Matthias Strohn, ed. World War I Companion. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2013. 272 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78200-188-1.
Reviewed by Tony Demchak (Kansas State)
Published on H-War (May, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The World War I Companion is not, as I initially thought upon seeing the title, an informational atlas or compliation of statistics about World War I. It is, instead, a collection of essays on various topics on the military history of World War I, written by some of the most prominent historians on the topic. Curiously, the dust jacket claims there are fourteen essays; in fact, there are thirteen. These essays span the entire conflict, from 1914 to 1918, and cover the major belligerents. Three of the essays discuss Germany and three of them the United Kingdom. There is one essay each on the Russian Empire, Austria-Hungary, the United States, and France. Italy and the Ottoman Empire get some coverage, but only in the context of their opponents (Austria-Hungary and the United Kingdom, respectively). The war in the air and at sea each receive their own essays.
The first essay, by Michael Neiberg, discusses the trials and tribulations of Allied command, with an emphasis on the difficulties of the coalition leadership between France and the United Kingdom and, later, the United States. The essay does an excellent job of demonstrating how personal feelings contributed to the dysfunctional nature of the Triple Entente's attempt at unified command. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and its first commander, Sir John French, had tremendous difficulty in working with the French, an experience which was repeated when John Pershing and the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF) landed in 1918. Ultimately, one of the keys to the Entente's success in World War I was the establishment of a single command structure, presided over by the French marshal Ferdinand Foch, which permitted more coordinated and, therefore, more effective offensives against Germany.
The second essay, by Thorsten Loch, discusses the basic tenets of German operational thinking and how that impacted German offensives throughout the war. The overall concept was Napoleonic in origin, but also borrowed heavily from Frederick II and Helmuth von Moltke Sr. In the author's formulation, the basic principle of the German operation was "the interdependency of manoeuvre, geography, and available forces with the aim of achieving the element of surprise and local supremacy in order to create a situation that leads to a decisive battle" (p. 33). This way of thinking led to a German preference for a short war, as few military theorists thought that Germany could win a long war of attrition. Thus, the early stages of German war planning sought to envelop their enemies whenever possible, a strategy carried out to perfection in the Battle of Tannenberg. This principle of envelopment also led to the original formulation of the Von Schlieffen plan. However, by 1916, and particularly during the campaign at Verdun, any hope of decisive battles was gone. As Loch writes, "a war of attrition and exhaustion ... has no room for the concept of a decisive battle, and is inimical to the operational art" (p. 41). However, the overall concept of German operational art was never fully abandoned, and it carried over to World War II.
The third essay, written by Bruce Gudmundsson, explores the staffing and creation of the British army throughout the war. The British, in point of fact, had two armies prior to World War I: the regular army (who served abroad and formed the core of any Expeditionary Force) and the Territorial Force (a part-time militia solely concerned with the defense of the British Isles.) The relationship between these two organizations and how, in particular, the Territorial Force was used to reinforce the regular army, is the primary subject of Gudmundsson's essay. Another important part of the discussion was the secretary of war, Richard Haldane, and his creation of the Special Reserve, which provided pools of manpower to reinforce the regular army during mobilization for war. The Special Reserve had no prior military service, necessitating a long period of training to bring them up to the standards of the regular army, but the Special Reserve did provide the regular army with the ability to rapidly fill vacancies for units such as line infantry or the Army Service Corps. Another key development during the war, borrowed from the French and Belgians, was the concept of "doubling," wherein each unit of the Territorial Force was split in half, specifically the officers and experienced NCOs, with the more basic jobs and positions filled by the new recruits. The introduction of conscription and Lord Kitchener's attempts to create a new army round out Gudmondson's essay.
