The Defeat of the German General Staff

THE resignation of von Falkenhayn and the succession of von Hindenburg brought out a latent antagonism in German policy that has existed since long before the war. Von Falkenhayn, like most of the German General Staff, is a Westerner, and had persuaded himself that the way to victory for his country lay through France and Belgium. Yon Hindenburg, on the other hand, is an Easterner. He would have made the main German offensive this year in the East, preferably toward Petrograd; but if there had been any doubt about the attitude of Roumania, or of Austrian ability to hold the Russians, then toward Kieff. All through the winter, he and his army on the Dvina front were starved both for drafts and supplies, and there was a great deal of floating gossip about the set that had been made against him by the General Staff. Even in the brilliant campaign against Russia last year which, some will have it, was of his designing, there were signs toward the end that Hindenburg was being thrust aside, assigned the most difficult and thankless work, and left insufficiently supported. In the winter the General Staff, which had already turned their backs on the man, turned their backs on his policy too, and faced right about to the West. The result was the great failure of Verdun, the breaking of the Austrian lines in Volhynia, and the entry of Roumania into the war. Hindenburg was proved indisputably right. Doubtless, if the main attack had been made in the East, the Allies would have attacked in the West; but the Germans would have been in at least as favorable a position to defeat them as they were after the heavy losses at Verdun; and one half the energy put into the western campaign, applied to the eastern, would have secured results which would certainly have made Germany arbiter of the East for this generation.

There are very few purely military blunders to be found in history; almost invariably they are an amalgam of some sort, political, social, or moral. It was so with Falkenhayn’s blunders. His history is an interesting one. More than twenty years ago he left the army for a commercial post in China; his enemies said that he was in debt, or at any rate had more extravagant tastes than a captaincy could support. In China he did well, and when the Boxer outbreak occurred, he had acquired sufficient reputation and knowledge of the country to be attached to Count von Waldersee’s staff in the expedition to Pekin, at first in an unofficial, and later in a more regular, capacity. Waldersee liked him, took him back with him to Germany, and secured him the command of a provincial army corps.

Presently began the acquaintance with the Crown Prince. Falkenhayn had seen much more of life and of the world than the average Prussian general, who is usually somewhat provincial (both for good and evil) in manners and in thought. His mercurial temperament had not a trace of German dullness and stolidity. He was a man of form and taste, and his judgments on men and affairs were illuminated with liveliness and a Gallic changefulness of mood. Not that he was shallow or lacked stability; intellectually he was very well-moored and his accomplishment was high. But a whole generation of German history and of ‘ gettingon’ in the world is to be read in the difference between Falkenhayn and old Moltke, as in that between Bismarck and Bülow. Such a man was bound to succeed with an intellectually ambitious, but none the less feeble, German court, and princes have always been susceptible to the attractions of those who knew how to temper their undeniable talents with courtliness. He became a member of the Crown Prince’s clique and of the General Staff.

This body was much more than a servant of the government. It was an opposition within a government. There being no party government in German Imperial administration, there could be no such thing as His Majesty’s Opposition, and the nearest you could get to a German translation of so idiomatic a phrase of English politics would be to speak of the Emperor’s Government and of the Crown Prince’s Opposition. The General Staff belonged to that Opposition. There are no water-tight compartments in men’s minds, and it is inevitable that the political and social ideas of a General Staff should color its military and professional judgments. They certainly did in Germany. For Russia these men had much admiration. War with her might be a disagreeable necessity, in order to attain certain definite political ends; but it should be a dynastic war, like those of the old-fashioned European history, not a conflict of political philosophies. But to the Crown Prince and his friends, war with France and England presented itself in a very different light. They were liberal countries and the ideas even of their rulers were very little sounder than those of the hated Social Democrats in Germany. Here there were not merely governments to fight, but principles too, and people who were a living propaganda of them. This was a war of the heart — and of the stomach as well. England in particular was hated because she held the keys of the seas, and all the commercial Jingoism of the country heaved when it thought of her.

Love of the power that wealth brings, and of the opportunities of selfindulgence, had eaten deep into the soul of modern Germany and nowhere deeper than into the soul of its princes and generals. It made yet another reason why war in the West should interest the General Staff more than war in the East. Allowance too should be made for the deadweight of conservatism in military matters. The German military juggernaut had once rolled toward the West, and it tended by mere reflex action to roll the same way again. Ruit mole sua.

