Tuesday, 4 June 2013

The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914 - Terrence Zuber

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in Airforce magazine. Therefore, the material is proprietary to the Air Force Association of Canada and is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the association. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor Airforce magazine (editor@airforce.ca ). I support the Air Force Association’s important mission to inform new generations of Canadians about the value and importance of their country’s air force. A link to the AirForce Magazine website is: http://airforce.ca/magazine/
Title: The Battle of the Frontiers: Ardennes 1914 
Author: Terence Zuber
ISBN: 978-0-7524-5255-5
Pages: 314
Illustrations: 22 b/w/20 maps
Publisher: The History Press

Terence Zuber, retired US Colonel and the author of a series of acclaimed books on the First World War and pre-war period, is an unabashed supporter of the German doctrinal and training system. This does not preclude him from being critical of German tactics or operational decisions but it is important to realize before one reads his books. They are predominantly focused on the operational and tactical successes of the German military and its doctrine.

Ardennes 1914 is no exception. What I enjoyed about the book is the degree of detail with which he presents his case studies. In this book he examines a series of engagements between the German and French armies late in August 1914. Through a detailed analysis of the application of operational and tactical doctrine, he underscores the strengths of the German training and the weaknesses of the French. As part of the introduction to the topic, he provides an in-depth analysis of the development of German doctrine and the training undertaken by the pre-war army. He counterbalances this with a look at French doctrine, but not to the same extent as the German.

Zuber has obviously done his research as evidenced by the extensive end-notes utilizing a plethora of primary source material such as Regimental histories and archival material. When possible, he takes advantage of first person accounts from both the French and German side to provide a human face to his narrative. Consistent throughout is evidence of excellence in German marksmanship, tactical innovation, communication and combined arms operations (effective use of machine gun, artillery and cavalry) as well as aggressive reconnaissance.

What is also evident however are the challenges of effective control through the ‘fog of war’. An especially telling example is when the German Fifth Army Chief of Staff demanded authorization to advance despite this opening his flanks to assault by the French. The weakness in the German strategic HQ to control this type of behaviour is telling. At the tactical/operational level this is not as significant an issue for the Germans as they are consummate gatherers of battlefield intelligence. The French, in contrast, appear to have maintained an extremely poor battlefield picture through their abysmal battlefield reporting and reconnaissance. As a result, the Germans are able to maintain the initiative and are consistently catching the French off guard.

Zuber also emphasizes the German focus on individual initiative. The German leadership ethos demanded that units receive clear ‘commanders intent’ without un-necessary detail. This is to say, they were provided direction on ‘what’ was expected, not ‘how’ it was to be achieved. The German NCO and Officer were expected to make decisions on the spot within the context of what the Commander wanted to achieve. This was in direct contrast to the French whose doctrine focused on ‘top-down’ direction. French orders went into copious amounts of detail trying to address all of the potential challenges that may be faced (based upon the anticipated realities of the rear HQ as opposed to the realities on the ground). This resulted in individual initiative being stymied in the French officer.

What I did not enjoy about this particular edition of the Zuber’s book fell into two areas. The first was the typeface; extremely small and difficult to read. The second was the selection and layout of the maps that went along with the narrative. Zuber’s attention to detail demands clear maps to allow the reader to follow the flow of the battles. The maps provided are centrally located in the book as opposed to being with the description of the battle and are also not clearly laid out between French and German units (being monochrome). Only with difficulty, is the reader able to track the movement of the units. This, in my opinion, diminishes somewhat, the effectiveness of the outstanding narrative.

Notwithstanding the above comments, Zuber has written an outstanding book. Despite my observations regarding the layout of this publication, I highly recommend it as a great addition to any historian’s library.

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