7 FEBRUARY, 1915: Breaking Bad

Poppycock doesn’t subscribe to the laddish theory that bad generals were to blame for battlefield carnage during the First World War. The generals were of their time, socially and technologically, and it was a very bad time to fight a major war. Most belligerent armed forces produced a few excellent and innovative commanders, and the worst you can call the majority is mediocre. Mediocre isn’t such a terrible score when you consider the unprecedented number of generals needed to command such a vast conflict, and that the advent of million-man armies had the main belligerents scraping the command barrel from the very start of the War.

That said, there were some really bad generals around, and the centenary of 1915’s first big offensive on the Eastern Front – the German attack in East Prussia known as the Winter Battle, or the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes – provides a good opportunity to bad-mouth one of the very worst of them. I’m talking about the man responsible for the offensive, General Erich Ludendorff.

The charge against Ludendorff is nothing so simple as straight incompetence. He was a successful and energetic field commander and tactician, particularly talented when it came to military logistics, who came through the War with an enormous, if largely self-generated reputation based on his version of the German campaign on the Eastern Front. On the down side – and quite apart from a personality built on virulently anti-Semitic, extreme right-wing nationalism – he was guilty of overweening self-belief, vaunting ambition, cynical self-promotion and enormous strategic errors, a catalogue of failings that would have momentous consequences for Germany and the world. Destined to achieve far too much power, he was still a rising star in February 1915, a successful field commander, a popular celebrity and a strident voice in favour of ambitious offensive warfare.

He had first made a name for himself in Belgium, leading a brigade into Liège on 6 August 1914 to threaten its fortresses from within. Promoted chief of staff to the new commander in East Prussia, General Hindenburg, he cemented his fame with a striking (if ultimately indecisive) victory at the Battle of Tannenberg, and although public adulation was focused on the elderly and rather inert Hindenburg, Ludendorff was careful to ensure that he received credit for the campaign in military circles. After the same team was given overall command of the Eastern Front in November 1914, Ludendorff again sought and won admiration for the rapid mobilization and concentration that overtrumped Russian offensives around Poland.

Already in the habit of using contacts on the far right of German politics to help exaggerate his successes, and with Hindenburg as his puppet-like figurehead, Ludendorff had turned his personal propaganda machine against overall Army chief of staff Falkenhayn by early 1915. Popular and military orthodoxy accepted the (entirely spurious) argument that only Falkenhayn’s lack of ambition had deprived Ludendorff of decisive victory in the east. Despite the Supreme Command’s reluctance to commit resources to the campaign against Russia, Ludendorff’s pressure (along with the need to impress potential allies in the Balkans) pushed Falkenhayn into authorising and supplying a major offensive in the east.  It was to be spearheaded by an attack in the northern sector, around the Masurian Lakes, that Ludendorff claimed would outflank Russian positions in Poland to force a general retreat beyond the River Vistula.

Ludendorff’s genuine talent was for concentrating his strength quickly and attacking before the enemy was ready. His great weakness lay in believing, time and again, that initial success was the prelude to complete triumph and acting accordingly. So it was with the Winter Battle.

By early February some 150,000 German troops faced a similar number of Russians along a broad front west and east of the Lakes. The Germans enjoyed a slight superiority in artillery, but their great advantage lay in Russian attempts to concentrate for an offensive further south, which had left defences stretched in the Lakes sector. The southern wing of those defences crumbled when the German attack opened on 7 February, and an attack on the northern wing had the same effect two days later. Despite chaotic Russian attempts to relieve the centre, a general retreat began on 14 February, and 12,000 survivors of the central corps, surrounded in the Forest of Augustovo, were forced to surrender on 21 February.

So far, so good for Ludendorff’s grand schemes for a decisive breakthrough, but not for the first or last time exploitation of the initial victory proved impossible. Attempts to advance southeast ran up against strong Russian forces still gathering for their own offensive, the northern prong of the German advance got bogged down in a failed attempt to take the well-defended fortress at Osoweic, and the whole German force retired to the frontier in early March as more and more Russian troops poured into the theatre.

The campaign ended with both sides roughly where they had started, and although at least 60,000 Russian troops had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner, manpower shortages were the least of Russia’s worries. In short, Ludendorff had achieved nothing, but that didn’t stop him massively exaggerating Russian casualty figures and claiming a vital strategic victory.

With the Hindenburg/Ludendorff dream team’s reputation as national heroes undiminished, Ludendorff would go on to repeat the trick of portraying short-lived tactical success as strategic triumph, and continue to blame the Supreme Command for denying him the tools to win total victory in the east. As such he could be dismissed as just another stubborn general unable, like so many on the Western Front, to bridge the gap between military techniques and military technology – but the tragedy is that Ludendorff’s star would continue to rise until he became Germany’s effective ruler in the latter stages of the War, when his one-eyed pursuit of the elusive total victory would lay waste to Eastern Europe and reduce Germany to chaos.

At the end of the War he would escape into exile to promote the myth of his own rectitude, the more dangerous myth that an undefeated Germany had been betrayed from within, and the growth of extreme right-wing groups inside Germany. Now that’s what I call a bad general.

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