Cover image for The Western Front
The Western Front
Holmes, Richard, 1946-2011.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : TV Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
224 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Format :


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Central Library D530 .H65 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
Hamburg Library D530 .H65 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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astating trench warfare and astonishing human loss: of the nearly one million Allied soldiers who died during the war, 750,000 perished here. In The Western Front, renowned historian Richard Holmes presents the personal human dilemmas of this bitter and bloody war.

In the spirit of Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War, Holmes, the host of The History Channel documentary on the subject, describes the major and most costly battles of the Western Front -- including Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele -- many of which were dubious gains at best, and all of which were won only with great human sacrifice. In telling this larger story, Holmes draws on the stories of the surviving soldiers themselves, making vivid the human experience of war -- how the men endured the indiscriminate slaughter and incomprehensible brutality that surrounded them.

Illustrated with photographs, artwork, and battlefield diagrams, this is the story of many of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers and a perceptive and powerful account of world history.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Distinguished military historian Holmes' brief introduction to the prime slaughterhouse of World War I is a good thing in a small package. Intended for the intelligent lay reader, the book packs into some 250 pages a summary of the major events on the western front; the various controversies about tactics, technology, generalship, etc.; a worthy selection of illustrations; and a bibliography sufficient to carry readers considerably further in their studies. Holmes seems a sworn foe of mythmaking and scapegoating, and he explains the horrendous difficulties faced by all parties without justifying their horrendous context. Since the western front was arguably the fundamental political-military experience for a generation of French, British, and German men, it is hard to underestimate the value of so accessible a study of it to both military and general history collections. --Roland Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

This book invites dismissal as a nonbook, since it is the accompanying volume to a television documentary on WWI for the History Channel, hosted by the author. It focuses only on the Western front, although several of the war's other theatersDRussia, Mesopotamia, PalestineDare discussed in an appendix. The British perspective is emphasized: Holmes (Acts of War, etc.) is a professor of military and security studies at England's Cranfield University and Royal Military College of Sciences, and writes for that country's audience; German and French experience receive correspondingly limited coverage. Yet among many recent outstanding works on the war, such as John Keegan's The Great War and Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War, this book, a U.K. bestseller, comes closest to depicting the conflict's essential nature in a limited compass. Holmes blends a clear familiarity with the subject and its literature with a sense of the English language that reflects years of careful writing. He is sympathetic to the problems of command in a war where the defense eclipsed the offense, and firepower overshadowed both mobility and protection. He pulls no punches in describing the consequences in the early battles of 1914 and 1915, where men were mowed down by machines guns, blown to pieces by high explosives and hung on barbed wire by the tens of thousands. Four years later, despite improvements in tactics and communications, despite the introduction of new weapons like tanks and aircraft and despite the arrival of the Americans, the Western front was never broken by either the Germans or the Allies. The ultimate reason, Holmes shows, was the everyday heroism of the men who held the line on both sides. Holmes reconstructs the daily routines of the trenches and the often raffish life out of the lines. He takes readers into the big offensives, the Somme and Passchendaele, where whole battalions disappeared in minutes, and on the raids and patrols that generated the everyday "wastage" of lives and bodies. World War I was the last war primarily fought by soldiers, but Holmes never forgets that the soldiers were civilians in uniform. They endured because they believed in their country's cause, or they held on from pride and for comradeship, from habit or from lack of alternatives. In the end, Holmes calls on readers to respect their sacrifice. His book helps us understand it. