Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
3 July 2019
Review by Martin Samuels, Stourbridge, UK
Haig's Enemy: Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany's War on the Western Front
By Jonathan Boff
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2018. Pp. xxv, 373. ISBN 978–0–19–967046–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War I Print Version

The literature on the First World War has grown enormously over the past three decades, given a further recent boost by the centenary of the war. It thus comes as a surprise to realize that, apart from Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, no senior German commander has yet been the subject of a full English-language biography, though several memoirs appeared in English soon after the war.[1] Historian Jonathan Boff[2] (Univ. of Birmingham) has thus begun to fill a serious gap in the scholarship on World War I. Haig's Enemy centers specifically on Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, who, for much of the war, commanded the main German forces opposing the British on the Western Front.

In neither English nor German has any historian yet followed a single senior German general, and the formations he commanded, through the whole war as this book does. Doing so shows how the German military reacted to the stresses of conflict and the need for rapid and sometimes radical change. Many historians tend to assume that the German army of the first half of the twentieth century was highly skilled…. Here I challenge that interpretation and suggest that [it] had structural weaknesses and shortcomings which inhibited innovation, distorted decision-making, and eventually helped destroy it. Some of those weaknesses were unique to the military, but others carried over from broader German society. (3–4)

One of the main reasons for the dearth of studies of the German command experience in World War I is the paucity of archival sources. Numerous documents were seized by Soviet forces and re-emerged only after the Cold War, and many (though not all) war diaries and associated documents in the German Reichsarchiv (Imperial Archives) in Potsdam were destroyed by British incendiary bombs on the night of 14 April 1945. But Anglophone historians have in recent years begun to recognize the extent of surviving documents held in the Bavarian archives in Munich. These include records kept by both Rupprecht's own headquarters and the Prussian divisions under his command. Besides the published version of Rupprecht's personal diary,[3] Boff has examined the 4197 (!) pages of the original handwritten text, together with related personal correspondence (6–7). This diligence has paid off in Boff's ability to detect telling discrepancies between the published and manuscript versions of the diary with regard to, for instance, atrocities committed by German forces in 1914 (32), the first use of gas in 1915 (69), and Rupprecht's performance at Cambrai in 1917 (191). The author's conversance with sources "mostly new to an English-speaking audience" makes Haig's Enemy mandatory reading for all serious students of the Western Front.

Boff's broadly chronological narrative comprises five parts: I, "To War 1914," concerns the outbreak of war, Rupprecht's experience commanding of the Sixth Army during the Battle of the Frontiers, the Race to the Sea, and the end of the war of movement at the First Battle of Ypres (Oct. 1914). Part II, "The Anvil 1915–16," covers the early stages of trench warfare and the opening phases of the Battle of the Somme, ending in August 1916, when Rupprecht assumed command of an army group. Part III, "Holding the Line 1916–17," concludes the Somme and examines Rupprecht's command during the British offensives at Arras, Passchendaele, and Cambrai. Part IV, "Year of Defeats 1918," takes the story through the German spring offensives and the Hundred Days battles to Rupprecht's flight as the imperial regime collapsed. Part V, "Conclusions," briefly evaluates Rupprecht's performance as a commander and as a politician.

Boff wisely deviates at times from a rigidly chronological narrative. Many of the volume's short, readable chapters end with a section that steps back to place events into the broader context and identify the lessons learned by Rupprecht himself and various German armies more generally. This consistent shifting between the specifics of Rupprecht's experience and key developments across the Western Front as a whole gives the book an appealing rhythm and sense of variety.

Besides its real strengths, however, the book also has its weaknesses. First, even though Rupprecht commanded the main German forces facing Douglas Haig and the British Expeditionary Force through much of the war, can he be taken as representative of the army's officers? While he certainly took his military career seriously, his position as heir to the Bavarian throne smoothed his path up through the ranks; but Boff does not comment on the crown prince's promotion to Generalmajor at age thirty-one (the median was fifty-three)[4] and to Generaloberst[5] at age forty-four (14–15). Rupprecht may have been a good soldier, but not that good!

