I’m going to post here, from time to time, texts of papers I’ve given at various times on topics related to the First World War. They don’t always have a full (or indeed, sometimes, any) critical apparatus, and they were read out or improvised from, so please excuse any conversational touches, rough edges, etc. In some cases, they may overlap each other or other things I have written; in others, I may not even agree with them now. But I hope you find them interesting. Comments welcome.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy”: How everything went wrong for everybody on the Western Front in 1914
Paper delivered to Surrey Branch, Western Front Association, June 2014
Copyright: Jonathan Boff
One hundred years ago, pretty much to the minute, Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and sparked off a chain of events which led to the war we’ll be commemorating over the next four years. The war that resulted certainly confounded the expectations of many. There’s a common view that the armies which went to war in August 1914 misunderstood the nature and lethality of modern war. Their officers, the story goes, were hidebound conservatives who despised technology and wilfully ignored the tactical lessons, of recent campaigns dating back to the American Civil War, of the difficulty of attacking in the face of withering modern firepower and the effectiveness of trenches. They therefore expected a short sharp conflict with a couple of decisive battles and home before the leaves fall. We now know that’s not true, that militaries studied, for instance, the Russo-Japanese War almost obsessively, and that senior figures on both sides in the run up to battle were anticipating a long drawn-out conflict. In Britain, these included Kitchener and Haig; in Germany, the two Moltkes and Schlieffen’s quartermaster.
I was asked the other day, at an event similar to this, if there was any way it could have been a short war. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but only if Germany won.’ She needed a crushing victory over France in the first six weeks, as the famous Schlieffen plan intended. So if we want to understand how the stalemate developed, we have to explain why Germany didn’t win that victory. (I realise now that there was another way: if Russia captured Berlin. But this is not the Eastern Front Association, is it?)
This is well-trodden ground. As Professor Sir Hew Strachan has written, ‘probably no single episode in the military history of the First World War attracted so much controversy in the inter-war years as the events of the first six weeks on the western front.’ For between the wars the German army picked the scab of their failures in August and September with an almost frantic obsession, in a debate encompassing literally hundreds of publications and the best military brains in the country. What I’d like to argue today, however, is that all this brainpower was bound up in a mental strait-jacket of arrogance so deep that it was unable to face the real facts. Far from being a surprising outcome caused by the mistakes of a few individuals, the failure of the Schlieffen Plan was one of the most over-determined events in history. I will argue that the stalemate was not the result of tactical difficulties: these affected all sides more or less evenly. Instead, it was based in fundamental German weaknesses at both the operational and strategic levels which both contradict views of the German army as extraordinarily dangerous and shed light on the nature of warfare in 1914-18.
I’m not going to review all the literature generated by the controversy. We’d be here all night. And I’m going to ignore the Terence Zuber debate. Zuber has many weaknesses which include being catastrophically wrong about the Schlieffen plan. But it is worth highlighting some of the many ‘what-if’ questions which surround this campaign as a result.
What if Germany had not violated Belgian neutrality? Would Britain still have entered the war?
What if Moltke had stuck more closely to Schlieffen’s intentions and kept his left wing very weak?
What if Moltke had not sent 2 corps in East Prussia in late August?
What if Hentsch’s view that they should retreat from the Marne had not prevailed?
What if Kluck had turned Maunoury’s flank NE of Paris on the River Ourcq?
That’s a long list of questions, and I don’t intend to run through each now. We can talk about them if you like in questions later. But notice there are 2 common threads running through them all. First, none of them admit that the French might have been any good. Which of course they were. One of the most striking facts about 1914 is the skill with which Joffre used his interior railway lines to shift men from his right flank to the threatened left. Another is the resilience of the French soldiers who, even after ten days of defeats and retreats could still attack so desperately on the Marne. And secondly, they are all about the ‘wrong’ decisions of German individuals. Of course, individuals did make bad choices during the campaign. But notice that there’s no room for the idea that there might be something institutionally wrong with the German army. The presumption is that it was the Germans’ campaign to lose. And that, I think, is a mistake. Here’s why.
