Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918
Reviewed by Ron Drees

Imperial Germany and War, 1871–1918

by Daniel J. Hughes and Richard L. Dinardo.
University Press of Kansas, 2018

Contrary to the title, the history of the German Army in this book goes back to 1802 and the Napoleonic wars. Hughes and Dinardo describe how command structures changed over the next century leading up to the Great War. During that period, the Prussian/German Army transformed through constant re-thinking of how it should prepare to wage war, how war should be waged, and how many theaters of conflict in which to wage war. There were also concerns about how to staff, train, and equip its army and the reserves behind them. One constant was that officers should be of noble birth and preferably Protestant. Roman Catholics were tolerated but did not advance very far, and Jews were simply not acceptable. These requirements limited candidates and later were thought to have impaired the army.

Alfred Graf von Schlieffen
Napoleon's defeat of Germany's army spawned reforms under the direction of leaders such as Scharnhorst, Clausewitz, Moltke, Schlieffen, and then Moltke the younger. However, the entrenched power structure resisted change. The authors discussed each military chieftain in turn, but Schlieffen drew the most surprising statements.

Schlieffen served as chief of the Prussian General Staff from 1891 into 1906. In those 15 years, Schlieffen developed deployment plans on an annual basis, considering one and two front wars. While the authors describe the plans, they are not illustrated with maps. Only six maps are in the book, with no listings in the table of contents. Between the small size and print, they are difficult to understand. A few maps dedicated to Schlieffen's plans would have made his ideas understandable.

Schlieffen also held staff rides, where groups of officers traveled to the frontiers and engaged in large-scale map-based exercises. No war games were conducted. The authors, after considerable discussion, concluded that Schlieffen's memorandum of 1905 was only an "academic discussion of alternatives." Since Schlieffen never prepared a comprehensive war plan, historians cannot determine how Schlieffen or even Moltke would have conducted the war. There is no Schlieffen plan, especially one that would have enveloped Paris. Further, the German High Command did not provide the field armies with unified orders for conducting operations in 1914.

The previous statement is one of several areas where Germany was unprepared for a war it allegedly started. German law specified that the Kaiser was the Supreme War Lord, in command of the army and the navy. Wilhelm recognized his shortcomings and agreed to recuse himself from most major decision making. Yet he controlled appointments, making him significant. He was not consistent in his decisions, making the war effort inconsistent also. Overall command was not exercised or coordinated by one individual.

About halfway through Imperial Germany and War, the Great War began. The book switched from discussions of theory to analysis, commentary, and review of German strategy for the next four years.

Germany had hoped for a short war but like everyone else, had to adjust as, by November 1914, their hopes faded to the realization of a protracted war. Events would show that Germany was unprepared for a long war, did not adjust successfully, and eventually suffered social, military, and economic breakdowns throughout the nation. There was a lack of training among reserve troops and officers and the top commanders were also affected as none had experience in commanding so many troops, but this was true for every nation. Germany was not united in its war effort and this was displayed in a multitude of ways with an ineffective emperor and a lack of military and civil coordination.

Marching to War, 1914

The Prussian Siege Law of 1851 went into effect and the corps commanders of the army became civil administrators with authority over areas as varied as censorship, labor negotiations, and police functions. Americans should not be smug, as the Wilson administration usurped the Constitution and skewed the Bill of Rights to where no one could criticize the government without risking imprisonment and several people were imprisoned for speaking their minds. The German Military Administration did not play an effective role in food rationing, and starvation deaths ran into the hundreds of thousands.

Germany also failed to learn to use technology such as radio communications and to coordinate with Austria. However, the two nations agreed by early 1916 that victory was not possible. Germany's internal struggle between peace and victory put an armistice out of reach.

While the General Staff had spent much time thinking about how to attack, insufficient consideration was given as to what weapons and tools should be used to attack the Allies. Between Verdun and the Somme, the prewar German Army died. As the war wore on, it became evident that the Central power lacked almost everything including manpower, labor, submarines, aircraft, tanks, and officers. Even what the army was supposed to do did not happen adequately, including officer training and coordinating the infantry and artillery.

Out of desperation, Germany decided to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, hoping to sink enough ships to bring Britain to its knees before American troops reached Europe. Not enough ships were sunk, the strategy failed, and America's manpower entered the war with decisive results. This failure led to the decision to launch the 1918 offensive. The thinking was that the war had to be won in 1918 or it would be lost in 1919.

Germany spent most of the war fighting a defensive trench war. In preparation for the 1918 offensive, it had to retrain officers and men to fight a different, aggressive mobile war. While the training may have succeeded, the offensive failed, partially because the artillery could not advance fast enough to maintain pace with the infantry nor could the supply of munitions keep pace with the artillery. As throughout the war, losses could not be replaced, mobility was poor, and infantry units wore out. Even British logistic depots slowed down the German Army as hungry soldiers interrupted their assaults to eat.

The book's summary explains that Germany lost the war for several reasons: army commanders who operated independently; inability of the Kaiser to coordinate military action; a navy that did not support the army; loss of confidence by the rank and file toward the officer corps; and an army in control of economic and social policy without the competence to do so.

The most valuable part of Imperial Germany and War—and the reason for reading it—is to learn about the Great War from the German point of view. The importance of social class to the army, political infighting, the inability to mobilize the nation effectively, the isolation of the army from the German nation, and the overall lack of preparation for war contributed to this defeat. Yes, Hindenburg was right; Germany was stabbed in the back, by its army.

Ron Drees


  1. "There is no Schlieffen plan" - what an enormous claim! Does the book make this credible?

    To be clear, and maybe pedantic, there was no German army in the Napoleonic wars. There were numerous states, most notably Prussia and Austria, among others, each with their own armed forces.

  2. Excellent review, Ron. I really like the way your last paragraph ties things up. David F. Beer