This multi-volume series in six parts is the first English-language translation of Der Weltkrieg, the German official history of the First World War. Originally produced between 1925 and 1944 using classified archival records that were destroyed in the aftermath of the Second World War, Der Weltkrieg is the inside story of Germany's experience on the Western front. Recorded in the words of its official historians, this account is vital to the study of the war and official memory in Weimar and Nazi Germany. Although exciting new sources have been uncovered in former Soviet archives, this work remains the basis of future scholarship. It is essential reading for any scholar, graduate student, or enthusiast of the Great War. This volume, the second to be published, covers the outbreak of war in July-August 1914, the German invasion of Belgium, the Battles of the Frontiers, and the pursuit to the Marne in early September 1914. The first month of war was a critical period for the German army and, as the official history makes clear, the German war plan was a gamble that seemed to present the only solution to the riddle of the two-front war. But as the Moltke-Schlieffen Plan was gradually jettisoned through a combination of intentional command decisions and confused communications, Germany's hopes for a quick and victorious campaign evaporated.
ON 14 APRIL 1945, A BRITISH BOMBER DROPPED SEVERAL FIVE-TON BOMBS OVER the Bauhausberg in Potsdam. They pierced the roof of the German national archive's warehouse and fell through seven floors of documents, exploding in the basement. The combination of incendiary devices and high explosives melted the steel girders holding up the warehouse's immense collection of books and papers. As the posts fell in, the building collapsed. Germany's Great War records burned in the inferno.1
The quiet, tree-lined streets along the Teltow Canal had been home to the Reichsarchiv (Imperial German Archives) and its military historians since the autumn of 1919.2 In November of that year, officers from the Kriegsgeschichte des Großen Generalstabes (War History Section of the Great General Staff) transported the Reich's war documents away from the political instability of the capital.3 They shepherded boatload after boatload of records-piled high on open barges-down the canal towards the former Reichskriegsschule, an imposing rectangular building crowned by a distinctive tower and set next to an elegant mansion that would become the Reichsarchiv warehouse.4 In these two buildings, Reichsarchiv historians-civilian in rank but officers by trade-toiled away for more than two decades on an official history of Germany's war effort. By the spring of 1945 they had produced three series of books-two popular and one academic-and had assisted researchers working on hundreds of regimental histories and dozens of films.5 They guarded access to Germany's war records and actively moulded an official memory of the war that would remain consistent in the shifting intellectual and political currents of interwar Germany. The results of their labour comprise the most comprehensive history of Germany's military effort in the Great War and the only secondary source to be written with unfettered access to a long ago destroyed documentary record.
The April 1945 bombing raid destroyed the types of records that English-language historians are accustomed to using in their studies of the Great War. Nearly all gone are the war diaries, orders, operational plans, maps, ration cards, situation reports, and telegrams relating to the conflict. In the early 1990s it was revealed that some of the records housed in the historians' offices in the Reich-skriegsschule had in fact survived. In August 1945 they were confiscated by the Soviet government, some eventually ending up in Moscow, others remaining in Potsdam. All were inaccessible to Western historians until they were returned to the Bundesarchiv in 1990. While this bloc of some 3,000 files and 50 boxes is of great importance, it is important to note that they do not replace the papers lost in April 1945. They are the working files of Germany's official historians-that is, they are the files that were generated in the course of researching and writing the official histories.6 As Helmut Otto notes, they comprise "business documents, correspondence, research notes, studies, field reports, manuscript drafts, copies of corrected drafts, galley proofs, copies of documents from military and political authorities and agencies, excerpts from officer's personal war diaries and writings with notes from the editors, and newspaper clippings."7 As working papers they are partially digested history, closer to the raw materials than other secondary sources; but they are not a comprehensive primary archive, for they have already been subjected to various processes of selection and exclusion.8 Their greatest contribution has been to confirm the value of the official histories and the work of the Reichsarchiv historians.9