In their desire for an understanding with both England and France men like the Chancellor and, at any rate until 1912, the Kaiser himself, were almost certainly sincere. But they never had the sympathy of the military party. What is more, they never had even its unwilling cooperation. If war it must be, then it was for Germany an obvious measure of prudence that it should be war without England, and as far as possible without the national sentiment of France, against her. Assuming that the main motive of Germany in declaring war on Russia was to insure her position in the East, — in other words, that this was in its essence a war of the Turkish succession, — it is quite conceivable that Germany might have had a war without England and, if not without France, at any rate with France apathetic. Some of the suggestions made by Bethman-Hollweg just before the outbreak of war show that this idea was insistent in his mind. So far, however, from receiving the support and cooperation of the General Staff, that was precisely the kind of war that they did not want. They put up with the war on Russia because in no other way was it possible to realize Germany’s ambitions in the East. But the war that they did want was war with France and England. As the Kaiser stood on the brink, contemplating its black depths and wondering whether there were not some easier and less dangerous way of performing his theatrical role, Tirpitz and Falkenhayn came and pushed him in.

Nor is this mere metaphor. What made France keenly enthusiastic for the war, and England’s entry inevitable, was not the eastern policy of Germany or any purely political aims of hers, but simply and solely the plans of the General Staff for putting the main military strength of the country to the West. These plans had doubtless been in existence for some time and it was difficult to change them at the last minute. Yet had the General Staff had the same angle of vision as the Chancellor, alternative plans would long ago have been prepared to meet a political situation which must have been foreseen as likely; and that they were not prepared was due mainly to the disloyalty of the Staff to the political ideas of the Government. There were in fact two governments in Germany: the official government, which was aiming at the realization of certain very definite political ambitions in the East; and the General Staff, which was in effect an opposition government. The Chancellor wanted one kind of war — a war with Russia for the Turkish succession with as few other enemies as possible. The General Staff, whose politics were other than the Chancellor’s, wanted a very different sort of war, and got what they wanted. The Chancellor has always put forward as his excuse for declaring war on Russia that Germany could not afford to waste her advantage of more rapid mobilization. But the military chiefs made nonsense of this excuse by leaving the Russian front to Austria and using Germany’s power of rapid mobilization against France. So little importance did the Staff attach to the danger of attack from Russia that they were caught completely unprepared on that side and East Prussia suffered a very humiliating invasion.

It will not do to say that the General Staff had no alternatives. They had two, either of which would have been better than the plan actually adopted. They might, best of all, have refrained from attacking France and remained on the defensive in the West. The political advantages of this strategy from the Chancellor’s point of view would have been enormous, especially if it had been accompanied, as it might well have been, by a statement explaining the motives of the German policy. Supposing that Germany had said, as in such case she could have done, with a good show of reason, that having no quarrel with France she did not propose to attack her; and that as her object was to punish Serbia and to resist the claims of Russia in the Balkans, all her offensive operations, so long as she was not attacked from the West, would be directed against the East, it may well be that France, such is her loyalty to her Allies, might still have attacked. But it is obvious that the whole character of the war would have been different. There is no reason to suppose that the result of these attacks would have been different from the result of those actually made. But if the French armies had been defeated under these circumstances, is it to be supposed that they would have gone on attacking indefinitely? Would not a keen opposition have arisen in France to a war which it would then most plausibly have been said was not in defense of France but for Serbia, and for Russia’s interests in the Balkans? Nor need we take the view that desire to protect Belgium was the sole motive for British intervention, to have the gravest doubts whether Great Britain would have entered the war if there had been no attack on France, and Germany had declared that she had no intention of attacking her but simply desired to assert her ambitions in the East. Vast as these political gains would have been, they would have cost Germany no military advantages. On the contrary, the military results would have been far greater than those actually obtained. A double German and Austrian offensive against Russia at the outset of the war would have inflicted a blow from which she could never have recovered. East Prussia and Galicia would never have been invaded, all Poland would have been lost before winter, and a spring campaign would have taken the German armies to Petrograd, Moscow, Kieff, and Odessa. Even if England had joined in, Russia’s case would have been hopeless. But if, as is quite possible, England were still hesitating, Russia, without the assistance of British sea-power and completely cut off from all possibility of renewing her supplies, must have made peace before the war had lasted a year.

