Saturday, 21 November 2015

The First Battle of the First World War: Alsace - Lorraine - Karl Deuringer edited by Terence Zuber

This review has been submitted to the British Military History Journal.

Title: The First Battle of the First World War: Alsace - Lorraine
Author: Karl Deuringer
ISBN: 978-0-75246-086-4
Publisher: Trafalgar Press
Year: 2014
Pages: 398
Photos/Maps: 0/38

The original book by this name was drafted by Karl Deuringer in 1929 as part of an effort to capture for posterity the role of the Bavarian Army in the First World War. The Battle of Alsace-Lorraine was unique in that it not only represented the first significant combat of the war, but also the first and only time that the Bavarian Army fought together under a single unified command. In its original form it was over 893 pages with 74 maps; to reproduce a modern copy of this would be impossible and so it was edited and translated by Terence Zuber into a more manageable form and length. In doing so, Zuber has maintained both the flavour and the intent of the author's original work.

It is important to realize at the outset that this book represents a tactical analysis of the first month of the war running between 11 Aug to 14 September, 1914. Dueringer provides a brief introduction outlining the strategic plan within which the Bavarian's (designated the German 6th Army) undertook their tasks. Specifically, they were to pin in place as many French soldiers as possible while upholding the German left flank in the region of Alsace-Lorraine. All of their subsequent actions focused on achieving Moltke's (the German overall commander) Commander's Intent.

The detail associated with the narrative is more than impressive. It is extremely detailed and really does require the provided maps in order to accurately follow the convoluted movements of the units involved. There are however, numerous maps included that are reproductions of the originals from Deuringer's 1929 work. These included maps are referenced to in the narrative and, while beneficial are somewhat hard to follow. There are an additional nine large situational maps and thirty regional maps (some in colour) which may be accessed online; however, it is necessary to join The History Press newsletter in order to access. They are, nevertheless, very helpful.

Zuber's translation is excellent and the degree of detail provided by Deuringer is both outstanding and daunting; the book is not for the faint of heart. It is extremely easy to get lost in the myriad of minor movements described. The operational unit of discussion is as small as platoon and company level and so maintenance of the big picture is easily lost. This is done deliberately and as long as the reader is aware before they dive in, it does not detract from the overall impact of the book. Deuringer also acknowledges that the sources used for the book are predominantly from the Bavarian side, as few if any records were kept by the French and the acquisition of personal notes and diaries was extremely difficult.

Despite the detailed style of writing there are significant numbers of lessons to be gleaned especially for those armies experiencing combat operations after a significant period of peace (keep in mind that the German and French armies had not been involved in large scale combat since 1871). Challenges relating to effective movements, resupply, fatigue and the fog of combat are all readily evident. The importance of physical fitness, realistic training, dynamic leadership at the lowest level and effective planning also become obvious. Dueringer weaves these lessons extremely well into his narrative, thus it serves as both a testament to the capability and success of the Bavarian Army but also a treatise on the importance of preparation, training and doctrine. 

This book is of great value although the reader must work for it more so than in other books that I have reviewed. The style is dry and detailed but fascinating to those willing to make the effort. Unlike many other historical renditions of battles, is is easier to visualize and appreciate the terrain and environment when the focus is so narrow. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography included however, there is a short notes section that provides some additional reading recommendations. Overall, I would recommend this book with the one reservation that it is not a quick read and does demand attention in order to get the most out of it.

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