By the summer of 1916, Germany was suffering mightily on the western front. First on the offense at Verdun and later on the defense at the Somme, the German forces continued to accumulate unsustainable losses. Recognizing a perilous loss of momentum, on August 29th the Kaiser installed Paul von Hindenburg as the Chief of the General Staff and Erich Ludendorff as Quartermaster General (chief of staff). Though Hindenburg held the title general-in-chief, Ludendorff, the hero of battles at Liège and Tannenberg in the east, charted the course for not only the Deutsches Heer but the entire German Empire through the end of the Great War.
Having achieved great successes against the Russians, Ludendorff was ostensibly a superb choice to lead the nation in the decisive theatre: the trenches opposing the bulk of French, English, and later the American armies. Over the subsequent two years, Ludendorff proved himself the most adaptable tactician of the war. His development of defense-in-depth repelled the Allied offensives of 1917. And in 1918, his “infiltration tactics” generated breakthroughs during the Kaiserschlacht German offensives. His ability to formulate, proliferate, and incorporate these two revolutionary tactics across the massive Central Powers forces demonstrates a collegial character uncommon in the highest marshals, particularly of the era. For these battlefield successes, Ludendorff is lauded by Murray and Lupfer and seems to emerge as a military genius.
Yet, at the strategic levels of warfighting and statesmanship, Ludendorff failed to adequately adapt in a way that could bring victory to Berlin. As Ludendorff’s tactical successes brought increased domestic power, the general struggled with his newfound strategic responsibilities.[i] As the war progressed and conditions worsened for the Triple Alliance, Ludendorff proved unable to develop a comprehensive national strategy that could avoid disaster. By failing to adequately assess strategic risk and failing to nest military objectives within political ones, Ludendorff’s 1918 offensives exhausted his army and led it to defeat. Ludendorff the strategist succumbed to myopia, a characteristic that prevented the General from fully adapting his martial knowhow to strategic success. In contrast to Murray and Lupfer adulation, Herwig finds Ludendorff’s regime “must be judged ineffective, especially in the areas of politics and strategy. In a nutshell, German military policy… was inconsistent with the demands placed upon it.”[ii] Ludendorff, distracted by tactical technicalities, could never evolve to an effectual strategist and avert disaster at Versailles.
Ludendorff the Tactician
Though he was hired to break the stalemate and win victories as he had done in the east, Ludendorff recognized the western front was a different type of warfare. In his post war publication, the General remarked, “Here [in the west] we met with new conditions and it was my duty to adapt myself to them.”[iii] Ludendorff needed to understand his new tactical environment and needed to prepare himself for the coming Allied attacks in 1917. In his typical collegial style, Ludendorff set off on a sensing session to hear the truth from the bottom-up. He visited the front lines and listened to the assessments and comments from junior foot soldiers to the senior commanders. These exchanges produced the battlefield insights Ludendorff craved. Conversations with bright young officers such as Captains Geyer, Rohr, and Pulkowski allowed Ludendorff to formulate new defensive, offensive, and artillery tactics respectively. Ludendorff demanded honesty not “favorable report[s] made to order.”[iv] In just several months of field surveys, Ludendorff recognized his army needed a novel approach to the defense to weather the coming Allied onslaught.
On December 1st 1916, the German General Staff promulgated The Principles of Command in the Defense Battle in Position Warfare – marking a significant departure from previous doctrine. Ludendorff’s new defense-in-depth recognized the devastating effects of artillery fire and rebuked the massing of troops in forward static positions in favor of distributed forces throughout battle zones. He eliminated the notion that the defender ought to fight till the last breath for every inch of ground and lightly populated his outermost positions. Placing the majority of his forces in trenches well behind the front, Ludendorff located the German infantry beyond the range and observation of Allied artillery. From here, counterattack forces could marshal free from adversarial indirect fire. By utilizing reverse slope positions defenders could direct their own artillery on the enemy away from observation by the attacker’s front lines.
