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9 November: A Banner Day for Germany

Although some years were much better than others, 9 November for Germans was momentous, especially in the 20th century.

In 1914, the Dresden-class light cruiser SMS Emden was operating in the Indian Ocean, where she sank Russian and French warships at Penang, captured two dozen cargo vessels and converted one into raider Kormoran.   On 9 November she was raiding a British radio station on Direction Island in the Cocos Islands when she was caught by an Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sidney. In a short and uneven fight where the Australian out-ranged the German by at least a thousand yards, Sidney managed to damage her opponent enough that Emden grounded on North Keeling Island to save what could be saved of the crew.  About a third of the Germans were killed, compared to less than ten percent of the Australians.  Part of the German’s landing party that had been left behind on Direction Island made it back as far as Turkey, where they joined the crew of battle cruiser Goeben.

Four years to the day later, Wilhelm II of Germany was abdicated from his thrones by his chancellor, Prince Max of Baden as Wilhelm fled into Holland ahead of a howling mob inspired by the Russian revolution.  He was the last king of Prussia (a dynasty that had been founded in 1701), and the third and last emperor of Germany, an empire his grandfather pronounced in 1871 and to which he ascended in 1881.  He was also the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and was thus related by marriage and blood to nearly every royal house in Europe.  On 25 November, Wilhelm submitted his formal abdications.  Max, in the cusp of a revolution boiling throughout Germany, had tried unsuccessfully to preserve a monarchy, but to avoid chaos agreed to the formation of a republic in Germany and renouncing any claims of the Crown Prince, also named Wilhelm.

In 1938, Germany was once again wracked by violence on what was known as the “night of broken glass,” or Kristallnacht.  Using the murder of a German diplomat in France as a pretext, German paramilitary organizations and disorganized mobs killed hundreds of Jews and destroyed thousands of businesses, schools, synagogues and homes of Jews throughout Germany.  Further, some thirty thousand Jews were arrested, eventually to be killed in the German camps.  It was the first time that the outside world saw what Germany had become, internally, as police and other authorities stood by and watched.

Finally, on 9 November 1989, after weeks of unrest in Eastern Bloc nations, it became obvious even to the East Germans that the hemorrhaging of Germans into Hungary and across the border into Austria (which had been opened on 11 September) was not going to be abated, and permission was given for East Germans to “visit” the West.  Not to be delayed by hundreds of miles of travel, soldiers and civilians alike in Berlin broke up and tore down the wall as the border guards looked on…or helped.  For days afterwards Berlin was a carnival atmosphere as old Stazi hands and other DDR functionaries were detained, hunted down or murdered in the “bloodless” revolution that followed.  As Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and finally Romania threw off their Moscow-controlled chains for the next few months, the West realized that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union had been weaker than they had earlier thought.

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Verdun: Operation Judgement

Erich von Falkenhayn’s offensive of 1916 was aimed directly at the traditional invasion route between the Rhine and Paris.  The area had been used often enough that the area called the Heights of the Meuse were heavily fortified by the French over the years to have culminated in a series of forts that, if nothing else, put the entire Meuse-Rhine plain under observation for artillery.

The German plan was simple: take the forts, make the French commit their strategic reserves protecting the route to Paris, build up behind the bulge, press on to Paris in the summer months until France gave up and march home in triumph before fall.  The strategic motivations, however, were far more complex.  German agriculture was suffering under the loss of so much of its manpower, and was sorely affected by the British blockade–far more than Germany could withstand.  Though Germany had suffered less than had Britain and France in the battlefields, combined the Allies had far more manpower than did the Central Powers.  Germany, the most powerful of the Powers, was in the second year of a war she had anticipated would last two months.  Knocking France out of the war was the key to Germany’s survival.

On 21 February, the Germans unleashed their Fifth Army on the French Second Army manning the nineteen fortresses of the Verdun complex.  The first French fort to fall, three days later, was Douaumont, the largest and highest of the outer ring forts, by a small German raiding party.   Even though it had been unoccupied for months, the French were scandalized, and in Gallic rage they threw more and more men into the face of the German offensive.

While most scholars feel that this was the German intention all along, German military theory and doctrine never, ever had attritional battle in mind.  Prussia/Brandenburg, the font of Imperial German military tradition, never had the numbers nor the temperament for a drawn-out brawl, and always preferred maneuver–preferably to encirclement–to merely adding up casualties.  Tannenberg, the August 1914 double-envelopment of the Russian Second Army in East Prussia, was far more to Prussian/German liking than was the long slog of Verdun.  It is likely that post-Verdun German commentators merely claimed that attrition was the German plan all along, when in truth the French defense, orchestrated by Robert Nivelle, was more persistent and successful than they had imagined was possible.

Verdun would rage on unabated for ten months, consuming the lives of some three hundred thousand men out of the million committed, and occupying the full attention of over a hundred divisions. It would have been impossible for the rest of the world not to notice, and it would have been impossible for the Americans not to look on in horror, and in contemplation.  American military men may have been forbidden by President Woodrow Wilson to prepare contingency plans, but that did not prevent preparedness plans from being put into action with some urgency.  The Plattsburg Movement, a civilian-driven (if military favored) program of camps that trained young collegians in various places in the country, had finally come to fruition in the National Defense Act of 1916, that created the Army Reserves.  Approval of NDA 1916 and the increase in American preparedness had been spurred, in part, by the specter of the 2,300 French and Germans casualties About a regiment) every day on the Verdun front alone.

Two years after the worst of the fighting at Verdun had been concluded, the Americans were fighting to throw the Germans out of some of the 1916 gains at the Meuse-Argonne.  This battle was the largest American campaign between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.  Wiley-Blackwell’s A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, edited by Ed Lengel, contains an essay by John D. Beatty entitled “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them: An Evaluation of the Meuse-Argonne,” which looks at American performance there, and the influences of American preparedness before 1917.  Available in hardback and E-book from fine booksellers everywhere.