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phil andrade

The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914

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phil andrade

Authors : Dennis Showalter, Joseph P. Robinson and Janet.A. Robinson


Publishers : McFarland & Company


This is a remarkable book, which challenges the view of Terence Zuber.  It combines profound - indeed, excoriating - analysis of the flaws that deprived Imperial Germany of a good chance to win the Great War in August 1914, with a sympathetic awareness of the pressures, dilemmas and difficulties that bore so heavily on the military caste striving to deliver that victory to the Kaiser.


The trinity of authors is ideally suited to deliver us that story !


The harsh verdicts they unleash on the German General Staff ( GGS ) are always balanced by their appreciation of the awful burden of work and worry that proved too much for the most venerated military institution of the day.


Did the very professionalism of the GGS engender a hubristic culture ?  The word “ arrogance “ is used more than once, and there is also mention of a “ solipsistic” approach.   


The narrative is sometimes intensely detailed, and necessarily so.  This can be daunting for the layman who is not familiar with military terms.  The authors , however , show skill and sensitivity and succeed in leavening the disciplined narrative with anecdotes that provide humanity and humour.

We read, for example, that a German cavalry bivouac “ gave the impression of a gypsy camp “.  When it came to logistics and all important fodder, the much vaunted GGS consigned their precious cavalry to a wing and a prayer, and this was to have immensely important consequences.


Some particularly harrowing depictions relate to the suffering of horses that died in hundreds, enduring agonies of thirst, starvation, neglect and over work , not to mention being slain by enemy - or friendly - fire.


There is also proper countenance given to the onslaught on Belgian civilians.  The maps - clear and very handy as support to the text - sometimes give location of atrocities , with symbols to distinguish whether the killings were numbered as more than ten, and, in some notorious cases, hundreds of civilians.  The authors do not dwell on this excessively , but they give it prominence where appropriate .  Suffice it to cite their comment “.....the sheer volume of atrocities was staggering. “


One statement in particular reaches out and grabs , giving a terse assessment of the German accomplishment in the Liege fighting :


” In a tactical context, it was not such a great victory.  It was almost as though the Germans occupied the center of a doughnut hole.”


Exquisite !


The book makes it clear that Liege was not the objective ; nor even the network of road, rail and river communications that emanated from it - these are admirably described, by the way - the objective was the Belgian Army itself.


In pursuit of this objective, the Germans became embroiled in precious days of shambolic fighting that cost them several thousand casualties, including an astonishing toll of senior officers , as well as significant numbers of friendly fire victims.  It was not an edifying testament to an institution that prided itself on a tradition of invincibility .


The wider strategic picture is not neglected.  The enticing prospect afforded by entering the Maastricht Appendix and thereby violating Dutch neutrality is made apparent. So too are the vagaries surrounding the whereabouts of the BEF.  So much was being staked on shaky foundations, and it’s hard to escape the sense that there was stupefying ineptitude implicit in too many decisions and actions.  This is, perhaps , a feature of arrogance and solipsism in an institution that wielded too much power and influence.


A triumph of the book is its ability to synthesise the big strategic questions with the minutiae of military experience.  The historiographical significance loom large, as we are steered away from the Miracle of the Marne and are made to appreciate the importance of what happened in and around Liege one month earlier.


Those who seek to learn about the role of cavalry in reconnaissance, along with the development and use of aircraft in that activity, whether fixed wing or dirigible , the extent and efficacy of electronic communications, and the assemblage and deployment of monster cannon, will find their wishes fulfilled here.


The book works, and has encouraged me to get out of my armchair in London and cross the Channel to visit a corner of a foreign field.


Editing : Apologies, Joe and pals.....  silly  sausage that I am, I hadn’t noticed that there was already a thread opened about this.  My enthusiasm got the better of me !




Edited by phil andrade

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