I’d like to talk about one particular aspect of the German army in 1914: command and control. Now, this is frequently seen as a particular strength of German armies of the twentieth century, the idea being that superior command systems and individuals enabled her to punch above her weight in both the world wars. In particular, the Allies are often criticised for having a restrictive, centralised system of command which made them ponderous and inflexible, while the Germans enjoyed a much more devolved and decentralised approach, known as Auftragsataktik or ‘Mission Command’, which left much more room for initiative on the part of the man on the spot and enabled high tempo, together with superior training and motivation, to offset inferiority in manpower and materiel. Now, the applicability of this concept to the army of 1914-18 has been questioned by those (Condell & Zabecki) who see it more as a product of the Freikorps experience. Others have seen it as representing a longer tradition of aristocratic independence under the King/Kaiser which left generals free to act as they saw fit (Citino). Elsewhere, I have argued that, if it ever existed at all, it broke down in 1918 under the pressure of events and Ludendorff’s personality. What I’d like to do today is to look at 1914, and particularly the experience of the commander of Sixth Army, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, to see what Auftragstaktik meant in 1914, and to offer a provocation or two of my own as to whether it makes sense to speak of a command system in 1914.
Rupprecht, as a royal prince, is a particularly interesting case study for two reasons. First, he straddled two worlds: as heir to the throne of the second most important state in Germany he had political access and clout of his own, as well as privileged sources of information, such as the Bavarian Military Plenipotentiary at the Kaiser’s GHQ, General Karl von Wenninger. And yet he was also as close as any royal heir could come to a professional soldier, and had as his Chief of Staff the extremely professional and talented Konrad Krafft von Dellmensingen. Their biographers disagree about who took the lead in this relationship in 1914, but they clearly worked well together as a team and for present purposes I’m going to treat them as a unit. Secondly, the conduct of this pair, especially in Lorraine in August and September 1914, has generated an impressive paper trail. We all know how obsessively the German army picked over the bones of the Schlieffen Plan between the wars, but we tend to remember only the controversies about what went wrong on the right wing, up to and during the Battle of the Marne. At the time, there was almost as much argument – some of it vicious – about what went on in Alsace and Lorraine. At least 20 publications argued back and fore before the outbreak of the next war closed the debate down. Markus Pöhlmann has written an extremely interesting study of this debate in his book on the writing of the German official histories.
There isn’t time today to fill in the narrative of the fighting on the southern half of the front. The fullest treatment so far, for those who are interested, is Dieter Storz’s in the Schlieffen Plan book published by the MGFA. Instead, I’ll concentrate on Rupprecht’s interactions with OHL at four key decision nodes, each of which displays a different model of command. Taken together, these suggest to me that thinking about German command in terms of where it sits along a continuum of Auftragstaktik is wrong and that another model altogether is a better fit for how decision were made. I’ll argue later that this model is the Kaiser’s court, but let’s leave that for now.
