Is history the saga of vast impersonal movements and forces and structures and developments? Yes.
Is history a tale of individual action and decision, of contingency, with vast consequences depending on who is on the spot and what they decide to do? Again, yes.
The idea that these two ways of looking at history are poles, or even contrary to each other, rather than both essential parts of a larger unity, is a common intellectual mistake. David Hackett Fischer has made the reuniting of these two perspectives a major theme of his wonderful books, like Washington’s Crossing and Paul Revere’s Ride.
On September 9, 1914 one man made a decision and gave an order. Maybe it didn’t matter much. Perhaps what ensued was foredoomed. We can never know what would have happened, we can only know what did happen.
In the simplest possible terms, what was going on was this. World War I began in the West with a German invasion of Belgium, which was quickly overrun, with German armies continuing their march southward on into France. The French had put their main effort into an attack toward the Rhine, where they were bogging down. The vast invasion descending into France from the north came as a surprise. The French rushed troops back by rail to put them into the path of the Germans. The British expeditionary force had landed, marched north, encountered the Germans at Mons, in Belgium, and been driven back. As the Germans marched further and further south into France, the French, under Joffre, were able to assemble sufficient force to counter-attack. This was became known to history as the Battle of the Marne. However, the Germans were not thrown back. Neither army had begun to dig trenches yet. The Germans had overrun a large and valuable chunk of France, and though exhausted by their rapid advance, the French were exhausted too, mostly from retreating. On September 9, 1914, we find the German armies which had invaded France closing on Paris. The outermost army on the right wing, the German 1st Army under General Kluck was less than 30 miles away. At this point Kluck’s army became separated from the army to its left, the German 2nd Army, under General Bulow.
Again in its simplest terms, what happened next was as follows. The German supreme commander, von Moltke was unable to tell what was happening at the front, he had been shocked by the French counter-attack at the Marne. Looking at his maps he feared Kluck would be cut off, his army destroyed, and a generalized disaster befall the German army. Von Moltke sent a staff officer, Col. Richard Hentsch to the front, to visit the army headquarters of the armies in France, and assess the situation, and to order a retreat if necessary. Von Moltke’s inclination was to halt the, so far successful, German advance, order a retreat and to assume a defensive posture on the Aisne river. Hentsch, went to the front, assessed the situation, and ordered a retreat. The Germans dug a defensive line, and trench warfare with all its bloody, pointless butchery ensued for the next four years.
The foregoing sketch does not give any idea of the wide variety of interpretations these events have provoked a from historians. On one end of the spectrum, we have Corelli Barnett, in The Swordbearers: Supreme Command in the First World War (1963). He notes that the British thought the gap between Bulow and Kluck was a trap. It was not a real hazard to the Germans since the Allies were not going to exploit it, and in fact there were troops available to fill the gap, an army corps freed up from a successfully completed siege in Belgium. The gap, as Barnett sees it, was an excuse seized upon by men with frazzled nerves. Barnett wrote:
In fact, therefore, the battle of the Marne was decided not by the brilliant generalship of Joffre or Gallieni, nor by … the ineluctable circumstances of the battlefield. Indeed there was no real battle of the Marne. Before such a battle could be joined, the victory was handed to the French and British by an unjustifiable failure of nerve and resolution on the part of the German command.
More recently, Robert Citino in Blitzkreig to Desert Storm, the Evolution of Operational Warfare (2004) says that Molke was like a man faced with 300 emails, who cannot process the mass of information coming and “hitting the delete button”, by abdicating his authority and sending Hentsch to, in effect, call off the advance because he was overwhelmed by his inability to control the battle. But the train had left the station and there was no getting off — you can’t opt out of a war you started because you are confused. Martin van Creveld, in Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (1977) notes that the German frontline troops were in good supply, and fully stocked with ammunition at the time Hentsch arrived. There was nothing from that quarter which required a retreat. However as Creveld and others noted, the scenes of apparent chaos in the rear areas behind the advancing armies seem to have unnerved the already pessimistic Hentsch even more. David Stevenson, in his recent book Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy (2004) (which I haven’t read yet), concludes that “probably there was no need for a retreat”. However, he seems to think this would only have led to a trench stalemate in a different location at a somewhat later date. Michael Howard, in his short book The First World War (2002) merely says that Hentsch found both Bulow and Kluck’s headquarters inclined to retreat, and he gave the order. But others differ about Kluck’s inclinations. Similarly, A.J.P. Taylor, in The First World War: An Illustrated History (1963) notes that Kluck was holding his own, but in danger of being encircled, and so ordered a retreat. In other words, Taylor suggests that this was the proper or at least the most reasonable course. Also similarly, the old U.S. Military Academy textbook A Short Military History of World War I (1954) devotes several pages to Hentsch’s mission. It notes that Hentsch had been informed by Bulow of the presence of British troops in the gap between 1st and 2nd Armies, but that 1st Army’s chief of staff (Kluck was not personally present at the time) “wanted to continue the attack”. Hentsch overruled him, a decision which the West Point history department deemed “the only sensible course. First Army could not fight on alone.” Except, if we believe Barnett and others, there were troops available to fill the gap and First Army would not have had to fight on alone. Barbara Tuchman, in The Guns of August (1962) seems to impute no special importance to Hentsch’s order, focusing more on the French counter-attack. Hentsch’s name does not even appear in the index of Martin Gilbert’s The First World: A Complete History (1994).
