Erich Von Falkenhayn


No man in all history has controlled such vast forces as Erich von Falkenhayn, and on his qualities and limitations, more than on those of any other man, turned the issue of the greatest — in scale — of all wars. He was born on September 11, 1861, at Burg Belchau in the district of Thorn, now ceded to Poland. It is a strange requital of Fate that the birthplaces of the two greatest directors of Germany at war, Falkenhayn and Ludendorff, should both rest now on alien soil. Entering, through the cadet schools, an ordinary line regiment, he was singled out for distinction when he passed out from the Kriegsakademie in 1890, third of his class. Six years later he went to the Far East as instructor to Chinese troops, selected as a missionary in propagating the gospel of German world power and as an agent in the plan of converting China into a useful military ally, with a view to the future. But the method which succeeded in Turkey was a failure in China. It would even seem from his later career that, instead of impressing German military ideas on China, he allowed the Chinese doctrine of war to gain a hold on himself.

He served on the staff of the German expeditionary force in the Boxer troubles and then, returning to Germany, spent three years in command of a battalion and five years as chief of staff of an army corps. Suddenly, early in 1911, he was promoted to command a Guard regiment, a move of great significance. To soldierly gifts and the subtlety of a courtier, Falkenhayn now added a social hallmark which was almost essential to attain high position under the régime of William II. With Falkenhayn the effect was magical, for two years later he was promoted lieutenant general and became Minister of War. Such a rise at the early age of fifty-one was an astonishing tribute to his ability and influence. For in the German army youth might wield the power behind the throne, but the nominal authority and the posts of high distinction were customarily reserved for either royalty or old age, so old that it verged sometimes on senile decrepitude.

The Kaiser has much to answer for, but from a strictly German point of view his worst sin was perhaps that by his lack of military judgment and by his military selections he undermined the strength of Germany’s armed power, and so prepared her downfall. The more one studies the history of the war, the more does one realize how many times she had victory almost within her grasp, and that only through crass incapacity and, still more, lack of character at the top did she forfeit the repeated chances. The greatest military machine ever created was in the hands of men morally and physically, even more than mentally, unfitted for the control. William II undoubtedly thought more of birth than of ability in making his selections, but in some cases this tendency seems to have been due more to an almost superstitious belief in heredity than to a partiality toward the aristocracy. True, he liked to have a flattering and subservient entourage, and, with an overweening conceit of his military knowledge, expected deference to his views on matters martial. Even the great Graf von Schlieffen, Chief of the General Staff from 1891 to 1906, from whose brain came the German war plan of 1914, felt the necessity of pandering to this weakness. He issued instructions for manœuvres and war games providing that ‘when the Kaiser takes part he must be allowed to win; he cannot, as Kaiser, be beaten by one of his generals.’

On the other hand, Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth von Moltke, although a weaker and an inferior mind, actually restrained the Kaiser’s military vanity, and was less a pliant courtier than is commonly supposed. That he was able to do so may have been due to the fact that he was essentially the Kaiser’s own choice in defiance of public opinion. Nearly thirty years of his career had been spent in the gilded post of aide-de-camp to his uncle, the great von Moltke of the 1866 and 1870 wars, and to the Kaiser. Thus when, in 1904, he was suddenly raised to real responsibility as one of the two Deputy Chiefs of the General Staff, the army realized that such a step must have some future significance. Their perplexity was not prolonged. When in 1906 Schlieffen, disabled by a kick from a horse, was absent from his post, Moltke acted for him, and the next year definitely succeeded him as Chief of the General Staff. The names actually submitted, some time before, to the Kaiser as suitable had been those of von der Goltz mid von Beseler. Von der Goltz, a famous military writer, and the prophet of the Nation in Arms, found, like many other soldiers, that active thought and the power of expressing it create uneasiness rather than appreciation in high places. Von Beseler, later the conqueror of Antwerp, belonged to the Engineers, and, although Deputy Chief of the General Staff, was therefore ignored by the Kaiser, who ‘knew’ only Guard and Cavalry officers. But, above all, the choice of Moltke seems to have been due to the Kaiser’s belief in his historic name as an omen of victory.

