Engle on Hughes and DiNardo, 'Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918'

Author: 
Daniel J. Hughes, R. L. DiNardo
Reviewer: 
Jason Engle

Daniel J. Hughes, R. L. DiNardo. Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. 752 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2600-7.

Reviewed by Jason Engle (University of Southern Mississippi) Published on H-War (April, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52498

The title, Imperial Germany and War, is perhaps somewhat misleading, as this book is not so much an examination of imperial Germany and war, but the imperial German army and war; at the same time, in the context of the adage suggesting that “Prussia was not a country with an army, but an army with a country,” the title is, perhaps, quite fitting. This collaboration between two of the leading experts on the imperial German army presents “a comprehensive examination of the army of the Kaiserreich as an institution,” Hughes and DiNardo explain (p. xiii). In doing so, it provides an exhaustive synthesis of secondary literature supported by documentary materials from archives in Germany, Austria, and the United States as well as contemporary official German publications. As an institutional study, it tracks the imperial German army’s ability to adjust doctrine to the incredible pace of technological advancements as well as its capacity for adapting to changing sociopolitical climate leading up to 1914. While covering a wide range of topics in the process, it centers primarily on army’s system of command and philosophy as the principal agent of change.

The imperial army was an amalgam of the armies from German kingdoms of Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, and Württemberg with a Prussian (Hohenzollern) emperor as its commander in chief. Thus, Prussian military culture and doctrine prevailed in virtually every meaningful aspect of the German army as an institution. The evolution of the Prussian army during the nineteenth century is therefore the focus in the first two chapters. The Prussian army, though “archaic in appearance … proved remarkably flexible and adaptable,” the authors write (p. 32). By “archaic” they are referring to the exclusive nature of the Prussian officer corps, which was a preserve of the aristocracy, not to mention outmoded practices such as the Ehrengerichte (courts of honor) and duels. While aristocratic officer corps was the foundation of the imperial German army, it was the reserve officer corps, comprised of the young, educated bourgeoisie, that became its strength in times of war.

Above all others, two figures garner the authors’ attention in first half of the book: Carl von Clausewitz and Helmuth von Moltke. Clausewitz’s writings shaped Prusso-German perceptions of war on multiple levels, from the very nature of war to its relationship to governmental policy to the view that the conduct of war was an art form rather than a scientific pursuit. Moreover, his theories served as the foundation for Prusso-German command philosophy, which emphasized the intangible elements: martial spirit, individual attributes necessary for commanders to be successful, dealing with the improbabilities of war, exploiting tactical successes (strategy), and the offensive defense, among others. Chief among the interpreters of Clausewitz’s theories was Moltke the Elder. Hughes and DiNardo point out that “Moltke’s writings lacked the abstract philosophical approach of Clausewitz,” but were “more … influential” because he translated Clausewitz’s theories into “practical words and actions preferred by soldiers” (p. 64). Some of these more concrete and practical writings were necessary to provide further definition around matters, such as operations, that Clausewitz discussed only in very high-level, imprecise terms.

While remaining firmly anchored in Prussian military thinking, the imperial army underwent extensive change from the empire’s inception to the initial phases of World War I. Driving these developments was, first and foremost, the rapidity with which military weaponry and technology advanced in the late nineteenth century. Particularly important, the army believed, were developments in the areas of artillery, small arms, communications, and aircraft; the German army demonstrated parity with, or superiority among, Europe’s leading powers. Complicating this process was the fact that, as Hughes and DiNardo note, it grew to three times the size of the army that took the field against the French in 1870; infantry battalions, for example, grew by 75 percent and by 1913, two hundred more had been added (pp. 130, 167).

While following the traditions of Clausewitz and Moltke, the writings of Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the General Staff from February 1891 to January 1906, reflected the changing nature of the battlefield. He keenly understood that larger field armies with unprecedented destructive capabilities would have to fight in same spaces as the predecessors, meaning that tactical victories would need to occur at a specific place(s) in order to be strategically exploited. This required a more precise explanation of his vision, prompting him to eschew the elder Moltke’s loose style of command through directives, at least at the field army level. These constraints also required a reassessment of infantry tactics, which was a source of rigorous debate among German officers from 1906, when the last update to infantry regulations was issued, all the way up to 1914.

Hughes and DiNardo devote special attention to the much-debated and misunderstood “Schlieffen Plan” and are quite clear—historical writings treating Schlieffen’s “memorandum as the official war plan of 1914 (as modified in execution by Moltke)” or as a “mobilization plan” are “erroneous” in their point of view (p. 198). To the contrary, they argue, “it was merely the last of Schlieffen’s preretirement essays on a war with France alone” (p. 199). Much to the consternation of armies in the field, no comprehensive operational plan for the situation in 1914 was ever created. Under Moltke the Younger’s tenure, many of Schlieffen’s views on war planning remained intact, though the shifting European political landscape in years leading up to World War I required him to adjust accordingly. One of Moltke’s most pivotal deviations from Schlieffen’s plans was his decision to abandon the notion that Germany could possibly go to war with Russia alone. As the authors note, “this locked Germany into a single concept of how the war would be conducted,” hamstringing the government’s ability to leverage diplomacy to potentially improve its situation (p. 235).