John Keegan somewhere wrote that the German troops marching through the late Summer heat in August and September 1914, wearing the soles off two pairs of boots, were in the grip of a vision — a super-Austerlitz and the French army demolished, a triumphal march down the Champs Elysees before the leaves turned, home by Christmas. That is the vision that drove the troops on with bloodied feet, southward toward Paris. All I have read suggest they were tired but full of fighting spirit on September 9. After all, a huge chunk of France had fallen into their hands, and Paris was at most two day’s march away. While the French had turned and fought at last, that was bound to happen eventually, and in fact what better place to bring the French to grips and destroy them than at the very gates of Paris? The order to retreat came as a shock to the troops. It provoked consternation, and some disorderly scrambling toward the rear, but it was obeyed and the Germans, unbeaten, dutifully went to ground, strung barbed wire and took up a defensive posture. The soldiers had expected to advance, but their commanders’ nerves had cracked. Morale matters. Beliefs matter. A driving vision matters. Momentum matters. Faith in your cause, your leaders, your mission, matters. When the driving vision is lost, it is like the air going out of a tire. Sustaining this in an army is one of the hardest demands of generalship. Moltke failed his army.
Hentsch was Hentsch, Moltke was Moltke and they did what their personalities and backgrounds suited them for. Moltke lived in the shadow of his uncle, the great Helmuth von Moltke of Koniggratz and Sedan. Moltke, unlike his uncle, lived in mortal fear of the day when he would have to send Germany’s armies into battle. Moltke had inherited a strategy of brutal, ruthless conquest, of preemptive war, of unprovoked surprise attack on Belgium, and over and through Belgium to get at the real enemy, France. He was constantly tinkering with the strategy, demonstrating that he did not believe in it, showing that he was afraid to put the fate of his country on a single throw of the dice. His private correspondence is filled with dread and indecision. Such a man had a duty to his country to either demand a different strategy, or resign. He did neither. If a man is to direct the army of a nation embarked on a war of conquest, he must be made of sterner stuff than Moltke proved to be. He must be willing to dare all. Moltke wasn’t.
Similarly, Hentsch was not the man for the hour. For example, it is not really correct for the West Point professors to call Hentsch’s decision “sensible”. It is only “sensible” if looked at microscopically. Change the focus and you see that the entire German enterprise was anything but “sensible”. It was an immoral and maybe even deranged war of aggression. That is the context. If you are embarked on a murderous, unprovoked onslaught on your neighbors, with the general aim of European and then Global Hegemony, then you are embarked on a truly insane course. That doesn’t mean you might not succeed. Utter audacity and the shock of your victims may carry you through. But you cannot succeed in such a grandiose and violent design if you keep having fits of common sense in the middle of it.
Let us speculate for a minute about what might have happened if Hentsch had been a different man. Or let us imagine that Hentsch had been unavailable and someone of simpler, more daring perhaps more brutal disposition — someone like Ludendorff — had gone in his place. Imagine further that he saw the opportunity to plug the gap between 1st and 2nd Armies, and saw that Kluck’s men, though fatigued, still had fight in them. Imagine that the possibility of a once in a century victory took possession of him, and the vision of Paris just over the horizon almost within range of their artillery. And imagine that this Col. Not-Hentsch had ordered a further advance against the French. This is not wholly beyond what might conceivably have happened.
Three possible outcomes are apparent. First, what we could call the deterministic outcome is that the two armies collide, and simply entrench in a slightly different place, and trench warfare begins, on cue, as a result of technological inevitability. This is the doomed, tragic vision — machine guns and barbed wire meant trench warfare and nothing could stop it from happening. Second, the armies meet in the open, and the Germans are driven off, or worse for them, Kluck’s army is cut off and destroyed. What then? A general retreat, probably, to a line much farther in the rear than the Aisne. Or, perhaps an even worse defeat with the German army routed. In other words, yet another location for trench warfare if the German attack failed. Or, just possibly a major defeat leading to a negotiated peace settlement. Third, French defeat in the field, the British Expeditionary Force falls back toward the Channel, which it was prepared to do. Paris falls, or is besieged. In this third scenario, a re-run of 1870, a German victory and a negotiated settlement would have been almost certain.
So, Moltke and Hentsch fecklessly tossed aside a real but unquantifiable chance to spare their country from eventual defeat in a war of attrition. More importantly, they lost the only chance to make the First World War the short war that the generals in all armies hoped and believed it would be. This opens up a lost world of might-have-beens. No four years of trench warfare. No casualties in the millions. No destruction of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and German empires. No destruction of the liberal world trading and financial order which existed under British auspices. No Russian Revolution, no Soviet Union, no Gulag. No Nazi Germany, no Holocaust, no World War II. This better world was foreclosed because two men who were supposed to be warriors and leaders of warriors, at the moment of truth, took counsel of their fears. They failed to follow through on the course they had chosen, to act consistently with the logic of the course they had chosen.
Significant, long-term unintended consequences are the one thing you can count on when a country and its army roll the iron dice of war. This course should never be taken lightly. And if a country does embark on war, timidity and half-heartedness and second-guessing are always the source of more death and misery than decisiveness and ruthlessness and forcing things to a conclusion.