Instrument of War
The German Army 1914-18
Osprey Publishing, New York, 2016, 328 pages
Book Review published on: July 21, 2017
One can make the argument that the German army was the dominant military force of World War I. Start with the German war plan—conceived by General Count Alfred von Schlieffen and reshaped by Helmut von Moltke the Younger—which shaped the opening campaigns of the war. Consider the endurance shown by the Kaiser’s armies in the trench warfare that followed. They exhibited a dogged resilience, ensuring the conflict would become a grim attritional contest that would go on for four years. And, throughout that bloody grinding match, Germany consistently inflicted heavier casualties on their enemies than they sustained themselves. Though the Allies would harry Germany’s coalition partners throughout the war, it wasn’t until the German army itself was so exhausted and close to collapse that peace was finally achieved.
Is this an argument for the oft-cited German genius for careful planning and impeccable staff work? According to renowned historian Dennis Showalter, not so much. In Instrument of War, Showalter argues that the German army, which marched to war in 1914, was not up to the task of winning a quick and decisive victory. However, while Germany’s senior military leaders feared a long, drawn-out struggle, they made no plans to fight such a contest. Instead, between 1914 and 1918, they were forced to improvise the tools of total war. Such tools included the constant fielding of new weapons and doctrine, and the ruthless mobilization of demographic and material resources. Thus, Showalter argues, the real German “genius,” if such a thing existed, was for improvisation.
This and other similar insights make Instrument of War a masterful volume of synthetic scholarship. It is Showalter’s gift to cause us to hold up a familiar historical event, turn it in an odd direction, and force us to see it in a new perspective. He also weighs in convincingly on the historiographical debates current in World War I scholarship. So, for example, he concludes—contra Terence Zuber—that the Germans did implement a version of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914. To take another example, Showalter suggests that, of the armies on the western front, the Germans did the best job of creating the primary group bonds needed for men to endure trench warfare. Finally, he believes that the disintegration of the German army in 1918 was result of the dissolution of a very complex social contract between the Kaiserreich (the rulers of Germany) and its soldiers.
Any new work by Dennis Showalter is welcome event. One anticipates invaluable insights into the ways armies work, the ways wars are fought, and the myriad challenges faced by men who fight them. These insights, along with his wit, accessible writing style, and wide-ranging scholarship make him something of a national treasure. I confidently recommend Instrument of War as a particularly valuable addition to the cascade of new scholarship accompanying the one hundred year anniversary of the World War I.
Book Review written by: Scott Stephenson, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas