Following the unification of Germanyin 1871, the scene was set for thepowers in Central Europe to begin flexingtheir collective muscles. With imperialaspirations running rampant, events inthe Balkans in 1914 rapidly escalatedinto a full-blown conflict between Germany/Austro-Hungary and the Ententeof Britain, Franceand Russia.
In the ensuing war, Germany couldcall upon a rich vein of military experience:men who had fought for Prussia and Austria,and who could trace their lineage back throughdistinguished military backgrounds across thevarious Germanic states.
There were many notable commandersof German forces during the First World War,many of whom had come from nobility. Amongthe Dukes, Archdukes, Barons and Counts,the Germans also fielded several membersof royal families: Prince Heinrich of Prussiaserved in the Kaiserliche Marine but waslimited during the war to an appointment asInspector-General of the Navy; the 69-year-oldPrince Leopold of Bavaria commanded theGerman Ninth Army on the Eastern Front;Crown Prince Rupprecht was considered afine tactical leader, and his Sixth Army inflictedheavy casualties on the French forces atLorraine; while Crown Prince Wilhelm – sonof Kaiser Wilhelm II – led the Fifth Army atVerdun, appointed to the task by Chief of StaffErich von Falkenhayn.
From the “Blood-Miller of Verdun” to the “Lion of Africa”, weremember some of Germany’s greatest military masterminds.
10. Karl von Bülow (1846-1921)
Stalwart of the Second Army
According to the tradition of his Prussian family, Karl von Bülow entered the military as a young man. By the time the First World War started, he was something of a veteran, having seenaction in both the Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars. In 1914, he was given command of the German Second Army that would lead the attack into Belgium in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan. His forces enjoyed great success, capturing the fortress of Namur and later defeating Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth Army at the Battle of Charleroi.
However, von Bülow refused to follow up on these successes at Marne unless supported by Alexander von Kluck’s First Army, which was 50km west and heading for Paris. Von Bülow ordered von Kluck to turn towards him, resulting in the First Army exposing itsflanks to Allied attack at the Battle of the Marne. Fearing a French breakthrough, von Bülow ordered a withdrawal and is generally held responsible for the German defeat at Marne. Despite this, he was promoted to Field Marshal, but a heart attack in 1915 prevented him taking further action in the war.
9. Remus von Woyrsch (1847-1920)
German Hero of the Eastern Front
Remus von Woyrsch’s career with the Prussian Army had already ended by 1914, but he was recalled from retirement when the First World War broke out, aged 68. Born of minornobility, he had served in both the Austro-Prussian and Franco- Prussian Wars, receiving the Iron Cross for his actions in the latter. His experience with infantry resulted in him being placed in command of the Silesian Landwehr Corps on the Eastern Front. Operating alongside the Austro-Hungarian First Army, he served with distinction at the Battle of Rava-Ruska, covering the army’s retreat under Victor Danki, at the cost of 8,000 of his own men. He was duly appointed head of “Army Group Woyrsch” in Silesia,which was followed by successes atthe battles of Thorn and Sienno, plusa victory against Alexei Evert’s forcesduring the Brusilov Offensive of 1916.
Afterthe war, he retired for a second and final time, before dying in 1920.
8.Felix Graf von Bothmer (1852-1937)
Nemesis of the Russians
Born into Bavarian nobility, Count Felix Graf von Bothmerspent 40 years in the military,serving with Bavarian and
Prussian forces, largely on thegeneral staff. He was madeLieutenant-General in 1905and General of the Infantry in
1910, and with the outbreak ofwar was appointed commanderof the Sixth Bavarian ReserveDivision at Ypres. Four monthslater, he was placed in charge ofII Reserve Corps in Galicia (modern-day western Ukraine), before taking
control of the “Sudarmee”, or South Army,in 1915 – a mixture of German, Austrian, Hungarian and Turkish troops on the Eastern Front.
Von Bothmer enjoyed some success against the numerically superior Russians, winning the Battle of Zwinin, and mostnotably during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916 – a massive assault by the Russian Imperial Army that saw von Bothmer’s line pushed back but unbroken. In 1917, his forces repelled the Kerensky Offensive, routing the demoralised Russians. During his timeon the Eastern Front, he was awardedthe Pour le Mérite with Oak Leaves and the Grand Cross of the Bavarian Military Order of Max Joseph. However, his final actions were to oversee the retreat of the 19th Army in Lorraine, and the eventual demobilisation of the Bavarian Army.
7. Erichvon Falkenhayn (1861-1922)
The Blood-Miller of Verdun
Another native of Prussia, von Falkenhayn was born inBurg Belchau (in the north of modern-day Poland) and, in accordance with the region’s military tradition, duly joined thearmy. He spent seven years as a military instructor in China during the Boxer Rebellion, before being posted back to various posts in Germany. In 1913, he was promoted to Prussian Minister of War and was one of the key architects of the First World War, following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.
As Chief of the General Staff of the German Army, he was responsible for the “Race to the Sea”, where German and Allied troops tried to outflank one another but ended up entrenched along a front extending from Switzerland to the North Sea. In an attempt to “bleed France white”, he organised thenine-month attritional Battle of Verdun.
But he underestimated French resolve andcasualties on both sides were colossal,earning him the nickname “the Blood-Millerof Verdun”. With the battle indecisive andthe losses huge, von Falkenhayn was replacedas Chief of Staff by Paul von Hindenburg.
6. Reinhard Scheer (1863-1928)
The Man with the Iron Mask
Having served in the German Navy since 1879, Reinhard Scheer – nicknamed “the man with the iron mask” becauseof his stern looks – was given command of the Second Battle Squadron at the outbreak of the First World War. In 1915, he was moved to the Third Battle Squadron with its newer, more powerful dreadnoughts. A year later, he was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the High Seas Fleetwhen Hugo von Pohl was forced to step down due to ill health.
