As Chief of the German General Staff during the first half of World War I, Prussian General Erich von Falkenhayn (1861–1922) directed German strategy during the war. During a prolonged stalemate with the French in 1916, he came up with the idea to blitz Verdun, France, and “bleed the enemy white” in a battle of attrition that would force France to negotiate a settlement. The Battle of Verdun, as it became known, turned out to be a failure, and Falkenhayn was stripped of his command. Although he redeemed himself with a victory in Romania, he spent the rest of his life justifying his tactics and reviewing Germany's shortcomings in the war.
Looking back on the state of World War I by the start of 1916, many historians agree that General Erich von Falkenhayn had inherited a tricky situation. While the German military of Kaiser Wilhelm II had a formidable reputation, it had not fought a war in 40 years when World War I broke out two years before In addition, before Falkenhayn was given command, German armies had advanced through France but been forced into retreat after the Battle of the Marne. As Robert T. Foley wrote in German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, “Falkenhayn took over the OHL [the Oberste Heeresleitung, or Supreme Army Command] at a difficult time. The shock of the defeat at the Battle of the Marne and the seeming failure of the pre-war plan shook an organization that was already straining.”
Others were not as empathetic to the German General's predicament, however. A military contemporary, Sir (then General) Basil Liddell Hart, explored World War I leadership and tactics in his 1928 book Reputations: Ten Years After. Critical of Falkenhayn, Sir Hart wrote that “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.”
Erich Georg Anton von Falkenhayn was born on September 11, 1861, in Burg Belchau, West Prussia. At the time, Prussia was a German state with a formidable army and ever-expanding boundaries. Its capital was in Berlin. In 1871, the German states united to form a German Empire under Prussian leadership. In 1888, Prussian king Wilhelm II came to power and also assumed the role of emperor (or Kaiser) of Germany. Falkenhayn served under Wilhelm II.
Falkenhayn attended cadet school as a preteen and graduated from the kriegsakademie (war academy) in 1890, ranked third in his class. Within six years, he was dispatched to the Far East as a military instructor in China. During this period, Germany and China had a good relationship: Chinese military officers had traditionally trained at Germany's kriegsakademie and after China established its own military academy and hired German instructors to drill recruits and train staff. The Chinese government was interested in strengthening its army and aspired to adopt a Western military system. It called upon the German military for help in this endeavor because the German army was regarded as one of the best.
Known as the “Boxer Rebellion,” an uprising broke out in November of 1899 after a Chinese organization called the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists began attacking foreigners as well as Chinese who had converted to Christianity. The rebels were dubbed “Boxers” because of the rigorous martial-arts and calisthenics training they took part in. They were upset with the spread of Japanese and Western influence within their borders and angered that the Chinese emperor had allowed such influence to permeate a culture that had remained isolationist for centuries. Many peasants, feeling threatened by these changes, soon joined the fight.
Hoping to quell the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese, along with several Western powers, organized a multinational force of 20,000 troops tasked with restoring order and defending the Chinese Empress Dowager Cizi, who had held power since 1861. Falkenhayn served as part of the German Expeditionary Force fighting the rebellion in China. Marching with the allied forces, he sent reports back to Kaiser Wilhelm II, detailing their progress in the conflict and discussing tactics. Through this correspondence, Falkenhayn earned the Kaiser's trust and respect.
After Falkenhayn returned to Germany in 1903, he advanced quickly through the ranks. Within his first three years, he had been appointed a battalion commander and oversaw a regiment within the Prussian Army. In 1913, then age 52, he was made a lieutenant general and appointed Minister of War of the Kingdom of Prussia. Officers as young as Falkenhayn were not usually appointed Minister of War: the post was an honorific given to royalty or aging military dignitaries who had earned distinction. Although Kaiser William clearly had faith in Falkenhayn, his promotion upset several high-ranking German officers who felt passed over.
World War I erupted in July of 1914. As the conflict widened, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire (then known as the Central Powers) were pitted against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States. With modern military weapons, the war was especially brutal. Besides rapid-fire machine guns and tanks, chemical warfare was employed for the first time, and airplanes and submarines expanded the battlefield into the skies and oceans.
At the start of the war, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger (1848–1916) commanded the German troops. Germany's war plan had been drawn up by Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen and was known as the Schlieffen Plan. Schlieffen had started preparing Germany for war with France in 1905, knowing that Kaiser Wilhelm II was ambitious and wanted to gain power and territory by extending his nation's reach. Such an expansion could only take place through a war with one, the other, or both of Germany's neighbors. France bordered Germany on its western flank and Russia bordered it on the east. Because France and Russia had formed an alliance, German leaders knew that if they went to war with one of those countries, the other would come to its rescue, making a two-front war inevitable.
In calculating how Germany could best engage in a two-front war, Schlieffen sized up the opponents and concluded that Russia was the stronger adversary. However, Russia was a vast country and it would take Russian troops longer to mobilize than it would their allies, the French. Under the Schlieffen Plan, Germany would direct most of its troops in a blitz attack against France and defeat them in six weeks. Then, Germany could use its updated rail system to rapidly move infantry divisions from the French operation to the Russian front, where it would fight and defeat Russia.