If Moltke’s elevation was unjustified by his achievements, the strength of his pedestal enabled him to make a stand against interference from his ‘creator.’ He told the Kaiser frankly that at manœuvres ‘the decisions of the commanding generals are always influenced by the interference of Your Majesty, so that the officers lose all desire for initiative and become inert and unreliable.’ And the Kaiser gave way, abstaining from active command or interference until July 1914. Moltke was thus emboldened to take liberties with the war plan of his illustrious predecessor. The first change was wise, politically at least. Moltke preferred to risk delay by the forts of Liége rather than to avoid them by crossing the strip of Dutch territory known as the Maastricht Appendix, an act of military convenience which might range Holland as well as Belgium on the side of Germany’s foes. But Moltke revealed less moral audacity than his predecessor in matters that were purely military. Schlieffen had concentrated all his efforts on building up an overwhelming right wing in the projected advance into France. He had taken the calculated risk of weakening the left wing with the view that this wing could retire gradually before a French onslaught without serious danger, and by its very yielding draw the French on to their destruction by drawing them away from northwestern France, which would thus be all the more exposed to the smashing onrush of the German right wing.

Moltke shrank from the risk, and as new reserves became available strengthened the left wing at the expense of the right. And, like many timid men, he wished to risk too little at the outset and to gain too much later, thinking that a strong left wing would not only avert initial danger but enable him to envelop the French armies on both flanks, repeating 1870 and leading to a greater Sedan. Thus, when the test came, the German war machine was laboring under too great a strain, and this, coupled with Moltke’s inability to keep control, caused the breakdown on the Marne, and the loss of the first and greatest chance of Germany’s victory in the war. Moltke’s papers after his death threw a vivid light, not only on the complexity and rigidity of the German war machine, but on the way a national, as opposed to a professional, army tends inevitably toward war. Once set in motion it gathers weight and pace like an avalanche, escaping direction and making almost hopeless any attempts either to orient or to retard its course.

On July 31, 1914, Moltke was summoned by the Kaiser and shown a telegram from the German Ambassador in London which said that Secretary of State Grey had informed him Great Britain would engage to keep France out of the war if Germany would reciprocally engage not to undertake hostilities against France. The Kaiser then said to Moltke: ‘Now we need only wage war against Russia; thus we simply march the whole of our army eastward.’ Moltke replied: ‘Your Majesty, that is impossible. The deployment of a host of millions of men cannot be improvised; it means a whole year of laborious work, and once settled cannot be altered. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the east, it will not be an army ready for battle, but a disorderly crowd of unorganized armed men without supply arrangements.’

The Kaiser was ‘much upset’ and retorted bitterly: ‘Your uncle would have given me a different answer.’ The machine which they had created was beyond the power of men to control, and not only were they swept inevitably in its wake toward war, but they proved equally helpless to guide it strategically once its ponderous and remorseless passage over the French frontier had begun.

Moltke, who had already disturbed the balance between the two wings which Schlieffen had contrived, upset it still more by repeated reductions in the weight of the marching right wing. He first detached active divisions to watch the fortresses of Antwerp, Givet, and Maubeuge, and then, on August 25, to reënforce the Eastern Front against Russia, in the belief that the decision in the West was already ensured! The delusion was strengthened by the roseate reports of the various army commanders, each anxious for his own credit, and by the failure of the Supreme Command to keep in touch with — far less to keep control over — the advancing armies. A suspicion of the truth began to dawn upon Moltke through the comparatively small captures of men and guns, and in this state of doubt the Kaiser’s easy optimism irritated him: ‘He has already a shouthurrah mood that I hate like death.’ When disillusionment finally came in the Battle of the Marne, Moltke, more sensitive than his opponent, Joffre, lost his nerve. He felt instinctively that the loss of the Marne meant the ultimate loss of the war, and with still truer instinct remarked, ‘We shall have to pay for all that we have destroyed.’

Between September 5 and 9 no orders from Moltke were issued to the Army Commands, and from September 7 to 9 no information or report as to the situation was sent by them to Moltke. These were the crucial days of the Marne battle, which began on September 6 and ended with the retreat of the German armies, beginning with the Second, on September 9. The fact would be incredible if it was not attested by ample evidence. This retreat was ordered rather than compelled, due to the panic fears of leaders so saturated with military Convention that a slight indentation of their front and a partial bending of their flanks led them to conclude that, by the rules of the game, they were beaten. There was no necessity to fall back if they had appreciated the defensive power of modern arms as well as they appreciated the convention of strategy. The French were unperturbed by the presence of the far deeper St. Mihiel wedge which remained in their front during four years, and in 1918 the Allied commanders did not find it necessary to fall back and straighten the line even when the enemy had driven wedges forty miles deep into their front. At the Marne the German soldiers were not beaten, but only their leaders. On the morrow of this defeat Moltke was displaced, the failure of his physical vigor being made, according to customary subterfuge, the excuse for a dismissal really due to failure of moral vigor.


