Review: Instrument of War: The German Army 1914-18, Dennis Showalter, 2016.
The problem with the German Army in World War One, argues Dennis Showalter, is that it was an instrument of war and not for war.
It started with the insouciance of Prussian War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn. On July 5, 1914, he told Moltke the Younger (known as “Gloomy Julius” to the higher ranking members of the German General Staff) – after, of course assuring the Kaiser that the German Army would support the Austro-Hungary Empire’s ultimatum to Serbia — that nothing would come of this war talk. The man who planned the railroad timetables clocking how the German Army would go to war, Wilhelm Gröner, took a July holiday.
It ended with Ludendorff’s spring 1918 offensives which had little more by way of specific objectives than punch a hole in Allied lines and see what happened.
Germany pursued war with a too casual appraisal of strategic ends. It concerned itself with the operational scale of war, not the strategic. Battles were to be won. And the next battle would be won and …
But this was the German Army, regarded as the best in the world. It was Germany’s pre-eminently competent institute. After all, it had wrapped up the 1866 war against Austria and the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 quickly and with few casualties. There was no “mythology of sacrifice and victimization” as came out of the Crimean War or the American Civil War.
Sure, there was an 1895 staff report stating an offensive against France would result in a limited advance and eventual tactical stalemate.
But duty called. There had to be a “next war”. Russia was getting stronger. France was an enemy. It was not pure paranoia that they thought themselves surrounded by enemies. German honor was at stake.
In the second through sixth chapters of the book, Showalter shows how that war played out, how the German Army evolved and failed, changed the Second Reich and planted seeds for later German policies in World War Two. Each of those chapters covers roughly a year of the war.
Two important areas covered.
First, the book counterpoints the impression of Allied futility and slaughter on the battlefield after the trenches were dug. Massive Allied casualties in stalled offensives on the Western Front seemed, to the German Army, a slowing raising sea lapping at the shore and forever taking ground. To them, the Somme looked like a near run thing and not futility. The opening artillery barrage of the offensive seemed, to German soldiers, like the end of the world. German lines almost ruptured. By September 1916, two months into the battle, the Germans were at the limits of endurance. “A necrology of the irreplaceable” dead began to fill German accounts. In November 1916, Allied officers noted the Germans now were not the Germans at the beginning of the battle.
They begin to question the competence of their nation and army.
The war dragged on for two more years, of course, because the Germans became masters of defense and innovated in other ways. In particular, they developed the portable MG 08/15 machine gun, a complicated defense system, stormtrooper tactics, and better airplanes. They did not, even though they got their hands on an Allied tank very quickly after its deployment, develop effective tanks. Why bother? It was an offensive weapon and, by 1917, Germany was planning defense
In fact, argues Showalter, the German Army got in the habit of defense and was ultimately too used to it when it launched the Michael Offensive on March 21, 1918. It was not, argues Showalter, disrupted by starving German troops looting overrun Allied supplies. It was doomed by troops often years out of practice in offensive operations, a supply system that pushed supplies to the moving front on a pre-planned schedule and not on real-time demand, continued offensive operations killing experienced assault troops and requiring more men to hold area behind the line, and so many men down from the “Flanders flu” that Ludendorff complained it was his subordinates’ excuse for failure. The offensive even failed due to a lack of fresh horses because this was the one time on the Western Front horse cavalry might have been able to operate in the open and make a difference.
Tactically Michael was a stunning success. The line advanced 14 miles in a day – more than any other day in the war. Planning had started on it exactly one year before the war ended, November 11, 1917. The tactics were partially based on the stunning – perhaps the most perfectly realized German offense of the war – German victory at Riga in September 1917. General Bruchmuller’s planning showed the way to new combined arms tactics.
But, arguably, the Germans should have stopped when they were ahead, consolidated their advances, went back on defense. Douglas Haig even entertained notions briefly of peace negotiations. But Showalter says Ludendorff’s offensives were not impressive in success but in “the limited nature of that success”. Allied counterattacks began on July 18th, and one German general marked the date as the turning point of the war.
