Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

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woneil
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Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by woneil » 17 Nov 2013 04:33

Review I've just posted to Amazon. Possibly of interest to a few—not a book for general readers.

Review of Humphries, Mark Osborne and John Maker, eds., Germany's Western Front: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War, 1914: Part 1, The Battle of the Frontiers and the Pursuit to the Marne (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013). ISBN (print): 978-1554583737; Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FOUF0AG/.

By William D. O’Neil, 16 November 2013.


Many of the armies that fought in the First World War published official histories that addressed their own part in the context of the whole conflict. They are today mostly regarded as antiquarian curiosities by historians who, in accordance with current academic trends, are interested in war (if at all) solely as a social or socio-political phenomenon. Even the few serious historians who retain an interest in the political aspects of war, or the fewer still who see war in terms of military strategy or operations often disparage the official histories as old-fashioned, weak in methodology, and/or seriously biased. There is some substance to these criticisms, but the extent varies from one history to another.

One official history stands out not as flawless but as uniquely important and valuable; the 14 volumes of Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918 [The World War, 1914 to 1918], the official operational-level history of the Germany Army in the war. German has a richer vocabulary of military terms and concepts than does English, and to the older German military thinkers “operations” encompassed all that was necessary to place fighting units in the proper situation to achieve the overall strategic objective through their coordinated and time-sequenced actions against enemy forces. Put another way, the operational level lies between and connects the strategic and tactical levels. The operational level was the business and concern of the German General Staff, which chiefly conceived operations in concrete terms as the art of maneuvering large formations to advantageous situations. It dealt with forces at the level of the numbered army (Armee, in German) and corps (Korps) level, rarely at that of the division or brigade. The General Staff had its views on strategy, tactics, and technology, but its domain of special competence and unchallenged control was that of operations.

The General Staff had long had an historical section, one of its principal divisions, which conducted analytical studies of past operations and published them for the education of future staff officers and commanders. The members of this historical section regarded themselves as thoroughly professional historians, fully on a par with any of their academic counterparts in disinterested pursuit of the pure truth. Only that, they believed, could serve Germany’s needs.

After the war the victorious Allied and Associated Powers demanded that the General Staff be abolished. Germany complied in form, while retaining the General Staff in substance. The historical section became Das Reichsarchiv [National Archive], whose principal work was to compile and publish Der Weltkrieg. (There was also a series of tactically-oriented histories entitled Schlachten des Weltkrieges [Battles of the World War].)

The team of historians that wrote Der Weltkrieg worked from the voluminous records of the various formations and staffs that had been involved in German operations, as well as interviews or correspondence with many participants. The great bulk of these records were destroyed in a bombing attack late in World War II, and thus Der Weltkrieg is unique as their only surviving trace. Virtually everything that is known about Germany’s military operations in World War I comes solely from the series. Thus for those who wish the best available information on the military aspects of the land war, Der Weltkrieg occupies a place that no other book can fill.

For most readers, however, it’s pretty heavy going. It is clear and straightforward, but it’s written in a rather old-fashioned German of a somewhat formal cast, and assumes a good command of German military vocabulary. Not many non-native speakers will be able to read it with any fluency—I certainly found that I couldn’t.

Thus the project of Mark Osborne Humphries and John Maker with Wilfred Laurier University Press to publish edited translations of selected (but very extensive) portions of Der Weltkrieg should be welcomed by everyone with a serious interest in First World War military operations. The book I review here translates portions of the first and third volumes, dealing with initial planning and operations in the West up to the eve of the Battle of the Marne, on 4 September 1914, with emphasis on the three armies of the German right wing, First through Third. They boil about 1,200 pages of the original Volumes I and III down to about 570. (Volume II of Der Weltkrieg deals with events in the east, which are only briefly summarized here.)

Initial sections deal with the preparations of the Great (i.e., top-level) General Staff and Germany as a whole. Once operations commence, attention is divided between the seven German numbered armies in the West and Die Oberste Heeresleitung [Supreme Army Command] or OHL. The thinking and actions of OHL and the army commanders are traced day-by-day. The actions of the right-wing armies are described down to the level of the corps and sometimes the division, or even below when critical to understanding. The actions of the center and left-wing armies are only sketched.

In essence, this book can be seen as the history the making and execution of what is usually referred to as the Schlieffen Plan, the plan credited to Generalfeldmarschall Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (1833-1913), a subject of considerable historical controversy. In their helpful introduction the editors remark, “[W]hile the portrait of prewar planning and operations presented in Der Weltkrieg might not be wholly objective, it does present a complete narrative constructed from documents that are now long gone. It is also far more detached than many of its critics have suggested. Given the magnitude of the historical controversy surrounding German war planning in 1925 (and given, as well, the careers of those involved in its preparation ), one might expect Der Weltkrieg to simply reiterate the arguments of the great general’s entourage and Moltke’s detractors. But here the 1905 Schlieffen memorandum is not actually presented as a final plan of operations ; rather, it is portrayed as an operative idea that, in a general way, presented the only feasible solution to Germany’s strategic dilemma while presenting an operational argument for the augmentation of the German Army—a point that lends credence to Terence Zuber’s argument that the Schlieffen Plan was never intended to be the final operative solution to the two-front problem.”

Zuber has charged that leaders of the Reichsarchiv were deeply involved in what he sees as a conspiracy to distort the history of the preparation and execution of Germany’s early-war plans for political purposes, to absolve the General Staff as an institution of responsibility for its failure by blaming the dead. If so, there’s not much sign of it here. No one indeed, is much blamed for anything; judgment is left almost entirely to us.