Secondly, an alternative less advantageous for Germany but far better than the course actually taken, would have been for Germany, if she must take the offensive against France in order to obtain greater security against attack, to rest content with occupying the Meuse heights. This would have been a very considerable military occupation, but it would have been easier at the beginning of the war than it was at the end of the second year, when the bulk of the German armies were employed in defending parts of their line which, if Belgium had not been invaded, would have borne no sort of relation to the defense of their own country. Whether an attack on the Meuse heights would have any chance of success if directed from purely German territory is perhaps open to doubt, but an advance through Luxembourg would have answered her purpose just as well. If the occupation of the Meuse heights had been all that was desired, there would have been no reason for the Belgian invasion, which contributed less than nothing to her chances against Verdun.

There were thus two alternatives, both preferable to the plan of campaign actually adopted. It took the Germans two years to discover that the muchvaunted General Staff had quite gratuitously doubled and trebled the tasks of the country and made defeat at least as likely as victory would have been had it been less disloyal to the policy of the official Government. The dismissal of Falkenhayn is the manifest proof that this discovery has at last been made. It is the disgrace, not of Falkenhayn alone, but of the whole Staff, for Hindenburg is not a Staff man at all, but a mere ‘ regimental officer,’ as they would say in England.

But mark, if we would understand the fatuity of the Staff, the stages which led to the discovery. The first to be disgraced was Moltke— and very justly. Even if we accept the view — and no one surely would accept it now — that the balance of purely military and professional reasons was in favor of the invasion of Belgium, it was nothing less than madness, having invaded Belgium and thereby made the intervention of England certain, to stop short of the sea and not to make certain of the coast-line. When the retreat of the British from Mons began, the whole coast-line of France could have been had for the asking; and not until after the battle of the Marne did the Germans begin the conquest of the coast. It was too late. The Narrows, which in September would have cost them nothing, were not to be had in October even by the expenditure of 250,000 casualties in the so-called battle of Calais. Of all the blunders in military history there is none to compare with this. Nor were the mountains of German dead the only monument to this incompetence. It was in the period between the discovery of the German Staff that with England in the war the coast did matter, when they were in a state of nervous apprehension of a British landing on the coast, that their worst excesses took place in Belgium. They were cruel, as men often are, because they were afraid. Thus the blunder cost the German army honor as well as life.

But though the General Staff realized that the western campaign had been grossly mismanaged, in its execution, they were as far as ever from admitting that their whole conception was fundamentally wrong.

In spite of the attacks on Ypres in 1915, the main summer campaign of the German armies last year was in the East, and the remarkable measure of success that they attained shows how much more they might have done if they had begun the war in Poland instead of in Belgium. Had the policy of the Allies been wiser, the Germans would not have been able to repair in the East their mistakes in the West, and the opportunity let slip in the first autumn of the war would never have been caught up again.

The narrative of the blunders of German Staff strategy must here be interrupted by some observations on the war policy of the Allies, which delayed for another year the complete exposure of the German General Staff.

In the strategy of the Western Allies, and especially of England, the same antagonism between East and West is observable, though it took very different forms and was due to very different causes from those which we have seen in Germany. British foreign policy before the war was curiously lop-sided. Any doubts there might be about our duty and interest to assist France were resolved by the invasion of Belgium, but only a negligible minority in the Government or out of it recognized at the beginning of the war any duty or interest in Serbia. ‘To Hell with Serbia,’ said a placard of John Bull just before the war. Our views of policy, both military and civil, left that side of Europe out of account; that end of the stick was regarded as Russia’s only. No one in authority seems to have realized that here in the East were the true political motives of the German Government, or that the domination of the bridgehead of Serbia was the end in view, and France and Belgium only the means to that end. All through 1915, the Western Allies were slowly adjusting themselves to what was for them a new orientation of the war; and a very tragic process this adjustment was. One man in the English Government saw early that after the German failure in the battle of Calais the true centre of gravity of the war had shifted, at any rate for the time being, to the East. Throughout this year England was accumulating an army in France for an offensive which had not the remotest chance of decisive success until the following year; and all the time the East, the jugular of the war, was comparatively neglected. Had we understood the situation in time, neither Turkey would have come in against us — and if she had, the fall of Constantinople would have been the penalty — nor Bulgaria, nor would Serbia have perished, nor would there ever have been any doubt about the attitude of Greece. The price of foodstuffs would not have risen so high, had the forcing of the Dardanelles released the Black Sea ports; Russia would never have suffered from a munitions famine, and the Germans would have been unable in the summer of 1915 to call in the East to redress the balance in the West.

