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053 Luigi Cadorna and the fate of every tenth man

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Luigi Cadorna

Luigi Cadorna

Italian high command shows merciless discipline  

It is Sunday 27 June 1915. It is the 53rd week after the shooting in Sarajevo.

The Forest of Argonne between the Champagne and Lorraine is the stage of a German offensive, where also lieutenant Erwin Rommel plays a part as commander of a regiment. 

Army group Mackensen advances in Galicia, while the Austrians are fully occupied with the Russians between the rivers Bug and Vistula. 

During a war meeting in Posen the German kaiser decides to continue the offensive in the east, but he prefers the plans of his Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn to the strategy of the royal couple Hindenburg and Ludendorff. 

Parliament in London agrees to a munitions law which makes British industry subject to the importance of the war effort by limiting the freedom of both employers and employees considerably. 

In Stockholm a British committee arrives to discuss trade relations with neutral Sweden. 

The South African campaign in German South West Africa is concluded with a victory near Otavi.

And after a seven-day bombardment the Italians start the attack on the town of Gorizia, near Trieste, under the command of the ruthless General Luigi Cadorna.

When in 1961 historian Alan Clark expressed his view on the First World War, he gave his book the significant title Lions led by donkeys. He borrowed this sneer from a conversation the two German generals Erich Ludendorff and Max Hoffmann are said to have had. When Ludendorff remarked that the British soldiers fought like lions, Hoffmann is supposed to have replied: ‘True. But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys’.

There is some serious doubt whether this short dialogue actually took place, but the picture remains. To many the Great War is essentially the story of brave front soldiers and gutless chateau generals. But other opinions can also be heard. The writer James Hayward for example sees in the simplification of lions and donkeys a superficial and damaging war myth. According to him it ignores the fact that the commanders of the Great War found it hard to use the latest technologies and tactics in a war of an unprecedented scale. Generally speaking they made the most of it. So Hayward says.

Whatever new insights historians may gain, it is to be hoped that they will at least keep one donkey in the stable. His name is Luigi Cadorna, the commander in chief of the Italian army, though the king held that position in name. The monarch was also the only person of authority to whom Cadorna wished to be accountable. No other commanding officer showed such lack of compassion, such disdain for especially his own soldiers as Luigi Cadorna.

The Italians are considered the worst led, wordt fed, worst clad and worst equipped soldiers in the Great War. Understanding each other was already a problem. Different dialects kept the ranks divided. It is in favour of Cadorna that already long before the war he had stressed the appalling condition of the Italian army. But it speaks against him that this was no reason for him to treat his human resources with the utmost care.

Cadorna’s most gruesome exploit is decimation, to which he urged his commanding officers in the field. Decimation is a ruthless form of castigation, going back to the days of the Romans, though they must have used it sparingly. In units that failed collectively every tenth man was picked out and mercilessly executed. That should teach the comrades to perform better in the next attack.

It is reminiscent of the executions of traumatized boys, who at the moment suprême did not have the guts to leave the trenches. Shot at dawn. Those were the words written by the administrators after the names of these so-called deserters. But the complete arbitrariness of decimation concealed an additional dimension of ruthlessness. The heart-rending executions have been presented by the American writer Ernest Hemingway in his 1929 novel A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway borrowed from his own experiences. He was active on the Italian front for the Red Cross.

It was sheer terror that Cadorna unleashed on his own troops. And there were other methods to maintain discipline as well. During an attack he ordered machine guns to be put up behind their own lines. Whoever stayed behind during an offensive, risked being shot in the back. It must be said though that this was not an exclusively Italian custom. If the enemy took an Italian prisoner, his fate was certainly not to be denied. This was because Italian high command refused to send food parcels to their own soldiers who were taken prisoner of war, as was customary in other countries. Cadorna feared that these parcels would fuel the urge among his troops to capitulate.

Italian high command had a deeply rooted distrust of their own men. Cadorna dismissed 217 generals during the war. Between 1915 and 1918 330,000 Italian soldiers were accused of having committed a criminal offence, of whom 61 per cent were declared guilty. No other warring country showed such callous statistics.

Cadorna himself had no significant combat experience, but he was of a military family. His father was no less a person than Raffaele Cadorna, who conquered Rome on the papal troops in 1870. Raffaele’s heroic status added extra lustre to his son Luigi. But now the war against the Austrians offered junior the opportunity to actually follow in his father’s footsteps.

The border between Austria and Italy was 650 kilometres long. Two regions qualified for an Italian offensive. One of the two, Trentino, was abondoned because the mountain passes there were heavily defended by the Austrians. Throughout the war the Italians had to take Austrian counter attacks into account in this part of South Tyrol. For his offensive strategy Cadorna stuck to the valley of the Isonzo river, which has its source in Slovenia and flows via Italy into the Adriatic Sea. The Julian Alps appear behind it. That must have been an attractive perspective for Cadorna, conquering the Alps of Julius Caesar.

The fighting along the Austro-Italian front extended into the high mountains. The Great War started to use Hunters of the Alps on skis, while heavy artillery had to be hoisted across rocks with the greatest possible effort. In 2008 Mark Thompson’s book The White War appeared. This white war took place on impossible territory, barren and cold. ‘Imagine the flat or gently rolling horizon of Flanders,’ Thompson writes, ‘tilting at 30 or 40 degrees, made of grey limestone that turns blinding white in summer.’ It should be added that in this landscape of peeks and valleys the Italians were usually on lower ground and the Austrians high up.

It was a military challenge the greatest genius would have had to work extremely hard on. But the Italians were lumbered with Luigi Cadorna. And his tactics were roughly the following: order as many soldiers as possible to attack on a front as wide as possible  until the other yields. Exhaustion as a battle plan did not work with the Italians either. Cadorna did not get any further than deadlocks.

Italy just could not cope with modern warfare. Its army consisted of barely a million soldiers, who could hardly rely on any artillery to back them up. The Italian industry was a long way behind the western countries, while also agriculture lacked resilience. As it would be a short war, the Italians could not care much. But the quick campaign grew into an exhausting battle of equipment, for which Italy did not have the raw materials. It was not until the winter of 1915-1916 that the Italian government managed to start some form of economic mobilization.

There was hardly any lack of pathos. The high priest of Italian nationalism was called Gabriele D’Annunzio. This ‘pornographer of the war’ wrote.: ‘Where masses of butchered flesh fall apart, new life ferments in a sublime manner.’ Cadorna may have expressed it a bit less poetically, but to him human sacrifice was also a form of purification which his tender-hearted Italy could use well.

He tried eleven battles on the Isonzo in order to break through the Austrian lines. When reconstructing them one by one, an occasional Italian success can be found. During the sixth Isonzo battle for example Gorizia was taken, but the objective, the town of Trieste with the Istria peninsula behind it, would never come within reach. Cadorna could afford eleven fruitless massacres around an otherwise idyllic river, which glistens in the sun like an emerald, 140 kilometres long. Cadorna’s tormentor on the other side was Austrian Field Marshal Svetozar Boroević, one of the generals from the Great War who was an absolute master in defending. The specialty of the Croatian field marshal was to recapture as quickly as possible what the enemy had taken with great difficulty.

When in August 1917 the Austrians finally appear to have become numbed, the Germans come to their rescue. During the twelfth Isonzo battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, the tide turns. In October and November the Central Powers break through the Cadorna lines with unimaginable ease. Now the effect of his merciless discipline on troop morale also becomes apparent: 265,000 men were taken prisoner. An even larger number deserted. The loss of equipment was in proportion.

The Italian government then thinks the time is right to look around for a new commander in chief. Rome has come to this realization under pressure of especially the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Cadorna’s final order of the day is ‘to die but not to bend’.  After him Armando Diaz can try a different approach. Diaz indeed shows compassion for his soldiers. Despite all previous losses, Italy embraces the war in the last year as it has never done before.

Cadorna may have left the front, but his role is certainly not yet over. He travels to Versailles, where on the initiative of the British Prime Minister Lloyd George the Supreme War Council of the allied forces is created. The immediate reason for these joint crisis deliberations is Caporetto.

