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A useful but limited introduction to a key WWI battle

Tannenberg 1914 - John Sweetman

Tannenberg is unique among the battles of the First World War.  In a conflict characterized by inconclusive trench warfare, Tannenberg was a decisive battle of mobility, one that shaped the course of the entire war on the Eastern Front.  Yet Tannenberg is all too often treated as an afterthought, overshadowed by the simultaneous battles taking place in France.  In this respect, John Sweetman’s book is a valuable addition to the literature on the First World War.  An entry in the ‘Cassell’s Fields of Battle’ series, Sweetman offers a narrative of the battle that focuses on its operational elements, describing the movement of units in southern Prussia in August and September 1914.  To set the battle in context, he broadens his focus beyond the battle itself to encompass the entire campaign that was fought there, showing how the Germans and Russians came to that point and what followed after the Germans’ decisive victory.

 

The scope of this book, along with the generous supply of maps and photographs offered, makes it a good starting point for a reader looking for an introduction to the conflict. Yet a more knowledgeable student of the conflict might find Sweetman’s book lacking. The author spends far too many pages in his short book setting up the broader context of the battle, including a chapter on the previous battle of Tannenberg in 1415 and the diplomatic prehistory of the war. This space could have been better spent examining the tactical aspects of the battle for their contribution to the German victory.  Moreover, his concluding analysis is incomplete, focusing more on the Russian failures than on what the Germans did right, or on why other factors played a less significant role. These deficiencies make this book useful primarily as an introduction to the conflict, as readers seeking a more detailed analysis of the conflict would be better served by reading Dennis Showalter’s superior Tannenberg: Clash of Empires instead.