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Crunchy

Lost Opportunity: The Battle of the Ardennes, 22 August 1914

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Crunchy

Lost Opportunity: The Battle of the Ardennes, 22 August 1914  Simon J House, Helion, Solihull, 2017. 252pp.

 

This outstanding book delivers on several fronts, and is a model of a campaign study. With a clear and easily read style Simon J. House presents an analysis of a crucial but rarely studied series of encounter battles in the opening campaign on the Western Front. In doing so he narrates what occurred from both the German and French sides, and discusses why and how events occurred, and the reasons for success and failure. A separate book of 60 coloured maps (referenced in the margin opposite the appropriate text) accompanies the narratives, providing a succinct and progressive understanding of events. Unlike many historians, House then addresses the underlying causes for success and failure: the political, bureaucratic, and military issues in both countries in the decades preceding the outbreak of war in 1914.

 

This book is the author's PhD study, during which he consulted French primary and secondary sources, and those that still remain of the German primary sources together with regimental histories and other studies. By studying the battles from both sides House presents a throughly convincing argument that shreds several myths that have been expounded by historians for a century.  Lost Opportunity: The Battle of the Ardennes, 22 August 1914 is presented in three parts.

 

Part One is an operational study of the opening moves of the French Third and Fourth Armies and the Imperial German Fourth and Fifth Armies during the middle weeks of August, moving from the operational to the tactical level as their respective corps and infantry divisions advanced and collided in a series of encounter battles in the Ardennes; forming part of the bloody Battles of the Frontiers. House shows both how the opportunities for French success evolved as gaps occurred in the German front, and how a decision by the Commander of the German Fourth Army partially remedied the situation and influenced the outcome of the Ardennes battle.

 

Part Two discusses in detail two key encounter battles,  Neufcheau and Maissin-Anloy, in which House argues the French missed two opportunities to seriously disrupt the German march forward into France; in both battles the French achieved a degree of success which was not exploited. It concludes with a discussion of the other encounters, including two devastating French defeats at Bertrix and Rossignal resulting in the destruction of two French divisions.  In all of them House analyses what went right and what went wrong on both sides, and shows that the much touted offensive a outrance against the dominance of German machine guns, which historians so readily attribute as the principal reason for the French defeats during the Battle of the Frontiers, is a myth - at least as far the Battle of the Ardennes is concerned.  The causes for French failure and German success were much more deep rooted.

 

Part Three is the tour de force of the book: an analysis of the underlaying pre-war preparations that contributed to French failure and German success. It is here that House underpins his case in shedding new light on the fundamental differences between the French and German approaches to preparing for war prior to 1914, how these contributed to the success and failure on both sides, and along the way he dismantles some long held and cherished myths regularly repeated by respected historians up to the present day. What is more he relates his analysis to aspects of the operations and battles discussed in the first two Parts of the book

 

Unlike most historians he opens with the political influences in both countries and their effect on the development of each army and their preparations for war.  The differences were stark. Most senior officers in modern democracies would resonate with the political  and bureaucratic interference that bedevilled the French Army during the first decade of the 20th Century.  This is followed a sound consideration of the opposing doctrines. Here House shatters the long held view of the offensive a outrance as a contributing factor to the early French defeats, highlighting how Grandmaison's views have been distorted by historians, that his ideas were introduced too late for them to become embedded in the French Army, and that the French and German doctrines at the tactical level were remarkably similar. Within the French Army, however, there was confusion in the application of doctrine on the battlefield.

 

Going hand in hand with doctrine, is the training that delivers an effective combat force for operations, and here the disparity between the French and Germans was most marked, especially at command and leadership levels. House does an excellent job in analysing the two systems from top to bottom, and identifying the reasons why one army was effective and the other deficient at divisional and corps level operations. Most interesting, however, is his consideration of the political implementation of the 1913 Three Year Law. In doing so House highlights its effect on the standard of training in the French active divisions in 1914 and their performance in the opening battles vis s vis the better trained reserve formations.

 

Finally we are treated to a discussion on the armaments of the two forces. Again a few myths are exposed, especially the lack of heavy howitzers in the French field army; in the Ardennes the French had more than the Germans, but it was the manner in which they were deployed which made the difference. House confirms the view that, unlike the British, the Germans were late in adopting the machine into their infantry regiments, with one reserve regiment in these encounter battles having none. He wraps up this superb book with a fine conclusion drawing the key treads together.

