Friday, 5 August 2016

The Mons Myth Myth

I'm a little bit behind the rest of the world here. I've just finished Terence Zuber's book "The Mons Myth" that I acquired at COW this year.

When it was published in 2010 it caused quite a stir as its central thesis was that the BEF at Mons & Le Cateau were comprehensibly beaten by German troops who were better trained and better lead at all levels, (except at 1st Army Level where Kluck & Kuhl miss a clear and obvious opportunity to destroy the BEF completely). It also asserted that the story of the Germans mistaking rapid rifle fire for MGs is a complete fabrication not supported by the evidence.

Zuber's basis for saying this is that he has looked at the German sources, - many more German sources than have been used in traditional "Anglophone" histories.

Zuber has the perfect qualifications for this type of work. He rose to the rank of Major in the US Army before taking a degree in history from Wurzburg University. He therefore not only speaks both English and German but has military experience and has a history qualification.

The amount of work that has gone into this is impressive. He has tracked down a large number of Imperial German Histories for the units involved and created a coherent narrative from them all. He has also had a good dip into the English language sources, - not just the Official History, but also regimental histories. From these he generally concludes that the narrative from the German sources is more comprehensive and reliable. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. The BEF was going backwards for most of the 1914 campaign in considerable confusion, not helped by having to liaise with a French Army that was doing likewise at the same time. Lots of equipment was lost along with records and reputations.

Zuber’s main conclusions are that the BEF was poorly lead at senior level, poorly trained and prepared for a European war and mostly unaware of what was going on around it and what the Germans were trying to do. I think many of us would agree that is fair. A reluctance to appear aggressive and upset relations with the Germans meant that the BEF never undertook manoeuvres on the Continent together with its French Allies before the outbreak of war. It had only developed a proper Staff in the previous decade and was still an army mostly intended and prepared for Colonial Warfare.

The more contentious claim is that the British ability to produce the “mad minute” of rifle fire had no tactical importance in European warfare and the Germans hardly noticed it, let alone mistake it for MG fire. Given this analysis the Battles of Mons & Le Cateau are re-evaluated as British defeats where the BEF is pushed about out of its positions by a technically superior German Army that suffers considerably fewer casualties despite attacking broadly speaking with equal numbers in most cases. German superiority in numbers arises as they could get more men to the point of action rather than have them spread out.

It’s a devastating analysis and a big kick to the British ego. He may be right, and I find a lot of it convincing. I'm not one of those who appear to worship the 1914 BEF in all its perfection. I find the citizen army of 1916 onwards much more interesting, so I'm receptive to this type of revisionism.  However he gets a bit too excited and his historical method starts to fall apart. In the event of any dispute between sources he sides with the German accounts. He denies the BEF shot down German troops attacking in mass as they were trained to fight in skirmish order. This may be true (and it must be borne in mind that training of German units was down to the commanding officer so may differ from unit to unit) but there are several independent eye witness accounts that say virtually the same thing. You can’t just ignore them without explaining them. He is also scathing about where units are, - units can’t be where some sources say they are because it fits his story to have them elsewhere. Of course the same could be said the other way round. He also likes to take potshots at the anglophone sources and takes many swipes at the Osprey book on Mons. He needs to be taken aside and told that it's an Osprey. It isn't proper history.

However, this isn’t my biggest problem with the book. In his desperate attempt to produce a more balanced British/German account he topples over at times into uncomfortable views in respect of German policy and the actions of German troops.

I have to put my hand up here and say a couple of things. It is my view that the blame for the Great War falls disproportionately on the Kaiser’s Germany. They were the one power that could have stopped the whole thing (viz the “blank cheque” to Austria-Hungary). They reacted to a crisis in the East by attacking in the West, and invaded a neutral country. If Germany had not invaded Belgium Britain would have not joined the War.

However Germany, in Zuber’s view, is fighting a defensive war. His misuse of the timings of the various mobilizations in support of this view is criminal from a serious historian.

His keenness to praise the German army becomes distinctly unpleasant in handling what happened in Belgium. Now, just to re-iterate, Belgium was neutral and her neutrality was guaranteed by the major powers (including Prussia). Belgium was invaded by Germany with no causus belli at all except that the German army wanted to march through it. Germany’s beef was with the Franco-Russian entente. That’s the only justification for attacking in the West. Belgium had  made clear it was neutral and set its defences and deployments and undertook any exercises to deal with threats from both Germany and France/Britain.

