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Archive for the tag “Eastern front”

050 Nicholas Nikolaevich and the revenge on his dogs

Nicholas Nikolaevich

Nicholas Nikolaevich

The Russian steamroller is faltering 

It is Sunday 6 June 1915. It is the 50th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

In his monoplane British pilot Reginald Warneford shoots down Zeppelin LZ-37 over Ghent, after which the burning airship crashes against the convent of Our Lady Visitation.

In Berlin the government orders U-boat commanders not to torpedo passenger ships any longer.

In the Cameroon jungle the allies are facing both German resistance and heavy rainfall.

America’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, William Jennings Bryan, resigns because he thinks president Woodrow Wilson has railed too fiercely against Germany after the sinking of Lusitania.

French and British launch another attack on Gallipoli.

The French struggle on in the area around Arras in northern France.

The Canadian government announces that they intend to send another 35,000 men to the war. 

On the eastern front Austrians and Germans succeed in crossing the river Dniester. 

The Italians try to build a bridgehead between Gorizia and Tolmin. 

And on the Galician front in the east pressure on the Russians becomes untenable, which eventually also applies to the position of commander-in-chief Nicholas Nikolaevich.

With its tall legs and long hair the borzói is a proud Russian greyhound. But the leftist revolutionaries of 1917 hated it so much that they could easily kill it. The borzói was the reactionary symbol of the nobility, that had used it to hunt for wolves, while the people impoverished. The revenge of the reds was satisfying: borzóis were tracked down and killed on a large scale. If Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich had not given so many borzóis as presents to European friends in the years before the Great War, the breed could very well have disappeared from the face of the earth. Nicholas was a fervent hunter, but his dogs did the heavy work. He only got off his horse to cut a wolf’s throat, after it had been cornered by the dogs.

The cavalry was his craft in the army. In the Russian-Japanese War Nicholas did not move into action, but during the rebellion that broke out after the defeat a star role lay ahead. Tsar Nicholas II did not want to undertake reforms and relied on his namesake, the Grand Duke. Would he, please, tighten the reins as military dictator? Nicholas Nikolaevich refused to do this job in a grand manner. He spoke to a minister and said: ‘Do you see this gun? I will now go to the tsar and I will beg him to sign. Either he will comply, or I will shoot myself.’ After which the reluctant tsar signd the reform papers after all.

Nicholas Nikolaevich was an uncle of Nicholas II. Their family lines came together at Nicholas I. He was the Romanov, whose empire from the first half of the nineteenth century was described by the writer Ivan Turgenev as ‘a mixture of light and darkness, of European civilization and Asian barbarousness’. The first Nicholas, the two Alexanders after him and finally the second Nicholas, all four Romanov tsars held on to their conservatism for a century, each in his own way. Oppression of the people was at the heart of this. The abolition of servitude in 1861 had got Alexander II the title ‘Liberator of Russia’, but he was not really such an idealist. They were purely economic motives that had made him decide to create a big class of free farmers. The muzjiks of the immense countryside were an inexhaustible source for the Russian army, which derived its reputation of steamroller from this. The tsar had the support of 170 million people. That reservoir of flesh and blood would have to pay off on the battlefield. But in practice it would not work out like this.

In the first place personal preponderance had to be put in perspective. Large groups of the population, notably the non-Russians, were exempt from military service. Many of those who qualified for the army could neither read nor write. All these illiterate soldiers had to be trained for a long period of time in order to be fully prepared. There was quite a shortage of highly trained officers and non-commissioned officers. The enemy considerably reduced the scarce elite of the Russians already in the first year of the Great War. And what was then replenished from below not only lacked fighting strength but also political reliability. This applied especially to workers and intellectuals, who wanted to have nothing to do with old-fashioned army discipline and corporal punishment.

Then the equipment of the army remained appalling throughout the war. Russian industry could not provide the men with the guns and the artillery they needed. Against the 381 heavy batteries the Germans put up on the eastern front in 1914, there were only 80 on the Russian side.

Moreover, the Russians were also in two minds tactically and strategically. For a long time defending had been the slogan, but the friendly French wanted a frontal attack in the back of the Germans. And apart from being loyal allies, the French were also important money lenders of the Russian army. Meanwhile also the Serbian bloodbrothers, because of whom the whole conflict had actually started, had to be helped. As a result the Russians overplayed their hand in the opening stage by both acting against Germany in East Prussia and dealing with the Austrians in Galicia. A clear choice for plan A (Austria) or plan G (Germany) would have offered a better chance of success.

When looking at the pre-war map, one could see Russian Poland appear between East Prussia and Galicia as a small bulge of the colossal tsarist empire. In military terms Poland was an enormous salient. Because of that vulnerable position the Russians had neglected to tackle Poland infrastructurally. After all it could easily fall into the hands of the enemy. The downside was that the troops going westward could hardly be stocked up because there were not enough railway lines.

It was the same problem with communication. Artillery fire usually had to be aimed using the human eye. The Russians did not have a decent network for the telegraph and the telephone. Wireless messages could quite easily be deciphered by the Germans. All in all the high command, the Stavka, was barely in control of the movements at the front.

The court loved to interfere in the appointment of commanding officers, which usually did not work out all too well. Between 1908 and 1914 four chiefs of the general staff  took turns. After the mobilization the envy continued to fester among the army leaders, who were also subordinate to a quarrelsome and corrupt minister of war, Vladimir Sukhomlinov. Incidentally, there are also historians who correct the ‘bad press’ of this minister. After the humiliation by Japan, Sukhomlinov, is said to have tried to free the Russian army from obsolete tactics and to supply them with sufficient resources. Yet in spring he is blamed for the substandard condition of the Russian army. In June 1915 Sukhomlinov has to step down after a bribes affair. Moreover, staff from his immediate surroundings are convicted of espionage.