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One MAKING THE FRONT THE ROAD TO WAR Europe slid almost effortlessly into war in 1914. Although historians argue over whether the First World War was inevitable, a combination of factors--economic and colonial rivalry, lingering French resentment at the loss of her eastern provinces to Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and a dangerously unstable system of alliances--certainly created a volatile mix, all too easily ignited. There is a similarly inconclusive debate over the degree of individual and national responsibility for the outbreak of war. It is safest to say that while there were warmongers on both sides, they were outnumbered by politicians and military leaders wrestling with problems quite beyond their resources: the events of July-August 1914 smacked more of calamity than conspiracy.     The spark that blew the Old World apart came on June 28, when Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, capital of the then recently annexed Austrian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Austria, confident of German support, sought to punish the Serbs and, when Serbia rejected an ultimatum designed to be unacceptable, duly declared war on her.     The Serbs had appealed to their Slavic brothers in Russia, who began a partial mobilization in an effort to deter the Austrians. Germany warned that she would answer a full Russian mobilization with one of her own. The Russians, undeterred but still hoping for a diplomatic solution, ordered full mobilization the following day. When Russia declined to cease her military preparations, Germany declared war on her on August 1. France, Russia's ally, was asked to provide a guarantee of neutrality in a Russo-German war, and declined to do so: Germany accordingly declared war on her on August 3.     Although Britain had no formal alliance with France, a series of informal staff talks had produced a plan to send an expeditionary force to France in the event of a German attack. Herbert Asquith's Liberal government hesitated briefly but, when German troops invaded Belgium, whose neutrality was guaranteed by a treaty to which Britain was among the signatories, Britain declared war on Germany on August 4. German violation of Belgian neutrality was the ostensible cause of Britain's entry into the war, but Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary, argued that the Europe that would follow a German victory would be wholly hostile to British interests. THE IMPACT OF CONSCRIPTION Between the outbreak of war in August 1914 and the end of the First Battle of Ypres the following November, the Western Front was created. Its ingredients were twofold: physical and psychological. The physical components of the front can be traced to the French and Industrial Revolutions. The former had inspired the great levée en masse of the 1790s, which produced armies that were not merely huge but also politically inspired, with "citizen-soldiers" and "intelligent bayonets," imbued with patriotic fervor, surging out against the stately, pipe-clayed armies of monarchical Europe. The latter not merely enabled these huge armies to be armed and equipped, but made possible the mass production of weapons of ever-increasing lethality.     The long peace that followed the Napoleonic wars saw armies shrink in size, but it was Prussia's perfection of her system of universal conscription that played a major role in her victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870-71. Thereafter continental powers recognized that the efficient mobilization of the nation's manhood was an essential component of military power. National policies varied, but in general the able-bodied young man could expect to be called up for two or three years' service after his eighteenth birthday. Thereafter he would be liable for recall: first as a regular reservist, fighting alongside his regular brother-in-arms, and later in a reserve formation with a less exacting task. One way or another, he would have a military service liability lasting for perhaps twenty years.     Many politicians argued that conscription did more than produce trained men: it also inculcated valuable social qualities, turning wild youngsters into steady, well-disciplined members of society. Middle-class sensibilities could be gratified by policies like the German "One-year Volunteer" system, which enabled a well-educated young man to serve for only a year, live out of barracks and, all being well, pass to the reserve as an officer when his full-time service ended. In Germany, victory in 1870-71 and the growing militarism that followed it had helped elevate the army's place in society: it was said that the young officer was a god, the reserve officer a demigod. An elderly professor, offered the appointment of honorary Privy Councillor (which brought with it the title of Excellency) wistfully replied that what he really wanted was promotion from lieutenant to captain on the reserve.     There was not, however, universal support for conscription. In France and Germany alike the left often complained of bullying NCOs, unjust discipline, needless hierarchical discrimination, and pointless drill. There was also, especially in France, a growing distrust of the army's role in support of the civil power: in 1906 the Confédération Général de Travail (CGT), the principal working-class organization, decreed that "antimilitarist and antipatriotic propaganda must become ever more intense and more audacious."     