In its self-appointed aim, Der Weltkrieg is a generally accurate, academically rigorous, and straightforward account of military operations-at least in comparison with the other official histories of its day, which must serve as our basis of comparison. Reichsarchiv historians worked in teams focused on particular subject areas.10 They analyzed the available sources, identified gaps and contradictions, and solicited clarification from surviving participants. They worked with a precision and methodology that would be impossible for any single historian to duplicate. Their purposes, above all, were to provide lessons for future soldiers and to distil a historical meaning of the war for the German veterans who had actually fought in it. Both purposes required the pursuit of "truth" (an objective that no one would propose today, in this postmodern age), for it would have been counterproductive to intentionally mislead the reader. As a case in point, all information presented in the main text is taken directly from archival documents, whereas insights derived from personal diaries, memoirs, or correspondence with veterans are presented in footnotes, as are the sources for potentially contentious pieces of information. The reason for this approach was to red-flag parts of the narrative where personal bias and motivation might colour the analysis. Once satisfied that they "got the facts right," these teams produced first-draft monographs, which senior historians later revised and condensed into a synthesized final text.11
In this narrative, the facts would be allowed to speak for themselves. The foreword to the 1925 edition of the series' first volume reads as follows:
The work does not claim to present a picture of the operations and their consequences brought to perfection by criticism. Given the short amount of time which had elapsed since the events took place, this is not possible at present. These problems can only be solved when the personal papers of army commanders and combatants become available, when works of scholarship become more readily accessible, and when the archives of our erstwhile allies and adversaries are opened up. Therefore criticism had to be restrained, but all the clues necessary to evaluate the events have been presented here, with frankness and without reservation.12
If the intent of the Reichsarchiv was to create an impression of objectivity and frankness, then we must say that they succeeded-at least, that was the judgment of contemporary historians. "The military historians, who remain anonymous, deserve great credit for their splendid work," wrote Alexander Johnson in a 1931 book review for Journal of Modern History. "They present their story in simple, readable language that will sustain the interest of the lay reader and with a degree of fact-finding objectivity which commends itself to the military reader and student."13 This positive reading of Der Weltkrieg by a contemporary historian might surprise modern readers. Some recent writers have suggested that it was heavily influenced by the politics of National Socialism or that its language is too archaic and outmoded to be understood clearly today.14 But these criticisms are baseless. Nine of the series' fourteen volumes were written and published before 1933, and even a cursory reading of the remaining five volumes reveals that they can hardly be dismissed en masse as Nazi propaganda.15 As the newly available files from the KGFA suggest, much of the research for these volumes was completed well before the outbreak of the Second World War. Furthermore, the language is no more archaic or outmoded than Edmonds's history or that of other works of a similar vintage. As Hew Strachan points out: "The reluctance to use inter-war German histories on the grounds that they are tainted by Nazism is not only chronological nonsense . but also an absurd self-denying ordinance, given the destruction of the bulk of the German military archives in 1945. The Reichsarchiv historians saw material we can never see."16
Any examination of Germany's First World War must begin with the published work of these official historians-although it certainly cannot end there. Of the three sets of official histories that were produced between 1919 and 1945, the academic series (for lack of a better term) Der Weltkrieg, 1914 bis 1918 is the most comprehensive. The Weltkriegwerk, as it is also known, provides a narrative overview of the Great War spread across fourteen volumes published between 1925 and 1944.17 In form, Der Weltkrieg is typical of other national official histories of the period. It is a top-down military history of operations that rarely takes the narrative below the level of the infantry division. While focusing on German military operations on land, it presents summary chapters on naval and air operations, the economy, foreign policy, the political situation, and logistics. Like other official works of the period, it ignores the social and cultural history of the war. Its greatest strength and inherent flaw is its single-minded focus on military operations.
The material in this first volume of Germany's Western Front is taken from Volumes I and III of Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Die militärischen Operationen zu Land, authored anonymously by the Reichsarchiv historians and first published by E.S. Mittler und Sohn in 1925 and 1926.18 The current volume is the first of two parts on 1914, covering events from the outbreak of war to the eve of the Battle of the...