Erich von Falkenhayn is most associated with the Battle of Verdun in 1916 – one of World War One’s bloodiest battles. Falkenhayn was criticised for his tactics at Verdun and after the war he tried to justify the tactics that he used – that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of German soldiers.
Falkenhayn was born in 1861 in West Prussia. Prussia had a strong military tradition and it was not unusual when Falkenhayn joined the army. He served as a military instructor in China beginning in 1899. Falkenhayn was a member of the German staff in China during the Boxer Rebellion, and he participated in the relief of Beijing. Falkenhayn remained in China until 1903.
When he returned to Germany, Falkenhayn served on the General Staff. In 1913, he was held in such regard that he was appointed Minister of War for Prussia. In this position he had to serve with one of Germany’s most famous military men – von Moltke – and the two did not get on as they argued over most everything.
Germany’s initial successes in World War One were not built on. The Battle of the Marne was seen in Berlin as a failure. In fact, the failure of the German army to take Paris was seen as a failure and Moltke was held responsible. He was dismissed by William II and replaced by Falkenhayn as Chief of Staff. As a strategist, Falkenhayn was considered to be cautious and a man who did not want to take risks.
This approach was shown in the 1915 campaign on the Eastern Front. General von Luderndorff had developed a plan that, if successful, would have trapped and effectively destroyed the Russian army on that front. However, it was a bold plan that left Falkenhayn feeling uncomfortable as it has too many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to it. As a result, he refused to support Luderndorff and gave his support to a more conservative plan that gave the Russian army plenty of room to evade the German army - and it gave the German army room to withdraw if it went wrong. Luderndorff did not forgive Falkenhayn for rejecting his plan.
Falkenhayn believed that the war was going to be won or lost on the Western
Front. He believed that he could launch a decisive blow
against the French and destroy their esprit de corps by taking out the forts in Verdun
that had always offered France defence from attack. These forts had survived
intact throughout the 1914 German attack. In 1916, Falkenhayn believed that they
were ripe for attack. His plan was nothing more than a war of attrition – to
wear down the defences of the French and bleed their army white. Falkenhayn
believed that if Verdun was captured, then the whole of France would surrender
as Verdun, in the minds of the French, was impregnable.
Falkenhayn’s plan for Verdun relied on one simple thing – German success. In fact, by the time the battle had ended, German casualties were horrific. If the French had been bled white, so had the German army. The German army never fully recovered from Verdun and after the war Falkenhayn was blamed for this – especially his overwhelming confidence that his strategy would work as a letter he wrote to William II indicated.
string in France has reached breaking point. A mass break-through -
which in any case is beyond our means - is unnecessary. Within our reach
there are objectives for the retention of which the French General Staff
would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the
forces of France will bleed to death."
Falkenhayn to Kaiser William II
was a failure for the German army and Luderndorff was aware of this – and he
had not forgotten Falkenhayn’s lack of support for his plan for the Eastern
Front. Luderndorff was also gaining more favour with William II and in August
1916, Falkenhayn was relieved of his post and sent to the Transylvanian Front to
command the IX German Army. Ironically, he found success here conquering the
Roumanian army and entering Bucharest in December 1916.
In 1917, Falkenhayn was sent to Palestine to bolster the German position there. Here he was not successful and he was defeated by troops led by General Allenby in October 1917. In 1918, he was dismissed from this post and he returned to Germany and retired. Falkenhayn died in 1922.
Falkenhayn will always be most remembered for the Battle of Verdun and the slaughter that took place there.