The left's suspicion of militarism cannot be wholly brushed aside. And, especially for France, the notion of the soldier as citizen too was to bring its own baggage to the Western Front. But the fact remains that in August 1914 conscription worked very much as its advocates had hoped. When call-up proclamations were read from town halls and mobilization notices appeared on the walls, men duly did what was expected of them and reported for duty. THE CALL TO ARMS Some, especially the young, did it enthusiastically, and Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg saw enormous popular enthusiasm for the war. The poet Charles Péguy wrote on August 3 that: "Whoever failed to see Paris this morning and yesterday has seen nothing." A German student was delighted to receive his orders: "This morning I met a young lady I knew, and I was almost ashamed to let her see me in civilian clothes." Another German, just turned sixteen, later wrote: "It is impossible to convey to anyone nowadays the genuine enthusiasm that animated us all." He did his best to volunteer, only to find that all the choice regiments were already full. He feared the war would be over by the time he was old enough. Eventually a kindly major let him into a dragoon regiment. Luckier than most, he was wounded and captured a year later. Louis Barthas, a barrel cooper (and militant socialist) from the wine-producing Minervois, heard a drumroll in his village square announcing that the mobilization notice had been put up. It was, he wrote, "the most terrible cataclysm which ever afflicted our humanity," but the announcement "to my great astonishment, raised more enthusiasm than gloom."     Most accounts of August 1914 emphasize this extraordinary excitement. They often fail to underline the darker side of mobilization. In a Breton village the order was greeted with "a petrified dumbness. Not a voice applauded. Someone sobbed, once, and the crowd stirred, and everyone went their various ways home." A French sergeant reported that the young peasants in his barrack-room were "sick at heart." Marc Bloch, history scholar and reserve infantry sergeant, traveled to a Parisian station in the back of a greengrocer's cart: the "slightly acrid odor of cabbage and carrots will always bring back the emotions of the early morning departure ..." At the station, "an aged, white-haired father made unavailing attempts to hold back his tears as he embraced an artillery officer." Family men knew that they left hostages to fortune. Walter Bloem, a forty-six-year-old German novelist and drama critic called up as a captain with the 12th Brandenburg Grenadiers, enjoyed a last bottle of wine with his family and commented tellingly that "the tear season" had begun. BRITAIN AND HER ARMY There was no conscription in Britain. Her geographical position had meant that she never ran the same risk of invasion as continental powers, and her navy had long enjoyed primacy in national affection and defense funding. Her army, small by European standards, was largely a colonial police force and could be kept near its established strength by voluntary enlistment. However, Britain had made heavy weather of dealing with the Boers in the South African War of 1899-1902, and the army that went to France in 1914 was a child of the thoroughgoing reform that followed the war.     Much of it was the work of R. B. Haldane, the formidable Göttingen-educated Scots lawyer who became secretary of state for war when the Liberals took power in late 1905. A general staff was created, and almost immediately embarked on discussions with the French, at least in part in an effort to undermine the Admiralty's traditional primacy. The regular army was to produce an Expeditionary Force of six infantry divisions and a cavalry division. The nation's assorted nonregular forces--militia, volunteers, and yeomanry--were reorganized into a Territorial Force of fourteen brigades of yeomanry cavalry and fourteen infantry divisions.     The Territorial Force trained part-time, helped by a small full-time cadre, and it was not expected to take the field until it had received six months' training after mobilization: even then it was not legally liable for overseas service. There were many regular officers, with the revered figure of Field Marshal Lord Roberts prominent among them, who felt that the Territorials would never be much use, and who would have preferred conscription. However, despite the growth of anti-German sentiment and the suspicion that war was increasingly likely, old traditions died hard, and Haldane was right to recognize that, whatever the attractions of conscription to continental powers, most Britons found it repugnant. THE FIREPOWER REVOLUTION Mass armies, swept into being by conscription, were, then, one ingredient of the Western Front. Two others were the weaponry they carried--and the railways that carried them. During the eighteenth century armies imposed ever-greater standardization on weapons, which were increasingly produced by government arsenals, like Potsdam in Prussia or Charleville in France, or by large-scale contractors, rather than by shoals of artisans filing musket-locks here or casting brass butt plates there. Although the huge armies raised during the Napoleonic Wars stretched national resources, making foreign purchase and capture useful sources of arms supply, soldiers were usually satisfactorily equipped with the muzzle-loading flintlock musket which was the characteristic weapon of the age.     