Review of “The German failure in Belgium, August 1914”

The German failure in Belgium, August 1914
by Dennis Showalter, Joseph P. Robinson and Janet A. Robinson
published by McFarland & Company, Inc of Jefferson NC USA in 2019
paperback ISBN 978 1 4766 7462 9
also available as an ebook
189 pages plus appendix, glossary, bibliography and index. Illustrated.

I have previously reviewed Joe and Janet Robinson’s “The Last Great Cavalry Charge: The Battle of the Silver Helmets – Halen 12 August 1914” and “The Great War dawning: Germany and its army at the start of World War I“. Both works I found to be excellent and when “The German failure in Belgium, August 1914” arrived on my doorstep I could not wait to read it. It did not disappoint.

The book studies the period from Germany’s invasion of Luxembourg and Belgium up to the major clash with French and British forces in Belgium on 23 August 1914 – the date on which, for many students of the British Expeditionary Force, the war began. In truth, the experience of the advance across Belgium during the previous three weeks had already exposed many structural and operational flaws within the German forces and its approach to war in the west. The book’s title perhaps gives away its primary conclusion, in that the seeds of failure had been sown long before the clash on that day and took root during those weeks of long marching.

It is not as though the German invasion and the “Schlieffen Plan” are new. They have been explored and discussed endlessly. There are myths and stories aplenty, often ending with the conclusion that if only von Moltke had strengthened his right wing in the way that von Schlieffen had conceived of it, the defeat of the Entente powers would have been assured. This book reveals that the situation was far more complex and begs some important questions.

The authors – here supplemented by Dennis Showalter, emeritus professor of history at Colorado College – draw upon their previous work in understanding the structures and methods of the German forces. They rigorously explore matters of the strategy for invading Belgium (and indeed the discarding of the potentially hugely advantageous march through the Dutch province of Limburg); command, staff work and control, mobility, reconnaissance and intelligence. I found the exploration of the use of German cavalry, signals and air assets to be particularly interesting: questions of how exactly would high command know the whereabouts of the enemy and how to deploy seem pretty fundamental. Conclusions are drawn that suggest that the great attack through Belgium not only failed to sufficiently damage the Belgian army to prevent its withdrawal to the “national redoubt” of the fortress ring of Antwerp, but to fall short of the large-scale outflanking and potential destruction of the BEF at Mons. Goodness knows that it came close. The “what ifs” are large ones.

The German failure in Belgium, August 1914” is not the easiest book to read in places due to the somewhat technical nature of the subject matter. I found myself going back over some passages, particularly about the command structures of the German cavalry (hitherto unfamiliar to me). But overall, once the deployment and movement of forces gets underway it becomes an absorbing and intriguing timeline and assessment.

The book is illustrated: there are photographs included, many of which are postcard images, all relevant and clear although fairly small. It also includes good campaign maps.

Great stuff and I look forward to the Robinsons’ next work.

I am not sure how easy a buy this will be for readers in the UK. It is currently available via Amazon and no doubt other online retailers, but prices currently quoted are well over £30 and with some edging towards £50. The work is available as an ebook which I know does not appeal to all but might be worth a consideration.

Buy it