This sketch of Moltke, his character and career, is a necessary preliminary if we are to understand the problem of his successor, Falkenhayn, and the conditions which surrounded his advent to power. Moltke’s confession on the eve of war that he could not alter the rigid plan had evidently both irritated the Kaiser and disturbed his confidence in Moltke’s grip on the situation, for as early as August 10 the Chief of the Military Cabinet asked Falkenhayn privately if he was prepared to take over the duties of Chief of the General Staff. During the advance through Belgium into France, Falkenhayn had uneasy qualms over the blind and headlong pace of the German onrush, and urged the need and value of securing the advance by consolidating each step in its wake. On September 3 there is an entry in his diary: ‘Impressed again on Moltke . . . the necessity of occupying the north coast and also of halting for rest on the Marne.’ One of the most amazing features of the war is that the Germans, with the Allied armies in full retreat, made no attempt to secure the Channel ports, which lay at their mercy. The British had evacuated Calais, Boulogne, and the whole coast as far as Le Havre, even transferred their base to St. Nazaire on the Bay of Biscay. German Uhlans roamed at will over the northwest of France, settled down in Amiens as if they were permanent lodgers, yet left the vital ports in tranquil isolation. A month later they were to sacrifice tens of thousands of lives in the vain attempt to gain what they could have secured without losing a drop of blood.

On the eve of the Battle of the Marne, September 5, there is this significant entry in Falkenhayn’s diary: ‘The German Staff itself admits to-day that the retreat of the French is being carried out in complete order, but it cannot come to a new decision. . . . Only one thing is certain: our General Staff has completely lost its head. Schlieffen’s notes do not help any further, and so Moltke’s wits come to an end.’ A deadly sarcasm!

The choice of Falkenhayn to succeed Moltke was dictated not merely by Falkenhayn’s record and the proved truth of his criticisms, but even more by his presence at Great Headquarters as Minister of War. For the Germans had no wish to advertise the failure of their first Chief—a confession that their plan had miscarried — and they could camouflage the change better by slipping Falkenhayn into Moltke’s seat than by recalling anyone from the front. Moreover, although Falkenhayn took over the duties of Chief of the General Staff on September 14, his appointment was not publicly announced until November 3, and he retained the functions of Minister of War as well until February 1915.

The first need was to restore confidence and cohesion in an army defeated through no fault of its own. The rapidity of the recovery is a tribute both to the sound body of the army and to the tonic administered by Falkenhayn’s reassertion of higher control. He had seen the faults of 1870 repeated, more disastrously, in 1914, the army commanders acting independently and taking their own course without attention to a Supreme Command which was wanting in the power to control them. Falkenhayn’s fault here was that ho swung too far to the other extreme, centralizing power excessively in his own person. His character and manner aggravated the failings of this tendency. If he was not well served, it was partly his own fault. The head of the Operations Section was a source of friction as well as a man of limited mind, but Falkenhayn, who realized Tappen’s inadequacy, declared that he did not want an adviser, only ‘a conscientious man who carried out his orders punctually.’ Aloof, reserved, notoriously ambitious, Falkenhayn was not the man to inspire affection in his subordinates or trust in his peers. General Stürgkh, Austrian representative at the German Headquarters, gives a vivid impression of him: ‘Tall, slim, with a particularly youthful face, in which were a pair of very sharp and clever but sarcastic eyes, with the striking contrast of a very gray but very thick head of hair.’

Perhaps it was not surprising that under his régime the commanders at the front emphasized their successes rather than their difficulties — a habit of facile optimism which drew from him after one of his visits the bitter comment that ‘the lies that these army commanders combine in telling are quite incredible.’ Sympathy is a better magnet for truth than is sarcasm.