The book’s second strength is showing the life and psychology of the German soldier. A member of a citizen army and serving in units from the same area, they bonded like families. The captain of the company was father and the first sergeant mother, and a joke went that a recruit’s expected reply out of what he wanted from the army was to be an orphan. It was less ideology or country that motivated them that living up to German idea of masculinity and gaining the respect of one’s peers.
Serving successfully as a soldier, enduring what had to be endured, accomplishing a mission, was a rite of passage for a German man.
They were not robots. Quite the opposite. Individual initiative was expected out of soldiers even at the beginning of the war and particularly after 1915 under the new German defensive doctrine of “resist, bend, and snap back”. German workers in factories carried out complicated tasks together with minimal supervision. They carried that teamwork and initiative and intelligence into battle. Showalter says that the war on the Western Front in 1917 has been called a factory of death, but the German Army developed a “artisanal approach to modern war”.
Institutions of knowledge-sharing practical experience gained in battle, were created. The German Army expected a lot of its men. Even during wartime, its number of commissioned officers was not increased.
Officers didn’t hand out the harsh punishments of armies from more democratic countries. Less than a 100 German soldiers were executed in the war. A certain amount of high spirit was expected in the troops. In fact, a soldier who hadn’t spent a few days in the guard house or on punishment detail almost couldn’t call himself a real soldier.
Officers regarded it as their duty to look after their men even if the officers were aristocrats. They also thought never giving an order you knew would be disobeyed a good rule. The combination may have led to looting by German soldiers in the hot, humid, thirsty days of August 1914 when supply trains could not keep up with the rapid movement.
Showalter doesn’t ignore the bodies of the German soldier. He mentions how, in those hot days, the Germans marched to the Marne with their pants down – from dysentery. German soldiers suffering from diarrhea at Verdun had the same problem and had to venture out to the hellish zone of war to relieve themselves during breaks in the horrendous shelling. German soldiers, when finally forced to retreat in September 1916, expressed their frustration by leaving a giant pile of human shit. The young German soldier, we are told, often away from home for the first time and with his peers, exhibited a peculiar Teutonic fixation on bodily functions. He was in a peculiar zone outside of the hierarchies of civilian life where he could prove himself.
In the later days of the war, tensions crept in. Old, experienced soldiers didn’t appreciate young officers. The 1916 census of Jews in the German Army, never officially released, created resentment by Jews – disproportionately represented in the Army – and non-Jews alike who regarded them as fellow participants in battle.
There was also the always present resentment, in war, of front line troops for those in the rear. And, since the German Army was, for the duration of the war, on occupied ground, a large number of troops were thus engaged. Almost a million troops were on the Eastern Front after Russia left the war.
Being on occupied ground also psychologically ground the troops down and made them paranoid. They also decorated the tombs of their fallen comrades – when they had them – more than the French or English troops did.
Showalter doesn’t talk much about the Eastern Front, though he wrote the acclaimed Tannenberg: Clash of Empires, 1914, but he talks about the impression Eastern Europeans, especially Jews, made on the Germans. It wasn’t a favorable one. They regarded the conquered members of the East as dirty – they were by German standards – and ignorant. One Jewish soldier even remarked that if these Jews of Russia were his co-religionists, he thanked God he was German.
The German Army instituted delousing plans for the conquered East. Ludendorff, Hindenburg, and the Kaiser dreamed of colonizing its new lands. All these and the use of forced labor by civilians and POWs to build, in 1916 and 1917, the Siegfried Line, Showalter acknowledges, planted seeds for the Third Reich’s behavior.
There is much more including the effects of what was, basically, a Ludendorff and Hindenburg dictatorship which included mandatory work for all able-bodied German men. Militarism and the erosion of democracy may have been the result, notes Showalter, but no other leaders were available to manage the war and its required industrial production.
Not a book for the World War One newbie. Reading a good general history of the Great War is needed to put things in context though Showalter approaches things chronologically. Surprisingly, for an Osprey Publishing book, there are no maps. A few events post-armistice are very briefly covered.
There is an index and 23 pages of photos.
Definitely recommended for those with an interest in the Great War and a valuable redress to the Allied-centric histories in English.
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