 

What makes Lost Opportunity so compelling is House presents the campaign from the perspective of each belligerent, giving equal weight to both. Nor does he accept primary sources at face value, but validates them with other documents and accounts. Hence we gain a much clearer and accurate picture of what occurred, which contributes to dispelling certain long held myths. Nor does House seek scapegoats, rather he strives to understand the complexities of the nature of the actions involved, the inter-relation and effect of each to the other, and the underlaying causes for failure and success. Overall his analysis and criticisms are balanced and fair, although his perceived criticism in a few instances of the French tactical commanders' inability to accurately determine the strength of the enemy they faced on the other side of the firing line is odd.  Soldier-scholars with combat experience would be more understanding of these difficulties and lack of clairvoyance. Nevertheless, he gives considerable attention to failures of reconnaissance and intelligence on both sides, and the impact these had on command decisions and outcomes.

 

In summary, this is a meticulously researched and thoughtful analysis of a generally misunderstood battle.  Along with Selwell Tyng's The Campaign of the Marne, it is one of the best campaign studies I have read. One hopes that House will do the same with the Battle of Lorraine fought in August 1914. Serving officers of all ranks would benefit from reading this book, as would those with an interest in the opening campaign on the Western Front.  Highly recommended.

 

 

Edited by Crunchy

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Marco

Hear, Hear! Excellent read on not well known topic.

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Chris_Baker

It's undoubtedly a very good piece of work and a valuable reference. It did, however, put me to sleep.

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28juni14

Thank you for the alert; after reading your review I have made the Amazon purchase only moments ago.   I might mention it is not a new, thorough study of this important series of encounter actions.  Terence Zuber'searlier  effort of 2007; "Ardennes 1914" is a very entailed work.  I must caution any prospective buyer to be prepared for 1mm letters that spring to 2mm when caps are used.  I have 20/20 vision, but was plagued with headaches each evening while getting through page by page of that annoying mini type.

Again, thank you, Crunchy, for the review.

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Crunchy

Thank you all for your kind comments. I agree Zuber wrote on the Ardennes, however, I would argue that House's work is a much more balanced and valuable account, whilst Zuber writes to prove a preconceived point of view, and is biased towards the Germans.

 

Chris, you must have been very tired. ;) :)  Have you seen my comments on the LLT Australian divisions sent by PM and email?

 

Cheers all

Chris

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josquin

Chris,

As always, an expert, balanced critical review of an important work that elucidates a little-known but momentous series of battles 

that perhaps ensured four more years of war rather than the swift conclusion anticipated by many at the time.  House is commendably

thorough in the range and depth of his research, and he explores the issues and controversies that characterize the historiography

of the Battles of the Frontier.  Notably, he assesses the almost inexplicable battlefield performance of General Pierre Roque, a

French corps commander with a 6-to-1 numerical advantage in a crucial battle, that may be the last word in explicating why it

is most unwise to entrust battlefield command to officers with only engineering experience rather than command responsibility.

In sum, an excellent, informative review for a truly outstanding book!  Chris, I second your comments, and reservations, concerning

the work of Terence Zuber.

All the best,

Josquin

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Crunchy

Thank you for your kind comments Josquin. You clearly enjoyed the book as much as I did.  House's approach is central to understanding what actually occurred  - analyse all documentation and from both sides, together with an open mind and a balanced approach.

 

Regards

Chris

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healdav
15 hours ago, Crunchy said:

Thank you for your kind comments Josquin. You clearly enjoyed the book as much as I did.  House's approach is central to understanding what actually occurred  - analyse all documentation and from both sides, together with an open mind and a balanced approach.

 

Regards

Chris

I have the book but haven't read it yet. What I like is the separate volume with all the maps, etc. Not just one map somewhere in the book.

 

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The Ibis
On ‎27‎/‎05‎/‎2018 at 01:09, Crunchy said:

Lost Opportunity: The Battle of the Ardennes, 22 August 1914  Simon J House, Helion, Solihull, 2017. 252pp.

 

This outstanding book delivers on several fronts, and is a model of a campaign study. With a clear and easily read style Simon J. House presents an analysis of a crucial but rarely studied series of encounter battles in the opening campaign on the Western Front. In doing so he narrates what occurred from both the German and French sides, and discusses why and how events occurred, and the reasons for success and failure. A separate book of 60 coloured maps (referenced in the margin opposite the appropriate text) accompanies the narratives, providing a succinct and progressive understanding of events. Unlike many historians, House then addresses the underlying causes for success and failure: the political, bureaucratic, and military issues in both countries in the decades preceding the outbreak of war in 1914.