The book does have its distortions, a few intentional, most not. Like its counterparts in other lands, Der Weltkrieg is least reliable and most tendentious in discussing the political background of the war. With the sole exception of Belgium, all of the combatants had dirty hands which their soldiers loyally sought to conceal in their official histories. More odiously, it speaks of francs-tireurs and civilian snipers in Belgium—inventions to conceal the extent of German systematic atrocities against civilians. While the authors consulted foreign accounts and communicated with their counterparts elsewhere, what is said of the thoughts and actions of the commanders Germany was opposing is quite incomplete.

There is also a pervasive entirely unconscious limitation. Like the General Staff that it sprang from the Reichsarchiv understood the movements of higher formations to be the dominant determinant of success at the operational level, and believed their effective ordering to be a product of judgment. The proper function of the General Staff, as it saw itself, was the development and application of that judgment. The book does refer from time to time to communications, reconnaissance, intelligence, transportation, and logistics, and the often baneful influence their limitations exerted, but devotes scarcely any attention to their operations, or the origins and responsibility for their defects.

Much of the text describes the intended and actual paths of the German forces during their advance. Unfortunately, the maps provided in the book are far from adequate to follow the descriptions. This is a limitation that for the most part the editors of the present book inherited from the original. They have translated the maps from the original volumes and included them here (including a few relating to sections not translated). The reproduction of the overall situation maps, which in the original were fold-out sheets in pockets, is not adequate to make it possible to read some of the smaller type or features. Even so, however, there are many place-names in the text that are not to be found on any of the maps.

All of these limitations, however, weigh little against the strengths of this book. In the past, many writers of English-language books on the war have not consulted the German official history, or seem clearly not to have fully absorbed what it had to contribute. From now on, any work on the war that does not cite and make full use of this volume and its successors will thereby announce that it’s not to be taken very seriously.

The very few minor problems with the translated text serve really to emphasize just how well edited the book is. It is inherently dense, but it is not needlessly difficult in any way.

The market for this book will undoubtedly be very small, and that expectation is reflected in its price (which in any case is much more reasonable than the prices charged for lesser works by some commercial “academic” publishers). No doubt most of the print editions will wind up on the shelves of libraries. But the Wilfred Laurier University Press is to be congratulated for having also made the book available as an affordable electronic Kindle book. I read the book in Kindle form and found it entirely satisfactory. It is best to view the maps on a larger screen, however.

woneil
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Re: Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by woneil » 17 Nov 2013 23:34

Is anyone actually interested in material like this? I have some other review essays about major books that I've prepared for my own use. If there's interest I'll also post them here. Otherwise I won't take up the group's bandwidth.

Will O'Neil

MLW
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Re: Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by MLW » 18 Nov 2013 01:11

I, for one, am! I do wonder if the book discusses the problem of the Belgian and French fortresses and the General Staff's solution of biudlig large caliber mobile siege guns.

Regards,
Marc

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Re: Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by woneil » 18 Nov 2013 02:36

Thanks.

This book very briefly alludes to the significance of the super-heavy siege artillery in reducing fortifications, but does not go into detail Regarding the development of the guns I think that the best source probably is Brose, Eric Dorn, The Kaiser's Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). For the guns themselves, Jäger, Herbert, German Artillery of World War One (Marlborough, Wiltshire: Crowood Press, 2001). Donnell, Clayton, The Forts of the Meuse in World War I (Botley, Oxford: Osprey, 2007) provides an account of the Belgian forts and their defense. Hogg, Ian V., The Guns, 1914–18 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971), pp. 33-47 remains a good choice on the attacks.

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Re: Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by MLW » 18 Nov 2013 03:03

Thanks for the recommendations. I have read all the books you mentioned as well as many German-language books on the topic of the siege guns. It's just that I have not read Der Weltkrieg in either German or English.

Regards, Marc

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Re: Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by Latze » 18 Nov 2013 21:19

MLW wrote:Thanks for the recommendations. I have read all the books you mentioned as well as many German-language books on the topic of the siege guns. It's just that I have not read Der Weltkrieg in either German or English.

Regards, Marc
Marc,

I would recommend Schirmer's "Das Gerät der schweren Artillerie vor, in und nach dem Weltkrieg" if you haven't read it already. I found it to be choke full of relevant information especially regarding the attempts to get the super-heavies moving.

regards
Matt

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Re: Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by Latze » 18 Nov 2013 21:30

woneil wrote:Is anyone actually interested in material like this? I have some other review essays about major books that I've prepared for my own use. If there's interest I'll also post them here. Otherwise I won't take up the group's bandwidth.

Will O'Neil
Oh yes, indeed! Keep them coming :)

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Re: Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by Attrition » 10 Mar 2014 12:04

woneil wrote:Is anyone actually interested in material like this? I have some other review essays about major books that I've prepared for my own use. If there's interest I'll also post them here. Otherwise I won't take up the group's bandwidth.

Will O'Neil
I've been looting the Humphries and Maker edition of GOH 1914 I for various articles in Wikipaedia (Liege, Namur, Mons) and have pretty much found the characteristics you describe, although my reading has been episodic. Having been a knee-jerk sceptic of the British OH until I read it, it's been quite enlightening to see the other side of the hill, even with the occasional sound of a dog not barking. I had a distinct sense that the Germans were trying to do too much and that mistakes and expedients were caused by lack of quantity, rather than faulty decisions.

I'd like to see your reviews too.

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Andy H
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Re: Review of translation of Der Weltkrieg, Part 1

Post by Andy H » 10 Mar 2014 17:19

woneil wrote:Is anyone actually interested in material like this? I have some other review essays about major books that I've prepared for my own use. If there's interest I'll also post them here. Otherwise I won't take up the group's bandwidth.

Will O'Neil
Hi Will

By all means post the reviews,I'm sure most members will find the reviews useful if the subject matter is of interest too them.

Will add this review to the Index.

Regards

Andy H

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