In 1914 Nicholas Nikolaevich had positioned himself at the head of this slow and shady army. He has never commanded any troops in the field, but as commander-in-chief he now leads the biggest army the world has ever seen. Around 6.5 million soldiers are serving Nicholas Nikolaevich at the end of 1914.

He does not lack optimism. He is not unpopular with his men either. And as a Christian he shows enough religious zeal. There is prayer every day. But military historians have not observed any vision and diligence in his case. Eventually the setbacks he had on the extended war front are held against him.

Already in September 1914 the Russians have to withdraw from invaded East Prussia. And when finally the Germans come to the rescue of their Austrian ally in Galicia and Poland, Nicholas Nikolaevich also loses ground there. In August 1915 the Russians are on the brink of a breakdown. Brest-Litovsk falls. Its defenders will have to get away from a burning city in a hurry. The Grand Duke uses all his energy to close the gaps and to prevent the retreat from derailing into an uncontrolled flight. The fighting subsides because the Germans are also at the end of their tether. The Russian army is not at all defeated at the end of 1915, but it is no longer a threat to Germany.

Nicholas Nikolaevich’s days are numbered. The tsar decides that he had better take the helm himself in this hour of greatest danger. It is Rasputin the intriguer who, together with the tsarina, has urged Nicholas II to do so. This is not at all strange, as the relationship between the dark monk at the court and the tall grand duke at the front was downright hostile. At the beginning of the war Rasputin wanted to bless the Russian soldiers at the front, but Nicholas Nikolaevich responded as follows: ‘Please, come. I will have you hanged immediately.’

Then Nikolaevich leaves for the Caucasus, where fighting the Turks will become his  consolation prize. He is going to improve the equipment and the provisioning of the Russian army, but on this side stage of the Great War it is General Nikolai Yudenich who will grow into the number one Russian daredevil. In January 1916 a Russian offensive is unleashed under Yudenich’s command.

As Vice King of Transcaucasia Nicholas is still busy planning a railway line from Georgia in 1917. But the revolution at home draws a straight line through that plan.

On the day that Tsar Nicholas II abdicates, once more an appeal is made on his uncle. Nikolaevich again takes over command, but the new government reversed that decision within twenty-four hours. When the tsar and his family have been assassinated and a fierce civil war between the Reds and the Whites is raging, Nicholas Nikolaevich spends his days on the Crimean with his wife, who has a mystic penchant. They manage to flee for the Bolsheviks in the nick of time on board a British battleship.

First his brother-in-law, the Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, gave him shelter. They are both married to a daughter of the Montenegrin king. In 1922 a White general will proclaim Nicholas the new tsar of Russia, but the Grand Duke must have realized by then that he is involved in a rearguard action. The days of the Romanovs in Russia are definitely over. As an exile in France, Nicholas, who is considered the last hope of reactionary Russia, becomes a prominent target of Soviet spies. However, in 1929 he dies a natural death on the French Riviera.

After Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich there has not been a Romanov who could claim a serious right to the throne of Mother Russia. And little has been heard of the borzóis who went hunting for wolves with the nobles.

Next week: Kick Schröder

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)





032 August von Mackensen and the hat with the skull

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Eastern front is in full swing

It is Sunday 31 January 1915. It is the 32nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

British-Indian troops stop a Turkish attack on the Suez canal. 

British and French ward off a German offensive west of La Bassée.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg gives in to the pressure of the admirals and declares a war zone around the British Isles, where U-boats can operate freely.

Montenegrins in Herzegovina manage to stave off the Austrians.

The French flying ace Adolphe Pégoud eliminates three German aircraft over the western front.

In Upington Boer general Jan Kemp surrenders to South African troops.

In Germany bread and flour are rationed.

Germany lends a large sum of money to Bulgaria.

Sailing under American flag oceanliner Lusitania arrives in Liverpool.

And in the Battle of Bolimow, a Polish village, gas is used as a weapon for the first time by the Germans under the command of August von Mackensen.

When hearing the name August von Mackensen, one first of all thinks of his hat – the fur hat of the Totenkopf Hussaren, bigger than the head itself, but especially frightening by the skull on the front with the crossed bones under it. It is hard to imagine that these days you will find another soldier anywhere in the world wearing such a grotesque hat as Mackensen’s. He was born without ‘von’ before his name, but already before the turn of the century he managed to rise into the echelons of the nobility.

The hat with the skull went with an overkill of trimmings and epaulettes on his uniform of the hussars. All this may stand for the frills around the bloodshed of the battlefields. Welcome to the First World War, Von Mackensen calls out to us a century later. We get killed by the thousand, but haven’t we got great hats!

The Field Marshal is one of the transition figures from tradition to modernity. August Mackensen was born as early as the Prussian kingdom, in 1849, a year after liberals had seized constitutional power here and there in Europe. But nationalism was also coming into bloom and so August Mackensen became one of Bismarck’s soldiers who fought for the German empire at the expense of France. He saw the kaiser flee in 1918 and after that witnessed full of disgust Germany’s struggle with democracy in the Weimar Republic. Then August von Mackensen embraced Adolf Hitler and finally died in a Germany occupied by allies, reminiscing about his days under Führer, kaiser and king.

To conclude, he became 95 years old. On his last birthday in 1944 a delegation came to convey the congratulations of Adolf Hitler on behalf of the entire German people. The nazis gratefully used him as the symbol for the obvious transition from the Second to the Third Reich. For that good cheer Hitler presented him with a country estate as a favour in return.

Thanks to the German Wochenschau – also penetrated to YouTube – we can see how Von Mackensen underwent that tribute on his 95th bithday with sincere pleasure. At the end of the film we see the greise Generalfeldmarschall talk to the delegation while gesticulating fiercely. It must have been a powerful peptalk of the war hero of old. A month earlier he had urged the German youth to show ‘Opferbereitschaft und Fanatismus’, self-sacrifice and fanaticism.

Admittedly one can draw a different picture of the man, the picture of August von Mackensen, the devoted Christian. As a devout protestant in nazi Germany he cannot agree with the Gleichschaltung (equalization) of the churches. And he defends the preachers of the Bekennende Kirche, the Confessional Church, when they venture to speak against the ideology of national socialism. Moreover, Von Mackensen protests against the atrocities of the wretched SA, massacres in the Night of the Long Knives and war crimes by German troops in invaded Poland. But he has never drawn the conclusion that all this evil started with Adolf Hitler.

Until the beginning of the First World War Von Mackensen had an atypical career as a Prussian soldier. As a volunteer in the French-Prussian war he is awarded the Iron Cross and is promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Initially Mackensen chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps by studying agricultural science. But soon he enrolls in the army again. Without having been to the Kriegsakademie he becomes deputy of chief-of-staff Von Schlieffen and later even aide-de-camp of the kaiser himself. Meanwhile he has recorded the history of the Black Hussars, in two volumes even. His wife, who bore him five children, dies in 1905. Three years later he remarries. His second wife is half his age. She remains with him until his death at a ripe old age.

Now let’s have a look at his achievements in the Great War. As one of the army commanders he has to share the debacle of the Battle of Gumbinnen in August 1914. Von Mackensen himself described it as a ‘mass slaughter’ for the Germans, based on bad intelligence and poor air reconnaisance.

The Russians greatly embarrass the Germans in their own East-Prussia, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff will come to put things right. In the Battle of Tannenberg and the one of the Masurian lakes also Von Mackensen manages to revenge.

In November 1914 Von Mackensen gets the command of the Ninth Army which has been formed two months earlier. He takes over from Paul von Hindenburg who as head of Ober Ost will now look across the entire eastern front. Von Mackensen will help the Austrians at Lodz. Both camps can count their blessings after the battle has ended. The Russians have managed to keep the Polish capital of Warsaw despite a German siege. It is, however, more meaningful that Von Mackensen has succeeded in stopping the Russian advance in Silesia.

By this time Von Mackensen has secured his place in the German Pantheon. In imitation of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Napoleon’s rival from Prussia, the Germans will affectionately call Von Mackensen ‘Unser Marschall Vorwärts’. They also sing their new Marshal Forward’s praises: Mackensen, der edle Ritter, fuhr wie Sturm und Ungewitter’ – ‘a noble knight of thunder and storms’.

Throughout the war he remains active on the eastern front. At the same time he receives a choice of awards. The Pour le Mérité, the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle, the Bavarian Order of Max Joseph, quite a chestful.

Commanding the Ninth Army Von Mackensen fights the Battle of Bolimow in Poland against the Second Army of the Russians on 31 January 1915. It is under his authority that for the first time in military history gas is used as a weapon on a large scale. Thousands of gas grenades are fired, but the gruesome experiment fails. The teargas is either  blown back to the German lines or it condenses on the ground as a result of the cold temperatures. Anyway, the Russians are not impressed and neglect to inform their allies in the west of the German test.

Following the big Spring Offensive of Gorlice-Tarnów, two Polish towns east of Kraków, he is promoted to field marshal in 1915.  What starts as a small operation, meant to protect the Austrians, ends in the collapse of the Russian lines. At the end Galicia is in the hands of the Central Powers and there is no longer the threat of a Russian invasion in Austria-Hungary. The crowning glory of the German work is the recapture in June 1915 of Przemyśl, the town that had been seized by the Russians before that after a siege of over a hundred days. On 4 August Warsaw falls into the hands of the Germans after all. The enormous number of 750,000 Russians are taken as prisoners of war.

Von Mackensen wreaks havoc at Tarnow-Gorlice with a murderous artillery bombardment, which lasts for hours, preceding an assault of the Russian lines. He acquires fame by attacking on a wide front and penetrating as far as possible into enemy territory. However, the true brain behind these tactics is his right hand Hans von Seeckt, the same man who will build the Reichswehr from the bottom up during the interbellum under the strict regulations of the Treaty of Versailles.

‘Trust in God and on your own strength’ is the motto of the Hussars with which Von Mackensen urges his men to head for the Bug river, which connects Poland with Ukraine. In September 1915 the Serbs are facing Marshal Forward, who also carries the command of Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops. On 9 October 1915 Von Mackensen captures Belgrade, the Serbian capital.

After that he heads the multicoloured Danube Army that deals with the Romanians. It will be his last campaign. Von Mackensen serves the rest of the war as military-governor in Romania and is more concerned with economic business than military affairs. In December 1916 Von Mackensen conducts a military parade in the heart of Bucharest on a white horse. In August and September 1917 he is confronted with Russian-Romanian armed forces. At the Battle of Mărăşeşti the Romanian heroine Ecaterina Teodoroiu dies saying ‘Forward men, I am still with you’. The battle itself ends in a deadlock, but soon afterwards Romania has no other choice than sign the scornful Treaty of Bucharest on 7 May 1918.

In Romania Von Mackensen is taken as prisoner of war in November 1918. He is detained in Hungary and Saloniki, but the old marshal travels back to Germany again in 1919 where he can start resting on his many laurels. He remains loyal to the monarchy and leaves for the Dutch town of Doorn in 1941 in full attire in order to attend Kaiser Wilhelm II’s funeral. The deceased ordained that swastikas are not to be seen. However at his grave the loving power of Jesus rules: ‘Ich bete an die macht der Liebe, die sich in Jesu offenbart’

As far as biographer Theo Schwartzmüller is concerned, Von Mackensen, the monarchist who thought he could reconcile Hitler and Jesus, already presented himself as an ‘anti democrat’ in 1914. Besides, when talking about Von Mackensen’s military successes, Schwarzmüller also sneers at him by calling him the ‘Pyrrhus of the Central Powers’.

Yet the Bundeswehr had two military barracks, at Karsruhe and Hildesheim, carry the name of Mackensen until long after the Second World War. Also this hommage is in the past now, just as the Mackensen Strasse in Berlin has been named after the Jewish poetess Else Lasker-Schüller since 1988.

As it is, August von Mackensen has disappeared into the misty past of the hat with the skull, though his life is less misty than the Myth of MacDonald/Mackensen makes us believe. Even during the Great War rumour had it that the Scottish major-general Hector MacDonald had not killed himself at all in 1903 because he was suspected of being homosexual. No, he had escaped to Germany and taken on the identity of a high ranking German officer, who had died of cancer. Thus Hector MacDonald became August von Mackensen. German Marshal Forward was in fact a Scot. And Adolf Hitler was from the planet Mars.

Next week: Marie Curie

Translation Peter Veltman

022 Paul von Hindenburg and his march with a pure heart

Paul von Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg

Germany relies on Prussian values

It is Sunday 22 November 1914. It is the 22nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 The seven-century-old Cloth Hall in Ypres goes up in flames after a German bombing.

The Germans do not spare Reims cathedral either.

 A British squadron blasts the Flemish port of Zeebrugge.

 Portugese congress authorizes the government to side with the allies as soon as she thinks this expedient.

 American president Woodrow Wilson condemns the shelling of unfortified towns.

 After heavy fighting the Austrians withdraw near Krakow and south of the river Vistula.

 British warships attack the German port of Dar es Salaam in East Africa.

 Russian general Paul von Rennenkampf lets three German divisions escape at the Polish town of Lodz.

 The Russians manage to get the mountain passes in the Carpathians under control again.

 And the rank of field marshal is granted to the German hero of Tannenberg, Paul von Hindenburg 

‘What do you do in times of tension?’, Paul von Hindenburg was once asked. He answered: ‘I whistle.’ After which the enquirer remarked that he had never heard Hindenburg whistle. ‘I never have’, the latter replied.

There you are, the caricature of the Prussian hero of the First World War, Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg. Tower of German strength. Imperturbable. Self-assured. Judging by the numerous streets and squares that still bear his name in present-day Germany, his reputation has proved to be quite solid. Whatever his curriculum vitae may have shown afterwards, Hindenburg has remained the Hero of Tannenberg – the icon of German values such as Ordnung and Kampfgeist.

Hindenburg could also count on the respect of someone like David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister in the second half of the Great War. When he is elected president of the Weimar Republic in the decade after the First World War, Lloyd George understands. After all, Hindenburg is a ‘very sensible old man’.

To historian and contemporary Hans Delbrück Hindenburg was rather an ‘old nobody’. Delbrück passed this destructive judgement before Hindenburg had the nerve as president to appoint Adolf Hitler Reich’s Chancellor of the Weimar Republic in January 1933. Initially he did not think a lot of the leader of the NSDAP. ‘Böhmischer Gefreiter’, he used to call Hitler amidst his intimate friends: ‘Bohemian corporal’. That was a historical mistake of the field marshal. He mistook Austrian Braunau, Hitler’s birthplace, for Bohemian Braunau.

June 1919 does not look good for Hindenburg either. Defeated Germany is dictated its conditions of peace. President of the new republic is social democrat Friedrich Ebert, who telephones Hindenburg to ask what he thinks of it. Hindenburg leaves the answer to his Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Wilhelm Groener. ‘You know what to do. I will go for a walk’, he tells him. Groener tells Ebert that there is nothing for it but to sign, for the German army cannot permit itself to resume the war. When Hindenburg returns from his walk and hears how Groener has acted, he puts his arm on his shoulder and says: ‘You have taken a big responsibility on you.’

October 1918. Wilhelm II receives the Chief of the General Staff Hindenburg and his right-hand man Erich Ludendorff. The offensive on the western front has ended in a big disappointment. The emperor gives Ludendorff to understand that his days are numbered. But to Hindenburg he says: ‘Und Sie bleiben.’ ‘And you stay’. After which Hindenburg politely bows his head, to the dismay of Ludendorff, who had expected solidarity of his old comrade in arms. Hindenburg a tower of strength? Do you think so?


He was born in 1847 as scion of a noble East Prussian family. His father is an officer and for young Paul the only future is a military one. ‘A matter of tradition’, he will remark in his memoirs. In 1866 he is actively involved in the war of the Prussians against the Austrians. He gets by relatively unscathed with a head injury. In 1871 he is present when the German Empire is proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, in the heart of France. Seventeen years later he is chosen to keep watch as an officer at the dead body of Emperor Wilhelm I lying in state. And in 1911 he is 64, the right age for retirement.

But the historical life of Paul von Hindenburg has yet to begin. When in 1914 Russia puts pressure on the Germans in their very own East Prussia, an appeal is made on old general Von Hindenburg. Together with his energetic aide Erich Ludendorff he achieves a glorious victory in a clash which Hindenburg himself calls the Battle of Tannenberg. In 1410 a German army had to yield to a Polish king there. Hindenburg has now erased that disgrace.

When Hindenburg publishes his memoirs after the war, an extract from September 1914 betrays his world view. He describes how elevated thoughts come into his mind during a ride through Polish regions that German tribes have done a favour to culture here. Of course one can notice that people here live according to East Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Here live simple, faithful and cautious people. Further away in the Russian part of Poland Hindenburg especially notices the mud. People there are brimming with filth, he writes. To a man like Hindenburg civilisation corresponds with Prussia.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff will stay in the northern part of the eastern front together for a long time. They are opposites that miraculously complement each other throughout the war. Hindenburg, the composed aristocrat and Ludendorff, the tempestuous commoner general. Hindenburg, keeper of old Prussian values, Ludendorff, careerist without scruples. Together over there in the east they distrust Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn, who pays more attention to the western front and the more southern battlefields in the east, where the Austrians can do with support from the Germans.

