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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

009 Arthur Machen and the arrows of Agincourt

Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen

Legends intoxicate the home front

It is Sunday 23 August 1914. It is the ninth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The Battle of the Frontiers in the Ardennes and Lorraine rages on.

Japan declares war on Germany.

In the Wallonic town of Dinant 621 citizens, some of whom children, are executed to revenge the alleged firing at German soldiers.

Numerous incunables and historic books go up in flames when the Germans set fire to the university library of the Flemish town of Leuven.

French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre has to admit with gnashing teeth to his Minister of War that defence rather than attack should be the motto now.

The Germans capture Sedan, the French town where emperor Napoleon III found his Waterloo in 1870.

The Russians suffer their first major defeat at Tannenberg.

The old general Joseph Gallieni takes on the defence of Paris.

The Austrians are driven back across the Serbian border, but succeed in advancing in Poland.

At sea the British win a victory on the Germans in the Battle of Heligoland, the first naval battle of the war.

The British expeditionary army recovers after the Battle of Mons, where they were divinely helped, at least according to Arthur Machen.

It has rained all night. The battlefield, an open passage between two stretches of wood, is a mud plain. The two armies are waiting. Then the English, who are a considerable minority, take the lead. They loose off a volley of arrows. The provoked French knights storm ahead on their horses. Weighed down by their heavy suits of armour they are defeated by the lightfooted English whose arrows are fired relentlessly. The French are massacred.

No, this is not the First World War. This is the Hundred Years’ War, 25 October 1415, the Battle of Agincourt. The English long bows triumphed over the French who had gone to battle so bravely or foolhardily. Five centuries later in a much greater war this unbridled desire to attack appeared to be in the genes of the French soldier.

In 1914 we also meet the heroic English bowmen again. This time it is not the French but the Germans who are showered by their arrows. Agincourt is now Mons, Bergen in Flemish. Saint George, patron saint of England, has sent the bowmen of Agincourt. ‘Saint George! Saint George!’, the English soldiers called out, while dug in behind the Mons canal. And then they saw them clearly, a long row of figures surrounded by light. Men drawing their bows. Arrows, singing and stinging, accompanied by cries from the throats of the bowmen, flying in clouds to the German hordes.

That is how it must have happened according to the newspapers. Well over a month after the Battle of Mons, Arthur Machen publishes a ‘truthful’ account of the first battle the English have had to fight in the Great War. Machen has a preference for the supernatural and the obscure. He has grown up in Wales, where Celts and Romans created a haze of myths across the scenery. Already in 1890 he published the short story The Great God Pan, which bestseller writer Stephen King years later called ‘perhaps the best horror story in the English language’.

He manages to make his miraculous report of the British-German confrontation at Mons as plausible as possible. Military censorship permitted him to tell the story, Machen states. It is the story of a small English troop of soldiers that has succeeded in resisting a German superior power of heavy artillery. They had abandoned all hope. Machen writes: ‘There comes a moment in a storm at sea people say to one another, “It is at its worst; it can blow no harder,” and then there is a blast ten times more fierce than any before it. So it was in these British trenches.’

And then came a blessing from above in the form of archers, Machen continues. The Germans did not expect this. They suspected that the English had grenades containing an unknown poisongas, as no injuries were found on the bodies of the tens of thousands of Germans that were killed.

Machen published his history of the bowmen in The Evening News, one of Alfred Harmsworth’s newspapers. As Lord Northcliffe Harmsworth was to be a pioneer of British propaganda during the war. Machen, who was the son of an Anglican preacher, also dipped his pen for victory in inflammatory ink.

As The Angels of Mons Machen’s story has lodged in British heritage. The author himself was greatly surprised by this. Already in 1915 he observed that war proved to be a ‘fruitful mother of legends’. When his short story, together with five equally fantastic tales was turned into a book, he apologized in the preface for his little story that had filled a 43-centimeter-column on page three of the paper.

After reading the catastrophic newpaper articles about the retreat of the British, Machen had dreamed up the story of the bowmen, primarily to put his mind at rest.

After that he could not get the genie of the bowmen back into the bottle. Not only in occult circles, but also in churches the story had started to lead a life of its own. The bowmen had sublimated into angels without Machen’s doing. A Lancashire Fusillier had confirmed it to a nurse: ‘It’s true, sister. We all saw it.’