Scheer’s first act was to push for greater U-boat activity against British warships,in an attempt to lure theRoyal Navy’s Grand Fleet out to engage with the Germans. The two navies finally clashedat the Battle ofJutland, whichwas seen as aminor tacticalvictory for theGermans, althoughit was only Scheer’sstrategic manoeuvringthat saved the High SeasFleet from destruction.Neither the Kaiser nor Scheerfelt the desire to take on the Grand Fleet in open combat again.
5. Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937)
Once the Most Powerful Man in Germany
Descended from Pomeranian merchants, Erich Ludendorff was a gifted student who graduated from Cadet School at the top of his class. In 1885, he was madeLieutenant of the 57th Infantry Regiment, before joining various other units, and was frequently commended for his service. In 1894, hewas appointed to the German General Staff, rising to the rank of Senior Staff Officer.
With the outbreak of war, Ludendorffwas appointed Deputy Chief of Staffto the Second Army, where he helped secure a victory over the Belgian fortsat Liège, earning himself the Pour leMérite medal for gallantry. He wasthen seconded to the Eighth Army on the Eastern Front, where he was instrumentalin Paul von Hindenburg’s success against the Russians. In 1916, Ludendorff assumed the title First Generalquartiermeister, andis regarded as being the most powerful man in Germany at that time. However, his planned offensives in the west overstretched the German Army, leading to huge Allied advances.
After the armistice, he wrote several essays on the warand is largely responsiblefor the “stab in the back” myththat suggests the German military wasbetrayed by the Kaiser’s poor leadership and undermined by sinister political forces.
4. Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg (1865-1939)
The Noble Warrior
Another member of German nobility, Albrecht von Württemberg was the eldest son of Duke Philipp and his wife, the Archduchess Maria Theresa. At the outbreak of war, Albrechtwas in command of the German Fourth Army and saw action in the Battle of the Ardennes, where the French defenders were heavily defeated. However, his forces would be driven back at the Battle of the Marne, which would then result in a stalemate and the entrenching “Race to the Sea”. Albrecht and his men were then transferred to Flanders, where they saw action in the Battle of the Yser and the Second Battle of Ypres. The latter is notable for the first large-scale use of gas on the battlefield
During the army-command reorganisation of 1915, Albrecht was promoted to Field Marshal and given control of a newly formed “Army Group Albrecht”. His force was posted to thesouthern sector of the Western Front, wherehe remained until the armistice. Followingthe cessation of hostilities, the Germanrevolutions meant that he lost his royalinheritance to the Kingdom of Württemberg.
3.Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière (1886-1941)
The Most Successful Submarine Captain Ever
Although he only had a handful of men under his command,our list wouldn’t be complete without the number-one U-boat ace, Lothar von Arnauld de la Perière. Born in Posen (Poznán in modern-day Poland) and a descendant of French nobility, he was educated at the cadet schools of Wahlstatt and Gross-Lichterfelde. Aged 17, he entered the Kaiserliche Marine – the German Imperial Navy – with whom he served on a series of battleships, and also as Torpedo Officer on a light cruiser.
When war broke out, vonArnauld de la Perière wastransferred to the Navy’sairship division, and in 1915 he moved to U-boats, where he was given command of U-35. Over the next three years, he made 14 voyages and sank more than 190 ships. After transferring to U-139 in 1918, he sank a further five vessels, bringing his tally to nearly half a million tons. However, he always acted according to the “prize rules”, allowing ships’ crews to board lifeboats and giving them directions to the nearest portbefore torpedoing the vessel. He received numerous medals, including the Austrian Order of Leopold, the Iron Cross and the Pour le Mérite, and his record number of tonnage makes him the most successful submarine commander of all time.
2.Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1890-1964)
The Lion of Africa
The son of a minor Pomeranian noble, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck attended cadet school in Potsdam and Berlin-Lichterfelde before being commissioned as a Lieutenant in the ImperialArmy. He served in China as part of the Allied forces sent to help quell the Boxer Rebellion, and it was here that he got his first taste of guerrilla warfare. In the decade prior to the war, he was posted to German South-West Africa and modern-day Cameroon, before being moved to German East Africa, where he was put in control of Imperial forces plus a dozen companies of native Askari troops.
During the war, von Lettow-Vorbeck harried British colonies in Rhodesia and Kenya in a series of guerrilla raids, often outnumberedby as much as 8:1. His men were often forced to live off the land, resupplying at ammunitiondumps, and von Lettow-Vorbeckonly surrendered when news ofthe armistice reached him. He returned homea hero but wouldend up destitute, supported by apension paid for by former rivals from Africa and Britain.
1. Paul von Hindenberg (1847-1934)
The Saviour of East Prussia
At the outbreak of WWI, Paul von Hindenburg was retired, having served with the Prussian Army during the Franco- Prussian War, with whom he attained the rank of General.On his recall, aged 66, he was sent to the Eastern Front as commander of East Prussia, and immediately scored a huge victory at the Battle of Tannenberg. Although outnumbered almost 2:1,von Hindenburg’s Eighth Army practically destroyed Russia’s Second Army. This was followed up by the Battle of the Masurian Lakes, which drove the Russians out of German territory with huge losses.
Von Hindenburg was hailed as the “Saviour of East Prussia” and promoted to Field Marshal, then to Army Chief of Staff. During this time, thanks largely to the direction of Erich Ludendorff,he managed to stem the Allied advance inthe west, defeat Romania and force Russiaout of the war, securing his place as a nationalhero. Von Hindenburg retired again in 1919,but he remained in office and was electedPresident of the Weimar Republic in 1925