The one man who understood these things in time was Winston Churchill, to whom public opinion in England, or at any rate parliamentary opinion, has been bitterly unjust during the war. Mr. Churchill has many faults, but he is the one man in the Government who had anything like strategic vision; not for nothing was he the descendant of the greatest of all English strategists. Such a man sees the truth of a military situation in a flash, by a kind of second sight, and the process of converting others is maddening in its slowness, — like arguing a short-sighted man into an intellectual conviction that something which you can see with your own eyes is really there. Impatient intuitive vision on the one hand and unimaginative dullness on the other, laid between them the foundation of the disappointments that followed in the Dardanelles expeditions — disappointments that Lancashire of all the English counties most bitterly resents. Everything connected with that expedition is still the subject of heated controversy, and the discussion of any single one in the chain of causes that led to the failure would carry us too far from the main course of our argument. Nor is it possible at this stage to apportion justly the blame for what happened. But the leading facts stand out beyond challenge. In the early months of 1915, when the attacks on Constantinople began, the British, for the very first time in the war, and for the last time until the very end of the second year of the war, had the strategic initiative in their hands. The folly and disloyalty of the German General Staff in concentrating against the West and leaving the East to Austria had left the citadel of Germany’s ambitions almost defenseless. Had we acted with the necessary vigor, and been one quarter as generous in our provision for that part of the world where the enemy was weak, and immediate results of the most tremendous importance were to be gained, as we were for the West, where no decisive results were to be had for another eighteen months, there was no reason why we should not have been by the middle of last year in a definitely better position than now. The disgrace of the General Staff, which seemed imminent after the war had been in progress for four months, was thereby delayed for another twenty, and the war was lengthened by at least a year.

It was strange that England of all countries should have been slow to perceive the strategic importance of the East or if she perceived it, so reluctant to make the necessary sacrifices. Had it been France that was reluctant, the position would have been intelligible enough. Her country was invaded and her first anxiety was to get the enemy off her soil; her interests in the East, although considerable, were not to be compared with ours; and she was feeling the frightful drain on her manhood. For her to fight shy of the East and to grudge the expenditure of men on enterprises which she had some right to regard as secondary so far as she was concerned, would have been very natural. Yet such was not the view of the majority — at any rate in the French Chamber. On August 27, 1915, as M. Poincare has told us, the three committees for War, the Navy, and Foreign Affairs unanimously passed a resolution embodying ‘the attention and deliberation of two months,’ calling on the Government to ‘ organize an expedition which would ensure the fall of Constantinople.’ That is to say, at a time when Frenchmen with the enemy in their country might justly have said that their chief duty was at home, the responsible committees of the Chamber were pressing on the Government the importance of the East and the need of making any drafts on their depleted strength that might win Constantinople for the Allies. Churchill said the same: ‘All through the year (1915) I have offered the same counsel to the Government — undertake no operation in the West which is more costly to you in life than to the enemy. In the East take Constantinople; take it by ships if you can, or take it by soldiers if you must. Take it by whatever plan, military or naval, commends itself to your experts, but take it and take it soon.’ The British House of Commons never quite understood Mr. Churchill’s advocacy of the Eastern solution. The French Chamber understood without being told, although it was under the strongest temptation to look the other way. How English popular opinion in 1915 came to be enamored of the rank military heresy that you must attack where the enemy is strongest and you have the least chance of success — and this was literally true of the west front in 1915 — is one of the mysteries of the war. Another mystery is the infatuation of military newspaper experts with the doctrine of attrition. As a matter of fact the attrition was against us, but in any case the bare idea of ending the war that way is anathema to the art of war and almost a denial that the art exists.