From the mid-nineteenth century the pace of weapon development accelerated sharply. Breech-loading weapons became generally available, with the Prussian Dreyse "needle-gun" leading the way: the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was the first conflict in which the infantry on both sides carried breechloaders. Moreover, these weapons were "rifled"--spiral grooves in their barrel spinning the bullet, helping to give it greater range and accuracy. Black powder, which burned slowly and gave off a dense, smelly smoke as it did so, was replaced from the 1880s by the more efficient smokeless powder. Soon infantry rifles used metallic cartridges, housed in a magazine below the breech or under the barrel, and loaded when the firer operated a turning bolt.     British regulars, products of an army that had taken the lessons of the Boer War to heart, were the most accomplished marksmen on the battlefields of 1914. With the .303 Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle in their hands, they were expected to hit a target three hundred yards away fifteen times a minute, and many could double this rate of fire with almost no loss of accuracy. In both precision and rapidity of fire there was simply no comparison between the magazine rifles carried by European armies on the eve of the First World War and the muskets shouldered by their grandfathers.     Artillery also improved. In 1870-71 the German rifled breech-loading field guns manufactured by Krupps of Essen dealt easily with muzzle-loading French weapons, and soon after the war the rifled breechloaders were adopted by most major armies. Not only did the new explosives impel shells with greater efficiency than black powder, but they also increased their bursting effect: high explosive shells, filled with chemical compounds like the British lyddite, were not only effective against troops in field defenses but also wreaked havoc on fortresses. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 Japanese heavy howitzers, their shells weighing seven hundred pounds, smashed the forts around the Russian fortress of Port Arthur. Engineers tried to keep pace with the new artillery by covering the stonework of old fortresses with earth and concrete, and taking their guns off unprotected ramparts and housing them instead in armored cupolas, but it was a duel in which the gunner usually had the edge.     The new explosives also made shrapnel more effective. This airburst shell had been invented by a British officer, Henry Shrapnel, during the Napoleonic Wars. By 1914 it had come of age. The shell, a hollow iron canister (still one of the most frequent finds on any First World War battlefield) contained round lead balls about the size of a fingernail, with an explosive charge below them. The gun's detachment, using information provided by the forward observation officer, set the brass fuse to burst the shell at a given time after leaving the muzzle. Ideally it would explode above, and slightly in front of, its target: the shell acted like a stubby shotgun barrel and the balls shot out in front of it. A British medical officer remembered its effects: A young gunner subaltern was on his way up to observe a machinegun position. Just as he got outside my door a shrapnel shell burst full in front of him. The poor fellow was brought in to me absolutely riddled. He lay in my arms until he died, shrieking in his agony and said he hoped I would excuse him for making such a noise as he really could not help it ... he was a fine looking boy, not more than nineteen. For centuries cannon had bounded back on firing, compelling their detachments to manhandle them back into position after each shot. In 1897 the French introduced the famous 75 mm field gun, the soixante-quinze , the first genuine quick-firer. Its ammunition was "fixed," the shell fitting into a brass case, which made loading simple. When it was fired, most of the recoil was absorbed by hydraulic buffers: the layer, aiming the weapon, might need to make only a small adjustment before the next round was fired.     