The reaction of the Marne on the two sides was characteristic of the mentality and predisposition of the rival commanders. The Allies, whose blind optimism had led them into disaster after disaster since the outset, were so elated — and inflated — by the ’miracle of the Marne’ that they were carried away by their ideas of a decisive manœuvre against the German flank. In the ‘Race to the Sea’ they buoyantly made a series of inadequate and belated attempts to turn the German flank, until they suddenly came down with a bump — to find themselves desperately, and almost despairingly, struggling to hold out against the German onslaught at Ypres.

With the Central Powers the outlook of Falkenhayn was now the decisive influence, and the impression derived not merely from his critics but from his own account is that neither the outlook nor the direction was really clear as to its goal. He was too obsessed with the principle of security at the expense of the principle of concentration, and in his failure to fulfill the second he undermined the foundations of the first. On taking over the reins from Moltke, he still adhered to the Sehlieffen plan of seeking a decision in the West, but the course he followed did not appear to have any far-reaching aim. Both in clearing his right rear by the reduction of Antwerp and in the subsequent effort to gain the Channel ports, Falkenhayn’s guiding idea seems to have been merely that of ‘firmly establishing the right flank on the sea’ as a protection to ‘the western territory of the Empire, with its sensitive as well as indispensable resources. . .’ His actions and his mental attitude were those of a commander striving to ward off impending defeat rather than one whose mighty army had only missed decisive victory by a hair’s breadth. He erred on the side of pessimism as much as the Allies on the side of optimism. Nor, in pursuit of his limited object, did his method fulfill the Schlieffen principle of drawing from the left wing in order to mass on the vital right wing. The prolonged attacks in October and November around Ypres were made largely with raw formations, while warexperienced troops lay almost idle between the Aisne and the Vosges. Colonel Gröner, Director of the Field Railways, even went so far as to submit a detailed plan to Falkenhayn for the transfer of six army corps from the left to the right wing, but it was rejected. When we remember how close to the breaking point was the British line at Ypres, the verdict can only be that for a second time the German Supreme Command saved the Allies. At this juncture, too, Ludendorff was pleading vehemently for reënforcements to give weight to the wedge which he planned to drive into the joint of the Russian phalanx near Lodz. Without them, Ludendorff shattered the only serious advance during the war of the ‘Russian steam roller’ and almost surrounded a whole army. With them, the ‘almost’ might have been deleted. But Falkenhayn missed the chance by delaying to send the reënforcements until failure in the long-drawn-out Ypres offensive had passed from assurance to fact.

Early in 1915 Falkenhayn, persuaded at last of the strength of the Allied trench barrier, took the momentous decision to stand on the defensive in the West. But his object in so doing seems to have been vague. His feeling that the war must ultimately be decided in France led him to distrust the value, as he doubted the possibility, of a decision against Russia. Hence while he realized that the Eastern Front was the only practicable theatre for operations in the near future, he withheld the necessary reënforcements until his hand was forced by the threatening situation of the Austro-Hungarian front. And even then he doled out reserves reluctantly and meagrely, enough to secure success, but never in quantity and time for decisive victory.

It is to his credit, however, that he realized a long war was now inevitable, and that he set to work to develop Germany’s resources for such a war of attrition. The technique of field entrenchment was carried to a higher pitch than with any other country; the military railways were expanded for the lateral movement of reserves; the supply of munitions and of the raw material for their manufacture was tackled so energetically and comprehensively that an ample flow was ensured from the spring of 1915 onward — a time when the British were only awakening to the problem. Here were laid the foundations of the economic organization and utilization of resources which were to be the secret of Germany’s resisting power to the pressure of the British blockade.

The same period witnessed also the one great success for German diplomacy, the entry of Turkey into the war, although this was due fundamentally to a combination of pre-war causes with the course of events. Diplomacy finds its strongest arguments in military success. And it received strong support from Falkenhayn, who was convinced of ‘the decisive importance of Turkey joining in the struggle,’ first, as a barrier against the channel of Allied munition supply to Russia, and secondly, as a distraction to the military efforts of Britain and Russia.

At the same time a vast campaign of propaganda was launched in Asia, to undermine British prestige and the loyalty of Britain’s Mohammedan subjects. The defect of German propaganda, its crudeness, was less apparent when directed to primitive races than when applied to the civilized peoples of Europe and America.

