Germany’s famed command team was the “odd couple” of World War I.
In the predawn hours of Au- gust 23, 1914, German General Paul von Hindenburg, recalled from retirement by Kaiser Wilhelm II, stood on the Hanover rail station platform awaiting a special train to take him to his new command, 8th Army in East Prussia. With the war less than three weeks old, German armies were fighting on two fronts. The main effort was a massive invasion of Belgium and France on the Western Front by seven German armies facing Belgian, French and British armies, while an economy of force defensive effort was being conducted on the Eastern Front to hold off advancing Russian forces until a quick victory in the West could permit the German armies there to be moved to the East to help fight the Russians. (See Battle Studies, p. 36.) Yet as Hindenburg received his new command in the East, the greatly outnumbered German 8th Army appeared to be facing imminent defeat.
The 66-year-old Hindenburg had grown portly during retirement and his outmoded blue Prussian uniform had required quick alterations by his wife before his departure. Now, as he waited on the platform, a single locomotive with two coaches steamed into the still-dark station. Major General Erich Ludendorff, a trim 49-yearold in a crisply tailored, regulation field-gray uniform, hopped off the train. The two men exchanged salutes and handshakes, and Ludendorff introduced himself as Hindenburg’s newly appointed 8th Army chief of staff. Thus began an extraordinary relationship of two experienced professionals who in many ways were the “odd couple” of World War I.
Hindenburg, an aristocratic Prussian officer, was stolid, modest and placid, while Ludendorff, a commoner, was arrogant, ambitious and driven. Yet this seemingly mismatched pair and their significant differences in personality and character actually complemented each other. Hindenburg displayed measured judgment and steadfast nerves, while Ludendorff, although analytically brilliant and able to grasp a situation quickly, was prone to paralyzing moments of anxiety and doubt. Ludendorff operated with high energy, driven to achieve goals with little tolerance for those in his way, while Hindenburg possessed a mature, statesmanlike quality that restrained Ludendorff’s often-mercurial temperament.
Together, this “odd couple” rose to become Germany’s premier command team that from midwar until the 1918 armistice dominated the country’s war effort.
Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg was born October 2, 1847, at Posen in southeast Prussia. The son of a Prussian Junker (landed nobility), Hindenburg, through his maternal grandmother, descended from one of King Frederick William I’s “giant” Potsdam Grenadiers (elite soldiers chosen for their exceptional size and physique). At age 11, Hindenburg entered a Prussian Cadet Corps school, where early on he displayed a composed maturity. In 1863, he transferred to the Central School at Berlin, and eight years later he was commissioned a lieutenant in 3d Regiment of the elite Prussian Foot Guards.
Hindenburg first experienced combat in 1866 during the Austro-Prussian War when he skirmished against Austrian infantry and repulsed a cavalry charge by two Uhlan squadrons. Later, he fought in the war’s decisive Battle of Königgrätz, suffering a head wound and afterward receiving the Order of the Red Eagle award. In the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, Hindenburg received the Iron Cross medal for his bravery during the Prussian Guards’ charge at Privat and the siege of Paris.
After the Franco-Prussian War, Hindenburg spent the next 40 years in a peacetime army. Although he rose successfully in rank through higher staff positions and key command assignments, he accomplished no remarkable achievement that decisively affected the army. He graduated from the War Academy in 1877 and was assigned as a staff officer from 1881-85 at Königsberg and Posen, where he learned the terrain and the contingency war plans for the defense of Germany’s eastern frontiers. On the General Staff in Berlin, Hindenburg served as a War Academy instructor and worked under General (later Field Marshal) Alfred Count von Schlieffen, the famous architect of Germany’s two-front war plan.
In 1911, seeing no prospect of a war looming, Hindenburg retired at age 64.
Born April 9, 1865, in Posen, Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff descended from Pomeranian merchants, although his father was a landowner with a reserve officer’s commission in the cavalry. Ludendorff had a talent for mathematics and enjoyed academic pursuits but avoided sports. Schoolmates considered him a loner. At age 12, he passed with distinction the entrance exam for cadet school, and three years later he attended the Military Academy near Berlin. Eight years later, Ludendorff was commissioned a 2d lieutenant in 57th Infantry Regiment. For eight years, he served in 2d Marine Battalion and 8th Grenadier Guards. Attending the War College in 1893, he earned selection for the General Staff. Two years later, promoted to captain, Ludendorff joined 9th Infantry Division staff. Upon promotion to major, he became the senior staff officer of V Corps in 1902.
Ludendorff ’s distinguished performance led to his appointment to the German Great General Staff under Count von Schlieffen, where he worked on mobilization plans for war contingencies. Ludendorff was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1907, and in 1908 he became head of the Second Section, Mobilization and Concentration of the Army for War.
In 1911, as a colonel, Ludendorff became chief of operations for General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, Count von Schlieffen’s successor as chief of the German Great General Staff. However, two years later Ludendorff’s political involvement with the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament) resulted in a stern reprimand and his removal from the General Staff. Yet his immediate reassignment as commander of 39th Fusilier Regiment suggests that his political actions – lobbying Reichstag members to approve more army funding – were likely based on instructions from senior German army officers. In April 1914, promoted to major general, Ludendorff commanded an infantry brigade.
On June 28, 1914, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by a Serbian national in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, precipitated the diplomatic crisis that led to the outbreak of World War I that August. Ludendorff became the deputy chief of staff of German 2d Army, which advanced to invade France through Belgium’s heavily fortified positions around Liege. As the army’s representative to an advanced force assigned to seize Liege, Ludendorff assisted in the city’s capture with a brave bluff that gained the surrender of the fortress’s defenders. Thus, in the first days of the war, Ludendorff had forged a well-earned reputation as an energetic, “can-do” officer who got results.
TANNENBERG AND THE EASTERN FRONT, 1914-16
By mid-August 1914, Moltke had lost confidence in the ability of German 8th Army’s commander, General Maximilian Prittwitz, to lead the successful holding action against the Russians in East Prussia. Moltke recalled Hindenburg for the command post and assigned Ludendorff to take charge of operations as 8th Army chief of staff. Ludendorff studied the situation while en route to meet Hindenburg and quickly dispatched directives to 8th Army.
For years, staff officers at the War Academy had conducted exercises on the operational plans for dealing with two Russian armies invading East Prussia. So it was no surprise that Ludendorff, once informed on the situation, dashed off orders to 8th Army. However, the army’s brilliant operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Max Hoffmann, anticipated these orders and had already initiated movement of two 8th Army corps. Having fought Russian 1st Army to a standstill, the two corps were repositioned to meet the advancing Russian 2d Army.
Upon arrival at 8th Army, Hindenburg and Ludendorff found the plan in motion and immediately visited their unit commanders. Although Ludendorff’s nerves began to fray when the two corps reported slower than desired progress, Hindenburg calmed his anxious chief of staff. Ludendorff need not have worried; the operation was a stunning success, and the August 26-30 Battle of Tannenberg was Germany’s greatest victory of the war. The Eastern Front triumph instantly made Hindenburg a popular hero throughout Germany, while Ludendorff gained high prestige within the General Staff.
While Russian armies were cleared from East Prussia by mid-September, the Germany-allied Austrian army’s collapse on the Carpathian front caused a strategic crisis. Floundering from the Schlieffen Plan’s failure to win quick victory on the Western Front, Moltke ordered Ludendorff to form a new “southern” army covering the gap between 8th Army and the crumbling Austrians. Moltke, however, was blamed for the failure in the West and was replaced by Lieutenant General Erich von Falkenhayn as chief of the German Great General Staff on September 15.
The following day, Falkenhayn announced the creation of the new German 9th Army (composed mostly of 8th Army units) under Hindenburg as commander, with Ludendorff continuing as his chief of staff. With German 9th Army in the center, the nearly 500-mile-long Eastern Front represented an immense operational area in terms of space and depth. In early October, the Russian High Command concentrated its forces around Warsaw and then attacked toward Silesia, taking the war directly into German territory. Initially, Hindenburg and Ludendorff mistakenly believed the Russians were not in great strength near Warsaw and that the Germans could encircle them from the north. Thus, the large Russian redeployment along the Vistula River came as a surprise, and the September 29-October 31 Battle of Warsaw (also called the Battle of the Vistula River) was a Russian victory.
Undeterred, Ludendorff planned a resumption of the German offensive using railroads to quickly move forces for a Second Battle of Warsaw. Yet since the Russians withdrew southwest from Warsaw to Lodz, German forces pursued vainly without defeating the escaping enemy. Ludendorff, however, represented the disappointing result as a “victory” and requested more reinforcements to “finish off” the Russians. Meanwhile, the kaiser arrived in Posen to promote Hindenburg to field marshal and Ludendorff to lieutenant general.
Falkenhayn created a theater headquarters, OberOst, to manage the war on the Eastern Front, with the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team in command. The pair, however, immediately planned major operations in the East that Falkenhayn did not want since that would siphon off troops and resources from the Western Front. Hindenburg therefore circumvented Falkenhayn, using his personal direct access to the kaiser. Falkenhayn was forced to transfer four German army corps from the West to the East.
In February 1915, the encirclement of Russian 10th Army in battles around the Masurian Lakes resulted in a German victory that earned Hindenburg the coveted Pour le Mérite medal from the kaiser. Yet Falkenhayn was unimpressed by the success at the Masurian battles, where he saw new troop formations wasted for what he considered little gain.
As the pace of Eastern Front operations subsided by March 1915, Hindenburg went on elk hunts, visited his wife in nearby estates and sat for two large portraits (with an eye on posterity, he ensured the paintings had his medals right and that they captured all the buttons on his greatcoat). The job-obsessed Ludendorff grudgingly attended Hindenburg’s frequent dinner parties, but when Hindenburg retired to the parlor after dinner, Ludendorff returned to his office and labored until past midnight.
By spring 1915, all armies were exhausted from offensive operations and stalemated by defensive earthworks and opposing trenches. Falkenhayn planned for a year of offense in the West and defense in the East, but he discovered it was hard to compete against the prestige of Hindenburg and Ludendorff and their aggressive Eastern Front strategy.
Ludendorff hated Falkenhayn and found it impossible to work with him. Increasingly frustrated, Falkenhayn ordered Ludendorff transferred to the Austro-German army in Galicia and asked Hindenburg to resign. Predictably, Hindenburg not only refused to retire but also appealed to the kaiser for Ludendorff’s return. Wilhelm II despised Ludendorff’s personal ambitiousness, but he nevertheless needed Hindenburg’s popularity with the German people. Thus, he forced Falkenhayn to work with Hindenburg and to return Ludendorff to OberOst headquarters.
As Western Front battles throughout 1915 failed to break the stalemate, Hindenburg and Ludendorff continued to undermine Falkenhayn’s war effort by managing to divert Germany’s strategic reserves to their Eastern Front.
By early 1916, after months of stalemate in France, Falkenhayn planned a brutal offensive at Verdun to “bleed the French army white.” He wanted a victory without exposing his army to comparable losses, but the monthslong slaughter at Verdun bled both armies through horrific casualties. When Falkenhayn’s Verdun plan failed, his credibility plummeted.
By August, victories on the Eastern Front led to Hindenburg replacing the discredited Falkenhayn as chief of the German Great General Staff. Ludendorff meanwhile became first quartermaster general in charge of all German army operational planning. This command team would lead Germany throughout the remainder of the war.
WESTERN FRONT AND HIGH COMMAND, 1916-18
As Hindenburg and Ludendorff took charge of Germany’s war effort in August 1916, they faced an alarming military situation. Disturbingly high casualties at the Somme (July-November 1916) and Verdun (February-December 1916) wrecked any plans for large-scale German offensives in either the West or the East. Their armies were overstretched; 6 million German troops faced 10 million Allied troops on the war’s far-flung battlefields.
In early September, Hindenburg and Ludendorff met with commanders on the Western Front at a major conference at the headquarters of Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. Army group commanders, commanders of German 1st, 2d and 4th armies, and all chiefs of staff attended. The conference broadened Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s understanding of Western Front conditions, and the two grasped the absolute necessity for a balanced economy of resources across all military theaters. Ludendorff interpreted the situation as confirming his belief that occupying deep entrenchments lowered the fighting prowess of Germany’s soldiers. He favored a flexible, more mobile defense – a thinly held forward zone with powerful, well-organized counterattacks to recover lost ground.
As the managers of Germany’s total war effort, Hindenburg and Ludendorff now faced far-reaching problems of mobilizing the whole country’s economy for a battle of national survival. Hindenburg became the front man, the face of Germany’s war effort, while Ludendorff supervised all staff work on military and political issues by personally assuming an enormous workload. The huge task overburdened Ludendorff to the point of physical exhaustion, while waiting for a strategic shift in the war strained his easily frayed nerves.
The Hindenburg-Ludendorff command team acted well beyond purely military concerns. The pair openly challenged Germany’s statecraft and the country’s industrial complex. They well understood that Germany was engaged in a war of attrition and that the Allies’ greater manpower resources gave the enemy the edge.
Ludendorff favored using offensive “unrestricted submarine warfare” as a means to shift the strategic balance, arguing that this strategy did not risk the military catastrophe of bringing massive numbers of U.S. troops into the war. He believed that America needed a year or more to prepare even six divisions and get them to France. Hindenburg meanwhile even claimed that German submarines would prevent Americans from landing any troops in Europe. In July 1917, Germany notified America of its fateful decision to launch unrestricted submarine warfare.
In early 1918, the German High Command, after a long period of mainly defensive posture in the West, planned the implementation of new, offensive warfare tactics. Ludendorff ordered the offensives to be based on “storm trooper” tactics – lightly equipped, rapidly moving infantry units that would infiltrate the forward edge of enemy positions under the cover of artillery, bypass enemy strongpoints, and swiftly press forward to seize enemy rear areas. It was a concept that Ludendorff had first seen in September 1916.
Germany, however, still needed to find the troops to make the Western Front offensives possible. Then, when Bolshevik revolutionaries seized control of Russia from November 1917 to March 1918, the subsequent collapse of Russia’s war effort in the East allowed massive numbers of German troops to be shifted to the Western Front. The stage was set for what became known as the Ludendorff Offensives of early 1918.
Although all European armies were down to their last reserves in manpower, Ludendorff, with Hindenburg’s agreement, proposed that Germany strike one great blow in the West before American troops appeared in overwhelming numbers. This “great blow” was a succession of offensives from March 21 to mid-July 1918 that set British and French armies back on their heels. Early successes prompted a joyful Kaiser Wilhelm II to award Hindenburg the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross with golden rays.
The German offensive stalled on the Somme at the end of April, so Ludendorff shifted the attacks against the French down the Oise valley toward Paris. The Allies slowly committed their reserves, including two American divisions and a U.S. Marine Corps brigade, which forced Ludendorff to halt the German attacks on June 3 – after his forces had lost another hundred thousand men. He resumed the offensive in July with a drive toward Paris, but the French, along with five large American divisions (each U.S. division was about the size of a European army corps), stopped the German advance at the July 15-August 6 Second Battle of the Marne.
With the Ludendorff Offensives having failed, in September 1918 the German army on the Western Front fell back to its final line of resistance, the Hindenburg Line. Now realizing that the flood of American troops arriving in France made Germany’s defeat inevitable, Ludendorff told Hindenburg there was no alternative but to seek an armistice. Hindenburg took the news silently.
On September 29, 1918, the command team advised the kaiser, chancellor and foreign secretary that Germany must seek peace. On October 3, the kaiser appointed Prince Max of Baden to lead the government and to seek the best settlement terms possible. The prince, an opponent of Ludendorff, demanded from Hindenburg an admission in writing that there was no further chance of forcing peace on the enemy.
While the prince formed his government, Ludendorff composed a proclamation to the army that defied the prince’s authority and rejected U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s peace proposals, claiming that unconditional surrender was “unacceptable to [German] soldiers.” A leaked copy reached Berlin, prompting an enraged Prince Max to ask the kaiser to choose between him and the insubordinate Ludendorff. On October 26, Ludendorff was forced to resign. He told his wife, “In a fortnight we shall have no empire and no emperor left, you will see.”
In slightly over a fortnight, Ludendorff’s prediction came true. The armistice ending the fighting on the Western Front was signed November 11, 1918. Kaiser Wilhelm II announced his abdication November 28.
AFTER THE GREAT WAR
Hindenburg remained German army chief until June 1919, when he retired once again, this time to write his memoirs. He was persuaded to run for Germany’s president in the 1925 election as a national unity candidate, and he won by a narrow margin. In 1932, at age 84, he was re-elected, beating a rising politician named Adolf Hitler. Political considerations, however, forced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as Germany’s chancellor in January 1933. When Hindenburg died the following year, Hitler made his fateful move and seized complete power in Germany.
In the turmoil following Germany’s World War I surrender, Ludendorff escaped to Sweden, where he wrote his memoirs. He later returned to Germany and joined an attempt to overthrow the floundering new democratic government, but the movement found little support. Ludendorff then moved to Bavaria, where he met Hitler and was persuaded to stand in the 1925 presidential election as a National Socialist candidate; however, of seven candidates, he finished last. Ludendorff ’s life after that was mostly one of living in obscurity until his death in 1937 at age 72, at which time Hitler gave Ludendorff a state funeral.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Armchair General.