Gunners had long plied their trade using "direct fire," engaging targets they could see. As infantry weapons improved so this became more risky, for a field gun in the direct-fire role was vulnerable to the fire of magazine rifles, as British artillerymen had found to their cost in South Africa. A metal shield on the gun gave some protection to its detachment, but was no real answer. "Indirect fire," where guns were fired from behind cover at a target they could not see, their fire directed by an observer with a telephone, was the way ahead. Field guns were deployed about twenty yards apart, and, using their dial sights, a form of military theodolite called a director, and basic trigonometry, they were laid so that their lines of fire were parallel, and a target hit by one gun could be hit by all. Targets could be "registered" by being hit, and their target information--the elevation and bearing required to hit them--was recorded, enabling gunners to bring down fire with the minimum of delay. Indirect fire was in its infancy in 1914, and in the first months of the war many gunner officers, by personal preference or tactical circumstance, found themselves using direct fire like their ancestors at Waterloo a century before.     The machine gun had first been regarded by some armies as an artillery, rather than an infantry, weapon. In 1870-71 the French had treated their machine gun, the Mitrailleuse, rather like a field gun, with the result that it was often knocked out by German artillery before it could do much damage to German infantry. The first machine guns were often cumbersome, complicated, and unreliable as their designers tried to solve the several problems connected with rapid fire. Most, like the Gatling and the Mitrailleuse, were multibarreled, but between 1883 and 1885 Hiram Maxim developed a weapon that used the force of the recoil to extract an empty case and push a new round into the weapon's chamber, making possible the single-barreled machine gun. A water-filled jacket fitted round the barrel to keep it cool, and ammunition was housed in fabric belts. The Maxim was adopted by Britain in 1888 and by Russia and Germany soon afterward.     These machine-guns fired between 450 and 600 rounds a minute, and were well described as "the concentrated essence of infantry." They were not available in huge numbers in 1914. A British battalion had two, and a three-battalion German regiment six, contained in its machine-gun company. As the war went on, however, not only were these heavy machine guns produced in ever-increasing numbers, but an assortment of lighter weapons, like the British Lewis and the German MG 08/15, were developed to increase infantry firepower. WAR BY TIMETABLE Technology did more than enable men to kill one another with greater facility. The military potential of the railway had been identified quickly. In 1840 the British moved a battalion by rail; six years later the Russians transported a corps of 14,500 men; and in 1859 the French sent an entire army, horse, foot, and guns, to northern Italy by train for their campaign against the Austrians. Prussia, with her central position in Europe and the ever-present risk of war on two fronts, was especially well placed to use the railway for military purposes, and not least among her reasons for success in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was the efficiency of the railway move to concentration areas.     After the Franco-Prussian War, staff officers across Europe studied the railway as if their lives depended on it--which, in a sense, they did. Moving troops to the frontier rapidly and efficiently was of fundamental importance: starting the process a day or two late might give the enemy an advantage that would prove decisive. The importance of railway timetables injected a note of desperate urgency into the events of July and August 1914. When, on August 1, the Kaiser summoned General von Moltke, Chief of the German General Staff, and told him that the political situation demanded war only with Russia and not with France, Moltke replied that the plan to send the bulk of the army westward by train was simply too complex to be altered. "I answered His Majesty," wrote Moltke, "that this was impossible." An appalled Kaiser, comparing Moltke with his uncle, architect of German victories in 1866 and 1870, snapped back: "Your uncle would have given me a different answer." And so he might, but in 1914 general staffs were rarely able to rise above the remorseless logic of the timetable. THE CULT OF THE OFFENSIVE The result of railway mobilization, universal conscription, and the revolution in military technology was a weapon density unparalleled in the history of warfare: the material origins of the Western Front. Yet its psychological origins are no less important: all the weapons in the world would not produce stalemate unless the soldiers using them proved resolute. And European armies and the societies they served had spent much time and trouble ensuring that the young men who rattled off to war in August 1914 would indeed be resolute.     Offensive war plans ruled. Russia planned to advance into East Prussia. France proposed to launch Plan 17, an all-out attack into the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. And Germany sought to execute a plan named after a previous Chief of the General Staff, Alfred von Schlieffen. Schlieffen had concluded that the huge size of Russia and her population made it possible to win only "ordinary victories" in the east. Accordingly, if faced with the war on two fronts which the Franco-Russian entente made almost inevitable, he would leave a small force to check the Russians and throw the bulk of his armies against France. Because the French had fortified their common border with Germany--we shall see some of these fortifications loom large in chapter 3--he intended to send the strongest of his marching armies through Belgium, whence they would wheel down through France, the outer army passing west of Paris, to catch the French in a battle of encirclement somewhere in Champagne.     