The fourth and fifth essays, on airpower in World War I and naval warfare, penned by James Corum and Michael Epkenhans, respectively, are attempts to summarize those aspects of World War I in a combined thirty-two pages. Given the task at hand, both essays do a very good job of highlighting the key ideas and events necessary to understanding these areas. Corum traces the history of airpower from a purely reconaissance role to primitive (by World War II standards) and largely ineffective bombing campaigns in 1917 and 1918. He also shows how improvements to aerial technology helped make aerial operations more potent over time. By the end of the war, airpower was absolutely indispensable to all of the belligerents, a fact which was clearly recognized by the belligerents themselves. Similarly, Epkenhans skillfully considers every aspect of the war at sea, from the planning before World War I to the actual results of the fighting. Each major theater, from the North Sea to the Pacific, is briefly described. Epkenhans does make a somewhat ill-considered effort to draw a larger lesson from the war at sea, in which he says "[A]s the fate of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian navies showed, only a system that gave the sailors of its navies the feeling that they were treated fairly and that their interests were considered as seriously as those of the so-called upper classes, could successfully rally the rank-and-file behind its leaders" (p. 93). The problem with this particular statement is that nowhere in the essay itself does he build up to this point, nor does he provide any citation for the claim. I happen to think he has a point, but it is not substantiated in the essay, and so its abrupt introduction into the argument is very strange and does not mesh with the rest of the essay.
The sixth essay, written by François Cochet, shows the changing nature of French tactics throughout the war. Initially, the French tactical culture relied very heavily on the offensive and the bayonet charge, rejecting the machine gun due to its supposedly "excessive consumption of amunition" (p. 96). Cochet, at the same time, also tries to correct some misconceptions, such as the placing at the feet of Lieutenant Colonel de Grandmaison responsibility for the flawed operational concept of the French army. Cochet points out that his "only crime was to be 'up to date' with current beliefs" (p. 96). Much as in Neiberg's essay, again, personal relations helped steer possible corrections of this flawed doctrine away: in this case, General Victor Michel's anticipation and (correct, as it turned out) interpretation of the German Von Schlieffen Plan. His interpretation was rejected solely because one of Michel's superiors sought to replace Michel with Joseph Joffre. Doctrine, as Cochet argues, started to shift in early 1915 with new field manuals, but the actual lessons from those new manuals took to time to be disseminated throughout the army, and many of the French offensives of 1915 displayed the same characteristics as those from 1914. However, eventually the new emphasis on the defensive (until the introduction of tanks) and more limited offensives paired with larger concentrations of artillery did spread throughout the army and played a cruical role in Entente victory in 1918.
The editor of the volume, Matthias Strohn, contributed the seventh essay, which explores the development of German defensive doctrines, from holding the line regardless of cost to the more flexible and effective defense-in-depth. Perhaps more quickly than others, the German chief of the general staff Erich von Falkenhayn recognized the need to make a drastic reevaluation of the prewar expectations, recognizing the need to shift from the offensive to the defensive. He ordered the construction of permanent fortifications wherever possible, including using concrete where appropriate. However, Falkenhayn was also unwilling to allow German troops to surrender territory, even at the cost of human lives. Everything was to be devoted to the first line of defense, as he feared that morale would be dampened if rear defensive positions were heavily manned. When Paul von Hindenburg took over from Falkenhayn in August 1916, the realities of his situation were quite different. A drastically lower manpower reserve forced Germany to defend the same amount of territory with fewer soldiers. Thus, defenses needed to be more flexible, with the ability to move between trenches rapidly. The front line was purposefully undermanned and was given explicit orders to offer minimum resistance, upon which point they would retreat to the secondary line of defense, trading space for time and fatiguing the opposition. Cooperation was another focus of the plan, as well as maximum initiative to junior officers. This new tactic was extremely effective on the defensive, but could not make up for the manpower shortages that ultimately doomed the German war effort.
One of the essays I personally found fascinating was the eight essay, written by Lothar Höbalt, which considered the Austro-Hungarian contributions to World War I. The author briefly examines the, as he terms it, "paradoxical" nature of Austria-Hungary's decision to go to war. It was anti-nationalist (in the sense of keeping the empire together), yet is often characterized as an extremely nationalist move. They engaged in war because they could not afford to mobilize yet again without having an actual war. Höbalt never denies that Austria-Hungary played a pivotal role in starting the war, but sets that decision in its proper context. The essay describes the attempt to buy Italy's entry into the war and why that attempt was doomed to failure (because, simply put, the Entente could make a better offer.) Other focuses of the essay include detailed analysis of Austro-Hungarian campaigns, the partnership with Germany, and even a small section on the home front. Höbalt ultimately sets the primary conditions for Austro-Hungarian defeat as lack of direct access to food supplies; industrial underproduction (compared to the other belligerents); weak infrastructure, especially railroads in Galicia; and even difficult relations between Austria and Hungary, again specifically in respect to food distribution.