 

This book is the author's PhD study, during which he consulted French primary and secondary sources, and those that still remain of the German primary sources together with regimental histories and other studies. By studying the battles from both sides House presents a throughly convincing argument that shreds several myths that have been expounded by historians for a century.  Lost Opportunity: The Battle of the Ardennes, 22 August 1914 is presented in three parts.

 

Part One is an operational study of the opening moves of the French Third and Fourth Armies and the Imperial German Fourth and Fifth Armies during the middle weeks of August, moving from the operational to the tactical level as their respective corps and infantry divisions advanced and collided in a series of encounter battles in the Ardennes; forming part of the bloody Battles of the Frontiers. House shows both how the opportunities for French success evolved as gaps occurred in the German front, and how a decision by the Commander of the German Fourth Army partially remedied the situation and influenced the outcome of the Ardennes battle.

 

Part Two discusses in detail two key encounter battles,  Neufcheau and Maissin-Anloy, in which House argues the French missed two opportunities to seriously disrupt the German march forward into France; in both battles the French achieved a degree of success which was not exploited. It concludes with a discussion of the other encounters, including two devastating French defeats at Bertrix and Rossignal resulting in the destruction of two French divisions.  In all of them House analyses what went right and what went wrong on both sides, and shows that the much touted offensive a outrance against the dominance of German machine guns, which historians so readily attribute as the principal reason for the French defeats during the Battle of the Frontiers, is a myth - at least as far the Battle of the Ardennes is concerned.  The causes for French failure and German success were much more deep rooted.

 

Part Three is the tour de force of the book: an analysis of the underlaying pre-war preparations that contributed to French failure and German success. It is here that House underpins his case in shedding new light on the fundamental differences between the French and German approaches to preparing for war prior to 1914, how these contributed to the success and failure on both sides, and along the way he dismantles some long held and cherished myths regularly repeated by respected historians up to the present day. What is more he relates his analysis to aspects of the operations and battles discussed in the first two Parts of the book

 

Unlike most historians he opens with the political influences in both countries and their effect on the development of each army and their preparations for war.  The differences were stark. Most senior officers in modern democracies would resonate with the political  and bureaucratic interference that bedevilled the French Army during the first decade of the 20th Century.  This is followed a sound consideration of the opposing doctrines. Here House shatters the long held view of the offensive a outrance as a contributing factor to the early French defeats, highlighting how Grandmaison's views have been distorted by historians, that his ideas were introduced too late for them to become embedded in the French Army, and that the French and German doctrines at the tactical level were remarkably similar. Within the French Army, however, there was confusion in the application of doctrine on the battlefield.

 

Going hand in hand with doctrine, is the training that delivers an effective combat force for operations, and here the disparity between the French and Germans was most marked, especially at command and leadership levels. House does an excellent job in analysing the two systems from top to bottom, and identifying the reasons why one army was effective and the other deficient at divisional and corps level operations. Most interesting, however, is his consideration of the political implementation of the 1913 Three Year Law. In doing so House highlights its effect on the standard of training in the French active divisions in 1914 and their performance in the opening battles vis s vis the better trained reserve formations.

 

Finally we are treated to a discussion on the armaments of the two forces. Again a few myths are exposed, especially the lack of heavy howitzers in the French field army; in the Ardennes the French had more than the Germans, but it was the manner in which they were deployed which made the difference. House confirms the view that, unlike the British, the Germans were late in adopting the machine into their infantry regiments, with one reserve regiment in these encounter battles having none. He wraps up this superb book with a fine conclusion drawing the key treads together.

 

What makes Lost Opportunity so compelling is House presents the campaign from the perspective of each belligerent, giving equal weight to both. Nor does he accept primary sources at face value, but validates them with other documents and accounts. Hence we gain a much clearer and accurate picture of what occurred, which contributes to dispelling certain long held myths. Nor does House seek scapegoats, rather he strives to understand the complexities of the nature of the actions involved, the inter-relation and effect of each to the other, and the underlaying causes for failure and success. Overall his analysis and criticisms are balanced and fair, although his perceived criticism in a few instances of the French tactical commanders' inability to accurately determine the strength of the enemy they faced on the other side of the firing line is odd.  Soldier-scholars with combat experience would be more understanding of these difficulties and lack of clairvoyance. Nevertheless, he gives considerable attention to failures of reconnaissance and intelligence on both sides, and the impact these had on command decisions and outcomes.