Moltke is often blamed for tinkering with Schlieffen's handiwork, but in truth the conditions that applied when the plan was new had changed by 1914. The Russians had embarked on serious military reform as a result of their defeat by Japan, and could no longer be relied on to wait, supinely, while their French allies were dismembered. And in any event there were some aspects of the Schlieffen plan, not least the logistic problem of sustaining over a million men on the march, let alone in the campaign's decisive battle, which had never been properly addressed.     The plan was a gamble, its risk magnified by the violation of Belgian neutrality, which would draw Britain into the war. If it did not produce a quick German victory, then Germany would find herself fighting the enormous human and material resources of Britain and her Empire. Indeed, one major reason for French interest in obtaining British support in August 1914 was not the tiny British Expeditionary Force (BEF) itself, but the fact that this was a promissory note for what might eventually be produced if, God forbid, the war was not over by Christmas.     These offensive plans were founded on the belief, held in slightly different forms by each of the combatant nations, that attack alone would produce decisive results. The British Field Service Regulations Part I of 1909 proclaimed: "Decisive success in battle can be gained only by a vigorous offensive. Every commander who offers battle, therefore, must be prepared to assume the offensive sooner or later." The French 1913 Regulations were even more extreme. "The French army, returning to its traditions," they decreed, "henceforth knows no law but the offensive."     But how were armies to relate their belief in the strategic imperative of the offensive to the ghastly reality, so vividly demonstrated in the Franco-Prussian and Boer Wars, that fire killed? It was certainly no simple task. Some theorists advocated the "defensive offensive," a thrust into enemy territory with all the war-winning characteristics of the offensive, but whose attacking units actually fought defensive battles when they met the enemy. Others, like the clear-sighted Emile Mayer, writing just alter the Boer War, predicted that the next European war would witness the collision of two human walls: each side would try to outflank the other until stopped by the sea or a neutral border. This sort of outcome was not merely the prediction of leftist politicians or military commentators. In 1906 Schlieffen himself warned: All along the line the corps will try, as in siege warfare, to come to grips with the enemy from position to position, day and night, advancing, digging in, advancing again, digging in again, etc., using every means of modern science to dislodge the enemy behind his cover. At a British general staff conference in 1909 the future General Sir Aylmer Haldane observed that it was "impossible to take a position which is well defended by machine-guns until these guns have been put out of action."     Regulations reflected the evidence of the Transvaal battlefields. The British, who had learned their lessons the hard way, redrafted their infantry regulations to emphasize that fire must pave the way for the successful assault. The 1904 cavalry drill book veered away from the charge altogether, and a preface by Lord Roberts decreed that "the sword must henceforth be an adjunct to the rifle; and that cavalry soldiers must become expert rifle shots and be constantly trained to act dismounted." In 1904 the French abandoned the shoulder-to-shoulder infantry tactics of the 1894 drill book and replaced them with the more flexible use of fire and maneuver. They even went as far as contemplating the abolition of the cuirassiers , heavy cavalry equipped with breastplate and helmet, whose charge had helped decide Napoleonic battles but had been of diminishing efficacy ever since.     In the decade before the war the pendulum swung back. It did so partly because many European theorists maintained that wars elsewhere were special cases: in South Africa, for example, ranges were unusually long and visibility good. The British, ran the argument, were scarcely a proper European army and their Boer opponents were not soldiers at all, just warlike farmers. For Frenchmen and Germans, who were in any case out of sympathy with British aims in South Africa, it was temptingly easy to claim that the British had often failed to take Boer positions because they had not been determined enough. A French officer, General Langlois, coined the phrase "acute transvaalitis," by which he meant "abnormal dread of losses on the battlefield." The British army was evidently infected by this, claimed its continental critics, and an army that was not would have pushed on through the dangerous zone of Boer rifle fire to win the battle.     