Erich Ludendorff and the Prelude to War

Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff was a man of humble beginnings; born into an impoverished West Prussian family, he grew up in rural Posen the third of six children. Unlike most of the high-ranking military men in Germany, Ludendorff was connected to the privileged class only by association. His mother, a von Tempelhoff, came from a family that maintained its noble title but had since lost its wealth; this fact made Ludendorff’s ascension towards military leadership particularly difficult and may have played an indirect role in his potentially career-ending demotion in 1913. But Ludendorff's career did not end in 1913; in fact, in spite of the demotion, by 1916, Ludendorff was standing atop the German Empire and, controlling nearly five million enlisted men, one of the most powerful political figures in Imperial Germany.[i]

Ludendorff’s long journey to prominence began with his acceptance into cadet school in 1877 at the age of twelve; the opportunity came to him due to his arithmetic skills and his good work ethic, both of which he would carry with him throughout his life. Many years later, after attending the senior Military Academy at Lichterfelde and serving within the army as a lieutenant, Ludendorff entered into the highly-regarded Kriegsakademie. Further opportunities came with his assignment to the Great General Staff in 1904; then, under the command of Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, Ludendorff became the Chief of the Second within the German General Staff and assumed responsibility for the mobilization and deployment of the German army in the event of war. It was Ludendorff's most important appointment to date but, due to the perilous situation that Ludendorff inherited, it was also a tremendous burden.[ii]

Ludendorff was only five when the Franco-Prussian War had begun, but the conflict, which led to the unification of Germany through Prussia, would have a tremendous impact on his military career; to begin, the outcome of the conflict had given way to an illusion that the next war would be won through a well-organized and powerful first strike. This made Ludendorff’s job of preparing for the event of war extremely critical; Ludendorff and his superiors believed that, the better prepared and equipped the German army was, the more likely it could quickly deal a knockout blow when the next war came and seize victory.[iii]

Another important point was that the Franco-Prussian War had been a national embarrassment for the French. It had cost them part of Lorraine, Alsace and most of their dignity; the French hoped to regain all three in a vengeful and liberating war against Germany, giving birth to a new word to describe France’s transparently aggressive foreign policy: revanchism. At first, the French could not find an ally for this cause. One reason was that Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of the German Empire, had isolated the French by maintaining healthy diplomatic relations with Germany’s other neighbors. However, as the 1890s began, Bismarck ran into trouble with the new German emperor, Wilhelm II, and resigned. Wilhelm II failed to renew Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty, in which Germany and Russia had pledged their neutrality to one another unless Germany attacked France or Russia attacked Austria-Hungary. Thus, with Bismarck’s 1882 Triple Alliance between Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy still intact, Russia turned to France to form its own protective alliance. In 1894, the Franco-Russian alliance was created and, for the first time, Germany was surrounded by potential enemies – France to the west and Russia to the east.[iv]

Under these conditions, Ludendorff and his superiors believed that Germany also needed to prepare for the possibility that the next conflict would be part of a two-front war.  The prospect of a two-front war was not entirely new for Germany; decades earlier, German military leader Field Marshal Count von Moltke, the hero of the Franco-Prussian War, had become alarmed by the prospect and come up with a plan for diffusing the two-front war situation. At first, Moltke had reasoned that the threat of a two-front war was best dealt with by concentrating on one front at a time, by handing the French a quick and decisive defeat before redeploying in full strength against Russia; several developments had led Moltke to change his plan and focus on defeating Russia first but, in the end, Moltke concluded that too many complications stood in the way of total victory on either front, and it would be best to just pursue a defensive position and negotiate a favorable peace.[v]

Although Moltke’s successor, Count von Waldersee, had left the plan intact, in 1891, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen became head of the German military and pressed for reform. Schlieffen believed it was senseless to prepare for a two-sided assault by, essentially, hoping such a war would never come. Thus, he discarded the old defensive plan and began to toy with Moltke's first prospective scenario, which involved quick mobilization and a swift victory over the French army, followed by a full-force attack against the Russians. Schlieffen proposed leaving one-ninth of Germany’s forces in the east during the concentrated assault on France, arguing that Russia would seize the opportunity to strike while the bulk of the German army was engaged in the west. At full strength, the German army could field only about half as many soldiers as Russia could, and Schlieffen was expecting one ninth of the total German force to be able to hold off the Russians until France fell. Yet Schlieffen had faith that Germany could once again bring France to its knees and do so quickly enough to keep Russia at bay.[vi]