In August 1916 Hindenburg and Ludendorff seize their opportunity. They take over the Oberste Heeresleitung from Falkenhayn. In the west they take a drastic decision. They give up territory for a front line that can be defended better. Scorched earth is left in northern France when they retreat. The German army regroups in a new system of trenches and concrete bunkers, which will be called the Hindenburg Line.

But there is more than a reshuffle of the battlefield. Politically speaking the army draws almost all power to itself. Germany is beginning to look like a dictatorial nation. Using the writer Sebastian Haffner’s words, the real emperor is Paul von Hindenburg and the real chancellor is Erich Ludendorff. The latter is the one who is really pulling the strings. Forever popular Hindenburg is above all the figure head.

In the year 1916 the Hindenburg Programm appears. It is a thorough attempt to fashion the German economy after the war. Men and women are forced to work in the war industry. Companies that do not serve the war are locked. Through a Kriegsamt which has been set up the army dictates production from now on. It is not an unqualified success. Economic practice appears to be too unmanageable to be controlled by generals.

The duo Hindenburg-Ludendorff has a hand in sending off chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who is too soft to their taste. And in 1918, when the front in the east is shut down after the revolution in Russia, the Oberste Heeresleitung launches a full attack. If they do not win this war, it is in any case important to form a good basis for the next one. After all the Romans also needed more than one Punic War to get the better of Carthage.

They get far, but 8 August 1918 will be a ‘black day for the German army’, according to Erich Ludendorff, who mentally collapses because of the military adversity. Hindenburg will record in his memoirs: ‘The depression and the disappointment, that despite all victories the war will not end for us, have also affected our brave soldiers.’

Already in 1919 he is the most prominent spreader of the Stab-in-the-back myth. Germany has not lost because the other party was stronger, but because it was stabbed in the back at home by left-wing revolutionaries.

The twenties are coming and the frail Weimar Republic urgently needs an important mediator, somebody who declares himself above the parties as a pater familias. All eyes are fixed on Paul von Hindenburg. In 1925 the people elect this old warrior their president. Gradually he will listen too carefully to what his right-wing friends have to say. He sidetracks parliament, which is dominated by social democrats. In 1932, when he is 85, Hindenburg is elected for another seven-year term. However, this appears to be overoptimistic. Hindenburg dies in 1934 in a Germany, where meanwhile someone else has become the Führer. How the hero of Tannenberg ended as Adolf Hitler’s master of ceremonies, it is a sad story anyway.


It is 1927 when Time magazine reports on a glorious event. ‘Erect and martial, President General Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Hans von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg arrived at Tannenberg, East Prussia, to unveil a war memorial to the soldiers who fell in the historic battle of Tannenberg.’

Over a hundred thousand people had gathered to witness the ceremony. There was a queue of veterans six miles long to pay hommage to their old military chief. Some were dressed in field grey, others had proudly put on their plumed helmets and donned imperial uniforms set off with gold. The highest authorities had also assembled, from chancellor Wilhelm Marx and several members of his cabinet to marshal Von  Mackensen and generals Von François and Von Ludendorff. Dressed in the uniform of marshal, staff in his left hand, old Hindenburg, almost eighty years old, strode through the cheering masses, stopping now and then to speak one or two words to his former brothers in arms.

What did Hindenburg say to the old comrades that day? The following: ‘We, the German people, dismiss in every possible way the reproach that Germany should be guilty of the greatest of all wars. It was not envy, hatred or desire for conquests which forced us to take up arms. War was our last resort and making the biggest sacrifices by our entire people was the last means to keep up our prestige against a multitude of enemies. We marched with a pure heart to defend our Fatherland and we brandished the sword with clean hands. Germany will always be prepared to prove that before impartial judges.’

Whoever allows these words to sink in, will see the future come towards him. Paul von Hindenburg’s Germany was simply a bad loser. Germany was heading for new misfortune. It would eventually end like the zeppelin in 1937, which the nazis had named after Hindenburg and which would crash down in flames near New Jersey.

Next week: August de Block

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

015 Carol I and a crowned night’s rest

Carol I

Carol I

Romanians pass by Hohenzollern

It is Sunday 4 October 1914. It is the 15th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Both warring parties in the west try to manoeuvre around each other as if they are involved in a Race to the Sea.

The allies in Cameroon take the initiative.

The German cruiser Emden is mooring on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Its inhabitants are not even aware there is a war going on.

Antwerp has to surrender to the Germans and British marines commanded by Winston Churchill hurriedly leave the town.

A new flood of a quarter of a million Belgian refugees starts to move towards France and the Netherlands.

The Austrian offensive in Galicia comes to a standstill.

The Boer general Manie Maritz sides with Germany, but other South African leaders such as Louis Botha and Jan Smuts remain loyal to the British.

The French general Ferdinand Foch takes on the defence of Flanders.

In the Pacific Ocean Japanese forces conquer the Marshall Islands, part of German New Guinea.

During the cabinet crisis in Italy war minister Grandi resigns.

And in Romania a native German breathes his last, king Carol I.

In the opening phase of the First World War it becomes painfully clear to the king of Romania that he and his people are not on the same line.

