History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Month: December 2019

Saint Crispin’s Days – Adolf Hitler at the Front 1914


Preceding Article: Private Hitler joins the Bavarian Army …


The officers of RIR 16, front row middle Colonel List

In the first week of August, everywhere in Europe trains had begun to devour young men, their gear and rifles, and spit them out on the railway heads of their destinations, as per the schedules developed and pigeonholed years earlier. The Railway Department of the German General Staff coordinated the movements of over 11,000 trains during mobilization, each one of them consisting of 54 wagons. The Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine at Cologne, for example, was crossed by 2148 trains between August 2 and 18; about 134 trains a day, respectively, one every eleven minutes, day or night. The French Railway Department scheduled over 7,000 trains, on a slightly smaller network. It was about 3 am on September 21, that Adolf Hitler and his fellow recruits of Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 and their gear were loaded upon three trains and sent off westward. The first stop was Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein, whence Hitler sent a postcard to his landlords, the Popps. (16) On the next day, the train reached the Rhine, and Hitler saw the great German stream for the first time, as well as the Niederwald-Monument, the gigantic statue of Germania protecting the river and the country. He never forgot the day – as late as 1944 he recalled that:

“I saw the Rhine for the first time when I travelled to the Western Front with my regiment in 1914. I will never forget the feelings that abounded in me when I saw, for the first time, this river of German destiny. Just as moving were the sympathy and the hearty encouragement of the people living there, who surprised us with a completely unanticipated welcome. We were supplied with everything we could imagine. When we came to Aachen in the evening, I promised myself never to forget this day as long as I lived.”

(17)
On the road …

In the night to Thursday, October 22, the trains crossed the Belgian border, and arrived, via Liège and Brussels, at Lille in France by October 24. Private Hitler narrated the events of the last part of this journey and his first days at war in a letter to an acquaintance of his, Munich law student Erich Hepp, in so typical a frame of mind that it may appear here unabridged:

“Dear Herr Assessor Hepp,
I am glad that my last postcard reached you. Also, many warm thanks for your welcome letter. I should have written at greater length before, but shall now try to make up for it.
First of all, let me tell you at once, Herr Assessor, that on December 2nd I had the opportunity to acquire, thank God, more than enough experience. Our regiment was not, as we expected, held back in the reserve, but early in the morning of October 29 was thrown into battle, and ever since we have been in those fellows’ hairs with some interruptions, first as attackers and then as defenders.
After a really lovely journey down the Rhine we reached Lille on October 23. We could already see the effects of the war as we travelled through Belgium. We saw the conflagrations of war and heard its ferocious winds. As far as Douai our journey was reasonably safe and quiet. Then came shock after shock.
In some places the base artillery had been destroyed in spite of the strongest defence. We were now frequently coming upon blown up bridges and wrecked locomotives. Although the train kept going at a snail’s pace, we encountered more and more horrors – graves. Then in the distance we heard our heavy guns.
Towards evening we arrived at Lille, which was knocked about rather a lot in the suburbs. We got off the train and hung about around our stacked rifles, and shortly before midnight we were on the march, and at last we entered the town. It was an endless monotonous road left and right with miserable workmens’ dwellings and the countryside blackened with smoke. The pavements were poor and bad and dirty. There were no signs of any inhabitants, and there was no one in the streets after 9 pm except the military. We were almost in danger of our lives because the place was so full of guns and ammunition carts, and through them we eventually reached the Citadel, and this part of Lille is a bit better.
We spent the night in the courtyard of the stock exchange building. This pretentious building was not yet completed. We had to lie down with full packs, and were kept at the ready. It was very cold on the stone pavement and we could not sleep. The next day we changed our quarters, and this time we were in a very large glass building. There was no lack of fresh air, the iron framework was still standing, and the panes of glass had been smashed into millions of fragments in the German bombardment.
During the day something more was attempted. We inspected the town and most of all we admired the tremendous military equipment, and all of Lille lay open, the gigantic shapes of the town rolling before our astonished eyes. At night, there was singing, and for me it was the last time. On the third night, about 2 am, there was a sudden alarm, and about 3 am we marched away in full marching order from the assembly point.
No one knew for certain why we were marching, but in any case we regarded it as an exercise. It was rather a dark night, and we had hardly been marching for twenty minutes when we turned left and met two columns of cavalry and other troops, and the road was so blocked there was no room for us.
Then morning came. We were now a long way from Lille. The thunder of gunfire had grown a bit stronger. Our column moved forward like a giant snake. At 9 am we halted in the park of a country house. We had two hours’ rest and then moved on again, marching until 8 pm. We no longer moved as a regiment, but split up in companies, each man taking cover against enemy airplanes. At 9 pm we pitched camp, I couldn’t sleep. Four paces from my bundle of straw lay a dead horse. The animal was already half decayed.
Finally, a German howitzer battery immediately behind us kept sending two shells flying over our heads into the darkness of the night every quarter of an hour. They came whistling and hissing through the air, and then far in the distance there came two dull thuds. We all listened. None of us had ever heard that sound before.
While we were huddled close together, whispering softly and looking up at the stars in the heavens, a terrible racket broke out in the distance. At first it was a long way off and then the crackling came closer and closer, and the sound of single shells grew to a multitude, finally becoming a continuous roar. All of us felt the blood quickening in our veins. The English were making one of their night attacks. We waited a long time, uncertain what was happening. Then it grew quieter and at last the sound ceased altogether, except for our own batteries, which sent out their iron greetings to the night every quarter of an hour. In the morning we found a big shell hole. We had to brush ourselves up a bit, and about 10 am there was another alarm, and a quarter of an hour later we were on the march. After a long period of wandering about we reached a farm that had been shot to pieces and we camped there. I was on watch duty that night, and at about one o’clock we suddenly had another alarm, and we marched off at three o’clock in the morning.
We had just taken a bit of food, and we were waiting for our marching orders, when Major Count Zech rode up: “Tomorrow we are attacking the English!” he said. So it had come at last! We were all overjoyed, and after making the announcement, the Major went on foot to the head of the column. Early, around 6 am, we came to an inn. We were with another company and it was not till 7 am that we went to join the dance. We followed the road into a wood, and then we came out in correct marching order on a large meadow. In front of us were guns in partially dug trenches and behind these we took up our positions in big hollows scooped out of the earth and waited.
Soon the first lots of shrapnel came over, bursting in the woods and smashing up the trees as though they were brushwood. We looked on interestedly, without any real idea of danger. No one was afraid. Every man waited impatiently for the command: “Forward!” The whole thing was getting hotter and hotter. We heard that some of us had been wounded. Five or six men brown as clay were being led along from the left, and we all broke into a cheer: six Englishmen with a machine—gun! We shouted to our men marching proudly behind their prisoners. The rest of us just waited. We could scarcely see into the streaming, seething witches’ cauldron, which lay in front of us. At last there came the ringing command: “Forward!” We swarmed out of our positions and raced across the fields to a small farm. Shrapnel was bursting left and right of us, and the English bullets came whistling through the shrapnel, but we paid no attention to them.
For ten minutes we lay there, and then once again we were ordered to advance. I was right out in front, ahead of everyone in my platoon. Platoon leader Stöver was hit. Good God, I had barely any time to think, the fighting was beginning in earnest! Because we were out in the open, we had to advance quickly. The captain was at the head. The first of our men had begun to fall. The English had set up machine guns. We threw ourselves down and crawled slowly along a ditch. From time to time someone was hit, we could not go on, and the whole company was stuck there. We had to lift the men out of the ditch. We kept on crawling until the ditch came to an end, and then we were out in the open field again. We ran fifteen or twenty yards, and then we found a big pool of water.
One after another we splashed through it, took cover, and caught our breath. But it was no place for lying low. We dashed out again at full speed into a forest that lay about a hundred yards ahead of us. There, after a while, we all found each other. But the forest was beginning to look terribly thin.
At this time there was only a second sergeant in command, a big tall splendid fellow called Schmidt. We crawled on our bellies to the edge of the forest, while the shells came whistling and whining above us, tearing tree trunks and branches to shreds. Then the shells came down again on the edge of the forest, flinging up clouds of earth, stones, and roots, and enveloping everything in a disgusting, sickening yellow-green vapour. We can’t possibly lie here forever, we thought, and if we are going to be killed, it is better to die in the open.
Then the Major came up. Once more we advanced. I jumped up and ran as fast as I could across meadows and beet fields, jumping over trenches, hedgerows, and barbed-wire entanglements, and then I heard someone shouting ahead of me: “In here! Everyone in here!” There was a long trench in front of me, and in an instant I had jumped into it, and there were others in front of me, behind me, and left and right of me. Next to me were Württembergers, and under me were dead and wounded Englishmen. The Württembergers had stormed the trench before us. Now I knew why I had landed so softly when I jumped in.
About 250 yards to the left there were more English trenches; to the right, the road to Leceloire was still in our possession. An unending storm of iron came screaming over our trench. At last, at ten o’clock, our artillery opened up in this sector. One – two – three – five – and so it went on. Time and again a shell burst in the English trenches in front of us, and after bloody hand-to-hand fighting in some places; we threw them out of one trench after another. Most of them raised their hands above their heads. Anyone who refused to surrender was mown down. In this way we cleared trench after trench.
At last we reached the main highway. To the right and left of us there was a small forest, and we drove right into it. We threw them all out of this forest, and then we reached the place where the forest came to an end and the open road continued. On the left lay several farms, all occupied, and there was withering fire. Right in front of us men were falling. Our Major came up, quite fearless and smoking calmly, with his adjutant, Lieutenant Piloty.
The Major saw the situation at a glance and ordered us to assemble on both sides of the highway for an assault. We had lost our officers, and there were hardly any non-commissioned officers. So all of us, everyone who was still walking, went running back to get reinforcements. When I returned the second time with a handful of stray Württembergers, the Major was lying on the ground with his chest torn open, and there was a heap of corpses around him.
By this time the only remaining officer was his adjutant. We were absolutely furious. “Herr Leutnant, lead us against them!” we all shouted. So we advanced straight into the forest, fanning out to the left, because there was no way of advancing along the road. Four times we went forward and each time we were forced to retreat. In my company only one other man was left besides myself, and then he also fell. A shot tore off the
entire left sleeve of my tunic, but by a miracle I remained unharmed. Finally at 2 pm we advanced for the fifth time, and this time we were able to occupy the farm and the edge of the forest. At 5 pm we assembled and dug in a hundred yards from the road.
So we went fighting for three days in the same way, and on the third day the British were finally defeated. On the fourth evening we marched back to Werwick. Only then did we know how many men we had lost. In four days our regiment consisting of thirty-five hundred men was reduced to six hundred. In the entire regiment there remained only thirty officers. Four companies had to be disbanded. But we were all so proud of having defeated the British! Since that time we have been continually in the front line. I was proposed for the Iron Cross, the first time in Messines, then again at Wytschaete by Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt, who was our regimental commander. [FN1] Four other soldiers were proposed for the Iron Cross at the same time. Finally, on December 2, I received the medal.
My job now is to carry dispatches for the staff. As for the mud, things are a bit better here, but also more dangerous. In Wytschaete during the first day of attack three of us eight dispatch riders were killed, and one was badly wounded. The four survivors and the man who was wounded were cited for their distinguished conduct. While they were deciding which of us should be awarded the Iron Cross, four company commanders came to the dugout. That means that the four of us had to step out. We were standing some distance away
about five minutes later when a shell slammed into the dugout, wounding Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt and killing or wounding the rest of his staff. This was the most terrible moment of my life. We worshiped Lieutenant Colonel Engelhardt.
I am sorry; I will have to close now. The really important thing for me is to keep thinking about Germany. From eight in the morning to five in the afternoon, day after day, we are under heavy artillery fire. In time even the strongest nerves are shattered by it. I kept thinking about Munich, and there is not one man here who isn’t hoping that we shall soon finish off this rabble once and for all, make mincemeat of them, at whatever the cost.

