German Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff prolonged World War I with his revolutionary tactics—but to what end?
On a list of historical figures who have left disaster in their wake, few can top Erich Ludendorff. And yet, he was not an incompetent man. On the contrary, he was one of World War I’s most able generals, among the few who recognized that Western Front battlefield tactics would require a fundamental rethinking, especially with regard to combat leadership.
Unfortunately, even here his contribution proved disastrous, as his tactical revolution enabled Germany to hold out far longer than it might have, thereby exacerbating the November 1918 collapse. In the realms of operations, strategy and politics, Ludendorff’s baleful influence wreaked havoc on Germany over the course of the war, while the seeds he planted would eventually support the rise of Adolf Hitler and an even more disastrous German defeat.
Ludendorff was born on April 9, 1865, in the town of Kruszewnia, near Posen, Prussia. Like most of the border towns split between Polish and German ethnicity, Kruszewnia was a hotbed of Prusso-German nationalism. His parents were middle-class but strongly nationalist. And as young Erich gobbled up military histories filled with romantic legends and nationalist nonsense about Prussia’s struggles against Napoléon or its heroic defeat of the “evil French” in the Franco-Prussian War, his nationalistic fervor soon eclipsed that of his parents. As a teen, Ludendorff made the obvious career choice of the German army. He excelled at cadet school and after graduation entered the army as an infantry officer.
At the time, the nobility dominated the army’s officer corps. While there was certainly no room for Jews or members of the lower class, there were considerable opportunities for young, ambitious sons of the middle class, especially if they were bright and diligent and possessed the presence and poise required of a good officer. Ludendorff had all of these qualities and was quickly nominated by his superiors for the Kriegsakademie, the elite Prussian military academy from which the Great General Staff was handpicked.
The Kriegsakademie was so rigorous that most cadets washed out of the first and second-year courses. By now the culture of both the Kriegsakademie and the General Staff had shifted from the deep strategic analysis that marked the writings of Prussian generals Gerhard von Scharnhorst, August von Gneisenau, and Carl von Clausewitz to an emphasis on such technical aspects as planning, tactics and mobilization. Future Lt. Gen. Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg, who attended the Kriegsakademie immediately before World War I, said as much in a letter to military historian Basil Liddell Hart after World War II:
You will be horrified to hear that I have never read Clausewitz or [Hans] Delbrück or [Karl] Haushofer. The opinion on Clausewitz in our General Staff was that of a theoretician to be read by professors.
But Ludendorff excelled precisely in those tactical and technical areas, and he soon became a junior member of the Great General Staff, as well as one of Alfred Graf von Schlieffen’s most trusted staff officers. His career progressed steadily until 1912, on the eve of World War I, when a major budgetary fight broke out among the General Staff, the Imperial Navy and the Prussian War Ministry.
For more than a decade, the Prussian government had funded a massive buildup of the Imperial Navy to counter the British Royal Navy. The General Staff now sought greater support for the army and its planning obligations, particularly with regard to the Schlieffen Plan (the invasion of France). In the end, the War Ministry sided with the navy, resisting any large-scale enlargement of the army, perhaps out of concern that a strong officer corps might challenge the nobility’s control. Ludendorff led the charge for the General Staff, in the process angering many higher-ups. And when the dust settled in 1913, the General Staff shipped off Colonel Ludendorff to command an infantry regiment in the west.
In late July 1914, the simmering European crisis over the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, exploded into war. The Germans immediately invaded France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Ludendorff was assigned as deputy chief of staff to the Second Army under General Karl von Bülow and charged with seizing Liège’s key fortresses, a move that would enable the German right to strike deep into Belgium, then sweep south to encircle the French army.
As Ludendorff rolled forward through complex firefights, he was probably also involved in a number of atrocities, in which German troops shot Belgian civilians (upward of 6,000 by the end of September) in retaliation for the supposed activities of guerrilla fighters known as Franc-tireurs. In the midst of the heavy fighting, Ludendorff led a small group of Germans to the citadel at the heart of Liège, literally knocked on the front door and demanded the surrender of its garrison. One has to wonder how history might have turned if one of the Belgians had done his job and summarily shot Ludendorff for his temerity. Instead, the Belgians surrendered, and he received the coveted Pour le Mérite medal for his actions.
While the Schlieffen Plan unfolded in the West, the operational situation in East Prussia was going to hell in a handbasket, as the Russian army had moved earlier than expected. To make matters worse, General Maximilian “the Fat Soldier” von Prittwitz had panicked and recommended that his Eighth Army abandon East Prussia and retire to Pomerania. Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke promptly fired Prittwitz, replacing him with retired General Paul von Hindenburg. But while Hindenburg was certainly dependable and unflappable, he wasn’t considered especially bright. So Moltke brought in Ludendorff, brilliant and already a war hero, to be Hindenburg’s chief of staff.
The two hurried east to assume command of the Eighth Army, which the Russians had already badly mauled in a skirmish at Gumbinnen. On arrival, they confronted two invading armies:
General Pavel Rennenkampf’s First Army from the east and General Aleksandr Samsonov’s Second Army from the south. As Prittwitz retired into obscurity, Eighth Army Deputy Chief of Staff Max Hoffmann briefed his new bosses on a plan he had already set in motion.
The Russian First Army had stopped at Gumbinnen, while the Second Army rapidly advanced north. Since the Russians were communicating via uncoded radio transmissions, the Germans had a clear fix on their enemy’s positions. What they didn’t know was that Rennenkampf and Samsonov had been bitter enemies since the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War and would not be overly inclined to help each other.
Hoffmann recognized that if the German Eighth Army concentrated its strength against one of the opposing forces and screened the other, it could defeat the Russians in detail. Samsonov’s advance obviously made his army the most vulnerable. Hindenburg and Ludendorff saw the advantage and signed off on Hoffmann’s plans. Cavalry units screened Rennenkampf’s First Army, which remained stationary despite having an open road to Königsberg. Meanwhile, the Eighth Army used the rail system to rapidly redeploy south and west. It broke the flank corps of Samsonov’s Second Army, then enveloped and destroyed the entire Russian force.
The deputy had done the work, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff took credit for the Battle of Tannenberg, Germany’s first major victory of the war.
Yet even as the situation stabilized in East Prussia, matters worsened elsewhere in the East. A series of major defeats threatened to knock Germany’s main ally, Austria-Hungary, out of the conflict. To restore the situation in Galicia, Hindenburg, Ludendorff and Hoffmann took command of the Ninth Army, which had been scratched together from Western Front corps and much of the Eighth Army. During heavy fighting, in which the Russians managed to surround three German divisions only to let them slip away again, the bitter foes fought to a standstill. Nevertheless, the confrontation proved one of Ludendorff’s finest hours, as the Ninth Army bought the Austrians enough time to recover and patch together a front.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff insisted Germany should act decisively to drive Russia out of the war. But by then, General Erich von Falkenhayn had succeeded Moltke as chief of the General Staff. Falkenhayn, with a broader strategic vision and perhaps a deeper appreciation of what a push into Russia would entail, demurred. So, while subsequent German offensives inflicted devastating losses on the tsarist enemy, they failed to achieve overall victory.
As to who was correct, no one can say, though it’s worth noting that no invasion from the West deep into the Russian heartland has ever succeeded. By confining the fighting to the borderlands, where the Russians faced serious logistical difficulties, Falkenhayn may well have set the stage for the eventual political collapse and defeat of tsarist Russia in 1917.
As the war stretched into 1916, Falkenhayn and the Hindenburg-Ludendorff duo continued to bicker over German strategy. Ludendorff was not above disloyalty to his superior and tried to sway the imperial regime in favor of an Eastern offensive. But Kaiser Wilhelm II remained loyal to his chief of staff. Then Falkenhayn, who had recognized back in 1914 that Germany could not defeat the forces arrayed against it, made a series of operational blunders.
First, having argued that Germany was engaged in a battle of attrition against Britain, he launched a great offensive against the French at Verdun. That battle bled the French white, but it also exhausted the Germans. As the fighting reached its climax in early June, Russia launched a major offensive against Austria, which promptly collapsed. Falkenhayn had to shut down Verdun and rush reinforcements east to shore up the Austrians.
Adding to his woes, in mid-June the British began preparatory bombardments on the Somme. Two weeks later their troops went over the top. On July 1, the first day of battle, they took a disastrous 60,000 casualties. But thereafter the weight of British artillery coupled with unimaginative German tactics, which demanded that soldiers hold every foot of ground, led to equally heavy casualties among the Germans—losses they could ill afford. Romania’s declaration of war in August further compounded the Central Powers’ strategic difficulties.
With the Reich in desperate straits, Kaiser Wilhelm finally yielded to political pressure and replaced Falkenhayn with Hindenburg and Ludendorff. From that point on, Ludendorff became the true driving force behind the German war effort, as Hindenburg deferred to him on virtually every decision.
The Germans faced a desperate situation in the West. “The battle of materiel,” as Ludendorff termed it, was even more serious. On the Somme, British attacks were imposing huge losses on the German army. Also that fall, the French launched a sharp offensive that would regain much of the ground they had lost at Verdun. One of Ludendorff’s first actions was to visit the Western Front to see for himself what was happening. He sought input from both senior officers and frontline commanders. “I attached the greatest importance to verbal discussion and gathering direct impression on the spot,” he later noted in his memoirs.
The loss of ground up to date appeared to me of little importance in itself. We could stand that, but the question how this, and the progressive falling off of our fighting power of which it was symptomatic, was to be prevented was of immense importance…. On the Somme, the enemy’s powerful artillery, assisted by excellent aeroplane observation and fed with enormous supplies of ammunition, had kept down our own fire and destroyed our artillery. The defense of our infantry had become so flabby that the massed attacks of the enemy always succeeded. Not only did our morale suffer, but in addition to fearful wastage in killed and wounded, we lost a large number of prisoners and much materiel….I attached great importance to what I learned about our infantry…about its tactics and preparation. Without doubt it fought too doggedly, clinging too resolutely to the mere holding of ground, with the result that the losses were heavy. The deep dugouts and cellars often became fatal mantraps. The use of the rifle was being forgotten, hand grenades had become the chief weapons, and the equipment of the infantry with machine guns and similar weapons had fallen far behind that of the enemy.
From the chiefs of staff he visited, Ludendorff demanded complete and accurate briefings rather than “favorable report[s] made to order.” Based on a thorough lessons-learned analysis, he then fundamentally recast the German army’s defensive philosophy. By late 1916 his staff and field officers had developed the first modern defensive warfare doctrine for the era of machine guns and artillery. This new doctrine rested on the concept of holding frontline positions lightly with machine gunners, with successively stronger defensive positions echeloned in depth. By now artillery was the great killer on the Western Front, so Ludendorff concentrated German reserves and defensive positions in rear areas, out of range of all but the heaviest Allied guns.
The emphasis shifted from the trench lines to well-camouflaged strong points that would shield the defenders from observation and bombardment. The deeper the enemy worked his way into these defenses, the more resistance he would encounter and the farther he would stray from his own artillery support. The new doctrine also demanded that battalion commanders and their subordinates, down to junior officers and NCOs, exercise initiative on the battlefield and not wait for directions from above.
What is particularly impressive about these changes is that they were put into practice within two months of their inception. On December 1, the German army published The Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare. Ludendorff and the General Staff further ensured the new doctrine was inculcated at all leadership levels, requiring even senior commanders and staff officers to attend courses introducing the methods. These tactical reforms represented the building blocks of modern war. And they were to play a major role in German defensive successes on the Western Front in 1917: first, in defeating the Nivelle Offensive in April, nearly breaking the French army in the process; and second, in thwarting Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig’s heavy-handed offensive at Passchendaele, Belgium, in late summer and fall.
To further reduce the strain on the army, Ludendorff ordered a major withdrawal to curtail the line the army had to defend on the Western Front. During Operation Alberich, named for the vicious dwarf of the Nibelungen saga, the withdrawing Germans completely destroyed more than 1,000 square miles of French territory. Astonishingly, they filmed their performance. As General Karl von Einem, commander of the Third Army, described the footage: “We saw factories fly into the air, rows of houses fall over, bridges break in two—it was awful, an orgy of dynamite. That this is all militarily justified is unquestionable. But putting this on film—incomprehensible.” The Allies would not forget at Versailles. Nevertheless, the operation did free up 10 German divisions.
At the time Ludendorff was implementing his extraordinary improvements to the army’s tactical abilities and short-term strength—and thus, Germany’s ability to prolong the war—he was also pushing for a series of strategic and political decisions that would ultimately seal Germany’s fate.
Strategically, Ludendorff supported the Imperial Navy’s efforts to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, whatever its impact on the United States. The Germans had launched their first unrestricted U-boat campaign in 1915. The result, particularly the sinking of RMS Lusitania on May 7, had pushed America to the brink of war. Only the desperate intervention of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm to halt the campaign. The navy forced the issue again in the fall of 1916, however, presenting figures that suggested unrestricted submarine warfare would bring Britain, the engine of the Allied cause, to its knees. But the navy’s research was bogus—a case of figures lie and liars figure.
The truth was that unrestricted submarine warfare would almost immediately bring the United States into the war. Here again, Ludendorff threw his weight behind the navy’s arguments by insisting the United States was incapable of fielding an effective army, much less deploying it to Europe to fight on the Western Front. His comment to a senior industrialist in September 1916 sums up his understanding of strategy: “The United States does not bother me…in the least; I look upon a declaration of war by the United States with indifference.” Even more astonishing is that in the fall of 1916 Ludendorff was seriously worried that Holland or Denmark might enter the war on the Allied side.
On Feb. 1, 1917, the Germans unleashed their U-boats, and in April the United States declared war. By July 1918, the Americans had four divisions (the equivalent of eight European divisions) in the field, and 250,000 doughboys were arriving in France every month. German submarines had not sunk a single American troop transport. The U-boat offensive had failed. It remains one of the more disastrous strategic decisions in human history.
Politically, Ludendorff continued to meddle in the Reich’s internal affairs. In July 1917 he forced out Bethmann Hollweg and persuaded Kaiser Wilhelm to replace the chancellor with a cipher, Georg Michaelis. The army soon found itself battling strikes, fomented by the military spending demands Ludendorff was putting on the economy, and food riots, exacerbated by the government’s flawed agricultural policies. To end the strikes, the army drafted obstreperous munitions workers, which only served to further lower morale among the troops.
Russia’s collapse in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, coupled with victory over the Italians at Caporetto in October, afforded the Germans a window of opportunity. In the fall of 1917, the General Staff, under Ludendorff’s guidance, applied aspects of the defensive doctrine to offensive operations. By the early winter of 1918, they had invented modern decentralized combined-arms warfare and trained substantial units in the new tactics. Gambling that this development would secure German victory before the gathering might of the United States could shift the momentum in the Allies’ favor, Ludendorff readied his armies for a series of spring offensives. Interestingly, he drew few units from the now quiescent Eastern Front. Ludendorff left the Eastern army in place for two reasons: first, because troops were deserting in large numbers as they moved from east to west, and second, because throughout the spring and summer of 1918 Ludendorff continued to pursue megalomaniacal goals in the East that rivaled Hitler’s ambitions two decades later.
Although Ludendorff managed to build an extraordinary, albeit fragile, force for his coming offensive, he did not have the slightest idea what its operational goals should be. When asked as much by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, group commander of the northern forces along the Western Front, Ludendorff testily replied: “I object to the word ‘operations.’ We will punch a hole into [their line]. For the rest we shall see. We also did it this way in Russia.” And that is precisely what the Germans, under Ludendorff’s direction, did. Their impressive battlefield gains were completely devoid of strategic and operational benchmarks, and they constructed no defenses to maintain the greatly expanded front.
Moreover, to make these gains, the Germans took nearly a million casualties—far heavier offensive losses than those suffered by the Allies earlier in the war. By the summer of 1918, the German army could no longer defend itself on the Western Front. On July 15, Ludendorff launched a major offensive, code-named Peace Storm, against Reims. His troops encountered well-prepared French lines deployed in defense-in-depth echelons. The offensive failed.
By now the balance was shifting drastically against the Germans. The first Allied blow came on July 18, when a combined Franco-American offensive hit ill-prepared German defenses along the Marne salient. The resulting loss of ground that the Germans had taken at the end of May was the first sign of disasters to come. Three weeks later, the British, led by Canadian and Australian corps, struck German defensive positions outside Amiens, forcing them into retreat by midmorning. Fleeing soldiers tried to discourage reinforcements from restoring the situation. Ludendorff was later to describe August 8 as the “black day” of the German army.
Worse followed. The British army mounted the bulk of late summer and early fall Allied offensives, while the American army increasingly made its presence known. A round of major pushes by the British, Canadians and Australians drove back the German army deep into Belgium. The continuous heavy fighting was exhausting Ludendorff’s men: Companies were down to less than 30 men, regiments to barely 100. Half a million troops ultimately deserted, and the rear area gave out. By October, Germany’s allies were collapsing one after another.
Once again, Ludendorff displayed neither leadership nor strategic sense. In September he began casting about for someone to blame for the looming German defeat. His initial target was his staff. By early October, he had shifted the blame to the liberals and socialists. As the German political, strategic and operational situation spiraled out of control, Ludendorff himself approached a complete breakdown. On October 26, the Kaiser dismissed him. Disguising himself in a false beard, Ludendorff fled to Sweden to write his extraordinarily dishonest memoirs.
Ludendorff’s postwar career was no more propitious for German history. He was an early and enthusiastic proponent of Dolchstoss, the infamous social legend that Communists and Jews had somehow managed to stab an unbeaten German army in the back and cause the Reich’s downfall. Thus, to a large extent, Germany’s military leadership escaped responsibility for the catastrophic defeat of the German army on the Western Front. Not surprisingly, in the postwar period Ludendorff became an ardent supporter of radical nationalist parties, lending his name to the Nazis and confronting the police lines with Hitler during the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923. Although he later broke with the Nazis, the damage had already been done: Ludendorff had provided an unknown street agitator with considerable political legitimacy.
As a commander, Ludendorff represented the strengths and weaknesses of the German army. “In my final analysis on Ludendorff,” notes David Zabecki, the foremost historian of Germany’s 1918 offensives, “I have to conclude that in many ways he was a reflection of the German army as a whole in the first half of the 20th century: tactically gifted, operationally flawed and strategically bankrupt.”
For further reading, Williamson Murray recommends: Ludendorff’s Own Story, August 1914–November 1918, by Erich von Ludendorff; The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914–1918, by Holger Herwig; and The German 1918 Offensives, by David T. Zabecki.
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.