Monday, 2 September 2013

The Verdun Project : “German Strategy and the Path to Verdun” by Robert Foley

German Strategy and the Path to Verdun” is a clear, well-presented study by Robert Foley of the strategic options facing Erich von Falkenhayn, as German Staff Chief, during 1915 and 1916. Dr Foley’s book culminates in the battle of Verdun, but the greater part of his work examines the competing strategic theories and demands on the German High Command which led to the decision to launch the Verdun offensive and prosecute that offensive in a unique manner.

I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in obtaining a greater insight into German strategic theory in the First World War, Falkenhayn and his command objectives and the battle Verdun in particular.

The first part of Dr Foley’s book is an intricate and detailed study of different and competing themes within German military and strategic thought in the period between 1870 and 1914. The section focuses on strategic doctrine and military academic studies. The competing strategic doctrines of Exterminationskrieg (war of extermination), Vernichtungsstrategie (strategy of decisive victories) and Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of attrition) are clearly compared and distinguished. Foley’s argument is, very broadly, that during the 1870 to 1914 period the general tenant of German strategic thought was to seek a war of decisive victories, mirroring the campaign of 1870, and with recognition of the wars of Napoleon as their lodestone. The aim was to achieve “the war’s decision in a few mighty strokes; a peace in which the defenceless enemy was forced to accept the conditions of the victory without demur” (page 41). The apex of this strategy was represented in the Schilieffen Plan, the German strategic manoeuvre used in the event of a war with France. Decisive, crushing and dramatic, Vernichtungsstrategie was a strategic vision well suited to the late 19th century themes of nationalism and struggles between nations.

The second part of the book deals with the evolution of the competing German strategic theories in the light of the Russo-Japanese War and the experiences of the opening months of the First World War. The transition in the German high command from von Moltke the Younger to Falkenhayn is covered, together with a detailed examination of Falkenhayn’s strategic vision of war by attrition in the context of Ermattungsstrategie. I found this the most interesting section of the book, and a very subtle evaluation of Falkenhayn’s merits as a supreme commander. Essentially, Falkenhayn’s strategic objective was, Foley argues, based around convincing one of the major Entente powers (France, Britain or Russia) to accept in 1915 that the price of continuing the First World War was too great to pay. This led, in turn, to a focus on the Western Front as the place most likely to achieve that strategic objective (though defeating France and thereby knocking “Britain’s best sword [France] out of its hand”; page 187). This strategy would be complemented by a continued vigilance against Russia on the Eastern Front, together with a determination to achieve a diplomatic resolution through an armistice or capitulation of one of the Entente Powers. This part of the book identifies the complexity of German strategic thought in 1915, and also indicates the seeds of its own failure in 1916.

The third section of the book (from page 181) covers the offensive around Verdun. Foley places Verdun very firmly as the culmination of Falkenhayn’s strategic journey. From the inception of the battle, the Verblutung (or “bleeding to death”) of the French Army was Falkenhayn’s aim. Although the existence, or otherwise, of the Verblutung as a strategy has been vigorously debated (not least in German military and academic circles between the Word Wars), Foley makes a very convincing argument that the Verblutung was Falkenhayn’s aim at Verdun from the start. The methodology is chilling: “During an attack from the north and the east, the [French] positions will soon be so diminished that not even a mouse can live in them” (page 190). Verdun was chosen as a location on the Western Front which the French would defend vigorously. Falkenhayn made his decision to cite the battle at Verdun with considerable insight, with the French high command seeing the city as too important to cede to the Germans irrespective of the appalling casualties suffered.

Reading “German Strategy and the Path to Verdun” alongside Ian Ousby’s “The Road to Verdun” (which gives the French nationalist and strategic objectives for the battle, and which I reviewed in January HERE) provides almost all the answers as to why Verdun became such a titanic and horrific battle.

The fourth and final part of the book deals with the aftermath of Verdun, the failure of Falkenhayn’s strategy and the abandonment of Ermattungsstrategie. Above all, Falkenhayn was unable to discern that the First World War was not merely a struggle of nations in the context of the Napoleonic Wars or the Franco-Prussian War. It had become an almost total war, in which whole populations and industries would be harnessed as never before in a struggle to hold on at all costs, demanding previously unimaginable sacrifices from the combatants concerned. That transition in the nature of the First World War made it impossible for any Entente Power to even contemplate coming to terms with Germany in 1916, thereby condemning Falkenhayn’s strategy to failure.

Coupled with this fundamental transition in the nature of warfare, was the inability of the German High Command to achieve a consistent tactical solution at Verdun to breakthrough the French defensive positions.

For any wargamer interested in the origins of the battle of Verdun battle, Dr Foley’s book is excellent. It is written in a clear style, with helpful summaries at the end of each chapter. Although the themes are complex and sometimes dense, I sensed that Dr Foley appreciated this and was determined to write in a style which reduces that complexity to a manageable narrative. As I suggested before, the book really comes into its own when coupled with other books on Verdun, particularly Ian Ousby’s “The Road to Verdun” which focuses on the French experience of the battle.

There is not a great deal in “German Strategy and the Path to Verdun” about the nature of the fighting in the battle itself. But this is not an operational history. This, above all, is a book about the strategy of fighting a war, and how that strategy evolves and, in this case, can fail.

For a wargamer interested in the Great War, strategic thought, or the battle of Verdun – 5 out of 5 star shells, and highly recommended. For other wargamers, I’d say it’s a very worthwhile read – so 4 out of 5 star shells.


  1. Thanks for the review and for sharing your comments. Looks an interesting work and a perfect complement to the book froim the French side (like the Hammond's and the Sheldon's for Cambrai)

  2. Benito, many thanks for dropping by! Absolutely right - the Ousby and Foley go together as well as Hammond and Sheldon for Cambrai. You know, there's a blog post in matching pairs of books for the same battle !!!

  3. Excellent review, Sidney! I have this in my bookshelf awaiting a holiday break but you make me quaver in my resolution!

  4. Excellent review, Sidney! I have this in my bookshelf awaiting a holiday break but you make me quaver in my resolution!

    1. Thanks Curt! You'll really enjoy the book, I think. A good one to take on holiday. Just plough through the first section as the rest is well worth it!


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