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The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World

by Holger H. Herwig, Random House, New York, 2009, $28

Since its publication in 1935, Sewell Tyng’s The Campaign of the Marne, 1914 has remained the standard English account of the operations that began World War I and determined its course. No longer. Holger Herwig’s magisterial analysis sweeps the board as a combination of operational analysis, institutional history and contextualization. Herwig is an archival virtuoso and uses a spectrum of sources previously unavailable or thought destroyed during World War II to answer many still-fundamental questions. The Marne was indeed a decisive battle—the most important since Waterloo—and the outcome of a dramatic German strategic gamble. Had that gamble succeeded, Herwig leaves no doubt the result would have been German mastery of Europe for the foreseeable future.

Herwig establishes the war’s outbreak as a consequence of calculated risks in Europe’s capitals—a sense that war now was in the national interest, and that was not confined to Germany. Describing war plans and mobilizations, he makes clear there was in fact a Schlieffen Plan, a massive wheel through Belgium and northern France, designed to break France’s army and its will in six weeks.

The initial result was a series of blistering battles from the Vosges through the Ardennes and onto the plains of Belgium. Herwig presents these clashes as unsophisticated death grapples between armies of hastily uniformed civilians whose doctrine, training and technologies conferred no advantages on any of them. The difference from the beginning lay in command and control: German Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke possessed neither the strength of will nor the force of character to shape the campaign’s fast pace. Herwig describes Moltke’s isolation at German headquarters far behind the lines, left in the dark by a prewar neglect of communications, his armies pursuing divergent ends for tactical reasons at the expense of operational and strategic considerations. In sharp contrast, French Commander in Chief Joseph Joffre kept physically abreast of situations, chauffeured by a former Grand Prix champion. Joffre reacted quickly to events he could not control, like the unexpected scope of the German sweep through Belgium. He influenced situations he could, whether pitilessly relieving generals or using the French rail network to shift scarce reserves.

The first responsibility of a commander is to command. The German army of 1914 had neither the mass nor the fighting power to overcome the friction and inertia at its highest levels. Rivalries among Prussian, Saxon and Bavarian generals and princes highlighted the federal, versus the national, aspect of the Second Empire.

As the campaign progressed, authority devolved, with already exhausted army corps shifted to and fro to meet emergencies occasioned by the scope of the advance and the ferocity of the French response. The result was an even match that led to a strategic standoff, to four years of war and 10 million dead, and to the greater tragedies of a later conflict.


Originally published in the March 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here