The battle that changed the world
“The Marne, 1914,” by Holger H. Herwig, is an account of the opening weeks of World War I that bears the subtitle “The Battle that Changed the World.”
That sounds like a pretty strong claim, but the author does a pretty good job of showing why he made such a claim. A professor of history at the University of Calgary, he had already written a history of that entire war, and this volume goes into great detail about the opening. Whereas an account of four years of fighting must of necessity restrict descriptions of some actions, this volume is replete with details of how individual units reacted. Be prepared for accounts of named (and numbered) companies as well as regiments and armies.
A story of World War I must include descriptions of Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff in the 1890s and until 1905. He devised the plan that was supposed to defeat France in a relatively few weeks, so the German army could turn its full force against Russia. Around 1899 Schlieffen read about the wars between Rome and Carthage, and how a Carthaginian army led by Hannibal outflanked a larger Roman force at Cannae and utterly crushed it. So Schlieffen’s plan for France was to hold the French military at their borders while sweeping with a much larger force in a flanking attack through Belgium and northwestern France. The German extreme right wing was to go west and south of Paris before swinging east to trap the French forces against the eastern frontiers.
The book’s author says: “The idea of a gigantic battle of encirclement and annihilation against French forces now became an idee fixe with Schlieffen. Over time, it became less a historical event and more a philosophical construct. In the process ... he subordinated considerations of statecraft to purely operational concepts. As well, Schlieffen chose to ignore the fact that Rome, rather than Carthage, eventually won the Punic Wars.”
Going through Belgium ensured that the British would come in on the side of France. Schlieffen’s plan did not allow room for vagaries on the part of his successors. Von Moltke, chief at the outbreak of fighting, had only his predecessor’s plan to work with, but took some forces away from the right flank to guard against a naval invasion from the North Sea and added more troops than Schlieffen had allowed to the left flank of the German forces.
The author gives great credit to Joseph Joffre, the French top commander, not only for keeping his head when things turned out to be different from what he planned, but also for using the utmost tact in dealing with the British forces that were fighting alongside the French but which were not under his official command.
Communications were primitive. Telephone and telegraph units seldom caught up with the forces. And the wearing effect of long marches on foot in intense heat caused conditions among the troops that Schlieffen had made little provision for.
As a result of this and other factors the German right wing swung east before passing Paris, and the combined French-British attack at the Marne halted the German advance and led very soon to the trench warfare that dominated for the next four years.
Some of the German records were destroyed by Allied bombing of Potsdam during World War II. Others were taken to Moscow and only returned to Germany at the end of the Cold War. The author had access to those, and also made use of Saxon army records that were not available in the West until the reunification of Germany. (It is somewhat startling to see the author refer consistently to East Germany as “the German Democratic Republic.”)
Maps in the book leave something to be desired. The text mentions towns that are hard to locate on maps. Also, Alsace and Lorraine were provinces of Germany at the outset of the war, so it’s sometimes hard to tell if communities in those regions are called by their French names or the German versions.
But by and large this is a very worthwhile effort going into great detail on actions that did indeed turn out to be pivotal to the ultimate outcome.
The author dedicated the book to a grandson and to the memory of his grandfather who, he says, was killed in Lorraine in 1918. The dedication doesn’t say which side the grandfather was fighting on, but adds: “Time connects our futures with our pasts.”
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.