105: Changing of the Guard


By the second half of 1916 for both the French and Germans it was time for a change at the very top and by the end of the year both Joffre and Falkenhayn would be replaced.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 105. Last week we discussed three random topics, and this week we will cover a few more things that I also could not find a way to fit into other episodes. Unlike last episode where I felt that we were all over the place in terms of topics the items on the docket for today all have a theme. That theme is the changes in command of the French and German Armies, and then the relationship between that new German command and Austria-Hungary. In 1916 the man that had led France since the beginning of the war, Joseph Joffre, would lose his position as head of the French military and his replacement would be General Robert Nivelle. On the other side of the front Falkenhayn would also be replaced by the dynamic duo of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Both of these changes in command would have massive implications on what would take place in 1917 with both having a different outlook than the leader they were replacing. For the French it would mean the launching of what would come to be called the Nivelle Offensives, which would almost break the French Army. For the Germans it would mean a new focus and a new set of goals, along with changes to how the German and Austrian Armies were handled together. We will mostly discuss the military implications of the German change, however there were also wide ranging economic and societal changes that would be a direct result of the change in command as well, however I am holding those until next week when we start a month long deep dive into the home fronts around Europe which were really feeling the strains of the war.

On the French side there had been growing concerns among the French politicians about Joffre’s conduct of the war since 1915, but it had begun to solidify itself in 1916. The seeming complete failures of all of the French efforts during 1915 were coupled with the scandal of how unprepared Verdun was for the German attack finally put too much pressure on him. It was really only his status as the Hero of the Marne that had kept in his position as long as he was. However it all did come to an end, but even when the French politicians wanted to get rid of him they could not just sack him entirely, instead he was given a position as an advisor to the war cabinet, which ended up being mostly an empty title. He would spend a stint as the French representative to the Supreme War Council in 1918, however by that point it was mostly just ceremonial and he would be joined by another Supreme Commander who had lost his position in his own country in the form of Luigi Cadorna from Italy. Mostly Joffre just spent the next 12 years in the office provided for him and with the small staff he was allowed working on his memoirs. He would die in 1931, outliving many other French World War 1 commanders, although by that point he was living a life in relative obscurity. His replacement would be General Robert Nivelle who had made his triumphant entry into our story back in our Verdun episodes when he took command over the defense from Petain. The choice of Nivelle was somewhat interesting because if you wanted to rank the French generals in terms of experience or likelihood of succeeding Joffre he would have been at least 4th, at least by my estimations. There was Joffre’s deputy de Castelnau who had been serving at a high level of command since the start of the war, but he was too aristocratic and Catholic for some members of the government, there also may have been some concern about him continuing Joffre’s mistakes. There was also Foch who was also Catholic and then of course Petain who had done nothing but show himself to be extremely competent during the war and was something of a rising star, but again, also Catholic. Instead the French government went with Neville who had been credited with the turn around of the French efforts at Verdun from ones of defeat and defense to offense and victory. If you remember it was Nivelle who was put in charge of the French attacks at Verdun during the summer just when the Germans were reducing their commitment to the attacks and because of this he was the commander of the French troops that recaptured Fort Douaumont and push the Germans almost back to their February start lines, this action alone made him a bona fide hero. It was this and his political connections back in Paris that put him as the leader of all of the French war efforts even though he had started the war as a Colonel and had very little experience commanding large groups of soldiers. The one thing that he was not lacking was confidence in his own abilities, he completely believed that at Verdun he had determined the formula that would win the war, all he had to do was massively scale it up, find where to launch the attack, and let it fly. This belief would come to a head later in 1917 when the French would go forward on the Chemin des Dame where they would have their date with destiny, and mutiny. In my typical fashion, I would like to point out that if the Chemin des Dames would have worked, or if maybe it just would have went better and Nivelle would have been in command until the end of the war I would be talking about how choosing him over the other generals was a truly inspired pick, a man who had seen nothing but success so far in the war, who had quickly risen through the ranks through his actions, the French government really would have known what it was doing. But of course that did not happen and now pretty much everybody considers the choice of Neville to be a very bad move.