The first interaction I want to discuss occurred on Tuesday 18 August 1914. This was the fifth day of a retreat Rupprecht was carrying out, in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan, designed to draw French forces into a pocket in Lorraine where they could be at least fixed to prevent them being shipped north to oppose Kluck and Bülow, and ideally destroyed. Intelligence was poor, partly due to wishful thinking. At first, OHL identified this as the main French thrust, involving up to 80% of Joffre’s active corps but Rupprecht was more sceptical, and by 17 August it was clear that the true figure was no more than half that. In any case, the French advance was far from the reckless onrush of myth but in fact was extremely cautious, averaging only some 5-8 km per day. Right from the start, Rupprecht had argued that if he were to tie down French troops in the south he needed to attack and gain the initiative. This would also help maintain the morale of his troops. In a series of fraught meetings and ‘phone calls with ever different members of OHL (Tappen, Dommes, Stein), Rupprecht became increasingly frustrated that Moltke’s staff were tying his hands. Finally, during the afternoon of 18 August, Krafft spoke again with QMG Stein, who told him that OHL would not forbid an attack, that Sixth Army must do what it considered right, and ‘you must bear the responsibility.’ The decision was that Sixth and Seventh armies would attack on 20 August. The official history summarises it thus: ‘after a lively debate with OHL Crown Prince Rupprecht had decided, despite Generaloberst von Moltke’s previously advocated plans for a further retreat of Sixth Army, to go over to the offensive on 20 August to clarify the situation. OHL had delegated freedom of action, along with full responsibility, to AOK 6.’ As it happens, the attack, despite heavy casualties on both sides, was a major success, throwing the French back to where they had started within 48 hours. Moltke was moved to tears by Rupprecht’s success. The Kaiser awarded Rupprecht the Iron Cross both Second and First Class and was only dissuaded with difficulty from visiting him in person to congratulate him. Only later did controversy arise, with Rupprecht accused of having attacked too soon in contravention of Moltke’s wishes and Schlieffen’s master-plan, and then of having pushed too far. Let’s ignore that for now. Instead, I would suggest, this is not a case of an empowered subordinate, as the ‘man on the spot’, feeling free to react as he feels right within the broad outlines of the mission he’s been given by his superior. Rather, this seems closer to an abdication of responsibility by an increasingly exasperated OHL.
Moltke’s command was famously dysfunctional and he didn’t last long, being shoved sideways soon after defeat on the Marne. Two things are striking about his replacement, Erich von Falkenhayn, however. First, he changed few of the personnel within his immediate staff. Secondly, .he brought no radical new idea, instead trying to stage Schlieffen II. To that end, Sixth Army was shifted up from Lorraine to try to outflank the French who would, it was hoped, be pinned along the River Oise. On 18 September Rupprecht and Krafft met Falkenhayn (and Moltke!) to receive their orders. These were to use his three (later four) corps to force a decision on the right wing and to secure the army’s flank. Communications were a problem, however. Everything needed for First, Second, Seventh and now Sixth armies was having to travel along just one railway line via Brussels and Valenciennes and Rupprecht’s corps would unload days apart and then be faced with approach marches of up to 100 miles. The question was whether they had time to wait, concentrate Sixth Army and strike in strength in a few days; or must advance as soon as possible with whatever was to hand. To Rupprecht, Krafft and Moltke, the first course of action was clearly preferable. Falkenhayn, however, insisted on a piecemeal deployment. His reasons for this were twofold. First, there were already signs of French pressure on Kluck’s open and vulnerable flank which must be protected as soon as possible. Secondly, the Germans, as so often in both wars, underestimated enemy resistance and exaggerated their own strength. One more push and the French would collapse… Although Falkenhayn promised Rupprecht a free hand, it is hard to see what that could possibly mean when he was committed to such a piecemeal deployment. The predictable result was a series of indecisive encounter battles in the last week of September and first half of October from the Somme up to Lens, which achieved little beyond an extension of the stalemate northwards.
The change of command at the top eased command relationships between Sixth Army and OHL only temporarily. The diaries of Rupprecht and Krafft, for instance, are full of complaints not only of Prussian disdain for the Bavarians but of a ‘dilettantisch’ approach. Rupprecht’s response to new orders on 14 October – the third node – is revealing of how poorly the system was operating. Sixth Army was to hold on the defensive from La Bassée through Armentières to Menin to lure the British into a trap which the new Fourth Army would close. ‘The mission we’ve been given is analogous to that we had at the beginning of the campaign and it remains as questionable as before, whether the enemy will run into the trap. This return to Schlieffen’s ideas, under very different circumstances, seems to me very doubtful. We’re ceding the initiative completely to the enemy.’ Three times Rupprecht asked to be permitted to take the offensive; three times, Falkenhayn refused to let him do so. Falkenhayn allegedly told Wenninger ‘Even if the Crown Prince of Bavaria stands on his head, he may not attack!’ When Krafft and Rupprecht discussed protesting to OHL, however, they decided that they should not since it was OHL’s idea and their responsibility: a toxic reaction which speaks volumes.
