Reflections on the First World War: The German Perspective

by Dr Robert T. Foley

The First World War came to an ignominious end for Imperial Germany. On 6 November, Matthais Erzberger, a Centerist politician, was appointed to the commission to negotiate an armistice with the Western allies. Germany’s strategic and internal political situation was dire, as its allies sued for peace and mutiny and revolution stirred the German home front. Prince Max of Baden, the recently appointed Reichskanzler, informed Erzberger that Germany must have an armistice, a break in the fighting, at all costs, as the battle and home fronts could not hold. Thus armed, Erzberger led a small German delegation through the front lines on the night of 7 November to meet the Allied delegation headed by Marshall Ferdinand Foch.

The negotiating position of the German armistice delegation worsened over the next couple of days. As they were crossing the front line, the Independent Socialists overthrew the monarchy in Bavaria. On 8 November, the Majority Socialists withdrew from the Imperial Cabinet forcing the Chancellor, Prince Max, to resign. Friedrich Ebert formed a new provisional German government on 9 November, while Kaiser Wilhelm II fled to Holland. Erzberger and his group were left to get the best deal they could despite the fact the government from whose authority they negotiated no longer existed. To make matters worse, the German armistice delegation had no means of secure communication with Germany. The Allied armistice demands delivered on 8 November had to be couriered through the frontlines to the German army headquarters in Spa for transmission to Berlin. The answer came on the evening of 10 November in the form of a telegram from Berlin. This arrived in Compiegne uncoded and informed Erzberger to accept whatever terms he could get. Thus, the German delegation had to accept the harsh armistice terms offered by the Allies, and the guns fell silent on 11 November.

The war on the Western Front was over for Germany. The German army had failed in all its objectives. Not only had it failed to bring the war to a conclusion on terms acceptable to Germany, it failed to protect its own government and governing structure. The armistice not only brought the war to a successful end for the Allies, it also sealed the fate of the governing structures of Imperial Germany and its allies.

A number of factors were crucial to bringing about the defeat of Imperial Germany. This list is by no means exhaustive, but in my view played a central role in this defeat.

Lack of a military solution

The German army went to war in 1914 convinced that there was a military solution to the problems of Europe. Their war plan was at best an operations plan that aimed to defeat the French army decisively in the field within several months. In the view of German military planners, this would allow Germany to dictate peace to a defenceless France. Of course, this meant that there would be no need to plan in conjunction with the navy; the war would be over before naval power could come into play.

The failure of the Schlieffen plan and subsequent operations demonstrated the fallacy of this view. Repeated attempts at ‘decisive’ battle in both the east and west floundered in the face of the realities of large-scale industrial war. The conundrum of the trenches presented tactical and operational challenges that could not be overcome easily with the technologies and structures available.

One of the biggest challenges of the trenches was manpower. Time and time again, both sides proved it was possible to break into enemy trench systems. However, defenders were able to prevent these tactical break ins from becoming operational break throughs because they had reserves available to seal off. An operational necessity, manpower also became a strategic issue for the Germans.


Having experienced a population explosion between 1871 and 1914, the German Empire should have had more than adequate trained manpower available for the outbreak of the war. Indeed, Germany prided itself on its effective exploitation conscription in the Wars of Unification. However, after unification, the role of the army in German politics and society shifted subtlety. While defending the new state from external enemies was of course a prime mission of the newly unified German army, preserving the existing social and political status quo grew more important as a mission. Thus, the army and the government worked to keep the army as instrument that could be relied upon to suppress internal political unrest. Recruits were drawn disproportionately from rural, conservative areas, and conscription was not applied equally. As a result, in 1914 German mobilized some 3.5 million men out of the 10.5 million or so who were eligible for service. Of these 10.5 million only about half had received any military training at all. Of course, German war planners had assumed the war would be over before the need to draw on wider manpower reserves, but Germany struggled from the beginning to meet the manpower demands of the frontline.

It was not just the frontline that placed demands upon the young men of Germany. Above all else, the First World War proved to be a war of material. Although German industry was very strong in 1914, it relied upon the same pool of men to run the factories as the army did to man the trenches. This tension came to a head with the introduction of the so-called Hindenburg Programme in late 1916 and early 1917. This industrial strategy, a response to the far-better equipped and supplied French and British armies, aimed for machines to replace men in the trenches. The massive industrial expansion could not be carried out without withdrawing and exempting large numbers of men from the fighting front.