The hope is that those of us who have the good fortune to see our homeland again will find it purer and less corrupted by foreign influence. The sacrifices and misery extracted daily from hundreds of thousands of peoples, the rivers of blood flowing every day against an international world of enemies will, we hope, result in smashing Germany’s external enemies and bring the destruction of our internal internationalism. That would be better than any territorial gains. As for Austria, the matter will come about as I already told you.
Once more I express my heartfelt gratitude and remain your devoted and grateful

ADOLF HITLER

(18)
A day in the trenches for 2nd Company

There is a second, slightly different translation of the letter here as a PDF if the reader likes to compare.


[FN1] Colonel List was killed on October 31st at Gheluvelt Castle. (19) Lieutenant Colonel Philip Engelhardt took over the regiment on November 12, for five days, before being wounded on November 17 in the accident narrated by Hitler above. (20)

Dispatch runners Ernst Schmidt (left) and Adolf Hitler (right), in the middle Sergeant Max Amann
Attack near Lille
Trench life
After the battle …

Given that Hitler’s war record and decorations played a huge part in later Nazi propaganda – giving the Austrian a sort of supernatural German identity – we should be looking at the matter right away. There was little literature available that specifically and critically examined the history of RIR 16 and Hitler’s role in it, which results to a degree from the paucity of the record, and the fact that post-1933 it was purged of everything that disagreed with the gospel of war hero Adolf Hitler.

Hitler sketch 1914

Most of the attention, pre-1933 and now, centred around Hitler’s decoration with prestigious Iron Cross First Class, which he was awarded on August 4, 1918. The properness of the Second Class decoration that he earned in December 1914 is not generally doubted, for it was awarded in the aftermath of the great battle of First Ypres, during which Hitler and his company were in the forward trenches. Likewise, neither is much cognizance allotted nor critique directed at his other citations – the Bavarian Military Cross 3rd Class with Swords, awarded on September 17, 1917, the Regimental Diploma for bravery, May 9, 1918, the Medal for the Wounded, May 18, 1918, and the Military Service Medal 3rd Class of August 25, 1918. (21) What did cause much ado about Hitler’s Iron Cross First Class in the early 1930s was not only that it figured prominently in the Nazi apotheoses of the Führer as a war hero, which of course awarded his critics opportunities for counterclaims, but that the decoration seemed to have been proposed and effected by the highest-ranking Jewish officer of the regiment, adjutant Lieutenant Hugo Gutmann, and, in the light of Hitler’s post-1919 anti-Semitism, that was, of course, most embarrassing.

Hitler painting of the Ruins of Messines, ca. 1915

We shall address the merits issue first. In the German presidential election campaign of 1932, in which Hitler challenged the incumbent Hindenburg – and lost – a direct advantage for Hindenburg was that his war record could not be doubted – except for the fact, naturally, that Germany had lost, but, as both Nazis and reactionaries agreed, this defeat had not been the aged field marshal’s fault nor of anyone else in the army but that of socialist and liberal politicians, the “November Criminals”. Since the Hindenburg campaign was in this enviable position, they started to direct their artillery, so to say, on the challenger’s military merits. Josef Stettner, a veteran of RIR 16, wrote in a 1932 article in the VOLKSFREUND (the “People’s Friend”), a Social Democratic newspaper in Braunschweig, that…

” … Hitler had worked out for himself how to get out of the line of fire on time. He had already managed to get a small post as regimental dispatch runner behind the front at the end of 1914. At first, he lay with the regimental staff in the underground vaults and basements of Fromelles. For months, the infantry companies that lay in reserve behind the front and pioneers [i.e. engineers respectively sappers] that had specially deployed for this task had to make the shelters of the regimental staff bomb-proof. While we had to lie in the wet trenches at the front line for seven or ten days without a break or while we stood up to our stomachs in the mud, Hitler lay on a warm, lice-free stretcher and had several metres of protective stone above his hero’s body.
But it did not take very long before the entire regimental staff set itself up even more comfortably in Fournes, approximately 10 kilometres behind the first line. There for more than a year the dispatch runners had a room of their own in a former Estaminet (small pub or café). Every one of us in the trench would have given his eye teeth to swap with the hero Hitler even just for eight days. … The front experience of Private Hitler consisted more in the consumption of artificial honey and tea than of the participation in any combat. He was separated from the actual combat zone by a zone some 10 kilometres deep. Thousands of family fathers would have filled Hitler’s post behind the front just as well as him: however, at the time Hitler did not display any sign that he felt driven towards military front-line action, as he is trying to tell the blinded German youth today. He did, as we front-line soldiers used to say at the time, ‘keep his position.'”

(22)
A typical rear area, near Lille, in the likes of which Hitler may have served …

The essence of Stettner’s argument was that Hitler was a dispatch runner at the regimental level, as opposed to the battalion or company level, and his duties rarely brought him face to face with actual enemy fire.

Runners Ernst Schmidt, Adolf Hitler and Karl Lippert

“Some worshippers of Hitler have pointed out now that the job of a dispatch runner was more dangerous than that of a soldier in the trenches. While the troops in the first line could calmly lie under cover, it is said in Hitler’s defence, the dispatch runners would have been much more exposed to enemy fire while on duty. However, I can accept that only for dispatch runners of companies or maybe also of battalions. In the worst-case scenario, the regimental dispatch runner had to go to the dugout of a battalion which still lay far behind the first line. And even in those cases, it was for the most part the dispatch runners of the battalion themselves who had to pick up the messages at the regimental headquarters, particularly when things were getting dangerous. All the duties of a regimental dispatch runner lay outside the dangerous zone of machine-gun fire.”

(23)
Aerial view of the Fromelles Sector

A bigger dent into the gospel of front-line hero Adolf Hitler than that caused by the relatively obscure Braunschweig newspaper might have ensued from an article in the weekend edition of the Hamburg Social Democratic newspaper ECHO DER WOCHE (“The Weekly Echo”) of March 1932, which resulted in Hitler’s bringing of a libel action against the paper. At court, the “great obstacle for the defence team of the ECHO DER WOCHE was that the paper had decided that in order to protect his safety it would not disclose the identity of the veteran who was the author of the bitter attack on Hitler’s war record.” (24) The article in question essentially argued, like Stettner had, that a regimental dispatch runner’s duty was not particularly hazardous and that Hitler had received his Iron Cross First Class for other reasons than bravery. Since the newspaper could not produce the writer, Hitler won the lawsuit by default and set out to establish the identity of the author. His thugs had no problem in identifying the writer as the former RIR 16 member Korbinian Rutz. Herr Rutz had entered the ranks of RIR 16 as a battalion dispatch runner with the 2nd Company on November 12, 1914, where he soon made the acquaintance of Hitler. Unlike Hitler, Rutz was steadily promoted and became a Lieutenant and commander of 1st Company on April 23, 1916. (25) In an open letter to the press on April 8, 1932, Rutz wrote:

