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The Battle of Guise, August 1914

The successful Battle of Guise, fought by the French Fifth Army, among many misunderstandings with their Allies and between their own commanders, was an essential prelude to the Battle of the Marne, on which the fortunes of the First World War so largely turned. By John Terraine.

As soon as the main armies of France and Germany met in 1914, the distinctive qualities of twentieth-century warfare asserted themselves: the dominance of the mechanical element, at that period expressed through the use of the most highly-developed railway systems in the world, with the addition of motor transport, and the introduction of the aeroplane; and the ascendancy of fire-power, which has reached its logical conclusion in nuclear fission, but in 1914 took the forms of massed artillery, with emphasis on the heavy calibres, and the virtual substitution of the automatic weapon, the machine gun, for the infantryman’s individual weapons, the rifle and bayonet.

The study of the craft of war, however, despite the ample warnings given by the American Civil War fifty years earlier, the Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War, had not only failed to take into account the probable effects of the astonishing material progress in every industrial country, but had deliberately turned its attention to the models of a too-distant past.

Obsessed by the superficial lessons of the Franco-Prussian War, with its sensational results, both France and Germany had permitted themselves to dwell upon mystical factors as the secret of War itself: the search for an infallible formula had taken the German General Staff as far back as Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in 216 BC, and the French to the dangerous example of Napoleon I.

Paradoxically, this very stress upon mystical elements ended by giving to the First World War that brutal, spirit-crushing quality by which it will always be remembered.

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