After the war Cadorna finally ends in the witness box, when from an official investigation into the Caporetto debacle an accusing finger points in his direction. It fills him with sadness. Self-reflection is still not known to the old general. Napoleon would not have done better than he. If his troops had shown more stamina, it would have ended better on the Isonzo. But Cadorna thought that the army was like the people, not to be trusted.

This requires at least some explanation. The Caporetto defeat had been preceded by serious rioting in Turin. They had been Russian situations, but in Italy the army had been prepared to nip a revolution in the bud firmly: 41 dead and over 200 wounded.

Sulking about the defeatism and faint-heartedness of the Italians Luigi Cadorna starts on his memoirs. And then in 1924 he receives a great honour. In the first year of the war the British have already raised him to the peerage in The Most Honourable Order of Bath. Now Italy’s new commander-in-chief Benito Mussolini appoints him Field Marshal, a title which Il Duce also has in store for Armando Diaz.

In 1928 Cadorna complacently dies at the age of 78. Four years later a mausoleum is opened in his honour. It is on the Lago Maggiore, not far from the place where Luigi was born. One can of course visit the mausoleum, but then again one can also abstain from doing so.

Next week: Lord Kitchener

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)




042 Fritz Haber and the yellowish-brown cloud at five o’clock

Fritz Haber

Fritz Haber

Germans use poison gas as a weapon

It is Sunday 11 April 1915. It is the 42nd week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Bulgaria agrees to a Serbian-Bulgarian committee that will investigate Macedonian border incidents.

The British experience great difficulties in repelling the Turkish-Arab attack near the port of Basra in present-day Iraq.

Pope Benedict XV informs American president Woodrow Wilson to be prepared to launch a joint peace initiative.

Fifteen allied airplanes bomb Ostend on the North Sea coast again.

The Germans decide to increase their efforts on the eastern front.

The British submarine E-35 tries in vain to reach the Sea of Marmara via the Dardanelles.

Russian troops, with additional Armenian volunteers under the command of general Andranik Ozanian, defeat the Ottomans in the Battle of Dilman.

The Germans see their attacks stranded at Notre Dame de Lorette.

British troops take Hill 60, a hill near the village of Zillebeke in West Flanders.

And a German prisoner of war tells the French that at Langemark bottles filled with gas are ready to be used, the poisonous experiment of Fritz Haber.

The story of the First World War is a random collection of contrasts. Take Fritz Haber, generally considered to be the ultimate promoter of chemical warfare, and Albert Einstein, especially known for his pacifism. It appears that Einstein, the apostle of peace, and Haber, the poisoner, were on friendly terms with each other before, during and after the war.

In 1914, just before the war, Haber got Einstein to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, which has been called the Fritz Haber Institute since 1953. Two brilliant scientists, Haber and Einstein, both of German-Jewish descent. But Haber will trade in the Jewish faith for Protestantism already at a very early stage, while Einstein will adopt the Swiss nationality long before the war. The world view of one is completely opposite to that of the other. Between ’14 and ’18 Haber wants to win the war for the Germans by putting poison gas in the hands of soldiers. Einstein persists in his anti-militarism, although it is he who in later years will be at the basis of the most horrible weapon of all time, much more horrible than Haber’s poison gas: the atomic bomb.

Both have to leave Germany in 1933, the year that the Nazis seize power. Especially Fritz Haber is getting a raw deal. He has worked hard for Germany as an ardent patriot all his life. Now the same Germany chases him away as the eternal Jew. In a letter Einstein expresses his sympathy with the exile Haber: ‘I can feel your inner conflicts. It is somewhat like having to abandon a theory on which you have worked for your whole life. It is not the same for me because I never believed it in the least.’

What then was this sacred faith of Fritz Haber?  Well, he formulated his scientific creed as follows: ‘Im Frieden der Menschheit, im Krieg dem Vaterland’ (‘In times of peace humanity, in times of war the fatherland’). Gas was his most manifest contribution to the German war effort, but the Germans also managed to keep the production of ammunition at the usual level thanks to Fritz Haber. After the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914 the German army ran the risk of having no more explosives. As a result of the British trade blockade Germany had no more access to the raw materials for nitric acid. The Haber-Bosch process offered a solution. Together with Carl Bosch Fritz Haber had succeeded in making ammonia of hydrogen and nitrogen already before the war. The Germans managed to convert this ammonia during the war into hundreds of thousands of tons of nitric acid, essential for the production of ammunition.

Haber was not the only scientist who dealt with poison gas, but he was indeed the man behind the first successful gas attack of the Second Battle of Ypres. To many historians this was the beginning of chemical warfare. At the end of January 1915, however, the Germans had already made an effort to this on the eastern front near Bolimów. In the Neuve Chapelle area in October 1914 a German experiment with gas that made its victims sneeze violently was mainly aimed at eliminating the enemy temporarily. Even earlier in August 1914 the French had already been carefully working with tear gas. So it is highly questionable to call Fritz Haber ‘the father of poison gas’.

Eric Wils, a Dutch chemist who has explored the First World War, eliminates the persistent misunderstandings about poison gas as follows: ‘There has been a discussion since 1915 whether the use of tear gas grenades in 1914 by French soldiers was the first use of poison gas in the First World War. The fact remains that on 22 April 1915, when the Germans released 150 tons of chlorine at Ypres, there was a completely new situation. For the first time  a chemical weapon had been developed which was used on a large scale to achieve a breakthrough in the trenchwar. Not just blowing some smoke or poisonous vapour in the direction of an opponent during a fight, but spreading 150 tons of chlorine. Especially produced for the fights in April 1915 in an industrial manner and stored in 6,000 cylinders. This chemical warfare escalated in such a way that in 1918 millions of poison gas grenades, including the ones filled with mustard gas, were fired by the fighting parties.’ So much for Eric Wils’ explanation.

Let us put it like this: Fritz Haber is responsible for poison gas to become a factor of importance in the war. According to estimates gas attacks proved fatal to 91,000 soldiers. That is not even one per cent of the 10 million who were killed in the First World War. But gas gave the war unprecedented and macabre dynamics. Statistics prove that, cynically speaking, bombs and grenades were deadlier and therefore less humane. But gas was so elusive and treacherous. It made the war in a certain sense inhuman. One of the German soldiers who had to dive into the hole that chlorine gas had made in the front on 22 April 1915, would say: ‘I am not very happy with the idea of poisoning people. All the dead lie on their backs with clenched fists.’

We can still feel the soldiers’ fear of the gas in their trenches when reading Wilfred Owen’s poem, Dulce et Decorum est. The poet still hears his comrades call: ‘Gas! Gas! Quick boys!’ They reach for their gas masks, but one of them does not make it. The picture of this bloke, ‘choking and drowning’, ‘blood gargling from his froth-corrupted lungs’, that picture will never vanish from his dreams.

Such was the reality resulting from Fritz Haber’s laboratory. But it is not said to have haunted him. Also after the war Haber kept defending the chemical weapon as a higher form of warfare. He has recorded this as follows: ‘One cannot die a nicer death than by breathing hydrocyanic acid gas.’ Besides, also a person like Winston Churchill will continue promoting the use of poison gas after the Great War. He intends to silence rebellious Arabs in Iraq with it.

And yet an overkill of combat gasses will remain reserved to the First World War. The Second has stayed deprived of it. It was a much too dynamic war for it. But gas also frightened both parties in World War II, just as a nuclear confrontation did not happen in the Cold War. In 1997 the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention agree to ban poison gas from the world. This is almost a century after all civilized nations of the world had promised to do  the same during the Hague Convention.

This promise, however, proved of little value in the Great War. Backed by government and army command scientists, led by Fritz Haber, experimented with the new weapon to their heart’s content. The gas escaped from cylinders and was blown towards the enemy by the wind or it was fired in grenades. After teargas at Bolimów and chlorine gas at Ypres there came attacks with phosgene, chloropicrin, hydrocyanic acid and arsenic compounds. The British and the French could only follow the Germans in their gas arms race with difficulty.

In July 1917 Ypres is again the backdrop for the release of mustardgas. It will appropriately be called Yperite. Mustard gas will prove to be the killer among combat gasses. Its victim is given the time to rot away from the inside and outside. The skin will be covered in blisters and the mucous membrane detaches from the trachea. The pain is infernal until finally death comes as the redeemer.