In the last few days of October, relations between OHL and Sixth Army deteriorated even further and offer us a fourth case. Rumours began circulating that Falkenhayn was criticising Rupprecht’s leadership behind his back. OHL bypassed Rupprecht by setting up a quasi-independent command under General Fabeck, partly using divisions from Sixth Army, for the ‘decisive’ attack up the Menin Road. This forced Rupprecht to cancel an assault planned for 27 October after he’d issued an order of the day calling for energetic attacks, thus making him look stupid. Rupprecht was furious: ‘Either I command the army, or I resign. This cannot go on. Falkenhayn lets himself be influenced by every Chinese whisper and jumps to conclusions which are in every way damaging, which weaken the offensive spirit of the men and undermine their trust in their superiors. If only Falkenhayn would be replaced by Gen. Oberst von Bülow or one of the senior generals. On the one hand army commands are kept too much in the dark about the general situation, on the other OHL interferes in their business, instead of contenting itself, in the manner of the great Moltke, with issuing general directives and leaving the armies to carry out the missions they’ve been assigned.’ Note the appeal to myth. He threatened to drive to see the Kaiser to complain, although there is no evidence he did so, nor that he raised the matter when the Kaiser next visited army HQ on 31 October – 1 November. What is certain, however, is that from now on Rupprecht and Falkenhayn were enemies. The prince formed part of the Hindenburg Fronde which sought to unseat Falkenhayn in early 1915. Falkenhayn continued to try to bypass Rupprecht in the chain of command all the way through the Artois battles of the spring, until at last the Prince was moved to complain to the Kaiser in May 1915. Falkenhayn was forced to apologise but took his revenge by transferring Krafft away to command the Alpenkorps and installing a Prussian colonel as Sixth Army Chief of Staff.
So, we’ve seen four different manifestations of command friction between OHL and Rupprecht. On 18 August, OHL apparently devolved decision-making but in fact abdicated responsibility. One month later, OHL again in theory gave Rupprecht a free hand but in practice did not. On 14 October OHL’s direct intervention was met by the Bavarian royal equivalent of the modern teenager’s ‘whatever’. And 27 October saw a final breakdown which led to both Rupprecht and Falkenhayn trying to find ways to work around the formal chain of command.
I’m not going to argue that either side was consistently right in the decisions made. Four factors put sand in the Vaseline. First, to a large extent friction arose precisely because the pressure of events threw up situations where, even if intelligence had been perfect, there was no single correct answer. And intelligence was very far from perfect. Secondly, command facilities and especially communications were consistently poor. For instance, at Sixth Army headquarters, the operations staff was crammed into two rooms (one of which doubled as Krafft’s bedroom) with only one telephone between them all. Things weren’t much better at OHL in Luxembourg: there was no gas or electric light and the office of the Chief of Operations, Tappen, was in a cupboard. Thirdly, personalities played a role. Moltke was evidently in the throes of a nervous collapse of some kind; Rupprecht was a prickly character, full of amour-propre and keen to uphold the rights and privileges not only of himself as a Prince but also of Bavaria herself.
The fourth and most important factor, however, was the nature of the command set-up itself. Two-dimensional models, which see decision authority going up and down the chain of command, require everyone to know which way is up. But the German system was less clear. As long as generals like Rupprecht thought they could bypass the chain of command and go straight to the Kaiser through the Immediatsystem, they were less likely to do as the Chief of the General Staff told them. This undermined the Chief of the General Staff’s authority, which was in any case weakened by the fact he that he knew he held his appointment only at the whim (I use the word advisedly) of Wilhelm II. As early as 10 August the head of his Military Cabinet was openly asking around whether Moltke was up to the job and Falkenhayn knew he was far from the army’s candidate for the job. The need to manage the Kaiser as well as the war was quite clearly too much for Moltke, and must have proved a serious distraction for his successor, too. More insidiously still however, the monarch-courtier dynamic characterised not just the relationship between Kaiser and CGS, but also that between the CGS and his immediate collaborators, whose future and career depended on him. Men of the so-called ‘camarilla’ like Tappen, Hentsch and Dommes were lucky to survive Moltke’s fall and knew it. The importance of their views, and the seriousness with which men like Rupprecht had to take what they said, inevitably waxed and waned with their influence, injecting yet more uncertainty into the relationship between OHL and subordinate commands.
