Falkenhayn: from glory to Verdun

Following the trend of First World War posts to commemorate the anniversary, today we will have a post dedicated to one of the key military figures in the Great War: General Falkenhayn.

Erich Georg Anton Sebastian von Falkenhayn was born the 11th of November (1861), in Burg Belchau, near Graudenz, Western Prussia.  Falkenhayn eventually succeeded General von Moltke as Chief of the German General Staff on September 14th (1914), after the battle of Marne. Previously however, he had already excelled and earn prestige as the Prussian Minister of War. Indeed, he was appointed by the Kaiser on the 7th of June (1913) as a replacement for Josias von Heeringen. These two roles could be considered the zenith of his career. Nevertheless, success was not unknown to this man of war. The young Erich joined the army in the 1880, when he was 19 years old, and spent 10 years at the Berlin War Academy. Shortly, life took him to take part at the  Boxer Rebellions in China between 1899-1901, where he acquired fame as military instructor and junior officer. He certainly had set off on the right path to rocket up his military career.

Great part of his success was related to his calm nature and ability to truly understand trench warfare. In addition, he seemed more prone to defensive tactics in comparison with some of his contemporary fellows, such as Hindenburg who were rather focused on an offensive approach to the war in all the fronts. But Falkenhayn proved that this was not always the way forward, which served him well in the campaigns at the Eastern front. It has been suggested that due to the Junker background of his family, whose members had estates in the east, Falkenhayn did not see the need to fight the Russians as he saw similarities between both Germany and Russia and their people. Therefore as he did not consider them a threat, this allowed him to approach the situation with a higher degree of sensibility and a clear mind of how to act on the battle field-but this is rather speculation and perhaps it would be hard for some to accept the idea of a Russophile  Prussian general…Regardless, this all changed with the Kaiser’s switch of attention to the Western front, and Falkenhayn was to play a crucial role in these events.

The Chief made important contributions in the eastern front, particularly during the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April-25 May 1915), and the offensive plan he launched over Serbia, which succeeded thanks to a cooperative effort from Austrian, German and Bulgarian troops  between October and November (1915). His achievements allowed him to convince the Kaiser to focus on the west shortly afterwards. Despite the contrary opinion of his comrades, mainly Hindenburg and Ludendorff, he was certain that victory for Germany could only truly be achieved by facing the Allied forces directly; thus he focused on repressing the French. The  “Race to the Sea” was in fact his initiative, with the intention to outflank the British and the French forces, therefore acquiring an advantage to strike what probably he perceived as a strong and unattended enemy. It seems that Falkenhayn was concerned since the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, that traditional warfare was not going to give Germany a great military advantage. The armies they were facing were simple too large, but the opposition amongst his colleagues made him struggle to develop a decent and elaborate plan of action…

…And, things did not happen how he wanted them to. Verdun became an uncomfortable thorn from which he would not recover. The German losses at the Battle of Verdun, followed so closely by the disaster at the Somme became Falkenhayn’s source of trouble, and severely weakened his position. Eventually, the Kaiser made the decision to replace him by putting Hindenburg in his place, and sending the Chief to deal with the situation arising in Romania. In this way, Falkenhayn took command of the 9th army at the Transylvanian Front on the 29th of August (1916) . Success once more followed him to Eastern Europe, where he defeated the Romanian army at the Battle of the Red Tower Pass the 30th of September in 1916. This culminated with the taking of Bucharest on the 6th December (1916). The following years saw the coming to an end of his military career. He saw action in Palestine and Lithuania, and, shortly afterwards, retired in 1918 when he became a writer before his death the 8th of April, 1922, near Postdam.

During his retirement, Falkenhayn compiled his ideas and impressions of the war and put them down in paper. His memoirs are narrated in third person and from the point of view of a soldier and not a politician. Furthermore, he used the text as a way to try to justify his military tactics and approach to the battle of Verdun and the offensive he launched on the French army. He put emphasis in how his plan was designed only to wear out the French army, but he never had the intention to end up launching an attack against the fortress. In addition, he seems to have been of the impression that even though the German losses were great in number-as any others in the Somme- they were not so influential in the general course of the war as perhaps can be perceived from other sources.

And so a remarkable, yet unfortunate career came to an end as one of the bloodiest events in human history reached its final chapter.

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