Following the unification of Germany in 1871, the scene was set for the powers in Central Europe to begin flexing their collective muscles. With imperial aspirations running rampant, events in the Balkans in 1914 rapidly escalated into a full-blown conflict between Germany/Austro-Hungary and the Entente of Britain, France and Russia.
In the ensuing war, Germany could call upon a rich vein of military experience: men who had fought for Prussia and Austria, and who could trace their lineage back through distinguished military backgrounds across the various Germanic states.
There were many notable commanders of German forces during the First World War, many of whom had come from nobility. Among the Dukes, Archdukes, Barons and Counts, the Germans also fielded several members of royal families: Prince Heinrich of Prussia served in the Kaiserliche Marine but was limited during the war to an appointment as Inspector-General of the Navy; the 69-year-old Prince Leopold of Bavaria commanded the German Ninth Army on the Eastern Front; Crown Prince Rupprecht was considered a fine tactical leader, and his Sixth Army inflicted heavy casualties on the French forces at Lorraine; while Crown Prince Wilhelm – son of Kaiser Wilhelm II – led the Fifth Army at Verdun, appointed to the task by Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn.
From the “Blood-Miller of Verdun” to the “Lion of Africa”, we remember some of Germany’s greatest military masterminds.
10. Karl von Bülow (1846-1921)
Stalwart of the Second Army
According to the tradition of his Prussian family, Karl von Bülow entered the military as a young man. By the time the First World War started, he was something of a veteran, having seen action in both the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars. In 1914, he was given command of the German Second Army that would lead the attack into Belgium in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan. His forces enjoyed great success, capturing the fortress of Namur and later defeating Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth Army at the Battle of Charleroi.
However, von Bülow refused to follow up on these successes at Marne unless supported by Alexander von Kluck’s First Army, which was 50km west and heading for Paris. Von Bülow ordered von Kluck to turn towards him, resulting in the First Army exposing its flanks to Allied attack at the Battle of the Marne. Fearing a French breakthrough, von Bülow ordered a withdrawal and is generally held responsible for the German defeat at Marne. Despite this, he was promoted to Field Marshal, but a heart attack in 1915 prevented him taking further action in the war.
9. Remus von Woyrsch (1847-1920)
German Hero of the Eastern Front
Remus von Woyrsch’s career with the Prussian Army had already ended by 1914, but he was recalled from retirement when the First World War broke out, aged 68. Born of minor nobility, he had served in both the Austro-Prussian and Franco- Prussian Wars, receiving the Iron Cross for his actions in the latter. His experience with infantry resulted in him being placed in command of the Silesian Landwehr Corps on the Eastern Front. Operating alongside the Austro-Hungarian First Army, he served with distinction at the Battle of Rava-Ruska, covering the army’s retreat under Victor Danki, at the cost of 8,000 of his own men. He was duly appointed head of “Army Group Woyrsch” in Silesia, which was followed by successes at the battles of Thorn and Sienno, plus a victory against Alexei Evert’s forces during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916.
After the war, he retired for a second and final time, before dying in 1920.
8. Felix Graf von Bothmer (1852-1937)
Nemesis of the Russians
Born into Bavarian nobility, Count Felix Graf von Bothmer spent 40 years in the military, serving with Bavarian and
Prussian forces, largely on the general staff. He was made Lieutenant-General in 1905 and General of the Infantry in
1910, and with the outbreak of war was appointed commander of the Sixth Bavarian Reserve Division at Ypres. Four months later, he was placed in charge of II Reserve Corps in Galicia (modern-day western Ukraine), before taking
control of the “Sudarmee”, or South Army, in 1915 – a mixture of German, Austrian, Hungarian and Turkish troops on the Eastern Front.
Von Bothmer enjoyed some success against the numerically superior Russians, winning the Battle of Zwinin, and most notably during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916 – a massive assault by the Russian Imperial Army that saw von Bothmer’s line pushed back but unbroken. In 1917, his forces repelled the Kerensky Offensive, routing the demoralised Russians. During his time on the Eastern Front, he was awarded the Pour le Mérite with Oak Leaves and the Grand Cross of the Bavarian Military Order of Max Joseph. However, his final actions were to oversee the retreat of the 19th Army in Lorraine, and the eventual demobilisation of the Bavarian Army.
7. Erich von Falkenhayn (1861-1922)
The Blood-Miller of Verdun
Another native of Prussia, von Falkenhayn was born in Burg Belchau (in the north of modern-day Poland) and, in accordance with the region’s military tradition, duly joined the army. He spent seven years as a military instructor in China during the Boxer Rebellion, before being posted back to various posts in Germany. In 1913, he was promoted to Prussian Minister of War and was one of the key architects of the First World War, following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
As Chief of the General Staff of the German Army, he was responsible for the “Race to the Sea”, where German and Allied troops tried to outflank one another but ended up entrenched along a front extending from Switzerland to the North Sea. In an attempt to “bleed France white”, he organised the nine-month attritional Battle of Verdun.
But he underestimated French resolve and casualties on both sides were colossal, earning him the nickname “the Blood-Miller of Verdun”. With the battle indecisive and the losses huge, von Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of Staff by Paul von Hindenburg.
6. Reinhard Scheer (1863-1928)
The Man with the Iron Mask
Having served in the German Navy since 1879, Reinhard Scheer – nicknamed “the man with the iron mask” because of his stern looks – was given command of the Second Battle Squadron at the outbreak of the First World War. In 1915, he was moved to the Third Battle Squadron with its newer, more powerful dreadnoughts. A year later, he was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleet when Hugo von Pohl was forced to step down due to ill health.
