The History Book Club discussion

THE FIRST WORLD WAR > 4. THE FIRST WORLD WAR ~ CHAPTER 5 (138 - 174) (03/15/10 - 03/21/10) ~ No spoilers, please

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message 1: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (last edited Mar 31, 2010 05:01PM) (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod
Hello Everyone,

This begins the fourth week's reading in our Spotlighted group discussion of The First World War by John Keegan

The complete table of contents is as follows:

List of Maps ix
List of Illustrations xi
Acknowledgments xv

ONE: A European Tragedy p.3
TWO: War Plans p.24
THREE: The Crisis of 1914 p.48
FOUR: The Battle of the Frontiers and the Marne p.71
FIVE: Victory and Defeat in the East p.138
SIX: Stalemate p.175
SEVEN: The War Beyond the Western Front p.204
EIGHT: The Year of Battles p. 257
NINE: The Breaking of Armies p. 309
TEN: America and Armageddon p. 372

Notes: p. 429
Bibliography p. 449
Index p. 457

The assignment for this week includes the following segments/pages:

Week Four - March 15th - March 21st -> Chapter FIVE p.138 - 174
FIVE - Victory and Defeat in the East

We look forward to your participation; but remember this is a non spoiler thread.

We will open up threads for each week's reading. Please make sure to post in the particular thread dedicated to those specific chapters and page numbers to avoid spoilers.

This book was kicked off on February 21st. This will be the fourth week's assignment for this book.

We look forward to your participation. Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other noted on line booksellers do have copies of the book and shipment can be expedited. The book can also be obtained easily at your local library.

A special welcome to those who will be newcomers to this discussion and thank you to those who have actively contributed on the previous Spotlighted book selection. We are glad to have you all.

This thread officially begins on March 15th.




The First World War by John Keegan John Keegan


This thread opens Monday, March 15th for discussion. This is a non spoiler thread. These threads are being set up in advance as I will be out of the country and access may not always be timely. To avoid any situations where the threads may not be opened; I am opening them in advance; however this thread will not be opened "for discussion" by me until March 15th..

message 2: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments Apparently the AH forces were organized by nationality within the empire. The fact that they were able to actually get effective fighting forces from their 2nd class nationality groups goes to show that men participate in war for the adventure and brotherhood rather than for political reasons.

message 3: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod
Patric..I had never thought about that idea before...maybe war is an innate part of man's human nature..horrible as that thought might be...adventure, brotherhood, and a common adversarial gamelike spirit.

message 4: by Elizabeth S (new)

Elizabeth S (esorenson) | 2011 comments For many, even today, I think enlisting is a challenge, and chance to do something different, to prove yourself. That's an interesting observation, Patricrk.

I've noticed that Keegan mentions that kind of thing periodically. In this week's chapter, he said the Germans were out numbered by the Russians, but most of the Eeastern-front German forces were from Prussia. Since they were defending their homeland, they were motivated to fight better.

And at other times Keegan will mention that a particular regiment or group isn't as loyal to whatever crown, so they surrender faster. Those cases probably aren't the ones who really wanted to go to war. It seems, so far, that the ones who fight better are 1) better trained and 2) either believe in what they are fighting for or are seasoned soldiers. Whether or not they win also depends on how well they are positioned, provisioned, and reinforced--stuff that depends on the high-command and generals.

message 5: by 'Aussie Rick' (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) All very good points Elizabeth. I think the strongest motivators for soldiers is a belief in what they are fighting for, that they have effective leadership and also the bond between soldiers in not letting your comrades down in a fight.

message 6: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod are on...glad to see you are up and running again.

message 7: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments I'm not sure how much a motivator "a belief in what they are fighting for" is for soldiers. I certainly agree with effective leadership and not letting your comrades down. A good example is Lee and the army of Northern Virginia or Wellington's campaigns where many of his soldiers were in the army to avoid jail or get enough to eat. What did the AH soldiers believe in?

message 8: by 'Aussie Rick' (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) I don't think that a lot of the AH units were very motivated and a lot didn't believe in what they are fighting for. My comment was a general one but I still think a soldier fighting for what they believe is right or good is a strong motivator, hence your all volunteer armies. If a soldier doesn't have a strong belief in what they are being asked to die for then they won't, they'll desert, skulk about or surrender at the first chance they get. It won’t matter how well they are led, they will still be a very ineffective fighting force.