The events of the Russo-Japanese War were used to support belief in the offensive. This time both combatants were recognizably first-rate armies: the Russians had a formidable reputation, and the Japanese had been trained by the Germans. Both sides had magazine rifles, breech-loading artillery, machine guns, and barbed wire. The Russians took up entrenched positions and lost: the Japanese attacked them and won. They did so by a mixture of careful preparation by their artillery and unstinted courage by their infantry. European observers were not slow to point up the "lessons." In Britain, Major General Edward Altham declared that the campaign in Manchuria, the region in northwest China contested by Russia and Japan showed over and over again that the bayonet was in no sense an obsolete weapon and that fire alone could not always suffice to move from position a determined and well-disciplined enemy.... The assault is of even more importance than the attainment of fire mastery which antecedes it. It is the supreme moment of the fight. Upon it the final issue depends. His fellow countryman General Sir Ian Hamilton declared: War is essentially the triumph, not of a chassepot [French breech-loading rifle] over a needle-gun, not of a line of men entrenched behind wire entanglements and fire-swept zones over men exposing themselves in the open, but of one will over a weaker will. In France, General Joseph Joffre, appointed Chief of the General Staff in 1911, linked belief in defensive doctrine to the lethargic and politicized state of the French army generally, and welcomed the fact that "our young intellectual élite finally shook off the malady ... which had upset the military world and returned to a more healthy conception of the general conditions prevailing in war." The influential Colonel de Grandmaison advocated "a conquering state of mind" and the need to "cultivate with passion everything that nears the stamp of the offensive spirit." In doing so he touched a popular nerve. The novelist Ernest Psichari wrote of "a proud and violent army," and at the Sorbonne the philosopher Henri Bergson spoke of l'élan vital : how better to demonstrate it than to impose your will on the enemy in battle?     Even artists rallied to the cause. Among the works in the Paris Salon of 1914 is one depicting a French dragoon looking east, where a German uhlan (lancer) holds prisoner two maidens, embodiment of the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. Around the dragoon, uniformed specters from the Franco-Prussian War--here a cuirassier, there an Algerian tirailleur --rise to demand vengeance.     By 1914 the transformation was complete. The armies of Europe went to war expecting heavy losses and intending to impose their willpower on hostile firepower. The 1907 edition of British Cavalry Training set the tone. "It must be accepted as a principle," it announced, "that the rifle, effective as it is, cannot replace the effect produced by the speed of the horse, the magnetism of the charge, and the terror of cold steel." "Great victories," wrote the German Colonel Wilhelm Balck, "are nearly always accompanied by great losses." And so, as Sir Michael Howard has so tellingly written, "the casualty lists that a later generation was to find so horrifying were considered by contemporaries not an indication of military incompetence, but a measure of national resolve, of fitness to rank as a Great Power." Many, particularly young regulars, had steeled themselves for the test. Lieutenant Alan Hanbury-Sparrow of the Royal Berkshires expected a short war with very heavy casualties: he told his parents that they must not expect to see him again. THE OPENING MOVES Early on the morning of August 4 troopers of General von der Marwitz's cavalry corps rode across the Belgian frontier about seventy miles east of Brussels. Behind them, detraining on the wide platforms of the frontier stations, were the leading elements of the three armies of the German right wing: Kluck's First, Bulow's Second and Hausen's Third. They were to move through the narrow gap between the hilly Ardennes to the south and the "Maastricht appendix" of Dutch territory jutting down from the north, marching on into Belgium and then curling down into France. On their left, the Fourth and Fifth Armies formed up around Metz and Trier, and further south the Sixth and Seventh Armies held the bulk of Alsace and Lorraine.     It was the essence of Schlieffen's concept that the right wing should be kept strong. If the French attacked into Alsace-Lorraine they would do him a kindly favor, for the further they got the more certain would be their own defeat as the northern armies swung in behind them. Moltke, as we have already seen, was no gambler, and over the weeks that followed he was to dilute Schlieffen's plan: first, by sending troops to the Eastern Front to shore up Germany's precarious position there; and second, by allowing the very capable Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, from August 8 in overall command of the Sixth and Seventh Armies, to counterattack, thus pushing the French out of a net that might have engulfed them.     