Second, Rupprecht's diary and personal papers naturally present him in an overly positive light. For example, he often complains that the Oberste Heeresleitung (Army Supreme Command) and his subordinate army commanders issued orders that were too detailed and inconsistent with the principles of delegation that in theory underpinned the German command system (e.g., 167), but never admits to having strayed over that line himself (e.g., 169).

Third, the book's inevitable focus on the Western Front distorts our understanding of the experience and development of the German Army. The Reichswehr's extensive postwar analyses drew many vital lessons from its operations on the Eastern and Italian Fronts, which were thought to foreshadow future conflicts; this comes as no surprise, since the new commander in chief, Hans von Seeckt, served in the East throughout the war.[6]

My most significant reservation, however, concerns Boff's underlying thesis that the German Army was not as good as many historians (myself included) have maintained (290–91).

The German army's approach to command was not, as the myth would have it, universally pragmatic and decentralized, with authority consistently delegated to the man in the best position to give the orders required. Instead, decision-making power shifted up and down the command hierarchy in a highly contingent manner, driven primarily by … force of personalities. Other factors, such as internal politics within the clique-ridden German officer corps, were also at work…. In the German army, therefore, rational modern efficiency coexisted with patronage structures that Frederick the Great would have recognized. It was simultaneously capable of disinterested meritocracy and personal intrigue. Human tensions within the officer corps introduced an element of uncertainty and instability to its processes. (260–61)

This helpfully reinforces the picture David Zabecki[7] has painted of Ludendorff's nervous meddling and side-lining of commanders in favor of staff officers during the crises of 1918 (258–59).

However, Boff sometimes reads more into the evidence than it can support. He claims, for example, that the inquest into the disaster that befell the German defense during the opening phase of the Battle of Arras (Apr. 1917) was "immediately prejudiced," and that "most of the after-action reports … took their cue" and reported only what their authors thought the Supreme Command wished to hear, never suggesting that the German army's doctrine was faulty or that the British "might actually have planned and executed a sophisticated combined arms attack rather well" (159–61). But a few pages later, Boff writes that the British

could be quite effective on the first day of an offensive but became hesitant and unsure when asked to go off-script…. [German doctrine,] when properly used, was sufficient to contain and ultimately defeat British attacks….. The Germans proved quicker to learn and adapt than the British [and,] when the Germans began to defend more skilfully in depth, … the British were lost once more. (166)

This is hardly evidence that the learning process was fundamentally flawed. Similarly, in his assessment of Passchendaele, Boff faults the German Army for seeking a tactical solution to the operational challenge presented by Sir Hubert Plumer's "bite and hold" tactics (179–82), yet later comments that these were themselves a tactical approach that could not secure an operational decision (188–89).

The book itself is well turned out, offering eleven clear photographs in the body of the text and thirteen excellent maps, though the latter are unfortunately never cited in the relevant chapters. There are plentiful endnotes with page references, and a full bibliography.

Jonathan Boff's well written, novel, and engrossing study of the course of the war on the Western Front, if not the last word on the subject, makes an invaluable contribution to the existing literature. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the strategic aspects of the First World War and the operational and tactical development of the German Army.

[1] E.g., Erich von Falkenhayn, General Headquarters 1914–1916 and Its Critical Decisions (London: Hutchinson, 1920); Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life, trans. F.A. Holt (London: Cassell, 1920); Erich Ludendorff, My War Memories: 1914–1918, 2 vols. (London: Hutchinson, 1919); and Crown Prince William, My War Experiences (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1922).

[2] His previous work includes Winning and Losing on the Western Front: The British Third Army and the Defeat of Germany in 1918 (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 2012).

[3] Mein Kriegstagebuch, 3 vols., ed. E. von Frauenholz (Berlin: Mittler, 1929).

[4] See Daniel J. Hughes, The King's Finest: A Social and Bureaucratic Profile of Prussia's General Officers, 1871–1914 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1987) 106–7.

[5] German "generalmajor" and "generaloberst" correspond to American "major general" (two stars) and "general" (four stars).

[6] See James S. Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform (Lawrence: U Pr of Kansas, 1992) 8.

[7] The German 1918 Offensives: A Case Study in the Operational Level of War (NY: Routledge, 2006).

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