Likewise Fritz Haber’s wife seeks redemptive death. Ten days after the chlorine attack at Ypres she commits suicide using her husband’s service pistol. The night before hubbie had celebrated his promotion to captain with a dinner party. According to one theory another much younger woman is involved, the woman Haber will marry during the war, but whom he will also divorce again. A more plausible explanation is that Clara Immerwahr preferred death to life with a man who perverted science. As she herself had graduated as a chemist summa cum laude, she could not bear that her husband cultivated death and destruction in test tubes. She did not get through to him. Fritz Haber’s patriotism was immune to his wife’s pleading. The day after Clara’s suicide Fritz Haber travelled to the eastern front to disperse his poison gas. Others were left to arrange the funeral.

In the first months of 1915 Haber had to convince the generals of the power of the gas. But it did not turn out to be a magic formula. Gas could surprise the enemy, but when should their own infantry start chasing the cloud? Too early and the gas would turn against their own troops. Too late and the enemy would be extra prepared for the attack. As the war progressed, the quality of protective measures increased. Initially cotton rags, handkerchiefs and gauze dressings drenched in urine had to protect the breathing passages. But soon gas masks were passed around in the trenches. A gas alarm was given with rattles and whistles.

Gas could have meant a breakthrough on 22 April 1915 between Steenstraat and Langemark. Chaos on the side of the allies was complete. Thousands of Algerians and zouaves, gasping for air, fled from the yellowish-brown cloud that had come drifting in at five o’clock in the afternoon. A six-kilometre hole had been created in the front, but the Germans failed to push through. The following day Canadian troops flowed in to prevent a German advance. They, too, were treated to gas, but Ypres stayed out of reach of the Germans.


Yes, the story of the First World War is full of contradictions. But also the peace that follows makes you raise your eyebrows. In 1919 it is announced that the Nobel Prize for chemistry is awarded to … Fritz Haber. There are of course protests, but Haber will still be honoured in Sweden as the man who managed to bake ‘bread out of air’. Chemical fertilizers could be introduced because of Haber’s synthesis of ammonia. Behold the Janus face of scientist Fritz Haber: the number of people he saved from starvation far exceeds the number of soldiers whose breath he took away.

After the war Haber and his friend Albert Einstein make an effort to undo the boycott of German scientists. Haber feels responsible for Germany’s defeat, but dedicated himself fully to chemical insect control. This leads to Zyklon B, the gas the Nazis used to speed up the genocide of the Jewish people in the extermination camps.

Haber had no knowledge of this at all, having died in 1934 at the age of 65. He could not rest in German soil and that is why he is buried where he died, in Basel, Switzerland. Shortly before he passed away he required the ashes of his first wife Clara to be placed in his grave, which is what happened. It has remained a sober tomb though.

Next week: Anthony Fokker

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

039 Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz and the people under arms

Colmar von der Goltz

Colmar von der Goltz

Germany’s youth is prepared for war

It is Sunday 21 March 1915. It is the 39th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The French take back lost trenches at Notre Dame de Lorette from the Germans.

The Germans recapture the East Prussian port of Memel on the Russians.

Bombs from German Zeppelins kill one and wound eight in Paris.

The French succeed in silencing the German guns at Soissons.

Russian troops seize the town of Przemyśl in Galicia, taking 120,000 Austrians prisoner.

French airplanes bombard Metz in Lorraine.

The summit of the Hartmannsweilerkopf in the Vosges falls into the hands of the French.

The Russian advance in the Carpathians continues.

Off the English south coast a Dutch merchant ship filled with Spanish oranges is sunk by a German submarin.

And the Turks decide to transfer the further defence of the Dardanelles to German General Liman von Sanders, as a result of which the command of the first Turkish army is passed on to yet another German, Colmar von der Goltz.

‘Herr Von Schirach, will you continue?’ It is 23 May 1946, the 137th day of the Nuremberg trials. Herr Von Schirach is the defendant Baldur von Schirach, leader of the Hitler Jugend. He continues his argumentation by first announcing that he has not only propagated National Socialism, but has also wanted to impart the views of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to the youth of Germany.

And then he says that he became a member of a youth movement called the Jung Deutschland Bund when he was ten. Actually it was more like boy scouts, formed after the British model… He is interrupted by the President of the Court. The point is what the defendant himself has done to promote education of the young, not who shaped him.

To us that is indeed the point, for what sort of club was this Jung Deutschland Bund? Well, it was founded in 1911 by a Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz. The objective of the Jung Deutschland Bund appears in the following appeal which was made over the heads of Germany’s boys to their parents: ‘Raise your children in a spirit of war and inject them from an early age with love for the fatherland, for which they may one day have to sacrifice themselves.’

A century later patriotism and a spirit of sacrifice with the war as a product do not get us very far any more. ‘Senseless’ is the adjective that we apply to the many deaths of the First World War. Senseless was the bloodshed for outdated love and stupid sacrifices.

Reducing the First World War to collective insanity is modelling history on the past. Portraying millions of soldiers as meek sheep to the slaughter is ignoring the fact that all those young men had a completely different worldview from the one we have, selfish representatives of post-modernism that we are. These boys still believed in ideals. They felt part of a community that knew more obligations than rights. They were molded by men like Colmar von der Goltz. They were all loyal supporters of FC Fatherland unto death.

As a soldier Von der Goltz had already obtained the rank of marshal before the Great War, but on the battlefield he would not achieve the fame of men like Hindenburg or Von Mackensen. However, Von der Goltz teaches us a lot about the breeding ground of the ‘totale Krieg’ that the Germans performed during the twentieth century in two acts.

He has not only held up a mirror of patriotism to the youth of Germany, but he has also written a series of historical military manuals. As far as the equipment is concerned he is not an innovator. Von der Goltz stuck to the importance of the cavalry and he came up with the following aphorism: ‘The bullet is a fool but the bayonet is wise.’ Yet he was anything but a soldier of the old school. Von der Goltz perfectly understood that modern warfare concerned the entire society.

He was the Clausewitz of his days. Carl von Clausewitz, military theoretician from nineteenth century Prussia, is the author of the manual ‘Vom Kriege’, ‘About War’, which has been read to pieces. Von der Goltz’s best-known book is ‘Das Volk in Waffen’, ‘The People under Arms’. It dates from 1883 and relies heavily on Clausewitz’s line of thinking. But according to Von der Goltz the nature of war had changed significantly since Clausewitz. Von der Goltz wrote that his time showed a ‘stark manifestation of national identity, which permits a people, just like an individual, to feel a sense of honor, and to comprehend when that honor, like one’s existence, is threatened.’

Von der Goltz emphasized that mobilization should not be restricted to soldiers. It was of importance to get the entire people behind the war: ‘Das Volk in Waffen’. He had seen such an esprit with the French, who had faced a quick defeat at Sedan in 1870,  but who had succeeded in taking the battle to the level of a people’s war after all. The German people had better follow this example in a future fight.

Von der Goltz hails from an old family of barons and dukes, which has spawned many Prussian soldiers. Colmar von der Goltz fights in the German wars of unification – he is severely wounded in the Austro-Prussian war – and in 1883 he travels to the friendly Ottoman empire, whose striking power has been heavily affected throughout the years. For twelve years he will busy himself modernizing the army. This is good news for the German arms industry, though Von der Goltz does not seem to have accepted any bribes. With ‘a Prussian officer does not take tips’, he is once said to have refused an attractive offer.

Back in Germany he works on reinforcements in East Prussia and along the French-German border. But he also makes enemies with his outspoken criticism of the organisation of the German army. However, in 1905 Von der Goltz is tipped by many as successor of Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the general staff. But the kaiser prefers a familiar name, Helmuth von Moltke, whose heart will stop beating during a memorial service for the deceased Von der Goltz, halfway though the First World War.

From 1909 till 1913 Von der Goltz again offers the Turks all the help they need. They call him Goltz Pasha. For the Turks his lessons especially come in handy during their battle with arch-enemy Greece, even though the Ottomans will lose the First Balkan War in 1912.