But while Falkenhayn was expanding the basis of Germany’s war efforts he was nearly unseated himself. Moltke, since his fall, had been intriguing for Falkenhayn’s removal and his own return, on the grounds that Falkenhayn was too young and did not inspire confidence in the army. The failure at Ypres reënforced this attempt, which apparently was supported by the Kaiserin and Hindenburg, but Falkenhayn, with equal craft, checkmated it by telling the Kaiser that Moltke’s own physician had reported him unfit. The tale served its purpose and Falkenhayn remained.


On the Eastern Front, the campaign of 1914 had shown that a German force could count upon defeating any larger Russian force, but that when Austrians and Russians met on an equality victory rested with the Russians.

From the beginning of 1915 the Russians developed a steadily increasing pressure on the Austro-Hungarian front in the Carpathians, threatening to force the mountain gateways into the Hungarian plain. Falkenhayn was forced, reluctantly, to dispatch German reënforcements as a stiffening to the Austrians, and thus was dragged into a relief offensive in the East rather than adopting it as a clearly defined plan. In contrast, Ludendorff, who was the directing brain of the German forces in the East, had his eyes firmly fixed on the ultimate object, and from now on advocated unceasingly a wholehearted effort to break Russia. He differed from Falkenhayn not merely over the object but over the plan, urging, instead of a direct blow at the Russian forces in the Polish salient, a wide Napoleonic manœuvre through Vilna to cut their communications. Ludendorff’s was a strategy of decision, Falkenhayn’s at best a strategy of attrition.

Nor was this the only mental tug-ofwills, for Falkenhayn was throughout in ceaseless dispute with Conrad von Hötzendorf, the Chief of the Austrian General Staff. Conrad had launched the Austrian army in a premature and costly offensive into Poland, in August 1914, to relieve the Russian pressure on Germany, while the latter was seeking a decision in France, and now he considered that Austria should be given full support in repayment for this sacrifice. Withheld until the Austrian resistance was severely strained, the growing danger of his ally’s collapse forced Falkenhayn to concede support, if not in generous measure.

On April 1, 1915, Conrad proposed to Falkenhayn a plan to get the most advantage from these slender reënforcements — a rupture of the Russian left centre between the Carpathians and the upper Vistula. This TarnowGorlice sector offered the least obstacle to an advance and the best protection to the flanks of a penetration. Falkenhayn accepted the proposal; by suppressing the earlier correspondence and quoting only his own letter of April 13 he tried to give the impression in his postwar book that he originated the plan. To satisfy the prestige of both allies, the combined Austro-German attacking force was put under a German general, Mackensen, and he in turn under the Austrian Supreme Command.

A large cavalry raid from East Prussia in the north and the gas attack at Ypres — thus disclosing prematurely, for a trifling advantage, this new means of surprise — were used to cloak the concentration, between Tarnow and Gorlice, of seven German divisions and seven Austrian divisions and 1500 guns against a front weakly held, by only six Russian divisions, and lacking in rear lines of trenches.

On May 2, 1915, after an intense bombardment had flattened the Russian trenches, the attack was launched and swept through with little opposition. The surprise was complete, the exploitation rapid, and the whole Russian line along the Carpathians was rolled up, until on May 14 the advance through Galicia reached the San, eighty miles from its starting point. Defeat almost turned into disaster when this river was forced at Jaroslau, but the impetus of the advance had momentarily spent itself and German reserves were lacking. Falkenhayn now realized that he had committed himself too far in Galicia to draw back, and that only by bringing more troops from France could he hope to fulfill his purpose of transferring troops back there, as this could only be possible when Russia’s offensive power was crippled and her menace to Austria removed.

A fresh bound captured Lemberg by June 22, but the Russians, from their vast man-power resources, had almost made good the loss of 400,000 prisoners, and Falkenhayn’s anxiety about the stability of his troops drew him on willy-nilly to continue the offensive, although still with limited objects and with one eye on the situation in France. He now changed the direction from eastward to northward and in conjunction ordered Ludendorff—all this time fretting impatiently in East Prussia — to strike southeastward. Ludendorff argued that this plan was too much of a frontal attack, and that although the closing in of the two wings might squeeze the Russians it would not cut off their retreat. He wanted to strike far back at their communications while they were still entangled in Poland, but Falkenhayn again rejected the plan, fearing that it would mean a deeper German commitment. The upshot proved Ludendorff’s forecast, and at the end of September the Russian retreat, after a nerveracking series of escapes from the salients which the Germans since May had systematically created and then sought to pinch out, came to a definite halt on a straightened line from Riga on the Baltic to Czernowitz on the Rumanian frontier. Russia had been badly lamed, but not destroyed, and, although never again a direct menace to Germany, she was to keep Austria on the rack and to delay the full concentration of German strength in the West for two years, until 1918.