So, having invaded Belgium German troops found themselves attacked by locals, the “francs tireurs”. Their reaction was out of proportion to the damage inflicted, and whilst it may have been justified against people not in uniform (depending on the Hague Conventions) the Civil Guard were uniformed and entitled to bear arms. German troops therefore effectively shot prisoners of war. They also committed other atrocities, - the “rape of Belgium” is not made up – and throughout the war exported Belgians as slave labour to Germany as well as asset stripped the country. That’s a neutral country, remember. 

If he tried to do the same whitewash job on the Second World War this would be completely beyond the pale.

So, would I recommend this book? Well, only if you know the subject and can identify when it gets ahead of itself. And whilst it has some valuable information on German training methods and what happened in the various battles it is very poorly let down by some of the most useless maps you can imagine.

I'm glad I didn't pay full price for it, and I shall be more circumspect in using his book on the Alsace/Lorraine campaign in future. I suspect that isn't entirely even handed either.

16 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review Trebian. Most reviews I've read of Zuber's works say the same thing. Apparently the book on the French battle of the frontiers is even more biased towards the Germans. And although I disagree with you that Germany is the main culprit for WWI, I do agree that any attempt to whitewash German actions in Belgium is a clear indicator that perspective has been lost.
    I guess the most common German source that most English readers are familiar with for the Battle of Mons is Walther Bloem, and his accounts certainly seem to back up the generally accepted picture of the BEFs abilities vis a vis the Germans, so I would be interested to read the other sources that Zuber draws on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In respect of the German war guilt we will have to agree to disagree. I tend towards the Fischer school and there's good stuff on it here: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/fischer-controversy/ . I think I'm amongst the majority of historians who know and write about the subject. I would also add that from the mid 19th century onwards the Prussian/German government have form in respect of being comfortable with using war as an instrument of policy.

      Zuber addresses the Bloem issue. He claims it was the only source in English at the time the OH was written and also that it is the only German source that has this perspective. He mainly uses German Regimental histories which seem to be full of paeans of praise for the excellent quality of German troops and their training. If the extracts he translates are excellent they are chillingly Teutonic.

      Delete
  2. Interesting review , will have to have a look at this book , Tony

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I think it is hard to ignore although I'm uncomfortable with shovelling money into his pockets by buying it.

      Delete
  3. Very interesting review- thanks for posting.

    I have read his earlier 'Ardennes 1914' and though it is not a period I have read extensively on it was easy to pick up on his bias. I'd read other books of his but it is very much a case of forewarned is forearmed.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pete,

      I have the Alsace/Lorraine book which has a lot of detail in it. I bought it because it had reproductions of German OH maps with a promise that there were bigger versions on the Publisher's website. There aren't any more.

      Delete
  4. That is a really shame that the publisher did honour that. A good map is invaluable.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I emailed them. They put the maps up when they first published the book, they said, but removed them when they redesigned the website. They've promised to put them back, but no sign yet.

      Delete
  5. You do have to wonder at how and why some writers seem set on defending German actions in Belgium. The section in the (C4?) documentary on WW1 on occupied Belgium and France was well done. I'm reminded of how much of the praise heaped on the Germans in E Africa falls apart once you look at how they behaved towards civilians, particularly in Mozambique. The same sort of actions in E Europe in WW2 would rightly have been classed as war crimes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know. It's maddening. Imperial Germany was a military dictatorship with little respect for any other nation. If you look at some of their actions they are of a piece with atrocities in WW2. It fits with a narrative that says the Nazis were an aberration if the German army in the Great War behaved in an exemplary fashion.

      Delete
    2. Would I be correct in thinking that German diplomacy regarding the Serbian issue went beyond a mere blank cheque to actually encouraging the A-H to beef up their demands? Almost telling Franz-Josef to re-write it as part of the policy to bring on war with Russia before they got too powerful.

      Delete
    3. That I'm not so sure about without going to do more digging, but it sounds right. Whether they wanted to bring on war with Russia or humiliate them and their Balkan proxies is debatable.

      Delete
  6. Seems to be broadly in line with a significant percentage of modern historical (sic) publishing - everything the British Armed Forces have done in the past 2000 years is complete rubbish and every single officer throughout that period is a stupid idiot. Lucky for us the sainted Germans decided to arbitrarily halt their offensive and sit in a trench for 4 years? The Citizen Army of 1916 wouldn't have had the chance to get "interesting" without the courage, professionalism and sacrifice of the BEF and the TA.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm waiting to see his book that proves the Battle of the Marne was a major German victory.

      I was left wondering most of the time why it was that of the Germans were so brilliant and the BEF so useless how did any of the BEF escape at all.

      Delete
  7. Have you read Alan Mallinson's book on 1914?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't. Finished Ian Seniors "Home Before The Leaves Fall"/"1914" recently which I thought was quite good.

      Delete