message 9: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments 'Aussie Rick' wrote: "I don't think that a lot of the AH units were very motivated and a lot didn't believe in what they are fighting for. My comment was a general one but I still think a soldier fighting for what they ..." I think English colonial history is full of examples of native forces being very effective even though I don't think they believed in English dominance. The French foreign legion certainly didn't believe in French dominance. Can you give some historical examples?

message 10: by 'Aussie Rick' (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) I agree with what you are saying Patricrk, and I think that the FFL mainly fought for the Legion, 'their family', something they believed in and held dear.
I can offer my own counties history, our soldiers have all been volunteers except for Vietnam were we had some conscripts. The early colonial wars that we were involved in and the start of WW1, many Australians believed that they were fighting to defend the Empire or the 'mother country'. Even in WW2 a lot of Australians still held that belief although many also joined up for the adventure & travel or because their mates did.

message 11: by 'Aussie Rick' (last edited Mar 20, 2010 03:24AM) (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) An historical example I suppose could be the US involvement in Vietnam. Towards the end of the 1960's many soldiers (and civilians) didn't believe in the war and the US Army had major problems with discipline and combat effectiveness. The French forces suffered the same problem in their Indo-China War 1945-54, especially with their ‘foreign’ troops.
Another example would be Russia during WW2. Stalin knew that many Russians would not be prepared to die for him or his regime but they would die defending 'Mother Russia' and that was the propaganda line the Soviets pushed to get their soldiers motivated.
I would also suggest that any civil war, be it the English, American or Spanish Civil War, the soldiers must have fought for a belief that motivated them more than anything else, it's the only way to explain why family members were in some instances in conflict with each other, on opposing sides.
The American War of Independence must also be an example of soldiers being motivated to fight a terrible war in the belief of they were fighting and dying for something worthwhile. I am sure that goes a long way to explain why the Continental Army and the militia persevered after so many defeats and stuck it out at Valley Forge.

I think I might be getting off topic so best maybe I leave it here and follow it up under another thread if you like.

message 12: by Elizabeth S (new)

Elizabeth S (esorenson) | 2011 comments Here's my current thought on motivations for an army. I think an army fights better, and surrenders less quickly, when well-motivated. Belief in what you are fighting for is a great motivation. Hence the examples Aussie Rick gave. I think that is the reason the Kaiser made his speech in Chapter 4 saying that they must "resort to a just defence" (page 71) and asking people to pray to God. It is also part of the reason Germany let few men to defend Prussia while doing the Schlieffen Plan--those few men "many of them recruits or reservists from the threatened area, could be counted upon to fight with tenacity against any invasion of their homeland" (page 140).

But I think Patricrk has a good point that is often overlooked. Another powerful motivator for soldiers is pride in doing a job well. Some people enjoy being soldiers, perhaps have made a career out of it and that is their life. They fight for their buddies, because it is their job and they like it. I think that is why the British fought so well in Chapter 4. I don't think they had nearly the belief in defending France as, say, the French. Only 100 years earlier, the French were the evil enemy to the British. As said on page 98, "The British army was an all-regular force, composed of professional soldiers whom the small wars of empire had hardened to the realities of combat." Even though the Germans outnumbered the British at the Mons-Conde Canal by six divisions to four, the British held. Plus the examples of individual AH units that Patricrk was mentioning earlier.

So I guess I agree with both of you.

(Sorry to continue a wandering towards off-topic subject. There were so many examples from the book to use, I'm thinking it is okay. But if we want to discuss more involving stuff out of WWI, I agree we should use another thread.)

message 13: by Elizabeth S (new)

Elizabeth S (esorenson) | 2011 comments To me, the Russians are an interesting group. Keegan keeps mentioning how comparatively illiterate they were. (How literate were the masses of Europe in general at that time?) Is he saying that uneducated men are harder to train, and/or don't understand orders as readily? At one point Keegan says that the Russian artillery was "traditionally the best-trained arm of the Tsar's army" (page 145). I can see why education would be necessary for soldiers in artillery units. You would be much more effective firing your gun if you knew math and physics.

message 14: by Elizabeth S (new)

Elizabeth S (esorenson) | 2011 comments It seems to me, so far, that one of the biggest differences between WWI and earlier wars/conflicts, was the shear mass of fighting men involved. There were so many armies, so many men thrown into the conflict. So of course so many more died.