Carol I is of German descent, as betrayed by the architectural style of Peleș Castle, the summer residence which he had ordered to be built in the high mountains. Carol I even has Hohenzollern behind his name, just like the emperor of Germany. It is obvious then that Carol’s sympathy goes to the Central Powers, whereas the still young Romanian nation is to a large extent culturally influenced by France. Besides Romania has a disagreement with the German ally Austria-Hungary. This disagreement is called Transylvania. It is part of Hungary, but ethnically to a great degree Romanian. So a border readjustment would be quite welcome to Bucharest.

Without any publicity Carol has strengthened the bonds with Austria-Hungary in the preceding years. A treaty, secretly concluded in 1883, was prolonged in 1913 without ratification by parliament. In any case Vienna and Berlin count on Bucharest. But just like Italy Romania will not suit the action to the German word. We can only guess if this has initiated Carol’s death on 10 October 1914. There is no doubt, however, that this has spoilt his final days considerably. It is rumoured that he even thought of abdicating when he was 75, but his death came sooner anyway.

In August 1916 Romania will take part in the First World War after all, be it on the allied side. By then Carol I has been wrapped in eternal sleep within the monastery walls for a long time. The plunge into the global bloodbath receives the blessing of Ferdinand, Carol’s far less wayward successor. Just as Bulgaria chooses for the Central Powers because it wants Macedonia, Romania reports to the allied countries hoping to get Transylvania. It is land grab of a dubious nature. Leaders of government of second-class countries do not consider the European carnage as a reason to maintain neutrality. Romania will pay a high price when it is trampled underfoot by German boots, but in the end it will haul in the loot it has been after. In Versailles in 1919 Transylvania is transferred from Hungary to Romania.


Let us proceed now to the House of Hohenzollern, the one of the German emperor and the Romanian king. The name Hohenzollern reminds one of Prussia, but the cradle of the family can be found in the south of Germany. The castle of Hohenzollern is located high up near the town of Hechingen. After various illustrious kings of Prussia, Frederick the Great being the most prominent one, eventually in 1871 a Hohenzollern becomes emperor of the finally united Germany. It is Wilhelm I, grandfather of Wilhelm II. The Second Reich is born.

The first empire, the Holy Roman Empire, had existed for almost a millenium when Napoleon put an end to it in 1806. ‘Holy’ referred to the papal assent, which had not always been taken for granted. ‘Roman’ referred to the Romans. But the Holy Roman Empire was certainly not the powerhouse that had once been built in Rome. It was definitely not an empire, but a patchwork of small and slightly bigger states. An emperor was at the head. For the past few centuries it had always been someone  from the Austrian house of Habsburg. But the central power of this emperor, who was always elected by prince-electors, was limited.

The Holy Roman Empire had no uniform legislation. Each emperor imposed his own taxes. And there was no question at all of a united holy-roman army. The French philosopher of the Enlightenment Voltaire is the spiritual father of the apt characterization that the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy and not Roman and certainly no Empire.

After the Holy Roman Empire was shut down, the German discord remained intact for a considerable part of the nineteenth century. The call for German unification came, strange as it may sound, from left-liberal circles. Conservative forces held on to their  princedoms, which were often governed autocratically.

In this colourful German family the Prussian nephew got the upper hand in the nineteenth century. The proclamation of the Prussian king as German emperor in 1871 was the climax of this success story. Also the branch of the family that had remained closer to the South German cradle, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen region, had passed on its sovereignty to the distant relative in Prussia.

Then the throne in Spain had become available. Leopold, a Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was to be pushed forward by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1870 as the new Spanish king. That will never happen, a German in Madrid, said the French emperor Napoleon III. All the fuss appeared to be enough for Leopold to give up Spain. But Bismarck was not interested in the vacancy in Madrid. The diplomatic conflict was to him a reason to start a war against France and to get all Germans under one banner after the Prussian victory, that of the Hohenzollerns.

Leopold had a brother who did become king four years earlier. That particular brother was Carol I. A cheering crowd of people greeted him in Bucharest in 1866. A nation in the making deserved a fresh monarch and Berlin had one on offer. It had been quite a job for Carol to reach Romania. In 1866 the war between Austria and Prussia was raging. Bismarck needed this war for his big plan, just as he had needed the war with the Danish two years earlier. In this Danish conflict Carol had taken an active part on the side of the Prussians and the Austrians. Then, in 1866, the two German tribes had fallen out with each other.

Therefore the German Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen had to make the train journey across Austrian territory incognito in order to settle at the head of Romania. The country had only four years earlier been formed from Wallachia and Moldova. Alexander John Cuza had centralistically carried through a series of liberal reforms in the style of Napoleon III. To the dissatisfaction of the middle classes and the large landowners his new Romania, however, gradually got into financial problems. Cuza was forced to sign his abdication as monarch, after which he disappeared into captivity.

In 1866, the year when Karl was welcomed as Domnitor and changed his name into Carol, Romania was still under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. The primacy of foreign policy was in Constantinople. This would be ended at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Bismarck convened this congress to reshuffle some cards in Europe after a war between the Russians and the Turks. Romania, which had secretly been rubbing against the Russians in the preceding years, presented itself afterwards as a fully fledged player on the world stage.

Carol I, whose Romanian troops had joined the Russian army, was recorded in history as the founding father of modern Romania. Now his popularity could use a shot in the arm. In the Franco-Prussian war he had submitted to Bismarck’s party. And even then this German predilection was not favourably received by all Romanians. Their language was not related to German but to French.

Meanwhile internally corruption was rampant. Despite an abundance of oil the country had not succeeded in building an infrastructure according to western standards. Without a doubt Bucharest had its charm, but there were slums everywhere along streets that had no pavements. There was an atmosphere of oriental lawlessness. Both men and women were dedicated users of cosmetics. The orthodox church allowed three divorces, as long as both parties were in agreement.

