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

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Generals' War, Operational Level Command on the Western Front in 1918

David T. Zabecki
Indiana University Press, 2018
Terrence J. Finnegan, Reviewer

Hindenburg and Ludendorff
I contacted Major General David Zabecki several years ago to talk about his stand-alone The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in The Operational Level of War (Strategy and History). My comment to him was "the book is so important that I keep a copy at my bedside." His response, "I don't even keep a copy at my bedside!" General Zabecki's summation of German operations provided a long-overdue and valued German view—not an Anglicized interpretation that held sway over a century of military history on the subject. Applying general officer understanding of what it took to command forces locked in positional war became a logical follow-on. The Generals' War serves that objective.

My bias with 1918 comes from understanding the impact of military thinking on an obscure and sadly forgotten military operation on the St. Mihiel region of the Woëvre. Knowing how German general and division-level commanders armed with four years of well-honed strategy and tactics applied against newly arriving American forces—especially involving the genesis of blitzkrieg and demonstration of information warfare—lends to the excitement of reading more about that last year of the Great War. Unfortunately, General Zabecki's scope of discussion was limited to the usual suspects of Western Front senior commanders such as Generalfeldmarshal von Hindenberg and Erster Oberquartiermeister General der Infanterie Ludendorff, Maréchal Foch, Maréchal Pétain, Field Marshal Haig, and General Pershing. The work expertly covers key aspects of each, especially with Table 4.1, "The Warlords of 1918."

Likewise, General Zabecki's focus on the Western Front plays to the prevailing knowledge shared by almost all military historians who cover the Great War. When you examine the war in its totality covering the other theaters, you acquire a better understanding beyond the initial battles of 1914 that made heroes of Hindenberg and Ludendorff and become aware of lower-echelon commanders such as General der Artillerie Max von Gallwitz, 5. Armee and Armeeabteilung C commander—General Pershing's nemesis for most of 1918.

Pétain, Haig, Foch, and Pershing

I wish General Zabecki's work had expanded to include snippets from some amazing accomplishments of military leadership on the Eastern Front including Generalfeldmarshal von Mackensen's four years of military operations, combined with a sneak peek into General der Infanterie von François—the most insubordinate commander of Prussian stock whose success at Tannenberg defined the bold measures that gave both Hindenburg and Ludendorff, as well as their chief of operations for 8. Armee, Oberstleutnant Max Hoffmann, their moment in the historical sun. Then the reader could have been swayed from digging deeper into the malaise of the Western Front and better understood the total ramifications of what the war did in shaping Great War command thinking. The war of maneuver witnessed a longer role on the Eastern Front — a role that defined modern warfare's evolution as it applied to the Second World War.

The depth of discussion contained in the text is essential for those who see themselves as armchair commanders of this era. General Zabecki's The Generals' War takes off from his depth of discussion presented in The German 1918 Offensives, particularly applying the German operation scheme of maneuver against the Allied commanders that had to counter the movement. The legacy for all commanders becomes "another stunning tactical success, it also was another operational failure." General Zabecki's book is full of great data—particularly summarizing failings and shortfalls of such icons as General Pershing.

Pershing and staff virtually ignored combat under way in the Wöevre by the 26th Division—holding more front line than any other division in the war. Headquarters Chaumont concern with the General Staff in Washington correctly addressed "sending divisions to France with too many untrained men." Such was the case at Seicheprey when a counterattack was called for and soldiers brought to the fight had never seen battle or, in some cases, fired a weapon. German success depended on artillery pummeling the enemy in annihilation as fast-moving blitzkrieg maneuvers gained ground throughout the battle sector. What challenged the Germans' combination of fast-moving forces skillfully employing overwhelming firepower from artillery and Minenwerfer was a "soldiers' battle" fought by National Guard soldiers holding their ground and fighting to the death.

A review of bibliographic sources in the work shows balance and depth by mirroring existing work on the subject. Sadly, not much new is seen from the surge of writings published during the centennial. His book is aided by the publisher's exemplary colorized maps that do a great job in untangling the front lines for the average reader.

As it concerns The Generals' War, "I keep a copy at my bedside."

Terrence J. Finnegan


  1. Thank you for this review. I too like to see staffs explored after all, the general makes a decision only when his staff had provided all the info and sometimes steers him in the right (admittedly wrong) direction. The staff, that's were the drama is. Nevertheless, I'll try this one out. Cheers

  2. Nice review Terrence! And Michael the question about staffs really dominates our upcoming book about 1914 August. McFarland has had the manuscript for over a year and still no proofs – Dennis Showalter and I are trying to remain patient even though it was advertised in their fall catalog. The real staff question that keeps resonating and is not answered by the book is the rhetorical question of why – why does a staff present an obviously flawed plan to the boss. Why does the boss accept such a sloppy and poor piece of staff work? Moltke's plan in August 1914 was so bad that a blind planner would not have suggested it. But yet the great general staff of the German army presented that as the plan they would risk their country on – why? To use Showalter's words from another one of his works – did they commit suicide for fear of death?