Book Review: The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914: How Faulty Reconnaissance Exposed the Weakness of the Schlieffen Plan


by Dennis Showalter, Joseph P. Robinson, and Janet A. Robinson,

Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2019. Pp. viii, 218. Illus., maps, diagr, notes, biblio., index. $45.00 paper. ISBN: 1476674620

The Failure of the Kaiser’s Cavalry in 1914

Prof. Showalter and his collaborators look at a hitherto neglected aspect of German war making in 1914, reconnaissance, and find it wanting. They examine the doctrinal and structural flaws that underlay the weakness of German reconnaissance, and how those affected the ways in which the campaign unfolded, documenting an impressive series of flaws in German organization, training, and planning.

The focus is particularly on cavalry, as the arm with primary responsibility for reconnaissance. Aside from insisting on maintaining what were essentially Napoleonic distinctions of uhlans, hussars, and even cuirassiers (yet all of whom were armed with lances!), the peacetime organization and training of the cavalry did not reflect its wartime organization or missions. Upon mobilization, some cavalry brigades were broken up to provide reconnaissance troops for infantry divisions and corps, with their staffs becoming the cadres of hastily organized cavalry divisions. These divisions could be assigned to armies or improvised “higher cavalry commands” – not “corps” as they totally lacked staffs or supporting arms and services – which worked for the chief of the general staff, rather than the armies in the field.

In addition, the logistical arrangements to feed the horses once on campaign were surprisingly poor, given the Army’s supposed extraordinary attention to detail, causing serious attrition. It didn’t help that German cavalry on more than one occasional engaged in frontal attacks (e.g., the Battle of Haelen), incurring unnecessary losses. Since cavalry was the arm least able to sustain losses, whether from combat or just hunger or fatigue, it was effectively a wasting asset; unlike infantrymen, neither cavalrymen nor horses could be easily replaced.

Further complicating matters was the lack of a rational process for pooling information gathered by the various sources – cavalry, aviation, infantry, spies, radio intercepts, etc.– for proper analysis.

There’s much more, of course. The authors make a good case that the Germany Army began the war both overconfident and complacent about the coming events. The result was the disastrous outcome of the campaign in Belgium, and although the army quickly regained a sense of reality which sustained it through the war, it was never able to recover fully from the initial failures, or capitalize on those of its enemies. An important read for anyone with an interest in the Great War, and particularly its opening act.


Note: The German Failure in Belgium is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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