Sunday, March 15, 2015

“The Battle of Mons, The Official German Account”

I grew up in a very anglo-centric world, the world of New Zealand in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's. My interest in and fascination with all things military was fed from the wellspring of English military historians, primarily because our society was (and largely still is) very mono-lingual. As New Zealand still saw itself as a part of the ‘British family’, we tended to read the British version of events without questioning.

In this way I uncovered varying versions of the events of the first world war. Perhaps the most notable first read on the events of August 1914 was Sir John French’s version in his book ‘1914’, followed closely by British regimental histories when we could find them. With hindsight it is therefore perhaps not surprising that I bought into many of the prevailing views of the time about those early BEF battles at Mons and Le Cateau. I read excitedly about the deadly accuracy of British rifle fire, of the British infantryman’s capacity to 15 aimed shots per minute unlike anyone else, the stoic defence of the British regulars at Nery and so on.

It was really only with the publication of some of the books of Jack Sheldon, Terence Zuber and others that I began to appreciate that these views might not be as accurate as I would have liked to believe. The thing that marked these books out from what had gone before was reference to German sources and as these writers have done so it becomes increasingly clear that the original British accounts of events might not have been as balanced and correct as I’d have liked to believe. The correlation between the two opposing versions of events was at times small. As I read their work I began to feel that I’d like to have been able to access the original German (and French) sources to compare these with what I had read in the British context.

This recent work of Robert Dunlop and Holger Puttkammer has made that possible. They have provided what (as far as I can tell) is the first English translation of the German official account of the Battle of Mons. I won’t repeat their own introduction. Nor will I repeat the excellent forward written by Dr Jack Sheldon other than to cite this pertinent quote.

“Robert Dunlop and Holger Puttkammer have done the historiography of the war a great favour by making Mons available for the first time in English….. The only way to dispel ignorance, and to move historical enquiry forward, is to exploit all available information. Mons is the best account we shall ever have from the German perspective; it deserves a wide audience.”

Read in the context of existing knowledge and accounts of the battle, or even as the reader’s first exposure to the battle, this account is riveting. It tells a story of manoeuvre, of the fog of war, and of the application of a tactical doctrine with which the German army had not been credited by English sources. It tells the story of the German general staff at work in a way that has not been readily available before.

The text is accompanied by a number of maps which make interpretation that much easier. Included are copies of original German maps, and here lies my only criticism of the publication: the map originals may have of  a much larger for format, but reproduced here in A5 format they are small and at times I had difficulty reading them. This is a small matter when put into the context of the availability of such a rich account of the battle, one that provides balance to what otherwise would be a barren historiography.

For the casual English speaking student of the events of 1914 this book is a great read, for the serious student of those events it is essential reading. I look forward to their next translation and publication venture.

‘The Battle of Mons, The Official German Account’, translated by Robert Dunlop and Holger Puttkammer, published by Robert Dunlop, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9932046-0-9

2 comments:

  1. Robin, completely agree on all accounts. I was raised (a decade later than you) under the same teachings here in Canada.

    I was struck by the difference of "feeling" that comes through the pages compared to what I had always assumed. And I found it oddly refreshing to read about various battle sites with not a word of the Kings Own Borderers etc - couldn't put it down until I hit the last page then, I read it again :)

    Shawn

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  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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