Thursday, April 12, 2012

Book: 'The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle the Changed the World' by Holger H. Herwig

I remember when Holger Herwig's 'The Marne, 1914' was first released in 2009. The reviews were quite favourable and it was often applauded that he utilized previously unreleased German archival material to support his work. So when I saw that the book was available in unabridged audiobook format I jumped at the chance to 'read' it.  To be clear whenever I listen to a 'dense' history in audio format I alway make an effort to get the book in paper as well (analogue format!). This way I can re-read passages, refer to any enclosed maps, footnotes, bibliography, etc. in order to better reflect on the writer's work as a whole, allowing a more balanced view.

Herwig's thesis is that the battle of the Marne "was the most decisive land battle since Waterloo" to which he follows that his book "raises a fundamental question: Was it truly the Battle of the Marne?" Okay, my first impression was that this seemed somewhat overwrought and perhaps a little pedantic but I forged ahead.

In regards to the opening chapters of 'The Marne, 1914' I don't wish to sound flippant or mean-spirited but Herwig is no Barbara Tuchman. I believe he should have taken a different approach to at least the first four chapters of his book which are meant to set the stage for his description of the Battles of the Frontiers. Nevertheless, over the next 200 pages he attempts to cover much the same ground as Tuchman's 'The Guns of August' (1962), but with none of her style or elegant turn of phrase, nor does his work display her essential grasp of the central actors and critical events which still resonates today.

This is another issue. For a book that supposedly focuses on the Battle of the Marne it seems strange that Herwig spends almost 200 pages of his 320 page book meandering his way to the battle itself.  Much of the first 70 pages could have been condensed or edited completely without inhibiting his thesis - in fact it may well have sharpened it.

Ten Bavarian soldiers from L.I.R. No. 10 (Drakegoodman @ Flickr)

To his credit, and I believe this to be significant, Herwig does a good job in bringing fresh insight to the German perspective of those first frenetic weeks of the war.  His access to previously unavailable German archival material is truly a boon and he provides the reader both a sense of the chaos and misery suffered by the lower ranks while underlining the jealous, often petulant, aristocratic infighting that existed at the highest echelons of the German officer corps. 

Nonetheless, while his writing can be informative it is often mared by a ponderous, heavy handed and sometimes circuitous writing style. More importantly, his work suffers from a tendency to present thin arguments that are often pursued in a weak, somewhat confusing approach. For example, one of Herwig's main thesis regarding the German's critical point-of-decision at the Marne is that von Bulow and von Kluck (both Army-level commanders) should have disobeyed orders from German High Command and continued operations against the French and British, even when they knew their forces were dangerously exhausted and exposed. This assertion is extremely tenuous as it flies in the face of the entire German command structure, one that stressed obedience and a deference to chain of command. In this instance both Kluck and Bulow were, in essence if not in fact, given a retreat order from an aide-de-camp of German High Command (OHL). It was commonly understood that a OHL aide-de-camp, as a representative of von Moltke, possessed clear authority to issue orders to Army-level commanders - all German officers knew and understood this. To argue that  these officers, trained with decades of service to obey an established chain of command, would suddenly disobey orders and potentially put their commands and the entire campaign at risk tests the reader's credulity.

Alexander von Kluck, Commander of German First Army
Karl von Bulow, Commander of German Second Army

In addition there are several instances in the text where the author inexplicably stumbles in his understanding of basic military history. For example when he describes the 1914 German advance through the famous battleground of Waterloo he notes it as having been fought in the rain (where in fact it was sunny), and he states that Blucher had campaigned with Wellington in 1813-1815 against Napoleon (which is not correct, they only campaigned together in 1815). In of themselves these are not great mistakes, but for a military historian to mishandle such well-known facts causes the reader to doubt his grasp of the core material.

Does Herwig successfully defend his thesis? In his assertion that the Battle of the Marne was "the most decisive land battle since Waterloo" he himself states in his closing epilogue that it in fact "was strategically indecisive."  This is true - the battle only checked Germany's advance and ensured that the Entente powers could continue the fight, but this in turn directly challenges his opening argument. Perhaps it might have been better if he argued that because it was indecisive it became the most important land battle since Waterloo - as neither party could claim clear victory necessitating them to fight on. His other thesis, that the Battle of the Marne was not fought exclusively in the Marne river area, is again rather pedantic and is as helpful as saying that that the Battle of Waterloo was not fought precisely at the village by that name. 

Unfortunately the audiobook edition of 'the Marne' does does little to enhance the work. After a few minutes of listening one can't help but feel that the narrator is very much out of his depth. His tone is both amateurish and colloquial, while his pronunciation of French names and places is appallingly bad - so much so that I found it difficult to 'stick it out' and finish the book. Another unfortunate anachronism of the audio version was the producers' decision to have the narrator read many the footnotes (but oddly not all). This entirely breaks the flow of the book, continually jolting the reader out of the narrative for very little gain. In of such I strongly suggest sticking with the print version.

So while on the whole Herwig's 'The Marne' is a valuable addition to the canon of literature on the encounter battles of 1914 it is not as groundbreaking as it first would seem. 

The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World
Holger H. Herwig
Random House
December 1, 2009
ISBN: 1400066719


  1. Thanks for the good honest review Curt!

  2. Nice depth to the review. Anoys the hell out of me when the background info happens to be longer than the main event


  3. Great post dude. This makes me think how excellent books have excellent editors...can't believe it took so long to get to the main point (i.e. the battle itself).

  4. A good review Curt. Perhaps one i won't get in the run up to the centenery then!

  5. Thanks for the review-it still appealsto me simply because of the German viewpoint, which is so sadly missing in most books that cover the conflict. (Probably get a copy from the library rather than buy one however).

  6. Hello Matt,

    Even though my review is critical of several aspects of Herwig's work it does however contain interesting tactical information of the 'encounter battles' and provides a valuable, previously unavailable perspective from the German point of view. So yes, definitely check it out - you may find it valuable for your research.



  7. Great job with the review, I never had a clue about it before.

  8. Glad you found it helpful, Pat.

  9. Good review, Curt. I linked to it from my blog

  10. I'm pleased you found it useful, Jur.
    BTW, I never knew anything about Megagames before I looked at your blog - very interesting stuff.


Thanks for your comment! As long as you're not a spam droid I'll have it up on the blog soon. :)