But publication of a new doctrine was not enough, as Lupfer notes, “doctrine published is not always doctrine applied.”[v] Ludendorff recognized he had to ingrain the new techniques in his forces. Utilizing the winter of 1916-1917, Ludendorff established and oversaw an intensive training regimen to employ defense-in-depth. Ludendorff established multiple training academies near his front lines where he could rotate troops through his defensive regimen. Indicative of his collegial style, when his trusted Colonel Fritz von Lossberg dissented to portions of his approach, he graciously accepted his concerns.[vi] Ludendorff did not even demand recognition or ownership of the tactics; instead, he referred to the field grade writers.[vii] Though the German Army’s adoption of defense-in-depth’ was not total, Ludendorff’s adaptation survived the Allied spring offensives and bought time until the Central Powers could attack.
As Russian resistance disintegrated during the summer and fall of 1917, Ludendorff was able to build combat power in the west. German divisions along the Hindenburg Line increased nearly one third between October 1917 and March 1918.[viii] With this newfound strength, again Ludendorff adapted and prepared for a major offensive, something the Triple Alliance had only conducted once before – Verdun. As it had just thirteen months prior, the German General Staff published new doctrine – The Attack in Position Warfare. As he had with the defense, Ludendorff’s new “infiltration techniques” eschewed what was previously sacrosanct – the multi-day massive artillery barrage.[ix] Rather than hoping to destroy the enemy from afar with colossal indirect fire, the German Army adapted to short preparatory fires meant to only disrupt the defenders. With less notice of the coming attack, defenders could not mass forces – preserving an element of surprise and degrading chances of a counterattack. Ludendorff reorganized his infantry to carry their own firepower (mortars, machine guns, explosives, etc.) and created 30-plus elite “attack” divisions.[x] Additionally, advancing German troops would no longer destroy all enemy soldiers in their path. Rather, attackers would penetrate as far as possible into the enemy’s rear, leaving strongpoint positions for follow-on forces to capture. Interestingly, French Captain Andre Laffargue proposed many of these tactics in a 1915 pamphlet, entitled “The Attack in Trench Warfare.” Though the adaptations remained relatively obscure amongst the Allies, the German General Staff quickly translated and distributed the document. Again, this speaks to Ludendorff’s collegiality; the presumptive general-in-chief was willing to base many of his tactical evolutions on the scribblings of lowly captain – a French one at that.[xi] With Ludendorff there was little pretense, a trait that allowed him to adapt an organism as stoic and dogmatic as the German Army for tactical success.
On March 21st 1918, Germans initiated Operation Michael with a several-hour (versus the typical several-day) artillery barrage. Ludendorff’s tactical adaptations decimated the British east of Amiens. By displacing the artillery while the infantry advanced, the Germany Army was able to echelon indirect fires while the soldiers penetrated through the defender’s lines. Ludendorff achieved what had alluded his peers heretofore – a breakthrough of the trenches. His tactical adaptations had proven successful, but what now?
Ludendorff the Strategist
The Kaiser’s appointment of Hindenburg and Ludendorff was a sign of desperation and frustration with the course of the war. Over the next eighteen months, the generals slowly accumulated power. By the 1918 offensives, Lupfer notes that the generals were now “the virtual rulers of Germany,” and with that Ludendorff became responsible for not just the military successes of the Empire but the political ones as well.[xii]
As he had done prior to the Allied 1917 offensives, Ludendorff prepared for his own 1918 attacks by estimating his tactical situation. Though he was personally bolstered by his defensive stands in 1917, Ludendorff failed to realize that his army was simply exhausted. Yes, the front line troops on whom he focused were eager for the offensive, but his reserves and German war-making capacity was at the brink.[xiii] Ludendorff failed to properly estimate his strategic condition. He wrongly trusted that the Kaiserliche Marine High Seas Fleet could isolate and remove Britain from the war.[xiv] He also falsely believed he could defeat the British and French on land prior to the Americans arriving on the continent.[xv] Ludendorff rejected investments in new offensive technology, such as the tank, that could have turned the tide of Kaiserschlacht campaign.[xvi] Ludendorff may have been capable of estimating a tactical plan for winning a battle, but his myopia prevented a comprehensive understanding of his strategic environs.
