by Holger H. Herwig
New York: Random House, 2009. Pp. xix, 391.
Illus., maps, gloss., notes, biblio., index. $28.00. ISBN: 1400066719
The past twenty years have seen a spate of new works on World War I, and one scholar who has always been at the front of that movement is Holger Herwig. After his very fine Luxury Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888-1918, his The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918 was a valuable corrective to much of the earlier literature on the war, which had been very much Anglo-centric, Herwig has now surpassed himself with a superb study of the critical opening campaign of World War I in the west.
Herwig begins with a careful consideration of how each of the major powers decided to commit to going to war. This was no case of war by accident, but rather each country decided it was in its interest to take the plunge. The exception to this was Belgium. Herwig notes that while Germany did provoke war against France, the French government welcomed the opportunity. In fact, the French government formulated its war aims a good month before German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg did.
Once the decisions that led to war have been dealt with, Herwig covers the mobilization of both sides, and the respective war plans. He notes, however, that both French and German war plans were not nearly as well developed as earlier scholarship has argued. Herwig also provides a careful analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the British, French, German and Belgian armies.
Herwig then moves on to a thorough discussion of the conduct of the campaign, although here he devotes more attention to the Germans than the French. His criticism of Moltke the Younger's conduct of the campaign is not related to any changes in the concept of the plan, but rather to Moltke's failure to exercise any kind of control over the German forces once they went forward. Moltke tended to stay far away from the action, and the means of communication available did not allow for close supervision of his field armies. His control, loose to begin with, faded to near invisibility the further the German armies moved from OHL, German supreme headquarters. In effect, each of the seven German field army commanders fought his own war. Conversely, Moltke's opponent Joseph Joffre took a much more hands-on approach, not hesitating to fire commanders of corps and even armies whom he thought had not measured up to the situation. Joffre's skill at maintaining command and control improved as the French retreated on Paris.
The most interesting aspect of Herwig's book is his careful reconstruction of the controversial mission undertaken by OHL staff officer Richard Hentsch in early September 1914, the end result of which was the order issued to German right wing armies to retreat, marking the failure of the campaign. Using material that emerged from the East German archives after the end of the Cold War, Herwig reproduces Hentsch's itinerary, and is able to cover the content of his conversations at his various stops. The order to retreat was not given by Hentsch, but by Karl von Bülow, commander of the German Second Army, who did have loose authority over Alexander von Kluck's First Army.
This book, marked by exhaustive research and subtle judgments, will stand as one of the definitive works on the campaign. It is a must read for both serious and casual students of the war.