General der Infanterie Erich von Falkenhayn epitomizes the internal logic of fighting in World War I. He discarded the failed Schlieffen Plan in favor of trench warfare. Where other generals dreamed of finding the formula for a glorious breakthrough, Falkenhayn recognized that under the given circumstances, none was possible. And where they blundered into costly attritional battles, Falkenhayn engineered them intentionally. He was a gifted administrator and a shrewd tactician, but he lacked the imagination and strategic vision that the German system demanded from its Chiefs of Staff, and so he lost the confidence of his superiors and subordinates alike.
Falkenhayn was born on Nov. 11, 1861, to one of those poor families of the lesser nobility that contributed so many of the important military figures of the German Empire. A career military officer in a country that had been at peace since he was ten, he received a fateful assignment in 1899. Transferred to China to serve the German contingent as an instructor, he was present when the Boxer Rebellion broke out. Given a staff assignment during that conflict, he won the admiration of the Kaiser himself for the quality of the reports that he sent to Berlin. Returning to Germany in 1903, he saw his career advance quickly, and in 1913, he became the Minister of War in the Kingdom of Prussia, the leading political entity within the German Empire.
World War One began the following year. Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, nephew of the great Moltke who orchestrated the victories in the wars of German unification, lacked the audacity to take the calculated risks inherent to Schlieffen’s plan for the rapid defeat of France; he altered the deployment of troops in such a way that Schlieffen’s grand sweep through Belgium and northern France was no longer possible, and even the early successes were slower and more costly than anticipated. Moltke’s plan was recognized as a failure in September, when the German advance stalled at the Marne. The Kaiser’s advisors persuaded him to remove Moltke, giving the position to Minister of War von Falkenhayn.
Falkenhayn assumed his post on September 14, although Moltke did not formally relinquish it until November 3. Seeming at first a dynamic figure, Falkenhayn invigorated the high command. He immediately set up his headquarters at Charleville-Mezieres, and surveyed his troops, finding both men and supplies highly depleted. Significantly, he decided to hold German positions, rather than allowing a retreat that would permit German forces to consolidate and resupply, but would also permit the enemy to do the same. He did not, however, adopt a defensive posture for its own sake. He shared the general belief that it was the offensive that won wars, and he merely sought the best means to accomplish it. Accordingly, he sent most of the new formations that the Germans had raised with the outbreak of war toward the Belgian coast, hoping to stem the flow of British supplies and reinforcements. Then he could attempt to engineer the kind of encirclement that dominated the thinking of the German General Staff for decades.
The idea had merit, and Falkenhayn improved his chances by making splendid use of his railroad network to maintain the initiative. Falkenhayn’s big push failed at Ypres, however, with heavy casualties. It is here that grumbling about Falkenhayn’s methods began, with two royal generals leading: Crown Prince Wilhelm and the excellent Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. For the moment, however, he retained the support of the royal whose opinion mattered most, the Kaiser, as demonstrated by a series of decorations and honors bestowed between February and September 1915.
At the end of the First Battle of Ypres, it was clear that there was little that the Germans could accomplish for the moment. Their men were too tired, their logistics too strained, and the onset of winter made offensive action too difficult for Falkenhayn to contemplate any fresh initiatives. The Germans dug in and assumed a defensive posture by default. This suited the German strategic situation, as Germany had begun the war with no designs upon French or Belgian territory; it sought, rather, to neutralize Belgium as a barrier and France as a foe. For the moment, a well-executed defense served the Germans well enough, given that an outright victory had proved elusive. The Germans would not meaningfully seize the initiative in the west again until early 1916.
Some argue that Falkenhayn should have continued with offensive action during the winter, especially in the north, where the British were struggling to rebuild the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) after the losses of First Ypres. Certainly, there was an opportunity here for the Germans if they were able to strike a series of telling blows during the winter; it is less clear how they might have accomplished such blows. Falkenhayn was more realistic than most senior commanders in the war about how much he could expect from his men; reliance on defensive fortification was probably the most sensible course at that time.
More troublesome was a tendency toward vacillation that manifested itself in Falkenhayn’s performance over the next two years. To be fair, it was his job to reconcile competing claims coming from Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the east and from his various commanders in the west. No Chief of Staff could have satisfied all of them. Falkenhayn was persuaded to give primacy to the eastern front for a time, which proved to be all of 1915 and the beginning of 1916, but he could not afford to be perceived as complacent in the west. Action was expected, but since no major action could hope for success, the result was a series of halfhearted actions.
One example of this is the Second Battle of Ypres. The British salient around Ypres was strategically very important to both sides, and an attempt to drive the British from that salient would be a worthy goal for an offensive. With the primary focus of German action resting in the east, however, combined with Falkenhayn’s lack of hope that any major offensive could succeed, the attack was made with limited resources that ensured that no great success could be achieved. Indeed, Falkenhayn seemed to hope that, at best, the Germans might seize the area around Pilckem, north of Ypres, and compel the British to withdraw from the salient under the threat of a heavy concentration of well-sited artillery. This battle was noteworthy more for the first recognized use of chlorine gas against armies in the west, and this fact is sometimes cited as evidence of Falkenhayn’s ruthlessness. In fact, it was used solely on a trial basis in a limited area of the front, and Falkenhayn had no high expectations for its performance.
In all, Germany fared well in the west during 1915, mainly because it was the Entente that embarked on all of the costly offensives. It was, however, a petty advantage, and Falkenhayn could not afford to be seen as satisfied with it. He considered offensive action necessary, but he had no hope for a breakthrough. Instead, he embraced what all other generals had learned to their chagrin: that the war was proving to be one of attrition.
Falkenhayn sought a way to fight France alone, without support from Britain, and thereby to drive France to a separate peace, if not to total collapse. He selected Verdun as a target that the French would defend to the last man, allowing him to batter the French Army for many months. He did not reveal, even to his senior commanders, that his true objectives were statistical rather than territorial in nature, and so the attack at Verdun proceeded like a typical World War One offensive. In the end, Germany fared almost as badly as France.
Meanwhile, his concept came to naught when the British opened the Somme offensive during the summer. The scale of these battles, and the numbers of men involved, were so great that the British could come to the rescue of the French at Verdun from southwestern Belgium. Disasters in the east compounded Falkenhayn’s troubles, and many leading German generals, as well as Austrian Chief of Staff Franz Conrad von Hoetzendorf, argued for his dismissal. This came on August 29, after Rumania entered the war on the side of the Entente. Falkenhayn had assured the Kaiser that this would not happen, and this robbed him of his last bit of credibility.
Falkenhayn was assigned to a series of field command roles after this. He performed well against the Rumanians under Mackensen, but his subsequent position in Mesopotamia and Palestine was largely a hopeless prospect. His final command was with the Tenth Army on the Eastern Front, where he served until the end of the war. He retired promptly after the war ended, and died on April 8, 1922.
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