 

In summary, this is a meticulously researched and thoughtful analysis of a generally misunderstood battle.  Along with Selwell Tyng's The Campaign of the Marne, it is one of the best campaign studies I have read. One hopes that House will do the same with the Battle of Lorraine fought in August 1914. Serving officers of all ranks would benefit from reading this book, as would those with an interest in the opening campaign on the Western Front.  Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Great review. I was very impressed with House's dissertation. How much new material is in the book?

 

Thanks

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Crunchy

Thank you for your comments. I haven't read his dissertation so I regret I am unable to advise if there is any new information in the book. I gain the impression from his comments in the introduction that the book is pretty much his PhD thesis.  I hope he tackles the Battle of Lorraine to give us a fuller picture of the opening French battles of the war.

 

Regards

Chris 

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Marco

To add one critisism: his picture of the Rossignol memorial is dated ;)

 

 

MIL0972-33.jpg

 

Whole artsy park behind it now.

 

 

MIL0972-38.jpg

Edited by Marco

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healdav
16 hours ago, Marco said:

To add one critisism: his picture of the Rossignol memorial is dated ;)

 

 

MIL0972-33.jpg

 

Whole artsy park behind it now.

 

 

MIL0972-38.jpg

The whole cemetery area had to be rebuilt as it was destroyed in a tornado in the late 1980s. The only thing untouched was the large memorial.

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DigNap15

A great review Crunchy

I have got the book and I am half way through it.

It is very detailed and although it is nicely printed and in a nice readable font, it is a bit tedious and lacks any excitement or sense of drama

Yes the separate map book is a great idea, and so many beautiful full color maps.

And I like the way he cross references the maps in the text.

I agree with you that he treats both sides equally, and that he has tried to get as much information as he could. He has done a huge amount of research that took years.

Throughout you review you referred to him as an historian.

Is that a valid term in this case, I mean he was an accountant and then went to university and produced a thesis, on which the book is based.

Does that make him an historian?

I have read many books and had a few articles published in wargaming magazines, does that make me an historian?

Three more slight criticisms, then onto some good points.

Throughout all my my reading of the Napoleonic wars and World War one it was always strategy and tactics that were the main terms used.

In this book the author introduces a modern term "operations" or operational. This sits inbetween the strategic level and the tactical level.

But it sort of grates with me, when no other books on the period used the term (or if so only a little)

After a while it became tedious as every paragraph seemed to contain the word operational at least twice.

My another major criticism, is the use of abbreviations for the units. eg 5CA for the French 5th Army Corps and 14AK for the Gerrman 14th Army Korps.

I would have preferred to see the words in full rather than having to decode the abbreviation each time they were mentioned. OK it may have made the book a few pages longer.

Lastly I did to like the way he separated the description of the battle into The Operational Overview, and then the Army Operations and then the detailed tactical fighting. .They seemed to cover the same ground.

When I read the first two parts it seemed I had missed out on epic battles that were described in only a few lines.

Chapter 3 - The analysis is great and covers a lot of points relevant to the way the battle (and the war) developed

I bought the book as I have always been fascinated by 1914 and the Marne. The Battles of the Ardennes and the Frontiers tend to get covered very lightly in most books I have read its always been the British army and 5th army and the battle of the Marne.

LIkewise we were always told that the French in the red pantaloons led by officers in white gloves were move down in droves.

Then I started to read about the 22nd of August, where the French lost more men killed than the British on the Somme on Juty 1st.

I found a couple of books that mentioned it in a bit more detail, especially the strange behavior of General Roques.

This books overs that day. But the author describes it as a Lost Opportunity (well two actually) rather than a slaughter.

Indeed the huge casualties are hardly mentioned, compared to whole chapters on the Somme.

Overall I agree its a great addition to anyones bookshelf, just be aware that it is hard to read.

And yes a similar book on the battles in Alsace Lorraine would be great. I intend to order Zuber's book. (I just hope Simon reads these reviews before he starts it)

 

Edited by DigNap15
corrected my comment on Zubers book at the end

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