Regimental HQ, Max Amann first row right …

“I entered the RIR 16 (List) as a private on November 12, 1914 with the 1st Reserve Detachment, and eventually became an officer and company leader. At that time Hitler was already an attendant with the regimental staff, and remained one until the end of the war.
Regimental orderlies had to fetch orders at the brigade post and return with the replies of the regimental staff. To transfer the regimental orders down to the battalion post was the job of the battalion attendants. The job of a regimental orderly demanded an apt and proper person, but particular courage was not required. …
The regimental staff always lived behind the front. In our position at Fromelles, for instance, our foremost lines were about 20 or 30 minutes west of the village, while the regimental staff resided at Fournes, a good hour east of it. They lived thus at least 11 hours distant from the front line. The regimental staff always resided in the best buildings, which had concrete basements and coverings. While the front line soldiers and officers had to hold out in the trenches under the most primitive of conditions, without even straw to lie on, the regimental orderlies slept on mattresses, had pillows and woollen blankets, and sleep galore. …
Attendants had an easier time to earn decorations than trench troops, for the officers were familiar with their faces, while the name or face of a simple front line fighter, who stoically endured toil and danger, was, at best, known to the company commander, but not the higher-ups. And while attendants and orderlies had a regular life and three square meals a day, the John Does of the front lines got warm food perhaps at midnight, or even later, if at all, amidst utter filth, live fire and the such. We often received our midday meals an hour or so past midnight.
Then Hitler was seriously wounded. I can tell you the truth about this. He lay in the palatial gardens of Fromelles, where the regimental staff was at that time. With a few comrades, he was taking a sun bath when a grenade exploded close by and wounded him. Not in action, mind, not on his post, he was hit, but on his having a siesta. … So Hitler has the Iron Cross, First Class. At the end, every regimental attendant received one. But a brave company comrade of mine, a simple man who spent four years at the front and was wounded twice, did not get it.”

(26)

But Rutz did not do himself a favour with the inaccuracies of his report – the sunbathing story, for example, was easily proved false, as was the promotion of the public notary’s simple house in Fournes to a concrete citadel – and the Nazis had easy revenge by retiring him from teaching after 1933. Rutz’ and Stettner’s criticism was later shared by the medical scribe Alexander Frey, who argued that Hitler remained a dispatch runner and avoided promotion for reasons of safety:

The Church of Wytschaete

“Without a doubt Hitler could have re-enlisted with a company and done trench duty with the goal of promotion. But he did not seem to have wanted that; there were certain positions, so treasured that if troops got hold of them, they would not want to give them up, as they had certain automatic advantages. In this case, there were better quarters and better food than infantrymen in the trenches had. I had to resist the urging of my company commander that I leave my post in the medical service (since I was not a doctor, I couldn’t go much farther in this particular field) and take part in an officer training course. I did not want to leave my field of work – probably for the same reasons that Hitler did not want to leave his. Measured against the dreadful hardship of trench duty, our posting was a small alleviation, combined with small comforts.”

(27)
The Runners

Yet there were other opinions, and since several of them came from officers, history has – everything else being equal – tended to reflect their views of Adolf Hitler as a soldier. At the Beer Hall Putsch Trial of 1924, the last commander of RIR 16, Lieutenant Colonel Maximilian von Baligand, testified as follows:

“It is not true that Hitler’s post with the regimental staff was a safe job. If all the purveyors of safe jobs in the army had evidenced Hitler’s courage, the trenches would not have developed a disliking of their superiors.”

(28)

First Lieutenant Friedrich Wiedemann, between January 1, 1916, and August 16, 1917, staff adjutant of RIR 16, wrote in his memoirs, published in 1964:

“One of the dispatch runners attached to the regimental staff was Adolf Hitler. I cannot remember the exact time I first noticed him, a private first class, which he was at that time, but he came under my direct command and hence I thought a good deal about him when attempting to determine on whom one could truly rely on.
Between Hitler and me, organization-wise, was only the regimental scribe and First Sergeant Max Amann, who later became General Manager of the NSDAP and Director of the Franz Eher Publishing House. … When I was dispatched to RIR 16 [on January 1, 1916] as the new regimental adjutant, the war of movement, in whose final phase the regiment had partaken in late 1914, had already been replaced by trench warfare. The regiment had its trenches south of Lille while the regimental staff resided in Fournes, in the house of the local notary public.
When the army communiqués reported “All Quiet on the Western Front”, our dispatch runners, together with the whole staff, had a relatively placid life. They were used for petty jobs or accompanied the commander or me on the regular inspections of the rampart. I well remembered Hitler from such occasions as a quiet man of somewhat unmilitary appearance, who, at first sight, was not different from his comrades. Only slowly did we get the impression that his interests were somewhat deeper than those of his comrades, most of whom came from Bavaria south of the Danube. But that by itself was not exceptional in our regiment. …
While our attendants had a quiet life in quiet times, this changed rapidly as soon as combat resumed. The telephone lines to the battalion posts and company leaders were usually shot up quickly, and the regimental commander’s orders could then only be transmitted via messenger. There was no choice – the enemy’s fire might be heavy or light – the runners had to leave the bunker and make it, through the fire, to the front line. Losses, and thus the rate of replacements among the runners, were therefore high.
On the other side, one found out quickly whom one could rely on. … Thus, we kept three or four of the most dependable men at the regimental post, whom we saved for the important jobs, under difficult circumstances. One of the men we could depend on was Hitler.
His later enemies have accused him of avoiding – shirking – front duty by being a dispatch runner and never having received the EK 1. Both charges are incorrect. As long as he was with the staff – that is, from the beginning until the end of the war — he has proven himself brave and reliable, and fully earned his EK I. I recall quite well how we discussed, in the aftermath of a bigger action, together with regimental scribe Max Amann whom to propose for the EK I. I opined that Hitler had earned this decoration since a long time already, and thus we put him on the list, albeit not in the top spot but at the bottom. This we did because the companies complained that we always put people on the regimental staff up front.
At this occasion Hitler did not receive the EK I. We had proposed ten soldiers, but were allowed only five medals. When I was transferred to another post, my successor as regimental adjutant, First Lieutenant (Reserve) Hugo Gutmann renewed the proposal, and this time Hitler received the Iron Cross First Class.”

(30)

The circumstances of the decoration are relatively clear. Eugen Tannhäuser, who had spoken with Gutmann about the matter, testified on August 4, 1961:

“Herr Gutmann was regimental adjutant of the List Regiment, wore the Iron Cross First Class himself, as well as the Bavarian Order of Military Merit, and I have seen with my own eyes the promotion diplomas, on account of exemplary courage, to Master Sergeant and later to Lieutenant, when he was especially mentioned in the army’s order of the day. He told me that Hitler was a soldier like any other soldier and rewarded himself neither through particular exploits nor attracted any negative attention. One time there was an important message to be forwarded to the front. The telephone lines had been shot up, and, to be on the safe side, Gutmann called upon two runners and gave them the message, hoping that at least one would make it to the trenches. He promised both the Iron Cross First Class as the reward of success. They both came through, but, as Gutmann told me, keeping the promise proved harder than making it. It took him two months to convince the division commander of the properness of decorating these two messengers, for it had been a deed that happened daily in battle.”

(31)

Lieutenant Colonel Emmerich von Godin, first Deputy and later Commander of RIR 16, wrote to the Commander of the 12th Brigade on July 31, 1918:

“Hitler is with the regiment since its inception and has made the best of impressions in all battles. As dispatch runner he was a paragon of composure and courage in static as well as mobile warfare and was always willing to transport messages no matter the difficulties or the danger to his life.
After a complete blackout of communications in a difficult situation it was Hitler’s untiring and selfless dedication to duty that ensured the delivery of important messages despite all adversities. Hitler has received the EK II for bravery in the Battle of Wytschaete on December 2, 1914. I consider Hitler completely deserving of the decoration of the EK I.”

(32)

Johann Raab, assigned to the regimental staff since December 1915 as a telephone operator, reported:

The sole picture of Hitler appearing in the official Regimental History – perhaps taken by Korbinian Rutz

“I was with the regimental staff of RIR 16 (List) at the same time when Hitler was a dispatch runner there. I well remember that he very often volunteered for missions that, except for him, would have gone to colleagues who were married. I can also remember how he got the EK I, since I received the EK II at the same time. Hitler delivered a message to the front when all other connections were broken or extinguished by enemy fire. His deed was particularly mentioned in a Regimental Order.”

(33)
Hitler and Schmidt in the 1930s

Intermission

In the discussion of the sensitive matter of Hitler in the First World War – given the prominence of the subject and the ongoing historical discussion – we may pause for a moment of reflection. As the author pointed out in the introduction of “The Little Drummer Boy”, we deal here with a young Hitler between his 25th and 30th year, at a time when he has not committed – as far as we know – any crimes. We shall not judge in hindsight when reporting the facts and the reasonable assumptions we make of the time and the deeds at hand.

In 2010, Thomas Weber – with whom the author has been in contact – published his major work “Hitler’s First War” [Oxford University Press 2010, ISBN 978-0-19-923320-5]. For the longest of times, little has been truly known about the military service of Adolf Hitler in the war except for the hagiography of Third Reich historians, his own (sparse) account in “Mein Kampf” and the publications of critical newspapers during the Weimar Republic, mostly by left-wing magazines, during the years of his ascendancy 1925 to 1933. After 1933, these stopped – naturally.

Before Weber, it has been more or less only Anton Joachimsthaler, who unearthed in his books “Korrektur einer Biographie”, Langen Müller 1989, 3-7766-1575-3 and the extended reissue “Hitler’s Weg begann in München 1913 -1923”, F.A. Herbig, München 2000, 3-7766-2155-9, valuable details on the subject.

Thomas Weber’s ample study took as its main angles a few of the exaggerations, hyperbole, even legends of Hitler in the field, which had largely been the result of the Nazi hagiography mentioned above; and concentrated on the military details and duties of the field as well as the subjects personality as it then displayed itself.

