The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914 Cover

The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914

How Faulty Reconnaissance Exposed the Weakness of the Schlieffen Plan

Dennis Showalter, Joseph P. Robinson, and Janet A. Robinson

MacFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 225 pages

Book Review published on: September 4, 2020

Historians never seem to tire of analyzing the opening campaigns of World War I, especially the initial invasion of France. It presents a fascinating puzzle. Given the excellence of the kaiser’s armies and the meticulous planning of the Great General Staff, why did the German armies fall short of the decisive victory envisioned by Count Alfred von Schlieffen? If the German plan was its best chance to end the war quickly and avoid the gruesome stalemate that followed, why did it founder at the Marne? There are no end of possible answers. Early on, the historians of the Great General Staff blamed Helmuth von Moltke the Younger for his corrupted execution of Schlieffen’s grand scheme. Other popular explanations cite French resilience, communications breakdowns, and the failure of the German right-wing army commanders to coordinate their efforts. The debate churns on.

The German Failure in Belgium, August 1914: How Faulty Reconnaissance Exposed the Weakness of the Schlieffen Plan takes a new tack. As the subtitle suggests, the authors, husband-and-wife team Joseph and Janet Robinson (ably supported by renowned historian Dennis Showalter), believe the campaign plan was fatally flawed in its conception and bungled in execution very early on. The authors believe the Germans lost their opportunity for victory in the opening days of the campaign when Moltke’s armies failed to take Liège, Belgium, in a coup de main, when the Belgians eluded German attempts to trap their army, and when Alexander von Kluck’s First Army proved unable to find and smash the flank of the French forces moving north into Belgium. In other words, if the climax of the opening campaign came weeks later at the Marne, it was, nevertheless, predetermined by blunders in the initial stages of the campaign.

In analyzing the campaign’s initial stages, the authors put much of the blame on the remarkable dysfunction of the German cavalry force. To start, Moltke put only three of the ten available cavalry divisions on the decisive right wing, and this number proved woefully inadequate for the multiple missions the cavalry was expected to accomplish. Moreover, the cavalry lacked an effective command and control structure, a modern doctrine, or, more troubling, input into an intelligence collection apparatus that could fuse the information gathered by the cavalrymen and the German army’s embryonic aviation service. Perhaps worse of all, the cavalry lacked an organic logistic structure to feed their riders or provide fodder to their horses. The cavalry divisions lived hand-to-mouth, begging for sustenance from the nearest infantry formations. Overall, the authors paint a compelling picture of a military branch and a warfighting function unprepared for the demands of modern warfare.

This slim but expansive book will not be the last word on the famous campaign of 1914. However, by putting a laser focus on a relatively overlooked aspect that campaign—the German reconnaissance failures in Belgium—the Robinsons and Showalter help appreciate that serious problems were inherent into the German scheme for winning the war “before the leaves fall.” Sadly, this is one of the last books to have Showalter’s name on it. This outstanding historian and generous man passed on in late 2019 after fighting his own campaign against cancer.

Book Review written by: Dr. Scott Stephenson, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas