History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Category: Disaster Page 1 of 3

Anton Drexler – Founder of the DAP (NSDAP)

The real problem that men like Dietrich Eckart, as well as other nationalists, anti-Semitists and Pan-Germanists in Munich and Germany, shared in 1918 was the fact that the right-wing was hopelessly atomized in a multitude of little parties, clubs and fraternities; the lack of someone able to address the broad masses was felt most critically. One of these tiny political groups in Munich was a fellowship formed by a man called Anton Drexler.

Anton Drexler was one of those rather simple-minded workmen who believe that the poor, the exploited, and
the oppressed will always be vindicated in the end. His father was a Social Democrat, and he remembered vividly being taken on May Day to a Social Democrat outing in the woods near Munich when he was a child.

In those days the names of Ferdinand Lassalle and August Bebel were still revered by German workingmen, who remembered that it was the Social Democrats who had wrested from Bismarck the highly developed social legislation that was the envy of workingmen all over the world. Drexler came out of the soil of Social Democracy as a plant grows out of the earth. He belonged to the working class, and it would never have occurred to him that there was any other class worth belonging to.

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, p. 800

After his journeyman years, he returned to Munich and was employed in October 1902 by the Royal Bavarian Central Railway Repair Works as a blacksmith and toolmaker. He volunteered for the Bavarian army in August 1914, but the railroad office refused to release him for service. The war awakened his political conscience, and on March 7, 1918, he founded the “WORKER’S COUNCIL FOR A GOOD PEACE”. In the fall of the same year, Drexler met Karl Harrer, a sports reporter of the MÜNCHEN-AUGSBURGER ABENDZEITUNG, a local newspaper. The two decided on the foundation of another little club, the “POLITICAL WORKERS’ CIRCLE”, which met once or twice a week to discuss solutions for the world’s major issues. Harrer,
politically better connected than Drexler through his membership in the Thule Society, insisted that the topics of their weekly discussions were duly recorded for posterity, including the names of the attendees. The protocol for December
1918 to January 1919 read:

Meeting on 12/05/1918, Topic: “Newspapers as the Tools of Politics”, Speaker: Harrer. 12/11/1918, Topic: “The Jew, Germany’s greatest Enemy”, Speaker: Harrer. 12/17/1918, Topic: “Why the War Happened”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Lotter, v.Heimburg, Girisch, Kufner). 12/30/1918, Topic: “Who Bears the Guilt for the War?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Brunner, Sauer, Kufner). 01/16/1919, Topic: “Why we had to Win the War”, Speaker Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Kufner, Brunner). 01/22/1919, Topic: “Were we able to Win the War?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Kufner). 01/30/1919, Topic: “Why was the War Lost?”, Speaker: Harrer (Harrer, Drexler, Girisch, Brunner).

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 800

Drexler quickly realized that Harrer’s omnipresence, so to say, and his penchant for intimate audiences was not very likely to awaken the workers’ interest in the circle’s political agenda. He resolved that a regular party must be founded.

“One week before Christmas 1918, I explained during a circle meeting that the salvation of Germany was unlikely to be found within such a small circle as we were; that we needed a new party, a ‘German Socialist Workers’ Party,’ without Jews Thus it came to the decision to go public and form a new party (German Socialist Workers’ Party). The word ‘socialist’ was then dropped. The by-laws and guidelines of the ‘German Workers Party’ were written by me.”

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 800
DAP Logo 1920

Thus, it came to pass that on Sunday, January 5, 1919, Drexler and Michael Lotter, the circle’s record keeper, founded the “GERMAN WORKERS’ PARTY” in a room of the Munich tavern “Fürstenfelder Hof”. Drexler brought twenty-four prospective members, chiefly colleagues from the railway repair shop to the constitutive session and was elected steward of the new party’s Munich chapter. Karl Harrer was appointed – perhaps in his absence, the sources contradict each other – national chairman of the fledgeling organization, and the assembly unanimously voted for the adoption of the party statutes as composed by Drexler. The same then gave the new party’s inaugural address, which showed his humanitarian impulses: the party should strive to end the divisive class warfare and internationalism promoted by the Bolsheviks in favour of a national and patriotic socialism. Details were to follow.

There had been a bit of a problem regarding the christening of the new party; the original proposal of “German National Socialist Party” was popular, but another party with similar teachings had chosen exactly this name a few months earlier in Bohemia, and, incidentally, the Bohemians’ emblem featured a swastika. Hence, the epithets “national” and “socialist” were dropped, and the name “Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei” (DAP, German Workers’ Party, ¶) adopted. Drexler explained his liking for the name as an integrative statement: himself a slightly higher educated member of the working class, he proposed that skilled workers should not be considered simple workmen any more but should have a legal right to be counted among the aspiring middle classes. The middle classes themselves should be enlarged, at the cost of the “capitalists”. Drexler was an incurable romantic.

Although Drexler and many of his work colleagues were anti-Semitic, the only reference in the statutes and by-laws that pointed in this direction was a declaration that “religious teachings contrary to the moral and ethical laws of
Germany should not be supported by the state.” This was, comparatively, rather tame. In the wake of the foundation, Drexler wrote a small pamphlet summarizing his political thought, called MEIN POLITISCHES ERWACHEN – My Political Awakening – which he distributed at party meetings and among his colleagues in the railway repair shop.

For a time, Harrer’s original circle remained in existence, although an executive council was established which acted simultaneously as the new party’s praesidium. Still, the attractiveness of the party to Munich’s workers remained modest — a report of the general meeting of July 12, 1919, lists twenty-one persons present, the one of August 14 thirty- eight. The meetings of the circle continued in the intimacy of the usual five or six participants.

It is not entirely clear, however, how Captain Mayr’s military intelligence unit I b/P came into the possession of a typewritten invitation, dating of September 3, to a meeting of the DAP on September 12, 1919, 7:30 pm, to be held at the “Sterneckerbräu” tavern near the Isartor, one of Munich’s old town landmarks. The flyer announced that the Engineer Gottfried Feder would speak on his favourite theme of the breaking of the interest slavery, in particular of “How and by which means can we eliminate Capitalism?”

On the evening of September 12, 1919, Adolf Hitler set out to visit a meeting of the recently formed DAP. What turn would history have taken had Hitler visited, on this day, a different group on Mayr’s list, perhaps the “Society of Communist Socialists” or the “Block of Revolutionary Students”? No one knows. But it was to the Sterneckerbräu that Hitler directed his steps. The tavern was one of the smaller beer halls in Munich, and the side room, in which the meeting took place, the “Leiberzimmer”, could seat perhaps fifty or sixty people. The protocol of September 12 lists twenty-five party members and eighteen guests present, one of them Adolf Hitler.

History proceeded …


See posts:

The German Workers’ Party

A meeting of consequences …


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/20)

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The Schlieffen Plan and German War Guilt


In the grey area between historical military analysis and political and historical exegesis, one is frequently confronted with the somewhat dubious thesis, that the existence of Germany’s war plan – created in 1905 by then Chief Of Staff Field Marshal Schlieffen and executed in August 1914 under the direction by the Younger Moltke – proves the aggressive character of German policy and therefore constitutes the “prima facie” evidence of German War Guilt – as notarized in the famous Section 231 of the Treaty of Versailles and, most likely, one of the reasons for the Second War.

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, John C. Johansen (1876–1964) [Wikipedia Commons]

This post shall not discuss the thirty years of diplomatic tomfoolery that preceded the outbreak of the war in 1914 – these are thoroughly documented in Luigi Albertini’s seminal work “The Origins of the War of 1914“, summarized in the chapters XIII to XVII of the author’s own “The Little Drummer Boy” and their major implications may be reviewed in the author’s article “The Road to War – European Imperialism 1878 – 1914” (including links).

The history of the Schlieffen Plan of 1905 and an introduction into the only recently discovered original documents for Moltke’s Plan of 1914 are provided in the posts “Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan” and “The Real German War Plan of 1914“.

Schlieffen 1906

The question at hand is the thesis – or proposition – that the existence of the plan proves war guilt, i.e., that preparations for war are (1) inherently a sign of aggressive, and therefore criminal intentions, and that (2) Germany, as proven by the plan, is guilty of the charge as stated.

This case has not only recently been made, a.o., by Annika Mombauer and has come up again in the recent discussion of the Schlieffen Plan, which was instigated by the articles of Terence Zuber from 1999 on, which disputed the traditional interpretation of the matter and are introduced in the author’s articles above.

As the attentive reader of the above-mentioned articles will have recognized, there is blame for the outbreak of the war easily found in both camps and all the participants, but what was the factual, respectively historical situation in 1914? If the charge were true, the following conditions had to apply:

(1) Germany had an aggressive war plan, planning to attack, defeat and possibly conquer its enemies, and other nations had no such plans.

(2) Germany did in fact prepare for war, and subsequently mobilized, unprovoked and in an aggressive manner and

(3) Germany did in fact attack other countries first, therefore compelling them to defence and subsequent counterattack.

Terence Zuber, as the creator of the brouhaha, has come – not surprisingly – under a concerted attack by the guardians of the historical truth and has attempted, in an abstract from 2014, to summarize his critique, and therein discusses the case of the Schlieffen Plan as being used as evidence of war guilt. It is presented here as a PDF file, the original is on his website.

Even in elementary analysis, the claim of a war plan being exemplary evidence of aggressive, indeed criminal intentions – thus constituting a case of war guilt – appears asinine when confronted with the basic facts of the plan at hand.

Condition One

(A) After the end of Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, France and Russia entered – since the mid-1890s – into a Military Convention, i.e., a formal military, if not a political treaty, with the express intent of attacking Germany (and Austria) – under given circumstances – with certain numbers of troops in a given time. See the post “The Entente Cordiale“. Subsequently, France developed its own – aggressive military plans against Germany, of which Number 17 (Plan XVII) was in effect in 1914. It envisioned a classic two-pronged attack into the Lorraine on both sides of Metz.

More interesting is a look at the state of the existing strongholds of 1914, for it allows to reiterate the basic assumptions behind the strategy.

It is obvious that France, hoping, naturally for the best outcome of its attack as per Plan XVII in the Lorraine, was aware of the possibility of a German attack through Belgium, along the line of the fortresses Liège, Namur and Maubeuge. Various provisions in Plan XVII allowed for the shifting of the French 5th Army (and possibly more troops) to the north to defend against such an eventuality.

The respective Russian plan in 1914 was called Plan 19 and envisioned separate deployments against Germany – with two armies – and Austria-Hungary – with another two armies, with the Fifth Army to be deployed where it was to be most useful – in the event itself in the south, near Kowel and Lublin. Both army groups were to attack the respective enemy on his own ground.

Condition Two: Mobilization

There is much confusion over the actual dates and proceedings as far as the actual orders of mobilization in the belligerents are concerned, although the study of the respective documents in Albertini [Albertini, Luigi, The Origins of the War of 1914, 1st Ed. Oxford 1952, 3 Vols., Enigma Books 2005, ISBN 1-292631-26-X] and especially the recent work of Sean McMeekin [McMeekin, Sean, The Russian Origins of the First World War, Belknap Press Harvard 2011, ISBN 978-0-674-06210-8] allows a close approximation.

All parties – Russia, Germany, France and Austria had plans for preparative military measures short of actual mobilization. Hence, in Russia, the following occurred in the night between July 24 and 25, 1914, when the war department, the foreign department and the Tsar kicked around some unimplemented, plain impossible, and all together dangerous ideas about how to react to the Austrian Ultimatum to Serbia:

Strangely enough, the story goes that Sazonov [the Foreign Minister] was alerted of the Austrian ultimatum around 9 p.m. on the evening of July 23, at Tsarskoe Selo 36 not via Strandmann, his man in Belgrade, nor via Spalaikovic, the Serbian ambassador at St. Petersburg, but via Marquis Carlotti, the Italian envoy, who had allegedly alerted a lower-level Russian diplomat at Chorister’s Bridge, who in turn sent a cable to Sazonov at Tsarskoe Selo. (159) Yet the Foreign Minister did not return to the capital until 10 a.m. or so on the 24th, but, reportedly, exclaimed immediately after only cursory examination of the Austrian note, “C’est la guerre européenne!” (160)

He then proceeded to receive the Austrian Ambassador Count Szapary, who officially delivered the Austrian
notification to the Russian government of the note to Serbia plus a few other documents and informed Sazonov that a
dossier with evidence of Serbian guilt would be forwarded to the ministry soon. 37 A few hours later, Sazonov received a
telegram from the Serbian Prince-Regent, Alexandar, directed to the Tsar, in which he indicated Serbia’s preparedness to
submit to those parts of the Austrian démarche “whose acceptance shall be advised by Your Majesty.” (161) Hence the burden was squarely put on Sazonov’s shoulders, who immediately, that is about 11 a.m., met with the Chief of the General Staff Yanushkevich, whom he advised to make “all arrangements for putting the army on a war footing”; it might become necessary to “proclaim only partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary,” in which case Yanushkevich was to take care that “nothing must give Germany occasion to perceive in it any hostile intentions against herself.” (162)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 414

There was a problem. No such plan existed.

As Sean McMeekin points out, the order as well the concept underlying it was – quoting General Dobrorolski, the Chief of the Army’s Mobilization Section – a “folly”: “impossible both in the general sense, in that [the Russian Mobilization] Plan 19 required mobilization against Germany and Austria simultaneously with no variant separating the two, and in the
more specific sense that it was physically impossible to mobilize against the Austrian border without extensively using the Warsaw railway hub, which would inevitably alarm the Germans.” (163)
Originally, the plan to mobilize against Austria only but not Germany had been an idea of War Minister
Sukhomlinov that had been kicked around during the Council of Ministers’ meeting of November 23, 1912 – during the First Balkan War – when it had almost been attempted, as far as a non-existent plan could have been implemented. The problem
on this July 24, however, was that Yanushkevich – promoted to Chief of Staff only five months earlier, unfamiliar with the
mobilization plan and hence a disaster waiting to happen – had already promised Sazonov that the imaginary option was indeed viable and would be implemented forthwith.

As Luigi Albertini has pointed out, the absurdity to insist on a non-existing mobilization plan, which to implement
immediately Yanushkevich ordered Dobrorolski despite the latter’s protestations around noon of July 24, was to have the
most lethal consequences. “Had Yanushkevich from the beginning warned Sazonov of the mistake he would be making in proclaiming partial mobilization, Sazonov would never have got the Council of Ministers on 24 July and the Tsar on 25 July to approve it in principle, nor would he have proclaimed it on the evening of 28 July with incalculable consequences. If he had been asked to choose between no mobilization and general mobilization against the Central Powers, Sazonov would have hesitated to plunge headlong into the venture, whereas, believing he could threaten Austria without provoking Germany, he found out too late that this could not be done.” (164)

Yet since Yanushkevich was eager to please but unprepared to admit his lack of knowledge of the true
mobilization plan, the catastrophe ran its course. [FN2] At the emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers that convened at 3 p.m. of the same day, the following resolutions were approved, and signed into law by Tsar Nicholas II on the next morning, July 25 (165):

That (1) Austria would be asked to extend the 48-hour deadline, (2) that Serbia pull back her army into the inner
country without attempting to resist an eventual Austrian invasion, (3) to inaugurate the “Period Preparatory to War” [FN3] in the military districts of Kiev, Moscow, Odessa and Kazan, (4) to authorize the War Minister “without delay to speed up the stockpiling of war materials for the army”, (166) and (5) the Finance Minister to immediately retransfer liquid Russian assets in Germany and Austria-Hungary to the Russian Central Bank.

Thus, only twenty-two hours after the presentation of the Austrian note in Belgrade, Sazonov had his arrangements
approved and, save for a miracle, committed Russia, France and – most likely – Great Britain to war; given the flanking
measures, it seems likely that he did so in full awareness of the consequences.

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 415 – 416

[FN2] There is some disagreement over Sazonov’s cognizance of the implications of his scheme. L.C.F. Turner believed that Sazonov “did not understand that a partial mobilization involving thirteen Russian army corps along her northern border would compel Austria to order general mobilization, which in turn would invoke the Austro-German alliance and require general mobilization by Germany.” (168) Sean McMeekin, however, points out that “there is good reason to believe that Sazonov himself knew perfectly well what he was doing when he proposed Sukhomlinov’s “partial mobilization” plan to the government – that is, that he was knowingly plunging Russia into war. Sazonov, after all, had been present [unlike Yanushkevich] at the emergency ministerial council held at Tsarskoe Selo on 23 November 1912, when [Prime Minister and] Chairman Kokovtsov had warned everyone that the “partial mobilization” plan, by forcing Austria to order general mobilization, could not but lead to a European war. As Kokovtsov had concluded his winning argument, then, ‘no matter what we chose to call the projected measures, a mobilization remained a mobilization, to be countered by our adversaries with actual war.Emphasis in Original But this July 24 was the day after which the French President and Prime Minister had just left St. Petersburg – in the wake of the summit – and it is unlikely that the Austrian ultimatum of which, we know, Sazonov was warned as early as the 16th, or at least its eventuality had not been discussed at this meeting and a strategy developed how to respond to it. If nothing else, probability speaks for the theory that Sazonov had indeed asked for, and received, a “Blank Cheque” of his own, drawn on the Bank of Paris.

[FN3] The “Period Preparatory to War” meant “the period of diplomatic complications preceding the opening of hostilities, in the course of which all Boards must take the necessary measures of preparation for security and success at the Mobilization of the Army, the Fleet, and the Fortresses, as well as for the march of the Army to the threatened frontier.” The military commission upon whose work the official “Regulation Concerning the Period Preparatory to War” was based, had explained that ‘it will be advantageous to complete concentration without beginning hostilities, in order not to deprive the enemy irrevocably of the hope that war can still be avoided. Our measures for this must be masked by clever diplomatic negotiations, in order to lull to sleep as much as possible the enemy’s fears.” Emphases in original

Whatever the Russian intentions, German travellers notified Berlin as soon as the afternoon of July 26 about a suspicious increase in Russian railway traffic and military movements in the western military districts. How did Berlin react?

Around 7 p.m. Sazonov received the German Ambassador Count Pourtales, whom Bethmann Hollweg had already on the 22nd instructed to express “the view that the present question is purely a matter for settlement between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and that to confine it to the parties directly concerned must be the earnest endeavour of the Powers. We urgently desire the localization of the conflict, because any intervention by another Power might in consequence of the various alliances bring incalculable consequences in its train.” (171)
How the German Chancellor could hope to get away with this impertinence remains a mystery – in essence, he demanded liberty for Austria to beat Serbia to a pulp, yet warned everybody that Germany would be on Austria’s side should anyone complain. Luigi Albertini rested on this utter and undisputed blunder the following indictment of the German government:

Let us … turn our attention to the fact that Germany demanded a free hand for Austria against her small Slav
neighbour under threat otherwise of going to the help of her ally. This thesis was summarized in the expression “localization of the conflict” which has remained notorious….
Let us pause a moment to analyse this thesis, bearing in mind that it formed the basis of German diplomatic action from 24 July onward and that the European conflagration broke out precisely because at the opportune moment the German Government refused to renounce it, and in order to ensure its success, urged the Austrian Government to make haste and declare war on Serbia.
“Localization of the conflict” meant that: 1. no one else was to have a say in the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia (not that this would have been possible in the brief time limit set for the reply), [and] 2. unless Belgrade played the dirty trick on Austria of submitting for the time being to all her demands, the invasion of Serbia would take place, and if it took place no one was to interfere on pain of war.
It is sufficient to define the terms of this injunction to measure the immensity of the miscalculation it contained. It was universally admitted that Russia, for reasons of kinship and because of her own designs on Constantinople and the Straits, had a special interest in the autonomy and evolution of the small Balkan States. The history of Europe in the previous half-century was shot through and through with disputes between Russia and Austria over their rival claims for hegemony in the Balkans. War had been just round the corner in 1908-9 and 1912-13 over the struggle between Austria and Serbia in which Russia had always taken
her stand with Serbia. And now the rulers in Berlin thrust themselves forward and thought they could solve the knotty problem once and for all by confronting Russia, her ally France, her all-but-ally England and indirectly Italy as well, with a blustering “aut-aut” – the misguided notion that they would all bow to the German fiat. But this was
tantamount to willing war, the war of which, when it did break out, they declared that their hands were clean.
We have in fact already seen that they were prepared to have a war, while at the same time thinking it on the whole improbable and counting above all on England’s standing aside and letting them have an easy victory. The reasoning was absurd, almost unbelievable, all the more as the German rulers were on the point of violating Belgian neutrality to make a speedy end of France. (172)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 416

Yet the mutual Russian and German diplomatic imbecilities had not yet reached the German military, which remained on a peace footing for the time being, while Russia was, in actuality, already preparing for war. For the time being, at least. But what did Sazonov suspect?

Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Sazonov informed Pourtales that Russia considered Austria’s accusations of Serbia as groundless and that he thought she was only seeking a pretext to “swallow” the smaller country. “In that case, however,” Sazonov blurted out, “Russia will go to war with Austria.” (173) Pourtales replied — quite truthfully, as far as we know, that…

“… in the most extreme case it would only be a matter of an Austrian punitive expedition against Serbia and that Austria was far from contemplating territorial acquisitions. At this M. Sazonov shook his head incredulously and spoke of far-reaching plans of Austria’s. First Serbia was to be devoured, then it would be Bulgaria’s turn and then ‘we shall have them at the Black Sea’. I answered that such fantastic exaggerations
did not seem to me worthy of serious discussion.” (174)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 417

Did Pourtales have a hearing problem? What he reported to Berlin from this communication was his opinion that …

“that Russia will not take up arms except in the case that Austria were to want to make territorial acquisitions at Serbia’s expense. Even the wish for a Europeanization of the question seems to indicate that an immediate Russian intervention is not to be anticipated.” (175) 42

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 417

Pourtales’ report was thus a quite erroneous and tragically optimistic assessment in the light that Sazonov had already ordered preparative measures for Russia’s mobilization. The country’s inner situation may have contributed to the idea that the immediacy of war and an ensuing wave of patriotic fervour would disengage the people’s attention from the extensive
strikes momentarily petrifying St. Petersburg – thus providing “a desperate way of escape from domestic difficulties.” (176)
On the next morning, Saturday, July 25, the Council of Ministers met again, in the presence of the Tsar, Grand Duke Nicholas, prospective C-in-C of the Russian forces, and General Yanushkevich. The measures agreed upon the previous day were formally enacted, and Sazonov informed the attentive luminaries of Germany’s far-reaching designs. Austria he deemed but a “stalking horse for a malevolent German policy,” whose “ultimate objectives,” however, “beyond the acquisition of ‘hegemony in the Near East,'” remained, alas, “unclear”. (177)
If we subscribe to the view that Bethmann Hollweg and Jagow viewed Sazonov’s handling of the Sarajevo crisis as a litmus test for Russia’s peaceful or warlike intentions, we must note that the difference between the German option of “accepting a war, should Russia choose to start one”, (178) which could not – and was not – used to justify pre-emptive military preparations against Russia (before the latter began her general mobilization) and the Russian measures enacted on July 25 was exactly that the latter, explicitly effected policies that were “proactive in nature, did not arise from a direct
threat to Russia, and were highly likely (if not certain) to further escalate the crisis.” (179) Did Berlin understand Russia threatened war? And what exactly were these Russian measures? Following the Council of Ministers, the Russian General Staff held its own meeting, late on July 25, resolving that…

… not only Moscow but also St. Petersburg, a city nearly a thousand miles from the Austro-Hungarian border (and still farther from Serbia) was placed under martial law. Everywhere in Russia, training manoeuvres were broken off and troops recalled to quarters. Cadets enrolled in Russia’s military academies were immediately promoted officers, thus not only filling gaps in the army’s command structure with new subalterns but also “freeing for active service in the field many mature officers who had hitherto been detailed on educational work.”
Yanushkevitch emphasized that all of these tasks should be carried out “energetically” and stipulated crucially that, if necessary, mobilization officers “would be permitted … to overstep the boundaries laid down in the ‘Period Preparatory to War’ regulations.” Taking the hint, General Dobrorolski had already wired Zhilinsky in Warsaw, instructing him to recall all troops in his districts to quarters. At 1 am the night of 25-26 July, the Warsaw district (that is, Russian Poland) was placed under martial law.
Later that night – at 3:26 am – Yanushkevitch wired Warsaw that the morrow (26 July 1914) would mark “the beginning of the ‘Period Preparatory to War’ in the entire region of European Russia,” covering all six of the main military districts – Warsaw, Vilna (Vilnius, i.e., the Baltic area), Kazan, Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa. What this meant in practice was that “all fortresses in the Warsaw, Vilna, and St. Petersburg districts were placed ‘in a state of war,’ frontier guards were brought up to strength and the frontier posts were fully manned, censorship and security measures were tightened, harbours were mined, horses and wagons were assembled
for army baggage trains, depots were prepared for the reception of reservists, and all steps were taken to
facilitate the impending mobilization.”
The Period Preparatory to War inaugurated on 26 July further allowed for the “call-up of the three youngest classes of reserves in areas threatened by enemy action,” including, significantly, Russian Poland west of the Vistula. Expanding the net of Russia’s “intended partial mobilization” still further, on 27 July 1914 Yanushkevitch wired Tiflis command that the Period Preparatory to War was now also in force for the military districts of Omsk, Irkutsk, Turkestan, and the Caucasus.

Russia may have begun mobilizing in Omsk and Tiflis even earlier than this, as Norman Stone, drawing on Austrian sources, concluded: “There is also certain evidence to suggest that the Russians began to mobilize considerably earlier than they made out: at a comparably early stage in the Lemberg campaign, Austro-Hungarian units took prisoners from Siberian and Caucasus units, which could scarcely, in view of Russia’s great transportation problems, have reached the West if mobilized only at the end of July.”

Manfred Rauchensteiner, a leading Austrian historian of the eastern front, went still further than this, arguing that the unexpected speed of Russia’s mobilization against Austrian Galicia in August 1914 suggests that “the Russians began mobilizing towards the beginning of July and systematically prepared for war.” An early, secret mobilization of this kind was entirely consistent with the understanding of the Period Preparatory to War by the members of Russia’s General Staff – and by Tsar Nicholas II. (182)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 418

The partial mobilization of Austria-Hungary against Serbia was more or less expected to be ordered following the Ultimatum and was published on July 26. Latest at that point Berlin should have either made up its mind or started some diplomatic initiatives to stop the war, for the situation became rapidly clear:

At any rate, the Journal of the Russian General Staff Committee reported in its June 25 edition that “according to
information received, certain preparatory measures for mobilization were being taken in Austria-Hungary and Italy. Therefore, H.M. the Tsar has been graciously pleased to confirm the order of the Council of Ministers that in the night of 25/26 July the pre-mobilization period shall begin.” (185) Whatever hopes on the secrecy of the measures the Russian staff may have hedged were, however, in vain, for already on 3:25 pm on the 26th, the German military attaché in St. Petersburg, Major Eggeling, wired to Berlin that “mobilization had been ordered in Kiev and Odessa.” Habsburg consuls in Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa sent in reports of Russian mobilization measures on 27 July 1914.”(186)

In some way the Russians were in a dilemma – exactly because everything went slower and took much longer due to the lack of infrastructure, their mobilization had to start as early as possible, and there remains a debate whether or not, as in other countries, the order of mobilization necessarily comprised – once the units had arrived at the frontier – the
order to open hostilities according to whichever plan was momentarily in force. Yet in the strategic aspect, the acute Serbian crisis delivered the suitable inception scenario – result of the Balkanization of the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1913 — to provide Russia with “the optimal casus belli,” (187) and it was thus only logical for Sazonov to instruct Belgrade “not to accept a British offer of mediation,” should one be received. (188) One must keep in mind that St. Petersburg – different from the other parties – saw the Serbian crisis necessarily in the context how it could best be exploited to serve the overriding strategic issue, that is, Constantinople and the Straits; the Serbian affair, even the European war – which, for her vastness alone, Russia believed she could not truly lose – were only a theatre secondary to the true battleground. General Dobrorolski put it in simple terms by observing that, after the Council of Minister meetings of July 24 and 25, “the war was already a decided thing, and all the flood of telegrams between the governments of Russia and Germany were nothing but the staging for an historical drama.” (189) 44

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 418 – 419

Naturally, the further history of the mutual mobilizations was clouded under a lot of deliberate obfuscation in the various White books the belligerents subsequently published and Luigi Albertini had to write a whole chapter on “THE LEGEND THAT THE AUSTRIAN GENERAL MOBILIZATION PRECEDED THAT OF RUSSIA” (Volume 3, pages 112 – 165), but as far as the Schlieffen Plan is concerned, it remains ineligible to prove a particular German aggressiveness.

Condition Three: Attack

Now we may address the third condition of the quandary; Where and when did the actual fighting begin – one would assume, naturally, with the great German offensive against Belgium?

Actual fighting in the south started on August 7, when Joffre, apparently to “arouse the nation’s passion for war by an early coup de théâtre in Alsace,” (11) ordered VII Corps [Louis Bonneau], stationed in Belfort, to advance to and conquer Mulhouse, which it did on August 8 without meeting initial opposition. The town was, however, given up just as quick on August 10 in the face of German counterattacks.

The grand ambition of Joffre’s Plan XVII, however, had not changed. Its design was still the encirclement of the fortified German positions at Metz and Thionville with two pincers, Dubail’s First and Castelnau’s Second Armies from the south, and Ruffy’s Third and Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army from the north. They were to meet, eventually, near the Saar and Moselle rivers; the German defenders would be trapped; and the way to the Rhine would be free.

An unintentional effect of Bonneau’s visit to Mulhouse and retour was that the German deployment in the south was upended: Heeringen had sent far too much of 7th Army after the single French corps, and the arriving Bavarians of Rupprecht’s 6th Army found it hard to establish contact and flank protection with Heeringen’s troops.

Worse: since the expected Italian reinforcements had to be written off, the Bavarians found themselves fairly extended. They had only about 3,000 men per kilometre of front line available compared with, say, 1st Army’s 11,000 men per kilometre. Slowly, the Bavarians occupied their quarters in the Lorraine between Metz and Dieuze and amused themselves with liberating the local wine cellars. Duty, however, called soon.

Joffre detailed the Armée Alsacée to provide defence the French border from the Swiss frontier up to Mulhouse, and to cover Dubail’s flank. The latter task meant that it had to move north-eastwards and contradicted the first assignment. At any rate, Dubail’s and Castelnau’s forces were to break out just south of the German forts of Metz and Thionville, attacking from the Trouée de Charmes between Toul and Epinal. Dubail’s general direction would be to proceed to and conquer Sarrebourg, followed by moving to Donon (slightly north-eastward) and Strasbourg (slightly south- eastward); Castelnau was to aim for Morhange, making sure to cover Dubail’s left flank against an eventual German sortie from Metz.

They would thus avoid to meet German strong points or known troop concentrations, but “the farther French forces advanced … the broader their fronts became: eventually, eighty kilometres for First Army and seventy for Second Army. Dubail’s dual objectives of Sarrebourg and Donon necessitated splitting his forces and thus exposing his flanks to German counterattack.” (12)

Joffre discounted intelligence reports that indicated that the Schwerpunkt, the main concentration, of the German deployment was directed against Belgium. In addition, he expected no more than six German corps defending Alsace-Lorraine, and so advised a sceptical Castelnau, while, in reality, 6th and 7th Armies were composed of eight corps. In Joffre’s opinion, the mass of the German troops was in the Moselstellung, the fortified position between Metz and Thionville along the Moselle River, on the defensive, and the rest in East Prussia facing the Russians, who would, as the news from St. Petersburg informed him, begin their attack on August 14.

Dubail’s and Castelnau’s German opponents, Rupprecht and Heeringen were as unhappy as was Castelnau, but for the opposite reason: their role was far too defensive for their taste, and they began to stir at Moltke’s reins. Their more offensive plans were rejected, but when Krafft von Delmensingen, Rupprecht’s chief of staff, devised an option to “sack” any French forces that would be bold enough to follow if 6th Array pretended to retreat, the plan won preliminary approval, and 6th Army was withdrawn behind the Saar, as a lure.

On the morning of the fourteenth, he [Joffre, ¶] sent the armies of the right wing – roughly four hundred battalions and sixteen hundred guns, almost one-third of the chief of staff’s entire strength — into Germany.

… Overall, the French force formed a gigantic wedge aimed straight at Sarrebourg and the left wing of Rupprecht’s Sixth Army. Progress was good. (13)

Joffre was aware of the danger of encirclement and took precautions. He demanded that Dubail and Castelnau’s units always maintained close contact, for mutual flank protection. That they did, until after Dieuze and Sarrebourg had been occupied without resistance, Joffre ordered Castelnau north-eastwards to Morhange, into the Saar valley. Consequently, First and Second Army lost touch, since Dubail was still progressing eastward to Strasbourg.

For four days the Germans fell back, contesting but not firmly opposing the French advance, which in places reached twenty-five miles into Reich territory. A German regimental colour was captured and sent for presentation to Joffre at Vitry-le-François, where he had established General Headquarters (GQG).

Chateau-Salins was taken, then Dieuze, finally on 18 August, Sarrebourg, all places that had been French since Louis XIV’s war against the Habsburgs in the seventeenth century. [They had been German, however, the many centuries before Louis XIV, ¶] Then the front lost its sponginess. The French infantry found German resistance stiffening. The small Army of Alsace, advancing continuously on the First’s right, recaptured Mulhouse next day, but its success lent no support, for a wide gap yawned between it and Dubail’s positions. It was not the only gap.

First Army was not firmly in contact with Second; west of the Saar Valley, Dubail and Castelnau were not in operational touch at all. Dubail was conscious of the weakness and intended on 20 August to mend it by launching an attack that would both restore contact and open a way through for Bonneau’s Cavalry Corps (2nd, 6th and 10th Divisions) to debouch into the enemy’s rear and roll up his flank; but even as he set the attack in motion on the night of 19/20 August, the Germans were preparing to unleash their planned counter-offensive.

Rupprecht’s and Heeringen’s Armies had been temporarily subordinated to a single staff, headed by General Krafft von Delmensingen. Thus, while the French Second and First Armies co-ordinated their actions only as well as sporadic telephoning could arrange, the German Sixth and Seventh fought as a single entity. Here was the anticipation of a new trend in command, which would bring into being formations as large as existing communication systems could control.

On 20 August its worth was swiftly demonstrated. Dubail’s night attack was checked as soon as begun. The setback was followed by a simultaneous offensive along the whole line of battle by the eight German corps against the French six. The French VIII Corps, which had reached the Saar at Sarrebourg, was overwhelmed; its artillery was out metalled by the heavier German guns, under the fire of which the German infantry drove the French from one position after another.

Heavy artillery did even worse damage to Second Army, which was struck by a concentrated bombardment along its whole front as day broke on August 20. The XV and XVI Corps abandoned their positions under the infantry attacks that followed. Only the XX, on the extreme left, held firm. It was fighting on home ground and was commanded by General Ferdinand Foch, of exceptional talent and determination.

While his soldiers clung on, the rest of the Army was ordered by Castelnau to break contact and retreat behind the River Meurthe, the line from which it had begun its advance six days earlier. It had very nearly been enveloped on both flanks, which would have resulted in irretrievable disaster to the whole French army, and had completely lost touch with the First Army, which Dubail was therefore obliged to disengage from battle also.” (14)

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 560 – 562

Link: A very useful article on the Battle of the Frontiers and the early days of the Western Theatre


The French attack, necessarily, showed Joffre’s hand: his Schwerpunkt was in the south; consequently, the German right-wing in Belgium would he opposed by less French troops than initially presumed.

So much for the initiation of hostilities at the Western Front.

The situation at the Eastern Theatre and the initial attack of the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies into East Prussia is detailed in the following article:

The Battle of Tannenberg


Conclusion

Armies make plans, and that is what all belligerents in the Great War did. As we have noted in various posts: the “offensive” was believed to serve as the panacea of contemporary strategic thinking and subsequently all the greater continental armies subscribed to the theory and all of them developed suitable plans. We must keep in mind that the idea of a “war of aggression” – as it was later defined in the Nuremberg Trials – and its odium did not exist then.

Unlike the precipitate causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their interpretation remains the topic of a lively historic discussion. But before we dare to enter the abyss, we must remind ourselves of four instances in which the pre-1914 world was much different from today, and we must keep these conditions in mind when we review what happened.

I. To wage war was considered the natural privilege of a state, a part of its governmental discretion. Smaller wars before the 1870s, say, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, had essentially been the last “cabinet wars”, undertaken with  limited resources to achieve specific political objectives. But the more technical and economic development allowed increases in army size and firepower, the more such changes aggravated the indeterminable risks – “the fog of war”, as Clausewitz famously called it – and this uncertainty ensured that after 1871 a relatively long period of peace graced much  of the European continent. Even men who could reasonably be accused of having advocated war in July 1914 did so without an idea of the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe they invoked. The odium that two world wars were to inflict on the idea of war itself, it’s now increasingly doubtful legitimacy, did not exist in 1914.

II. Just as war was perceived as a simple, prosaic option of a government, the leadership of its armed forces was expected to be prepared for it. Every nation had copied the system of the Prussian and later German General Staff, and all these staffs were called upon to develop plans for every possible contingency; indeed, not to plan for a likely scenario would be tantamount to treason.

III. Due to false lessons drawn after the Crimean War of 1856 by generals worldwide, the dogma prevailing at European military academies in the years prior to 1914 embraced the superiority of attack; the French general staff called  it “offensive à outrance”, and it became the principle underlying its catastrophic Plan XVII. In addition, the inbred conservatism of cavalry officers – noble to a man – led to the establishment of additional cavalry units in all armies right up to the eve of the war, which had two significant drawbacks: not only took cavalry an exceptional and inevitable drain on  the chronically overburdened supply system, for one cavalry division of 4,000 men and twelve guns needed as many daily supply trains (forty) as an infantry division of 16,000 men and fifty-four guns, (1) but the invention of the machine-gun had punched the death ticket for cavalry attacks, who came to resemble mass suicide. Yet this was, of course, not realized until the occurrence of the first battles. But the reliance on attack would also guarantee, it was surmised, that the decisive  battle and its unavoidable destruction would take place on the enemy’s soil, and, with luck, might disable some of his war industry – as it happened when Germany occupied the ten north-eastern French departments for much of 1914 to 1918  and thus took out approximately 70% of the pre-war French iron industry.

IV. The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of thriving imperialism, and all great powers attempted to partake in or project “world power”1. Colonization was, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, the “white man’s burden”.

