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

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The German Army on the Western Front, 1915


By Jack Sheldon
Pen & Sword Military, 2022
Terrence J. Finnegan, Reviewer


Fighting in the Argonne Forest, 1915


Getting a balanced view of the Great War with accounts on both sides is rare. Over the past decade in conjunction with the centenary several books were published to appeal to a public that was curious about the war. Jack Sheldon’s book was originally published in 2012 by Pen & Sword Books Ltd. A decade later Pen & Sword Military has republished the book in paperback.

Sheldon’s forte is an exemplary ability to translate German regimental histories applied to the exact location at a given point on the battlefield. His wife also came through with her hand-drawn maps that give the reader the most detailed visual guide of the German front line. Sheldon goes further and provides the exact grave site location of many deceased German soldiers mentioned in the regimentals. It is this attention to detail that makes The German Army on the Western Front 1915 an important reference work in understanding what the British and French faced that year. 


German Attack, Champagne, 1915


Seven major battles are addressed in chronological order: the winter battle in Champagne, Neuve Chapelle, gas attack at Ypres, spring battle in Artois (Arras, Aubers Ridge and Festubert), Argonne Forest, autumn battle in Artois (Arras and Loos), and the autumn battle in Champagne. The reader is given ample opportunity to see first-hand what the Germans experienced with positional war that year. Battle strategy and tactics were still new to all combatants. Sheldon quotes Max Bartel (German soldier whose poetry was recognized by the German government with the Bundesverdienstkreuz [Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany] in 1974) to give testament to the transformation of the battleground of 1915:

The war had long since altered its appearance. No longer were there mounted attacks, helmet plumes blowing, spear points and swords red with blood and gleaming in the sunlight. There were no color standards fluttering in the ranks. The colours of war were now grey, blue, red and black; grey and bleu d’horizon were the uniforms, blue-black the steel and the power smoke and red for the gouts of flame and blood. Instead of trumpeters, there was the howl of shells, with one single direct hit having greater power than an entire company storming forward in earlier times.

It is Sheldon’s chapter 3, "Gas Attack at Ypres," that provides the most saliant account of what most students of the war remember about the Western Front that year. Even though the Germans first used poisonous gas on the Eastern Front, the British and French had yet to experience the weapon of mass destruction that typified the most acute horror of positional war. Upon approval by General der Infanterie Erich Falkenhayn, [Germany’s High Command (OHL)], 4. Armee acquired 6000 full-sized cylinders of chlorine to strike the British at Ypres. On 21 April, Generaloberst Duke Albrecht of Wuttemberg received orders to attack at first opportunity.


German Soldiers with French Colonial Gas Casualties,
Ypres, 1915

Hauptmann von Hammerstein, 1st Battalion Reserve Infantry Regiment 213, [Tiessen, History of Reserve Infanterie Regiment 213] provided one of the best descriptions of what it took to fight in the first major employment of gas on the Western front. The attack took place in the evening of 22 April 1915:

The gas cylinders were opened and the lead piping was laid out on the parapets. An indescribable, unforgettable scene for all who took part in this first gas attack then unfolded. A greenish cloud developed to our front and began slowly to roll towards the enemy. Gradually the whole sky seemed to have turned green. This sinister turn of events had an astonishing effect on the enemy. The front-line troops reacted in total confusion and, casting aside weapons and equipment, bolted in large numbers. . . By 6.10 pm the cylinders were empty. . . Everything went like a peacetime maneuver. Where the enemy showed resistance, not much time was wasted with lengthy fire fights. Instead we went straight in with the bayonet.

The remaining battles along the front lines of 1915 show how arduous and terrifying to fight positional war was to all combatants. There is a genuine respect shown toward the adversary in the accounts. Sheldon points out commanders were challenged with poor communications, lack of defense against incessant and overwhelming artillery, and threats posed by allied aerial reconnaissance. The reader gets a glimpse into almost all the battle accounts.

The author concludes this study with the right emphasis for describing the German army on the Western Front. They achieved so much in 1915 because of the “fighting ability and resilience of the men of the hour who manned its regiments. That year their performance was superlative.” In reading the accounts of the regimental histories provided by Sheldon, that observation is fully reinforced.

Terrence J. Finnegan

5 comments:

  1. Fine review, Terry, thanks.
    Pete Belmonte

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Pete - great work on your part over the years!! Terry

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  2. Solid review. We don't get enough of the German side, here in the Anglophonic world.

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  3. Your review will cost me money. Excellently done. Cheers

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  4. Outstanding brief on 1915 front

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