on 7 August 2012
Jack Sheldon's on-going series of volumes on the German army in the First World War need no introduction from me. Over the past seven years they have carved out a well-nigh unique niche for themselves as a precious resource for English-speaking students - general and professional - of the Great War. Sheldon's books represent the single most accessible resource for non-German speakers to discover not only how the Germans fought their war, but the manner in which they recorded doing so in numerous regimental histories. Although these German histories are Sheldon's primary source, he supplements these with the fruits of his extensive first hand research in German archives. Add to this his knowledge of what the British were up to on their side of the hill, and you have the key ingredients which have won Sheldon's books the admiration and respect of his peers amongst the top military historians in the English-speaking world.
The order in which Sheldon's `German Army' series has appeared has not slavishly followed the chronology of the war itself. That is part of the charm of anticipating the next in the series - like Forrest Gump's metaphorical box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. The series started with `The German Army on the Somme 1914 - 1916', for example - the four month battle of the latter year being perhaps the most important battle of the Great War to general British readers today, even if often for all the wrong reasons. `The German Army at Cambrai' in 1917 was added in 2009, and 2010 saw Sheldon revisit 1914 for `The German Army at Ypres.' His latest book, `The German Army on the Western Front 1915', and the sixth in the series, is in my view a particularly important addition to the already essential body of work which his series represents.
It is eminently arguable that 1915 represented the best year of the war for the Germans, and - with the benefit of hindsight - may have represented their last real chance of inflicting a crushing defeat on the Allies on the Western Front. In 1914, the German attempt at a rapid knockout blow in the west failed and the war of movement became stymied until other military technologies caught up with the advances in firepower which had brought this about. In 1916 the attrition at Verdun cost the Germans as dearly as the French without having decisively weakened the latter. And as Verdun was winding down in the summer of 1916 the first of the attritional hammer blows which would continue until the end of 1917 were delivered by the BEF, resuming again in August 1918 after the German's last great effort in the spring of the latter year had failed to achieve its purpose. 1915, however, was different, and Sheldon's new book engrossingly sets out why.
For the past 98 years the British have been pretty much fixated with the idea that the Germans' strategic world fell apart with the failure of the Schlieffen Plan (for want of a better name, I've no desire to play the Zuber game of semantics) to achieve its envelopment of Paris and the French armies with a sweep from the north-east. However, Sheldon's Introduction gives us a masterful overview of the big picture in 1915 from the German perspective, and spells out why the traditional British belief in a homogeneity of strategic thinking amongst the German general staff is simplistic. For many British readers what Sheldon has to say on the dichotomies at play in German grand strategic thinking will come as something of an eye-opener. Traditionally 1915 is seen as the year that saw blue water appear between British strategic thinkers, whose opposing camps were soon labelled `Easterners' and `Westerners'. The British (and French) `Easterner' strategic policy was, of course, put to the test in 1915 with disastrous results in the futile side-shows of Gallipoli and Salonika - the former collapsing entirely by January 1916, whilst the latter dragged on like an unnecessary festering sore until the end of the war. Although they had to continue to fight their cause every step of the way, the events of 1915 largely made the British `Westerner' argument for the primacy of the Western Front unassailable in practical terms. At the same time as the pointless `Easterner' expeditions of 1915, the BEF in France were having to comply with French pressure to earn their keep as Allies by spilling some blood in the cause of ousting the German invaders. Spill British blood Sir John French certainly did - but to no territorial or attritional gain. 1915 was not a happy year for the British, then. What Sheldon sets out with fresh clarity is the fact that the Germans too had their `Easterner' and `Westerner' factions - the German East being Russia rather than the Dardanelles on the edge of Asia Minor. The other difference - and it was a big one - was that the Germans were successful both territorially and attritionally in the East in 1915 - or, as Sheldon pithily puts it, "both the Russians and the Serbs had been put to the sword in no uncertain manner." Meanwhile in the West the Germans easily held their own, largely letting the Allies launch a series of offensives against their line, most of which were batted off due to a mixture of German skill and Allied ineptness (the German Argonne offensives preparatory to a projected assault on the Verdun salient being a notable exception to a German defensive policy in the west in 1915, to which Sheldon devotes a specific chapter) . 1915 was a good year for the Germans, then. But did their success in the East cost them their best chance of making good the failure of 1914 with a decisive victory in the West? Sheldon's overview of the year is persuasive that perhaps it did. He is clear that whilst the less talked about German 'Easterner' - 'Westerner' strategic divide may have resulted in successes in the East rather than the disasters of the Allied ventures of 1915, they were no less futile in war-winning strategic terms. And just as Allied 'Easterner' policies risked compromising success on the decisive Western Front, so he makes clear that the primacy given to 'Easterner' ventures by the Germans in 1915 arguably cost them a never to be seen again shot at a decisive blow in the West while their armies were still very much at the top of their game, with reserves aplenty and a still stable and supportive home front and economy.