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY, P. 291 – 292

The existence of the Schlieffen Plan was thus not an aberration of warfare, but an integral part of a national military plan, as was existent in every major nation. It did not cause, much less provoke, an early German mobilization, and the initial attacks of the war were not its result. German War Guilt may exist and be apportioned in and through other, mostly diplomatical and political failures, neglect, miscalculations and some real stupidity, but it cannot be blamed on a war plan by itself.


(© 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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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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Germany 1918 to 1923

Demonstration in Berlin

It is well understood today that the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 defined the momentum of world politics and history long beyond its theoretical end in 1918. Without the First War, there would not have been a Second, or the Cold War – until the fateful and mostly happy days of 1989.

Street fighting in Berlin 1919

The fulcrum of the war was Germany and this little reader collects our main articles on German history in the years 1918 to 1923, from the final days of the war to the German revolution of 1919/19, the Peace Treaty of Versailles (so fateful for the future) and the subsequent developments in Germany up to the Hitler Putsch of 1923 and its aftermath.


The German Spring Offensives of 1918


Woodrow Wilson and the Fourteen Points


The Road to the Armistice and the Last Day of the War


Revolution in Germany and the End of the Monarchy


The Treaty of Versailles


The Kapp – Putsch of 1920 (German version, please use translator button on page, English version soon)


The Beer Hall Putsch of 1923


Trial and Detention of Adolf Hitler and the Putschists


[Many references in the articles above point to quotations respectively historical works referenced in the author’s main work “The Little Drummer Boy”, therefore here links to the Appendices: Quotations and Bibliography.]

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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The Treaty of Versailles

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, John C. Johansen (1876–1964)

Related Post on the last chapter of the war: Objects in the Rear Mirror are Closer than they Appear [including PDF]


The Full Text of the Treaty of Versailles [PDF]


Video by France 24 with English Subtitles


What do we have to keep in mind, in the recapitulation, about the peculiarities of the Great War’s gestation? We may remind ourselves that neither politicians nor generals realized the sheer dimension of the disaster they unleashed. They understood that it was to be a huge war, but they still thought essentially in the dimensions of 1812 and 1870, big wars, to be sure, especially that of 1812, and destined to become even bigger by conscription, but that Napoleon’s Grande Armée of 1812 would easily be outsized by a factor of ten or fifteen and that ten million fatalities would eventually be counted nobody dared to suggest in 1914.

It was exactly because of the enormity of the conflagration that an intensive discussion was to ensue over the responsibility for its outbreak, the issue of “war guilt”. This topic remains intensively argued to this day, but in 1919, as we will see, it was quickly institutionalized by way of individual peace treaties, which tended to reflect the noble motives of the victors that so favourably contrasted to the evil schemes of the losers. As it was to be expected, the victors liked the results very much, the losers much less.

It took not much political savvy to doubt the usefulness of the blame game and the reparation demands which resulted – and would be so catastrophically exploited by Hitler’s propaganda – Marshal Foch himself famously called the
Treaty of Versailles not peace but a “twenty-year armistice”, and was not far off: twenty years, nine months and nineteen days after the First World War had ended, the Second broke out. In retrospect, the motivations were simple – territorial demands, economic interests, and underlying psychological malaises, and in each case, the result – the decision for war – was a mixture of at least two of these elements.

France sought to regain Alsace-Lorraine – the defeat of 1871 had literally stunned the nation, and, perhaps even more urgently, she sought to renew the national unity that had been torn asunder by the Dreyfus affair. The Great War would provide the illusion of such unity for the time being – l’union sacrée, proclaimed by Poincaré in parliament on August 4 – yet that France could not truly regain this indivisibility proved itself for the worse in 1940 when the French Right opted rather to suffer German occupation than to allow a Second Commune. But since the country had succeeded since 1904 “to convince leading members of the Liberal government in London that France’s security was a British national interest,” (150) she was assured not only of the assistance of the greatest land power, Russia, in the impending war, but could also count on the support of the biggest sea power. A repeat of 1871 seemed to be out of the question.

Great Britain’s policy remained – obviously – the perpetuation of divide et impera, the prolongation of the concert-of-powers system that prevented the rise of a continental hegemony. It was a lucky happenstance, perhaps, that this coincided with a certain interest in the weakening of Germany’s industry as a competitor in global trade. England had no stated territorial interests, although she would be suspiciously quick in accepting, after the war, as “mandates” from the League of Nations the former German colonies of Namibia and Tanzania. A discussion remains whether Edward Grey’s, the British Foreign Secretary, three principal moves that ended in England joining the war, of whose acuity he seemed to have been well aware, were results of his bumbling or cunning. In his memoirs, Grey wrote: “I remember saying more than once, to colleagues inside or outside the Cabinet that it did not matter whether the decision was to go to war or to demand conditions from Germany. Conditions meant war just as surely as a declaration of war. Respect for the neutrality of Belgium must be one of the conditions, and this Germany would not respect.” (151) [FN 32] This argument can be made, of course, only in hindsight.

[FN 32] Albertini remarks: “This shows that Grey knew beforehand what would be the outcome of his three moves. The first was that of 31 July when though the situation was beyond repair [sic] he asked Paris and Berlin to ‘engage to respect the neutrality of Belgium so long as no other power violates it’. The second was on 1 August, when with Cabinet consent he warned Germany that ‘if there were a violation of the neutrality of Belgium by one combatant while the other respected it, it would be extremely difficult to restrain public feeling in this country.'”

Austria-Hungary’s motivations were almost entirely psychological – the Danube Monarchy dreaded Slavic nationalism as well as Hungarian separatism, had no concept for the integration of the numerous ethnic minorities, and was in shocking internal disorder – parliament had to be dissolved in 1907, and she essentially became a military dictatorship during the war. Only a great victory promised hope for the future – provided that it was possible at all to preserve “Kaiser Franz Joseph’s unique but anachronistic inheritance” – the breaking apart of which the European equilibrium could not – and did not – survive. (152)

Russia was in a similar political situation – the attempted revolution of 1905 was in no way forgotten – as the future was to tell – and any influx of patriotism the war was to bring figured hugely in her political computations, but her leadership had a truly strategic and territorial vision. To gain control of the Straits and hence access to the Aegean, Adriatic and the rest of the Mediterranean Seas would not only multiply her economical opportunities but also extend the influence of her navy – the budget of which since 1913 exceeded that of Germany – to the coasts of the Balkan and Asia Minor – the resurrection of an [Orthodox] Christian Byzantine Empire would reverse the progress of Islam into Europe.


Related Posts on the last phase of the war and the armistice negotiations:

Woodrow Wilson’s Whiplash – The Fourteen Points

The Vanity of Black Jack Pershing


But one day all was over, and in Spring and Summer 1919 the delegations of the belligerents met in Paris to conclude the peace treaties. The most important of these – with Germany – was to be signed in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, where on January 18, 1871, the victorious Germans had proclaimed the Second Empire.

Since all nations except the United States were completely exhausted from the war, everybody looked upon President Woodrow Wilson as Arbiter (and Saviour) Mundi, as the cartoonists were quick to notice.

In anticipation of the victorious conclusion of the war – through American supplies and troops – European politicians, pros and amateurs alike, had drawn up maps for the future. Most of those had as a common element the partitioning of Germany – a sort of time travel back to 1789 – as to disarm the German menace for all time. They all looked somewhat like this:

This specimen may date from before 1917 – the breakdown of Russia is not anticipated, therefore no Poland, and really nobody has an idea what to do with the western Balkans (Black lines are the borders of 1914)
Woodrow Wilson partook in amateur geostrategy as well – a Map from 1920

On the historical assessment of what finally transpired in the Treaty, there is a useful introduction on Wikipedia and, of course, stacks of literature – hence this post will not deal with details. A tentative agreement seems to form that the peace conditions were not as harsh as later German, especially Nazi German, propaganda made them out – which of course did not help in 1939.

Procedurewise, negotiations started on January 18, 1919 (48 years after 1871). While at times over 50 commissions worked on details, the important decisions were made by the “Big Four” Committee, consisting of Prime Minister of France Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of Italy Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Lloyd George, and President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, who met in 145 closed sessions. Russia was not invited, on account of their separate Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, and Germany excluded.

The Big Four, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando and Wilson

The signing ceremony was held in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles on June 28, 1919, the fifth anniversary of the Sarajevo Affair, the assassination of Francis Ferdinand.


Related Post: The Prince and the Pauper (Sarajevo 1914)


As one would surmise, the German delegation was quite unhappy about the proposed treaty. Minister-President Philipp Scheidemann and his cabinet, the first German postwar government, resigned in opposition to the treaty on June 20, 1919. He was replaced by Gustav Bauer. The decisiveness of the hesitant German government was much improved when the Allies issued an ultimatum stating that Germany would have to accept the treaty or face an invasion of Allied forces across the Rhine within 24 hours. On June 23, Bauer relented and sent his plenipotentiaries.

German delegates in Versailles: Professor Walther Schücking, Reichspostminister Johannes Giesberts, Justice Minister Otto Landsberg, Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Prussian State President Robert Leinert, and financial advisor Carl Melchior.

The place of the signing was, as mentioned, fraught with history. The German National Assembly voted for the treaty by 237 to 138, and the result was wired to Clemenceau just hours before the deadline. German foreign minister Hermann Müller and colonial minister Johannes Bell travelled to Versailles to sign the treaty on behalf of Germany. The treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 and ratified by the Weimar National Assembly on 9 July by a vote of 209 to 116. (see Wiki)

The Hall of Mirrors
The delegations gather …
… as do the spectators.
Some seating arrangements were complex …
… to provide the necessary room …
… others less complex.
The Signing of the Treaty of Peace at Versailles, 28 June 1919 by Joseph Finnemore, 1919
Cover of the British Version

The eventual territorial changes are depicted below:


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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First World War – Animated GIFs

Cover File (NOT ANIMATED)

We present two lovely animated GIFs on the subject of WW I below. You can download them and adjust their speed to your taste with https://ezgif.com/speed (works best with smaller files) or http://gifmaker.org/. Click on the pics for full size view.

