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11-08-2015, 17:42

Erich von Falkenhayn (1861-1922)

Erich von Falkenhayn was the commander of the German army from September 1914 through August 1916. His role in World War I involved constant friction with his ostensible subordinates on the eastern front, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Falkenhayn's most fateful measure was his 1916 attack at Verdun. There he tried to compel the French to fight a battle so costly and prolonged that it would destroy France's ability to continue the war. Falkenhayn's failure led to the rise of the eastern generals, of whom Ludendorff was the dominant figure, to replace him. The future German commander was bom on September 11, 1861, near Thorn. He was the son of an impoverished Junker (i.e., noble) family with long-standing ties to the military. He became an officer in 1880, served on the General Staff, and commanded some of the European troops who put down the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. He rose to the rank of major general in 1912 at the age of fifty-one. A favorite of Kaiser Wilhelm II, he took the post of minister of war in the Prussian government in 1913. Helmuth von Moltke's emofional disintegration in August and September 1914 during the failed German offensive against France opened the way for Falkenhayn. Despite the doubts of many colleagues about Falkenhayn's grit and determination, the kaiser chose him to take over from Moltke. He also remained minister of war until early in 1915. Falkenhayn was one of the few military leaders to accept early on in the conflict that no quick victory was possible. One of his first decisions indicated some optimism, however. He launched a series of bloody attacks at Ypres, hoping to capture the enemy's strategic ports along the English Channel. Success here might have put Germany in an unbeatable position vis-a-vis the French and British. But the resulting failure sharpened his basic pessimism, and he came to believe that the best Germany could do was to obtain a favorable, negotiated peace settlement. But Falkenhayn shared one view held by many leaders on both sides: the western front was the crucial area of fighting. Thus, he clashed with the eastern generals as they called for heavy reinforcements and promised a decisive victory against Russia. Falkenhayn preferred limited offensives in the east while searching for a separate peace with Russia. When Russia had left the war, he expected German victories on the western front to compel Britain and France into accepting a negotiated settlement tolerable for Germany. In 1 9 1 5 Falkenhayn won a trio of successes. Using his reserves sparingly, he oversaw grand stategy and saw German forces sweep the Russians out of their Polish possessions, then overrun Serbia, all the time holding fast on the western front against attacks in Artois and Champagne. Nonetheless, nothing Falkenhayn did in 1915 brought decisive victory, and a successful end of the war still seemed distant. He now turned to Verdun and struck there in February 1916. The goal at Verdun was not to take the famous French fortress. Rather, Falkenhayn wished the French to fight a prolonged battle in the awkward bulge that Verdun made in the front. In such an encounter, he hoped to inflict intolerable losses on the French, to force them to leave the war, and thus to bring about the collapse of the anti-German coalition. But the French, led by General Philippe Retain, mustered the skill and fortitude to fight a successful defensive battle at Verdun. German losses approached those of the enemy, and the singleminded emphasis on Verdun left the Central Powers vulnerable elsewhere. General Alexis Brusilov led a spectacular three-month-long advance on the eastern front in the summer of 1916. This helped draw Rumania into the war on the side of Germany's enemies. Meanwhile, German resources were stretched to the limit by the British offensive at the Somme. Bombarded by criticism of Falkenhayn from the eastern generals, the kaiser removed him in late August 1916. Falkenhayn held a variety of high-level commands during the remainder of the war. His greatest success came in leading a field army in the German assault on Rumania shortly after he lost his position as commander-in-chief. The invasion of Rumania was a textbook example of successful offensive action, similar to the campaigns of World War II but rare in World War I. Falkenhayn proved himself a first-rate field commander. Thereafter he served with German troops supporting the Turks in Palestine, and in the spring of 1918 took command of a field army in Lithuania. Falkenhayn retired from the army in 1919. He died on April 8, 1922.

 

 

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