By 1918, Hindenburg and Ludendorff removed the civilian chancellor and foreign minister and effectively assumed control of all German foreign policy.[xvii] Based on his limited understanding and faulty assumptions, Ludendorff crafted a strategy doomed for failure. Ludendorff’s premise of Kaiserschlacht was tragically simplistic: “We will punch a hole into [their line]. For the rest we shall see.”[xviii] The 1918 offensives had no strategic objectives, only tactical ones. Ludendorff’s strategy inversed the relationship between strategy and tactics. Rather than German national strategy driving tactical objectives, Ludendorff hoped battlefield breakthroughs could lead to some sort of strategic victory. Ludendorff failed that fundamental Clausewitzian premise that tactical warfare must be a slave to geopolitical strategy when the theorist remarked, “Warfare is the highest expression of the national ‘will to live,’ and politics must, therefore, be subservient to the conduct of war.”[xix] Lacking a coherent strategy that might bring victory, the 1918 offensives achieved tactical breakthroughs but failed to win strategic victory. The now exhausted Central Powers quickly succumbed to Allied counteroffensives, signing an armistice by November and suffering humiliation at Versailles the following year.
History has been kinder to Ludendorff than perhaps it should. Following the war, he became a prominent national socialist, participated in the Beer Hall Putsch, and was largely responsible for the dolchstosslegende (stab-in-the-back-theory) upon which Hitler built the Nazi Party. Nevertheless, Ludendorff’s tactical adaptation, realized through his uncanny collegiality, is rightfully held in high regard. Yet, Ludendorff’s myopia prevented him from realizing the same success as a strategist. In contrast to a Grant or Eisenhower, he failed to transition from military to geopolitical leadership. In many ways, Erich Ludendorff mirrors the American Civil War’s Robert E. Lee. Both generals achieved remarkable tactical successes, due in no small part to collegial temperaments and exceptional subordinates (e.g., Ludendorff’s von Lossberg and Lee’s Jackson). Yet, as the conditions turned more dire and military policy became national policy, myopia doomed them both. Ludendorff in Kaiserschlacht suffered the same flaw as Lee at Gettysburg, neither attack demonstrated a cognizance of national strategy that had a chance at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.[xx] Ludendorff is a true paradox of military history. At his best, he revolutionized the tactics of World War I. At his worst, he failed to adapt to the political power his battlefield successes brought him and doomed his nation.
[i] For the purposes of this essay, I have simply bifurcated the levels of war. Ludendorff the tactician worked at what is generally considered the tactical and operational levels of warfighting. A level that could be managed by a battlefield commander in one theatre and in pursuit of purely military objectives. Ludendorff the strategist operated at a much higher level of war. Here, the General was faced with balancing military and political objectives into a statecraft strategy that would mold the future of the German Empire.
[ii] Holger Herwig, “The Dynamics of Necessity: German Military Policy during the First World War,” ed. by Allan Millet and Murray Williamson, Military Effectiveness, 3 vols, 2nd ed. (Cambridge 2010), 1:105.
[iii] Erich Ludendorff, Ludendorff's Own Story, 2 vols. (New York, 1919), 1:324.
[iv] Ludendorff, Ludendorff's Own Story, 24.
[v] Lupfer, Timothy, “The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Changes in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War,” Leavenworth Papers No. 4 (Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Command and General Staff College, July 1981), 21.
[vi] Lupfer, 22.
[vii] Lupfer, 22.
[viii] Lupfer, 37.
[ix] On page 42, Lupfer refers to Ludendorff’s new offensive tactics as “infiltration techniques.” I use the same term here to holistically describe all the offensive evolutions: surprise, speed, bypass, etc.
[x] Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change, (Cambridge, 2011), 110.
[xi] Herwig, 100.
[xii] Lupfer, 54.
[xiii] Herwig, 102.
[xiv] Herwig, 102.
[xv] Erich Ludendorff, My War Memories 1914-1918, (Berlin, 1919), 430-435, 460-472.
[xvi] Lupfer, 48. Ironically, Britain’s investment in developing tank technology wreaked havoc during their 1918 counter-offensives. The tank provided front line troops the necessary armor-mobility combination to decimate German rear areas and exploit breakthroughs.
[xvii] David Stephenson, “1918 Revisited,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol 28, no 1, (February 2005), 111-112.
[xviii] Cited in Crown Prince Rupprecht, Mein Kriegstagebuch, vol 2, ed. by Eugen von Frauenholz (Munich, 1929), 372, note.
[xix] Cited in Herwig, 104.
[xx] In another parallel between Lee and Ludendorff I cannot help but mention, both generals weathered an undergrown detonation during an attack: Lee at Petersburg in 1864 and Ludendorff at Messines in 1917.