When the First World War breaks out, he is already 70 and retired. But just like Paul von Hindenburg he loves to be called in to help the fatherland in 1914. Von der Goltz regrets, however, that he is only assigned a more or less administrative job, military governor of occupied Belgium. He had rather taken command in East Prussia, where he was born.

In Belgium he introduces ruthless retaliation in response to sabotage. Adolf Hitler will turn this sort of policy into a role model. A quote of the Führer from 1941: ‘The old Reich knew already how to act with firmness in the occupied areas. That’s how attempts at sabotage to the railways in Belgium were punished by Count von der Goltz. He had all the villages burnt within a radius of several kilometres, after having had all the mayors shot, the men imprisoned and the women and children evacuated.’

At the end of the first year of the war Von der Goltz can again travel to his Ottoman friends. He becomes the advisor of the sultan, but Von der Goltz and strong man Enver Pasha do not get along, neither do he and the head of the German mission over there, general Liman von Sanders, really like each other.

When Von Sanders has to hurry to the centre of conflict of the Dardanelles in March 1915, old Von der Goltz gets command of the First Army in Constantinople. In October of the same year he leaves for Persia with the Sixth Army of the Turks. He has to see to it that the German and Turkish operations will be synchronized. The English have appeared in Mesopotamia to protect their oil supplies and to thwart a German-Turkish advance to Afghanistan and the British Raj. Third objective was to convince the Arabs that they had better commit themselves to the side of the allies than to their Ottoman fellow believers.

Von der Goltz posthumously records a hard-won victory after a long siege of Kut Al Amara, a town southeast of Baghdad. On 29 April 1916 emaciated Brits and Indians have to surrender. They will not be much better off as prisoners-of-war under the Ottomans. Von der Goltz had died in Baghdad of typhoid fever ten days before the fall of Kut Al Amara. Malicious gossip has it that young Turkish officers had poisoned him. Still in June 1916 his mortal remains were transferred to Constantinople.

Heinrich Heine was young Colmar von der Goltz’s favourite writer. In his younger years the former also wrote some novels and short stories with which he could support his family. His father had died of cholera. Heinrich Heine, the romantic, is especially known for the frightening prediction: ‘Where they burn books, they will eventually also burn people’. Would Von der Goltz have re-read that sentence? Or did he prefer prose such as: ‘One day for us, too, the cheerful great hour of battle will arrive. In days of doubtful, for the time being still secretly jubilant expectation the old royal call for battle will go heart to heart and mouth to mouth: Mit Gott für König und Vaterland.’ ‘With God for king and country!’

This is the steaming flow of words of the Jung Deutschland Bund, accounting for 750,000 members in 1914, among whom also young Baldur von Schirach. All these boys were prepared for a war that was going to be ‘frisch und fröhlich’ (bright and cheerful) . They were going ‘mit Sang und Klang zum Kriege wie zu einem Fest’ (they went to war with song and sound as if they went to a party). According to Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz it was destined to be that way. He was the man that knew there was going to be a war. And knew that education should precede war.

Next week: George V

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)

012 Helmuth von Moltke and the work of Ahriman

Helmuth von Moltke

Helmuth von Moltke

German high command yields under pressure

It is Sunday 13 September 1914. It is the 12th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Russian general Pawel von Rennenkampf has to withdraw in East Prussia after the Battle of the Masurian Lakes.

German admiral Maximilian von Spee reaches Samoa with his East Asian flotilla.

At the top of the Russian army Yakov Zhilinsky is replaced by Nikolai Ruzsky.

The Belgian army takes cover in Antwerp, while American president Woodrow Wilson welcomes a Belgian delegation.

South African troops prepare for battle in the German territories of South West Africa.

In an estuary near Cameroon the German gunboat Nachtigall makes a vain attempt to sink  the British gunboat Dwarf.

Japanese land at Qingdao in China.

British and French succeed in crossing the river Marne after which their advance gets bogged down.

The British Expeditionary Force, instructed by Sir John French, starts digging trenches near the river Aisne.

And the Battle of the Marne becomes too much for German chief-of-staff Helmuth von Moltke.

When the tragedy of the river Marne has taken place for the Germans, Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke is at his wits’ end. He is at a loss. Gazes at the maps. Physically and mentally a broken man, also filled with self-pity, he has to report to the emperor that he does not expect any good to come of it. Minister of War Erich von Falkenhayn, who is not very tactful, takes Von Moltke’s place at the front. Or rather behind the front, for Von Moltke has not been very close to the fire for the past month. Falkenhayn will position his headquarters a bit closer to his troops first.

Of all the characters presented by the First World War, Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke is one of the most enigmatic. In various publications one can read that he had a tender soul. He played the cello, liked to paint and knew his Goethe. The emperor himself called him der Traurige Julius. But Von Moltke not only had a tender soul. He was also in delicate health. When at the end of July the leaders of Europe were approaching the abyss, 66-year-old Helmuth von Moltke was taking a cure in Carlsbad.

What surprises most is his close relationship with the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, who was born in present-day Croatia. Even now Steiner is honoured as a visionary at Waldorf schools and biodynamic agricultural enterprises. Steiner is the man who advocates the merger of the individual and the cosmos. And Von Moltke is the general who buried soldiers in the earth. What in the world did these two have in common? Perhaps Mrs von Moltke. She floated first towards Steiner. After that also her husband, the highest ranking officer of the Empire, had hungrily served the interests of Rudolf Steiner’s elevated thoughts. Ten days before the Battle of the Marne the two met near headquarters at Koblenz. Steiner convinced Moltke with his observation that guided by the Spirit the people ‘bears light out of the battle into the heart of Europe for the healing of mankind’.

Whatever spiritual influence Steiner had on Von Moltke, he has not turned the general into a pacifist. On the contrary. Von Moltke is the man who works on the emperor in the years before 1914: the war, which will come anyhow, had better break out as soon as possible. Russia is a giant about to wake up from his sleep before long. When the evils of the lost war against Japan have disappeared, Russia will stand up. And then the German empire will have a major problem both in the west and the east. Before the siege is final, Germany has to break free. Behold the passionate plea of Helmuth von Moltke, a social Darwinist, for whom a people’s right to exist had to be proved on the  battlefield.

This is how to many he has become the embodiment of German aggression. Von Moltke may have thought that he could keep the war down to a single enemy, but he certainly has not avoided the risk of a blaze. Others again have pictured him as the man who squandered German opportunities by fiddling with the famous Schlieffen Plan. Especially Wilhelm Groener, who was to succeed Paul von Hindenburg after the war as chief of staff of the German Army, pinned botching the Von Schlieffen strategy on Von Moltke. Afterwards the nazis did their best to preserve the myth of the ingenious Schlieffen plan.

The fact is that Von Schlieffen saw fewer dangers than Von Moltke, who may pass for a realist because of this, though this scion of an old Mecklenburg family was most of all a fatalist. With the French walking across the Alsace and the Russians flowing over East Prussia, Von Moltke had every reason to believe the consequences for Germany completely disastrous. He anticipated a long and devastating war that had to be won on several fronts simultaneously. Already in 1905 he had warned the emperor for this: ‘Our people will be completely exhausted, even if we should triumph.’

As far as the war was concerned his pessimism also concerned the financial flexibility of the German nation. ‘Our enemies are arming more vigorously than we, because we are strapped for cash.’ That certainly had an element of truth in it. Historian Niall Ferguson shows that a possible cause of the Great War could be contained in Germany’s financial limitations. Ferguson also quotes Von Moltke on this. The latter argued in March 1913 that ‘war should be worked up to in such a way that it will be considered a release from the big armaments, the financial burdens and the political tensions.’ On close analysis war is a foreign venture for the sake of domestic peace.


He had the appropriate name. Wilhelm II absolutely wanted ‘my own Moltke’. Helmuth’s uncle of the same name had created the great German Empire alongside Bismarck in one or two glorious battles. Particularly arch-enemy France had been no match in 1870 for Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who was to appoint his nephew years after that as his aide. After that Wilhelm II preferred him as his first man in the army as successor of the famous strategist Von Schlieffen.

