In the years following the First World War, terms like the above title were frequently used to describe the military leadership. To many it still seems such an obvious question: with so many failed offensives with horrendous casualties, why didn’t the man in charge get the sack? Well, some did. Here’s a list.
Sir John French (1852 – 1925): First commander of the British Expeditionary Force, he was replaced by Gen. Sir Douglas Haig (1861 – 1928) in December 1915. You can read more about French here.
Joseph Joffre (1852 – 1931): Joffre’s greatest achievement was stopping the German offensive in 1914 at the First Battle of the Marne, where he skillfully moved his forces around to great advantage. His offensives in 1915 were all failures and, although the Germans ultimately abandoned their offensive at Verdun, the heroes of that epic battle were regarded as Gen. Phillippe Pétain (1856 – 1951) and Gen. Robert Nivelle (1856 – 1924), rather than Joffre. The swift conquest of Romania by German-led forces was taken by the new Briand government as a ‘last straw’ and on December 13th, 1916 after several weeks of political maneuvering, Joffre was ‘kicked upstairs’ to a titular position and the command of the French armies was given to Nivelle. Joffre resigned from his new post two weeks later, in return he was granted his Marshal’s baton, and then joined the military mission to the United States in April 1917.
Robert Nivelle: Confident that he had found the formula for success in his attacks against the retreating German forces at Verdun, Nivelle launched a series of attacks in the Aisne and Champagne regions with the objective of driving the Germans off of the Chemin des Dames ridge. This was in conjunction with the British attack at Arras farther west, which met with some success, including the capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadians. The Chemin des Dames ridge was ultimately captured but the French took heavy losses and the offensive took on a Somme-like character in that every attack resulted in less ground gained and higher losses than the last, and the senseless orders to keep attacking led to mutinies in which large numbers of French units refused to attack. The Nivelle Offensive ended on May 9th, 1917 with the French army in serious disarray, and Nivelle was replaced by Gen. Pétain on May 14th.
Luigi Cadorna (1850 – 1928): Began the war in August 1915 in command of the Italian army. He was a strict disciplinarian and a staunch advocate of frontal attacks. He mounted eleven offensives in the Isonzo River valley with the goal of capturing Trieste, but didn’t even get close, and his armies took heavy losses. In October 1917, on the northern part of the same front, a German-led counter-offensive drove the Italian armies back almost to Venice, with staggering losses, especially 275,000 captured. The French and British, who had to send eleven divisions from the Western Front to stop the attack, insisted upon Cadorna’s replacement and his former subordinate Armando Diaz (1861 – 1928) took over.
Helmut von Moltke (1848 – 1916): The nephew of the famous Generalfeldmarschall with the same name who was Otto von Bismarck’s right hand man and the architect of victory in the Franco-Prussian War. This Moltke was not his uncle’s equal and was tasked with executing a grandiose and bold plan drawn up by his predecessor as the Chief of the General Staff, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (1833 – 1913). Many consider Schliefen’s plan to have been hopelessly flawed; in any event, Moltke tampered with it on the one hand and failed to adapt to unexpected developments on the other. He was replaced by Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn (1861 – 1922) after the Germans were forced to pull back following the First Battle of the Marne. Many say that Moltke had suffered a ‘nervous breakdown’ and was unfit to command.
Erich von Falkenhayn : The architect of the Battle of Verdun, which might have Germany’s greatest blunder of the war. He may have been the proponent of the doctrine of attrition, which held that success would eventually come to the army that had the most soldiers, although there is evidence that he came up with this idea after Verdun. In any event, at Verdun it didn’t work, as the losses on both sides were catastrophic. Replaced in August by the reigning genius of the Eastern Front, Gen. Erich Ludendorff (1865 – 1937), and his titular boss Generalfeldmarschall Paul von Hindenburg (1847 – 1934), Falkenhayn took a field command in the east and quickly defeated the Romanian army. Sent to direct the Ottoman Forces in the Palestine region, he was unsuccessful in stopping Gen. Edmund Allenby’s (1861 – 1936) campaign in 1918.
Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich (1856-1929): The Tsar’s cousin, in 1914 he was appointed to the command of the Russian army. Although a career soldier, he had never held a high command and he was more of a bureaucrat rather than a leader; under his watch the Russian armies suffered several disastrous defeats. He was sacked by the Tsar in August 1915 after the Great Withdrawal when the Russians abandoned most of the Polish Partition to enemy control.
Alexsei Brusilov (1859 – 1926): Appointed to lead the Russian 8th Army in 1914, he achieved significant success against the Austro-Hungarian armies in 1914 and 1915. Although the Tsar was officially the head of the Russian armies, Brusilov was running the show on the battlefield. Employing advanced tactics for the day, his offensive in June 1916 was a major victory against the Austro-Hungarian army and rendered it incapable of operating without German assistance for the rest of the war. In May 1917 he became the supreme commander, but politics and the failure of the 1917 Kerensky Offensive led to his dismissal two months later.
There were some who managed to avoid the axe:
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, especially after the Third Ypres offensive, familiarly known as Passchendaele.
Gen. Erich Ludendorff, as above.
Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (1852-1925), commander of the Austro-Hungarian armies, who in spite of numerous calamitous blunders remained secure in his command to the end of the war. He played an instrumental role in the start of the war, strongly advocating that the empire had to punish Serbia.
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