A Bavarian general records the unraveling of the grand German war plan in 1914 into a grueling conflict fought largely from the trenches.
General Karl Ritter von Fasbender, commander of the I Bavarian Reserve Corps in Flanders in 1914, was very familiar with the plans that General Alfred von Schlieffen, former chief of the German General Staff, had drawn up in 1908. A year before, Fasbender had been named chief of the Bavarian General Staff, and had participated in war games to test the plan. Excerpts from the diary he kept in Artois from September through December 1914 show the general becoming more and more discouraged. The short, decisive war that Schlieffen had predicted would defeat France and allow Germany to focus on the eastern front instead dragged on and on. German forces were becoming mired in destructive warfare akin to an ancient siege–a war where victory seemed beyond reach.
Thus we sink deeper and deeper into the earth, eyeball to eyeball with the enemy,” wrote Fasbender. “We lie for weeks, even months, largely passively across from one another. Few of us have the nerve to demand that the troops advance.”
The German Army that went to war in 1914 was strikingly different from both its western and eastern opponents.
Unique among the armies of the major European powers, the German army relied heavily on reserves–both in terms of overall strength and in manner of training. Reservists made up almost half of every active infantry regiment at combat strength. Moreover, many corps, divisions, and regiments were cobbled together entirely of reservists. They were trained to deploy alongside active formations from the start of any war. Germany, unlike France and Russia, had no second-line troops in its 25 army corps, and it had very few true reserve formations from which to replenish combat losses.
Based on the lessons of Prussia’s Seven Weeks’ War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, Germany’s army regulations stated that only the “collective offensive” could bring victory. Thus, infantry had to “nurture its intrinsic drive to attack aggressively.” It had to be guided by one thought: “Forward against the enemy, cost what it may.”
In 1913 the Kingdom of Bavaria, with some seven million inhabitants, had a peace time army of 4,000 officers and 83,000 noncommissioned officers and men. Upon mobilization in August 1914, Bavaria, a division of Germany, had a so-called field arm y of 7,700 officers and 269,000 non commissioned officers and men.
The reserve corps that Fasbender commanded was a special German institution. As Schlieffen began to conceptualize his strategic two-front design of dealing first with France before turning against what he expected would be a slower-to-mobilize Russia, he realized he would need more troops, in any shape or form. His solution was to end the de facto division of the Prussian army into an active field army and a reserve occupation army. By 1900, he had decreed that the new reserve corps would train in peacetime with the active corps, and would not be stood up helter-skelter on the eve of a war and rushed into battle unprepared. The reserve corps could be brought up to full artillery strength, and the march to the front alone would give it the necessary cohesion to fight as a unit. There were enough officers and noncom missioned officers who had completed their two-year term of active duty to staff the new corps. The unit’s size would be limited only by the availability of artillery, about half that of a regular army corps.
Once all call-ups for war had been completed in August 1914, Fasbender’s I Bavarian Reserve Corps was approximately 20,000 strong. A small nucleus of active army officers was attached to Fasbender’s staff. Two thirds of the corps were first-line Landwehr soldiers that had completed their four to five years with the reserves; the other third were reserves who had fulfilled their two year active service. All were between the ages of 26 and 37. In all, the I Bavarian Reserve Corps moved out with a complement of almost 45,000 officers and men.
Fasbender was sufficiently familiar with the Schlieffen Plan from his staff war-gaming experience to know that the great Aufmarsch (that is, deployment) in the West had unraveled by early September. In calculating his projected 40-day victory march to Paris, Schlieffen had provided a precise timetable for the advance. French forces were to be weakened so decisively by the 27th day after mobilization (M+27) that 11 army corps could be transferred to the eastern front to meet the developing Russian threat. In fact, Helmuth von Moltke, who succeeded Schlieffen as chief of the German General Staff in 1906, released a mere two corps for that purpose on August 25 (M+26). When his armies reached the Marne River on September 5, and especially when he ordered the withdrawal of Gen. Alexander von Kluck’s First Army and General Karl von Billow’s Second Army behind that barrier four days later (M+31), the great blueprint was in tatters. Moltke was forced to relinquish his position as chief of the German General Staff on September 14. His successor, former Prussian War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn, tried to rescue what was left of Schlieffen’s options by shifting forces north through Picardy, Artois, and Flanders in a last-minute attempt to turn the French left flank.
