Home Before The Leaves Fall
By Ian Senior
We are all, basically, familiar with the visit of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to Sarajevo on that ill-fated Serbian National Day, which led to his assassination by Gavrilo Principe. These events precipitated what we know as World War I. This book deals with the first six weeks of that catastrophic conflict. Not from the British point of view, although the British played a minor part in these events, but from the point of view of the French and German participants.
The first two chapters of this book deal in detail with the pre-war plans of both sides, the well-known German Schlieffen Plan and the lesser-known French Plan XVII. The Schlieffen Plan grew out of the minds of the German General Staff over a period of some fifteen years. When Alfred Schlieffen retired as head of the General Staff in 1905, he continued the finalization of the plan, which he presented to his successor, Moltke the younger, in 1906. Amongst the members of the General Staff these plans were the “last word” for the ultimate defeat of the hated French. Moltke, the younger, was selected Chief of the General Staff by the Kaiser because he had been the Kaiser’s liaison, and got along with the monarch. Other members of the General Staff were offended that Moltke was chosen, as he had little Staff service, and never commanded a Corps in the field.
The French plan came into existence in 1911, when Joffre began its formulation. Due to political interference within the War Department a succession of Chiefs of Staff, and a succession of War Ministers caused various plans to be temporarily set in motion. Plan XVII was finally set in motion in the spring of 1914.
The French began the conflict with 71 Infantry Divisions, 25 of which were Reserves.
These were spread from Northern France to Alsace and Lorraine. In the Northern France area the French could field 46 Infantry Divisions against some 71 German Active and reserve Divisions. The British could field between four and six divisions. These would sound like overwhelming number for the Germans, and a fore-gone conclusion that they would win. This however turned out not to be the case.
In the years post 1906, Moltke had modified some of the provisions of the original Schlieffen Plan. He had transferred some Corps from the right wing to the left to strengthen the Armies in Alsace and Lorraine. This went against Schlieffen’s argument that the right wing had to be the strongest to overwhelm the French and take Paris. After the fighting began in August 1914 he pulled a further two Corps from the right wing and sent them east after General von Prittwitz threatened to retreat into East Prussia before the Russians. Von Prittwitz was replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who defeated the Russians at Tannenburg.
The first clashes were at Charleroi, which forced the French to retreat from the frontier, giving territory for time. At this time the British began their own retreat, with Sir John French declaring to Joffre, that his men were spent and need to retire to refit and re-organize.
The Germans had their own problems, the largest being supply. The commanders of the First and Second Armies, von Kluck and von Bulow, respectively, were difficult for Moltke to control. Both commanders despised the other and von Kluck, when placed under the control of von Bulow, complained to headquarters repeatedly. Since headquarters was located where the Kaiser was, some 120 miles behind the front, Moltke had no direct contact with his Army commanders. This lack of control led to both commanders taking liberties when they received orders from the General in Chief. Joffre, on the other hand, had many face-to-face meetings with his commanders. These problems only escalated as the fighting got further into France.
I found this book to be a fascinating study of the problems of command and how long distance control of subordinates rarely works. I highly recommend this book to students of the First World War and to people who believe in the “old saying” “The best laid plans of mice and men”. Having read many books on WWI in the past, I found the author’s fresh approach to this conflict very enlightening. I believe you can sum up the overall theme of this book with a famous quote from that German Field Marshal of a later war, Erwin Rommel, “No plan survives contact with the enemy”.