In the autumn of 1915, the General Staff suffered a great blow by the resignation of Tirpitz, partly in consequence of the firm stand taken by the United States on the submarine war. Tirpitz had been one of the pillars of the western school of German strategy. Not that the German military chiefs had any great faith in the abilities of this ridiculously overrated man. Had he had a spark of originality and, instead of following the lead of Lord Fisher in the building of Dreadnoughts, concentrated on submarine craft and commerce destroyers, British naval power might have been in danger. As it was, Tirpitz discovered the submarine by a series of lucky accidents after the war had begun, when it was too late to make it a decisive weapon of war even if Germany had been prepared to have the United States added to the numbers of her enemies. But Tirpitz was a Westerner in his strategy, because the open sea was in the West, and he was an advocate of the ruinous Belgian strategy of the Staff because it promised to add more coast to Germany and give her another lung to breathe with. Tirpitz for the same reason was a frank annexationist of Belgium. His dismissal therefore was a great victory for the Chancellor. It meant more than disappointment with his conduct of the navy. Behind it all was a political triumph of the Chancellor’s eastern school of politics. It was a defeat for the annexationists of Belgium and an advertisement that henceforth the political ends of the war for Germany were not in the West but in the East.

It was a plain warning to Falkenhayn. The errors of the past could not be wholly obliterated. Having wasted the strength of the German army on the Belgian chimera and doubled the magnitude of the war at a stroke — all for nothing, for the Chancellor had now declared against annexation in Belgium — it was not now possible to repair the waste by withdrawing and concentrating elsewhere. The Staff had made its bed in the West and must lie on it. Still, it need not have done more than lie on it. But the General Staff instead of cutting their losses, like baffled gamblers returned and doubled their stakes. They did not, it is true, renew their offensive efforts through Belgium. Instead, they concentrated early in the war on the disastrous Verdun enterprise. If this enterprise had any military moment, it was a confession that the original plan of invading Belgium had been an unnecessary mistake; for if Verdun could be attacked without assistance from the Belgian side in the spring of this year, clearly it might have been attacked without Belgium in the summer of 1914. It was in effect the acceptance, eighteen months too late, of the second of the alternative plans set forth already in this article — the plan, that is, of attacking France without help from the Belgian side. Why it was too late and how it failed in France, there is no need to say here; but weakening as this Verdun enterprise was to the power of German offensive in the East, it need not have spelt such disaster as it in fact did. The obvious risk of the Verdun enterprise was that if it failed it might give Russia her opportunity in the East, and common prudence therefore suggested that the Austrian front should be doubly insured against risk.

The first six months of the war had given warning of the danger of leaving the Austrians without support against Russia. But not only were the Austrians left unsupported: they were encouraged to embark in an enterprise of invading the Venetian plains. This made Russian victory certain, and with the Russian victory came the invasion of Galicia and Bukovina and the addition of nearly a million Roumanians to the numbers of their enemies. Of course Falkenhayn had now to go. His disservices to Germany had richly merited the fall, and, in addition he had associated the Imperial house with the discredit of the disaster.

Wrongly do people praise the virtues of the German Staff and its achievements in this war. That it has great professional capacity and that it has shown originality on the mechanical side of war is not to be denied. But outside these technics it has committed every mistake possible. It began the war by invading Belgium and so making sure that Germany would have to face the naval power of England and its potential military power. It went on to strengthen that naval power by a series of outrages on neutrals and noncombatants that gave England the excuse to retaliate by a real blockade of all the inlets into Germany which otherwise would have been impossible. For this invasion of Belgium it got no corresponding advantage but got rather a disadvantage, even if we suppose — as is very unlikely — that England would have raised millions to assist France if Belgium had not been invaded. But if it was not necessary or even advantageous to invade Belgium in order to attack France, neither was it necessary to attack France at all. This decision not only had the consequence of converting England into a first-class military power but it threw France heart and soul into the war. It doubled the military strength of France and added millions of British soldiers to the German enemies. Further, the invasion from the north was carried out without competence or providence and the risks of it made the Germans cruel and added disgrace to faults. In addition, the concentration on the west was responsible for the invasion of East Prussia and the losses of the Austrians. There was no excuse for the first commission of these faults; their second commission after all the warnings, was an example of ‘Hubris,’ of the overweening pride which inevitably, by a law of human nature, leads to disaster. It was not for lack of professional accomplishments that blunders were made which mere incompetence would have avoided. The cause was partly moral (for even this war, pitiable as it has been, does exhibit the working of a moral law), partly political, in that the General Staff were persistently disloyal to the political Government. They forgot the fundamental principle of the teaching of Clausewitz that war is a mode of politics. A strategy which conceals a disloyalty of politics will inevitably break either its own back or the back of the state. In this case it seems likely to do both.

  1. The character of this article makes it desirable for the reader to know that the author is the chief writer on military and naval affairs of the Manchester Guardian and editor of the Guardian’s History of the War. — THE EDITORS.