File One: Overview

File Two: The Western Front August 4 to September 20


(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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History’s Most Lethal Submarine – U 35 in WW I

The German U-boat U-35 cruising in the Mediterranean, April 1917

“Shocking!” was the unanimous opinion of the British Admiralty, when it became obvious, in the earl 1900s, that the development of diesel-electric propulsion would enable – sooner or later – the construction of serviceable submarines for warfare.

It was quite against the sense of fairness that guided this august body. After all, they had built, and were still building, rows and rows of expensive battleships – at a cost of a few million pounds each – which were to ensure Royal British supremacy on the oceans of the world.

Could the building of such cowardly weapons forbidden by means of an international treaty? Incomprehensibly, no volunteers among the navies of the competition could be found. It was suspected, that the mighty battleships were, due to their armour, perhaps not liable to become the prey of the ignominious new weapon, but the merchant ships, upon whose trade the British Empire depended, would be helpless victims. [FN1]

[FN1] The theory of the inviolability of the battleship to torpedoes and mines went – literally – to the bottom of the sea on October 27, 1914, less than three months into the war, when HMS Audacious was struck by a mine and capsized a few hours later.

HMS Audacious

Submarines had one excellent advantage – they could not be seen, and their guns, torpedoes and mines could sink any ship in sneak attacks. It was truly unfair. They were cheap, too, hence everybody could build them – and did.

U 9

While submarines could sink warships, these were rare cases. The two U-Boats – as German submarines were called after the German term “Unterseeboot” – most efficient at this particular task were U 9, which met the 7th Cruiser Squadron, comprising the Cressy-class armoured cruisers Bacchante, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, together with a few destroyers, and sunk Cressy, Aboukir and Hogue within a few hours in the Action of 22 September 1914. Three weeks later HMS Hawke fell prey to the same boat.

But this feat was outclassed by her sister ship U 21, which on May 25 and 27, 1915, in the opening days of the Battle of Gallipoli, managed to sink the two British pre-dreadnoughts HMS Triumph and HMS Majestic, while adding the French armoured cruiser Amiral Charner to her bag in February 1916.

Yet the more imminent threat for England was, as mentioned, the severance of her trade lines. She imported about 70% of foodstuffs and intermediate goods, upon which the people and industry depended. There was a financial consideration as well – money had to be spent for the purchase of these goods, but if the transport was sunk, so much for the balance of payments. [FN2]

[FN2] It is not generally known, that by April 1, 1917, the British Empire was bankrupt, and the only hope for her main creditors, the US, to recover their loans was to join the war and help her debtors win. American loans to the Allies were but the cost of keeping up the Imperial shop, a fact that even the Encyclopaedia Britannica makes no qualms in admitting: “The entry of the United States was the turning point in the war, because it made the eventual defeat of Germany possible. It had been foreseen in 1916 that if the United States went to war, the Allies’ military effort against Germany would be upheld by U.S. supplies and by enormous extensions of credit. These expectations were amply and decisively fulfilled. The United States’ production of armaments was to meet not only its own needs but also France’s and Great Britain’s. In this sense, the American economic contribution was decisive. By April 1, 1917, the Allies had exhausted their means of paying for essential supplies from the United States, and it was difficult to see how they could have maintained the war effort if the United States had remained neutral. American loans to the Allies worth $7,000,000,000 between 1917 and the end of the war maintained the flow of U.S. arms and food across the Atlantic.” (16)

Hence, the major task of the U-Boats was commercial raiding. In the First World War, this meant an initial advantage for the hunter for the dearth of electronic countermeasures, which would be developed only much later. Essentially, U-Boats could only be found by hydrophones, which were still rather primitive and sensitive, especially during convoy operations. The only weapon against subs were depth charges.

Unlike in WW 2 movies, the main weapon of the time was the deck gun, of medium calibre, often 88 or 105 millimetres. The reason was that the boats carried a very limited number of torpedoes only and tended to save them, hence the gun became the more attractive alternative. The most famous commander of U 35, Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, used the deck gun in 171 of his 194 sinkings.

The great tactical difference in U-Boat warfare between the two wars lay in the area of communications, whose improvements allowed Germany’s Submarine Commander Karl Dönitz in the Second War the invention of the “Rudeltaktik”, in English called “Wolfpack”. Improvements, however, worked for both sides – U-Boats could be controlled and directed much tighter by tactical command, yet the enemy could meanwhile share their own information of sightings and locations. Hence, in World War I, each boat was on her mission alone. No Wolfpack of WW II, however, came close to the success of the “one boat wolf pack” that was U 35.

Thus, we arrive at the main point of our article, the performance of U 35 in WW I. U 35 was a pre-war construction ordered in 1912 [Design, see Wiki, and FN3]. She officially entered service on November 3rd, 1914, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Waldemar Kophamel.  Under his command, U 35 sunk no less than 38 ships until November 17, 1915.

The next day Captain de la Perière took over. He was to become the most successful submarine commander of history. His main area of operations was the Mediterranean Sea, and, in 14 or 15 patrols (sources differ), sank 189 merchant ships and five men-of-war for a total of 446,708 GRT.  [Complete List of Sinkings and Damages caused by U 35]

Attack on SS Maplewood

[FN3] German Type U 31 submarines were double-hulled ocean-going submarines similar to Type 23 and Type 27 subs in dimensions and differed only slightly in propulsion and speed. They were considered very good high sea boats with average manoeuvrability and good surface steering.[5] U-35 had an overall length of 64.70 m (212 ft 3 in), her pressure hull was 52.36 m (171 ft 9 in) long. The boat’s beam was 6.32 m (20 ft 9 in) (o/a), while the pressure hull measured 4.05 m (13 ft 3 in). Type 31s had a draught of 3.56 m (11 ft 8 in) with a total height of 7.68–8.04 m (25 ft 2 in–26 ft 5 in). The boats displaced a total of 971 tonnes (956 long tons); 685 t (674 long tons) when surfaced and 878 t (864 long tons) when submerged.[5] U-35 was fitted with two Germania 6-cylinder two-stroke diesel engines with a total of 1,850 metric horsepower (1,361 kW; 1,825 bhp) for use on the surface and two Siemens-Schuckert double-acting electric motors with a total of 1,200 PS (883 kW; 1,184 shp) for underwater use. These engines powered two shafts each with a 1.60 m (5 ft 3 in) propeller, which gave the boat a top surface speed of 16.4 knots (30.4 km/h; 18.9 mph), and 9.7 knots (18.0 km/h; 11.2 mph) when submerged. Cruising range was 8,790 nautical miles (16,280 km; 10,120 mi) at 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph) on the surface, and 80 nmi (150 km; 92 mi) at 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) under water. Diving depth was 50 m (164 ft 1 in).[5] The U-boat was armed with four 50 cm (20 in) torpedo tubes, two fitted in the bow and two in the stern, and carried 6 torpedoes. Additionally, U-35 was equipped in 1915 with one 8.8 cm (3.5 in) Uk L/30 deck gun, which was replaced with a 10.5 cm (4.1 in) gun in 1916/17. The boat’s complement was 4 officers and 31 enlisted.[5]

Historical Video Clips from U-35: Imperial War Museum / BackToThePastWeb

Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière, her second captain, was of French Huguenot descent, of the many families that fled France after Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, ending religious tolerance in France in favour of the Catholic Church. In reaction, Frederick Wilhelm, Duke of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, issued the Edict of Potsdam in late October 1685, encouraging the Protestants to seek refuge in Prussia, which many did and became an economic boom and elite in the (then) relatively backward country.

Frederick Wilhelm welcoming the Refugees

He strictly adhered to the Prize Rules then in effect, which makes his achievements all the more impressive. His fourteenth patrol (26 July to 20 August 1916) stands as the most successful submarine patrol of all time, in which 54 merchant ships totalling 90,350 GRT were sunk.

U-35 also sank the British gun boat HMS Primula on 29 February 1916, the French gunboat Rigel on 2 October 1916 as well as the Armed merchant cruiser La Provence.

She survived the war and was transferred to England and broken up after 1920.


(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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The Battle of Tannenberg


Video


STAVKA (the Russian High Command) had prepared two plans for the eventuality of war against the Central Powers, Plan G for Germany and A for Austria-Hungary. Although the mobilization of the troops stationed in Russia was somewhat delayed by G and A’s colliding railway schedules, the Russian army eventually appeared in its deployment areas faster than anticipated by the enemy.

STAVKA had established two Army Group commands for her western forces, north respectively south of the BugVistula line. Army Group “Northwest” was in charge of First and Second Armies, earmarked to deploy against Germany while Army Group “Southwest” commanded Third, Fifth and Eight Armies, sharing the task of invading Galicia, the Austrian part of former Poland.

Fourth Army was the Russian version of a “swing option”: much like Joffre had originally intended for Lanrezac‘s Fifth Army in France, Fourth Army could be sent into action either at the Austrian front south of Lublin, or back up, “en echelon”, First and Second Armies on their way into Germany.

The Russian post-1905 modernization program had suffered much due to arthritic Russian bureaucracy; improvements were delayed, never implemented or simply ignored; in some respects the Russian army could not meet international standards.

[First and Second Armies deployed] … nine corps to Prittwitz‘ [the German C-in-C] four, and seven cavalry divisions, including two of the Imperial Guard, to his one. Rennenkampf, commanding First Army, and Samsonov, commanding Second, were moreover both veterans of the Russo-Japanese War, in which each had commanded a division, while Prittwitz had no experience of war at all. [Not true, see link above]

Their formations were very big, [Russian] divisions having sixteen instead of twelve battalions, with large masses of – admittedly often untrained – men to make up losses. Though they were weaker in artillery, particularly heavy artillery, than their German equivalents, it is untrue that they were much less well provided with shells; all armies had grossly underestimated the expenditure that modern battle would demand and, at an allowance of 700 shells per gun, the Russians were not much worse off than the French, fighting at the Marne. Moreover, the Russian munitions industry would respond to the requirements of war with remarkable success.