Near Fournes, Hitler first row left …

He has identified many points of interest very well – as the legend of Hitler being called – in most general histories – a corporal (or lance-corporal), implying he had men under his command. He never did. All his life he held the rank of “Gefreiter”, i.e. Private First Class, a sort of “Senior Soldier”.

While in his early days at the front he was undoubtedly used in the front-line but was soon moved to the dispatch runners. Most of his service he spent as a regimental dispatch runner, i.e. delivering messages usually not to the front line but to the battalion or sometimes company staff, who generally enjoyed somewhat safer conditions in their quarters than the trench soldiers.

Colonel Friedrich Petz, regimental commander 1915

In essence, this meant that he was not – as he claimed – a front line soldier but had a relatively safe job at (relatively) cosy regimental quarters; that he was much less in physical danger than he (and later propaganda) asserted, and that, consequently, this job required much less courage and/or sacrifice than suggested.

Weber describes at length the begrudging feelings, hate and envy the trench-line troops felt for such “Etappenschweine” – the fellow soldiers in rear areas. There is no actual evidence, he finds, that Hitler ever displayed unusual bravery, and it was perhaps the close and persisting contact he had with the regimental officers that led to his awards.

That may all well be and true – but the question is, what did it matter post-war in Hitler’s career respectively the criticism of his enemies? By nature, criticism by fellow soldiers comes in the form of gossip, personal arguments, and the like – and there is a long line of negative statements on Hitler or rear-area-pigs in general that Weber brings to our attention, some of which were widely reported in Weimar-Era newspapers and even were at times the matter of legal proceedings.

But these were all essentially of a gossipy nature – no actual misconduct was alleged, far less proven – and after all the dust had settled, Hitler could point to six decorations – Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class, the Bavarian Military Cross 3rd Class with Swords, awarded on September 17, 1917, the Regimental Diploma for bravery, May 9, 1918, the Medal for the Wounded, May 18, 1918, and the Military Service Medal 3rd Class of August 25, 1918 – and the opposition could point to nothing, as far as facts were concerned. This was, for political, respectively propaganda reasons, enough to settle the score, and the critics fell by the wayside.

In general, the written record thus appears more or less positive, and many later accusations were made in the heat of the political battle. The present author has discussed the subject with military men, and in the context of the Great War, they tend to regard dispatch runners as front-line soldiers. The author’s late father, who survived Stalingrad as an artillery officer with a Nebelwerfer regiment, concurred. As always, questions remain.


To be continued: From mid-September 1914 on, Hitler’s unit was dispatched to what became known as the First Battle of Ypres …


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Grinding of Meat – Verdun 1916


Preceding articles:

Breakthrough in the East 1915

Gallipoli – An Exercise in Futility


The New Year brought reorientation to the thoughts and plans of the respective belligerents’ general staffs. After the successes on the Eastern front in 1915, Falkenhayn shifted the strategic “Schwerpunkt” for 1916 back to the Western theatre. He had come up with a truly diabolical plan. For its far smaller population, France could simply not draw into uniform the same number of bodies as Germany could, and hence she would be critically vulnerable in a battle of attrition, designed not to conquer ground or reach a strategic aim but solely to slaughter the greatest number of men in the shortest time.

A suitable location for the abattoir to be established Falkenhayn believed to have found at Verdun, the city on the Meuse River a few miles east of the Argonne Forest, which had been a fortress since Roman times. Her fortifications were modern, updated the last time in 1885, when the addition of a second ring of forts, at a slightly larger distance from the city, gave her a total of twenty-one steel-and-concrete girded complexes. The fate of Liège and Namur earlier in the war, however, had convinced GQG that the forts’ artillery might better be used on the field of battle, and most of the guns had been dismantled. The Battle of the Frontiers in August 1914 had sidestepped the town for the most part and the eastern slope of the Argonne Forest had become a quiet part of the Western theatre, many of the forces stationed there having been recalled to Paris in late August 1914, to Manoury’s new Sixth respectively Foch’s new Ninth Army, and by 1916, only the three divisions of XXX Corps remained.

For OHL, the attractiveness of the town lay in its location less than twenty kilometres distant from a German-controlled railhead, which ensured a steady flow of personnel and supplies. The Crown Prince’s 5th Army was reinforced by the addition of six new divisions to their normal ten divisions, and the artillery corps gathered approximately 1,200 guns and three million shells for an initial front of about ten miles: from the hamlet Brabant, north-west of the town on the Meuse to the village of Ornes east of it, six miles as the crow flies. Due to the smallness of the attack front, which translated to one gun per less than fifteen metres, it was expected that no French troops could survive the curtain of fire and that the advancing German regiments would encounter little resistance. The French, however, could not afford not to reinforce the front, since “if the French gave up the struggle, they would lose Verdun; if they persisted, they would lose their army” in the maelstrom. (14)

German troops attacking the hill “Mort Homme” / “Toter Mann”

After the usual period of bad weather, the German bombardment began on February 21, 1916. A quite impressive affair, it was estimated that a million shells fell upon the French lines and forts before a single German soldier was spotted. But some local troops of XXX Corps were well-prepared and deeply dug in, and hence not only survived the barrage but subsequently defended their lines vigorously. On the whole, however, the German attack made steady progress; had it been an all-out attack, 5th Army might have gained Verdun in a matter of days.

But the design called for a bloodbath, not a victory, and the German offensive became eerily lethargic, enticing the defenders to consign more of their troops to the massacre. Still, by February 24, the first trench zone was taken as was,
a day later, Fort Douaumont, supposedly the core of the French defence on the right flank, “by a lone German sergeant of the 24th Brandenburg Regiment who, blown into the fort’s moat by a near-miss, decided to explore the interior, found it occupied by only a handful of French troops and bluffed them into surrender.” (15) Rumours of the fort’s capitulation immediately spread to the city, and garrison and townspeople alike began to pack their belongings.

Had Verdun been evacuated on this February 25, many lives might have been saved. On the same day’s morning, however, Castelnau arrived, sent by Joffre to Verdun to assess the situation. He could not know that his decision was in
Falkenhayn’s interest when he concluded that the town must be held – why, exactly, nobody knew – and put stoic Philippe Petain into command. The British army at the Somme was asked to take over the Tenth Army’s front line so that units of the latter could reinforce the town.

The map below gives us a picture of the initial situation, February 21 and the development of the campaign. The French Third Army secures the left flank of the town [Square A 3, ¶] and VII Corps’ 20th and 67th Infantry Divisions [AB 2, ¶] defend the line between Avocourt, east of Third Army, and the left bank of the Meuse. The front east of the river is, as mentioned above, defended by XXX Corps, with its 72nd ID just east of Brabant, 51st ID between Beaumont and Ornes and 14th ID to the south-east, at Dieppe. The right, eastern flank is being held by two divisions of II Corps.

Petain arrived February 27. His first order was to recover the 350 heavy and 442 light guns the forts had possessed and add to them any other artillery that might be found. Their fire was to be concentrated directly upon the attacking German infantry, less on tactical targets like command positions or bunkers. His second measure was to ensure arms and provisions, and the road leading southward from Verdun, on the left side of the Meuse, to the town Bar-le-Duc
became the principal route of supplies for the battle. It became known as the “Voie Sacrée”.

Heavy German siege gun

The return of the artillery and arrival in line of the French XX Corps strengthened the defence considerably and also bolstered up the meagre sector reserve that was stationed at Souilly [B 4, ¶]. While the Germans had previously advanced six kilometres in six days, after February 27 their efforts stalled in the fire of the French defenders. Falkenhayn’s strategy had overlooked that, as it was clear at the latest since First Ypres, a well-trained defence, able to wield rapid-fire arms and artillery from entrenched and protected positions, could be overcome only under the acceptance of truly hideous losses. The pre-war fable of the superiority of the offence had literally collapsed in the heaps of bodies that lay dead in front of defensive installations. Many generals, mired in their suddenly obsolete beliefs, comprehended this in the abstract yet still failed to recognize it to the necessary degree when making plans. Far from becoming the crucible for the French army, Verdun inflicted equal losses to the Germans, who counted 25,000 casualties in the first week of combat alone.

French anti-aircraft battery (colourized)

Finding no success anywhere on the original front between Brabant and Ornes after the end of February, the Germans extended their attack to the area west of the Meuse, between Avocourt and Forges [AB 2, ¶]. There an assault by VII Reserve Corps on March 6 surprised and much perturbed the 67th ID, which had to be rescued by the reserves which counterattacked soon and regained the ground lost at and around Mort Homme Ridge, the principal summit of the high grounds at Verdun’s western flank.

At this time casualties exceeded 100,000 on both sides. France began to rotate her divisions in and out of the theatre – of the 330 infantry regiments in the French Army of 1916, 259 saw service in Verdun – while the Germans depended upon replacements which frequently exceeded 100% of the unit’s original establishment. A renewed German offensive secured the peak of Mort Homme on May 8th but failed to gain its southern slope, and a further expansion of the front, to the east of Ornes [C 2, ¶] finally yielded, after six weeks of combat, the fall of Fort Vaux on June 7. This success carried the Germans tantalizingly close to the nearest fortresses, Forts Thiaumont and Souville, which, however, resisted all German attacks. By now Falkenhayn’s original plan of one-sided attrition was all but a chimaera of the past; the fight took on the character of an industrial slaughterhouse. Not even the efforts of the famous “Alpenkorps”, the elite mountaineer corps from Bavaria, achieved a decisive success; their initial progress bogged down due to a lack of provisions [see the bold dashed line, the furthest advance of German troops, ¶]. It was June 23.