Fasbender and the I Bavarian Reserve Corps became part of that effort. The corps spent the first few weeks of the war in bloody engagements around Nancy, and thereafter was assigned to relatively quiet positions along the Selle River in Lorraine near Chateau Salins. On September 29, it was deployed in a line from Lille to Douai to Arras, to guard the right flank of Duke Albrecht of Württemberg’s Fourth Army in Picardy.
It was slow, bloody going. Human and horse remains as well as shattered trees littered the flat farm fields around Lens. On September 30, within 24 hours of taking the field, Fasbender detected a pattern:
French forces in the front lines would surrender, whereupon those behind them would open fire on the advancing Bavarians. “The response consists of taking no more prisoners,” Fasbender wrote in his diary. On October 3 (M+63), the Bavarians crashed into the heavily industrialized region around Lens. Fasbender discerned “an obscure mish-mash of houses, factories, and pit mines, a haven for repeated, hidden, and malicious resistance.”
On the afternoon of October 4, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the Bavarians to spur them on to victory. The official Bavarian history rose to lyrical heights: “Like lightning, the news of this visit passes down to the troops in the forward-most positions; it enflames the enthusiasm and regenerates the energy that has threatened to lapse.” At 11 o’clock at night, the troops “with their last breath and against incredible opposition” stormed Givenchy and Souchez. Major General Otto Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein’s 1st Reserve Division, supported by General Georg von der Marwitz’s four cavalry divisions, slowly made their way up the 55-yard-high ridge that extends west of Vimy–where Canadians later raised a monument to national sacrifice. A German Imperial Headquarters decree seized the moment: “His Majesty wishes to see the cavalry in the enemy rear tomorrow.”
General Falkenhayn took the flabbergasted Fasbender aside and whispered: “Even if you cannot accomplish [seizing the French rear with cavalry the next day], just hold your position. That suffices.” It was command by chaos.
Fasbender lucidly wrote of the mismatch between prewar military planning and battlefield reality in his 1914 diary:
All villages, without exception, are firmly en closed complexes consisting of massive buildings with½ meter thick stone walls…. This type of construction obviously convinced the French to resort to fighting village to village… which enhanced their insidious tactical principles. They defend the villages with inferior numbers thanks to the natural protection accorded by these buildings, and then hold the center with superior numbers. Whenever we encircle a village and enter it, the French shower us with fire from every window, slit window, and cellar.
The Bavarians had no choice but to go after the defenders one by one and to evict them from their hideaways. “This proved to be almost impossible; in any case, very tedious, ” Fasbender noted. Most devious of all, Fasbender noted, the French defended the villages with black territorials, “having informed them that all captured Turkos would be executed by the Germans.”
On October 4 Fasbender recorded that the proverbial fog of war continued to baffle the Bavarians. On the right flank, the 9th Infantry Brigade lost its way. One of its battalions got separated from its commander. Orders were lost. Infantry commanders had no maps. Staff officers used their cars to shuttle from one headquarters to another and relied solely on telephones to communicate with other headquarters; too few bothered to reestablish contact with the troops or to reconnoiter the terrain. Ammunition ran low. Field kitchens lagged behind. Heavy howitzer fire deci mated the advancing troops. Night brought chaos. By one o’clock in the morning of October 5, Fasbender discovered that the 9th Brigade had not been able to advance at all in the past 24 hours.
For three days and nights, the Bavarians had been fighting French and Algerian units street by bloody street. The reserve corps was exhausted. Recording his impressions in his diary, Fasbender wrote on October 5 that the campaign in Picardy was truly “bitter.” This was nothing at all like the theoretical exercises on Schlieffen’s baize staff table. It was not at all like the staff rides on the Fröttmaninger Heather where Fasbender had “gamed” various aspects of the great plan before the war. The beleaguered general wrote:
We have to fight from house to house, to dig the enemy out of cellars and silos, or to kill them off by throwing hand grenades down their hiding places. The battle at all times is extremely costly… after such fights the villages take on the appearance of ruins. All churches including their steeples are destroyed, all roofs bared to the sky, the walls caved in, entire houses bared to the elements. All glass panes are gone. Human and animal corpses litter the countryside. The stables are empty; the animals that survived are roaming about bellowing; the horses stand about dazed. Nothing is fed, watered, milked, because no one is left in the villages.