The ninth essay, by Stephen Walsh, is a summary of the Russian Empire's performance in World War I, focusing specifically on the army. It opens by briefly recounting Russia's response to the Russo-Japanese War and their military build-up prior to the war. It analyzes the various possible strategies Russia could have selected from and explains why the Russian Empire was ultimately backed into a corner. Namely, while Russia's own strategic interests favored trying to knock out Austria-Hungary, without putting pressure on Germany, France might not have survived. As Walsh puts it, "a passive, defensive strategy risked French defeat and Russian isolation. If successful in the west, Germany would not fear war in the east" (p. 143). Walsh explains the strategic circumstances that led to Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, which blunted Russia's offensive into East Prussia, highlighting the lack of cooperation and coordination between Russia's First and Second Armies. Meanwhile, Russia had far more success against Austria-Hungary, counterattacking effectively after the Galicia offensive stalled. Of particular interest is his description of the Great Retreat in 1915, and how what should have been an ordinary strategic withdrawal preserved the Russian army but at the cost of peasant morale, resulting in Nicholas II taking personal command of Russian forces. Walsh recounts the Brusilov Offensive of 1916 (which was ultimately too little, too late), and very briefly discusses the Russian revolutions of February and October of 1917.
Andrew Macdonald, the author of the tenth essay, writes about the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and the prevailing myth that New Zealand's soldiers, in particular, were superior in every respect to the average British soldier. What gave the ANZACs this apparent superiority was, according to Macdonald, more a result of extensive training programs first adopted by the New Zealand Division's commander, Major General Sir Andrew Russell. Russell took the lessons of the Battle of the Somme and two infantry manuals baed on those lessons and applied them to a more rigorous training regimen which emphasized what he called "pace," or the reduction of completion time necessary for everyday tasks. He conducted tactical practices at the platoon, company, battalion, and brigade levels, resulting in units that "were highly skilled, rather than merely proficient" (p. 162). Russell recognized that the new German defense-in-depth doctrine required a heavier degree of sheer determination to break through their defenses, which he reinforced in drills. Russell's approach was by no means unique, and what Macdonald terms "doctrine-based training" existed not just in other ANZAC units, but even in the British Regular Army. Another element in the ANZAC successes in 1917 and 1918 was the decentralization of command, leaving corps to handle their own tactical stituations rather than be rigidly controlled by the higher links of the chain of command. ANZAC's chief advantage in this respect was that, unlike regular British corps, it had divisions permanently attached, instead of constantly shifting divisions between corps based on expediency and availability of manpower. That made it easier to implement new training protocols. Macdonald concludes by saying that the ANZACs were not necessarily superior to other British troops on a soldier-for-soldier basis, but they had leaders like Russell who were exceptionally skillful and eager to incorporate new techniques for training their men.
David Murphy's essay, the eleventh of the book, critically examines the Arab Revolt and its impact on modern desert warfare. While the stories of T. E. Lawrence tend to overshadow the realities of the British-Arab cooperation against the Ottoman Empire, Murphy deftly separates that largely Hollywood-produced myth from the actual facts. He explains the origins of the revolt and, in particular, the heavy focus on destroying or disrupting the Hejaz Railway, a critical supply line for Ottoman forces. The British military mission, dubbed Operation Hedgehog, was quite small, numbering approximately forty officers and, more importantly, including British armored car formations and air support. Murphy helpfully provides an Order of Battle for not just the British complement, but the Arab and Ottoman forces as well. Murphy emphasizes the value of long-range raids into Ottoman territory, including the most famous example, the raid on Aqaba, but also devotes space to a discussion of the campaign against the Hejaz Railway. He also considers the role of the Ottoman Empire in counterinsurgency, an understudied aspect of the Arab campaigns. Other historians (including Lawrence himself) tend to look at the view from the insurgents' perspective, but a considerable portion of the success of the British and Arabs in the desert came from the Ottoman inability to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign, and especially either their reluctance or ignorance of how to use armored cars to counteract their enemy's moves.
