Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Meuse Mill

Decisive Battle for February: VerdunOver at GFT.


  1. Nice post Chief.

    You posted:

    --This is the basis of the story of Verdun as pointless death machine; the so-called "Christmas memo".

    The wonderful thing about it is that the story fits so well with our popular image of World War I, this pointless slaughter. this bottomless well of blood spilled for nothing. The notion of the commander of the German Army developing a plan that called for nothing but killing, piling a mountain of corpses on mills of corpses, just seems to right, so perfect a symbol of the Himalaya of stupid that is the Great War.

    There seems to be only one teensy little problem with this story.

    It seems to be a complete fabrication.

    It's Falkenhayn trying to find a lie that will fly.--

    There are actually several questions here which need to be separated. First, was the battle actually conceived as a "pointless death machine"? That is as a "local battle" - even if on a massive scale - with the intention of simply wasting French troops? Does the case of Falkenhayn's strategy completely depend on the validity of the "Christmas Memo"? What could have been his purpose in having produced a forgery?

    I've read Horne's book, Falkenhayn's memoirs, and this book which I have reviewed . . .

    . . .

  2. Let's start with the Christmas Memo. Falkenhayn produced this in his memoirs of 1919 and historians have since been unable to find any copy in the German archives. Why? Because "the memo" was delivered by Falkenhayn personally to the Kaiser in December 1915, that is probably orally only. There was in effect no actual memo, but rather Falkenhayn creating a memo after the fact. Does this make it a forgery? Technically yes, but it still seemingly reflected his thinking at the end of 1915 going in to 1916. Foley discounted the memo in his book and was able to recreate Falkenhayn's thinking from memoirs of other participants and messages from Falkenhayn to subordinate units.

    Falkenhayn had a lot of enemies within OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung) or the German Army High Command. There were relatively few higher officers he thought he could trust, so he kept his actual plans and strategy very close. There was also the need for secrecy since surprise was absolutely necessary for the success of Falkenhayn's plan which he hoped would bring the war to a negotiated end in 1916. All communication for instance between Falkenhayn and the German 5th Army was done face-to-face. There was also a deception plan to make the French think the offensive would be at Belfort.

    Foley writes, "At no point did he plainly tell the 5th Army or the other armies of the Westherr exactly what was expected of them. Falkenhayn merely gave their staffs specific situations from which they were required to submit operational plans. Given the radical nature of his strategic and operational approach at Verdun, Falkenhayn feared a repeat of the feud that took place in late 1914 and early 1915 when he openly suggested that the German army deviate from pre-war theory. Regardless of the reason, such reticence would come to hamper operations in 1916." (p 205)

    "Pre-war theory" had been that of decisive victory or a "strategy of annihilation", Germany decisively defeating all her enemies once war had begun.

  3. Sorry, seydlitz, I don't buy it.

    If the point was to use artillery and machineguns to grind down the French Army, why continue attacking once the initial objectives were taken? Why not a series of pre-planned lurches forward with an "offesive-defense" planned at the end of every attack along the lines of Sherman's Atlanta campaign? Why keep outrunning the artillery support? Why expose the attacking units to the French gunners by hammering away at the Mort Homme and Hill 304?

    If the idea really was to bleed the French Army white Falkenhayn did a damn bad job of it.

    "Falkenhayn feared a repeat of the feud that took place in late 1914 and early 1915 when he openly suggested that the German army deviate from pre-war theory. Regardless of the reason, such reticence would come to hamper operations in 1916." sounds like the sort of post-failure rationalization that the "Chirstmas Memo" sounds like.

    If you want your subordinate commanders to buy into a plan that involves attriting the enemy and you don't tell them that in the first place? Or intervene when they're obviously fucking up and getting your own guys killed at a rate only slightly less rapid than their guys are? You either didn't plan a battle of attrition in the first place, our you're screwing the pooch.

    I'm giving Falkenhayn the benefit of the competence-doubt. But to do that you have to assume that the "Christmas Memo" either never existed or was very different from what Falkenhayn says it was.

  4. So while it might be possible that Falkenhayn was "thinking" that Verdun might have the effect of attriting the French if that was the actual Paragraph 2 of his oporder then he was the least competent combat commander in history. The actual performance of his on-the-scene subordinates ended up tearing a hole in his own army as big as the one that was supposed to be the main objective of his plan.