From the very start this appointment proved to be controversial. And it must have kept Von Moltke himself awake. He had little faith in the emperor. It must have been abhorrent to a Prussian aristocrat like Von Moltke to have a commander-in-chief who blew off military exercises when rain started to fall. What was to become of Germany with such a monarch at the helm? Von Moltke preferably kept Wilhelm out of the military plans that were ready to be executed. Steiner asserted that he had asked Von Moltke why. The general must have answered that the emperor would most certainly have started to chatter about the military plans.

Von Moltke’s despair about the emperor really hits home in the days before the actual outbreak of the war. At the eleventh hour Wilhelm II does not want to mobilize in the west. He thinks and fervently hopes that, thanks to British neutrality, the battle can only be fought in the east, against the Russians. Von Moltke is desperate. He is appalled at the thought that his wonderful mobilisation machine should be put in reverse all of a sudden. He worked on Der Tag for ten years, first as Von Schlieffen’s assistant, after that as his successor.

Eventually the emperor will give Von Moltke the green light, so that the latter can stick to his mobilisation schedule in the west. Von Moltke’s planners have selected the Luxembourg town of Troisvierges – the three virgins of Faith, Hope and Love – for the first border crossing, on the first day of August 1914. Von Moltke’s Der Tag has come. ‘We have certainly advanced through Belgium with brute force’, he writes on 5 August. ‘But we are fighting for our lives, so whoever gets in our way should accept the consequences.’ He tries to direct his armies from a distance for a month. His most controversial decision is moving troops from the west to the east, where the Russians are penetrating East Prussia. That is not what Von Schlieffen had in mind.

On 14 September a new day begins for Von Moltke, the day of his nervous breakdown. Von Moltke succumbs to the heavy responsibility which he has taken in the first month of the war. Helmuth von Moltke was a defeatist type of person. In his own words: ‘I am too melancholy, too cautious, too conscientious, if you please, to be a general in a war.’

At headquarters they make him play second fiddle to keep up appearances. Both the German people and high command of the Austro-Hungarian ally are kept in the dark about the changing of the guard. The lists of losses of the battle of the Marne are not published either. Von Moltke feels his degradation, presented as a period of leave, as a big injustice. ‘Your Majesty, nobody is telling me anything!’, he cried out to the emperor. To which the latter must have answered that the same went for him.


Von Moltke will live another two years to repair the injustice done to him, but he will not be granted a role on the main podium of the First World War any more. On 18 June 1916 he goes to church in Berlin to add lustre to a memorial service for Field Marshal Colmar Freiherr Von der Goltz. Von Moltke holds a speech in which he speaks highly of the deceased. He says that history has repeatedly shown that heroism and tragedy are closely linked. The congregation must feel that the speaker is not only referring to the person who has just ascended into heaven, but is also implying himself. When the Turkish ambassador is in the middle of his eulogy for Von der Goltz, Von Moltke, who has a heart condition, collapses. He dies at the age of 68.

Whatever way you look at it, this was too early for historians, for after the war Von Moltke could have explained one thing and another about the path he took with Germany towards the war. His wife published letters and his memoirs in 1922, but she appears to have made quite a mess of the contents. The diaries Von Moltke kept were burnt by his son Wilhelm in 1945, just before the Russians captured Berlin.

What can have possessed Von Moltke? How could this floating general reconcile his spiritual search for universal love with the careless moving about of cannon fodder across his topographic maps? Rudolf Steiner must have had some idea. After Von Moltke’s death the two kept in touch in the great beyond. Rudolf Steiner Press published an account of this esoteric exchange, entitled Light for the New Millennium.

Helmuth von Moltke sent the following message to the earth in December 1921: ‘The events on the Marne! Everything would have turned out differently, if I had not been accompanied by the mistrust of those around me. I traveled to the front in a cloud of mistrust.’ Eventually it had all been the work of Ahriman, the ‘Prince of Darkness’. As far as Wilhelm II is concerned, Von Moltke left us this explanation from above: ‘The Kaiser was actually quite weak due to the forces working in him from his previous life.’

Next week: Otto Weddigen

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)



011 Joseph Gallieni and the taxi’s that were quite something

Joseph Gallieni

Joseph Gallieni

Paris escapes the Germans

It is Sunday 6 September 1914. It is the eleventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Austrian troops cross the river Drina and penetrate Serbia again.

A German cruiser succeeds in cutting the Pacific Cable halfway down the Pacific Ocean.

The British are hunting down the German cruiser Emden in the Indian Ocean.

The Russians in East Prussia have to run from the Germans.

The same Russians bring the Austrian armies of archduke Joseph and  count Viktor Dankl von Krasnik down to their knees in Galicia.

For the first time a British submarine eliminates an enemy ship in the North Sea: the German cruiser Hela.

Australians capture the town of Herbertshohe, part of German New Guinea.

During the first ever air fight Russian pilot Pjotr Nesterov loses his life when crashing into an Austrian reconnaissance plane. 

The Battle of the Marne claims half a million dead and wounded on both sides in barely a week.

And Paris taxi drivers transport soldiers to the front, watched approvingly by general Joseph Gallieni.

When France calls upon him to defend the capital, his wife has just died. He is already 65 years old. Three years earlier he passed up a chance to occupy the highest post in the French army. He is ill. In the two years to come he will have to undergo operations on his prostate gland twice. This will be in vain as he dies halfway through the First World War.

His name is Joseph Gallieni, the man who snatched Paris away from the clutches of the Germans in September 1914. When hearing this story you immediately think of the Paris taxi drivers who were sent out by Gallieni to transport soldiers to the front. It is a story that has assumed mythical proportions. Gallieni is supposed to have stood by the side of the road, mumbling approvingly: ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ ‘Well, well, this is quite something.’

It is not that these taxis made a huge difference in the terrible Battle of the Marne, on which also the fate of Paris depended. The railway was the vital artery of the army. Military successes or defeats could frequently be traced back to the capacity of the railway network. The German Schlieffen Plan was also grafted on the railway timetable. But Gallieni’s taxis of course appealed enormously to the imagination. Obviously the idea must have come from Gallieni himself. When the overworking of the railways was discussed, he suggested: ‘Mmm, why not use taxis?’

One greedy taxi driver is reported to have asked: ‘How much do we charge?’ Lorries, limousines and even racing cars joined the convoy. Many taxi drivers turned back at their destination Nanteuil for a second ride. A taxi could take five soldiers. A total of around 4,000 men were taken to the front by taxi. ‘Eh bien, voilà au moins qui n’est pas banal!’ to quote Gallieni once again.

One of those taxis can still be seen in the army museum of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. Hundreds of these droll little cars got together on 7 September to load soldiers for the French Sixth Army. It was formed in a hurry to take away the force of general Von Kluck’s sweep which was noticed late.

Gallieni watched the taxis  through his lorgnette hanging over his stately nose and grey drooping moustache. Joseph Simon Gallieni was tall and lean. French president Raymond Poincaré provided the following profile. ‘With his straight stature, his head held high and his penetrating look he came across to us as an impressive example of human strength.’ And his curriculum vitae showed this, too. When he was 21 Gallieni fought at Sedan as a second lieutenant. To France this was the fatal battle in the Franco-Prussian war. Gallieni was carried off to Germany as a prisoner of war. There he had also mastered the German language, in the same way as he would later concentrate on learning Russian. He kept a diary in German, English and Italian with the peculiar multilingual title ‘Erinnerungen of my life di ragazzo’.

All in all Gallieni, son of an Italian immigrant, was a man of the world. His career in the French army took place outside the old country. Gallieni was a colonial soldier. His career went from the island La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, via West Africa, Martinique, the Sudan and French Indo-China finally to Madagascar. There were those in the French army who characterized the colonial service as le tourisme, but Gallieni certainly did not restrict himself to sun-worship. He proved himself to be a master at oil-slick politics, spreading the colonial sphere of influence from the centre by entering into home alliances using common sense.

Gallieni was also ruthless, especially going on a rampage on Madagascar. He did not limit himself to banning British influences on the island, but also brutally suppressed a revolt of the natives. Many people apply the term genocide to this operation. His period on Madagascar gave Gallieni the local nickname jeneraly masiaka, ‘the cruel general’.

In 1911 his reputation as warhorse can bring him promotion to the highest military post of his home country. Commander-in-chief Victor-Constant Michel has been sidetracked. The man is aware of the German danger, reason for him to draw up a defensive plan. But defence is a forbidden word in post-Sedan France. Attaquer à l’outrance, attack to the extreme, is the motto. Michel the defender has to be replaced by an attacker that does not hesitate. Gallieni, however, declines the honour. He feels too old, but is also afraid that the national army will not swallow a colonial like him.

He knows somebody, one of his officers from his days in Madagascar. Yes, let Joseph Joffre do the job. Thus Joffre becomes the man who is entrusted in 1914 with his native country in distress. He will put all his cards on the attack via Alsace-Lorraine. For a long time Joffre is blind to the muscles the German army is flexing on his right in Belgium, and not much later in the north of France. But Gallieni is well aware of the danger.

Gallieni is a confidant of Adolphe Messimy, Minister of War. At the end of August they arrive at a double conclusion. Paris is about to fall and Joffre does not realize that. Messimy asks Gallieni to take the defence of Paris as governor upon himself. A remarkable detail is that this is still the task of Michel who was earlier on sent away as commander-in-chief. Roaring with anger he is sent away a second time, after which old Gallieni positions himself on the city walls of Paris. He demands more troops of his own, which will have to be withdrawn from Joffre’s armies. The latter, however, disregards this command. When Gallieni came to alert Joffre to the danger called Von Kluck some time earlier, Joffre had only allowed Galllieni a two minute appointment. The stubborn commander-in-chief obviously did not like a superior officer from the past breathing down his neck again.

Nevertheless Gallieni will resolutely take up the defence of Paris. The capital is in the right mood for it. During the first few days of September the people of Paris had looked up at the sky in amusement to see a Taube – a small yellow-white German plane – circling overhead. The ‘pigeon’ not only dropped small bombs, but also pieces of paper for the Paris population came fluttering down. The message was that the German army was at the gates of Paris. There was no other option than surrender. One old woman was killed by a bomb from a Taube. After that, however, the small aircraft that regularly came flying over was mainly light entertainment.

The American attaché Eric Fisher Wood described how ‘all Paris’ was waiting for ‘the six o’clock Taube’ on Friday 3 September. But ‘Von Heidssen’  – as Fisher Wood erroneously called him – did not show up. Up in the sky a bullet had gone straight through his heart. The following day it was announced that ‘Von Heidssen’ was found down on the ground, strapped in his undamaged crate. Perhaps this was propaganda, for from other sources it appears that Ferdinand von Hiddessen – which was his real name – is made a prisoner of war in 1915, after being shot down above Verdun. Years later the same name crops up again on an American list of nazi bigwigs.

In the beginning of September the situation in Paris really turns awkward. A true exodus starts. The need to run from the Hun is urgent. Spurred on by Gallieni the government also takes refuge. But on the same day two staff officers in Gallieni’s headquarters are jubilant. Apparently Von Kluck had his army bear off to the east, away from Paris, towards the river Marne. Then Gallieni sees his opportunity. Joffre entrusts him with the command of the Sixth Army. At the river Ourcq Gallieni attacks Von Kluck’s unguarded right flank. It is the opening phase of the unprecedently gruesome Battle of the Marne, when the German advance is halted.

Unlike in 1871 and 1940 Paris does not fall in 1914. Gallieni gets the credit. Historian Basil Liddell Hart even attributes a ‘Napoleonic coup d’oeuil’ to him, but it is commander-in-chief Joffre who can write ‘Miracle of the Marne’ after his name. For the time being the French people believe Papa Joffre can do nothing wrong any more. Gallieni, who does not even get a Croix de Guerre for his share, certainly does not agree with this.

As governor of Paris Gallieni no longer plays a prominent role. After the return of the government he is the odd one out. On the sideline of the western front he recognizes the deadlock. Together with politician Aristide Briand and fellow-general Louis Franchet d’Espèrey he thinks that opening a second front on the Balkan Peninsula is necessary.

In October 1915 a new French government with Aristide Briand as Prime Minister appoints him Minister of War. Energetic as always he starts his work. He sees it especially as his task to raise the matter of the mistakes made by the general staff under the command of Joffre. The neglect of Verdun’s defence becomes a divisive issue. In March 1916, however, it becomes painfully clear to Gallieni that he is going to lose this battle. The government retains the far too popular Joffre.

In the month of his death he presented a memorandum to the French cabinet about the change of high command. Gallieni does not beat about the bush. The military should deal with military matters.The Minister of War has governmental responsibility. Commanding officers who support ‘anachronistic ideas and outdated procedures’ should be sidetracked, according to Gallieni.

But then Gallieni resigns and not much later he is hospitalized. He dies on 27 May 1916. No one of military command is present at the funeral. Five years later, however, Joseph Gallieni is posthumously promoted to field marshal.


Gallieni has not sunk into oblivion. In Paris there is the Gallieni Metro station, an important junction which is connected directly with Gallieni bus station. The small town of Fréjus in the Provence not only has a grammar school and tennis club named after Gallieni. There is also a museum of the maritime troops. Its showpiece is the little 19th century car Gallieni used to drive around Madagascar.

He who saves Paris, will not be labelled ‘Butcher of Madagascar’.

Next week: Helmuth von Moltke

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)
















010 Alexander von Kluck and the revolution in the castle

Alexander von Kluck

Alexander von Kluck

The war gets bogged down on the river Marne

It is Sunday 30 August 1914. It is the tenth week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Outrage about the cultural barbarism of the Germans in the Flemish town of Louvain is snowballing worldwide.

The Germans move their headquarters from Koblenz to Luxembourg.

A small German Taube aircraft drops bombs on Paris and the French government leaves the capital.

The Germans in Cameroon chase a British column into the bush.

The Austrians in Galicia suffer heavy losses.

The British government decides to send Lord Kitchener to the continent.

As it sounded too German the Russians rename Saint Petersburg Petrograd.

Japanese troops land on the Shantung peninsula.

The French general Charles Lanrezac is blamed for all adversity and has to step aside for Louis Franchet d’Espérey.

Crown prince Rupprecht of Bavaria goes onto the attack of Nancy.

The Germans in East Prussia advance towards the Masurian lakes.

The French, the British and the Russians promise each other not individually to strive for peace.

And Paris sees the First Army of the Germans approach under the command of Alexander von Kluck.

‘Macht mir nur den Rechten stark.’  This must have been the final plea of count Alfred von Schlieffen, architect of the German plan of attack, who died a year before the war. In August 1914 the man on the right wing of the German army, the strong side, was called Alexander von Kluck. He was a general, born in Münster, who had sufficient Sturm und Drang to please Von Schlieffen posthumously. He had experienced the baptism of fire some 48 years earlier in the war that brought Prussia victory over Austria, gaining German dominance as a trophy. This Von Kluck fellow was rather a field soldier than a member of the staff.

Von Kluck’s First Army, the biggest of the seven German armies on the western front, had to make a big sweep through Belgium, ‘scouring the sleeves along The Channel’. After that he should go below Paris and then get the French army by the short hairs, together with the German troops that had first been waiting in the east to see which way the wind would blow. Von Kluck was the German hammer.

From the moment he was appointed chief of staff in 1891 Von Schlieffen had been polishing his plan, often until midnight. To relax he would like to read stories from military history to his daughters. Initially he had put his cards on the destruction of the French fortifications along the border. However, he changed his tack, when he feared that the German artillery was going to waste his energy on this. In order to gain a quick victory it was necessary to move across Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. Soldier Von Schlieffen did not ponder too long on the political consequences of all this. He had a greater fear of a concentrated attack on the Central Powers by France, Russia, Great Britain and perhaps even Italy. When Russia was involved in a war with Japan in 1905, Von Schlieffen insisted in vain on attacking France as a precaution.

The war should be quick as lightning, Von Schlieffen determined. He was referring to economic interests. ‘The war with its thousands of wheels, providing a living for thousands of people, cannot stand still for a long time. It is impossible to move from one position to the other for one or two years in twelve-day battles until the warring parties are both completely exhausted, beg for peace and are willing to accept the status quo.’

The Schlieffen plan, included in his famous Grosse Denkschrift, was worked out in great detail. It was rocket science, especially when troop movements following the railway timetable were concerned. On the eve of the war The Military Itinerary made it possible to transport 2 million men and 600,000 horses by train in 312 hours’ time.

In case they had to continue on foot the infantry marched twenty kilometers a day according to Von Schlieffen’s calculations. This average would be just about right in Auguts 1914. Von Kluck would even manage 22 kilometers a day. It would take six weeks, again according to Von Schlieffen, to complete the Vernichtung of the French army on the western front. After that the German army could focus on the Russians, assuming that the latter had not succeeded in getting ready for battle on the eastern front within six weeks.

Von Schlieffen was anything but free from doubt. He expected to need an additional 200,000 men for the decisive battle in the heart of France. Two hundred thousand men for whom there was simply not enough room on the roads of Belgium and France. In any case, the expansion of the German armed forces in peacetime was lagging behind the ambitions of the Schlieffen plan. That was the fault of the conservative element within German militarism. In order to maintain the aristocratic proportion of the land army on as high as possible a level, successive war ministers had accepted that the budgets were spent on admiral Von Tirpitz’s navy.

Military historians have extensively discussed the question whether a precise carrying out of the Schlieffen plan would have led to a German victory. That was at least the general drift in German military circles immediately after the war, but later an increasing number of historians started to see the Schlieffen plan as a big gamble. Von Schlieffen had drawn up a great plan to start the war with. He had, however, neglected to provide a happy ending.

Opinions on Alexander von Kluck are equally divided. One considers Von Kluck the most devoted pupil of Von Schlieffen. Another blames the German foundering on von Kluck’s personal blunder. The English language is left with a fine insult, dumb Kluck, as a result of the failed campaign. It more or less means something like ‘silly goose’. Old Von Kluck was also called Old one o’clock by the Tommies.

It was especially chief of staff Helmut von Moltke who had been fiddling considerably at the plan of his predecessor Von Schlieffen. Already before the war Von Moltke had decided to ignore the Netherlands. Trade motives were at the bottom of this, but also the fear of an English attack in the back. Also in the beginning of the war Von Moltke quickly had to adjust his plan in East Prussia. In order to stop the Russians there many tens of thousands of soldiers were taken away from ‘Von Schlieffen’ in the west. The generals in Lorraine and the Ardennes put pressure on Von Moltke to start the attack quickly there, which Von Schlieffen had strongly advised against. Then there was the fierce resistance of the Belgians and of the small British Expeditionary Force at Mons and Le Cateau that threw a spanner in the works. The result was that Von Kluck’s right arm did not sweep through France as powerfully as Von Schlieffen had thought necessary on his deathbed.

Yet an imperturbable Von Kluck, seconded by his competent chief of staff Hermann von Kuhl, managed to approach Paris by a couple of dozens of kilometers. On his Great Trek he had succeeded in seizing the capital of Belgium, Brussels. After three days Von Kluck approached Compiègne in the north of France. Here German high command was to be presented with an armistice four long war years later. Would the Germans have been spared this humiliating experience, if Von Kluck had pushed on west of Paris in accordance with Von Schlieffen? Instead he sought to join Karl von Bülow’s Second Army in the east, who had met with more French and British opposition.


The reversal takes place in Louis XV’s castle at Compiègne, where Von Kluck has put up his headquarters on 3 September. By radio Von Moltke orders him to bear southeast. Aggressive and arrogant by nature, Von Kluck takes the liberty of going after the French general Charles Lanrezac. The renowned Great War military historian John Keegan thinks that French chief of staff Joseph Joffre has pulled Von Kluck’s leg.

Von Kluck leaves a gap, which is spotted by a French aviator. The French cleverly fill the gap. Joffre moves up men from Lorraine to assault Von Kluck’s rear guard. Provisioning his troops is already quite a problem to the German general. Things are so bad that Von Kluck has all the German dead and wounded searched for cartridges.

The troops are tired, dead tired. Listen to what happened to the 4th Reserve Corps on 5 September. ‘In big clouds of dust, raised by men and horses, now and then limping soldiers stand still and collapse in the trenches, at the end of their tether. Fuseliers, grenadiers, riflemen and artillerymen, they have all been marching from sunrise. Worse still, they have been marching for almost three weeks without a day’s rest. They have covered the whole distance from the Rhine valley to the Île de France, from Düsseldorf to Nanteuil-le-Haudoin via the Campine, Brussels, Hainaut, Artois and Picardy.’

The Battle of Ourcq River, a small stream that flows into the Marne, introduces the big clash. That First Battle of the Marne –the second was in 1918 equally important – lasts until 12 September. The mission on which Von Moltke has sent a certain lieutenant colonel Richard Hentsch from his headquarters in Luxembourg is crucial for the course of the battle. On the site Hentsch recognizes the danger of the gap between the First and Second Army. With Von Bülow he agrees upon a tactical retreat, which as subordinate officer he can also proclaim for Von Kluck’s First Army by the mandate of Von Moltke. The resentment about this and the bickering between Von Kluck and Von Bülow, who is held in higher regard by the Oberste Heeresleitung, can be read again in ‘The March on Paris and the Battle of the Marne’, which Von Kluck published in 1920.

On the day Hentsch drove to First Army Headquarters, Von Kluck already expressed his growing pessimism in a letter to his wife: ‘It goes badly. The battles east of Paris will not end in our favour. And we certainly will be made to pay for all thas has been destroyed.’

The Germans have lost the initiative at the end of the First Battle of the Marne. And since the French and the British are not in a position to take over, the First World War changes from a Blitzkrieg into a Grabenkrieg, a trench war without end. Halfway through the First Battle of the Marne a young officer named Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox of the Second World War, writes in his diary: ‘Our recent experiences make clear that the deep trench is the only way to limit the number of losses.’


For Alexander von Kluck the war has lasted too long. When in March 1915 he is inspecting advanced posts, Old one o’clock is hit by shrapnel near Vailly-sur-Aisne. The injuries on his leg are so serious that the general, who is then already 68 years old, will not appear on the front any more. In October 1916 he is given a send–off with the Pour le Mérite medal pinned on him. He dies at the age of 88 in Hitler’s Germany. The year is 1934.

His granddaughter Mulino von Kluck adds an insignificant footnote to Von Kluck’s story. At the end of the twenties she appears to become a filmstar. It does not really turn out that way, although TIME Magazine writes the following about her in April 1929: ‘Mulino von Kluck, 17, tall, blue eyes, blonde – has entered the world of the movies. Her first role is in ‘1813’, a film about the liberation of Germany from the hands of Napoleon. She says she will never visit Paris’. In the article TIME Magazine omits to say why. Maybe she did not get grandfather Von Kluck’s permission. Granddaughter to Paris, but no Paris for von Kluck. Now that would be quite something.

Next week: Joseph Gallieni

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)

007 Bertha Krupp and birds falling to the earth

Bertha Krupp

Bertha Krupp

German guns bombard  Belgian fortresses

It is Sunday 9 August 1914. It is the seventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British Expeditionary Force arrives in France.

The French launch their plan XVII in Alsace-Lorraine, but soon have to give up the town of Mulhouse to the Germans.

War is declared to Austria-Hungary, first by France and later by Great Britain.

In Africa the British focus on the German colonies of Cameroon and Togo.

The Germans, however, conquer the town of Taveta in British East Africa.

The Russians go onto the attack in East Prussia.

Japan sides with the allies France, Great Britain and Russia.

The first German pilot, Oberleutnant Reinhold Jahnow, crashes near Malmedy and dies on the same day, followed two days later by his deputy, Oberleutnant Heinrich Koch.

During the Battle of Haelen it appears that the days of the cavalry are over: a German charge on horseback with drawn sabre would not stand a chance against Belgian machineguns.

But the fortifications around Liège crumble under the sledgehammer blows of Big Bertha, the howitser named after Bertha Krupp.

‘This is no artillery, these are no ordinary armaments. This is a giant, enormous and terrible, hunting across the plain in fury, crushing everything with his iron footsteps’. It is a German soldier who wrote this review of Big Bertha, the most famous monster of the Great War, that made her entrance near Liège. ‘A devastating and unknown hurricane rages roaring, hissing and shrieking through the air. The terrible blast tears roofs of houses, uproots hundred-year-old trees and makes birds fall to the earth.’

