A wonderfully written book which challenges many preconceptions and is remarkably balanced. Erich von Falkenhayn has had a generally awful press in many histories of the Great War, for British readers Alastair Horne's "The Price of Glory" probably remains the most influential work of history on the subject of Verdun and Falkenhayn's strategy despite being deeply flawed in its analysis of Germany strategy and rather dated in some respects. In Horne's book Falkenhayn's ideas are presented as almost a strategy of moral bankruptcy using emotive language and some rather pejorative language even around the features of Falkenhayn's face. This negative tone has been reflected in many other works including many German accounts. More modern history takes a much positive view of his strategy and ideas and it is now recognised by many that the strategic appreciation of Falkenhayn was much more realistic than those of his detractors in the German government and military hierarchy, in particular the Eastern duumvirate of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Where this book really excels is in stepping outside of the narrow arguments of 1914-1916 and placing German strategic arguments into the context of a debate which had been a contentious issue in German military and intellectual circles for several decades before the outbreak of war. In the Franco-Prussian/Franco-German war an initial series of stunning victories achieved by the German army had been followed by the raising of a French mass army and the specter of a drawn out war against a nation in arms, the so called peoples war. The experience of this peoples war led German generals such as Moltke the elder to challenge whether future wars could be decided by annihilating the enemy army in great battles, the so called annihilation strategy in a war fought between relatively small professional armies followed by the victor imposing peace turns on a shattered opponent. Rather the future appeared to be wars fought between nations where the issue would be decided by attrition and resources of man power, money and the national will to fight. In such a scenario war would go from being a relatively quick and clean exercise to a drawn out and ruinously costly endeavour. Moltke the elder came to a belief that in future wars armies would fight a series of actions which in themselves would not be decisive but intended rather to provide a position from which to achieve a strong negotiated peace. The German position was weakened still further by the alliances between France and Russia and Great Britain and France. These changed conditions led to a lively debate which looked back to the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon and re-interpretations of Clausewitz with advocates of a new strategy following Moltke the elders ideas fighting intellectual battles between those clinging to the idea of a quick and decisive victory. The book follows the attempts by Schlieffen and Moltke the younger to develop a means of achieving a quick and decisive victory in a world where not only did Germany face a two front war against enemies with greater resources but also the specter of nations rising in arms to what might now be called total war or what was then called peoples war. The book follows the development of the war from 1914, the failure of the Schlieffen plan and the vicious internal struggles between the followers of Hindenburg/Ludendorff and Falkenhayn and the development of Falkenhayn's ideas of attrition. Far from the picture painted by writers such as Horne Falkenhayn emerges as a flawed but intelligent commander whose ideas were both more cognisent of the German strategic position and more based on recognising the potential and limitations of German capabilities than those of the Hindenburg/Ludendorff lobby. Falkenhayn appears to be much more the intellectual descendant of Moltke the elder and a very rational and analytic commander than either of his more famous rivals in the East. The book is not a white wash and Falkenhayn's faults are clearly recognised but the book is a valuable corrective to the view of German strategy and operations which was accepted by conventional wisdom for so many years. The book is wonderfully written in a very engaging style and is a joy to read. There is no reason why serious history should be dry and off putting and this is a book which presents complex arguments in a very clear and lucid manner with a fine prose style. Each chapter can be read as a stand alone essay, this does mean that the conclusions of the preceding chapter tend to be presented again to develop arguments and analysis in the following chapter but I did not find this to be annoying and it re-inforced the key points of debate. Very highly recommended indeed, a 5* book.
Foley's book is an excellent example of strategic and operational analysis, (sadly so rare in writing on the Great War, particularly in regard of the German army). The book strips away post-war fabrications which obscured what the German army did as much as why it did it.
Falkenhayn's realistic appreciation of Germany's predicament led to an attempt to use the Entente's material superiority against it in 1916, by capturing the Meuse Heights and making the French army expose its infantry to the withering fire-power of the German artillery concentrated at Verdun, while German infantry was to be conserved. The British would launch a relief attack north of the Somme and be shredded in turn, allowing the smaller German Westheer to obtain a decisive victory against terminally weakened opponents. It would all be over by Christmas!
Well, not quite but a clever and dangerous ploy nonetheless. The French did it back to the Germans at Verdun, the British and French on the Somme and then throughout 1917, at Ypres in particular. Hindenburg and Ludendorff's offensives of early 1918 were a reprise, which also failed to overturn Germany's material inferiority and exposed a vastly weakened German army to defeat in detail.
First class stuff, written in prose which often rhymes, scans and makes sense.