Carol, the German, must have felt a stranger in his own kingdom. What kind of man was he? Severe, conscientious and dutiful. According to his wife he slept with his crown on his head, but this must have been poetic freedom from her part. Elisabeth zu Wied, who was also of German descent, had a career as a poetess, whose pen name was Carmen Sylva. She easily wrote in German, Romanian, French and English. Elisabeth was an excentric character, who confided to her diary that a republic was to be preferred to a monarchy. She had been offered Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, as marriage partner, but the British heir to the throne had pushed her aside on the basis of photos shown to him.

The marriage to Carol which she then contracted was far from  happy, though towards the end of it they must have come to some sort of understanding. But they were complete opposites. Her only child Maria, lovingly called Mariechen, had died of scarlet fever at the age of three. Elisabeth had the admonition of Jesus from Luke’s gospel put on Mariechens grave: ‘Stop crying, for she is not dead, but asleep’. Romania’s throne was not to be granted to Maria anyway. The constitution from 1866 was generally speaking quite liberal, but only permitted succession by paternal descent.

It was Carol’s firm intention to anchor his dynasty tightly in Romanian soil. His brother Leopold’s son Ferdinand came on the screen for this purpose. At some stage Elisabeth decided to pair him off with Elena Vacarescu, one of her ladies-in-waiting. It turned into an affair, for the law required a monarch to find a wife outside Romania. For punishment Elisabeth was sent into exile in Germany. Ferdinand was to marry Marie of Edinburgh, a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria.


A native German Carol I had led his Romanian subjects for no fewer than 48 years, sometimes with the utmost severity. The liberal reforms of his predecessor and the sympathy for social-democracy which his wife had felt were unknown to him. He had crushed a peasant revolt in Moldova in 1907 at the expense of thousands of lives.

In 1914 he could not get his people on his side on the road to Germany. Whatever way you look at it, this was finally a good moment to give in.

Next week: Sir Robert Borden

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


008 Alexander Samsonov and the silence of the pine wood

Alexander Samsonov

Alexander Samsonov

Germans push back Russians in East Prussia

It is Sunday 16 August 1914. It is the eighth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Germans give battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau to the Turkish fleet, two warships that escaped the British in the Mediterranean.

The Turks certainly appreciate this present.

Austria-Hungary is defeated by the Serbs in the Battle of the Jadar near Belgrade.

The Germans move their Oberste Heeresleitung, their headquarters, from Berlin to Koblenz, which is closer to the western front.

The Belgians are forced to surrender their capital Brussels and withdraw to Antwerp.

War crimes are committed by the Germans in the small town of Aarschot, 168 civilians are rounded up and executed.

In Lorraine the First Army of the French receives blows, but also the Fifth Army has to retreat near the river Sambre.

John Parr, the first of a long row of British soldiers, is killed near the Belgian town of Mons.

 The Russian government prohibits the sale of alcohol during the war by imperial decree.

And two Russian armies try to liaise in East Prussia, one of them under the command of Alexander Samsonov.

In times of war it will be very useful when commanders get on well together on the battlefield. Well, during the first weeks of the Great War the Russians have a serious problem of incompatible characters at the top.

Two of their armies, consisting of five corpses, aim their arrows at East Prussia along different routes. It is their intention to join forces later. The first army is commanded by Paul von Rennenkampf,  the Russian general with the German name. Commander of the second army is Alexander Samsonov, veteran of the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. Samsonov is an old hoodlum who considers the Slavic race superior to the Teutonic Germans.

Rennenkampf and Samsonov share a history. Both fought in the Russo-Japanese war in which the czar was so disgracefully defeated. The white race getting licked by the yellow race was quite a surprise in the western world at the beginning of the century.

After the decisive Battle of Mukden in Manchuria Samsonov had seriously blamed Rennenkampf. He felt let down. At Mukden railway station Samsonov is said to have hit Rennenkampf to the ground. At least that is what a military observer who was on the scene maintained. This German officer we will meet again on the batlefields of East Prussia in 1914.

It is certain that Samsonov and Rennenkampf have not settled their dispute when the czar orders them to advance together in East Prussia. They leave separately. Once past the Masurian lakes they are supposed to join forces near Allenstein. Then it is onwards towards Berlin.

There are plenty of opportunities for the Russians on the Eastern Front, because the Germans put almost all their cards on a surprise attack in the west. This is laid down in the Schlieffen Plan. Count Alfred von Schlieffen himself has gone to meet his maker, but his strategy has been kept in store with the Germans for years. Von Schlieffen has worked it out in great detail. First roll up France in the west in a mighty sweep through Belgium and then go for the slowly mobilizing Russians in the east.

When the war starts, the Eighth army, commanded by 65-year-old Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron, is the only army the Germans have on the east side. Von Prittwitz also has to deal with one or two difficult comrades in arms. General Hermann von François for example likes to back out of Von Prittwitz’s orders. To the despair of his superior officer he follows his own plans of attack.

Immediately after the Russian attack the situation does not look too good for the Germans. They seem forced to give up East Prussia. This prospect is starting to frighten the Oberste Heeresleitung in far away Koblenz. East Prussia is of historic importance to the empire. In the 21st century it is divided between Poland, Russia and Lithuania, but its past belongs to Old Prussia and the Teutonic knights of the German Order. When the cradle of the empire crumbles, Berlin might easily be next. Here and there panic breaks out. ‘The Cossacks are coming!’

Von Prittwitz does not seem to be up to his job. After the lost Battle of Gumbinnen, Ausgust 20 1914, he wants to withdraw behind the river Vistula (Weichsel in German). In Koblenz the decision is then made to fortify the eastern front. Men will be moved by train from the west to the east. This means a weakening of the Von Schlieffen plan which according to some military historians would eventually lead to the Germans losing the war.