    Either way - whether his intention was attrition or breakthrough - I'd argue that he was his own worst enemy, never mind who didn't like him at OKH. Neither "strategy" worked. And the result was a ton of useless death. IMO the guy is the Marc Clark of WW1, easily the equivalent of Nivelle for France and Haig for England. The guy didn't learn the Lesson, and, as usual, his troops were the ones that paid for it.

  5. Another great post Chief. May the world never see another one like that.

    Albert Hahn, a Dutch political cartoonist and the Bill Mauldin of his day had a great one on Verdun showing the Kaiser visiting his son the Crown Prince near the Verdun Front with their conversation as follows:
    "How far have we advanced, my boy?"
    "So far as you can see corpses, father"

    Regarding Falkenhayn's intent, you put forth some convincing arguments. I do recommend though that you check out the Foley book that Seydlitz mentioned: "German Strategy and the Path to Verdun". There are some strong arguments there too and he does not rely on the disappeared memo.

    Regardless of what the intentions were, that battle did end up being synonymous with attrition. I believe that the reasons were as follows: Verdun has been a bone of contention between France and Germany for over a thousand years, ever since Charlemagne's three grandsons used the Treaty of Verdun to divide his empire. (IMHO the Balkan feuds were pikers compared to Franco/German rivalries). Then there was 1792. And later in 1870 even though the Prussians took a large part of Lorraine, they were pissed that they missed out on taking Verdun. Lastly, in 1914 one week before the Kaiser declared war on France, Germany issued a demand that France cede the Forts around Verdun (source for that was in Michael Neiberg's biography of Marshal Foch). So I opine that both sides had an emotional stake in the outcome, which led to the horrible results.

    Speaking of Foch, my only snivel of your post is on the relief of General de Langle de Cary. Joffre relieved him, not Foch who did not take command until 1917.

    How about the Brusilov Offensive in June which as you point out helped relieve Verdun - and reportedly (by Wikipedia and they cite Keegan) had more casualties (a million plus on each side???). Not sure those numbers are all troop casualties, perhaps many of them were civilians?

  6. There is an basic issue with the attrition approach in the west: From the losses of 1914 and 1915 it could only be expected that losses were exchanged roughly at a 1:1 ratio.

    With the UK providing men, i.e. sharing losses with the French army, and hardware, Germany was clearly outnumbered and a loss ratio of about 1:1 would only lead to deterioration of the German position in 1916. That is basic (chess) strategy. Usually, attrition works only for the numerically stronger side, when no significant difference in tactical performance exists.

    While I do not like Ludendorff, his opinion in respect to Falkenhayn and Verdun is IMHO correct.


  7. mike, Ulenspiegel: When you come right down to it, my thoughts pretty much fall in line with yours and Ludendorff (not that I'm a big Ludo fan - I think he kept Germany in the war past its sell-by date by being a hard-ass...).

    I think the crucial point is Falkenhayn himself, and I should really read the guy's memoirs to get a sense of him. Was the the sort of character who would rather have claimed credit for an unorthodox "strategy" (using Verdun to grind corpses out of France) without realizing that the execution made him look like a dope? Or was he the kind of guy who would have made the same mistake as everyone else wearing shoulder braid in 1916 - thinking that he had the Secret to Success for a breakthrough attack - and rather than admit that he was wrong not in execution but in planning later pretend that he was only kidding and hadn't wanted a breakthrough after all?

    Based on the Foley quote from seydlitz he sorta sounds like the latter - a guy who was exceptionally proud of his great big brain - so that's why my guess is that he preferred people to think he'd had a good plan that just didn't work rather than having tried the same-old that Foch, Haig, Moltke, and then Ludendorff/Hindenburg did that didn't work for them, either...