Hill 304

That day, 23 June, marked both the high point and crisis of the Verdun offensive. About twenty million shells had been fired into the battle zone since 21 February, the shape of the landscape had been permanently altered, forests had been reduced to splinters, villages had disappeared, the surface of the ground had been so pockmarked by explosion that shell hole overlapped shell hole and had been overlapped again. Worse by far was the destruction of human life. By the end of June over 200,000 men had been killed and wounded on each side. The losses had fallen more heavily on the French, since they had begun the war with a third fewer men than the Germans, but to both armies Verdun had become a place of terror and death that could not yield victory. The Germans made a final effort on 11 July, which reached Fort Souville, but it was beaten off.

(16)
Aerial view of Hill 304 October 1916
Height 304 during a break in battle

Petain was promoted out of the theatre in April and replaced by General Robert Nivelle, an artillery specialist. He planned a French counteroffensive for late autumn and sought to diminish the German forces opposite by drawing their reserves to other theatres. On the Eastern front, the Russian General Brusilov opened an initially successful offensive against the Austrian and German front south of the Pripet Marshes on June 4 and the British began the Battle of the Somme on July 1. Both of these new engagements reduced the German reserves, in general on the Western front and specifically at Verdun. Fifteen divisions alone were sent from France to the Russian front.

On August 29, Falkenhayn was sacked for the mismanagement of Verdun and replaced by the team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who sought for a way to get out of Verdun with their reputations intact. Their survey of the theatre in
September, however, clearly exposed French preparations for a large counteroffensive, a fact that “fixed” the German units in the Verdun theatre while the French were putting on the finishing strokes to their design. The storm broke loose on October 24, when Third Army under General Charles Mangin, now switched to the right flank of the front, reconquered Fort Douaumont the very same day. Fort Vaux was retaken a week later, but the same circumstances which had erstwhile limited the German success soon encumbered the French. The counteroffensive petered out, eventually, in December 1916, in difficult, hilly terrain just north of Forts Douaumont and Vaux, the slopes turning into mud by the autumn rains.

French counteroffensives October – December 1916

The tally of Verdun eventually climbed to 430,000 German and 540,000 French casualties, of which a great number – perhaps 50% – died. The eyes of the world, however, soon concentrated on a more exciting target, the Somme, where, since the beginning of July 1916, an even bigger butchery was in the making.


(14) (15) (16) John Keegan, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361 (pbk.), pp. 279, 281, 285


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Private Hitler joins the War

The famous photograph by Heinrich Hoffmann of Adolf Hitler in the crowd at the Munich Odeonsplatz on August 2, 1914, hailing the declaration of war is probably a forgery.

Preceding Post: Adolf Hitler arrives in Munich


RAPTURE

[The Little Drummer Boy – Chapter XIX]


“If we are engaged in war,
we shall suffer but little more
than we shall suffer
even if we stand aside.”

Sir Edward Grey,
In the House of Commons, August 1914

All delays are dangerous in war.
John Dryden “Tyrannic Love”, Act 1, Sc. 1

Crowds outside Buckingham Palace cheer King George, Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales following the Declaration of War in August 1914
Celebration in Berlin, August 1914

One of the enduring legends of the Great War is that its outbreak was hailed, on either side, by a wave of popular support. This perception is largely a result of propaganda – contrived chiefly a posteriori – by the rosy memory of those who had survived what they saw as a well-earned victory over the German menace, and others who suggested that so great a patriotic endeavour could only be lost to treason.
It is true that some protagonists of these days greeted the dawn of war with enthusiasm. In London, Winston Churchill wrote his wife – “My darling One & Beautiful” – on July 28 that while “everything tends towards catastrophe, &
collapse,” he was “interested, geared-up & happy”. (1) In Munich, a protagonist of temporarily lesser prominence, the unemployed freelance painter Adolf Hitler, agreed wholeheartedly. He had learned of the German declaration of war on Russia on the evening of August 1, and on the next day, a Sunday, walked the two miles from his room at Schleissheimer Strasse 34 to the Odeonsplatz Square, where, in front of the Feldherrnhalle, the Hall of Generals, a crowd of pro-war enthusiasts had congregated. Adolf’s mood was jubilant.

Adolf Hitler lived c/o tailor Popp and family, Schleißheimerstrasse 34, 3rd Floor, window marked (x)

“Even today,” he wrote in ‘Mein Kampf’ (1924), “I am not ashamed to say that, overcome with rapturous enthusiasm, I fell to my knees and thanked Heaven from an overflowing heart for granting me the good fortune of being allowed to live at this time.” (2)

the little drummer boy, page 535

A photograph – subsequently acquiring fame – taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, who was soon to become Hitler’s court photographer, shows twenty-five-year-old Adolf Hitler in front of the square’s fountain, in the eight row or so of the assembly, ecstatically applauding patriotic speeches delivered by ad-hoc orators from the steps of the great hall. How he successfully exploited in his later days this fortunate accident is a good early example of Hitler’s knack for framing and arranging realities. Thomas Weber relates the story behind the legendary photograph:

It is true that in the days prior to the outbreak of war, brass bands had played patriotic songs in the streets and cafés of Munich. Students and a rowdy crowd had smashed up a café that was perceived as insufficiently patriotic. Yet it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which these cases of patriotic outbursts were representative of the general population, as the loudest and most visible responses to the outbreak of war do not necessarily equate to the most widespread responses to war.
In fact, only a minority of Germans were initially genuinely enthusiastic about the war. Anxiety, fear, and grief were the initial responses. A young Heinrich Himmler, who experienced the outbreak of the First World War in Landshut in Lower Bavaria, complained on 27 August of the lack of popular enthusiasm for the war in Lower Bavaria. He noted with disdain in his diary that Landshut had been full of sobbing and weeping people.
There is, in fact, a vast discrepancy between immediate responses to the war as the one described by Himmler and accounts that were published later on in an attempt to give the war meaning retrospectively. This is why we need to treat post-war recollections of August 1914 with a huge grain of salt. The same is true of the photograph of Hitler amidst crowds in Odeonsplatz from 2 August.
The photograph, in actuality, does not in any way support Hitler’s claim that he was representative of the population of Munich, or of the would-be members of the List Regiment, or of the German population at large. The photo tells us more about why its photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, would later become Hitler’s personal photographer than anything about the mindset of the German people at the outbreak of war.
During the Third Reich, it would be his masterful photographs and Leni Riefenstahl’s magnificent propaganda movies that would create the public image of Hitler and of a young, energetic, and forward-looking Germany.
On 2 August, only a tiny fraction of Munich’s near 600,000 residents attended the patriotic assembly Hoffmann depicted. On Hoffmann’s photo, the entire square appears filled with cheering people. However, a film clip that has survived of the scene and that, unlike Hoffmann’s photo, did not zoom in onto the crowd immediately in front of the Feldherrnhalle gives us a very different impression. Parts of the square are not filled with people. There is even enough space for a tram to move at normal speed across the square. When the film camera started filming the crowd, we see restless people. Only when they become aware that the camera is filming do they start to cheer and to raise their hats. At that very moment, Heinrich Hoffmann, standing close to the camera crew, took his photo. And thus the myth of central Munich overflowing with cheering and warmongering crowds was born.
There is even some indication that Hoffmann might have “doctored” his photograph to place Hitler in a more
prominent position, for in the film clip Hitler stands in a less central position than in the photo. And where there are crowds of people in front of Theatiner Church in the background of the photo, there are far fewer people at the same spot in the film clip. (3)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 535 – 536

Just as the photograph aided subsequent Nazi propaganda, Hitler was busy creating his own legend in “Mein Kampf”. Nobody then knew about the embarrassing affair with the Austrian consulate and military commission that had taken place earlier in the year, and we shall now investigate how it happened that Hitler, whose intense dislike of the Austrian army we have encountered above, made it, as a foreigner, into the ranks of the Royal Bavarian Army. In “Mein Kampf”, he wrote:

“I presented myself on August 4, 1914, through an immediate petition to His Majesty the King of Bavaria, for consideration and voluntary entry into the 1st Bavarian Infantry Regiment, thus to join the Bavarian, i.e. German army. The petition was granted the next day, August 5, and a few days later I was transferred to the 2nd Regiment. I then joined, on August 16, the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment, which was in completion at that time.” (4)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 536

The reality was more prosaic. Not only has no trace of Hitler’s petition to King Ludwig III or its sanction ever materialized, Hitler’s army rolls do not mention anything taking place before August 16, 1914. They report:

KrStR.Nr. 166/148:
“Am 16.8.1914 eingetreten als Kriegsfreiwilliger b. R.D.VI, 2.I.R. u. a. 1.9.14 anher versetzt.” (5)

[Roll # 166/148:] [‘Entered on August 16, 1914, as war volunteer at Recruiting Depot VI, 2nd Infantry Regiment and transferred here September 1, 1914’] [Recorded by the Replacement Battalion of the 2nd
Infantry Regiment]

KrStR.Nr. 1062:
“16.8.14 beim Ers. Batl. 2 Inf. Reg. Dep. VI eingetreten. 1.9.14 z. 1.Komp. Res. Inf. Reg. Nr. 16 vers.” (7)

[Roll II 1062:] [‘16.8.14 entered Replacement Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment (Recruiting) Depot VI. 1.9.14. transferred to 1st Company, Reserve Infantry Regiment 16’] [Recorded by Reserve Infantry Regiment 16]

The school at Elisabethplatz 4, Munich, (today’s Gisela-Gymnasium), where Private Hitler started his military training on August 16, 1914 …

Hitler’s claims of petitioning the King and immediately being awarded a place in the prestigious 1st, the King’s Own Regiment, are hereby revealed as bogus – his military career began on Sunday, August 16, when he reported to the School on Elisabeth Square, which was used, as many schools were, as temporary barracks. The first two weeks he spent learning basic infantry skills at the exercise areas Oberwiesenfeld and Freimann. It was an arduous business for the not very athletic Hitler and Frau Popp remembered that “he frequently came by, happy to rest from the exertions of the drill.” (8) On September 1, 1914, he was transferred as Private # 148 to 1st Company, Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16, called, after its commander Colonel Julius von List, the “List Regiment”.

