Great War Commanders: Falkenhayn the honest Junker

Erich von Falkenhayn / wereldoorlog.be

Erich von Falkenhayn / wereldoorlog.be

Eric von Falkenhayn was born in 1861, scion of a typical ‘Junker’ family, which means ‘powerful, noble, landowning, and, not infrequently, bullying and proud as well’. At school he showed intelligence, honesty, self-reliance and bravery, qualities that did not desert him either at military college or later when he was commissioned.

As a professional soldier he had little chance to show resource under fire, because there were not enough current wars to go round. Nevertheless at fifty-two he became Minister for War (1913), just one year before the beginning of the Great War (1914 – 18).

Chief of staff von Moltke had a nervous breakdown in early November 1914 and was immediately replaced by Falkenhayn. Always honest to himself, Eric Falkenhayn knew that the Allies, at that time France and Britain, had greater resources than Germany. If his beloved countrymen were going to win, they must win quickly. Unfortunately his own battles in Flanders (at Ypres) failed, leaving the hinge of Allied communications virtually untouched.

Pessimistic but realistic to the last, Falkenhayn told the astonished Chancellor (Bethmann-Hollweg) that German victory was now impossible, but it was only the end of November, 1914. Conversely, mismanagement of the War by British commanders such as Douglas Haig (q.v.) meant that the War dragged on for another four years.

Falkenhayn told his Government that either Russia or France must be eliminated from the struggle or they could never grasp victory. He must have enjoyed a strong personality, as his optimism, if he had any, was kept well under control.

Russia defeated Austria in a number of serious engagements in Galicia in 1915. Falkenhayn turned his attentions to the Eastern Front, and secured one of Germany’s greatest victories agaianst the Russians at Gorlice, effectively pushing Russian forces backwards more than 300 miles. Still the Falkenhayn ‘touch’ is evident in his following statement that ‘victories in the east that are achieved only at the cost of weakening our position in the west are worthless.’

Determined not to allow his armies to be swallowed by the enormity of Russia, and remembering Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow, he stopped the German offensive in September and marched to the Danube, where he successfully knocked Serbia out of the ring, helped by Bulgaria. In 1916 he looked for victory on the western front by launching a massive attack at Verdun. The assault failed, however, with enormous casualties among both the Germans and the French. Germany found it had lost the initiative in the west, and the British took advantage of this and attacked at the Somme (July-October 1916, q.v.).

Accused by his Government and the Kaiser of failure, Falkenhayn was dismissed as Chief of Staff, but avoided shooting. As a demoted but still popular general he went to Roumania which he rapidly overran when that country declared for the Allies. Eric Falkenhayn died at sixty-one in 1922. He had had ‘good wars’ and remained honest to himself and loyal to his country. He is rightly praised and remembered by Germany as a fine leader and intelligent stategist.

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