  8. Chief-

    This is a very interesting topic. I think we have to first consider the distinction between a strategy of annihilation and that of attrition. I think it clear that Falkenhayn did have a different strategy - that of attrition/coercion - and that strategy ran counter to the dominate strategy/approach within the German Army of its day. Falkenhayn was not one of Schlieffen's followers as was of course Ludendorff and the majority of the general staff. It wasn't a case of simply being "unpopular", he was going against the grain of German military theory that had been popular since Moltke the elder. Schlieffen's followers considered a strategy of annihilation to be the only legitimate strategy and anything else something akin to treason. They had been sharpening the knives for Falkenhayn from the day he was named to head the General Staff. The image of Falkenhayn as incompetent butcher is the same as that propagated by Ludendorff and his followers after 1918 . . .

    In spite of all his faults though Falkenhayn comes out imo as the only senior German commander - in either World War - to think in terms of tactics/operations/military strategy/political strategy/ending the war on acceptable terms for Germany, that is not a decisive victory, but successful operations leading to/operating with negotiation/diplomacy. Political context! Comparison with Mark Clark only indicates that there is no consideration of political/strategic context at all, but only a focus on tactics . . .

  9. First, I think we need to take in one very basic point from the German perspective in early 1916. Falkenhayn and the Kaiser's government felt they were fighting a defensive war, that is they did not see themselves as the initiators of this war and were not even fighting a preemptive war, that is the Entente had decided on war in July 1914 and they had had no option but to fight. Call it patriotism, guilt, paranoia, selective memory, or whatever, but that was the truth of the matter as they saw it. At some point I'm going to do a post on McMeekin's "The Russian Origins of the First World War" which brings up many interesting questions in this regard.

    At the end of 1915, Germany had been able stave off disaster on several fronts. Falkenhayn knew that the weight of the Allies would eventually crush the Central Powers with Austria especially vulnerable. Germany did not have the strength to gain a decisive victory over Britain, France and Russia combined, but the possibility did exist of concentrating and defeating one, and thus negotiating a settlement with the others.

    Russia offered a range of policy considerations. Russian military strength had been significantly degraded with Gorlice-Tarnow and would probably be unable to mount serious offensives. On the other hand there were considerable joint interests. It might be possible to come to terms with the Russians. Occupying Courland forced the Baltic nobles to decide on their own turf, who they would follow, Germany or the Czar, which essentially ended their political influence. And then there were the extensive and historic commercial interests. So, wasn't a negotiated peace with Russia possible? The collapse of the Czar was definitely not in Germany's interest. Falkenhayn and those of like mind thought so.

  10. @seydlitz

    my problem with your assessment of Schlieffen is:

    Schlieffen did NOT believe in better tactical performance of German divisions against the French and the German peace-time army was usually smaller than the French in most of the years 1885-1914.

    Therefore, he could not expect to operate successfully without inner lines during the first year of the conflict!

    Here I am more in the Terence Zuber camp, who gave IMHO a much better show (convincing lines of argument) than his opponents, who failed in 12 years to bring good arguments against Zuber.
    BTW This very interesting dicussion is found in the journal "War in History".


  11. Ulenspiegel-

    Nice moniker.

    I haven't even got to the operational level yet, let alone tactics.

    My point is that Schlieffen was very much a believer in the strategy of annihilation. Do you disagree with that?

    I compare this following Delbrück with a strategy of attrition, relying in turn on Svechin to develop this distinction. This actually deserves its own post, but I simply don't have the time at the moment to write it.

    As to potential tactical performance of German versus French divisions, the German had more troops in 1914 (17,500 as opposed to 15,000) and twice the number of artillery tubes. An German Infantry Bn had 3x the number of MGs. Also the whole reason for the turning movement through Belgium was to avoid the main French forces which were attacking towards the Rhine.

    Isn't it Zuber's view that the Schlieffen Plan in effect did not exist?

  12. Seydlitz,

    the manpower of the French peace-time army was higher than the German, therefore, more active and resever forces available, service time was the same, draft level much higher in France, which (over-)compensated Germany's larger population.
    -> for one year both sides fought with the same numbers or when Belgium and the UK is included Germany fought outnumbered. Afterwards (1916) Germany could bring 5 million men(untrained in 1914) to the game. I should have used Schlieffen did not assume a better tactical performance of german forces against the French.

    Schlieffen preferred if possible the annihilation of the enemy forces. However, with no clear numerical advantage he did not prefer to leave the inner lines but -as Zuber claims- to let the French attack. This is motif of most of the war plans that survived the destruction s of German archievs during WWII.

