The author has provided a valuable review of the German position on the Western front during 1915, but his account also holds true for most of the 1914-1918 War.
NAME: The German Army on the Western Front 1915
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Jack Sheldon
PUBLISHER: Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
GENRE: Non Fiction
SUBJECT: WWI, trench warfare, Western Front, defensive warfare, attrition, static defences
DESCRIPTION: The author has provided a valuable review of the German position on the Western front during 1915, but his account also holds true for most of the 1914-1918 War.
Germany had convinced itself that the plans for a sweep through neutral Belgium and a strike direct to Paris would succeed before the Franco British forces could halt the lightning advance. In reality, the plans almost succeeded, but the British Expeditionary Force that was so derided by the Kaiser proved determined and effective, using the machine gun and the well drilled infantry with the Lee Enfield rifle provided such a rapid rate of aimed fire that on occasions, German troops thought they were facing more machine guns.
From having expected a fast offensive war in the West, reaching a rapid victory, would allow troops to be rapidly moved East to fight an offensive war of movement over a vast area, The Germany Army found itself bogged down in a desperate war of attrition that was to result in the deaths of millions of French, German and British soldiers.
The author has presented the Western Front as a triumph of Central Powers dominance and initiative, which is certainly one valid view. The First World War was a very complex situation and may defy forever a universal conclusion, even from one side of the battle lines.
In 1939, the situation was much more clear-cut. Then, Germany had convinced itself that it could hold off full war until after 1945 but engage in a series of land grabs before that date which would weaken the intended enemies and allow German re-armament to fully complete. The only factor that disrupted this plan for a war of aggression to dominate Europe was a misreading of the tolerance of France and Britain. In 1914, the Great War was almost an accident. It is true that Germany had been engaged in an arms race with Britain and wanted an Empire similar to the British Empire. That would eventually lead either to a German climb down or war, but not in 1914. From an assassination in the Balkans, a series of mistakes and nationalist pride saw Europe moving to mobilization. Once armies begin to mobilize for war, a momentum develops that is very hard to reverse. In 1914, the momentum continued until shots were being exchanged between the Central Powers and the Anglo French Russian Alliance.
The author’s view is entirely valid when taken for a single year of a great conflict and for a single front. When viewed more widely, a different conclusion can be reached and be as valid.
German Generals accepted that they had to move quickly in a controlled offensive war. If they were boxed in and forced into a war of attrition, they would lose. Therefore, the initial campaign of 1914 saw the Germans holding the initiative only as long as they were making a fast advance in the West, achieving victory and then turning on the Russians. In that respect both World Wars of the Twentieth Century were very similar in military actions.
In 1914, the Anglo French forces halted the German advance and denied Germany the quick victory that was critical for it. The start of trench warfare was therefore a successful action by Britain and France and can be claimed as a victory. Initially it was a defensive posture by Anglo French Forces that forced the German Army onto the defensive and into a long and deadly war of attrition. There is the view, expressed by the author that the initiative then moved to Germany but this was not entirely true. The Royal Navy was able to implement a successful strategic blockade of Germany and deny German industry access to raw materials and deny food to the civil population. That meant that Germany was boxed in and had to depend on dwindling food and materials. The Royal Navy was also planning to embark on the first strategic aerial bombing campaign. That meant that any action on the Western Front that denied Germany the option of moving back to an offensive war of movement was essentially a form of victory.
Having said that, war is filled with uncertainties and the longer it continues the more scope there is for unpleasant surprises. It was therefore highly desirable for the Anglo French forces to move onto the offensive and the German triumph of 1915 was to prevent this. They were helped by the machine gun, which had yet to face a superior weapon. Both sides rapidly built lines of trenches and placed medium and heavy artillery behind the lines. This rapidly removed tree cover and turned the ground around and between the trench lines into a morass during periods of rain and a difficult broken terrain during dry periods. That meant that attacking infantry were very vulnerable to machine gun and artillery fire. As the Anglo French Forces needed to break through the German lines that handed the initiative to the Germans, although the counter view is that the initiative was with the British and the French because Germany was denied any chance of victory as long as its Army was forced into a defensive position.
Both sides were short of men and the means of war in the form of equipment, weapons and ammunition because neither side had prepared for a long static campaign. As the Royal Navy were successfully blockading the Central Powers, that meant that the early German industrial efficiency would be progressively blunted as the war dragged on, but the British would be able to dramatically increase the capacity of its factories for munitions production and also be able to buy munitions from the Untied States gradually bringing the US into the war and changing the balance of power, even after the Russian collapse, in favour of Britain and France.
What the author has achieved through careful research is a German perspective on the Western Front battles of 1915, and their part in prolonging the war and significantly increasing the casualties to horrific proportions. The result is a book that will be essential reading for all those with a close interest in the First World War.