The success of Schlieffen's plan to attack France hinged upon the results of a strong, concentrated blow just north of the French-German border. The brunt of the German assault force was to cross into France through the Low Countries, veer to the south, take Paris and wheel around to close in on the bulk of the French army, which Schlieffen hoped would be pinned down by the rest of German army along the Franco-German border. The plan assumed that, if the British came into the war, Germany could attain victory before the British Expeditionary Force could be organized to frustrate the German offensive; the plan was also based on the assumption that Germany was destined for a two-front war and the only way to win was to seize the initiative - not just in accordance with contemporary military strategy, but to quickly defeat one opponent in order to concentrate on the next. This put even more pressure on Ludendorff who, as the Chief of the Second within the German General Staff, was in charge of preparing Germany for such a war.[vii]

Ludendorff quickly discovered that the German army was in need of funding that the War Ministry, parliament and the Kaiser were not willing to provide. What is more, shortly after Ludendorff’s appointment, Schlieffen retired and Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, the nephew of the Franco-Prussian War hero, assumed the head of the German military command. The younger Moltke had an aversion to quarreling with parliament over the army’s budget and Ludendorff complained that he could only get the young Moltke to “stand his ground by gripping him like a vice.” Furthermore, the younger Moltke made a number of mistakes that put Ludendorff under even greater stress by increasing the likelihood of war in the near future. For example, in 1909, Moltke assured Austria-Hungary that, if their Serbian subjects revolted and the Russians intervened to aid the rebels, Germany would honor its alliance with Austria-Hungary. This left Germany’s fate in the hands of Austria-Hungary, a declining, multi-national empire, which was becoming a powder-keg of ethno-national tensions. Just as importantly, in 1911, Italy informed Germany that, in the event of war, it could not intervene as promised due to foreseen trouble maintaining its colonies in North Africa. With only Austria-Hungary and Germany left in the “Triple Alliance”, the balance of power in Europe shifted in favor of the Franco-Russian alliance; even more critically, the German General Staff lost the five corps and two cavalry divisions that Italy had promised, and could have counted on the event of a war with France.[viii]

Finally, Moltke made perhaps his biggest blunder of all and modified the Schlieffen Plan. Fearing that the French would consider the Franco-German border to be poorly defended and make a concentrated attack, he changed the proposed ratio of the main attacking force in the north and forces along the German-French border from seven to one to three to one. As a result, the most important aspect of the plan, the strength of the penetrative assault force, was jeopardized. Yet Moltke was aware that the main goal was for the main attacking force to smash through the Low Countries en route to Paris as efficiently as possible; after all, to streamline the advance through the Low Countries, Moltke had appointed Ludendorff to plan for a “coup de main” at the Belgian defenses in Liege. While Ludendorff was studying the stronghold at Liege, he became extremely knowledgeable of its defenses. His observations led to the production of cutting-edge 420 mm siege howitzers to penetrate the fortress. However, Ludendorff's work would pay off with big dividends in another respect, which would only be revealed much later.[ix]

In the meantime, as Germany’s diplomatic situation deteriorated, Ludendorff's increasing fanaticism to raise support for the German army gained him few friends amongst the Social Democrats in the Reichstag. The Social Democrats maintained that army expansion and army budget increases would be seen as provocation by Germany’s neighbors. Unfortunately for Ludendorff, the Social Democrats were becoming increasingly stronger in the German parliament, and this liberal contingent had a negative view of the German army. Thus, designs set to exponentially increase troop strength, field more replacement divisions and introduce additional training never came to fruition. Other measures, such as the improvement of wireless communications and refitting of artillery weaponry to accommodate for larger shell sizes, were carried out with mixed results. [x]

Incidentally, the conservative elites were no keener to Ludendorff's suggestions, and they worried that a large and powerful army could become a threat to their own power thanks to the growing popularity of the socialists. For this reason, many of Ludendorff’s reforms to increase the size of the army, fit it with the greatest weaponry and invest in long-term defense were also rejected by the conservative camp. When it came to military spending, the conservatives preferred to invest labor and material in building up the German navy; the idea of a strong navy had captivated the public's imagination and received the blessing of the Kaiser. Thus, it was seen by cautious conservatives as a way to help sew together the fabric of the German nation, build up national identification and preserve the status quo. Incidentally, this investment prevented Germany from investing in what could have helped to win the upcoming war and could have helped to prevent the revolution that followed the German defeat and destroyed the old conservative elite of the German aristocracy. The irony was thick.[xi]

