Instrument of War: The German Army 1914-18

Published on
June 23, 2018
Review Author(s)
Book Author(s)
Dennis Showalter
Company: Osprey Publishing - Website: Visit Site
Provided by: Osprey Publishing - Website: Visit Site
Front Cover

There’s a sort of strange fascination within modeling circles for World War 1, which is hardly surprising. Taking place a hundred years ago now, it was a transitional period for the world at large on a number of levels – monarchies and ancient empires were crumbling, most of Europe was evolving sluggishly from a agricultural to an industrial base, and militarily, generals were still fighting 18th century wars with 20th century weapons.

Dennis Showalter delves into one major aspect of this war with intense academic furvor – the actions of the German high command and the ways and means of their decisions that hammered a generation of Germans and paved the way for the following war with a certain grim inevitability. If you’re looking for a light skimming over the topic of the German war machine for the First World War, this ain’t it.

The author begins by examining the social milieu that shaped the very nature of German militarism, from the structure of the average German family to the social institutions and a certain nationalistic paranoia that prevented the fairly young German republic from being able to rest on its laurels. Ironically, that paranoia had at least some basis in fact, as both France to the west and Russian to the east were discussing (at least in private circles) ways of carving their own chunks out of the fledgling nation. After the two Franco-Prussian wars of the last century, apparently a good portion of Europe did not see a unified German people as a good thing.

Showalter then goes on to discuss the prime movers of the German military machine, whose own personalities did so much to shape policy. As with any bureaucracy, there was a fair amount of back-biting and intrigue, all the way up to Kaiser Wilhelm himself, who was perceived by many who knew him as a shallow, insular, relatively thoughtless popinjay who liked to meddle in things military largely for his ego’s sake. Steering around him was part of the business of war, especially as things went from difficult to impossible.

German military thinkers always had to contend with one major factor throughout – Germany had neither the manpower or resources to tackle its opponents on a head-to-head basis, hence their fascination with “force multipliers” – machine guns, flamethrowers, toxic gases and the like. It also explains why they were always interested in the “lightning war” (blitzkrieg) approach – they simply weren’t prepared to endure a long military engagement. Of course, it didn’t turn out quite as planned.

In fact, it wasn’t all that long before the “blitzkrieg” bogged down into the nightmarish churn of trench warfare, and German hopes of a quick and relatively bloodless victory evaporated. German generals were well aware from the beginning that warfare on their own terms was a big gamble, but had felt threatened enough by France and Russian territorial aspirations to take that risk. The cost would be literally unimaginable.

Showalter discusses the gradual retreat from aggressive conflict to the stalemate all the way to the “last gasp” assaults toward the war’s end, with an carefully researched and in-depth analysis of the action all along the way. One salient fact that I’d never known before, in fact, was why Germany, which was one of the most technically advanced countries of its day, never really took to tank warfare. The answer was surprisingly simply – at the time the Allies introduced this innovative weapon, the Germans were completely committed to defensive conflict – and simply saw the tank as a machine only really useful in the assault. Of course, they’d change their mind radically some twenty years later.

Showalter offers us a few pages of pictures throughout the book, but these are largely portraits of significant players or mood shots from the front. As I stated before, this is not a book primarily directed at the casual modeler. However, for those who are more interested in the machinations and policies that shaped one of the most profound conflicts of the modern age, this is an excellent resource. My thanks to Osprey Publishing and to IPMS/USA for a chance to read this fascinating book.


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