemsyl, then Lemberg, and finally Warsaw. Each one fell into their hands more easily than they thought, setting the stage for the next drive east. Unlike the Battle of the Marne, these battles were masterpieces of operational art that utilized the latest technologies, like the telephone. DiNardio has high praises for Mackensen and his staff, and takes a few swipes at General Erich von Ludendorff. Ironically, despite the clear military success of the campaign, it failed in its diplomatic objectives of persuading Italy and Romania to remain neutral. Considering their liabilities to the Allies, that might not have been a total diplomatic defeat for the Germans.

My big takeaway from these books is how difficult operational planning was during World War I. They did not always effectively utilize the latest technologies (railroads, telephones, automobiles, planes), had very limited intelligence, and little experience moving the vast formations under their command. If Herwig's book shows the failure of the Germans to set realistic and obtainable objectives, DiNardio's shows that they learned that lesson well enough. 

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