The fact is that the readers were yearning for news from the boys overseas, but the War Office under the command of Lord Kitchener stemmed the tide of this. According to Philip Gibbs, one of the few official war correspondents at the front, the liars experienced golden days under those circumstances. He had to pay the price of heavy censorship.

Where the facts are blurred an intense need arises for metaphysical comfort in the extensive no man’s land between truth and lies. Émile Fayolle, French general, was not exactly free of this either. ‘I am convinced that God will save France again,’ he said, adding his doubts in one subclause: ‘But He will have to take immediate action.’


The British expeditionary army consisted of men with experience at the front. Professional soldiers. Especially in the Boer War fifteen years earlier they had learned how to resist an attack of the infantry. When they were ordered to defend the canal at Mons, they immediately started to take cover. The terrain offered every opportunity. Each building, wall and heap of cinders was used by the English.

In 1964 the BBC produced the 26-part documentary The Great War. In part four an English Mons veteran said: ‘Quite suddenly, out of the blue, we saw cavalry coming towards us. They came out on our right flank. I said: good gracious, it’s Germans.’ The British had Lee-Enfield repeating rifles which could fire fifteen rounds a minute. The German Mauser rifle produced less. At the end of the day 1,600 British were killed against possibly 5,000 Germans. The surviving German novelist Walter Bloem expressed the tragedy as follows: ‘Our first battle is a heavy, an unheard-of heavy defeat, and against the English, the English we laughed at.’

That sounded too fatalistic. The British had delayed the German advance to Paris by one day. Their retreat became a humiliating experience. Sir John French felt cheated by the French general Charles Lanrezac who was forced to beat a hasty retreat, also to the annoyance of his superior Joseph Joffre.

Eleven days earlier the BEF, short for British Expeditionary Force, had landed near Le Havre, Boulogne and Rouen. It was clear to the minister of War, colonial war hero Lord Kitchener, that this professional army should form the centre of a much bigger military force, composed of volunteers. On a poster he pointed his piercing look and forefinger to the nation. The message was ‘Lord Kitchener wants you’.

However, for the time being The Old Contemptibles will have to manage on their own. This nickname is said to have been given to the men of the expeditionary force by no less a person than Wilhelm II himself. In the first month of the war the German emperor, so the story goes, had given his men the order to make short work of the ‘contemptible little’ army of the English.

Sir John French was in supreme command of the BEF. He did not have any idea what was expected of his army, but soon realized that an offensive was out of the question. The French Fifth Army, the one on the far left, was under high pressure on the banks of the river Sambre. General Lanrezac badly needed French’s men on his own left side.

It was corporal Edward Thomas who fired the first British shot on the Western front when on reconnaissance. He did so on behalf of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards near the town of Soignies, Zinnik to the Flemish, on 22 August 1914. Thomas, himself a drummer in his regiment, was not sure if this had been fatal for a German cuirassier on horseback. Later during the war Thomas distinguished himself by removing the shoes of a number of dead German soldiers in a trench and crawling back to his own ranks with these. Thomas was to survive the war, which was certainly not the case with all members of the BEF. Before Thomas had fired the first British shot, one of his comrades had been killed when on patrol. That first British casualty was John Parr.

The Battle of Mons of August 1914 was a relatively small confrontation within the Battle of the Frontiers. To the British it was the opening performance of their war. But in 1918 Mons would also mark the end of the war to the British. On 11 November 1918, Armistice Day, George Ellison was killed there as the last British soldier. He lies buried in Mons opposite John Parr.

A column with a plaque saying First Shot Memorial at Mons is a reminder of the starting shot of corporal Thomas. The restaurant across the street bears a commemorative plaque in honour of the Canadian 117th Battalion which stopped here on the last day of the war. So Mons, which was controlled by the Germans from 1914 till 1918, can be considered as the alpha and omega of the Great War.


Unlike many other writers and journalists Arthur Machen did not fight in the Great War himself. He was past fifty when the First World War broke out. He also lived to see the Second World War from beginning to end. Arthur Machen died in 1947 at the age of 84. His bowmen, that became angels, were of enormous propagandist value to the British. It gave the homefront the feeling that they were not on their own. In this way Machen intentionally or unintentionally contributed to the war effort, with a story which was too good not to be true.

Next week: Alexander von Kluck

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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