In other words, it was Wilhelm II’s influence which allowed such a confusing and uncertain system to continue and indeed to replicate itself as thoroughly as it did in the higher ranks of the army. This created a culture of command so far from rational models of Auftragstaktik or its opposite that they seem almost irrelevant and, it appears, the word ‘system’ can hardly be applied. The more one looks at German command in 1914, the more apt Dr Johnson’s comment about a dog walking on its hind legs becomes: it was not done well, but it is surprising to find it done at all.
I’ve been putting the jackboot into the German army. But these problems of command and control were common to all armies and, given the difficulties of communication on the twentieth century battlefield, probably insuperable. In 1912 Foch said: ‘the armies have outgrown the brains of the people who direct them. I do not believe there is any man living big enough to control these millions. They will stumble about, and then sit down helplessly in front of each other thinking only of their means of communication to supply these vast hordes who must eat.’ This seems a pretty accurate prophecy of the first couple of years of the war, as the generals struggled with managerial problems on an unprecedented scale as well as the minor matter of how to fight their enemies. The railways had enabled the building of million-man armies and had transported them to the battlefield but as soon as the soldiers got off the train, although the weapons were new, they might as well have been campaigning a hundred or two hundred years before, otherwise. It was a combination of too many men blundering around in too small a space, armed with too much firepower which set up the stalemate. Nonetheless, soon in 1915 armies on both sides began to learn how to break in to the enemy’s defences, as the British showed at Neuve Chapelle, the Germans at Second Ypres and the French at Second Artois. But while communications remained too poor to enable exploitation and the conversion of break-in into break-out, and there was no effective arm for exploiting any breakthrough, little could change.
In other words, while there are certainly tactical aspects to the stalemate which creeps up the front between August and November 1914, I think the biggest influence is operational. As Bavarian military historian Dieter Storz has suggested, ‘Without doubt the German army of 1914 did least well where before 1914 it had been most confident and had trained itself well through staff rides and wargames: in the sphere of higher command.’ We haven’t even discussed logistics, but of course they are crucial too.
I’d like to finish up by thinking a little about strategy and how it applies here. If we restrict our analysis to the tactical and operational problems of the Schlieffen Plan, we are falling into the same trap the German army fell into in the 1920s: assuming it should have worked and then trying to work out why it didn’t. That’s an assumption which needs questioning, which means looking at the strategic coherence of the plan in the first place. The idea that France could be defeated in six weeks at first sight doesn’t seem stupid. After all, that’s exactly what happened in 1940 and, while Hitler’s army was more mechanised than Kaiser Bill’s, most of its soldiers still marched to war just as their fathers had done. In 1940 French command was paralysed and the morale of the troops collapsed, but both might have happened in 1914 as well. In another case, Napoleon III lost the Battle of Sedan and his throne six weeks after the outbreak of war. (The defence of France in 1814 by his uncle, universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest generals who ever lived, lasted only two months.) In fact, though, it was more complicated than that. It was the war of 1870-1, of course, which resonated in the minds of Moltke the Younger and his colleagues, who were well aware that Sedan had changed the regime in Paris and the character of the war, but had not ended it. Instead, the new Third Republic had displayed an apparently inexhaustible ability to generate new armies and to inspire armed civilian resistance from franc-tireurs insurgents. The Schlieffen Plan had no political component at all, either to forestall such a possibility or to deal with it. Rather like the invasion of 1870, and some recent examples we can all think of, no provision had been made for establishing a new regime with whom a peace could be signed. So we can’t tell what German intentions were, in the event of them crushing the French army. Nor can we guess what French reactions would have been. All we know is that the German army was petrified of a rerun of the 9-months’ ‘Volkskrieg’ which followed Sedan and was determined to avoid it. That, after all, is one of the major reasons they massacred over 6,000 French and Belgian civilians in the opening months of the war: to indicate they were prepared to brook no resistance. If France had continued fighting, even after the fall of Paris, there’s no telling how many German divisions might have been tied down and so unable to attack Russia in the east. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that Russia would be defeated anyway. Russia’s a big place.
