- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE MARNE, 1914: THE OPENING OF WORLD WAR I AND THE BATTLE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

By Holger H. Herwig Random House, $28, 416 pages

Reviewed by David C. Acheson

Holger Herwig has given his readers a thoroughly informed panorama of the immense and bloody campaign that kicked off World War I, predominantly from the German point of view. The years before the onset of war were calm. The seeming balance of the two triple alliances was thought to pose an important deterrent until the assassination of the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the ultimatum served on Serbia by Austria-Hungary. No one really thought a European war likely, until Serbia defied the ultimatum and Austria declared war.

Then the hand-wringing began as Russia mobilized to defend Serbia, Germany mobilized to support Austria, France mobilized to support Russia, and Britain mobilized to support France. This period is fascinating. None of the ministers seemed to imagine the likely chain reaction of treaty obligations if the Austrian ultimatum were rejected. None, if asked, would have said he thought it reasonable to launch a general European war over the assassination of a Habsburg crown prince in one of his unruly satellites.

German military leaders had thought that a long war would ruin Germany and bring in “America’s relentless industry” on the side of France. The key to a short war was the Schlieffen Plan, a rapid encirclement northwest and southwest around the French fortresses to Paris. There were several fragile assumptions: early movement of troops and materials of war on the German, Dutch and Belgian railway systems; a slow Russian mobilization allowing a quick defeat of France and then an eastward movement of the army so as to avoid a two-front war.

Forgotten was the wise observation of the elder Helmuth von Moltke: “No plan of operations survives with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s major forces.” This proved true not just for German plans, but for the assumptions of all the combatants. As the forces entered combat, their movements became less clear, communications were wholly inadequate, tactical commitments were not carried out, and Clausewitz’s “fog of war” took over.

In several ways, the Marne was a battle of mediocrities.

By 1914, only the British had recent experience of serious fighting - the Boer War. Von Moltke (the younger), the German leader, was emotionally unstable and no Blucher in experience or leadership. Neither Sir John French nor Sir Douglas Haig measured up to the “Iron Duke” of Wellington. The French had several talented generals, but they were subservient to Marshal Joseph (“Papa”) Joffre, who was diligent but stubborn and slow to realize when his assumptions were no longer applicable, though he finally grasped and frustrated the closing of the German pincers.

Ferdinand Foch, then a general of division (later a marshal of France and the allied commander in chief) comes through with a high degree of industry, imagination and determination. Mr. Herwig’s account of the Marne presents an epidemic of fumbles; misunderstandings; wrong guesses; calamities on every side; devastating hardship from heat, thirst and exhaustion; a ghastly casualty rate; and wholly inadequate medical care. Men marching against cannon and shrapnel faced many times the firepower of 1815, but tactics had changed much less.

Mr. Herwig’s claim for the importance of the Marne seems to me doubtful. Of course, it was important as the onset of World War I, and of course, its stalemate nature condemned the participants to a four-year war, which destroyed three empires and crippled a fourth. But the battle itself did not change much. I would characterize it as the battle that never had to be.

If the ministries had understood that the death of Franz Ferdinand was not nearly worth what they were going to face, and it seems amazing that they did not, Russia could have left Serbia to deal with Austria on its own, and the treaty chain reaction might have died. Germany’s fear of a resurgent France was the cause. Germany wanted war. German plans called for a quick war, ended early and cheaply. Another assumption gone awry.

David C. Acheson is a retired lawyer and foreign-policy analyst in Washington.

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