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

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915
reviewed by Michael Kihntopf

Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915
by Prit Buttar
Osprey Publishing, 2015

This is Prit Buttar's second opus about the Eastern Front of World War I. Readers may remember that I had the privilege of reviewing the author's first book of this series, Collision of Empires: The War on the Eastern Front 1914. I found that book to be a stunning addition to the ever-increasing lore about the Eastern Front. Moreover, I found this book just as rewarding as the first volume.

Confident-Looking German Troops, Eastern Front 1915

Buttar is a well known medical authority in the United Kingdom who has channeled his dedication to the task of chronicling the Great War on the Eastern Front. In his first work he minutely detailed the first four months of the war. Now this book picks up in January 1915 with the struggle to force the Carpathian Mountains. The Russians want to move into the Hungarian plains and force Austria-Hungary out of the war, while the Dual Monarchies' generals want to preclude the Russians' efforts and rescue the besieged garrison at Przemyƛl. The author explores each of the antagonists' plans and their execution of those plans and unmasks the reasons for each side's failures to meet their goals.

In a word, the deciding factor was the weather. Men from both sides froze to death while advancing toward the enemy at such high altitudes. Many starved to death because blizzards kept food from them and survivors ran out of ammunition. This was not a battle in which tens of thousands of men died because generals failed to grasp how deadly the new weapons were. Because most generals didn't work in such frigid temperatures, it was a struggle in which generals expected superhuman feats from their soldiers under the most appalling conditions. And this is the theme that recurs throughout Germany Ascendant.

Nothing is more evident in the book than the fact that both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian armies were shells of themselves in 1915. The experienced and professional officers and NCOs of the prewar army lay dead in the Carpathians and in the fields of Poland, killed during the 1914 campaigns. They were replaced by inadequately trained and supplied soldiers who were thrown into perilous situations without regard to their unpreparedness or numbers. Corps strengths barely reached one half of their authorized levels yet the General Staff expected them to do the job of fully manned divisions. The savior of the Dual Monarchies' army was the transfusion of German divisions into their line. The spring offensive, centering on Gorlice-Tarnow, quickly showed that this transfusion turned a once equal ally into what Buttar calls the junior partner. (This is by far the strongest part of the book.) For the Russians there was no savior ally.

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The author presents a harrowing picture of a decimated Russian Army and the General Staff's efforts to forestall the Central Powers' offensives. Among these pages are not only an explanation of the internal feuds among members of the General Staff, the pro- and anti-Sukhomlinov factions, but also of its ineptitude in dealing with the dilemmas of supply. Some replacement units arrived at the front without weapons, so men going into attacks were armed with grenades and clubs only. Reports of the annihilation of divisions by German artillery never arrived at higher headquarters, nor did reports on the suffering of the peasant soldiers. This book deserves to be on the shelf of every World War I aficionado. It is a welcome and detailed reference book for orders of battle on the Eastern and Serbian front as well as a treasure chest of command and control issues. I look forward to reading the next volume, which deals with 1916.

Michael Kihntopf


  1. You do a fine job of showing how valuable the work of Prit Buttar is. I'm one of those who tend to concentrate on the Western Front almost exclusively but your review shows me how much I'm missing. I plan to remedy this by reading Buttar. How he can be an MD and also such a reputable WWI scholar is a source of amazement and admiration to me! DB

  2. Buttar is doing yeomen work for the criminally under appreciated Eastern Front.
    I'm a fan of both of these books, and look forward eagerly to the next.

  3. Good review, Mike. I am looking forward to reading this book.

  4. Some of my notes: