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Culture, Politics and Technology

Dry, but insightful history of WWI

The Marne, 1914
The Marne, 1914
By Roger H. Herwig

Random House: 2009

To learn more about this book, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

The Great War, as World War I was called until we named World War II and then retroactively renamed WWI, is generally remembered today – when it is remembered – as an endless gray line of mud-filled trenches hidden behind barbed wire and machine gun nests.

Often forgotten is the story of how the German and French armies got into that standoff, of what led to the five-year war of attrition that ended only when the United States tipped the balance of power to the side of the French and British alliance.

A new history by Holger H. Herwig lays out in great detail the Battle of the Marne, fought in August and September of 1914, as Germany invaded Belgium and France.

There have been plenty of books written on the outbreak of World War I – and while Herwig touches on the politics and diplomacy that led to hostilities, mostly his early chapters focus on the military planning by both sides in the years leaidng up to the war.

After setting the table nicely, though, tracing the military preparations in Berlin and Paris, Herwig's style veers from an accessible narrative voice to a more staid, traditional military history. For a non-military history buff, it's hard to follow the ebb and flow of the German campaign into France with all the references to IX Corps here and VII Corps there moving into salients or launching enveloping attacks. The military-style maps are also difficult to decipher for a lay reader.

"The Marne, 1914" is at its best when Herwig inserts descriptions found in soldiers' letters home, or in reports from journalists covering the war. World War I was the first large-scale war with machine guns and airplanes, but they existed side-by-side with mounted cavalry – and the contrasts were noted by the common soliders on both sides.

And Herwig's analysis of why the German attack ultimately failed to defeat France, with the Germans pulling back to the lines that eventually gave way to the trenches that defined the war, is also interesting reading. Relying on newly found official histories uncovered after the reunification of Germany, Herwig concludes that what hurt Germany wasn't its planning – but the execution. While the French and British used modern telecommunications, both telephones and telegraphs, to tie their military commanders together, the Germans relied on couriers. Or more frequently, Germany's senior leadership simply left their field generals alone. Given Germany's federal organization of its military, this proved ineffective as each German army felt free to act on its own accord.

Reading this book, it's hard to escape the conclusion that as harsh and unjust as the postwar reparations against Germany were (and that those reparations ultimately led to the rise of the Nazis and World War II), the French weren't necessarily unjustified in seeking them. German's prewar military planning was built around invading and conquiring France; French plans during this period were all defensive: about repelling a German attack.

While earlier French aggression dating to Napoleon continued to feed German anxiety and even paranoia about its security, the reality remains that it was Germany that invaded – something Herwig's meticulous research and solid writing make clear.

The irony, of course, comes in the bitter reality that while Germany's generals sought to secure a larger, more prominent role for their nation on the world's stage, their plans ultimately led to Germany's defeat and the eventual destruction of its cities and much of its population.

That Germany is today regaining its influence through its economic success only underscores the folly of 1914.

Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif., and was a contributor to the "Grove Press Guide to Blues on CD" (1993) and "The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Blues" (2005).

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