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

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Lossberg's War
Reviewed by Terrence J. Finnegan

Lossberg's War:
The World War I Memoirs of a German Chief of Staff

by Fritz von Lossberg
Edited and Translated by Major General David T. Zabecki and 

Lieutenant Colonel Dieter J. Biedekarken
University Press of Kentucky, 2017

Original German sources covering World War I are a treat for the enthusiast, and Fritz von Lossberg's account is especially so. His service during the war was exceptional, for he covered all the major battles on the Western Front, including the Somme in 1916. As is stated in the translators' Introduction, "Lossberg during World War I never commanded anything." The reader instead gets a feast of insights to German command thinking throughout the war, clearly showing the evolution of military strategy and tactics that defined the era.

What makes the work so important for those evaluating military thinking at the core of operations is that the German side over the century has been woefully lacking by most English and American scholars. The German Reichsarchiv monumental 14-volume history Der Weltkrieg 1914–1918, published during the interwar years describing in detail the ground war, should be essential for all scholarship addressing World War I military operations. However, German natives who address the history are few and far between. Getting to the pure substance of German thinking is a major challenge.

Concern with Fritz von Lossberg's work is the original date of publishing. By 1938, most German military works were tainted with ideological bias from the National Socialist publishing community. One has to be sensitive to the exact discussions reflecting what his actual notes covered. If the final work is Fritz von Lossberg's insight at the time of the war, then the read is a pure delight for it is contemporary German in its essence. However, his 1939 Prologue carries the exhaltation "As an old soldier I watch with great excitement the rise of the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich." Perhaps this generated the prevailing bias for a generation of military scholarship to not seriously consider von Lossberg's amazing contribution to contemporary German military thinking.

The casual reader will find Lossberg's work to be worthwhile because the Zabecki and Biedekarken translation is a delight. There is a tendency for literal translation to reflect German grammar. German articles Der, Die, and Das are routinely replaced with "the." This is not the case here.

For this reviewer, the mention of intelligence and aerial reconnaissance reports aiding 5. Armee headquarters in formulating early September 1914 assessments on the enemy was substantiation that the Germans were wedded early on to aviation's role in developing operational strategies against the western Alliance. Analysis on artillery was equally illustrative for seeing the German assimilate data from their aviation sources.

Von Lossberg's discussion on how First Marne resulted in victory for Entente forces was particularly insightful:

So far in the war the English had evaded any decisive fight to avoid losing their links to the Channel ports. For that same reason, the BEF's thrust into the gap between First and Second Armies was neither rapid nor energetic…It is not the courageous German Army that was to blame for the withdrawal from the Marne, but rather OHL and General von Moltke, who from the beginning of the war made one mistake after another…During the grave situation following 9 September 1914, the only important issue was the ability to assemble a superior force for the German right wing to attack with. Whether or not the right wing should have been pulled back farther was immaterial, because in a mobile war one does not fight for terrain, but for total destruction of the enemy.

Assignment to the Eastern Front in November 1914 provides another rarely seen view of the thinking of the command against the Russian adversary. There von Lossberg met with General von Hindenburg and Generalmajor Ludendorff—an introduction that increased his credibility in the years to come.

The assignment at the Somme is probably the most lucrative discussion from von Lossberg. He made many a personal reconnaissance of the region and provided in-depth views of the important battle. He saw the rolling terrain offering many possibilities for frontal and flanking observation and artillery fire. The Somme ground was also good for infantry defensive operations thanks to numerous solidly built-up settlements. Another insight was that the British and French had aerial superiority in this sector. They constantly flew over German-held terrain strafing infantry with machine gun fire from low altitudes and dropping bombs in the rear areas on any recognized movement. "Our flyers were powerless against this incredible superiority."

His superior work resulted in being awarded by the Kaiser the Orden Pour le Mérite, the first von Lossberg to be recognized with that honor from a long line of distinguished soldiers. On 11 April 1917, he was appointed by the Kaiser to be chief of staff of 6. Armee opposite British forces, followed in June 1917 to chief of the general staff of 4. Armee, facing British forces from the southern wing and French forces to the sea. It was then von Lossberg applied his depth to developing the defensive architecture with which he is credited.

Improvements in communications throughout the sector became the standard. From his army command post he could communicate with all the corps and divisional headquarters, the artillery groups, and the airfields. His praise for the German Army centers on the Battle of Flanders, where not a single German division failed and every piece of ground was fought for stubbornly. Insight after insight floods the reading and provides a rarely seen personal view from the German command. For the military student of the era, such revelations from a contemporary make for fresh reading and adds to a credible understanding of what is the rightful fascination of the Great War. Any future work that doesn't reference General der Infanterie Fritz von Lossberg's important observations should be considered incomplete.

Terrence J. Finnegan


  1. Sounds really useful. Thank you for the review.

  2. I look forward to reading this. Excellent review. Cheers