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

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914: How Faulty Reconnaissance Exposed the Weakness of the Schlieffen Plan

By Joseph P. Robinson & Janet A. Robinson, and Dennis Showalter
McFarland, 2019.
David F. Beer, Reviewer

If wars were wagered on like pro sports or horse races, the German military in August 1914 would have been a clear front-runner, with a century-long record of impressive victories and a general staff the envy of its rivals. Germany's overall failure in the first year of World War I was surprising and remains a frequent subject of analysis, mostly focused on deficiencies in strategy and policy. But there were institutional weaknesses as well. . . (book cover)

This well-organized and clearly written book may contain interpretations and conclusions that not every historian of Germany's August 1914 invasion of Belgium will agree with. However, the authors' argument is solidly stated and represents a great deal of research and thought. Disputes still abound regarding the Schlieffen Plan, its intended implementation, its actual modifications, and indeed whether, "if it existed at all, was anything but a recipe and a template for victory" (p. 2). Whatever one's opinions, it's difficult to find fault with this book's contention that poor preparation, planning, and reconnaissance were responsible for considerable confusion and delays that would have far-reaching consequences.

Belgian Infantry Moving to the Front

After reading The German Failure in Belgium, I was almost inclined to see the German invasion as somewhat of a comedy of errors—except there was decidedly nothing comic about it. Given the times and the level of technology available, what happened is not all that surprising. Much depended on the German cavalry, ironically when the cavalry charge was soon to face obsolescence in the face of the machine gun (p. 144). Horses could be used for reconnaissance and communications, however, but as this book shows, much could still go wrong.

The study of communication systems in World War One is a fascinating one, and naturally communication was a critical component of the German invasion of Belgium. Knowledge of where the enemy was, where he was headed, whether to prepare for attack or defense, where to place reserves and supplies, all depended on reliable recon and communication. Unfortunately, this was frequently unavailable, or at best, muddled. Although the invading army had some 21,000 carrier pigeons and some battalions used messenger dogs (p. 40), horse and dispatch riders were more practical, and with the early evolution of electronic communication the wireless and telephone were—despite being rudimentary—coming into their own. Additionally, aircraft and airships (dirigibles) were employed for aerial reconnaissance. One of the strong points of this book is showing how all these assets had weaknesses, pitfalls, and limitations and were often misused. Thus, efficient reconnaissance was considerably diminished.

Not only does The German Failure in Belgium show us multiple ways in which communication and reconnaissance efforts could fall short—or in some cases utterly fail at the practical level—but the authors also delve into the ingrained structural and operational considerations that frequently exacerbated problems. Top brass personalities and preferences also came into play here. Due to author Joe Robinson's professional military experience in operations and planning, the first three chapters of the book provide an excellent analysis of these levels. Chapters 4 to 9 then take a day-by-day look at the progression of the German army through Belgium, showing in detail how the advance was characterized by a lack of preparation and considerable faltering and stumbling. All towns, villages, forts, rivers, and roads that played a part in holding up the advance are discussed, as is the ongoing organization and liaison of cavalry, regiments, brigades, and divisions.

German Troops Pausing During the Advance into Belgium

This review can't possibly do justice to the meticulously detailed material in Dennis Showalter's and the Robinsons' book. For me, it opened perspectives on the German invasion of Belgium that I had previously lacked. The final chapter, when the authors' explain why things happened the way they did, was also enlightening. Helpful back material consists of the outline of the German Staff in May 1914, a glossary of terms and abbreviations, chapter notes, an impressive bibliography, and an index. Maps and photographs are included in the text. All in all, a very worthwhile read.

David F. Beer


  1. As a self-promoting group and website: we started a daily blog originally about this book. It has grown tremendously and can be found everyday at as well as the Facebook group

  2. This sounds like a solid book. Thank you for the review, David.
    PS: do the authors think the unmodified plan could have worked?

  3. Great review. I look forward to reading the book.

  4. I am one of the authors and indeed the modified plan almost worked despite all the obvious errors. the war could have ended on August 23. but I will not spoil the book! I also have a similarly glowing review by Jack Sheldon himself.

  5. Top picture shows men of the 1.GroƟherzogliches Mecklenburgisches Dragoner Regiment Nr.17. Oktober 1914. At Ludwigslust. Not Belgium!