What was it that made the engaged armies so much larger this time? I'm wondering if perhaps the better rail systems allowed for easier transportation of supplies. In the past, didn't armies often live off the land? That would limit the size of an army to some extent. Too many soldiers and there just isn't enough to eat. What other reasons are there that the armies are larger this time?

message 15: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (last edited Mar 26, 2010 08:08AM) (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod

Chapter 5 is outlined as follows:

a) Introduction - 138 - 150
b) Galicia and Serbia - 151 - 155
c) The Battles of Lemberg - 155 - 161
d) Warfare in the East - 161 - 163
e) The Battles of Warsaw - 163 - 166
f) Winter Battles in Galicia and the Carpathians - 166 - 174

It is odd but the table of contents does not show all of the subsections for each chapter.

message 16: by Vincent (new)

Vincent (vpbrancato) | 1245 comments Elizabeth S wrote: "To me, the Russians are an interesting group. Keegan keeps mentioning how comparatively illiterate they were. (How literate were the masses of Europe in general at that time?) Is he saying that ..."

Just a couple of late comments. I think uneducated people are harder to train because they usually have not learned how to learn and do not have honed skills such as reading which is certainly a learning tool. there was a beginning of more techical weapons and today we will not even take a non HS grad into the US military - in a Western army that values individual lives soldiers must be trained on sophisticated equipment to "fight".

A comment on the overall comments of men being ready to die - I think that before WWI, before the big big artelliery etc - people did not think they would necessarily die.

Everyone thought the war would be over quickly, (like our Civil War) in the beginning and probably only after six months to a year did the soldiers start to realize how deadly these wars were. In both of these wars I htink the initial enlistees did not foresee anything like the mass carnage that would follow

message 17: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod
That is an interesting comment you make Vince...very true nowadays about a high school education being a necessity.

Do you not think that the casualties in the Civil War might have made some realize in generations to come that death might be the outcome. I thought that the Civil War might have painted that kind of image. As far as duration, I think in both instances participating military realized that everyone was trapped for the duration.

The mass carnage had to be beyond belief in both wars but more so with World War I. Nobody should have to die that way.

Just horrible.

message 18: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments Bentley wrote: "That is an interesting comment you make Vince...very true nowadays about a high school education being a necessity.

Do you not think that the casualties in the Civil War might have made some rea..."

The masses probably hadn't studied history and didn't know of the terrible casualties from the American Civil War. And that was those odd Americans who can't do anything right! It can't happen to us (insert nationality).

message 19: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod
Your last sentence was humorous because that might have been exactly what they conveyed.

message 20: by Vincent (new)

Vincent (vpbrancato) | 1245 comments To comment on the remarks of Bentley & Patrick I have the impression that in the beginning, as in the civil war, the impression was that the war would be fast over.

the Americans, including the Civil War if we think of the North as the Americans, have since then benefited in almost all if not all our wars by either industrial or technogical superiority.

today we have a "war" in Afganistan and if we were to have anywhere near the casualities of the Afghanies (including civilians) we would I htink either withdraw or utilize more mass destructive weapons - mass artillery or mass air bombing.

A couple of years a go talking to a military officer person about the Iraq war their focus was on reducing Amreican casualities and deaths and when I would mention Iraqi civilain deaths I was told that was not their worry. I think the American military/society will not easily now suffer casualities unless we see a real threat to our culture/society.

The continuing inability of Al Quita to have post 9/11 effective actions against us in America dilutes the resolve I think to absolutely disable (destroy) them. If we were suffering more casualities at home we might but otherwise I thinkwe are not prepared to suffer Civil/ WWI/ WWII Pacific theatre ratios of loss of men/soldiers.

Also today with our armored vehicles and body armour and night vision goggles I think that we are sending our men out so much better prepared than our enemies we are trying in every way possible to incur the losses that might make this politically/socially unacceptable.

All this fancy equipment by the way makes the educated/educateable soldier necessary to be able to use it. My son, a retired marine, once told me when he was in infantry training about 20 years ago that in training to use anti tank weapons you didn't fire too often as each round was worth about $5,000 as I recall.

Just some comments

message 21: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod
$5,000 a round wow...incredible. You made some very interesting comments Vince...all very true.

message 22: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments Great comments, as usual. I just finished this chapter and have some thoughts to add.

Keegan mentions that the issue of the Russian peasants being illiterate was important because these people had no idea how ill-equipped they were compared to their adversaries in regard to weapons, etc. Therefore, they were less likely defect, avoid battle, etc., and as we know from history, Russian's massive numbers was a critical factor in its military successes.