In December 1912, Germany’s chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, received an urgent report from Ludendorff on behalf of the army; it called for the commissioning of 300,000 men, additional arms production and the construction of fortifications along Germany’s borders in response to developments in Russia and France. The War Ministry and the Kaiser also understood how such programs could affect Germany’s foreign relations and spawn domestic resentment, perhaps even planting the seeds for a socialist revolution. Thus, Ludendorff found stiff resistance to his reforms from these sources, too. He turned to the Pan-German League and began taking in voluntary contributions to fund conscription. This maneuver was met with fierce criticism and, eventually, particularly due to his flaring temper before parliament, Ludendorff was dismissed from the forefront of military planning. In April 1913, shortly before Ludendorff’s departure from the Great General Staff, the army received a budget increase to accommodate 4,000 new officers, 14,350 NCOs and 117,000 regular servicemen. These were the last men to be commissioned into the army prior to the war. For Ludendorff, it was a laughable compromise of what he had hoped to achieve; incidentally, once the Great War came, the French, Belgians and British would be able to field more troops in the west than the Germans would on both the eastern and western fronts combined.[xii]

Ludendorff believed that the German army served an essential role as protector of the Fatherland; thus, his inability to provide sufficient forces to aid the Schlieffen Plan frustrated him to no end and he found it difficult to understand his national opponents. Moreover, his experience lobbying to the government contributed to his growing suspicion of politicians and their intentions. This attitude carried into debates with the War Ministry, and left Ludendorff with the view that Germany was controlled by conservative elites and left-wing liberals and socialists who had their own power-preserving and power-gaining interests in mind, respectively.  In Ludendorff's opinion, neither group had the interests of the German nation in mind.[xiii]

Nevertheless, Ludendorff was labelled a firebrand for his hardline reform efforts and relieved of his duties. In the aftermath of his demotion, he was not even appointed to a Brandenburger regiment, an honor he had hoped would be bestowed. Instead, he was assigned control of the 39th Lower Rhenish Fusiliers. Disappointed, Ludendorff nevertheless wrote that he moved on to his new assignment “like a soldier” with “no personal ends to pursue.” In private, he was convinced that his military career had been shattered. However, in 1914, the war came - with it, so did a second chance for Ludendorff. Due to his familiarity with the plan to capture Liege, Ludendorff was assigned to a temporary assignment in joint command with General von Emmich. At his post, Ludendorff was contacted by Moltke, Chief of General Staff, who was panicking and looking for somebody who was familiar with the Schlieffen Plan to help resolve the urgent situation in the east with the Russians. If Ludendorff accepted the new assignment, he would be joined by a formerly-retired general named Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg and immediately sent east. Having just received the chance of a lifetime, Ludendorff accepted and quickly departed from Belgium to meet with Hindenburg. Employing the same encirclement tactics in the East that Schlieffen had hoped to employ successfully in the West, the forces under Ludendorff and Hindenburg routed the Russians and scored a major victory. Thus, the Russian advance into Germany came to an end and Ludendorff and Hindenburg became national celebrities. The rest was history. [xiv]

[i] Tormented Warrior, 13; Genius of World War I, 12-14.

[ii] Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I (New York: William Morrow and Company, Incorporated, 1991), 63-64, (Hereafter cited as German High Command);  Roger Parkinson, Tormented Warrior: Ludendorff and the Supreme Command (New York: Stein and Day, 1978), 13, (Hereafter cited as Tormented Warrior);  Erich von Ludendorff, Ludendorff’s Own Story, 1914-1918, Volume 1, (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1919), 2, (Hereafter referred to as Ludendorff);  Karl Tschuppik, Ludendorff: The Tragedy of a Military Mind (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932), 7-8, (Hereafter referred to as Military Mind).

[iii] Tormented Warrior, 14-15; German High Command, 18-19;  Hew Strachan, The First World War (Reprint paperback edition, New York and Toronto: Penguin Books Limited, 2005) ,42, (Hereafter referred to as First World War).

[iv] German High Command, 66; Tormented Warrior, 14-15.

[v] Tormented Warrior, 15; German High Command, 21-22, 25-26.

[vi]  D.J. Goodspeed, Ludendorff: Genius of World War I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company Boston, The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1966), 5, (Hereafter referred to as Genius of World War I); Tormented Warrior 14-15, 19-21; German High Command, 29, 69; First World War, 19, 45-46. Ludendorff, 44-46.

Genius of World War I, 9-10; Military Mind, 2-3.

First World War, 18-20.

German High Command, 65-67; First World War, 37-38.11.

Fritz Fischer translated by Lancelot L. Farrar, Robert Kimber and Rita Kimber, World Power or Decline: The Controversy Over Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York: W. W. Norton and Company Incorporated,1974), 6, 84, (Hereafter referred to as World Power); Genius of World War I, 14-16, 17.

Ludendorff, 4, 7.

Genius of World War I, 14, 17; German High Command, 66-67.

Military Mind, 6; Tormented Warrior, 20-21.

[xiv] Genius of World War I, 16-19, 39-43, 64-65; Military Mind, 3-4.