Here and there Fasbender discovered the facades of houses blown away, their occupants sitting, dead, in the chairs where they had been drinking coffee before the battle engulfed them. He reflected on the cost to his soldiers. “With how much blood was this determined resistance broken! Loss: 17 officers, 660 men.” Even so, the decisive breakthrough that Imperial Headquarters demanded had not materialized.
October 6 brought more tough going around Vimy. “Everywhere, the enemy was deeply dug in, supported by massive artillery, and determined to maintain lines of communications and supply to the rear.” There was no breakthrough in sight. The French had blunted General Marwitz’s massive cavalry sweep around Arras. Battalions–normally of 1,050 soldiers–were down to 300 to 400 “rifles,” and many of those had spent their ammunition. “The troops are tired,” Fasbender noted. “They must have rest.” The official history of the Bavarian field army later lauded the reserve corps, while recognizing its trials:
The soldiers of the l.B.R.K. [I Bavarian Reserve Corps], sons from all the Gaue [historical districts] of Bavaria, performed heroically in the battles of Douai and Arras…. The Reserve Corps, under the firm leadership of General Fasbender, in eight days of heavy, determined and bloody fighting had thrown the steadily growing enemy formations back–and then, spread out along an 18km front, had repelled all counter attacks. For days the troops had enjoyed no rest, much less a roof over their heads…
After a brief pause to resupply and reprovision, the Bavarians were again ordered to storm Arras, as part of yet another German effort to turn the French flank between Lille and the Channel coast. It was not to be. Determined French counterattacks preempted the offensive and once more German cavalry failed to make head way. Worse, the Bavarians were at the end of their physical and psychological tether. “The forces have been so weakened by weeks-long battles,” Fasbender wrote on October 8, ” that they are incapable of conducting large-scale offensives, especially under such difficult battlefield conditions.” A quick conference with regimental commanders convinced Fasbender that while the soldiers could hold their current positions, they could not resume the attack. “Some regiments have losses up to 50% and almost no officers. Lieutenants are leading battalions. Many battalions have shrunk to company strength.” Daily losses averaged seven officers and 240 men. The reserve corps’ active front was stretched beyond 10 miles; its field artillery was down from 24 to 12 batteries.
“The units are badly tattered,” the general wrote. “Everywhere the front must be patched up and holes plugged. We repel the enemy’s assaults, but that is all.” The Bavarians, Fasbender sadly recorded, had been reduced to begging for munitions.
All the while, French aircraft strafed and bombed the Bavarians. Near Givenchy, a French pilot dropped a bomb on a German ammunition column flanked by cavalry. “The result: 20 men dead, 22 mortally wounded, 32 horses dead and 4 munitions wagons destroyed.” The aftermath was grisly: “The hay stacks along the roadside caught fire and carbonized the men, horses and munitions wagons. The ammunition exploded on account of the heat–in short, a more than gruesome scene.” Other bombs detonated on impact with the ground and released a lethal shower of razor-like steel shards over a radius of 110 yards. “Legs, bones are literally cut off.” The Bavarians felt helpless, being without “anti balloon” guns or light field howitzers .
As Fasbender’s forces regrouped around Vimy for some much-needed rest, German General Staff Headquarters sent them a blistering directive, berating the troops for having used “in correct tactics” during their advance. The French, Falkenhayn’s staff lectured the I Bavarian Reserve Corps, had adapted much better to the terrain. Fas bender was irate over the staffs failure to comprehend field conditions. He poured out his frustrations in a formal report to his superior, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, on October 10:
The infantry with bared chests storms an ar mo red enemy, one who has superbly concealed himself behind crenellated walls. This demands countless sacrifices and corps after corps as it de ployed on the right flank was totally burned out [ausgebrannt} of infantry after it had stormed a few villages-only to run up against another fortified village for whose conquest it lacks sufficient living power. The adversary thus gains time systematically to expand and enhance his defenses.
