Home Before the Leaves Fall, Ian Senior. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012.
Summary: This is a new account of Germany’s invasion of France at the beginning of World War I, describing how it almost succeeded and why it ultimately ended in stalemate.
German, French and British forces all thought the conflict that became World War I would be a brief one, resulting either in victory for the Germans or a decisive repulsing of the German threat. The boys were promised they would be “home before the leaves fall.”
Ian Senior’s account of the German invasion of France through Belgium describes how this nearly came true, and why the Germans failed in their aims at the beginning of the war. The book begins with accounts of the battle plans developed by the Germans and the French. In the German case we learn of the Schlieffen plan, as further elaborated by Moltke the younger, which depended on a wheeling turn through Belgium of the German right that turned the flank of the French-English forces, leading to envelopment and the conquest of Paris. What Moltke had to contend with were the challenges of the possibility of a two front war which would lessen the forces he could work with, and the challenges of transport and communication in making this wheeling move. Ultimately it would prove too much, while nearly succeeding.
The book proceeds with a day by day account of the battles, from the initial defeat of the French at Charleroi, the retreat, including the unsteady performance of the British on the French left. It traces the the initial French failure to anticipate the strength of the German attack through Belgium, and Joffre’s skillful shifting of forces to his left after retreating, to stop the German advances. In the end, he mounts a counter-offensive on the German right, exploiting a gap between the First and Second German armies, leading to their eventual retreat and the transition from a war of maneuver to the deadly stalemate of trench warfare.
What I’ve just outlined in broad detail, Senior elaborates minutely with battle by battle accounts across the front. The book includes maps in every chapter of the changing battlefield and also diary and action reports that help one understand vividly the realities troops faced of marches, attacks into blistering artillery fire, and retreat, often going for days with little sleep, covering, in some cases, hundreds of miles, mostly on foot.
What Senior develops is an understanding of how close the Germans came to success and that it was a combination of the inadequacies of communication, transport, and supply, plus the shifting of some troops to the eastern front from Moltke’s right wing that may have cost him victory. Likewise, we see Joffre, not considered a terribly brilliant officer, come into his own as he sacks incompetents, promotes the effective, and recovers from a French battle plan that failed to anticipate Germany’s strategic surprise on their left.
The book reminds me that beyond strategic concepts and careful planning, there are still the variables of logistics and the character of battlefield leaders. When forces are closely matched, as were the two sides going into this conflict, it is often factors that don’t show up in plans that make the difference. Also, many accounts look at the battle from the perspective of the British Expeditionary Force, which was only four divisions strong at this point. The Germans and French each had over sixty divisions and Senior’s account focuses much more closely on what happened from the perspective of these troops in battle. In particular, Joffre and the French come out looking better than what I’ve read in other accounts.
I’d recommend this book for those who already having a working understanding of the battles and troop movements of World War I rather than as a first book on this subject, because of the level of detail the author goes into. But if one wants to go more deeply, and perhaps more from the French and German perspectives, this is a valuable addition to World War I scholarship.