Late in August, Falkenhayn decided to break off large-scale operations on the Eastern Front in order to fulfill and extend his policy of security at all points. Bulgaria’s entry into the war was now arranged and he wished to exploit it in order to remove finally the menace from Serbia and to open direct railway communication with his easternmost ally, Turkey, which was still hard-pressed at the Dardanelles. Further, he wished to transfer troops back to France to meet the Franco-British offensive expected in September.

Beginning on October 6, the converging attack of the Austro-German and Bulgarian armies overran Serbia and drove the remnant of her armies out of the country, despite a belated and inadequate attempt of her allies to go to her succor. The French and British forces barely saved themselves by a hasty retreat to Salonika, to which they held on for reasons primarily of policy and prestige. Thither the Serbian army was shipped, to be reconstituted for a fresh share in the struggle. Falkenhayn was satisfied to have opened direct communication with Turkey and opposed Conrad’s wish for a continuation of the offensive in order to drive the Franco-British forces from their foothold at Salonika. In his book he puts forward the excuse that examination of the railway system showed that it was insufficient to supply the needs of such an offensive, but recent documents have revealed that the head of the Railway Section, who was sent to investigate, actually reported the opposite.

His limited object achieved, Falkenhayn preferred to leave Salonika in passivity, under guard of the Bulgarians, while he steadily withdrew the German forces for use elsewhere. With gentle sarcasm, the Germans termed Salonika their ‘largest internment camp,’ and with half a million Allied troops locked up there the jibe had some justification — until 1918. Then the enemy foothold which Falkenhayn had ignored was suddenly expanded, and the collapse of Bulgaria knocked away the first prop of the Germanic Alliance.


With the dawn of 1916, Falkenhayn, feeling now secure everywhere, prepared to fulfill his long-cherished plan for an offensive in the West, but with characteristic limitations. Always an adherent of the strategy of attrition, he now carried this ruling idea into tactics, and produced the new form of attack by methodical stages, each with a limited objective.

In a memorandum to the Kaiser at Christmas, 1915, he argued that England was the staple of the enemy alliance. ‘The history of the English wars against the Netherlands, Spain, France, and Napoleon is being repeated. Germany can expect no mercy from this enemy, so long as he still retains the slightest hope of achieving his object,’ Except by submarine warfare, however, England and her army were out of reach, for Falkenhayn considered that the English sector of the front did not lend itself to offensive operations. ‘In view of our feelings for our archenemy in the war, that is certainly distressing, but it can be endured if we realize that for England the campaign on the Continent . . . is at bottom a side show. Her real weapons here are the French, Russian, and Italian armies.’ Falkenhayn regarded Russia as already paralyzed and Italy’s military achievements as unlikely to affect the situation. ‘Only France remains. . . . France has almost arrived at the end of her military effort. If her people can be made to understand clearly that in a military sense they have nothing more to hope for, the breaking point would be reached and England’s best weapon knocked out of her hand.’

He added that a break-through in mass was unnecessary, and that instead the Germans should aim to bleed France to death by choosing a point of attack ‘for the retention of which the French would be compelled to throw in every man they have.’ Such an objective was either Belfort or Verdun, and Falkenhayn chose Verdun, because it was a menace to the main German communications, because it offered a salient and so cramped the defenders, and because of the moral effect if so renowned a place were lost to France.

Once again Conrad disagreed with Falkenhayn, preferring a concentrated blow to knock Italy out of the war, and arguing that a decision there was more feasible than in the French alternative. Nor was he the only dissentient. The German Crown Prince, who was to have the honor of commanding the Verdun attack, felt that attrition was a two-edged weapon and thought that it would be wiser to finish with Russia first.

Both were overruled, and the Verdun ‘bloodletting’ incisions began on February 21.

The keynote of the tactical plan was a continuous series of limited advances which by their menace should draw the French reserves into the mincing machine of the German artillery. And each of these advances was itself to be secured from loss by an intense artillery bombardment, brief for surprise, and compensating its short duration by the number of batteries and their rapidity of fire. By this means the objective would be taken and consolidated before the defenders could move up their reserves for counterattack.

