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Book Review - Lost Opportunity

6 October 2021

The Battle of the Ardennes 22 August 1914

Cover of Lost Opportunity

By Simon J House

Helion, Solihull, 2017. 252pp.

Reviewed by Brigadier Chris Roberts AM, CSC (Retd)

This outstanding book delivers on several fronts and is a model of a campaign study. With a clear and easy to read style, Simon House presents an analysis of a crucial but rarely studied series of encounter battles in the opening campaign on the Western Front. He covers what occurred from both the German and French sides, discusses why and how events transpired, and analyses the reasons for success and failure. A separate book of 60 coloured maps (referenced in the margin opposite the appropriate text) accompanies the narratives, providing a succinct and progressive understanding of events. Unlike many historians, House addresses the underlying causes for success and failure: the political, bureaucratic, and military issues in both countries in the decades preceding the outbreak of war in 1914.

This book is the author's doctorate study.  In preparing it, he consulted French primary and secondary sources, remaining German primary sources, together with regimental histories and other studies. By analysing the battles from both sides House presents a thoroughly convincing argument that shreds several myths that have been expounded by historians for a century. 

Lost Opportunity is presented in three parts. Part One is an operational study of the opening moves of the French Third and Fourth Armies and the Imperial German Fourth and Fifth Armies during the middle weeks of August 1914.  The narrative moves from the operational to the tactical levels as the respective corps and infantry divisions advanced and collided in a series of encounter battles in the Ardennes; forming part of the bloody Battles of the Frontiers. House shows both how the opportunities for French success evolved as gaps occurred in the German front, and how a decision by the commander of the German Fourth Army partially remedied the situation and influenced the outcome of the Ardennes battle. 

Part Two discusses in detail two key encounter battles, Neufcheau and Maissin-Anloy.  Here, House argues the French missed two opportunities to seriously disrupt the German march forward into France; in both battles the French achieved a degree of success which was not exploited. This Part concludes with a discussion of other encounters, including two devastating French defeats at Bertrix and Rossignal, which resulted in the destruction of two French divisions.  House analyses what went right and what went wrong on both sides, and shows that the much touted offensive a outrance against the dominance of German machine guns - which historians so readily attribute as the principal reason for the French defeats during the Battle of the Frontiers - is a myth (at least as far the Battle of the Ardennes is concerned).  House shows that the causes for French failure and German success were much more deep rooted.

Part Three is the tour de force of the book: an analysis of the underlying pre-war preparations that contributed to French failure and German success. It is here that House underpins his case by shedding new light on the fundamental differences between the French and German approaches to preparing for war prior to 1914.  He provides insights into how these contributed to success and failure on both sides, and along the way he dismantles some long held and cherished myths regularly repeated by respected historians up to the present day. What is more, he relates his analysis to aspects of the operations and battles discussed in the first two Parts of the book.

Unlike most historians, House opens Part Three with the political influences in both countries and their effect on the development of each army and their preparations for war.  The differences were stark. Most senior officers in modern democracies would feel affinity for the political and bureaucratic interference that bedeviled the French Army during the first decade of the 20th Century.  This is followed by a sound consideration of the opposing doctrines. Here House shatters the long held view of the offensive a outrance as a contributing factor to the early French defeats, highlighting how Grandmaison's views have been distorted by historians, that his ideas were introduced too late for them to become embedded in the French Army, and that the French and German doctrines at the tactical level were remarkably similar. Within the French Army, however, there was confusion in the application of doctrine on the battlefield.

Going hand in hand with doctrine, is the training that delivers an effective combat force for operations. Here the disparity between the French and Germans was most marked, especially at command and leadership levels. House does an excellent job in analysing the two systems from top to bottom, and identifying the reasons why one army was effective and the other deficient at divisional and corps level operations. Even more interesting, however, is his consideration of the political implementation of the 1913 Three Year Law. House highlights its effect on the standard of training in the French active divisions in 1914, and their performance in the opening battles vis a vis the better trained reserve formations.

Finally, the reader is treated to a discussion about the armaments of the two forces. Again a few myths are exposed, especially the lack of heavy howitzers in the French field army; in the Ardennes the French had more than the Germans, but it was the manner in which they were deployed which made the difference. House confirms the view that, unlike the British, the Germans were late in adopting the machine-gun into their infantry regiments, with one reserve regiment in these encounter battles having none. House wraps up this superb book with a fine conclusion drawing the key treads together.

What makes Lost Opportunity so compelling is that House presents the campaign from the perspective of each belligerent, giving equal weight to both. Further, he does not accept primary sources at face value, but validates them with other documents and accounts. Hence we gain a much clearer and accurate picture of what occurred, which contributes to dispelling certain long held myths. Rather than seeking scapegoats, House strives to understand the complexities of the nature of the actions involved, the inter-relation and effect of each to the other, and the underlying causes for failure and success. Overall his analysis and criticisms are balanced and fair. At odds with this objectivity is his criticism of the failure of some French tactical commanders' to accurately determine the strength of the enemy they faced on the other side of the firing line.  Soldier-scholars with combat experience would be more understanding of these difficulties, and the lack of clairvoyance in battle. Nevertheless, House gives considerable attention to failures of reconnaissance and intelligence on both sides, and the impact these had on command decisions and outcomes.

In summary, Lost Opportunity:The Battle of the Ardennes, 22 August 1914 is a meticulously researched and thoughtful analysis of a generally misunderstood battle.  Along with Selwell Tyng's The Campaign of the Marne, it is one of the best campaign studies I have read. One hopes that House will do the same with the Battle of Lorraine fought in August 1914. Serving officers of all ranks would benefit from reading this book, as would those with an interest in the opening campaign on the Western Front.  Highly recommended.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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