“We should have won the war in the west at a canter”. Hoffman

A lecture given by Dr. Spencer Jones 3/12/2016

Why didn’t German prevail in the West, as well as in the East, in the first months of the war in 1914?

Bullet points, notes and references:
All sides as committed to winning.
Value of looking from the other perspective.
The result was never inevitable.
Central Powers
Britain had not begun to mobilise, invasion of 1914
France had lost its economic strength and Russia was backward.
Max Hoffman ‘In August 1914 we should have won the war in the west at a canter’.
Germany thrown when the Schlieffan plan failed. They never figured out how they could win the war as an alliance.
Germany, as the strongest power, assumed others would go along with it.
Interior lines from 6 September 1915 from Berlin to close to Baghdad enabled Germany to share its strength.
Victory in sight: 1915
Allies beaten to a halt.
Russian thrown back. Serbia crushed. Gallipoli adventure defeated.
1917 exhaustion of France and Russia out – so a limited victory possible.
How had central powers been defeated by 1918?
Why with all these strengths could they have been defeated.
Haig : claimed that the great battles of 1916 and 1917 led to victory in 1918 having exhausted German might. The wearing out process enabled the 100 days to be so successful.
Constant pressure. The ability to resist had gone. 
What proved successful for Great Britain?
  • Liddel-Hart : the British naval blockade – the constant economic strangulation and the starvation of the German people on the home front. Did not feel that 1916 and 1917 had achieved anything more that great loss of life.
  • Lloyd George : overthrow of Bulgaria in 1918 left Germany and Austria weakened. The knocking away the props of Germany : Ottoman, Bulgaria …
What did the central powers do to undermine their own success?
Germany does not have a grand strategy. It only thinks in terms of military action, based on arrogance.  ‘German strategy combined narrow operational focus with political arrogance and wishful thinking’.
  • Falkenhayn: Do anything to get Russia out of the war.
  • Germany become greedy to hold territory and wanted more.
  • Falkenhayn: bleed Francs through Verdun.
  • Falkenhayn: strike somehow at the British Empire – U-boat campaign, aware that Britain if pushed off the continent would just regroup and return.
Germany’s strategy was inconsistent and opportunistic.
There was a  lack of consistent focus.
Western Front 1914 – Schleiffen Plan
Russia and Serbia 1915
Western Front 1916 – Verdun
1917 Dig in and see what happens : u-boat campaign, Lenin on a train to Moscow …
Italy in late 1917 Caparetto
Western Front 1918 – Spring Offensive before the Americans turn up.
Clausewitzian Outlook
Triangle of powers
Remove one – unlikely, remove two and you’d have to give in.
Germany thought in terms of a ‘aggregation of battles’ would ultimately win you the war. We will win battles and something will happen.
Lacking a grand strategic goal.
Especially 1918 – punch a hole and see what happen – it put Germany’s head in a nose.
How come? Germany lacked the politicians and those with a view shared the same view. A myopic view of war if the military are in charge.
Liddell Hart – Germany  regarded its allies only in terms of their ability to sustain her own armies’ e.g. Austrians told to leave 12 divisions on the eastern front. The don’t. The Breslan offensive crushes Austria in the east. No such things as the ‘Chantilly Conference’ instead the Central allies fought four wars.
No attempt to coordinate a unified strategy.
The ever eroding impact of the blockade.
Germany grossly underestimated the effect of a British blockade and proved incompetent at managing food supplies. Absence of manure, absence if medicines …relentless economic erosion: depression, demoralisation, disorder … into attempted revolution in autumn 1918.
Jan 1915 rationing introduced.
By 1918 : 800 calories a day for a man in Austria, 1,200 if you had a manual job. Lose weight and tired, more vulnerable to illness such as influenza.
And when it feels like it is all in vain ….
Exacerbated by news that the war is being lost.
German civilian morale wobbled in 1916 and in clear decline in mid-1918.
Popularity if u-boat campaign in ‘penny publications’.
Counter blockade with U-Boats proved to be a strategic disaster : based on wishful thinking, figures massaged and despite America coming into the war.
America cuts off 400 or so boats running the blockade and extends credit to France and GB. All Germany could think about was the Army that would be long to arrive.
Contestant military pressure on the Central Powers: all by Bulgaria fought on multiple Front simultaneously.
“Victories without profit” in 1915 gave way to a Materialschlact by 1916. – the Battle of equipment.
Defensive ‘victories’ in 1917 at a severe human and psychological cost.
Counterproductive to constantly tell the army that they were being victorious when the evidence showed otherwise.
Germany really were close to abandoning the ridges around Passchendaele.
Defeat of Russia in 1917 only a short term advantage.
Russian gains area just lines on a map : they get nothing back from it, have to leave troops on the line, 10% desertion rate when troops leave east from west.
Not an elite army, not fit, not even politically reliable.
By 1918 four years of attraction had fatally eroded the Central Powers’ manpower, material strength and morale.
Morale had crumbled by 1918 “organised surrenders”. Indicative of an army that has given up.
The materialschlat
See German war bond posters. Resolute defence.
Britain showing a clear and ever growing production lead over Germany in quality and quantity: fuses, tanks, aeroplanes …
The Hindenburg Programme of late 1916
Military dominated. Overly bureaucratic. Gaps in economic expertise.
Chronic and insoluble labour shortages. Germany doesn’t go to great lengths to employ women – but tries slave labour.
‘Despite all the extra hardship the Hindenburg Programme brought no increase in weapons production’ Watson, Ring of Steel p.415.
1918 Central Powers in economic crisis.
A total war required a total strategy.
Which collapsed first: government, popular will, or military?
There’s much more to the defeat of the Central Powers than just losing battles and being blockaded : Germany made mistakes and had no grand plan.
A cult of Hindenburg evident in the postcards of the period (Spencer collects postcards).

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