Scheer’s first act was to push for greater U-boat activity against British warships, in an attempt to lure the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet out to engage with the Germans. The two navies finally clashed at the Battle of Jutland, which was seen as a minor tactical victory for the Germans, although it was only Scheer’s strategic manoeuvring that saved the High Seas Fleet from destruction. Neither the Kaiser nor Scheer felt the desire to take on the Grand Fleet in open combat again.
5. Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937)
Once the Most Powerful Man in Germany
Descended from Pomeranian merchants, Erich Ludendorff was a gifted student who graduated from Cadet School at the top of his class. In 1885, he was made Lieutenant of the 57th Infantry Regiment, before joining various other units, and was frequently commended for his service. In 1894, he was appointed to the German General Staff, rising to the rank of Senior Staff Officer.
With the outbreak of war, Ludendorff was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to the Second Army, where he helped secure a victory over the Belgian forts at Liège, earning himself the Pour le Mérite medal for gallantry. He was then seconded to the Eighth Army on the Eastern Front, where he was instrumental in Paul von Hindenburg’s success against the Russians. In 1916, Ludendorff assumed the title First Generalquartiermeister, and is regarded as being the most powerful man in Germany at that time. However, his planned offensives in the west overstretched the German Army, leading to huge Allied advances.
After the armistice, he wrote several essays on the war and is largely responsible for the “stab in the back” myth that suggests the German military was betrayed by the Kaiser’s poor leadership and undermined by sinister political forces.
4. Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg (1865-1939)
The Noble Warrior
Another member of German nobility, Albrecht von Württemberg was the eldest son of Duke Philipp and his wife, the Archduchess Maria Theresa. At the outbreak of war, Albrecht was in command of the German Fourth Army and saw action in the Battle of the Ardennes, where the French defenders were heavily defeated. However, his forces would be driven back at the Battle of the Marne, which would then result in a stalemate and the entrenching “Race to the Sea”. Albrecht and his men were then transferred to Flanders, where they saw action in the Battle of the Yser and the Second Battle of Ypres. The latter is notable for the first large-scale use of gas on the battlefield
During the army-command reorganisation of 1915, Albrecht was promoted to Field Marshal and given control of a newly formed “Army Group Albrecht”. His force was posted to the southern sector of the Western Front, where he remained until the armistice. Following the cessation of hostilities, the German revolutions meant that he lost his royal inheritance to the Kingdom of Württemberg.
3. Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (1886-1941)
The Most Successful Submarine Captain Ever
Although he only had a handful of men under his command, our list wouldn’t be complete without the number-one U-boat ace, Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière. Born in Posen (Poznán in modern-day Poland) and a descendant of French nobility, he was educated at the cadet schools of Wahlstatt and Gross-Lichterfelde. Aged 17, he entered the Kaiserliche Marine – the German Imperial Navy – with whom he served on a series of battleships, and also as Torpedo Officer on a light cruiser.
When war broke out, von Arnauld de la Perière was transferred to the Navy’s airship division, and in 1915 he moved to U-boats, where he was given command of U-35. Over the next three years, he made 14 voyages and sank more than 190 ships. After transferring to U-139 in 1918, he sank a further five vessels, bringing his tally to nearly half a million tons. However, he always acted according to the “prize rules”, allowing ships’ crews to board lifeboats and giving them directions to the nearest port before torpedoing the vessel. He received numerous medals, including the Austrian Order of Leopold, the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite, and his record number of tonnage makes him the most successful submarine commander of all time.
2. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1890-1964)
The Lion of Africa
The son of a minor Pomeranian noble, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck attended cadet school in Potsdam and Berlin-Lichterfelde before being commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Imperial Army. He served in China as part of the Allied forces sent to help quell the Boxer Rebellion, and it was here that he got his first taste of guerrilla warfare. In the decade prior to the war, he was posted to German South-West Africa and modern-day Cameroon, before being moved to German East Africa, where he was put in control of Imperial forces plus a dozen companies of native Askari troops.
During the war, von Lettow-Vorbeck harried British colonies in Rhodesia and Kenya in a series of guerrilla raids, often outnumbered by as much as 8:1. His men were often forced to live off the land, resupplying at ammunition dumps, and von Lettow-Vorbeck only surrendered when news of the armistice reached him. He returned home a hero but would end up destitute, supported by a pension paid for by former rivals from Africa and Britain.
1. Paul von Hindenberg (1847-1934)
The Saviour of East Prussia
At the outbreak of WWI, Paul von Hindenburg was retired, having served with the Prussian Army during the Franco- Prussian War, with whom he attained the rank of General. On his recall, aged 66, he was sent to the Eastern Front as commander of East Prussia, and immediately scored a huge victory at the Battle of Tannenberg. Although outnumbered almost 2:1, von Hindenburg’s Eighth Army practically destroyed Russia’s Second Army. This was followed up by the Battle of the Masurian Lakes, which drove the Russians out of German territory with huge losses.
Von Hindenburg was hailed as the “Saviour of East Prussia” and promoted to Field Marshal, then to Army Chief of Staff. During this time, thanks largely to the direction of Erich Ludendorff, he managed to stem the Allied advance in the west, defeat Romania and force Russia out of the war, securing his place as a national hero. Von Hindenburg retired again in 1919, but he remained in office and was elected President of the Weimar Republic in 1925