The war in Flanders, Fasbender concluded, was akin to medieval “siege warfare.” Only by adapting the methods of siege warfare did he now think enemy villages could be taken. Advances that initially had covered as much as a mile or more now sputtered out after a hundred yards. The only obvious solution lay in using massive, concentrated artillery fire de signed to cause enemy formations to panic. Once more, Fas bender recorded the butcher’s bill for the slogging advance in his diary: ” Losses for October 11: 13 officers, 476 men.”
The Bavarians rested for several more days around Vimy. Now each day, Fasbender’s entry began with a laconic, “Quiet.” The weather turned “dreary” with fog and rain. The artillery was unable to register its guns in the mist and haze. Above all, artillery and ammunition remained in desperately short supply. What few reinforcements the I Bavarian Reserve Corps did receive consisted mainly of”young, barely trained war volunteers.” The only bright spot was that the French seemed to be equally exhausted and likewise reduced to the defensive. “It is a difficult struggle,” he concluded.
On October 21 (M+81) General Falkenhayn undertook yet an other attempt to turn the French flank. He called upon the I Bavarian Reserve Corps to secure his own left flank. At four o’clock in the afternoon, after a short two-hour artillery barrage, the reserve corps from Vimy mounted its last great assault of the year in fog and rain against Maison Blanche, southeast of Roclincourt. At St. Laurent the attack quickly degenerated into days of laborious and bloody house-to-house fighting. A new attack against Roclincourt itself likewise foundered on stiff French resistance. Fasbender lamented the scarcity of experienced officers–especially regimental, battalion, and company commanders. Several battalions of the 12th Infantry Regiment refused to leave their posts to charge well entrenched French positions.
Excuses mounted. Reports came of enemy trenches “lined by fresh troops head to head.” Officers “from the highest levels on down,” Fasbender observed, “lied or at least spun yarns” about conditions at the front. Ammunition once more was all too quickly expended. Officers issued and re issued orders that were never executed. Fasbender became concerned over what he termed “the advanced state of passivity.” Still, he wrote he was “absolutely re solved” to press the attack from Vimy. Yet once more the fighting quickly degenerated into what the Bavarian official history called “sapper and mine warfare.” Although the new howitzers that rushed up to the front did in fact reduce the French villages house by house, advancing through the rubble was slow, butcher’s work. “One battalion counted 200 dead in front of its trenches,” Fasbender noted in his diary.
The Bavarian losses mounted: 1 officer and 36 men died on October 21, the first day of the attack; 4 officers and 111 men by the third day; an other 4 officers and 375 men the fourth day; 8 officers and 344 men on the fifth day; and 16 officers and 625 men on the sixth day, October 26. By October 28 (M+88), Fasbender sadly noted: “We have no more officers. Some battalions are down to one officer, the commander. Their companies are led by proxy officers and sergeants-major. The cavalry has dismounted and their officers are ordered into the front lines to steady the troops.” Fog, mist, rain, and finally mud slowed the advance. The gloomy weather reflected the mood of the troops. On October 31, General Fasbender admitted to himself that the Picardy campaign had failed. “Major operations have been concluded,” he wrote. It was now the 91st day of mobilization–Six days beyond the period Schlieffen prescribed for victory over France. Arras still remained in French hands. The Bavarian official history recorded the loss of 240 officers and 12,231 men killed or wounded for the I Bavarian Reserve Corp since the beginning of hostilities–almost one–third of its original strength.
On November 1, Fasbender took stock of what he called the secondary effects of the siege-like warfare in Artois and Picardy. The heavy losses of officers, especially lieutenants and captains, had led to “passivity in the front lines.” Worse, the continuous fighting had taken its toll even on junior officers not yet blooded; now too many were requesting leave due to “psychological shock.” They reported the smallest of actions to Imperial Headquarters, such as the mere relocation of headquarters in the cellar of a captured building, as a “great victory.” Fasbender complained that General Falkenhayn’s headquarters drowned front line staffs with an avalanche of “paper orders.” Ever more rarely did he see German General Staff officers at the front, and their security details increased. Double the usual number of chauffeurs now manned the automobiles of staff officers-from company to brigade level. Telephone lines hummed with orders and counter-orders. Although it was customary that in war fresh forces seldom equaled the number of casualties, Fasbender noted, he found it “unheard of’ that frontline combatants now accounted for only 40 or 50 percent of formal unit strengths. And wherever a soldier was wounded, the corps commander sarcastically observed, three to four comrades stopped at once and guarded him, rifles at the ready. In short, the peacetime army was spent.