In its brief existence, a mere forty-three years, the German Empire fought but one war—the Great War. The last four chapters of this study focus on the German conduct of World War I. The failure of the German system of command, and particularly of the younger Moltke, as chief of the General Staff, placed the German army in the exact situation it sought to avoid. At the same time, however, inadequacies in the prewar training for reserve officers, soldiers, and units, while foreseen prior to the mobilization for war in 1914, were never addressed and contributed to this result. Expansion of the army at the end of 1914 further diluted its most combat-hardened units, siphoning off experienced officers and noncommissioned officers to lead newly formed units. A paucity of competent company-level officers proved to be a critical issue throughout the remainder of the war.

Moltke’s successor was “a rather junior general officer” appointed as General Staff chief over some thirty generals his senior, Erich von Falkenhayn (pp. 300,302). Erich von Falkenhayn inherited a two-front war and a reeling ally in Austria-Hungary. Remarkably, under his oversight, the German army—having to divert a not insignificant amount of its own resources—managed to stabilize the Austro-Hungarian situation in 1915 by smashing the Serbian army and repulsing the Russians in Galicia. These successes were, however, tempered by the infighting between Falkenhayn and the Oberbefehlshaber Ost (Ober Ost), or Supreme Command of the Eastern Front, under Field Marshall Paul von Hindenberg and his chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff. “The unremitting campaign of the Ober Ost, abetted by many in the government, including Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, left Falkenhayn with no room for error,” Hughes and DiNardo explain (p. 340). Thus, Falkenhayn’s miscalculations in planning the Verdun offensive, the grievous losses the German army suffered on the Somme, and his insistence on resuming unrestricted submarine warfare, led to his dismissal in August 1916; the Ober Ost had triumphed, with Hindenburg replacing Falkenhayn as chief of the General Staff.

The heavy casualties sustained on the western front prompted Hindenburg and Ludendorff to reevaluate and adjust. What resulted were increasingly refined iterations of deep and “elastic” defense tactics, which called for lightly manned front-line trenches, keeping the bulk of the armies’ front-line troops in secondary trenches and, in theory, out of the range of enemy artillery. If the front-line trenches were overrun, strong counterattacks could be mounted from the secondary trenches to recover the lost ground. The effectiveness of this concept was questionable, and it was consistently less effective against the evolving offensive tactics of the British. At the same time, the Supreme Army Command was also testing and implementing new assault tactics in the form of stormtrooper battalions. Small units of “Sturmtrupps should closely follow the artillery barrage in order to surprise the enemy, and infantry units (squads, half platoons, or entire platoons) should follow immediately behind,” while a tertiary wave of infantry labor units would “clean out and consolidate the objective” (pp. 384-85). Put differently, their job was to destroy the main points of enemy resistance. These tactics would prove quite effective.

The German offensives that commenced in March of 1918 represented their last hope for victory. The initial German attacks were dazzling successes. So much so, German artillery could not keep pace with the deep penetrations German infantry units were making into the British lines. With weakened artillery support, the offensives fizzled; the German army had exhausted its manpower as well as its capacity effectively to support it. A mere seven days into the offensives, it was clear that the offensives had failed. Though many historians have heaped sharp criticism on Ludendorff for lacking a strategic aim for these operations, Hughes and DiNardo refute such claims, arguing that “it is clear that the Michael attack had the objective of separating the British Expeditionary Force from the French, pushing it toward the English Channel, and destroying it, thus forcing the British out of the war. This goal was as clear as the goals of most of the failed Allied offensives throughout the war” (p. 450).

On the whole, the reviewer can offer only a couple of minor criticisms of this expansive work. So sprawling is the array of topics the book covers that it lends itself to organizational issues. Some sections provide logical transitions from one topic to another while others abruptly hop from one topic to the next without an obvious reason for the transition. On a somewhat related note, it is unclear why the photo galleries at the end of chapter 10 feature various Allied figures who barely merit a mention. These pages could have been better utilized with maps of the operations in the other theaters in which the German army was heavily involved, more focused maps that zoom in on sectors of the western front where major German operations were undertaken, or visualizations such as additional tables or graphics that, for example, complement the two tables dealing with the organization of the strength of the army prior to World War I. These debatable weaknesses aside, Hughes and DiNardo have given us what will surely be an essential work for historians of the imperial German army.

Citation: Jason Engle. Review of Hughes, Daniel J.; DiNardo, R. L., Imperial Germany and War, 1871-1918. H-War, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52498

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.