By September of 1914, the slow-moving German advance placed the Kaiser's troops within 30 miles of Paris. It looked like Germany might overrun France, but then came the Battle of the Marne, in which German infantry faced both the French and the British. After sustaining heavy losses, Moltke pulled his troops back and dug trenches to hold their position. To preserve the advantage intended under the Schlieffen Plan, Moltke had to continue his advance, but he was short of troops. Worried about Russia, he had pulled German divisions from the Western front and shipped them to the East.
Upset with Germany's failure to defeat France in six weeks as outlined by the Schlieffen Plan, Kaiser Wilhelm demoted Moltke, and on September 14, 1914, promoted Falkenhayn to the position of Chief of the German General Staff. Falkenhayn, who retained his duties as Prussian Minister of War, quickly realized that, instead of enacting a plan guaranteeing a quick, decisive victory, he was now facing a war of attrition. Both sides built trenches on the Western front and while the death toll rose through relentless artillery fire, World War I ground to a halt.
Upon establishing headquarters in Northern France at Charleville-Mézières, Falkenhayn found his soldiers and supplies depleted, but rather than retreating to allow German forces to consolidate, he dug in, unwilling to give the enemy a similar opportunity to rest and resupply. He also sent troops to the Belgian coast, hoping to stop the flow of British supplies and reinforcements. Germany was now engaged in a long war, and he set about expanding military railways to ensure the flow of much-needed munitions and supplies. Falkenhayn was far ahead of the British in understanding the vast amount of supplies required to sustain long-term warfare.
Falkenhayn's army faced adversaries on two fronts, a situation von Schlieffen had sought to avoid. His hope was to attack France and carry out a massive slaughter of troops. This thinning of the ranks would force France to beg for conditions, thus ending the war and giving the Germans bargaining power. Writing in the New Statesman, Alistair Horne described Falkenhayn's plan. “The German commander-in-chief … devised a bizarre strategy for his men's assault in February 1916,” he explained. “It was not to break through, nor even to capture a key city, but to lure the French army into a trap where it would be ‘bled white’ by superior German firepower.” According to Horne, the “trap” was defending the fortress at Verdun, which, “for strategic, historic (and moral) reasons,” France would fight for at all costs. At the time, many military strategists believed Falkenhayn's idea to be sound.
Under Falkenhayn's guidance, the Germans began their onslaught on the city of Verdun on February 21, 1916. The military complex around the strongly fortified city consisted of about 19 forts. In the first days of the battle, the Germans captured Bois des Caures, a fort held by 1,200 French soldiers. A few days later, the Prussian infantry captured Fort Douaumont, a major victory considering that the installation was protected by an eight-footthick concrete wall topped by steel turrets and fortified with heavy artillery guns. When the French recaptured the fort in October 1916, they lost 100,000 men in the battle. While the Verdun effort went well for the first several weeks, the French proved more resilient than expected, launching counterattacks against the Germans. Considered the bloodiest battle of World War I, the Battle of Verdun lasted until December 19, 1916. During ten months of fighting, 800,000 soldiers were killed, injured, or reported missing in action.
Although the Germans were slowly gaining, Falkenhayn's grand scheme of attrition was ended in July 1916, when the British launched the Battle of the Somme in Northern France and German troops were transferred from Verdun at a critical juncture. After ten months of intense shelling in the area, the landscape around the city was permanently changed. As Slobodan Lekic observed in a report for the McClatchy-Tribune Business News, even a century on, “the landscape remains visibly scarred by the thousands of overlapping shell craters, trench lines and bunkers blanketing the terrain.” Lekic noted that the Verdun battlefield included nine villages “so completely devastated that they were abandoned and never rebuilt.”
On August 29, 1916, Falkenhayn resigned as Chief of the German General Staff and was transferred to the Eastern front to command Germany's Ninth Army during the Romania Campaign. Romania remained neutral during the first two years of the war but declared war on Austria-Hungary in 1916, thus joining the Allied Powers. Within weeks of arriving, Falkenhayn's troops defeated the Romanian army at the Battle of Turnu Roşu Pass. After three days of battle, Germany surrounded the Romanians and cut off their escape. To close them in, German infantry divisions scaled the mountains to get to the rear of Turnu Roşu Pass. Falkenhayn continued Germany's advance toward Bucharest, linking up with another German field marshal and entering Bucharest on December 6. In defeating Romania, Falkenhayn also earned accolades for the way he led his troops—comprising German, Habsburg and Bulgarian soldiers.
In early 1917, Falkenhayn traveled to Palestine to oversee Turkish forces, but he failed to secure Jerusalem and it fell to the British. At this point, he was dismissed from duty, returned to Germany, and retired. He later published a lengthy memoir of his war years, titled The German General Staff and Its Decisions, 1914-16; the English-language edition was 333 pages long. Falkenhayn died on April 8, 1922, in Potsdam, Brandenburg, Weimar Germany.
Foley, Robert T., German Strategy and the Path to Verdun, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Liddell Hart, Captain B.H., Reputations: Ten Years After, Little, Brown & Company, 1928.
Von Falkenhayn, General Erich, The German General Staff and Its Decisions, 1914–1916, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920.
McClatchy-Tribune Business News, March 20, 2014, Slobodan Lekic, “Verdun, France: Site Stands as Monument to Bloody WWI Battle.”
New Statesman, February 12–18, 2016, Alistair Horne, “The Legend of Verdun,” pp. 23–27.□