Nevertheless, Russia’s forces were beset by serious defects. The proportion of cavalry, so much greater than that in any other army, laid a burden of need for fodder on the transport service, itself inferior to the German, which the value given by mounted troops could not justify; forty trains were needed to supply both the four thousand men of a cavalry division and the sixteen thousand of an infantry division.

There were human defects as well. Russian regimental officers were unmonied by definition and often poorly educated; any aspiring young officer whose parents could support the cost went to the staff academy and was lost to regimental duty, without necessarily becoming thereby efficient at staff work. As Tolstoy so memorably depicts in his account of Borodino, the Russian officer corps united two classes which scarcely knew each other, a broad mass of company and battalion commanders that took orders from a narrow upper crust of aristocratic placemen. The qualities of the peasant soldier – brave, loyal and obedient – had traditionally compensated for the mistakes and omissions of his superiors but, face to face with the armies of countries from which illiteracy had disappeared, as in Russia it was far from doing, the Russian infantryman was at an increasing disadvantage. He was easily disheartened by setback, particularly in the face of superior artillery, and would surrender easily and without shame, en masse, if he felt abandoned or betrayed. The trinity of Tsar, Church, and Country still had power to evoke unthinking courage; but defeat, and drink, could rapidly rot devotion to the regiment’s colours and icons. (1)

To this litany a failed artillery policy and communication problems might be added. Russian artillery officers tended to view the main task of heavy guns in defending the chain of fortresses which secured the Russian border perimeter and were very much averse of schlepping big guns over a battlefield. Thus, Russian armies were chiefly equipped with small and medium calibre guns, of lesser firepower and diminished range. As in the naval gun race, lighter guns became the victims of the enemy’s heavier ones; for lack of range unable to return the fire. Radio communications suffered from a lack of trained cipher clerks, which forced the radiomen to transmit many message en clair, especially in the heat of battle.

Initial Deployment

In the event of August 1914, Fourth Army marched south, to the Austrian border, and Army Group Northwest dispatched First and Second Armies to East Prussia. The plan envisioned a two-pronged manoeuvre of enveloping 8th Army. STAVKA directed Rennenkampf to attack north of the lakes and the Angerapp River east of Königsberg and to proceed along the Baltic Sea Coast in westerly direction. Samsonov was ordered to invade from the south-east – from the direction of Warsaw – and to march in north-westerly direction until he would meet Rennenkampf, coming from the other direction, somewhere on the Vistula, perhaps in the vicinity of Marienwerder or Marienburg. The defenders would be surrounded and once the Vistula was gained, the way into West Prussia and Silesia lay open.

The plan had two weaknesses: it was obvious, as a tarantula on the cheesecake, and it depended upon close cooperation and communication of the two armies, conduct neither Rennenkampf nor Samsonov were renowned for. The German General Staff had actually based pre-war games upon the premise of such a two-pronged attack and had established that the correct counter-strategy was to delay one prong while attacking the other. Such a strategy necessitated rapid troop movements between the two sides of the Lakeland, the north-eastern part around Insterburg and Gumbinnen, and the south-western side from Allenstein in the centre of the province to Thorn on the Vistula. A direct railway was built traversing the Lakeland for this exact purpose, running along a line Gumbinnen – Insterburg – Allenstein – Osterode – Deutsch-Eylau – Thorn.

The map below shows the early stage of the East Prussian campaign. The Russians appeared three weeks earlier than anticipated, Rennenkampf’s vanguard crossing the border and reconnoitring in westerly direction on August 15. Two days later, his III, IV and XX Corps marched on Gumbinnen, eighty miles east of Königsberg. They were screened by his 1st Cavalry Division on their southern flank and the Guards Cavalry Corps on the northern one. Their counting on strategic surprise, however, was nullified as early as August 9 on account of the German 2nd Aircraft Observer Battalion and the services of two dirigibles stationed at Königsberg and Posen. They informed Prittwitz of the Russian presence, but what worked for the Germans failed, inexplicably, for the Russians: their cavalry could not find any trace of the enemy, and Rennenkampf’s aerial reconnaissance unit, consisting of a fleet of 244 aircraft, mysteriously failed to spot a single German unit.

Early Deployment and Russian Plan

The most important information for Prittwitz was that Second Army seemed to be late. The German staff began to believe that they might have a shot at Rennenkampf first and Samsonov later.

Geography was to disrupt the smooth onset of the Russian combined offensive in space. Less excusably, timidity and incompetence were to disjoint it in time. In short, the Russians repeated the mistake, so often made before by armies apparently enjoying an incontestable superiority in numbers, the mistake made by the Spartans at Leuctra, by Darius at Gaugamela, by Hooker at Chancellorsville, of exposing themselves to defeat in detail: that is, of allowing a weaker enemy to concentrate at first against one part of the army, then against the other, and so beat both.

The way in which geography worked to favour the Germans’ detailed achievement is the more easily explained. Though eastern East Prussia does indeed offer a relatively level path of advance to an invader from Russia, the chain of lakes that feeds the River Angerapp also poses a significant barrier. There are ways through, particularly at Lötzen, but that place was fortified in 1914.

As a result, a water barrier nearly fifty miles long from north to south confronted the inner wings of First and Second Army, so tending to drive them apart. Strategically, the easier option was to pass north and south of the Angerapp position rather than to force it frontally, and that was what the commander of the North-Western Front, General Yakov Zhilinsky, decided to direct Rennenkampf and Samsonov to do.

He was aware of the opportunity such a separation offered to the Germans and accordingly took care to provide for the protection of his two armies’ flanks. However, the measures taken enlargened the danger, since he allowed Rennenkampf to strengthen his flank on the Baltic coast, which was not at risk, and Samsonov to detach troops to protect his connection with Warsaw, equally not threatened, while arranging for one corps of Second Army [II Corps] to stand immobile in the gap separating it from First. The result of these dispositions was a diversion of effort which left both armies considerably weakened to undertake the main task. Having commenced the deployment with a superiority of nineteen divisions against nine, Rennenkampf and Samsonov actually marched to the attack with only sixteen between them.

Worse, critically worse, the two armies arrived at their start lines five days apart in time. First Army crossed the East Prussian frontier on 15 August, a very creditable achievement given that the French and Germans were then still completing their concentration in the west, but Second not until 20 August. As the two were separated in space by fifty miles of Lakeland, three days in marching time, neither would be able to come rapidly to the other’s assistance if it ran into trouble which, unbeknownst either to Rennenkampf or Samsonov, was the way they were heading. (2)

The aviators’ intelligence initially paid off for Prittwitz. When Rennenkampf began offensive operations on August 17, Prittwitz knew that Samsonov was late and thus could momentarily afford to keep most of 8th Army in the north-east. A Russian probe which showed up at the small town of Stallupoenen, ten miles east of Gumbinnen, was quickly checked, but when Prittwitz ordered a counter-attack of General Herrmann von François‘ I Corps on August 20, the Russians had already prepared an entrenched position near Gumbinnen. I Corps was, as was the whole 8th Army, composed of East Prussian men defending their homeland, and their aggressiveness in assaulting a fortified Russian position cost them dearly.

By mid-afternoon, I Corps had come to a halt. Its neighbouring corps, XVII, commanded by the famous Life Guard Hussar, von Mackensen, who was encouraged by early reports of its success, was meanwhile attacking north-eastwards into the Russians’ flank.

It did so without reconnaissance which would have revealed that, on its front as on that of von François, the Russians were entrenched. From their positions they poured a devastating fire into the advancing German infantry who, when also bombarded in error by their own artillery, broke and ran to the rear. By late afternoon the situation on the front of XVII Corps was even worse than that on the front of I Corps and the Battle of Gumbinnen was threatening to turn from a tactical reverse to a strategic catastrophe.

To the right of XVII Corps, I Reserve, under von Bülow, counter-attacked to protect Mackensen’s flank against a Russian advance. At Eight Army headquarters, however, even the news of that success could not stay the onset of panic. There Prittwitz was yielding to the belief that East Prussia must be abandoned and the whole of his army retreat beyond the Vistula. (3)

The big red arrow on the map above shows the intended retirement to the west, beyond the Vistula, that Prittwitz thought unavoidable. The bold blue arrows in squares DE 3-4 symbolize Rennenkampf’s III, IV and XX Corps, moving westward, into the direction of the fortified zone of Königsberg. At its southern flank, First Army is protected by 1st Cavalry Division and in the north by the Guard Cavalry Corps. Squares BCD 1-2 show Second Army, composed of I, XXIII, XV, XIII and VI Corps, plus 15th, 6th and 4th Cavalry Divisions. Samsonov’s II Corps is located in the geographical middle of the Lakeland, square DE 2, in the act of being transferred to Rennenkampf on August 21. It is on the way north-west, to join First Army at Angerburg.

At OHL [Supreme Command] Moltke balked at the very thought of withdrawing 8th Army behind the Vistula. But for the margins of the operational plan being too narrow, Moltke had no troops available for an immediate reinforcement. To make the situation worse, the men of 8th Army had their roots and families in East Prussia; an order to retreat might cause a revolt. Moltke decided that a new broom was needed on the Eastern front. Two brooms, actually.

Moltke decided first that a director of operations of the first quality must be sent instantly to the east to take charge. He chose Ludendorff, who had twice so brilliantly resolved crises in Belgium. He next determined to dispose of Prittwitz altogether, judging his declared intention to retire behind the Vistula, even if subsequently reconsidered, to be evidence of broken will.