Sheldon concludes his overview of 1915 by making the point that the Allied failures in a succession of offensives in the West demonstrated not just a rapid German mastery of the defensive line but the fact that their troops showed "the fighting ability of and resilience of the men of the hour who manned its regiments. That year their performance was superlative." And it is the accounts of these men which lie at the heart of this book. For whilst, as ever, Sheldon is the master of contextualising the material which he has assembled for his book, equally as ever is the meat of the book the fascinating first-hand accounts from the German side describing just how the broad themes succinctly summarised in his Introduction played out for the men at the sharp end of the Imperial German war machine. Sheldon excels in the judicious selection of accounts from the vast German sources which he has trawled in his researches. These accounts he carefully contextualises into an informative and enthralling narrative history which presents the interested reader who has no knowledge of German with unprecedented access to how the Germans who directed and fought the war saw it. The revelations from these sources stud the pages of this book. Unsurprisingly, the bulk refer to the successful resisting of Allied offensive operations. Thus we have Vizefeldwebel Haftman of IR 107 describing the scene as French attackers emerge to the attack from their trenches following their preliminary artillery bombardment of the German lines (of which, interestingly, the Germans had had prior intelligence of at this early stage of the war [February 1915] from French deserters) :
"The first man to climb out of the right hand sap, directly opposite my men, was a French officer, signal flag in hand. Other soldiers followed him rapidly. Apparently they believed that they would only encounter weak resistance. How disappointed they must have been, therefore, to find German bullets whistling past their ears. We did not greet the enemy with rapid fire; rather with well-aimed individual rifle fire. Every shot hit its mark. Not a single man reached our lines, though the distance was only twenty to thirty metres. Enemy corpses piled up in front of the sap and acted as a warning to those who were to follow. Instead they tried to drive us out of the trench by sending over `twittering robins'. "
Just how many painfully bought lessons in conducting an attritional offensive as economically as possible lay ahead of the Allies is evident from the above account from one of the defenders. Intriguing, too, is the introduction provided to German trench slang like `twittering robins', which Sheldon's footnote describes as referring to some form of improvised bomb being used by the French at this stage. Although strategically in the ascendant, however, the German defenders did not always have it their own way tactically, as this vivid account of a British gas and infantry attack from another Vizefeldwebel, Grieske, of Infantry Regiment 178 bears witness:
"From our elevated position we could see the west wind carry the greenish-yellow and black smoke clouds over the trenches of our neighbouring division. From many hundreds of pipes, set about one metre apart, streamed poisonous jets of gas which, after about fifty metres, combined into one great gas cloud. [......] The Tack! Tack! Sound of British machine guns, which became evident at the same time, showed us that the gas attack was being followed up immediately by that of the infantry, with Indian troops in the lead. However this attack was beaten back, leaving the field covered in dead and wounded men. Once again, then, for a third time, we saw clouds over the Indians. The fire of our own artillery slackened somewhat then English and Scottish troops stormed forward. The front line of our neighbouring division was overrun. Would the reserves manage to do their duty? Meanwhile the enemy artillery shifted the impact point of its rain of shot and shell further to the east, over Hill 70 and as far as Lens."
The British reader will be familiar with British accounts of their use of gas at Loos, but here we have a German eyewitness account of being on the receiving end which contradicts many British accounts about the gas being ineffective in reaching these targets - and this just five months after the celebrated first use of gas by the Germans against a French Algerian division near Langemarck. As well as establishing a record of such defining images of the Great War as the perception of gas attacks by both sides in 1915, the minutiae to be gleaned from the quotes Sheldon selects can be equally fascinating. See, for instance, how in the above quote Grieske explicitly differentiates between not only Indian troops amongst the attackers, but English and Scottish. This indicates that the celebrated German use of `Englander' for all British troops was not entirely ubiquitous!
It is tempting to continue dissecting the many fascinating quotes which lie at the heart of this book - but this would rapidly become a reprint rather than a review. I must make the point again, however, that all are beautifully set into context by Sheldon's impressive grasp of the historiography of the war. This he applies in a laudably even-handed manner. Having made the unarguable point that 1915 was the Germans' year, and demonstrating why this was so through their own accounts, Sheldon at certain points reminds us that they were no more infallible all of the time than any other army which has ever gone to war. There was the strategic possibilities of a knock-out blow in the west not pursued which has already been alluded to. On the smaller scale, Sheldon draws our attention to episodes such as the decision to transfer IRs 53 and 158 out of 14th and 8th Divs on the very eve of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and send them to Champagne as part of the newly formed 100th Brigade of 50th Div. As Sheldon says, "It is unclear if it was reckoned that greater risks could be taken on those parts of the Western Front where they faced the British, but in the event, the timing could hardly have been worse."
Beyond this, `The German Army on the Western Front 1915' is well served by its photograph section, maps and index. A welcome innovation is an appendix of potted biographies of selected French and German personalities from 1915 who may not be so familiar to general English-language readers.
To sum up, then, this is an important volume in a series by an author who has long established himself as indispensable on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the Western Front. More than that, this is a book which will enthral the reader with any interest in the experience of war in any conflict. But for the English-speaking student of the Great War this book gives a slant on that conflict which, combined with the depth of analysis of an author imbued with a lifetime's involvement in military affairs, simply has no substitute. C S Lewis gave the Pevensie children their wardrobe as a doorway to Narnia, and Lewis Carroll provides the rabbit hole for Alice to tumble into Wonderland. Now English-speaking students of the Great War can count their blessings that they have Jack Sheldon to provide the key to their unlocking of the door to the previously inaccessible world of the German side of a conflict which they have hitherto only known the half of.
Finally, as an addendum to the main review, and as a bibliophile, I'll add a few words on the physical presentation of this book. This is a sturdily made, cloth-bound volume to match the rest of Sheldon's `German Army' series. The stylistic cues which devotees of the series look for are all there. The now trade-mark head of the young stormtrooper on the spine is present and correct. The always impressive Dicke Berta in a colourised wartime photo adorns the front of the dustjacket, whilst the rear sports an interesting colourised photo of a German machine gun position. Pen and Sword's talented dustjacket designer, Jon Wilkinson, has created an attractive corporate image for Sheldon's series of books. Curiously, though, if you prefer the books in their cloth covers with the dustjackets removed, this latest in the series comes in green, breaking ranks with the black of the volumes which precede it.
This review © Copyright 2012 George A. Webster