The World War I Memoirs of a German Chief of Staff
Fritz von Lossberg, Edited and Translated by Maj. Gen. David T. Zabecki, U.S. Army (Retired), and Lt. Col. Dieter J. Biedekarken, U.S. Army (Retired)
University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, 2017, 480 pages
Book Review published on: November 3, 2017
Lossberg’s War is the translated memoirs of Gen. Fritz von Lossberg (1868–1942). Known in the German army as the Abwehrlöwe, the lion of the defense, Lossberg played a key role in developing many of the principles and techniques modern armies apply during the conduct of defensive operations. As the chief of staff for five different field armies, he directed most of the major German defensive battles on the western front from the autumn of 1915 to the end of 1917. Lossberg’s War opens with the translators’ introduction that provides invaluable background information on Lossberg, the western front during World War I, and German army doctrine. It concludes with Appendix C that provides an overview of the Prussian/German staff system (1806-1918).
Lossberg describes several missed opportunities by the German army to decisively defeat the French army early in August 1914. On the 15 August, the Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, or OHL) assessed that the main body of the French army was positioning for a major offensive between Metz, France, and the Vosges Mountains. The OHL decided to draw in the French force deep and then seal them off with a double envelopment. This would have resulted in the destruction of major elements of the French First and Second Armies. The OHL abandoned the plan in favor of a wide envelopment through Belgium, where inferior French forces were expected. This missed opportunity was followed by the failure of the redirected six-and-a-half German divisions to strengthen the envelopment through Belgium.
Another missed opportunity occurring on 11 September 1914, when the German Fifth Army inexplicably decided to transition to defense as its forces were setting the conditions for the capture of Verdun. This missed opportunity resulted in a nine-month-long battle ending in a German defeat and over four hundred thousand casualties. Lossberg attributes these missed opportunities to the OHL’s poor situational awareness and its failure to provide subordinate commanders meaningful daily situational summaries of operations occurring in other German sectors. He underscores the importance of staffs being close to the lines—as close as possible—in order to gain a more accurate assessment of the battlefield. Later, he made the practice of assigning staff officers sectors along the front line. These staff officers were required to visit units assigned to these sectors, walk the terrain, and meet with the commanders to gain a better understanding of the operational environment.
Lossberg never held a command during World War I. Yet, as a chief of staff throughout the war, he had more direct influence on the outcome of many critical battles than the commanders of those units. This reflects the trust and confidence his superiors had in him, and it introduces the reader to Vollmacht (power of attorney), a uniquely German concept in which a commander could give the chief of staff specific authority in emergency situations to issue direct orders to subordinate commanders in the name of the commander. Lossberg includes several instances where he used Vollmacht during visits to the front lines to address developing situations that threatened German lines. Each time, his superiors concurred with the decision.
Lossberg reminds us of the danger in overly focusing on gaining decisive victory as the Germans did with Verdun in 1916. Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, held that in order to break the deadlock on the western front, Germany would have to inflict a deep wound on the enemy at a decisive point. Falkenhayn viewed the fortress at Verdun as that decisive point. He felt the French would likely mass their forces there in response to any German attempt to seize the fortress. This would provide the Germans an opportunity to decisively defeat the French forces. Falkenhayn ignored the assessments of various chiefs of staff along the western front in deciding to degrade the French army through a battle of attrition. Lossberg states that Falkenhayn was not deterred three months into the battle, even though the German forces had failed to achieve their objectives and had rapidly depleted divisions that had to be replaced from other field armies along the western front. He recounts Falkenhayn saying that he intended to continue pressing Verdun as long as the French were sustaining higher losses than the Germans. Falkenhayn would be replaced by Paul von Hindenburg in August 1916.
Lossberg’s War includes assessments, operational concepts, and orders that provide insight into operational warfare. These assessments reflect lessons learned, analysis of Allied strategy, and changes in the German operational approach during the war. One key example is the order for the Battle of Flanders in 1917 that provides guiding principles for the organization of defensive battles. Readers familiar with the U.S. Army’s AirLand Battle doctrine will recognize many of the principles covered in the order.
The strengths of Lossberg’s War include the translators’ introduction; its maps, images, and appendices; and a writing style that is straightforward and easy to read. Lossberg’s War is more than the experiences of a German officer during World War I—it is an insider’s view of the German perspective and the inner workings of the German Army Staff. It is a must addition for any historian or student of operational art or German army in World War I.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas