Case Study 2, Germany Before 1945; Part 1: Where and When The Failure Occurred–1918

It has been observed that this is the THIRD segment of PART 1…but that observer was reading out of sequence, so I get it.

By November 1918, the German Army was on the edge of disintegration. It had started to fall apart in late summer–the traditional date is 8 August. Still, they were coherent enough to withstand heavy American/Allied blows in France, Italy, and the Balkans. The draft class of 1915–seventeen-year-old boys–was in the trenches. Putting the class of 1916 in uniform that winter–sixteen-year-old boys–was being contemplated. The Army did not have long to live. The Navy, after being ordered out to sea for a last, suicidal battle with the British Royal Navy (and a sizable US Navy squadron with them), mutinied under the dreaded red banner of Bolshevism. In the Argonne and elsewhere, American and Allied troops finally broke into the areas behind the German fortification zones that had held them up for three years. Open warfare put them in German territory, and the Germans were running out of options. On the home front, children younger than six were scarce; turnips were the most common fare. Fuel was scarce, and the prospect of another winter of British blockade was unthinkable.

Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, the two officers who had been practically running Germany, counseled Kaiser Wilhelm II to ask their enemies for terms. The victors of Tannenberg could see the proverbial writing on the wall. Germany had lost the Great War that they had contemplated, planned for, anticipated since 1871. 

What happened in 1871? Germany happened again. 

This was the Second Reich, proclaimed after the French surrender after the Franco-Prussian War (called the War of 1870 in France). It was the second because the first, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Heiliges Römisches Reich Deutscher Nation in German), started in 800 AD and ended in 1806. Numbers aside, Wilhelm I, Hohenzollern King of Prussia, nervously proclaimed himself emperor (kaiser) of the German Empire, which was to include Prussia and the states that comprised the North German Confederation, a customs union that included the independent kingdom of Saxony and would later include those of Saxony, Bavaria, and Württemberg. Further, it included a mix of duchies, grand duchies, principalities, and free and Hanseatic cities. What had been many became one under the undoubted leadership of Prussia.

Why Prussia? Who else?

An 18th Century French statesman was said to have observed that Prussia was not a state with an army but an army with a state. For a century and more, after the end of the Thirty Year’s War in 1648 (of which, more later), Prussia had been hiring out their soldiers to whoever had the money to pay for them, usually states of the Empire. The soldiers they provided were not only willing, they were steady and generally capable. Other Empire states would send their young men to learn the arts of war under the Prussians. In 1771 the first Hohenzollern King of Prussia-Brandenburg, Fredrick II–Fredrick the Great–took the title that he and his heirs and successors would hold for another century and a half. Prussia was best known for its holdings on the Baltic, but Brandenburg was inland and included Berlin. 

Fredrick was a good soldier; by all accounts, a fair monarch. That said, his career has been exaggerated in its influence on the arts of war. He was steady, and he had more nerve than a toothache, but “genius” probably isn’t appropriate; More like utilitarian. He used a familiar pattern of tactics for Germans that would be seen all the way to 1945: encirclement by rapid movement–the Kesselschlacht, or cauldron-battle.  The style predated Fredrick in Prussian-style warfare, and against most European opponents, it was pretty devastating. The Prussians had developed this way of war because a glance at any map would show that most of Germany is relatively flat and featureless, practically inviting invasion–witness the Thirty-Year’s War. This style of warfare developed during a period when there were more sieges than open battles, and soldiers in most armies were thought to be little better than rabble. 

Most armies, that is, except the Prussians. Theirs were well-disciplined rabble.

And there were very few of them because Prussia-Brandenburg was anything but rich or populous.

They won more than they lost, right up to 14 October 1806, when Napoleon defeated them badly in two battles on the same day at Jena and Auerstat. But that defeat imbued in the survivors a burning desire to figure out where they failed, and their greatest weakness–they knew before but never addressed–was in staff work. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s the dull, unexciting, tedious drudgery involved in getting armies from here to there on time and well-supplied. And it’s a great deal more involved than most people think. It’s actually a great deal more complicated than most non-staff-trained officers believe. But Napoleon had already got there with his Maison de L’Empereur–Imperial Household–system. It was how Napoleon could run his empire from the saddle. The Prussians took that military and civil planning system, sifted through it, and came up with the general staff. In the iteration pioneered and taught by such worthies as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, each staff officer was trained in precisely the same way, to perform all the planning tasks the same way, from procuring uniforms and food to moving an army from one point to another. 

Mind you, this wasn’t battle planning; it was everything before and after the battle. The same plans and procedures were followed, modified for weather, seasons, terrain, and the size of the force, at every level, from company to army.

But they did not vary depending on the opponent.

The same principles and techniques were applied to the entire country. They performed the same planning for attacking Russia in 1812, at Napoleon’s side for a while. It was in Russia that the general staff system was honed and tested and redone and retested. It was in the 1813 campaign and in the 1815 campaigns that it was tested again and again. By the middle of the 19th century, it was pretty clear that Prussia could mobilize and field an army faster than any other army on Earth. 

Defeating Austria in 1866 was comparatively easy…everyone knew that. Defeating France in 1870? That, according to the “experts,” was miraculous.  So Prussia took charge of the German Empire in 1871.
So, Central Europe was dominated by the heirs of Fredrick The Great, who could march faster and fight longer and better than nearly anyone else. They also had a larger population than France and a burgeoning industrial base supported by the most sophisticated rail system in the world. And everyone everywhere started copying the German General Staff system. 

In 1888, Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by Fredrick III…who was also dying. He died in the same year, and Wilhelm II took the throne. 

