Our book today is The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914 by Terence Zuber (The History Press, 2009 – first published in 2007), and as Zuber points out on his first page, “From 20 to 24 August 1914 the French and German armies, each some seventy divisions strong, met head-on in Belgium and Lorraine in the Battle of the Frontiers, one of the most hard-fought, most important and most interesting battles in military history.”
The popular conception of that battle is simple and heartbreaking: the folly of antiquated military tactics crashing rudely and ruthlessly into modern military hardware – gallant French troops, bayonets fixed, marching en masse into lethal German machine gun emplacements only to get mowed down in horrifying numbers. The French, under the mistaken impression that their advance armies in Belgium would be facing minimal German forces, made no preparations for what actually ended up happening – massive German counter-attacks – and so, over the course of three days, the French lost dozens of thousands of men and great heaps of equipment and were forced to surrender all the ground their advances had so quickly gained.
Zuber’s publishers bill his book as the first fully realized history of both the Battle of the Ardennes and the larger Battle of the Frontiers of which it was a critical part, and maybe this is so: certainly Zuber’s book is incredibly, dauntingly detailed. The battle maps require a stint at West Point to readily decipher, and the action descriptions are often an alphabet soup of troop designations:
At 1030 on 23 August 4th Army sent a sobering report to GQG. In II CA the 3 DI was in good shape at Meix devant Virton, but the 4 DI had been thrown out of Bellefontaine and had been ‘sorely tried’. The 3 DIC and 5h Colonial Brigade had also been ‘sorely tried’. XII CA was in good shape and had not even engaged its corps artillery, but was falling back. XVII CA was in poor condition, 33 DI had lost its artillery, 34 DI had been thrown back. XI CA had pulled back to the Semois.
This book’s 300 pages of eye-strainingly tiny type contain innumerable passages like that one – this is no lazily derivative account – which is great news to all future historians, who must of necessity not only include this Zuber’s book in their researches but begin with it, but perhaps a bit more ominous news for general readers, since the author clearly isn’t interested in presenting a narrative account of the events he’s researching.
This isn’t to say he doesn’t have lots of opinions – far from it. One of the persistent myths of World War I’s beginnings is that the German command, forged in the recent exhilarations of the Franco-Prussian War only 40 years earlier, had an institutional aptitude for the military calling, and that this aptitude accounted for a great deal of the successes the Germans enjoyed in the last week of August 1914. Zuber doesn’t believe a word of it:
In the Battle of the Frontiers the argument that the German General Staff had a ‘genius for war’ falls flat on its face. German operational planning in the Ardennes came far closer to military malpractice than to genius. Moltke demonstrated his inability to reach a decision and impose it on his subordinates. The 5th Army attack had no possible operational justification; in fact, the attack was premature and an operational liability.
Still, regardless of the paucity of German planning, the French are the ones who’ve always been excoriated for their idiocy during those pivotal two days, for the foolishness of thinking elan and bravery would win out against rapid-fire artillery. Later generations – indeed, later fighters in that same conflict – would look at illustrations of such 20th century cavalry charges and laugh in contempt. Zuber never allows himself to express anything so clouding as contempt, but his evaluations are remorseless.
And they turn up little details that surprise – as when he’s discussing the key French advance into the woods outside the town of Ethe:
This may be the first time in modern warfare that a major manoeuvre unit would be cut off and destroyed solely by firepower, without an infantry assault. Ethe demonstrated that the German army had drawn the appropriate conclusions from the technological progress – smokeless gunpowder, the magazine-fed rifle, the machine gun and quick-firing artillery – that had led to an exponential increase in the effectiveness of firepower and expanded the depth of the battlefield, while the French were still essentially thinking in terms of the smaller Napoleonic battlefield.
(Other little details, equally fascinating, are far more disruptive to the standard misremembering of the Great War, such as the fully-documented fact that many French soldiers would ‘play dead’ among the fallen in order to get the chance to shoot the advancing Germans in the back – and that they often shot down German ambulance workers coming to tend to the wounded from both sides)
Zuber knows better than anybody the gamut of popular simplifications of his subject (he at one point makes a withering aside about armchair generals studying “little maps with big arrows”), but in his account, the truth is simpler and less dramatic:
The fascination, common to almost all French soldiers and historians, with German trenches and French bayonet charges has nothing to do with actual combat. It was a means of explaining French defeat that emphasized French heroism and avoided confronting German tactical superiority. For modern historians, German trenches and French bayonet charges provide exactly the correct explanation for French defeat, one that corresponds with the popular ‘heroes led by donkeys’ thesis, as well as the experience of the next four years of trench warfare.
“That the French plan did not succeed, while the German plan did,” he tells us, summarizing the Ardennes disaster dispassionately and with no dramatic satisfaction at all, “had nothing to do with strategy, but was solely the product of German superiority at the tactical level.”
That tactical superiority – ground-troop coordination, better utilization of improved communication technology to forge increasingly larger units into coherent fighting forces, and if not the mythical German aptitude for warmaking then certainly the noted German willingness toward comprehensive situational thinking – dealt the French an undreamt-of bloody nose right at the opening of the First World War and changed the nature of the whole struggle, or rather, revealed the true face of that struggle. After those tumultuous, doomed bayonet charges, the war would largely settle into different shapes altogether – trenches and bombardments that Napoleon would scarcely have recognized as warfare at all, interspersed with slaughter on scale perhaps only a Napoleon could want to dream. Killing-technology was the thing that brought such warfare into being, and in 1914 the Germans were the first to embrace that fact.
On both the customary levels, Zuber’s book makes for some unpleasant reading: its dispatch-terse and annalistic approach won’t make any reader forget John Keegan or A. J. P. Taylor, and the events he has to relate – the violence, the stupid waste of life – will perhaps prompt the reader to reach for the night’s scotch a bit earlier than usual. But this is a necessary book, an indispensable one, and in its own grim and steadfast way, a perfect one. Certainly no World War I library can respectably be without a copy.