by: Russ Amott [ ]
For close to a century, accounts of the German invasion of France and the opening year of the First World War have been dominated by histories of British troops and their experience in battle, despite the fact that the British Expeditionary Force comprised just four divisions, while the French and Germans fielded 60 each. HOME BEFORE THE LEAVES FALL offers a valuable new contribution to the history of 1914, examining the bitter battle between French and German forces from the perspective of the soldiers on the ground. (From the book jacket).
HOME BEFORE THE LEAVES FALL is a detailed examination of the plans laid before the start of the First World War, by both the German and French armies, followed by the resultant implementation of those plans. The introduction explains how warfare had changed in the 40 year time span from the end of the Franco-Prussian war to the beginning of WWI. Large armies equipped with modern weapons such as the machine gun and highly mobile, fast firing artillery with recoil mechanism led many experts to believe that a long, drawn out war was simply impossible, and any war fought would be quick and decisive. This was the notion that drove German and French planners in their preparation, believing that quick movement and a decisive blow would win the war and that fighting would last only a few months at most.
The first two chapters of the book cover the German plan of attack and the French plan of defense and counter attack. Both are thoroughly examined, in particular the meticulous details of the plan developed by (and named after) the German chief of staff, General Alfred von Schlieffen, and modified by his successor, General Helmuth von Moltke. The extensive war games and training sessions the German army and commanders were put through are described clearly, which prepared the German military such that even reserve divisions were well trained and ready for battle. Germany would take the offensive.
In contrast, France established a defensive plan that relied on a series of fortifications built along the border with Germany. It was not until 1911, under General Joseph Joffre, that the French came up with Plan XVII that more comprehensive thought was given to a possible German advance through Belgium. The plan still relied on defence, followed by a strong thrust into Germany though the Alsace-Lorraine region.
Of note in both chapters is the examination of the political structure that had to be dealt with, particularly interference from Kaiser Wilhelm for the Germans, and political intrigue in France, as well as budget and transportation issues.
The following chapters deal with the German attack and French response, focusing mainly on the thrust through Charleroi, Guise, Trocy and Ourcq. Maps are provided showing position of the German and French forces, with arrows directing routes of attack. First hand accounts are frequently provided, giving a personal glimpse into what was taking place. The actions of the British Expeditionary Force are mentioned, but the primary focus is on the French/German aspect of the campaign and in the discussion of the specific battles the action is presented not in the movement of armies or corps as much as it is in divisions, and more specifically regiments and battalions. There is much attention to the role artillery played in the fighting, and the distances covered by the armies, much of it on foot. Also prominently mentioned is the role Joffre played for the French. He was constantly on the move, visiting individual headquarters and making personal contact with his generals, even after sending written orders to them, just to make sure there was coordination. The German army relied on radio and telegram communication which proved unreliable, and less control was exerted on the German commanders, a key problem leading into the Battle of the Marne. The importance of the role played by reconnaissance aircraft is shown, and much detail is provided regarding the terrain being covered. As the fighting takes place during the fall harvest, it is worth noting the destruction wrought on the country side, as farms and crops are burned or trampled and villages are destroyed.
The book is somewhat difficult to read in parts because the writing is very technical. Tactical movement and action of regiments and divisions is given but many of the opposing units were numbered identically, such as battles between the 7th division (German) and 7th division (French), or IR27 fighting IR27 (German against French again). You will need to follow the text carefully to avoid becoming lost.
In some areas I felt the text also failed to explain as much as I wanted in some instances. Movement of units and the result of action were not always fully explained. Obstacles faced by both armies are also not detailed. It isn't until the last chapter, Analysis, that many of these issues are cleared up. In fact, this chapter is the best written of all the book, providing a clear picture of what was taking place and filling in many gaps in the story. Individual commanders and their actions are discussed and finally the Schlieffen-Moltke plan is carefully reviewed and compared to the actual results. What doomed the German offensive was mobility and transportation. Germany would invade France in the same manner in 1940, and the French would mount roughly the same defensive plan. Germany would succeed where it failed in 1914 mainly because of the mobility of its formations.
Lastly in the book are a post script and the appendix. The post script provides letters shared by a German woman whose husband had given her letters from a French officer killed in battle. She managed to get the letters to the widow of the French officer. Shortly thereafter the German officer was killed. The letters give a glimpse into the effects of war away from the battlefield. The appendix includes the composition and order of battle for the German, French and British armies, comparative rank listings, the Directive of August 27 for the German army as it approached the region of Paris, and Joffre's order for the battle of the Marne.
Having read "THE GUNS OF AUGUST" previously, I was somewhat familiar with the initial campaign, as that book covers the same time period. I think some knowledge of the events of August 1914 would be beneficial before reading this book if you don't understand tactical manuals. For those who have an interest in the subject, I think this book will be valuable simply because of the point of view presented. As for general reading, it might be too technical to follow easily, but still will be a good reference.
Osprey Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84908-843-5
392 pages, 15 photographs on 4 pages, numerous maps.
HOME BEFORE THE LEAVES FALL is listed at $24.95 US, but can be found online in hardback for less. It is also available for download to Kindle for about $8.00.