This shouldn’t have been of great concern, but it was because Wilhelm II would never be ready to run a country like the second German Empire. Immaturity was his middle name, and he wanted to make his empire greater than that of his cousin’s…the British Empire. Hand in hand with Wilhelm was a German admiral named Alfred von Tirpitz, who wanted the same thing. Thus began an arms/naval/industrial race that ended in 1918 mainly because Wilhelm promised Austria-Hungary–more or less–that he could defeat all the rest of Europe…or at least beat them to a standstill. The result was seen in 1918.

The preceding suggests that Germany’s magnificent war machine of 1914 was crushed by four years of brutally unprecedented industrial war. While it was, there was the small question of why Germany went to war against half the world and expected to hold their own. They could, but not indefinitely.  Another suggestion is that Wilhelm was the problem. Yes, and he was the absolute ruler of Germany…and there was no one in Germany after he fired Bismarck in 1890 who could tell him ‘no.’ But Wilhelm was easily led by strong minds, like Tirpitz.

The “why” has a great deal to do with that machine and the enormous self-confidence it bestowed on Germany. It was in many ways better than any other war machine up to that time. But it could not outlast the resources of all of Europe and certainly could not outlast the resources of the United States. Planning could not provide experienced soldiers; no plan could provide food where it wasn’t available. No monarch’s pronunciations could maintain the collapsing morale of hungry men.

Some say that the Germans surrendered in 1918 to keep from seeing a victory parade down the Kurfurstendamm in Berlin. Some others say that Britain and France accepted that surrender to keep that victory parade from being led by the Americans.

So, who or what failed in 1918? From the foregoing…the Germans were too arrogant by half. Could the same be said in 1945? Perhaps. Let’s see next time.

On the road/entertaining for much of September, folks, so I’ll cut this short. More next month.

Brétigny and Westphalia, Ft. Douaumont and Cuba

Where to start, where to start.  In planning this little missive, your intrepid researcher dithered for some time to find a common theme (yes, he does try), and finally settled on the lessons of war and peace.  But on 24 October also marked the first transcontinental telegraph in 1861 (which gave California the first breaking news of the Civil War), and the invasions of Ethiopia (in 1935, reported by live radio feeds for the first time) and Hungary (1956, reported by live television for the first time), and of course the first nylon stockings in 1939.  But, today, we look at the lessons of war and peace.

Beginning in 1337, a dynastic conflict called the Hundred Year’s War between the Plantagenet-Angevins of Normandy and England and the Anjous that controlled what is now eastern and southern France (modern France is largely a construction of the Bourbons in the 17th century) raged. By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain. After a peasant revolt threatened the food supply, John finally agreed to a treaty.  The Treaty of Brétigny was ratified on 24 October 1360 at Calais.  Also called the Treaty of Calais, the peace was only a nine-year breathing space, and barely that.

By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain.

Of a somewhat more permanent nature, the Peace of Westphalia (Westfälischer Friede) in 1648 ended a great deal more, for a little while at least.  Traditionally Westphalia was the end of the last of the four phases of the Thirty Years’ War, where much of Europe was ready to fight to the last German.  It was also where the Protestants and Catholics ended their Eighty Years’ War, where they were willing to burn the last German at the stake with any available torch for the heresy of being in the way.  That Germany survived the bloodletting, it is said, can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular mostly because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies. Westphalia was the result of over a hundred different belligerent delegations ranging in size and importance from three-county dutchies to multi-national empires that negotiated three major legal instruments.  First, there was the Peace of Munster, ratified  15 May 1648, between the Dutch Republic and their allies and the Kingdom of Spain and theirs that recognized the independence of the modern Netherlands. There was also a Treaty of Munster between the Holy Roman Empire and their gang of allies and France and theirs, and the Treaty of Osnabrück between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden’s allies.  Both Munster and Osnabrück were ratified in Westphalia on 24 October, 1648. While Westphalia didn’t end war or even all the wars that raged across Europe and the New World at that moment, it did create a structure for a European congress, or at least a diplomatic protocol for recognizing the possibility that the bloodletting could end without destruction.

That Germany survived can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies.

And while Europe learned to make peace, it still made war…terrible war.  By October 1916, the failed German offensive at Verdun had turned into a killing machine beyond the imagination of the diplomats at Westphalia, or, indeed, of anyone before or since. Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day for just short of a year, and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning. Fort Douaumont had been captured by the Germans in February and was pounded by French artillery for  nine months.   On 24 October, 1916 the French recovered the ruined Fort Dounemount from the Germans. The months of shelling had finally breached Dounemount’s eight foot thick steel-reinforced concrete roof that was also cushioned by four feet of earth.  The prominence that the ruined fort was built on became known at Le Morte Homme–Dead Man’s Hill–and today is the site of an ossuary.

Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day, for just short of a year and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning.

It should be said that humanity had learned something of all the wars and treaties by 1962.  After two decades of brinksmanship following WWII, the Soviet Union began to emplace nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.  On 24 October 1962, after the Americans discovered the missiles that were within range of most of the lower 48 states, John Kennedy imposed a blockade-called-quarantine on Cuba, challenging the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev to not only acknowledge the installations (that the US showed photos of in the UN) , but withdraw them.  Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours. Writing in their memoirs decades after the events, American, Russian and Cuban officers at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis fully expected the bombs and missiles to begin falling at any moment for over a week.  But the quarantine worked, and four days later Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missiles.  Though the true “why” of that decision went to the grave with Khrushchev in 1969, it seems likely that the Politburo decided that Cuba was the wrong war in the wrong place over the wrong issue to risk the destruction of the Communist promise.

Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours.

If humanity learns no lessons ever, the lessons of Westphalia and Cuba should be clear: annihilation is not the answer to diplomatic issues.  But because of that lesson, we are left with Verduns and all their spawn. We get to destroy each other in middling-sized groups.

Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.