The Kaiser’s Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany during the Machine Age, 1870-1918 by Eric Dorn Brose

Brose, Eric Dorn. The Kaiser’s Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany during
            The Machine Age, 1870-1918. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Eric Dorn Brose focuses all his energy in The Kaiser’s Army on the feuding between cavalry, infantry, and artillery. The fight was over the “tactical and technological lessons.” (p. 4) Real men apparently, did not need technologically advanced weapons to win, according to the traditionalists of Germany. Brose lists the finer points, and not so fine points, of the turmoil during the Machine Age where the ofttimes bizarre leadership of William II shadowed the doomed-to-failure Schlieffen Plan. Brose’s focus is the years between 1870-1914. A barrage of new weapons meant changes, and German, as Brose shows, does not do change well. Brose takes the reader through magazine rifles, the tactic changing smokeless gunpowder, American Hiram Maxim’s machine gun, each upgrade of the cannon, including cannons with rapid fire, and even airships and airplanes.

Dr. Eric Brose is no stranger to technologically inclined arguments. A Professor of History and Politics at Drexal University, Brose has written these books as well, The Politics of Technological Change in Prussia: Out of the Shadows of Antiquity, 1809-1848, and German History, 1789-1871: From the Holy Roman Empire to the Bismarckian Reich. The Kaiser’s Army shows how the German aristocratic state was being pushed slowly, but with ever-increasing pressure from the middle class. The army was no longer an aristocratic playground.

Readers will be pleased to discover the extensive notes by chapter at the end of the book that the author takes great time explaining why he chose the sources, and a bibliography that teems with all the notables. Primary sources from Kurt von Bülow, Erick von Ludendorff, Hans Ritter, Alfred con Schlieffen, and Alfred von Tirpitz are just a handful listed. The secondary sources outnumber the primaries but do include ones like Holger H. Herwig, and the always controversial Fritz Fischer. Three of Brose’s own works made the cut as well.

The 1870s saw Germany’s army as a powerful unit, routing European forces who dared come against them. United States man, Alfred Mahan, may have wanted their fleet based on that of England’s Royal Navy, but it was Germany’s impressive army that led Emory Upton to write The Armies of Europe & Asia. Upton believed, above all else, that the United States would do well to mirror Germany’s standing professional army.

Brose immediately begins by showing the weak internal links with the system. The heyday of the cavalry had come and gone, they just didn’t realize it yet. Rifled steel cannons and infantry rifles that were being produced in large quantities were changing field tactics. The slaughter of over 300 men and 400 forces during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 should have shown the cavalry that perhaps modern warfare held no place for mounted horse troops. However, even though they were nothing more than glorified, meat shields buying time for the Second Army to engage, it mattered not. The prince found willing supporters of cavalry officers to begin revamping the program. They made the cavalry the heroes, the reason the battle was won. They “believed that the Franco-Prussian War had demonstrated the continuing effectiveness of cavalry in modern warfare.” (p. 10) It could only be assumed that the 379 dead horsemen might have other thoughts on the matter. Brose will continue to focus the struggle between traditionalists and the new blood coming up in the ranks, who were more than ready to use technology. There were some men, like Count Alfred von Waldersee, who believed “If a war comes, as I fear it will the cavalry will be quickly torn up.” (p.13) Yet it seemed Germany was deaf to any voice of reason. German traditionalists considered anything less than a full out charge unmanly and demoralizing to troops.

Brose explains how political tensions and class distinctions separated artillery further from the other army branches. Middle-class men, or the bourgeois, had no hope of rising to officer status of Guard Corp or cavalry, artillery was the only option. It was not until Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck rolled out political compromises after Königgräthat that middle class was able to start moving up, eventually co-mingling with the lofty blue-bloods.

Brose spends a considerable amount of time on “The Plans of Schlieffen.” The plans, of course, were always being modified, and never seem to be exactly what Schlieffen would deem successful. For years Waldersee and Schlieffen’s plan evolved numerous times. Originally, “smashing through” enemy lines were preferred, which required heavy artillery, but he soon changed to the concept of “running around.” (p. 80) This method required lighter and less advanced weaponry. This change led to arguments galore on which weapons to choose, getting the green light for production, and never forget the extensive testing required. Only the traditionalists believed the practice field tests for maneuvers and weapons, which occur quite frequently, and Brose covers the minutiae with a never-ending supply of ink, would actually do any good in real war situations. One of the largest game changers for Schlieffen occurred when he found out that the previous relationship with Britain had become rocky. It is then he decided to completely avoid Belgium and attack between Epinal and Verdun. By July 1903, Brose explains that “Schlieffen was somewhat more attuned to the Belgium problem than previous historians have assumed.” (p. 82) It is not hard to agree with Brose’s assessment since in 1902 Britain had negotiated an alliance with Japan. Later, Britain and France would come to terms. Amazingly, and even with his knowledge and how “attuned” he was, Schlieffen threw his earlier caution aside with Belgium, downshifted back to first gear, going with the original Belgium plans.

One of the more interesting and enlightening chapters in Brose’s book is titled “Past and Present Collide.” Brose does well showing the give and take the push and pull, of the technophobes and technophiles. Brose sums this phase up nicely with “The battle of words now began in earnest.” (p. 89) Schlichting’s creation had altered little, even after the ascension of the highly unpredictable William II, but “Fourteen years of traditionalist grumbling and sniping, conservative drill-field practices, and royal preference for massed company columns advancing with drums and bugles at maneuvers had altered Schlichting’s creation beyond recognition.: (p. 88)

Field cannons and machine guns were a much-debated issue in the earliest part of the twentieth century. Machine guns considered just another “new implement.” (p. 96) Both weapons made getting into position a timely affair, however, one cannot overlook that Hiram Maxim’s gunshot 600 bullets per minute, but for 1884, it is extraordinary. William II thought that since the British cavalry and their mounted infantry had machine guns then so should Germany. This led to four years of practice maneuvers in 1903 trying the “impediment” in a series of mock battles.

It does not take one long to realize that Brose has written The Kaiser’s Army with the intention of emphasizing the bungling side of things. Brose completely believes that the Schlieffen Plan was sound. Brose even ends by adding “That they failed was no fault of the operational plans, but rather a plethora of prewar technological decisions and tactical preferences that impaired the implementation of these operations.” (p. 240) When a historian uses the words “no fault” it should send up a red flag. Brose should have left off the last two chapters instead of half-heartedly exploring World War I. In such few words Brose manages to reiterate the inadequacies of the developments of German’s military technological journey and equate that to the loss of WWI. This book, even with the finger pointing toward incompetence, would have been more impactful had he included some reference of the other countries first few months of 1914. Had he done a comparison of losses, the German army would not have seemed the hot mess Brose portrays them to be. Germany was ground down by her opponents, eventually losing to a greater power. However, would different “prewar technological decisions and tactical preferences” have changed the final outcome? (p. 240) Would Germany have still lost 2.1 million in military deaths? This is a case where the author might have considered the “what-if” game. What is Germany had chosen this weapon over that one? Would France have then suffered even heavier losses? Would the war have ended sooner? Or would difference choices have caused the war to last even longer, causing even greater harm?

If one forgets the work that Brose included for the years 1914-1918, then this book will provide the reader with quite a timeline of German’s technological advances, and retreats. The debates over new weaponry that encased the cavalry, infantry, and the artillery in near tornadic winds for years, though tedious at times through no fault of the authors, is informative indeed.

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