Von Prittwitz and his chief of staff are discharged. Three years later he is to die of the results of a heart attack. In August 1914 Paul von Hindenburg, Von Prittwitz’s senior by one year, takes over command at the eastern front. This is remarkable as Hindenburg, a pupil of Von Schlieffen, had already taken early retirement in 1911. Hindenburg is assisted by Erich Ludendorff, ‘the hero of Liège’. On the train on their way to the east it clicked immediately between the two. It will be like this for the rest of the war.

Now is the moment to mention the name Max Hoffmann, the German military observer at Mukden nine years earlier. This shrewd and equally cynical officer comes up with the plan which both Ludendorff and Hindenburg gratefully accept after they have arrived. Hoffmann realizes that it will be disastrous for the Germans if the two Russian armies manage to make the connection. If, however, they can deal with Samsonov first and then with Rennenkampf, there may be chances for Germany. This could easily be considered a small scale Von Schlieffen plan.

In an enormous frontal sweep, enabled by their excellent railway network, the Germans aim their entire battle force at Samsonov in the south. Ludendorff must have been scared out of his wits the day before. He realizes that now Rennenkampf has an open battlefield in front of him. But Hindenburg, calm as ever, decides that this risk is all part of the game.

It turns out perfectly for the Germans. With permission from above Rennenkampf focuses his attention on conquering Köningsberg, which is now Kaliningrad. In this way Samsonov will not get any backing. Communication between the two Russian armies is extremely lousy anyway. The Germans effortlessly intercept and decipher messages (if at all coded). Besides, Rennenkampf’s army is far ahead of Samsonov’s schedule. Samsonov has had to cope with far worse battleground conditions. Provisioning the troops of the advance guard has proved a logistic nightmare.

Poor Samsonov. Stubborn Von François also disregards Ludendorff’s instructions by choosing his own route of attack. So Samsonov in all his optimism seizes the opportunity to have his troops advance in the middle towards the Vistula. In doing so he enlarges the distance to both flanks. He has to pay dearly for Von François’  stubbornness. Slowly it is beginning to dawn on Samsonov that he is not chasing a retreating army, but actually about to face a concentration of troops.

Samsonov now hesitates, which is considered cowardice by Yakov Zhilinski, commander of the front in East Prussia. Zhilinski himself is not exactly a model of decisiveness. Samsonov is ordered to continue his offensive in East Prussia with unflagging zeal. After all Russia is committed to its ally France, however bad the supply lines and production of ammunition are in the country of the czar. Plenty of men, but especially their artillery loses out to the Germans. The optimism of the Russian army command in East Prussia is reflected in that of the Austrians in the south of Poland. They, too, assume to be on the heels of a defeated enemy, but they are in for a rude awakening.

Just as Hannibal had the Romans by the short hairs at Cannae, Samsonov’s army will share an equal fate in the Kesselschlacht at Tannenberg. A clash of hundreds of thousands takes place in the last days of August. Samsonov also gets involved in the battle. He witnesses how on both sides his army is rendered powerless. He is insufficiently familiar with the battlefield in order to bring about a change for the better. Samsonov is trapped. Rennenkampf will make an attempt to help his cursed colleague out, but he does not get any closer than 72 kilometers to the latter’s surrounded army.

Forced by the deadly artillery fire of the Germans, Samsonov gives the order to a full retreat on 28 August. He then gets on his horse, apparently to try to escape the trap he is in. The total number of casualties on the side of the Russians is over thirty thousand. Another ninety thousand are made prisoners of war. Samsonov is defeated. With the help of 400 seized guns the Germans have their hands free to engage in battle with Rennenkampf near the Masurian lakes from 9 September onwards. There, too, the Russians will have to bow their heads in a disorderly exodus from East Prussia, though this fiasco is not as catastrophic as that of Tannenberg. This absolutely spectacular victory has assumed mythical proportions in Germany. Hindenburg and Ludendorff owe their status of tactical genii to it. Max Hoffmann knew better. ‘Here general-field marshal Hindenburg slept before the Battle of Tannenberg, after the battle of Tannenberg, and between you and me, also during the battle of Tannenberg’, he said to a couple of friends he was showing around his  headquarters.

Samsonov’s tragedy was described by Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn in his novel August 1914. Barbara Tuchman also tells of Samsonov’s fate in The Guns of August, after he reached the small town of Willenberg near the Russian border. ‘The general and his group waited in the forest until nightfall and then, as it was impossible to proceed over the swampy ground in the dark on horseback, continued on foot. Matches gave out and they could no longer read their compass. Moving hand in hand to avoid losing each other in the dark, they stumbled on. Samsonov, who suffered from asthma, was visibly weakening. He kept repeating to Potovsky, his Chief of Staff: ‘The Czar trusted me. How can I face him after such a disaster?’ After covering six miles, they stopped for a rest. It was then 1:00 a.m.. Samsonov moved apart into the thicker darkness under the pines. A shot cracked the stillness of the night. Potovsky knew instantly what it meant. Earlier Samsonov had confided his intention of committing suicide but Potovsky thought he had argued him out of it. He was now sure the General was dead.’

Tuchman also writes that the Germans buried Samsonov’s body. His widow got permission to have the body transported to Russia in 1916 with the help of the Red Cross.

Paul von Rennenkampf led his First Army in the undecided Battle of Lodz, November 1914, but afterwards the general with the most luxuriant moustache of the entire eastern front was sent packing. When after the February Revolution a Provisional Government takes office, Rennenkampf is yet put in prison because of his inferior leadership in the beginning of the war. Under the Bolsheviks he is set free. He goes into hiding on the Azov Sea coast, where he passes off as a Greek. The Bolsheviks, however, manage to find him. They want him to join the Red Army as a commanding officer and fight in the Civil War. Rennenkampf refuses. He gets shot on 1 April 1918. Unlike Samsonov, he could not choose the bullet himself.

Next week: Arthur Machen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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