Occupation(s): General of Staff of the German Army
Key qualities: leadership, intellect, aggression
Greatest achievement: victory at the Battle of Tannenberg
Neat ‘tache… who was he?
Once called ‘the most powerful man in Germany’, Erich Ludendorff was a prominent general in the German Army of the First World War. He was also a writer, military theorist, and ultra right-wing politician. He went to cadet school at an early age, and later attended the prestigious War Academy. He quickly rose through the ranks of the German military: in 1894 he was appointed to the General Staff of the German Army, and by 1911 he was a colonel.
He looks stern. What was he like in war?
Ludendorff was well read in military matters and put his education to use. Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, he worked on the Schlieffen Plan, Germany’s plan to wage war on two fronts against France and Russia.
In 1914, Ludendorff oversaw Germany’s first major action of the war: he led the German Army to victory at the Battle of Liège in August 1914, part of Germany’s invasion of Belgium, which was the gateway to France. Ludendorff remembered this attack on the Belgian fortified city with great fondness, later writing:
The favourite recollection of my life as a soldier is the coup de main on the fortress. It was a bold stroke, in which I was able to fight just like any soldier of the rank and file who proves his worth in battle.
The feat won him the Pour le Mérite, Germany’s highest military award for bravery, presented to him by the Kaiser.
Did he always find victory easy?
Despite his strategic skill and bravery in war, one of Ludendorff’s greatest victories was also one of his most difficult to achieve. The Germans had underestimated the strength of the Russian Army, and they were vastly outnumbered by their opponents at Tannenberg between 26 and 30 August 1914.
‘Our decision to give battle arose out of the slowness of the Russian leadership and was conditioned by the necessity of winning in spite of inferiority in numbers, yet I found it immensely difficult to take this momentous step,’ wrote Ludendorff.
Nevertheless, superior German tactics led to the Russians being encircled and crushed by their foe. The commander of the German 8th Army, Paul von Hindenburg, was celebrated for leading his army to victory at Tannenberg, but Ludendorff was also praised for his leading role in the battle, and the importance of his actions have since been emphasised by historians.
Ludendorff later called Tannenberg ‘one of the most brilliant battles in the history of the world’.
He sounds arrogant. Was he?
In short, yes – Ludendorff has even been accused of being a dictator. In 1916, when Hindenburg took over from Erich von Falkenhayn as Chief of Staff of the German Army, Ludendorff asked to be made Quartermaster General. Together, the two men led the Third Supreme Command, which effectively turned Germany into an expansionist military state over which Ludendorff had control.
In 1918, the Germans realised that they were about to lose the war; Ludendorff then resigned, and his power diminished. He spent the interwar period promoting the ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth, blaming others for his own failure to effecively manage the German Army’s supply chain.
He became involved in politics and was a vigorous supporter of the Nazi Party, participating in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. His relationship with Hitler was strained, but the latter was keen to align himself with the right-wing veteran, who became increasingly paranoid about the number and nature of Germany’s enemies.
What did he write about?
As well as writing his memoirs, Ludendorff advanced a theory of ‘total war’ (the total mobilisation of a nation’s forces against its enemies). He published this in 1935, just two years before he died from cancer.
This article was published in issue 72 of Military History Monthly.