How would Bertha Krupp herself have felt that her name would not only be so disrespectfully associated with the terrible howitzer from the first days of the war? When in 1918 an even more awful gun began to blast the French capital, the frightened Parisians spoke of la grosse Bertha.

Pictures of her do not show a corpulent lady, so the ‘big’ did not really apply to her anyway. Funny in peculiar way to give pet names to the most formidable armaments.

Schlanke Emma (Skinny Emma) was the name of a 305 millimeter howitzer from the Czech Skoda factory of the Austrians. Little sister Skinny Emma came to assist Big Bertha in battering the fortresses of Namur. The gun with which the Germans bombarded Dunkerque in  France was called Langer Max (Long Max). And years later at the end of World War II the Americans baptized their first atom bomb – cynically – Little Boy.

The Germans had to dig out their Big Bertha pretty soon. Their hero Erich Ludendorff, who was a true hoodlum, had invaded the citadel of Liège just like that. However, this did not cause the fortifications of the town on the Meuse to fall yet. They were reputed to be the strongest of Europe. It had indeed been the Germans themselves who had urged Belgium to build them in the eighties of the 19th century. Berlin had anticipated that in case the French ever came to revenge the defeat of 1871, their route to Germany might well lead through the lowland around Liège.

There were twelve of them, built in a circle around Liège. Every two forts, constructed of concrete and iron and largely built underground, were about four kilometers apart. This circle of forts accommodated four hundred guns and three thousand soldiers. Ludendorff knew that field artillery could not destroy them. So he called in the help of Big Bertha, a 420 millimeter howitzer, twice as big as the heaviest gun of the Liège fortresses.

Big Bertha hurled its missile towards the enemy in a big bow. An 820 kilogram shell could easily land twelve kilometers away. Two Berthas had left the Krupp works in Essen on 10 August. It took twenty hours to get them off the train at Herbesthal station and put them together again. This was followed by a hellish journey by road when Daimler-Benz tractors pulled the two colossal mortars up to the forts.

From hot air balloons and church towers artillery observers passed on the co-ordinates to the men behind Big Bertha. The Fort de Pontisse, that had resisted the light artillery of the Germans for a few days, soon surrendered. Then in order to demolish the Fort de Loncin, 36 horses were needed to pull a Big Bertha straight across Liège.

General Gérard Leman, 63 years old, was in the Fort de Loncin. He knew that the hours of the system of fortifications were numbered, but he refused to capitulate. Big Bertha’s revenge was merciless. A chance hit landed exactly in the ammunition room of Loncin, which accordingly exploded from within. The cast iron gun turrets flew up to a hundred meters high in the air like fleas. They still lie where they landed upside down, macabre show-pieces of the impressive museum that the Fort de Loncin has turned into.

Hundreds of defenders disappeared under the rubble of Loncin. Also Leman was feared to have died. However, he managed to struggle out of the debris and lost consciousness in the moat around the fort. After he had come round, Leman told the Germans to put in writing that he had not surrendered as commanding officer of the forts. Out of respect a German officer gave Leman his sabre back.

Because of the display of power the commanding officers of the Fort de Hollogne and Fort de Flémalle were inclined to lower the flag. From his hospital bed Leman gave the order not to surrender any fort without being shelled. Belgians and Germans thereupon agreed to fire a couple of symbolic shells. On 16 August at half past nine in the morning Liège did not have a single fort left. With a four-day-delay an open road to Brussels finally lay ahead of the First Army of General Alexander von Kluck.

Liège had a first that was not to be envied, but later also Namur, Antwerp, Maubeuge, Verdun, Ypres and Oudenaarde got to know the incredible Big Bertha fire power. Nevertheless, in the course of the war they strategically did not make a difference to the Germans, however much they were dreaded by the enemy. Trenches were the true fortifications of the First World War. Big Bertha could deal with concrete and iron. Mud and barbed wire were a different story. The French would benefit a lot more from their much lighter field artillery, the 75 millimeter gun, or soixante-quinze. This is an example of gunnery whereby missiles are fired almost horizontally, whereas a howitzer like Big Bertha stood between a gun and a mortar. The word howitzer by the way is derived from Czech houfnice, meaning ‘sling’.


In 1811 the family business Krupp started with four workers. A century later 79,000 workers earned a living at Krupp Werke in Essen. Alfred Krupp, nicknamed Alfred the Great, or The Cannon King, had turned the company into a steel empire in the 19th century. Whoever worked for Krupp, was Alfred’s subject. The company’s constitution was called General-Regulativ. Duties of the employer were not included, neither were the rights of the employee. Penalties for arriving late for work, immoral behaviour or lack of work discipline, however, were meticulously described. Thus Krupp Werke could throw up shells, cannons and rails regular as clockwork.

In 1902 the empire falls to a sixteen-year-old girl, Bertha Krupp. Her father Friedrich, son of Alfred the Great, has got entangled in a sex scandal. The Italian press writes that he has assaulted small boys on the island of Capri. Some time later Friedrich Krupp dies. The official story says brain haemorrhage, but there are rumours that Friedrich Krupp has taken his own life.

It is important to start looking, without delay, for a good chap for Bertha, the eldest of two daughters. Kaiser Wilhelm II is personally going to look around. It will be the Prussian diplomat Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach, who is born in The Hague sixteen years before Bertha Krupp saw the light of day. By decree of the emperor he can place the name Krupp before his. Kaiser Wilhelm himself is also present at the wedding.

Krupp is Germany’s pride. On the eve of the First World War it is Germany’s biggest company, even though the turnover of the American enterprise US Steel is five times bigger. With an estimated value of 283 million marks Bertha is known by the bank as the wealthiest resident of the empire, the emperor himself occupying a fifth place.

In Germany Krupp practically has the monopoly as far as the production of heavy guns is concerned. Before the war it also conducts business beyond the borders. It is a bizarre detail that after the armistice Krupp is to receive a substantial sum of money from the rival British firm of Vickers. In 1902 the latter entered into a rental agreement  with Krupp for an ignition mechanism. After the war Vickers settles the account on the basis of the number of German losses as a result of allied artillery. In this way Krupp also made a lot of money on dead Germans.

With Vickers’ money and government support from the Weimar republic Gustav can soon start working on the rearmament of Germany again. In the Netherlands Krupp secretly builds bunkers for the production of submarines and in Sweden they work on perfecting new artillery. This is how Adolf Hitler is led to outline the rolemodel for Germany’s youth when he brags them to be ‘flink wie Windhunde, zäh wie Leder und hart wie Kruppstahl’: swift as greyhounds, tough as leather and hard as Krupps steel.


Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, contrary to family tradition a happily married woman, got eight children. One son passed away shortly after he was born. Two others died in the Second World War and a fourth was kept prisoner for ten years by the Soviet Union. Her husband Gustav, the actual pilot of Krupp during the interbellum period, was accused of war crimes in 1945, but he proved to be too senile to stand trial. His eldest son Alfried could not escape that very fate. He was specifically accused of using prisoners from concentration camps as slaves. Not far from Auschwitz Krupp had a factory called Berthawerk. Alfried was convicted by the Nuremberg tribunal. He was released from prison in 1951. The company he had taken over from his father was expropriated after the Second World War.

Not only a monstrous mortar type of gun and a factory near an extermination camp were named after Bertha Krupp, but also a hospital carried her name. At the end of her life she must have moved many with visits to needy Krupp workers. She donated the ground on which a church was to be erected. Up to this day there are children in Essen who go to the Bertha-Krupp-Realschule at the Kerckhofstrasse. Bertha Krupp died in 1957 at the age of seventy-one.

In 2011 her granddaughter Diana Maria Friz wrote a biography presenting Bertha Krupp as a forceful personality. This granddaughter is convinced that Grossmutter remained in control, though her husband was the one who propagated the Krupp company to the outside world. ‘She stayed the central figure of her large family until her dying day. We grandchildren will remember her as a great lady, who linked composure and savoir vivre to motherhood and affection. She was closer to us than our parents, for the war, the collapse of the family business in 1945, widowhood and also old age had made her a gentler person, so that she could show us feelings she had never permitted herself to show her own children.’

Next week: Alexander Samsonov

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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