Moltke's fatal hesitancy was, however, still a thing of the future when the Germans faced their first major challenge. The fortress of Liege, its twelve main forts encircling an old citadel, blocked the German avenue into Belgium. Initial attempts to take it failed, and although Major General Erich Ludendorff, fortuitously on the scene, managed to bluff his way into the citadel, the forts held out. But not for long: they were battered into submission by mighty Krupp 420 mm siege howitzers, assisted by some Austrian-made 305 mms. The Belgian commander, General Leman, was pulled unconscious from the wreckage of the last fort to fall.     The Belgian army retreated on Antwerp as German columns poured through Belgium. It was often a brutal passage. Footsore and frightened young soldiers reacted harshly to rumors of snipers, and their commanders sometimes used terror in an attempt to break the spirit of a nation whose resistance both surprised and irritated them. Allied propaganda was to make much of German atrocities in Belgium, and many of the stories were certainly overblown. Still, the episode helped harden the cement of the Western Front by persuading many Allied soldiers--and, no less to the point, their civilian friends or relatives--that theirs was indeed a hateful enemy.     The French commander in chief, Joseph Joffre, had established his headquarters (Grand Quartier Général-GQG) at Vitry-le-François on the stately River Marne, roughly equidistant between the headquarters of his five armies. He undoubtedly had some evidence of the scale of German preparations in the north. However, the French believed that if the Germans were able to extend well into Belgium, it could only be by using reserve divisions in the front line, something the French, with their mistrust of reservists, would not countenance. Joffre's deputy, General de Castelnau, had previously greeted a skeptical regional commander and a local politician, concerned that there would be no troops left to defend the northeast, with the words: "If they come as far as Lille, so much the better for us." Just as Schlieffen had hoped that a French offensive into Alsace-Lorraine would make his own task easier, so the French believed that by extending far into Belgium the Germans could only weaken their own center--where the French blow was to fall.     The French attack showed the early flare of a false dawn. The 1st and 2nd Armies advanced on Morhange and Sarrebourg, and Crown Prince Rupprecht's men obligingly gave ground before them: Sarrebourg fell on August 18. But it could not last. The French infantry, in their long blue overcoats and red trousers, pushing on into broken ground unsuited for this sort of offensive, were cut to pieces by German machine guns. German artillery, its fire directed by spotter aircraft, battered them mercilessly. Rupprecht, tired of defending against an enemy that was already losing momentum, begged Moltke to allow him to counter-attack, and Moltke weakly gave way.     What was called the Battle of the Frontiers raged from August 20 to 24, and there could be no doubt that the French were the losers as the doctrine of l'offensive à l'outrance (the all-out offensive) died on the wooded slopes and open fields of northern Lorraine. Captain Charles de Gaulle (leader of the Free French a generation later) admitted that: The first shock was an immense surprise.... Suddenly, the enemy's fire became precise and concentrated. Second by second the hail of bullets and the thunder of the shells grew stronger. Those who survived lay flat on the ground, amid the screaming wounded and the humble corpses. With affected calm, the officers let themselves be killed standing up, some obstinate platoons stuck their bayonets in their rifles, bugles sounded the charge, isolated heroes made fantastic leaps, but all to no purpose. In an instant it had become clear that not all the courage in the world could withstand this fire. The first month of the war cost Joffre 212,000 men, about 20 percent of his mobilized strength and nearly 40 percent of his regular officers. And there was little sign that the Germans could be stopped. Ferdinand Foch, commanding one of Joffre's corps in front of Nancy, held his ground with a tenacity which marked him out for rapid advancement, but elsewhere the view from Vitry was one of unrelieved gloom.     Things were especially bleak in the north. Charles Lanrezac, commanding the 5th Army on the French left, was a brilliant but acerbic officer who had the unfortunate distinction of being wise before the event. He warned Joffre that there were Germans in strength to his north, and asked to be allowed to edge round to face them, rather than attacking northeast alongside the 4th Army on his right. Joffre reassured him, but on August 22 Lanrezac's men were badly mauled around Charleroi by the German First and Second Armies, and on the 23d he began to fall back. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Richard Holmes. All rights reserved.

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