But the theory of limitation was carried to an extreme: the first day the front of attack was only two and a half miles. Thus the few scattered packets of surviving Frenchmen caused more delay than would have been possible on a frontage of rational width. This idea of punching a narrow hole was contrary to the advice of members of Falkenhayn’s own staff and the executive commanders. When the front was at last extended on March 6 to the other bank of the Meuse, the chance of a break-through had faded, for the French had recovered from their surprise, repaired their original negligence, and the numbers were now balanced. Even so, the superior technique of the German troops and the reluctance of the French to cede a yard of ground — Falkenhayn had at least gauged the French temperament correctly — turned the balance of attrition in favor of the Germans. But the slow and costly process, and the absence of tangible result, brought no credit to Falkenhayn’s ‘limited’ strategy, and the discontent rose to a height when the offensive failed to prevent ripostes elsewhere. For on June 5, 1916, the Russian army, which Falkenhayn had thought that he could disregard, came to the rescue of France. Under the slight pressure of Brusilov’s impromptu advance, the Austrian front collapsed and within three days Brusilov had taken 200,000 prisoners. Never has a mere demonstration had so amazing a success since the walls of Jericho fell at Joshua’s trumpet blasts. Although soon checked by its own lack of weight and by prompt German intervention, it compelled Falkenhayn to withdraw troops from the Western Front, and so abandon his plan for a counterstroke against the British offensive preparing on the Somme, as well as the hope of nourishing his Verdun attrition process. It led Rumania to take her fateful decision to enter the war on the side of the Entente. And it caused the downfall of Falkenhayn and his replacement in the supreme command by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. For, although Rumania’s unexpected entry was the ostensible reason, the underlying one was the fact that Falkenhayn’s ‘limited’ strategy in 1915 had made possible the Russian recovery which stultified the plan of 1916. Falkenhayn’s strategy was history’s latest example of the folly of half measures.


He was offered as consolation the post of ambassador at Constantinople and after declining this was given executive command of the Ninth Army for the campaign against Rumania. Here, if a difficult subordinate, he regilded his laurels by conducting the offensive which threw the Rumanians out of Transylvania, broke through the Carpathians just before the winter snows, and captured Bucharest through a convergent manœuvre with Mackensen’s forces from the south. Later he was sent to Turkey for the purpose of regaining Mesopotamia from the British, and when this scheme was abandoned, owing to the burning of the depots with all the ammunition for the campaign, he took over the command in Palestine. He arrived in Jerusalem the day after Allenby’s attack on Beersheba, which had forestalled his own offensive, and in a vain attempt to stay the British advance he dissipated the scanty Turkish resources in a series of petty counterattacks. His misunderstanding of local conditions and of the psychology of Turkish troops helped to complete the bankruptcy of Turkish man power, but early in 1918, before the final disaster, he gave way to Liman von Sanders.

Before his death in 1922 he had issued his own account of his work in the Supreme Command and in Rumania, and the studiously impersonal tone — cloaking omissions which cleverly distorted the facts — combined with the likeness of his ‘limited’ strategy to their own to win him undue credit among British military leaders. Thus the pernicious legend has been created by those who do not trouble to delve beneath the surface that Falkenhayn was ‘the most competent and most farsceing of the German commanders and strategists.’

His countrymen, who knew him intimately, knew him better. Colonel Bauer, the one fixture in the headquarters of the Supreme Command throughout the war and the invaluable assistant in turn of Moltke, Falkenhayn, and Ludendorff, has said of Falkenhayn that he possessed nearly every gift of nature ‘except the intuition of a commander; his decisions were half measures, and he wavered even over these. He would probably have made a great statesman, diplomat, or parliamentarian, and was least of all qualified to command in the field.’

The antithesis of Foch, Falkenhayn was an uncompromising realist, and the very excess of this valuable quality was his own poison. Like Napoleon’s opponents, he saw too many things at once, and, above all, saw the enemy’s strength too clearly. His realization that England was the soul and will of the hostile alliance was proof of his insight, but it merely depressed him.

Falkenhayn’s course might well serve as an object lesson of Napoleon’s warnings against the ‘worst course, which almost always in war is the most pusillanimous — or, if you will, the most prudent.’ He was the ablest and most scientific general, ‘penny wise, pound foolish,’ who ever ruined his country by a refusal to take calculated risks. Limitation of risks led to liquidation.