Under the 1871 constitution of the Second Reich, a number of independent kingdoms retained considerable autonomy within the empire of Germany. Prussia was the largest of these, but Bavaria was second biggest. So during the First World War Wilhelm II was Kaiser or Emperor of Germany and also King of Prussia, while in Munich Rupprecht’s father, King Ludwig III, ruled Bavaria and, in peacetime, had his own army. In wartime the Bavarian army became part of the German military, of which the Kaiser was Supreme Warlord. Rupprecht and his father were members of the Wittelsbach dynasty which had ruled Bavaria since the twelfth century. The most famous member of the dynasty is probably Mad King Ludwig II, the patron of Wagner and builder of castles so fairy tale that Walt Disney borrowed the silhouette of one for his Magic Castle.
Rupprecht himself was born in 1869, in Munich, the first of 13 children. His name was a nod to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the English Civil War cavalryman and King Charles I’s nephew. In fact, Rupprecht was descended through his mother from Charles I and would become the Jacobite Pretender. He was educated at a public high school (the first in his family to be so) and at Munich and Berlin universities. He was also commissioned into the Bavarian army and spent time at the Bavarian War Academy where the high-fliers were hothoused for senior command. By 1900, at the age of 31, had been promoted to Major-General and given command of a division and although it’d be naive to argue that his promotions owed nothing to his status, the evidence is that he worked hard at being a soldier, or at least as hard as a royal prince of those days could be expected to work. He had to balance his profession with carrying out an increasing number of royal duties, and chose also to indulge a love of foreign travel and Italian Renaissance Art. His love of nudes was not confined to the Botticellis, however, and he enjoyed a typically late Victorian/Edwardian royal playboy youth until in 1900 he settled down by marrying his cousin, Marie-Gabrielle, in the face of opposition from both her parents and his family. Tragically, of the five children they conceived, only one survived to adulthood, and Marie-Gabrielle herself died young, aged only 32, in 1912. After losing his wife, Rupprecht threw himself into his military career with redoubled energy and in 1913 he was promoted to a post which would give him command of the largely Bavarian Sixth Army in the event of war.
He fought his first battles against the French in Lorraine during August and September 1914 where he fought a campaign which is little known here, because the British were not involved, but proved highly controversial in Germany between the wars. When the front there slid into deadlock, he was sent north during the so-called Race to the Sea to try to outflank the Anglo-French forces first along the line of the River Somme, then around Arras, until finally in October he finally came up against the BEF during the First Battle of Ypres. Over the next 18 months Rupprecht commanded Sixth Army on the defensive in Artois repelling French and British assaults in a series of bloody battles. His role in the early months of 1916 was restricted to a watching brief during Verdun and the early months of the Battle of the Somme until, in August 1916 he was promoted one last time, to Field Marshal, and given command of an army group, well over a million men, covering the front roughly from Champagne to the Belgian border. This gave him responsibility for coordinating the defence during the still-terrible last months of the Somme battle, as well as for iconic battles of 1917 such as Arras, Third Ypres and Cambrai. In 1918, it was Rupprecht’s men who spearheaded the offensives of spring 1918 which represented Germany’s last throw of the dice, and again it was they who bore the brunt of the Allied counter-offensives carried out between August and November 1918 during the campaign known as the Hundred Days.
By the time the Armistice was signed, Rupprecht had lost not only a war but also his inheritance. His father fled a revolution which seized control of Munich and effectively abdicated. Rupprecht escaped into Holland under a false name. Increasing political violence meant he was not able to settle back in Bavaria for a year, and even then, the threat of an indictment for war crimes hung over his head, although the case was eventually dropped. I’ll finish the story of Rupprecht’s life after the First World War in a later post.
So Rupprecht had a huge and highly responsible role at the heart of the German army on the Western Front for the whole war. He wasn’t, frankly, a new Napoleon: the First World War didn’t make many of those. It did, however, destroy the reputations and careers of many generals on both sides and Rupprecht not only avoided that fate but was sufficiently highly thought of that he was promoted, and given more responsibility, rather than the opposite. Most importantly for our purposes, as a senior general he was at the heart of Germany’s military effort and, by virtue of his royal and political status, privy to many of the debates and disputes which roiled the supreme command during the war. Conveniently, he also kept a very full diary: in the Secret Royal Household Archive in Munich are lodged 4,197 handwritten foolscap pages, almost all of them written up with a few hours or days of the events they describe. Luckily, his handwriting is not too bad and in 1928 he published an edited version cut down to a slightly more manageable 1400 pages in three volumes. The bulk of his correspondence, likewise, survives. Very few German, and even fewer British, historians have really mined these sources in detail… until now.
Looking at Rupprecht, therefore, can teach us all sorts of interesting things not only about how the German army operated, which is useful if we are to grasp the war in its proper context; but also it can help us better understand what was happening on the British side of the war. In a later post, I’ll discuss some of the lessons I think we can learn.