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

Most people’s knowledge of World War I centers around trench warfare – where waves of men climbed out of trenches and were mowed down by machine guns and massed artillery. This was certainly the case for a majority of the war on the Western Front – but, not in the beginning. In the beginning, the action was more fluid and territory was conquered quickly (especially for the Germans) – men were still slaughtered in the thousands.

Holger Herwig captures this action in his book entitled : The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World. The title is a bit deceiving because it covers more than the epic battle between the French/British against the Germans in early Septemeber 1914. Herwig discusses the plans that the Germans and the French had if a war was to commence between the two countries. The German plan – Schlieffen – called for a large flanking movement around the French Army through Belgium. The French plan – Plan XVII – called for the French to assault the German-occupied Alsace and Lorraine regions and then invade Germany itself.

Herwig briefly touches on the causes of the war – mainly that the Germans were itching to strike against the Triple Entente before they struck Germany. He argues that the traditional reasons put forth by historians (Germans were fighting for continental hegemony) were not determined until after the war had started. Herwig then describes the actions of the two sides during the Battle of the Frontiers and how it influenced the decisions that led to the Battle of the Marne.

Don’t expect this book to be like the “new school”history books – descriptions of how the common soldiers fought and died. I have read some criticism that the book is not written in this fashion – that it is too dense with names and units. However, I do not think Herwig wanted the book to be written in that format. The book is more of an “old school” history book – in that Herwig analyzes the commanders and their decisions. Thus, it does have some dense parts, but that is to be expected with this type of book – the point is to not know how the soldiers faired (although there is a smatttering of that), but to understand the decisions that were made by the upper command and why they made those decisions.

In the traditional history format, Herwig does an excellent job. He looks at the two main commanders and a minor one (British Field Marshal John French – sorry Brit fans, but they were not as major of a player in the ground war at this stage of the war) – German Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke and French Chief of the General Staff General Joseph Joffre. I think Herwig gives a balanced assessment of the commanders – he equally praises and criticizes each of them. For example, Herwig criticizes Joffre for not adjusting faster to the initial German attack, but praises him for being bold and decisive after he realizes his mistake. He also discusses many of the other military leaders from these countries – I think Herwig’s discussion of the relationship between General Bulow (German Second Army commander) and General Kluck (German First Army commander) and how their strife affected the actions taken by the two armies is superb.

An interesting part of the book covers the “could have beens.” What would have happened if Generals Kluck and Bulow ignored the General Staff officer’s order to retreat at a time when they may have been able to hold off the French counterattack? Could they have flanked the French Sixth Army? If the Germans continued to hold the line and attacked, would Paris have fallen and the war ended under favorable terms for the Germans.

One strong weakness of the book is Herwig’s maps- they are not very good. Herwig includes plenty of maps, but they are hard to read and do not help the reader follow along with the action. Better maps should have been found or should have been created in order for the reader to follow along with the text more easily.

This book is an excellent general description of the opening month and a half of World War I and a superb analysis of the decisions made by the commanders of the various armies.

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