By Simon J House
The story of the ‘Lost Opportunity’, afforded to the French Armies in August 1914 and squandered, had its origins in a ‘Moment of Madness’ – or more properly a ‘Moment IN Madness’. For I was researching in the Reading Rooms of the Imperial War Museum when I came across the evidence that led to this book; and the Reading Rooms were then in the old Chapel of the Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam as it is now known.
I was researching the French Army of 1914 – a project that I had set myself on my early retirement from British Telecom, starting with the arduous task of making my own translation of the French Official History. I had just finished a section on a virtually unknown battle, fought in the famous ‘impenetrable Ardennes’ on 22 August 1914: it was another French disaster, with (according to French and English sources) gallant young French soldiers in their red trousered uniform throwing themselves upon Germans lying in wait in the forests behind barbed wire, protecting trenches from which German machine guns spat death.
My ‘Moment in Madness’ came when I looked up from my desk and my eye caught sight of a series of large, leather-bound books opposite. They were the volumes of the German Official History, and it occurred to me in that instant to take volume one, translate it, and find out what the Germans had said about the same battle. It was, of course, very different.
Where the French saw a trap with Germans lying in wait behind prepared defences, the Germans saw a very dangerous scenario in which they had been taken by surprise by the timing and direction of the French attack, whilst engaged in a straight-forward day of marching.
Where the French (apparently) saw in front of them barbed wire, trenches and machine guns, the Germans saw their outnumbered forces turning and throwing themselves into desperate combat, from which they emerged victorious but shaken by their own horrendous casualties.
It was, for me, a revelation. All the histories that I had so far read had told the story of the Battle of the Ardennes exclusively from the point of view of the French. What a Frenchman thought that he had seen, or experienced, that day had gone down on paper and become ‘fact’. The truth, clearly, was something else again…
I resolved then and there to get to the bottom of these obvious differences between the two sides’ accounts of the Battle of the Ardennes, to produce a new, balanced account, and to try to explain not only what had really happened, but also why it had happened that way.
I hope that you will enjoy the fruits of my labours.
Lost Opportunity. The Battle of the Ardennes. 22 August 1914 is available to pre-order from Helion & Company Ltd here.