The question remains how it came that he – being a foreigner – was accepted in the first place. Only the War Ministry, not some company or regimental officer, had the legal authority, under certain conditions, to accept foreign volunteers. During the Beer Hall Putsch Trial of 1924, the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior directed an inquiry at the War Ministry regarding the circumstances of Hitler’s enlistment. Yet it would seem that the venerable archivists were unable to find a satisfactory explanation, for their answer was of highly speculative nature:

“At the breakout of war, Hitler lived at Schleißheimerstraße 34 in Munich. Apparently he went, in August 1914, to the closest troop’s office, which was that of the 2nd Infantry Regiment and offered himself there. …
In the general war fever, he has probably acted on an instinct by applying at the nearest office. The more so as Germany, of course, had according to her treaty obligations announced her support for Austria. …
It cannot surprise anyone that an enthusiastic young man forgets the borders of the Inn and Salzach [which form the Bavarian-Austrian frontier) and only joins the forces to help in the common defence of the endangered homeland. … It is quite possible that Hitler, as many others did, presented himself in the earliest days of mobilization. Since he could not be processed right away, he was probably told to wait and come back later – as so many others.” (9)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 537
Colonel Julius List

It would seem that nobody checked Hitler’s nationality: not a single document in the very extensive and thorough files of the Bavarian War Ministry mentions the fact of Hitler’s Austrian citizenship. That the creation of the reserve regiments – incongruous mixtures of young volunteers and Landsturm seniors – occurred under somewhat haphazard circumstances had its main reason in the horrendous losses that were incurred from the very beginning of this first mechanized European war. By mid-August, OHL [“Oberste Heeresleitung”, Army High Command) demanded the immediate creation of one complete ersatz army of four corps respectively eight divisions, for the normal reservists had already been called up at mobilization. Bavaria had to supply one division of this new army, the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division, which was composed of the 12th and 14th Reserve Infantry Brigades. The 12th Reserve Brigade itself, commanded by Major General Kiefhaber, was formed by Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 (München, Colonel List) and 17 (Augsburg, Colonel Grossmann). About the former, Anton Joachimsthaler reports:

The mustering of Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 [=”RIR 16″, ¶] was finished by September 1, 1914; it was composed of three battalions, each one about 1,000 men strong, and each battalion was divided into four companies (thus 1st to 12th Company). The RIR 16, which had been composed of the Recruiting Depots of the 1st and 2nd Infantry Regiments, was quite a chequered collection; mostly volunteers and persons without prior service experience, a mixture of the young and the elderly. The majority of RIR 16’s soldiers were students, artists, engineers and artisans from Munich and many rural men from Upper and Lower Bavaria. …
The volunteers which had been collected in the various Recruitment Depots (I-VIII), among them Hitler, had all been transferred to the new RIR 16 on September 1, 1914. Hitler ended up in 1st Company, I. Battalion (under Battalion Commander Major of the Reserve Count Zech auf Neuhofen and Company Commander of 1st Company, Captain Pflaumer).
It was only with the greatest of labour that weapons, uniforms and other necessary equipment could be provided. Supplies of the Pickel helmets, for example, were insufficiently low, and the regiment was equipped with the same black caps worn by the Landsturm, draped over with green cloth. Yet this came at the expense of a fatal misunderstanding at the front, where Bavarian volunteers were mistaken for Englishmen [some of whom wore similar green caps, ¶], and hundreds of RIR 16’s men were killed by friendly fire. (10)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 537 – 538

Because OHL expected to use the 6th Bavarian Reserve Division at the Franco-Belgian border by the end of October, less than two months remained for the regiment’s initial training and subsequent transport. The first five weeks of their military life Hitler and his new comrades spent in Munich’s boot camps, being taught essential skills like digging holes while being yelled at by sergeants. Since RIR 16 was not composed of normal reservists, who could be trusted to remember much of their former service after a bit of a refresher, instruction was passed out rather summarily and could in no way prepare the men for the reality of the trenches.

Adolf Hitler – and subsequent Nazi propaganda creating another myth of the Great War – asserted post-1918 that the List Regiment was a volunteer unit, which was, at its best, intentional misrepresentation of the truth. It is correct that there were some volunteers, like Hitler, but overall about eighty-five per cent or so of the men were “not volunteers at all,” but “had been members of the Ersatzreserve or supplementary reserve… Recruits assigned to the supplementary reserve were generally men who were deemed insufficiently fit to serve in the army at peacetime but still sufficiently fit to be called up in the event of war.” (11)

King Ludwig III of Bavaria bids a unit farewell …

On October 8 the regiment was sworn in, in the presence of King Ludwig III, and greeted by its commanding officer, Colonel Julius von List, with the following words:

Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 parades in front of the King

“Comrades! I welcome with all my heart and full of confidence all officers, doctors, and officials, all petty officers, NCOs, and troops. The Regiment, whose men for the most part are untrained, is expected to be ready for mobile deployment within a few weeks. This is a difficult task, but with the admirable spirit which animates all members of this regiment, not an impossible one. … With God’s blessing, let’s begin our work for Kaiser, King, and Fatherland.” (12)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 538
Short Video Clip of the Swearing-in-Ceremony
Oberst Julius von List reporting to King Ludwig III

RIR 16 was scheduled to be sent, on October 10, on a march of seventy miles to the Lechfeld training ground in Swabia. On the day before, Hitler visited the Popps to say goodbye. Frau Anna later recalled:

“He took my husband’s hand and said, ‘If I were to die, please let my sister know, perhaps she wants to take care of my few possessions; if not, please do keep them. I am sorry if I should cause you any trouble.’ He then shook my hand, too, while I stood there and wept. We all liked him so very much. He embraced Peppi and Liesl, whom he loved, turned around, and vanished.” (13)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 538

We must, however, be aware that Frau Popp told her recollections to a Nazi reporter in the Third Reich, so we should not be surprised about her devotion to the former lodger. Yet, be that as it may, on Saturday, October 10, RIR 16 marched off to Lechfeld. Due to the urgency of the situation at the front, the regiment was allowed only about ten days of manoeuvre, from October 10 to 21, at the exercise area, in which it was to train not only its own deployment but also to practice, as much as possible in the short time, coordination with other units. On Sunday, October 18, i.e., a week later, an exercise of the complete 12th Brigade was scheduled, both regiments, artillery and all, including a field mass and consecration of the regimental standards. (14) Opinions on the quality of the training were divided: while Hitler wrote Frau Popp that “the first five days in the Lech valley were the most tiring of my whole life,” an officer of the List Regiment, Count Bassenheim, complained that “discipline has grown very bad due to [the] marches and over-exertion.” (15) On October 20, Hitler informed the Popps that, this very evening, the regiment was to embark on a railway journey – to Belgium or England, he hoped, and expressed his exultation that the great game was about to begin.

He had to wait a few more hours. Everywhere in Europe, trains had begun in the first week of August to devour young men, their gear and rifles, and spit them out on the railway heads of their destinations, as per the schedules developed and pigeonholed years earlier. The Railway Department of the German General Staff coordinated the movements of over 11,000 trains during mobilization, each one of them consisting of 54 wagons. The Hohenzollern Bridge over the Rhine at Cologne, for example, was crossed by 2148 trains between August 2 and 18; about 134 trains a day, respectively, one every eleven minutes, day or night. The French Railway Department scheduled over 7,000 trains, on a slightly smaller network.

To Paris …

It was about 3 am on October 21, that the men of RIR 16 and their gear were loaded upon three trains and sent off westward. The first stop was Ulm, the birthplace of Albert Einstein, whence Hitler sent a postcard to the Popps. (16) On the next day, the train reached the Rhine, and Hitler saw the great German stream for the first time, as well as the Niederwald-Denkmal, the gigantic statue of Germania protecting the river and the country. He never forgot the day – as late as 1944 he recalled that:

“I saw the Rhine for the first time when I travelled to the Western Front with my regiment in 1914. I will never forget the feelings that abounded in me when I saw, for the first time, this river of German destiny. Just as moving were the sympathy and the hearty encouragement of the people living there, who surprised us with a completely unanticipated welcome. We were supplied with everything we could imagine. When we came to Aachen in the evening, I promised myself never to forget this day as long as I lived.” (17)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 539
Adolf Hitler (right) in early 1914

In the night to Thursday, October 22, the trains crossed the Belgian border, and arrived, via Liège and Brussels, at Lille in France by October 24. Private Adolf Hitler was to see his first war.

Advance …

Subsequent Post: Adolf Hitler at the Western Front


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Gallipoli – An Exercise in Futility


“I am not exaggerating one iota when I say that our men feel antagonized towards the Imperial officers. I have heard so many express their fierce resentment.”

Sergeant Joe Gasparich


The Little Drummer Boy – Chapter XXII – The Days of Moloch


… The Western front of 1915 had seen, however, only one half of the British war commitment. A Turkish attack on the Suez Canal, the main artery of British eastern commerce and naval deployment, was mounted from Palestine southward on January 14, 1915. In early February, the Ottomans’ attempt to cross the canal in boats failed in face of the fire of a British and Imperial force under General John Maxwell. The Turks retired to Palestine and were never seen again at the canal.

