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Home Before the Leaves Fall , by Ian Senior

Home Before the Leaves Fall: A New History of the German Invasion of 1914 - Ian Senior




After reading Maurice Genevoix' Sous Verdun, Août - Octobre 1914, the first of five volumes of the literary re-working of his war journal written during the first nine months of World War I, in which the reader is given a soldier's eye view of the first months of the war and in which nobody, especially this reader, has any inkling of the big picture,(*) I decided I had to read Ian Senior's Home Before the Leaves Fall: A New History of the German Invasion of 1914 (2012) before proceeding with Genevoix' gripping and harrowing journal. Senior's book is a military history focused on the period covered in Sous Verdun


After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when the French lost large portions of their country to the newly united Germany, they built a series of massive fortresses along their new border with Germany. These fortresses and the mountain ranges running northwest to southeast in the border region offered serious obstacles to the free maneuvering of large bodies of men which was essential to the strategy of both the German and the French General Staffs. Both had come to the conclusion that it was necessary to strike the other first with everything they had, since it had become the received wisdom that it was impossible to maintain a long term conflict with modern weapons - the losses would be unsustainable.(**) So both handed Luxembourg and Belgium the kewpie doll - the main thrust of both armies would go through those countries.


On August 1, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia; August 3 on France; August 4 on Belgium and Great Britain. Not worrying much about niceties, German armies were in Belgium early on the morning of August 4 and the French were scrambling to catch up. The Belgians succeeded in slowing the Germans down, and the leading units of the German and French armies met in Belgium at Dinant on August 14. The first major engagement took place on August 22-24 to the east and south of the Belgian city of Charleroi, where the combatants threw themselves at each other like famished vampires. As if there weren't enough soldiers to kill, units of the German army massacred Belgian civilians, including women and children;(***) they also used civilians as human shields. 


In the exchange of first blows, that of the Germans was more powerful - the French were forced back into their own country. The rather small British army - only two corps - which was fighting on the extreme left of the allied lines, was forced out of Belgium as well. The French commander-in-chief, Joffre, called upon his retreating left wing to delay the Germans while he transferred troops from the less active center and right wing in northeastern France all the way to the left of the British with the intent of outflanking the German right wing. 


But the Germans had two fronts. The battle with the Russians was originally intended to be essentially a holding action until the victory in the west was assured. Because the German right and center were reporting great successes and the fight against the Russians was not going well, the German commander-in-chief, Moltke, began the transfer of six corps - one-fifth of the western army - out of the western front to the eastern. This was a mistake, though the underlying mistake was the belief that they could carry out a two front war. In the event, Moltke halted some of the transfers, but three corps were by then already out of the line.


After a week of deadly delaying actions carried out by reluctant and feuding French and British commanders (the British Minister of War, Kitchener, had to come to France personally to get the British Field Marshall French to stop retreating and to participate in Joffre's counterattack, and Joffre had to relieve the commanding general of the French Fifth Army), Joffre had his troops in position. (This was when the transferred troops were brought to the front with everything in Paris which had wheels, including famously 1,050 Parisian taxis!) The original left wing of the allied armies had managed to withdraw to the Marne, narrowly avoiding envelopment on two occasions, and the transferred troops were now to the northwest and southwest of the unsuspecting Germans. The German right wing was flanked and chewed up in the first Battle of the Marne, September 5-12. Simply said, but not at all simply done; Senior gives a detailed, engagement-by-engagement description of the Battle of the Marne, taking up one-third of the main text.


Crude estimates of total casualties have been made: Senior writes 750,000; others say 500,000. Whatever may be true, the bleeding was incredible and continued as the belligerents moved their maneuvers back to Belgium, but Senior leaves the story at the German withdrawal from the Marne on September 9.


Though this is Senior's first book and there are many gaps (he focuses solely on the activities of the allies' far left wing/German right wing), he writes clearly enough and liberally salts his text with eyewitness accounts. But, since Genevoix was not on the far left wing, my original purpose was not served after all.



(*) The "fog of war" is extremely thick in Sous Verdun. The section of (initially) seventy-odd men under Second Lieutenant Genevoix' command is moved from place to place with no explanation, running into Germans in what seems to be a completely random manner with little or no forewarning, enduring now and again horrendous bombardments, miserable weather, filth, thirst, hunger, mass murder - war, in other words.


(**) The losses were, as predicted, unspeakably high (after three weeks Genevoix' section was down to 22 men), but modern centralized states and their propaganda machines were able to keep pumping (at least) two generations of men into the meat grinder for more than four years...  In Genevoix' section was a man over 60 years of age, and this in the first weeks of the war. If "non" was not in the vocabulary of the recruiters at the beginning of the war, one can well imagine the recruiting situation late in the war.


(***) For example, no fewer than 674 persons in Dinant on August 23. In Leffe and Les Rivages there were 15 children under the age of 14 among the executed. Noch eine Sternstunde der deutschen Wehrmacht!