    Zuber's opinion is that the interpretation of Schlieffen's "Große Denkschrift" as war plan is actually wrong. Many divisions which appear in this work simply did not exist and most staff rides and Kriegsspiele did not focus on an attack through Belgium.

    Simple version: According to Zuber Schlieffen did propose the operational concept that was used in 1914 and that was labled as Schlieffen plan after the war.

    Try to get the papers in "War in History", the story started in 1999 with Zubers article "The Schlieffen Plan Reconsidered" and the last article has been published in 2011.


  13. should have been :-(

    Simple version: According to Zuber Schlieffen did NOT propose the operational concept that was used in 1914 and that was labled as Schlieffen plan after the war.

  14. Ulenspiegel: Based on your comments I have put Zuber on my reading list. What does he say, if anything, about Falkenhayn?

  15. Nothing about Falkenhayn in the papers, sorry.

    If you are interested in Zuber's papers and the replies of his opponents I can email them, have them all as PDF on my computer at work.


  16. Ulenspiegel-

    Zuber's view of the Schlieffen Plan is a separate issue as to whether Falkenhayn hoped to implement a strategy of attrition - as opposed to a strategy of annihilation - starting in 1916.

    Foley mentions Zuber in his book on Schlieffen btw:

    --22. Cf. Terence Zuber, "The Schlieffen Plan Reconsidered", War in History, 6, 3, 1999. pp 262-305, who argues that Schlieffen never seriously considered such an operation. This author's conclusions seem to be at odds with the conclusions reached in the very document upon which he bases much of his argument, Dieckmann's "Der Schlieffenplan". The very structure of Dieckmann's work indicates that he believed Schlieffen was working throughout his time as Chief of the General Staff toward a northern envelopment of the French fortifications. It begins with a section entitled 'Der Umgehungsplan' (The Outflanking Plan), in which Schlieffen's Aufmarschpläne were discussed until 1903. In these years, Schlieffen toyed with the idea of a shallow outflanking movement around the French fortifications. Dieckmann was to conclude his manuscript with a section entitled, 'Der Umfassungsplan' (The Envelopment Plan), which, as the title suggests, would have taken Schlieffen's plans up the famous memorandum of 1905 with its powerful rightwing envelopment.--

    Robert T. Foley, Alfred von Schlieffen's Military Writings, p 256.

    Schlieffen's Memorandum of 1905 is reproduced in the book as well and lays out the outline of what we know today as the "Schlieffen Plan".

    Zuber's view has not gone uncontested. Have you read what Terence Holmes has written in response to Zuber? Holmes is a brilliant Clausewitzian, whom I met at the 2005 Clausewitz conference. He had some words to say about Zuber's contentions even then . . .

    1. Seydlitz,

      I have read since 1999 all the papers that were published in "War in History" covering this topic and I do not see that Zubers postition was refuted, quite contrary, he gained a lot during the last years.

      As long a nobody can answer why in the "Große Denkschrift", which was written in 1905/6, many formations appear which did not exist neither in 1905 nor in 1914(!) I do not buy the interpretation/argument, that the memorandum was meant as actual war plan. German staff officers do not use for their actual war plans >25% non existing units!

      The second issue is that Zubers's opponents do a weak job when they try to explain, why all staff rides and kriegsspiele in the last years of Schlieffens reign do NOT show the concept of the memorandum. The lack of arguments and logic is not on Zuber's side, sorry.

      I would suggest you get the articles in War in History and make your own opinion, you will find that Echavarrias interpretation is not correct and more important, not fact based.

      In none of his papers Zuber claims that he has "special insight", he only requested that his opponents do not ignore some basic procedures when talking about developing war plans.