In other words, I suspect that, even if the Schlieffen Plan had worked, it wouldn’t have worked. If you see what I mean. Operational success, even including the fall of Paris on timetable and decisive defeat of the French army (the BEF is a strategic flea on the bull’s back in the 1914 context) would not have brought the strategic benefits intended.
Which raises the obvious question: why do it? One of the first lessons one learns as a historian is that, when you come across someone in the past doing something which seems irrational, that probably means you haven’t worked hard enough to understand their reasoning. True loonies are thankfully rare in history; most people are rational most of the time by their own lights: you just have to understand what those lights are. In the minds of Moltke & co and the Schlieffen Plan, there seem to have been several factors at play:
1) a genuine paranoia about encirclement, underpinned by a Social Darwninist view whereby empires which didn’t grow must die
2) a very real sense that Germany stood for a unique culture and set of spiritual values which was under threat from, especially, British materialism
3) a feeling that, however remote the possibility it worked, the Schlieffen Plan offered the best chance of success. In fairness, militarily, this was probably the correct judgement, once the decision for war had been made.
4) a deep-seated, belief that man for man and unit for unit the German army was better than its enemies. This arrogance takes us back to where we came in. One of the tragedies of 1914 is that the German military either could not tell the difference between a conclusive result – with the Battle of the Marne was not – and a decisive one – which it certainly was. Or, if it could, it was not prepared to accept the decision. Nor did it learn the lesson that they did not have the best army in the world. Even the next three years of bloodshed was not enough for them to pick up that lesson. It would take another five and a half years of an even more terrible war to learn it properly.
 Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, Mein Kriegstagebuch (Eugen von Frauenholz, ed.) Volume I (Munich: Deutscher National Verlag, 1929), pp. 6-21. The account in the published diary follows the MS closely, omitting only the flustering of Dommes. See also Krafft von Delmensingen, Die Führung des Kronprinzen Rupprecht von Bayern auf dem linken deutschen Heeresflügel bis zur Schlacht in Lothringen im August 1914 (Berlin: E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 1925), pp. 17-21
 Reichsarchiv, Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Band I Die Grenzschlachten im Westen (Berlin: E.S. Mittler & Sohn, 1925), p. 256. See also pp. 208, 210-11.
 Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, Mein Kriegstagebuch (Eugen von Frauenholz, ed.) Volume I (Munich: Deutscher National Verlag, 1929), pp. 36, 41
 Rupprecht, Mein Kriegstagebuch Volume I, pp. 126-7; Diary entry 18 September 1914, pp. 1a-2a, BKA NL Krafft 48 Tagebuch 18.9.-27.10.1914; Robert T. Foley, German Strategy and the path to Verdun: Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870-1916 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 99-102
 Italics only in unpublished diary
 Rupprecht, Mein Kriegstagebuch Volume I, p. 236
 Krafft Diary entry 14 October, p. 87a, BKA NL Krafft 48 Tagebuch 18.9.-27.10.1914
 Sentence in italics only in unpublished diary.
 Rudolf von Xylander,, Deutsche Führung in Lothringen 1914: Wahrheit und Kriegsgeschichte (Berlin: Junker und Dünnhaupt Verlag, 1935), p. 22
 Holger H. Herwig, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2009), p. 171
 Wenninger noted on 6 September that ‘my first week in our new headquarters as the only Bavarian was as miserable as that in Koblenz was enjoyable. The thermometer rises and falls with the performance of our troops on the battlefield.’