Andrew Wiest selected the topic of the American army's integration into the western front for his essay. From the start, US forces and commander of the AEF General John "Black Jack" Pershing considered the failure of general offensives on the western front to be a lack of morale or excess of "European-ness" rather than the tactical and strategic realities of war. Pershing, in particular, fought to have the AEF as a unit independent of the unified command structure, with complete flexibility to act in its own interests rather than as a result of a general operational plan. The United Kingdom and France preferred to have American soldiers replenish understrength units of their own, and by doing so, use the European experience to deploy the American reinforcements most effectively. Whenever American commanders tried to convince Pershing that the Europeans might have a point, these iconoclasts were repulsed at every turn. Pershing only changed his mind when the German Victory Offenses of spring 1918 shocked him into relenting. By August, however, once those offensives were repelled, he got his own independent army and petitioned Foch for the right to launch his own independent offensive at St. Mihiel. Although this offensive was successful, and Pershing attributed it to America's superiority, in reality it had been German fatigue and inexperience that carried the day. The disaster of the Meuse-Argonne offensive and the logistical nightmare that resulted in heavy casualties and minimal gain. Only this harsh lesson finally forced Pershing to reconsider his original position.
The last chapter, by Peter Lieb, examines the German occupation of Ukraine in 1918. Although it is a bit jarring to see "the Ukraine" in 2015, nonetheless, the article itself is excellent. Lieb carefully examines the constantly shifting political nature, as the Bolsheviks' position rose and fell militarily. Ukraine became autonomous first in February 1917 and then independent in November 1917. Germany's interest was drawn when the Bolshevik government rejected the German terms for surrender, and thus Germany used independent Ukraine as "the lever to enforce the German aims on the negotiation table" (p. 211). In early February 1918, the Bolsheviks seized control of the Ukrainian government, which forced the Ukrainian parliament (or Rada) to look to Germany for support. They planned to trade food for German military aid. Austria-Hungary also contributed, albeit later. After Brest-Litovsk, Germany was solely responsible for most of Ukraine's administration, a task they perhaps overlooked when they insisted upon Ukraine as part of the peace treaty. Driving the Bolsheviks out of Ukraine was a Herculean labor in and of itself, requiring three full divisions to suppress the native insurgency. The German attempt to crush the Bolsheviks resulted in widescale murder after the battle of Taganrog in June 1918, where approximately 2,000 Bolsheviks were shot out of hand after the battle was over. An official investigation resulted in no punishment for the culprit, Oberst (Colonel) Arthur Bopp; he was even promoted just before the war's end (although not for that reason, one hopes.) By summer 1918, six army corps, around 300,000 men, were necessary to patrol the German portion of Ukraine. (Approximately one-third to one-fourth of Ukraine was in Austro-Hungarian hands.) To gain at least some kind of native support, the Germans overthrew the Rada and installed a Hetman (recalling the days, long since past, when Cossacks ruled Ukraine) to bring Ukraine under control. Constant rebellions were eventually quelled, and some semblance of order existed, however briefly, in the late summer and early fall of 1918. A late shift in policy to ease the burdens of occupation on ordinary civilians, in combination with the Hetmanate's support, helped that order continue until the Russian Civil War reached Ukraine after Germany's withdrawal. Unfortunately for Germany, Nazi officials during World War II chose to ignore the lessons from the occupation of Ukraine and terrorize civilians and rebels alike.
All of the essays were composed by experts in the field and each is well documented. There is, for some chapters, a lack of non-English materials: the chapter on the Russian army on the eastern front, for example, offers only English source citations in the endnotes and has a single non-English source in the bibliography for that chapter, which is in German. The vast majority of all non-English sources in all chapters are German instead; chapter 6 (on France's army) is the sole exception, with citations in French as well as English. The bibliography is heavily geared to the English reader as well. Given the likely audience for this book, that is not surprising, but it is somewhat disappointing not to see many recent examples of scholarship in non-English languages.
For students of military history (particularly German or British), the World War I Companion is a worthy addition to one's library. Almost all of the essays are suitable for the general reader as well as the specialist. Loch's article on the German offensive is a bit abstract for the reader without prior knowledge, and could benefit from an example diagram such as the one Strohn provided for the German defense-in-depth. Gudmundsson's article on the staffing of the British army, while very detailed, may be too esoteric for the average reader. Corum and Epkenhans's articles on airpower and naval power are noteworthy for their accessibility and make excellent introductions to their respective fields, although there is little to offer for the more serious reader who is already acquainted with the historiography on those topics. The maps and diagrams are outstanding, providing plenty of detail without being unnecessarily busy. This book would also be a good choice for an undergraduate course on military history (if coupled with lectures on the background), or individual chapters would make superb material for a graduate course.
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Tony Demchak. Review of Strohn, Matthias, ed., World War I Companion.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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