  17. In regards to Zuber, Echavarria (who's about the best Clausewitzian methodologist) writes:

    --As a case in point, historian Terence Zuber, men- tioned earlier, recently cast some doubt on a number of long-held beliefs about Germany’s so-called Schlieffen plan of 1914. Zuber maintains that the Schlieffen plan was never intended as an actual war plan, and that it was merely a ruse to dupe the German parliament into increasing the budget for the Kaiser’s army. While Zuber exposes some of the flaws in Gerhard Ritter’s critique of the Schlieffen plan, which has long stood as the accepted view, there is simply no compelling evidence to support Zuber’s own contention. Zuber recklessly extends his argument too far and, when called out by other historians to present his evidence, generally resorts to the “special insight” his military training has given him, as if that were all the evidence needed. To be sure, our understanding of the Schlieffen plan, particularly as it is currently taught in the major institutions responsible for military education, requires revision. Nonetheless, we should not fully accept Zuber’s view, unless he produces some compelling evidence.
    Unfortunately, the lack of objective measures for historians means that the body of literature known as history only grows larger, with good and bad contributions often sitting side-by-side on library bookshelves. So, ca- veat lector (let the reader beware).-- (pp83-84)

  18. One thing to throw into this right-turn into Schlieffen is that assuming that the man was a competent officer he should have recognized at the time that the logistical circumstances and topographic realities mitigated strongly against the accomplishment of the "strong right wing" envelopment. Short version; once they left their railheads the advance units just didn't have enough decent roads or rail lines to advance far enough fast enough to make the plan work. Van Creveld, at least, thought so.

    Re: our guy Falkenhayn...the thing I run up against is that I don't have a really good read on whether the man wanted an battle of attrition at Verdun and just fucked up the execution or whether he hoped to just beat the French up and force them to the peace table. When you consider what actually happened it's kind of moot, isn't it? Verdun turned out to be fairly pointless for both sides, other than as a place to kill people. So while speculating on Falkenhayn's original intent is interesting as historical exercise, the actual effect is pretty much a wash. Lots of people die, Falkenhayn gets sacked, his rivals get in and proceed to continue the Great Dying until they've thoroughly wrecked a hell of a lot of Europe, including (in at least the cases of France and Germany) their own governments...

    Pretty appalling.

  19. FDChief-

    As far as the Schlieffen Plan goes, agree, logistics, but then also command and control.

    Falkenhayn's plan was to end the war by the winter 1916/17. France had already lost heavily and he reasoned that they would be the most likely to sue for peace if their reserves were depleted enough. During the Feb/Mar 1915 offensive in Champagne the French Army had lost 240,000 to 45,000 German causalities. Falkenhayn was convinced that no breakthrough was possible given the current reserves, but by destroying those reserves in a massive local battle he would be able to break the French will to resist.

    Had the Verdun offensive started when planned on 12 February instead of 21 Feb due to bad weather, and had the Germans been able to have seized the Meuse heights early on, we might be reading this quite differently today.

    As it was, Falkenhayn should have called off the offensive by mid March, but the Chief of Staff of 5th Army von Knobelsdorf convinced him that he did in fact understand what Falkenhayn's goal was and it was still attainable. But this was not the case, in reality 5th Army still used the tactics of annihilation and not what Falkenhayn had proposed. On the first of April the Kaiser declared that Verdun must fall and that was essentially the end of any coherent strategy . . .

  20. @Seydlitz: "...the Kaiser declared that Verdun must fall and that was essentially the end of any coherent strategy . . ."

    Which goes back to the Treaty of Verdun in the 9th century. But then the Kaiser is not the only figure in history to ignore strategy in order to appease historic chauvinism or nationalistic pride. George Bush comes to mind.

    But then if Falkenhayn did in fact intend to bleed the French. And knowing that their history would force them to take the bait and throw everything into defending Verdun, you would think he would have second guessed his own countrymen jumping at that bait themselves, no?

  21. mike-

    Once Verdun had become a question of national will - for both the Germans and the French - then cutting one's loses became "defeat" or a "failure of will". Falkenhayn was riding the tiger after mid-March because calling off the offensive would have been the same as saying, "I've screwed up" and saying that Schlieffen's followers had been right about him all along. His failure would doom Germany, since he knew the alternative was unworkable.

    I think it very difficult for us to understand the mindset of 1916. Whereas for a more traditional culture it might not be so difficult.

  22. One last statistic on the battle of Verdun I would like to see is the $$$. How much did the war profiteers, especially US war business make off the whole slaughter? What percentage of the French steel shells fired were made in the USA? Add to that of course everything else sold . . . beans, bullets and boots . . .