I think that within the context of WWI, a sense of nationalism and loyalty to one's country were both big motivators in the soldiers' will to fight. What amazed me though was the cavalier attitude toward the huge numbers of soldiers who died in each battle. I felt like that there was this belief that this was all just a numbers game and that in the end, whoever had the most men left standing would win. Again, in the case of Russia, there was much truth to that, but overall, I just found that approach to be barbaric in a sense. Did anyone else find that disturbing to read?

message 23: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments Sera wrote: "Great comments, as usual. I just finished this chapter and have some thoughts to add.

Keegan mentions that the issue of the Russian peasants being illiterate was important because these peopl..."

I agree that it was disturbing, but it also probably reflects the aristocracy officers view of anyone who wasn't part of their set, they don't count.

message 24: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments That's a good point, Patrick. I noticed that the officers stayed in the back during these bloodbaths, which puts the phrase "leading one's men into battle" on its head.

message 25: by James (new)

James Yes, a good leader is calling "Follow me!" rather than "Go do it!" as much of the time as possible - that means that the officers and NCOs have a higher casualty rate than their troops, but that's part of the deal. If they don't want to do that, they shouldn't be leaders.

It's the same principle that dictates that officers and NCOs share hardships of other kinds in the field, too. The Marine Corps drummed it into me (along with everyone else) that if you're responsible for a platoon and there ends up being one sleeping bag too few, you'd better be the one who goes without; when they bring a hot meal out to your unit, everyone lines up in reverse rank order - privates first, then PFCs, and so on, and the senior person goes last.

On the Western front at least, the junior officers - up to the ranks of captains and majors, typically - did take the lead, and took correspondingly awful losses. They were conspicuous (having a revolver, swagger stick, and whistle instead of a rifle will make a person stand out) and the enemy machine gunners and riflemen made them a priority as targets.

Barbaric is as good a term as any for the offhand way that generals on both sides just kept sending huge numbers of troops into the meat grinder. They were astonishingly ignorant of what was going on, because a lot of them never even visited the front. If they'd bothered to even read up on the wars of the previous half century or so they'd have known that the tactics of the Napoleonic era had been made futile by newer technology, the four inventions of machine guns, barbed wire, quick-firing artillery, and magazine-fed bolt action rifles that had an effective range of up to 800 yards or so in the hands of well-trained riflemen.

I think (as a retired Marine officer) that this failure to stay current re their profession as soldiers was inexcusable, since the lives of their troops and the security of their countries depended on them knowing what they were doing. Those generals and any junior leaders who didn't lead from the front should have been relieved for cause and tried by court-martial for dereliction of their duties.

message 26: by Patricrk (new)

Patricrk patrick | 435 comments Sera wrote: "Great comments, as usual. I just finished this chapter and have some thoughts to add.

Keegan mentions that the issue of the Russian peasants being illiterate was important because these peopl..."

When I read The Remains of Company D A Story of the Great War by James Carl Nelson James Carl Nelson I was surprised about how many of the soldiers in the American Army were actually born in Europe and had been brought to the USA as little children.

message 27: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments James, I agree that your point about the military failing to stay current was inexcusable. Although the need for greater numbers led to the conscription of non-military career men, the higher ranked officials performed their roles on a full time basis. Knowing how to fight and to defend their countries was their jobs! Therefore, I also found it unbelieveable of how ignorant they all were. I'm not sure that I understand what cause of the complancency was, but the lack of regard for human life just makes me feel so disgusted. What a horrible waste of human life.

message 28: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments Patrick, interesting fact about the European influence in American during the war. Since the post-Civil War era led to tremendous movement to the American West, I guess it would make sense that there was a heavy influx of immigrants during that time frame as well. Even though the South was in a period of reconstruction, the West still provided great opportunity for those willing to take on its challenges.

message 29: by James (last edited Jul 12, 2010 07:32PM) (new)

James That resistance on the part of senior leaders to change and blindness to the obsolescence of old methods and technology seems to be a problem in just about any military system. We saw it in Vietnam too, with Westmoreland essentially never being willing to see that what had worked for him as a young officer in World War II wasn't working in that new situation.

I think it stems mainly from patterns that are common in people everywhere and in all situations, and which it's vital but very hard - in terms of both effort and nerve - to overcome in oneself.

We've evolved, like most other sentient life, to be averse to risk - when we've learned a way to do something that works, we tend to want to keep doing it that way. The higher the stakes are (in terms of potential death and destruction and also of looking stupid), the less willing to experiment we're likely to be.