The Hindenburg Programme exacerbated and deepened a competition for manpower that German strategist were unable to resolve, and ultimately contributed directly to the collapse of the German army on the Western Front in 1918. By 1918, there were some 2 million military-aged men, who often had already been trained, working in the factories producing armaments and munitions the German army did not need, while the divisions in the front line defending against Allied attacks were hollowed out by casualties.

Lack of grand strategy

The competition for manpower is illustrative of perhaps the greatest problem for Germany in the First World War – the lack of any mechanism for formulating grand strategy. Although the German army had pioneered the development of the modern staff and war planning system, this remained a military sphere. Expecting the war to be over quickly, German ‘strategists’ before 1914 had focused on an operational solution to Germany’s strategic problems. While Erich von Falkenhayn recognized clearly in November 1914 that there was no battlefield solution alone to the war, Germany lacked any means by which all elements of national power could be coordinated to achieve a successful end to the war.

In theory, German grand strategy should have been orchestrated by the Kaiser. Wilhlem II, however, was incapable of performing this role. Falkenhayn learned during 1915 that his battlefield strategy of detaching Russia from the Triple Entente would not be backed by diplomatic initiatives carried out by the civilian Foreign Office. This convinced him to pursue a military solution to the war at Verdun, and the military solution to the war was taken up by his successors, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. This resulted in the disastrous decision to pursue unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.

Moreover, once the war dragged on, the governing system of Imperial Germany was unable to respond to the increasing complexities of waging modern, industrial war. They simply did not have structures in place, and were not able to create new structures, that would allow for the coordination and management of Germany’s scarce resources.

It was the German army that stepped into the void created by Imperial Germany’s weak political structures, particularly under Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The so-called ‘silent dictatorship’ orchestrated by the German High Command attempted to carry out the functions that were done by civilians in Britain and France. The Hindenburg Programme was a radical attempt at industrial strategy. However, its implementation was put in the hands of a general, who had no real understanding of the complexities of labour and industrial policies. Unsurprisingly, it did not work the way the army had expected and created an even deeper competition for scarce resources in Germany and her allies.

Of course, the defeat of Imperial Germany cannot be laid at the feet of the German army alone; the actions of its enemies on the battlefields, the seas, and ultimately the cabinet rooms, ensured that the Allies were far better at the formulation of grand strategy than Germany and its allies. However, no amount of prowess on the battlefield could make up for Germany’s failings at grand strategy.

The irony is that Alfred von Schlieffen, the author Germany’s plan to end the war rapidly through decisive victory on the battlefield, had called it right before the outbreak of the war. In his 1909 article in Deutsche Revue, ‘War Today,’ Schlieffen wrote: ‘A strategy of exhaustion [Ermattungsstrategie] is impossible when the maintenance of millions necessitates the expenditure of milliards.’ Schlieffen had foreseen that Germany would be unable to fight and win a long war. He feared that should a war drag on, the ‘red spectre’ of socialism would ultimately pull German society and politics apart. The course of the war may have proved Schlieffen’s operational ideas wrong, but it proved his strategic fears correct. Unable to develop any real means of moving beyond an operational approach to war, Imperial Germany’s war effort was doomed with the failure of the Schlieffen plan in 1914.


Image: Colorized photograph, depicting from left to right: German Admiral Ernst Vanselow, German Count Alfred von Oberndorff (1870 – 1963) of the Foreign Ministry, German army general Detlof von Winterfeldt, British Royal Navy Captain Jack Marriott (Naval Assistant to the First Sea Lord), Matthias Erzberger, head of the German delegation Center party member of the Reichstag (1875 – 1921), who was later murdered by Freikorps rightists for his role in the Armistice, British Rear-Admiral George Hope (Deputy First Sea Lord), British Admiral of the Fleet Sir w:en:Rosslyn Wemyss(First Sea Lord), Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch (1851 – 1929), and French general Maxime Weygand (1867 – 1965). Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s