We now switch gears to talk about the Germans. Falkenhayn had taken over for Moltke way back in 1914 after Moltke had what appeared to be a nervous breakdown. 1915 had been a good year for him as in the West the German Army had repelled all of the Entente offensives while in the East the Russians had a serious setback at Gorlice-Tarnow. However, 1916 was a very different story. Essentially 1916 was Falkenhayn’s no good very bad year. It started with Verdun where the German attacks had quickly bogged down, had quickly started to suck in resources that could have been used elsewhere, and then produced no results, with the French retaking most of the ground by the autumn. This put Falkenhayn in a tenative position, especially with the rising stars in the East using all of their political muscle to discredit him. In the end the final straw would be from an unexpected direction, Romania. Just before Romania had entered the war against Germany Falkenhayn had boldly stated that there was absolutely no way that they would do so. This gave Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and Bethmann-Hollweg all the ammunition they needed to martial all of their political strength to get him removed. Bethmann-Hollweg had wanted Falkenhayn gone since they had disagreed so strongly over the 1915 unrestricted submarine campaign and the reasons that the Dynamic Duo would want him gone are obvious. There was one very important person who had to be convinced, and that was the Kaiser, it was his sole responsibility to name a replacement for the Chief of the General Staff, or any of the appointed political offices, and because of this Falkenhayn could have maintained his command if he had the confidence of the Kaiser, even if everybody else wanted him gone. The Kaiser had been a supporter of Falkenhayn for quite some time, but even he could sense a sea change, and on August 29th he sent a message to Falkenhayn that he should come to Potsdam to meet with him and Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Falkenhayn, knowing what was happening offered his resignation, and this was accepted by the Kaiser without comment. Falkenhayn was initially offered the position of ambassador to Constantinople, but he refused this posting and instead requested a military position instead. The new Chief of the General Staff Hindenburg accepted this request and made him the commander of the Romanian campaign, surely he saw the irony of that. It is because of this posting that we have not seen the last of Falkenhayn because here in a few months we will talk quite a bit about the Romanian campaign where Falkenhayn will in fact do quite well.

Field Marshal Hindenburg would become the Chief of the General Staff on August 29th and he would be joined, of course, by Ludendorff who would have the position First Quartermaster General. They brought a new vitality to the German command and the first thing that they did was try and get a handle on what was happening on the Western Front. It is important to realize that they had spent their entire war in the East, where they had found success, and I am sure that there were reports of the fighting in the West provided to them as a way of information sharing among the German commands however they did not have any first-hand experience with the fighting there since the opening moves of 1914 and the actions in the West were quite different than what they had dealt with in the East. Ludendorff would later right, in his typical pessimistic tone that “Our position was extremely difficult, and it seemed impossible to find a way out. We ourselves were not in a position to attack, and we dared not hope that any one of our enemies would collapse. If the war continued for any length of time, defeat seemed inevitable.” Seeing this situation for themselves put the problems in front of them into new context. The challenge as they saw it was that since they did not have the ability to take the offensive on the Western Front they had to find some way of seizing the initiative. They had to find a way to put their fingers on the scales somehow because just sitting at the front and enduring siege after siege from the Entente, who were getting better at execution every time they tried it, was just a recipe for defeat. They also knew that they would need to find a way to drastically increase munitions production back on the home front. Both of these were long term and large goals that would take months to plan, organize, and execute. There were a few quick actions that they could take to stop the bleeding, and that involved trying to minimize the gaping would that was the Somme and Verdun battles. Because of the cost of continued actions on these fronts there were new orders to conserve manpower, even if it meant giving up ground, which was something that was unthinkable previously. These were the easy wins, for the long terms goals they began the process of converting the entire German army to a new defensive scheme which would replace the heavily fortified front lines with a more elastic setup that would be the hallmark of 1917 and 1918 German defenses. They was not an easy process and it would take time both or the development of what they should do and also to make sure that all of the German commanders were on the same page. While it took a lot of time and resources it was also completely necessary. The Germany army had been beaten up badly in 1916 and because of that it was clear that it would be unlikely to endure another such year in 1917, which every German commander assumed would happen unless they figured out a way to fix it. Therefore this new defensive scheme hoped to keep the majority of the men out of the giant artillery preparations that were now a hallmark of British and French attacks and instead used an increased emphasis on small unit actions with both a reorganization of the basic infantry unit and a downwards push of authority to junior officers to try and make the German defenses more responsive in times of stress. This allowed the Germans to bring most of their men out of the front lines of trenches because they would then be able to use these small units to execute timely and effective counter attacks, with the goal of recapturing what they were giving up to stay out of the artillery. All of these changes were complete before the Entente offensives of 1917, and while it would take a few iterations to get all the kinks worked out it would present the Entente with a very different beast to deal with than in 1916. Another key piece of the plan was an action that in previous years would have been simply unthinkable, the Germans were going to voluntarily give up ground in France, and not just a few square yards, a lot of it. They were going to retreat from the Somme battlefield and into the Hindenburg Line, which they would spend the entire winter of 1916/1917 preparing. This would allow them to shorten their lines by 50 kilometers, since they would be retreating out of a giant salient out into the Entente lines, and it would also give them a 10 division reserve. This was a huge decision, and one that would pay off in 1917, especially since it allowed them to sidestep the spring Entente offensive, which we will discuss in detail in later episodes. While these drastic changes were being made at the front they were also using their influence back in Berlin to start making political changes as well. The was was going badly, and the duo were seen as the saviors of the German cause and because of this they had immense political capital and they used this to start making changes. While these would begin relatively simply with industrial and propaganda campaigns with the goal of massively increasing artillery, machine gun, and munitions output it would eventually morph into something very different. This program would come to be called the Hindenburg Program and its goal was to double or triple the output of almost every essential war material by the spring of 1917 with the goal of hitting those increases by the time of the next entente attack. The details of this program are better left for another episode however it was a critical piece of the German war plan for 1917 and because of that we will be discussing it in some detail in a few episodes. For now it is enough to know that it was the political power of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in Berlin that was able to make it all happen, for better or for worse.