Sometimes it's hard to recognize when the situation has changed and made the old way useless, especially if we aren't seeing the change firsthand. That's why it's so vital for the generals to spend time at the point of the spear, so to speak, and they didn't. So the information they were getting about the situation at the front didn't sink in. That pattern is the root of the old cliche about how the generals are usually trying to fight the last war again instead of the one they're actually in at the moment.

Also, the generals of World War I had risen to their positions in the peacetime military, which rewards risk aversion and a high degree of caution. The tendency is for the people who make the fewest mistakes to get promoted, and sticking with what you know is the best way to avoid mistakes in a relatively stable situation. Pattons win wars, but Montgomerys rise to the top in peacetime.

message 30: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments "When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail" - well said, James.

message 31: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new)

Bentley | 44168 comments Mod
James wrote: "That resistance on the part of senior leaders to change and blindness to the obsolescence of old methods and technology seems to be a problem in just about any military system. We saw it in Vietnam..."

Interesting James.

message 32: by James (new)

James Yes - you would think that any sane person would immediately rule out a lot of the Napoleonic tactics they used, on the Western Front especially, especially after seeing them fail repeatedly. There is that saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results... the only explanation I can imagine for that failure to stay current in their profession is the kind of odd lack of curiosity we sometimes see in people who should know better. Maybe complacency is the word for that.

message 33: by 'Aussie Rick' (last edited Jul 13, 2010 06:29PM) (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) Below is a book that I really enjoyed reading which may help explain some of the reasons 'why':

On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence by Norman Dixon by Norman F. Dixon
Publishers blurb:
This text surveys 100 years of military inefficiency from the Crimean War, through the Boer conflict, to the disastrous campaigns of the First World War and the calamities of the Second. It examines the social psychology of military organizations, provides case studies of individual commanders and indentifies an alarming pattern in the causes of military disaster. Previous titles by the author include "Subliminal Perception: The Nature of a Controversy", "Preconscious Processing" and "Our Own Worst Enemy".

message 34: by James (new)

James I started reading that book a few weeks ago too - it's hard going for me; I can't read it for long - I keep getting so angry at the devastating impact on so many of the laziness, stupidity, and character flaws of a few in exactly the wrong places, that I have to put it down and read something else for a while.

message 35: by 'Aussie Rick' (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) Hi James, I read the book when I was in the Army some many years ago (1980's) and I was just amazed at the stupidity revealed in the book and so thankful that I served in a modern Army that had learnt its lessons (well mostly).

message 36: by Sera (new)

Sera | 145 comments That's amazing, James and Aussie Rick. I have always considered the military to be this well-oiled machine, but come to find out, it's been historically riddled with inefficiencies, incompentencies, complacency and ignorance. Shame on me for the stereotype.

message 37: by James (new)

James I think the most disturbing thing for me was the indifference of some of the "leaders" to the suffering and death of the soldiers with whom they'd been entrusted. Their behavior was sociopathic - not only clueless but conscienceless, which is much worse than simple incompetence.

message 38: by 'Aussie Rick' (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) Very true James, on a lighter note, we use to have a saying in the Army;

'What's the difference between the Army and the Boy Scouts?'
'The Boy Scouts have adult leadership!'

message 39: by James (new)

James Yeah - in the Marine Corps we used to make the same joke, except that we'd say "adult leadership and a bigger budget."

message 40: by 'Aussie Rick' (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) Ah, even better!

message 41: by James (new)

James After I retired from the Corps and my billet as a telecommunications officer and started my second career as a psychotherapist (my wife laughs and points at me every time we see that Geico ad with R. Lee Ermey as a therapist), people ask me if it was a tough adjustment. I always say "Not really - still spending my days dealing with crazy people. But I don't have to salute them and call them 'sir' anymore."

message 42: by 'Aussie Rick' (new)

'Aussie Rick' (aussierick) I like your sense of humour, a very handy thing when your serving eh!

message 43: by James (new)

James Thanks. Yes - I was watching a documentary on the British Royal Marines, a much smaller and tougher organization than the USMC, more like our special forces - and was struck by how explicitly they explained that without a strong sense of humor in difficult situations, a person will probably not be able to hack it. Same kind of humor, sometimes pretty morbid and/or gross, as you see among cops, firefighters, ER doctors and nurses, etc.

And, interestingly, in AA and other 12-step programs - sometimes psychology or nursing students show up at meetings as a class assignment; someone will relate some truly godawful event or situation and the room will erupt in laughter, and the visitors are shocked and horrified. But it's because whatever's going on, so many in the room have probably been there, and that sense of humor is a lifesaver there too.

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