In his place he promoted Paul von Beneckendorff and Hindenburg, a retired officer noted for his steadiness of character if not brilliance of mind. As a lieutenant in the 3rd Foot Guards, Hindenburg had been wounded at Königgrätz in 1866 and fought in the Franco-Prussian War. He claimed kinsmen among the Teutonic Knights who had won East Prussia from the heathen in the northern crusades, had served on the Great General Staff and eventually commanded a corps.

He had left the army in 1911, aged sixty-four, but applied for reappointment at the war’s outbreak. When the call from Moltke came, he had been out of service so long that he was obliged to report for duty in the old blue uniform that had preceded the issue of field-grey. He and Ludendorff, unalike as they were, the one a backwoods worthy, the other a bourgeois technocrat, were to unite from the start in what Hindenburg himself called “a happy marriage.” Their qualities, natural authority in Hindenburg, ruthless intellect in Ludendorff, complemented each other’s perfectly and were to make them one of the most effective military partnerships in history. (4)

On August 23, Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived at Rastenburg whither the HQ of 8th Army had been moved, and summoned the staff for a conference the very next day. The discussion began with an analysis of the situation by General Scholtz, commander of XX Corps which was, at the moment, the sole German unit opposing the slowly advancing Samsonov in the south. Strategically, the newcomers in command were much aided by a resolution Prittwitz had enacted
just before he was relieved of duty. During his years at the Staff Academy, Prittwitz had participated in the aforementioned war games and hence was familiar with the East Prussian counter-strategy, which called to defeat the Russians “in detail”. Prittwitz had decided that, after the tie at Gumbinnen, as he saw it, Rennenkampf could be counted as checked, and that First Army would typically need a few days to regroup and redeploy. If he acted fast, he might beat Samsonov in the south before Rennenkampf, in the east, resumed the offensive. Ably assisted by his Chief of Staff, Colonel Max Hoffmann, he ordered von François’s I Corps from Königsberg whither it had retired, and von Mackensen’s XVII Corps, at the moment south-west of Gumbinnen, to entrain southward to meet Samsonov.

These movements are indicated on the map below by the thin dashed lines and bold red arrows, showing the early stages of the German movements. I Corps retired to Königsberg in order to board the coastal railway line while XVII and I Reserve traversed first westward, then south-west, into the direction of Allenstein. Scholtz’s II Corps was already in the vicinity, around the small towns of Hohenstein and Tannenberg.

Thus, Hindenburg and Ludendorff did not have to design a new plan, whose development might have cost precious time but were able to adopt Prittwitz’s strategy, which they pursued at best speed. To their aid came a few monumental errors in the Russian dispositions, chiefly by Rennenkampf. When First Army’s forward reconnaissance units, after the four days of the Battle of Gumbinnen, reported that the presence of German troops facing them was thinning out, Rennenkampf assumed that 8th Army had retreated to the fortified zone of Königsberg. Such a move might be reasonable, at some level, since it would compel First Army to a lengthy siege, which might give the Germans time enough to send reinforcements from the Western Front. Thus, Rennenkampf stopped the pursuit of I and XVII Corps, consolidated his territorial gains, and initiated preparations for the upcoming siege.

He reported his decision to STAVKA and asked for assistance with the investment of Königsberg, for which his troops, lacking heavy artillery, were ill prepared. But since the delay meant that he was, for the time being, incapable of keeping touch with the rest of the German army, he proposed to Zhilinsky to send Samsonov in the direction of the Vistula, i.e. north-west. Once First Army had reduced Königsberg, the planned envelopment of 8th Army could be reactivated. Army Group Northwest followed Rennenkampf’s suggestion and Samsonov was ordered to proceed in north-western direction, to the Vistula, but away from First Army.

Rennenkampf’s proposition was risky in itself – what if the siege failed? But what transpired in the event was worse. On the morning of August 25, First Army’s radio traffic with STAVKA and Army Group Northwest, which included the siege plan, was intercepted and deciphered by Ludendorff’s radio monitors. Moreover, the messages yielded the priceless information that First Army would halt and thus be unable to support Second Army in case it headed into trouble.

Rennenkampf’s decision to halt allowed Hindenburg and Ludendorff to concentrate against Second Army. They could afford to leave Königsberg essentially unprotected except for its entrenched garrison and a weak screen of 1st Cavalry Division [see map above, the red dots, C 3-4, west of Rennenkampf]. Now the railways came into play. The existence of two lines allowed 8th Army to route parts of XVII and I Reserve Corps southward, via the Insterburg-Allenstein line traversing East Prussia, and to convey I Corps by the coastal railway to Elbing, and then route them via Marienburg and Deutsch-Eylau to Seeben, into a position opposite the left flank of Samsonov’s I Corps which stood between Soldau and Usdau. Ludendorff even ordered the small Vistula garrison from Thorn to meet François’s I Corps near Lautenburg [Map above, square B 1]. By August 26, XVII Corps stood at Bischofstein [Map above, C 3], and I Reserve between Allenstein and Seeburg [Map above, C 2-3], opposing Samsonov’s northernmost unit, VI Corps at Bartelsdorf. The main body of Second Army still stood south of Allenstein [XIII, XV and XXIII Corps, Map above, BC 1-2].

The tactical situation on the map above depicts the advantage the Germans earned by the flexibility of their troop movements, which, in addition, almost completely evaded Russian detection. There were hardly any German troops left in the north-east, vis-a-vis Rennenkampf – except for the very light screen of 1st Cavalry – and the Russian II Corps, now detached to First Army’s southern flank, lingers in a completely uncontested area. Except for her cavalry, First Army remained almost stationary; by August 26 it had moved barely ten miles west – cautiously – through empty land. Second Army was still moving north-west but was spreading all over the Lakeland, from Zielun, 15th Cavalry in the south-west, to Sensburg, 4th Cavalry, in the north-east. This was when Hindenburg …

… was passed the transcript of a complete Russian First Army order for an advance to the siege of Königsberg which revealed that it would halt some distance from the city on 26 August, well short of any position from which it could come to Second Army’s assistance in the battle he planned to unleash.

Furnished with this assurance, he met von François, whose corps was just beginning to arrive at Samsonov’s flank, in confident mood. Distance was working for him, the distance separating Samsonov and Rennenkampf’s armies, and so now too was time, the self-imposed delay in Rennenkampf’s advance which, had it been pressed, would have put the First Army well behind the Lakeland zone in positions from which it could have marched south to Samsonov’s assistance. (5)

Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s plan were successive attacks into Second Army’s right flank, that is, to attack from Allenstein in south-western direction. François’s I Corps was to begin the offensive on August 25.

Then François, whose stubborn aggressiveness could take a wilfully uncooperative form, interrupted the smooth unrolling of a plan that should have brought his I Corps, XVII and XX successively into action against Samsonov’s flanks. Claiming that he was awaiting the arrival of his artillery by train, he was slow off the mark to attack on 25 August, and slow again the next day.

Ludendorff arrived to energize the offensive, with characteristic effect, but François’s hesitation had meanwhile had a desirable if unintended result. Unopposed in force to his front, Samsonov had thrust his centre forward, towards the Vistula against which he hoped to pin the Germans, thus exposing lengthening flanks both to François, now to his south, and to Mackensen and Scholtz, who were marching XVII and XX Corps down from the north. On 27 August François rediscovered his bite, and pushed his men on. Samsonov, disregarding the danger to his rear, pressed on as well. On 28 August his leading troops savaged a miscellaneous collection of German troops they found in their path and broke through almost to open country, with the Vistula beyond.

Ludendorff, seized by a fit of his nerves his stolid appearance belied, ordered François to detach a division to the broken units’ assistance. François, creatively uncooperative on this occasion, did not obey but drove every battalion he had eastward at best speed. With the weight of Samsonov’s army moving westward by different routes, there was little to oppose them. On the morning of 29 August, his leading infantry reached Willenberg, just inside East Prussia from Russian territory, and met German troops coming the other way [see map below]. They belonged to Mackensen’s XVII Corps, veterans of the fighting south of the Masurian Lakes, who had been attacking southward since the previous day. Contact between the claws of the two pincers – the units were the 151st Ermland Infantry of I Corps and the 5th Blucher Hussars of XVII – announced that Samsonov was surrounded. (6)

The map above portrays the situation on August 30. I Corps had begun its move at Seeben and marched east via Niedenburg, to Willenburg. Since Samsonov was marching in the opposite direction, north-west, none of his units encountered I Corps, and Second Army remained oblivious of the Germans’ presence in their rear. After I and XVII Corps had met at Willenburg, Scholtz’s XX Corps closed the trap on the western side. Except for VI Corps which escaped by retiring in south-eastern direction over the Russian border, the whole of Second Army was caught in a huge pocket east of the towns of Hohenstein and Tannenberg.

Situation August 30, 1914
Victoryy aaccounced

The bag amounted to approximately 50,000 Russian casualties and 92,000 prisoners, compared with losses of about 30,000 killed, wounded or missed on the German side. These numbers made the Battle of Tannenberg, as it was named according to Hindenburg’s wishes, a most particular event compared to the battles on the Western front which frequently caused wholesale destruction but so far had rarely yielded significant numbers of prisoners. For the moment, the danger to East Prussia and Silesia was averted, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff hailed as the saviours of the nation.

Russische Gefangene und Beute
The Generals of 8th Army

Rennenkampf, however, proved a tougher customer than Samsonov. When the Germans, now reinforced by the arrival of IX and the Guard Reserve Corps from France, attempted to repeat the encircling manoeuvre against First Army, Rennenkampf managed to evade the German pincers adroitly in what was called the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. On 13 September he was safely back in Russian territory, regrouped, and, reinforced by a new Russian army, the Tenth, conducted a counteroffensive which succeeded in re-establishing a Russian line near the Angerapp River, which was held until February 1915.


[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, pp. 140-41, 142-44, 145, 145-46, 148, 148-49


(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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