A small British detachment had been sent at the war’s beginning to protect the English oil interests in Persia and had taken to the Turkish declaration of war in October 1914 by invading Mesopotamia and capturing Basra, the important harbour town. Eventually, the British HQ set its eyes on Baghdad, and one division was sent from Basra up the Tigris River and another one up the Euphrates. The Tigris force met a Turkish detachment, about 10,000 heads strong, at Kut-el-Amara, two-thirds the way to Baghdad and won the subsequent encounter on September 27-28. When the commander,
General Townshend, was ordered to proceed in direction of Baghdad, he demurred, citing supply lines far too long and the loss of over 1,000 casualties in the earlier battle, but obeyed. Outside the ancient town of Ctesiphon, he ran into a superior Turkish force blocking his way and had to retreat after four days of combat. He was back in Kut a week later. The Turks followed and laid siege to the town which was to last until 1916.

But these were sideshows. The main British and Allied offensive against the Turks was to take place at one of history’s famous spots – the Dardanelles or Hellespont. The Dardanelles is the narrow sea lane, fifty kilometres long and at its closest point only a kilometre wide, which connects the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara, which itself joins the Black Sea at the Bosporus strait. The strategic importance of the Dardanelles respectively the Bosporus is obvious: these two points control all traffic between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, and hence access to the oceans. It has always been the object of the powers controlling the Black Sea to command these spots and their hinterland, for they are the bottleneck constraining their ambitions. The Bosporus was, and is, dominated by Byzantium [Constantinople, Istanbul], whose conquest was a Russian dream for centuries; only escalating when the religious component of removing the Muslims from the former seat of the Christian Empire became a secondary motive.

The Battlefield

The Battle of Troy had taken place on the southern, Asian shore of the Dardanelles; on the European side of the straits, near the ancient town of Adrianople [now Edirne, ¶] “fifteen recorded battles had been fought; at the first, in AD 378, Emperor Valens was killed by the Goths, a disaster that caused the collapse of Rome’s empire in the west; at the most recent, in 1913, the Turks had repelled a Bulgarian attempt on Istanbul itself.” (10)

The strategic importance of the straits in 1914 lay in the Allies’ plans to provide war supplies to Russia, but since no land route existed sea lanes had to suffice. There was one, the North Sea-Arctic Sea passage, to the Russian ports of Murmansk or Archangel in the Arctic Ocean respectively the White Sea. But this was a difficult route, prone to adverse weather conditions, with the additional disadvantage that the goods would arrive in a veritable no man’s land, arctic Russia, and would have to be transported over yet another two or three thousand miles to their eventual destinations.

There was a second route, however, through the pleasant Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea, to Sevastopol, on the Crimean Chersonnese, whence the goods would have a short and convenient rail trip to the Eastern front. The Royal Navy was confident to defend convoys of merchantmen on their way to Sevastopol, with the exception of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, which were in Turkish hands and considered fortified, armed, and dangerous. A sneak attack of a British naval squadron in November 1914, however, found little resistance and was able to damage the defences on the mouth of the straits. Although the squadron failed to penetrate further, the success of the attack much impressed Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.

After the initial freeze-up of the entrenched front lines in the Western theatre in late 1914, the British government sought other points suitable to attack. Churchill was able to convince Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Kitchener, then-Secretary of State for War, and finally First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher, of the merits of an invasion of the Dardanelles.

Churchill’s ministrations resulted in a two-tiered operational miscellany, a plan, like its inventor’s character, designed to gain the greatest show from the least of assets: naval gunfire, from a squadron of old battleships, would neutralize the Turkish forts at and around the Dardanelles, giving the Allies control of the seaway. The second stage would be a landing of mostly Imperial, i.e. non-English, infantry at the Gallipoli Peninsula itself, the northern pillar of the Dardanelles, whence the land forces were to proceed to capture Constantinople.

The naval bombardment began on February 19 but ran into difficulties soon. After the British raid of the preceding November, the Turks had brought in mobile artillery, heavy howitzers, which completely eluded the British gunners and, with well-aimed fire, frustrated the attempts of the Allied minesweepers to clear the way for the heavy ships. These ships were the new dreadnought “Queen Elizabeth”, the new British battle cruiser “Inflexible” and two older ones, plus twelve British and four French pre-dreadnoughts. After preliminary manoeuvres, the great fleet attack was set for March 18.

It was to become the greatest British naval disaster since a single German mine had sunk the brand-new British battleship “Audacious” in October 1914. The fleet attempted to force the straits: the twenty big ships advancing in three lines, ushered in by minesweepers and orbited by cruisers and destroyers.

At first the armada made apparently irresistible progress. Between 11:30 in the morning and two in the afternoon it advanced nearly a mile, overcoming each fixed and mobile battery as it moved forward. “By 2 p.m. the situation had become very critical,” the Turkish General Staff account reports. “All telephone wires were cut … some of the guns were knocked out, others were left buried … in consequence the fire of the defence had slackened considerably.” Then, suddenly, at two o’clock, the balance of the battle swung the other way. The old French battle cruiser BOUVET, falling back to allow the minesweepers to go forward, suddenly suffered an internal explosion and sank with all hands. A torpedo fired from a fixed tube ashore seemed to the worried fleet commander, Admiral de Robeck, to be the cause. Later it became known that, on the night of March 7, a line of mines had been laid by a small Turkish steamer parallel to the shore and had remained undetected. In the confusion that followed, the minesweepers, manned by civilian crews, began to fall back through the fleet and, as it manoeuvred, the old battleship IRRESISTIBLE was damaged also and fell out of the line. Next OCEAN, another old battleship, also suffered an internal explosion and soon afterwards the French pre-Dreadnought SUFFREN was severely damaged by a plunging shell.

As GAULOIS and INFLEXIBLE, the modern battle cruiser, had been damaged earlier, de Robeck now found himself with a third of his battle fleet out of action. By the end of the day, OCEAN and IRRESISTIBLE had, like BOUVET, sunk, INFLEXIBLE, SUFFREN and GAULOIS were out of action and ALBION, AGAMEMNON, LORD NELSON and CHARLEMAGNE had suffered damage. As darkness fell, de Robeck drew his fleet away. The ten lines of mines laid across the Narrows, numbering 373 in all, remained unswept and most of the shore batteries, though they had shot off all their heavy shell, preserved their guns. (11)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, Pages 619 – 620

With the ships sank Churchill’s naval plan, and the army had to take over. The muster of the available forces yielded five divisions: four on the British side, the 29th Infantry Division, the Royal Naval Division, and the ANZAC Corps [1st Australian and the Australia/New Zealand division,¶] and one on the French side, the Corps Expéditionnaire d’Orient. Allied Intelligence regarding the opponent was poor: the Turkish strength was estimated at 170,000 men in ten divisions when reality allowed Liman von Sanders, the German commander of the Turkish troops, less than half of that number. In
addition, nothing was known of where the Turks would be strong or where they would be weak; hence the choice of the landing zones on the Gallipoli Peninsula was a matter of educated guesses.

The British infantry commander, General Hamilton, entertained thoughts of landing his troops on the southern, the Asian shore, where the plain of Troy would provide accessible beaches and level terrain. But Kitchener nixed the idea, pointing out that the available forces would be too thinly spread in the vastness of Anatolia. It had to be a landing on the northern, the European shore, but here the topography was forbidding, rugged mountains rising steeply from the sea. On forty miles of shore, only one suitable beach was found, opposite the Sari Bair Ridge, and reserved for the ANZAC Corps [whence it got its name, “Anzac Cove”]. The 29th Division would try its luck at Cape Helles itself, the northern tip of the peninsula, where there were some small but serviceable beaches. Here they could also be supported, on three sides, by naval artillery. Meanwhile, the remaining troops would undertake feint attacks: the Royal Naval Division at Bulair, in the Gulf of Saros north of the Gallipoli Peninsula, and the French troops on the southern, Asian tip, at Kum Kale and Yeni Shehr. These positions are depicted on the map below, Allied Invasion Points at Gallipoli.

The operation began on April 25 simultaneously at both places. A landing on a defended shore is a most hazardous military manoeuvre at the best of times, and at Gallipoli, unlike at the Allied landings of the Second World War, there existed no proper landing craft, DUWK’s or other special equipment. Neither had simulations nor rehearsals been possible; one had it to get right the first time. It was perhaps asked too much. For reasons still unclear today, the ANZAC troops landed a mile north of their target, in a wilderness of slopes which, if they could not be taken, would allow the enemy an excellent look down at ANZAC Cove and present the most exciting targets for his artillery.

Heavy German naval artillery at the Dardanelles

Unless the Australians and New Zealanders could reach the crests before the enemy, all their positions, including the beach, would be overlooked, with calamitous effect on subsequent operations. The ANZACs knew the importance of getting high quickly and, after an almost unopposed landing, began climbing the ridges in front of them as fast as their feet could take them. The reason their landing had been unopposed soon, however, became apparent. The enemy were few because the Turks had dismissed the likelihood of a landing in such an inhospitable spot and the landing parties rapidly found that the terrain was as hostile as any defending force. One crest was succeeded by another even higher, gullies were closed by dead ends and the way to the highest point was lost time and again in the difficulty of route-finding.
Organisation dissolved in the thick scrub and steep ravines, which separated group from group and prevented a co-ordinated sweep to the top.
If even some of the 12,000 ashore could have reached the summits of the Sari Bair ridge, two and a half miles above ANZAC cove, they would have been able to look down on the Narrows, and the beginnings of a victory would have been under their hands. Their maximum depth of penetration by early afternoon, however, was only a mile and a half and, at that precipitous point, they began to come under counter-attack by the assembling Turkish defenders. The ANZACs, clinging lost and leaderless to the hillsides, began, as the hot afternoon gave way to grey drizzle, to experience their martyrdom. (12)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 622
Archives New Zealand, from Wiki

The British troops landing around Cape Helles made sharply diverging experiences. At the flanks of the Cape, on S beach inside the Dardanelles and X and Y beaches, at the Mediterranean side of the peninsula, the invaders came ashore relatively unopposed and had set up shop soon. At V beach, south of the village Sedd-el-Bahr, and W beach, south-west of it, on the Cape itself, however, the Dublin respectively Lancashire Fusiliers ran into a combination of wire and Turkish machine-gun fire and died in the hundreds. By nightfall, casualties suffered on all beaches amounted to 5,000 men.