Our final step today is over to the Austrian side to once again reopen our discussions about the specifics of the ever changing relationship between Germany and Austria. Much like the Entente Germany and Austria came into the war without any real plan for how they would coordinate their efforts. The idea of a unified command structure between allies was not something that had been done extensively in previous European Wars, beyond temporarily giving a general command of a field army or corps during say the Napoleonic wars. All that Germany and Austria had in 1914 were some general understandings between Moltke and Conrad which had been developed between 1909 and 1914, but there was nothing concrete. In some ways it was similar to the agreements that the British and French had about what the BEF would do in a continental war. This created a problem for the two Centaral Powers as the strain of the war grew and grew, and there were huge pieces of information that were not being shared between the allies, pieces of information like the German plans for Verdun for instance. Knowing that you ally is about to commit most of its reserves in an effort in France might have been important for Conrad and the Austrians to know since it would greatly limit the availability of German support in case of emergency. This would cause problems for both parties when the Brusilov offensives began. I think we spoke in pretty good detail during those Brusilov episodes about how the Austrians slowly lost their powers of independent action over the course of 1916, with the root of that process being back in 1915. It was during that year that General von Mackenson was given command of the armies that were moved against Serbia, and which would eventually remove Serbia from the war. It was at that point that there was friction between the Germans and Austrians as to what Mackenson should do next with his army. Conrad wanted to continue to attack through Montenegro and onto Salonika, Falkenhayn absolutely did not. In that specific situation the attack was not continued, but it is a good example of why not having a unified command could cause so much friction. Every time a decision had to be made that involved both German and Austrian troops Conrad and Falkenhayn would butt heads about what should happen, and everytime somebody would walk away dissatisfied. This constantly degraded their relationship. This was eventually solved in September 1916 with the creation of a Supreme War Council after the Ottomans and Bulgarians suggested it, probably with a nudge from the Germans. This should have solved the issue of coordinating all of the nations, but unfortunately it did not because the Austrians were still given the ability to control the Italian front, which would sort of defeat the purpose in the long run as they had a habit of doing whatever they wanted to there instead of coordinating with others. Overall, because the Germans and Austrians did not come into the war with a good way of coordinating their military commands it greatly hindered their ability to work together at a time when it was absolutely essential, it probably contributed to their defeat and it was only in late 1916 that they began to rectify the situation. However, while I am being a bit down on them right now, the Entente would have the same problems and it would take them even longer to setup some form of overall command, and it would take them being pushed to their moment of greatest crisis, and the German attacks in the Spring of 1918 to make it happen. So, with that, I think we will end for this episode. I hope you will join me next episode as we begin a series of episodes focusing on the home fronts and how the war was putting extreme strain on all of the societies of Europe, and for some countries it would change them forever.