A week later, on November 7 (M+98), Fasbender summarized his war experiences for Gen. Constantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf, chief of staff of Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Fifth Army:
This war placed enormous demands on the troops’ willingness to sacrifice–and not just with regard to the deadly effect of the weapons, but also mainly due to the almost limitless expansion of the periods of combat. We no longer know days of battle, only months of battle. The field campaign has turned into a form of siege war fare- without actually being a siege war….
We Germans are the attackers while the French largely play the role of defender. And we can dis locate them from their defensive positions only with a great expenditure of time and blood. Our offensive power is burned out by the time we take their first line-not to mention their 2nd or 3rd. We have no more officers. Companies [of 250 men in peacetime ] are down to 60 to 80 men.
The crisp autumn days of maneuver warfare lay far behind. His troops had become mired in a troglodyte world of deep earthen trenches, “of mud and blood,” Fasbender concluded.
By November 9-the 100th day of mobilization–German and French forces lay hunkered down in their respective trenches, exhausted. Fasbender morosely noted that both sides had reached “a silent agreement” to cease firing whenever they retrieved their dead and wounded. Soon, the same principle applied when food and drink were hauled up to the front. An ad hoc live-and-let-live system was beginning to take rudimentary form.
With the front in Picardy stalemated, charges that “hysteria or perverse sensitivity” had gripped many of the officers of the I Bavarian Reserve Corps disturbed the general. Fasbender took the time on December 15, 1914, (M+136) to sum up at length his experiences with the reserve corps.
The reserve corps foundered, he believed, because it lacked “a strong core of experienced officers” who could take their part-time brethren under their wings and educate them in the art of war. And who, he queried, would be able to weld these disparate units into a cohesive whole, able to sustain the shock of the first battles in a war? The reserve corps simply did not have access to the experienced human material from which it could select its own “active officers ” as almost all officer aspirants (Fahnenjunker) were recruited straight into the active army corps with no prior training. In fact, most of the officers in the I Bavarian Reserve Corps had only been activated at the outbreak of the war.
Most of his officers were unfamiliar with one another; most would go their separate ways once the war was over. The commander of an active corps was looked upon as “a God-like figure before the war, during the war, and especially after the war,” Fasbender ruminated, whereas in a reserve corps that reputation had first to be earned, usually under lethal combat conditions.
As to the reserve corps’ performance under fire, the general noted that too often there had been little firepower discipline. “At the start of a campaign, the rifles open fire incredibly quickly and easily. Every where, one sees ghosts, enemies all around, every noise from a pneumatic tube gives rise to horrendous rifle fire, most of it shot off blindly.” In short, Fasbender was not enthusiastic about his reservists’ performance in 1914.
When Schlieffen presented he first contours of his grand design to the German General Staff in 1895, his deputy and quartermaster general, Ernst Kopke, had studied the draft and concluded that it was based on flawed notions of modern warfare. Another quick, decisive victory such as the Prussian army achieved at Sedan in September 1870, was out of the question.
“We cannot expect quick, decisive victories,” Kopke had warned Schlieffen. Both army and nation would have to be confronted with “these unpleasant perspectives if we wish to avoid a worrisome pessimism already at the outset of [the next] war.”
He warned that planner s could not ignore how lethal modern warfare had become. Even the “most offensive spirit,” Kopke had cautioned his chief, could achieve little more than a “tedious and bloody crawling forward step-by-step” in what would essentially degenerate into “siege-style” warfare.
Schlieffen chose not to reply. In October 1914, General Karl Ritter von Fasbender and the I Bavarian Reserve Corps experienced in Flanders just how accurate Kopke’s vision had been.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 issue (Vol. 21, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: ‘Eyeball to Eyeball With the Enemy’
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