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Army Supreme Command
Oberste Heeresleitung [OHL]

Kaiser Wilhelm II dominated German political and military life at the start of the war. He appointed the chancellor and his cabinet, determined foreign policy and commanded Germany's armed forces, despite the fact that there was ostensibly a 'Supreme Command'. The domain of the Chief of the General Staff, in his capacity of representative of the Supreme War Lord in the Supreme Command, was limited only by the powers constitutionally conferred upon the highest officials of the Empire. Thus - and it is worth mentioning in this connection - the conduct of the policy of the Empire, which was incumbent upon the Imperial Chancellor, and the conduct of the army administration, which was the War Minister's duty, remained independent of one another.

The first of these was led by Helmuth von Moltke, Chief of Staff of the German Imperial armies, 1906 to November, 1914. He was a nephew of the Helmuth von Moltke, who led the Prussian armies to smashing victories over Denmark, Austria, and France, 1864-1871. The nephew, lacking his uncle's genius, wes removed from command following the German defeat in the First Battle of the Marne (September 1914). Following the defeat at the Marne, he was told to report himself sick, and replaced as Chief of the German General Staff by Erich von Falkenhayn, the Prussian minister of war.

The Second Supreme Command was headed by von Moltke's successor General Erich von Falkenhayn from 1914 to 1916. On the evening of the 14th of September, 1914, in Luxemburg, Lieut.-General von Falkenhayn, then Minister of War, was entrusted by His Majesty the Emperor and King with the post of Chief of the General Staff of the Army in the Field, in the place of the invalided General von Moltke. The change was not universally made known forthwith. It took place, however, to the full extent of the duties of this post, so that from that day onwards until his resignation on the morning of August 29th, 1916, the General assumed sole responsibility for Germany's conduct of the war, whilst until the day of his appointment he had had neither indirect nor direct influence upon it. On November 3rd, 1914, the definitive appointment of Lieut.-General von Falkenhayn as Chief of the General Staff, retaining at the same time his position as Minister of War, was made known.

The chief of the German General Staff had from the start few friends but many enemies. Since the failure of the attack on Verdun, Emperor Wilhelam had begun to be besieged with complaints against the man who had his particular confidence. The Imperial Chancellor also urged that Falkenhayn should be replaced by Hindenburg, with a vigour quite unusual with him. The summer battle made the situation more acute. A depression fell over Germany, the army lost faith in the Supreme Command, and louder and louder became the clamor for Hindenburg.

On Aug. 29 1916 Falkenhayn left the Supreme Command. It had long been only a question of when the Kaiser would be forced to yield to the storm raised by Falkenhayn's critics; the immediate cause of his dismissal was Rumania's declaration of war on Austria-TIungary on Aug. 27 1916. Up to the last hour, in spite of the well-founded warnings of Austria-Hungary, Falkenhayn had been unable to believe that Rumania was on the point of coming in, and had perpetually reassured the Kaiser to that effect. When the event happened the Kaiser was thunderstruck, and Falkenhayn's fall followed.

Although the Somme battles continued until 19 November1916, as early as August 1916 the German situation at the Somme, Verdun, and in the east appeared sufficiently grim to necessitate a change of chief of staff. On 20 August, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, formerly the commander in chief of the German forces on the eastern front, replaced von Falkenhayn. More importantly, his principal assistant, Lt. Gen. Erich Ludendorff, came to OHL with von Hindenburg. The field marshal was the figure of authority but Ludendorff exercised the dominant influence. Ludendorff's position was first quartermaster general, but his dominance of the conduct of the war made him the de facto successor of von Falkenhayn.

The complementary relationship between von Hindenburg, who provided the authority and steadiness, and Ludendorff, who provided the intellectual brilliance and drive, is difficult to comprehend by one raised in a tradition of dominant single personalities (which perhaps characterizes American military experience). The German tactical success was not the product of a single personality, but a corporate effort.

The German nation and its allies greeted the new men of the Third Supreme Command, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, with the utmost confidence. The Third Supreme Command effectively ran Germany as a military - industrial dictatorship during 1916-18 and anyone who opposed its militant and belligerent strategy was removed from office. The Hindenburg Program, a demand-driven armaments program, and the Auxiliary Service Law, the (attempted) militarization of the entire able-bodied population, aimed at subjecting German civilian life to military needs. The Chancellor was not the real ruler of Germany, nor even the Kaiser. Von Hindenburg had complete control of both the naval and military forces, with the power of demanding the cooperation of the civil authorities. This power he exercised through the Auxiliary Service Law, which places every civilian at the disposal of the army. Voluntary offering of service, indeed, was desired, but the law gave the power of compulsion, should voluntary service fail.

Austro-Hungarian troops had, from the very first Russian attacks, shown considerably less power of resistance than the German. A rule was made that on every point of the battle-front where the Russians were using great pressure German units should be flung in. On 16 September 1916 the agreement on the Oberste Kriegsleitung [Supreme War Command] was signed in the German headquarters in Prussian Silesia. According to these arrangements, shortly after acknowledged as binding by the Bulgarian and the Imperial Ottoman Army Commands, the German Kaiser became responsible for the higher leading of operations in general without disturbing the relations between the allied sovereigns and their fighting forces. The Kaiser was assisted by the chief of the General Staff of the German armies in the field, who before every important decision was to consult the chiefs of the allied General Staffs and, as far as possible, bring them to an agreement. This done, the German chief of the General Staff would issue orders, binding on all, in the name of the Oberste Kriegsleitung. The agreement on the Supreme War Command had been signed on the part of the Germans by Field-Marshal von Hindenburg as new chief of the General Staff.

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Page last modified: 19-01-2019 18:36:07 ZULU