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The Warlords

‘The Warlords: Hindenburg and Ludendorff’ by John Lee

Published: The Warlords: Hindenburg and Ludendorff: The Campaigns of Hindenburg and Ludendorff (Great Commanders)

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2005. Hardback. ISBN – 0297846752

Major-General Julian Thompson, of Goose Green/ Falklands fame, asked his fellow member of the British Commission for Military History, John Lee, if he would like to contribute a volume to a series on ‘Great Commanders’ about Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. John said no! But he would do a book about Hindenburg and his inseparable chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, as a study of their command relationship and the Prussian/German system in general. The book was to be an introduction to the subject, strictly limited to 60,000 words. (It is much easier to write a long book than a short one!!)

From a good basic knowledge of the German army and its performance in the First World War, he embarked on a wide reading of the life and times of the two ‘Titans’ of German history. They were a perfect example of the combination of old-style Prussian Junker military families, with the best and brightest of the commoners keen to get on in the army. Hindenburg had combat experience in 1866 and 1870-71; Ludendorff had none until 1914. But fate brought them together in East Prussia where they destroyed two Russian armies and saved the historic homeland from a hated invader. They were instant national heroes, at a time when the war wasn’t going at all as planned.

Their feud with their commander, Erich von Falkenhayn over allocation of resources ended with his dismissal and their accession to supreme power. While their energy and organisational skills have to be admired, their crass contempt for all politics in general, and democracy in particular, led to Germany’s downfall. All in all it was a very useful exercise to study German strategy and politics in some depth, to get a better grasp of the dynamics of the Great War.

It was, in the main, well reviewed. The writing drew very high praise from such luminaries of the world of military history as Professor Richard Holmes and Sir Michael Howard. Both of them took issue with the several references to ‘The Schlieffen Plan’. There was a lively debate going on in the military journals at the time about whether ‘The Plan’ was really a myth concocted after the war to excuse the German failure in 1914. I thought then, and still think, that the debate was a storm in a teacup. There were dozens of ‘Schlieffen plans’, designed to cover almost every combination of strategic factors imaginable, and they were continuously tested and up-dated. The plan in 1914 was ‘a’ Schlieffen Plan, if not ‘the’ plan.

Some reviewers with a good knowledge of the period praised the way John Lee slipped in a lot of ‘cutting-edge’ research about tactical developments in the war into a short work. One said it made a perfect primer on the Prussian system for officers on the Higher Command and Staff Course of the British Army. (The author would admit that he borrowed heavily from the superb Trevor Dupuy in writing those sections of the book).

On the down side, one early reviewer complained that the book seemed to draw entirely on English sources, and relied too heavily on Ludendorff’s own memoirs. I did explain that, with just 60,000 words to play with, I was not able to plunge into archival material. I used Ludendorff’s own words, partly to give him credit for some remarkable achievements, and partly to let him hang himself as he made a string of excuses for defeat. In case anyone thinks Britain should not have exhausted herself fighting Imperial Germany, let them look at the anti-Semitic, reactionary crowd that Ludendorff mixed with during the war, that eventually led him into the arms of the Nazis.

More hurtful was a remark by Hew Strachan, a fellow member of the BCMH. He should never have included a review of “The Warlords” in with other highly academic monographs. The books serve entirely different purposes. So, when he dismissed it as “brief and unoriginal”, I would respond that it was brief because it was supposed to be, as any introduction to a subject should be. If it is ‘unoriginal’ then Strachan dismisses an awful lot of very serious research into the tactical developments of the war on both sides, and there is not much more one can say about that! Richard Holmes said that all readers of the period, including himself, had reason to be grateful to John Lee for his work on the operations and tactics of the Great War. That will do nicely!!