What should have alarmed the British commanders – Hamilton of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force
(MEF), Hunter-Weston of the 29th Division, Birdwood of ANZAC – was that the injuries done to their brave and
determined soldiers had been the work of so few of the enemy. MEF’s estimate of the Turkish strength committed to the defence of the Dardanelles had been a gross exaggeration. The number of troops deployed by Liman von Sanders on the Gallipoli peninsula was only a fraction of his force, the rest being dispersed between Bulair and Kum Kale, between Europe and Asia.
The assault area was held by a single division, the 9th, with its infantry deployed in companies all the way down the coast from ANZAC to Cape Helles and beyond. In places there were single platoons of fifty men, in some places fewer men or none: at Y Beach none, at X twelve men, at S a single platoon. Even at ANZAC there was only one company of 200 men, while V and W Beaches were defended by single platoons. The massacre of the Lancashire, Dublin and Munster Fusiliers and the Hampshires had been inflicted by fewer than a hundred desperate men, survivors of the naval bombardment, and killing so that they should not be killed. (13)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, PAGE 622
Anzac, the landing 1915 by George Lambert

Seldom has the importance of holding the high ground been demonstrated more unequivocally than at Gallipoli. After six weeks of battle, the commanding summits of Achi Baba, near Cape Helles, and Chunuk Bair, opposite ANZAC Cove, remained in the hands of the Turks. The high ground allowed them to survey all Allied moves and aim their artillery accordingly. In addition, small but agile Turkish counterstrokes, directed at the local level by Mustafa Kemal, the eventual founder of the modern Turkish nation, thwarted many Allied attacks. Eventually, both sides dug in. The greatest menace for the Allied Expeditionary Corps, however, as it turned out soon, was their commander who seemed not to realize when he was beaten. Instead of withdrawing from the narrow beaches his troops were hanging on, under mounting losses, Hamilton asked for and received reinforcements – seven, if second-line, British infantry divisions, the 2nd Australian Division, the 2nd Mounted Division and another French division. The plan created by his staff envisioned another, far larger landing, at Suvla Bay, just north of ANZAC Cove. As soon as the Suvla Bay landing had gained a foothold, the Australians and New Zealanders should break out of ANZAC Cove northwards and link up with the new arrivals.

Only small beaches existed for the landings, and little cover was available …

The landings at Suvla Bay, beginning on August 7, were little opposed at first, but the invaders inexplicably failed to occupy the coastal heights as soon as possible. Mustafa Kemal, meanwhile being in charge of the northern front, recognized the fatal failure and immediately dispatched troops and artillery to the heights east of Suvla Bay, to the Sari Bair Ridge and the controlling peaks of Chunuk Bair and Tekke Tepe. The heights and their Turkish defenders withstood all Allied attempts and, eventually, as at Cape Helles and ANZAC Cove, both attackers and defenders dug in, adding a third stalemate to the two preceding ones.

Hamilton was relieved of his command on October 15 and his substitute, General Monro advised the War Office that withdrawal was the only viable solution left. He was given permission for a complete evacuation on December 3 and managed a very orderly and safe withdrawal that only added three casualties to the approximately 275,000 the Gallipoli campaign had cost the Allied armies already. Turkish losses, never properly established, may have been in the neighbourhood of 300,000. The misadventure precipitated Churchill’s resignation and failed to open the supply route for Russia. Turkey remains in control of the Dardanelles until this day.

The New Year brought reorientation to the thoughts and plans of the belligerents’ general staffs. Yet in 1916 the costly nonsense of the Gallipoli campaign was replaced by the gross slaughter of Verdun.


Please check the amazing article “Gallipoli – Letters from Hell” in the New Zealand Herald

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Breakthrough in the East 1915

German artillery at Przemysl

In February 1915, the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes had driven the Russian Tenth Army through the Forest of Augustow off German terrain, but when 8th and the new 10th German Army faced counterattacks by the newly established Russian Twelfth Army, they stopped the pursuit into the Russian plain and established a security perimeter around East Prussia, which was not to be re-breached in this war. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who now were in charge of the Eastern theatre [as “Ober Ost“, High Command East, ¶], planned a renewed campaign, this time in the southern part of the Eastern front, but their requests for troop allocations were regularly curtailed by Falkenhayn, who feared to weaken the Western front by withdrawing troops from it. When at last a plan for a renewed offensive in Galicia was agreed on, it was based on a strategic concept by Hötzendorf, who also brought lots of Austrian troops to the venture, and a tactical design by Falkenhayn, not upon the plans of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Why?

Emperor William II meeting Field Marshal von Mackensen

It was, again, the chimaera of Cannae, the double-encirclement battle that had infected OberOst’s plans.

The plan for the offensive was Falkenhayn’s, who entrusted its execution to Mackensen, victor in the East Prussian battles of 1914. Ludendorff and Hindenburg would have preferred not to prepare a breakthrough in the centre but to launch a double envelopment of the Russians from the Baltic and Carpathian fronts; like Schlieffen, they disfavoured “ordinary victories”, which led only to Russian withdrawal to lines further east,
and argued for cutting off the enemy from the great spaces of the Tsar’s empire by a manoeuvre of
encirclement. Though exercising command in the east, they were, however, subordinate to Falkenhayn, whose fear was that their encirclement plans would require withdrawals of troops from the west on a scale dangerously weakening the German front there, and so overruled them. Moreover, the Ludendorff-Hindenburg plan placed reliance upon Austrian participation which the continuing decline in quality of the Habsburg forces, Falkenhayn believed made unrealistic. (7)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, Page 613
Deployment at Gorlice

The part of the Galician front chosen for the offensive was only about thirty kilometres wide, between the medium-sized town of Tarnów, fifty kilometres east of Cracow, and Gorlice, a village south-east south of it. The Cracow front was still defended by the Russian Third Army, composed of fourteen infantry and five cavalry divisions, which were, however, low on stock and ammunitions. Opposite of them, Falkenhayn constituted a new 11th German Army, commanded by Mackensen, which he supplied with some of the best divisions still available, 1st and 2nd Guard and the regular IDs 19 and 20. An Austrian army protected the flanks. On the Russian side, the Tarnow-Gorlice perimeter was defended only by two infantry divisions of average quality, the 9th and the 31st, whose defensive abilities were seriously curtailed by a lack of artillery shells. It turned out later that the commanders of the great Russian border forts of Kovno, Grodno, Ivangorod (Deblin) and Brest-Litovsk had hoarded shells in gargantuan quantities, many millions, but had found it wise to inform neither STAVKA nor their own field formations about their hidden treasures.

The Tarnow-Gorlice Offensive and the subsequent breakthrough …

This weak opposing force could not withstand long Mackensen’s concentrated hail of steel – emanating from 2,228 guns of all calibres. The preparatory bombardment began, against the customs, on the evening of May 1st, and the Russian trenches proved vulnerable. The next days’ infantry attack, at first light, passed through the enemy lines without encountering much resistance, and within the next 48 hours rolled up the secondary and tertiary Russian trench lines, breaking into open country on May 4th. The Russian flanks collapsed, and after three days 140,000 prisoners were counted. Ten days later, Mackensen’s 11th Army had recovered most of the territory Conrad von Hötzendorf had lost in the early calamities of winter 1914: the southern pincer of 11th Army had reached Przemysl and the northern one Lodz.

THE GORLICE-TARNÓW OFFENSIVE, MAY-SEPTEMBER 1915 Column of German troops advancing to the forward area near Gorlice while Austro-Hungarian transport moving in the opposite direction. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205081749

After the mad dash of the first days, the attack was continued through the open Polish plain. On August 4, Mackensen entered Warsaw and within the next six weeks, 11th Army conquered the four famous frontier fortresses guarding the old Russian-Polish border, Kovno, Grodno, Novogeorgievsk and Brest-Litovsk. The POW count rose to 325,000 and the Russians lost three thousand pieces of artillery.

Russian Prisoners of War

The map above depicts the main thrusts of the Central Powers Spring-Summer offensive of 1915, which developed from the initial breakthrough between Tarnow and Gorlice. The Russian High Command realized that, for the time being, given the condition of the army and her supply situation, nothing but a concentric retreat would enable the re-establishment of a new front in the future. By retreating from the huge Polish salient they shortened their supply lines and lengthened those of the Germans. This was a very reasonable strategy and worked out well enough. Ludendorff was able to claim a final success in September when he conquered Vilnius, the capital city of former Lithuania, but the onset of the “Rasputitsa”, the liquefaction of all surfaces under the torrential autumn rains, stopped the movements of all combatants. A new front line established itself, by fiat of transportational paralysis, in an almost straight north-south line from Riga via the Dvina and the Pripet Rivers, a hundred miles east of Brest-Litovsk, to Ternopol and Czernowitz at the Romanian border. North of the Pripet, and its impassable marshes, the front would hold until the end of 1917, and in the south until June 1916.


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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