Your RDA of Irony

Brilliant Plans, 1916

February 21st

The Romans consider March the appropriate beginning of the year; it was the first month when the weather was suitable for a war.  In 1916, Erich von Falkenhayn couldn’t wait a week.  The Chief of Staff of the German Army had a strategy with all the subtlety you’d expect from a Prussian.  With a larger population than France, Germany could win a war of attrition.  So von Falkenhayn would force France into a battle that would be–as the Germans termed it–a meat grinder.  The German attack, beginning this day in 1916, was against the French fortifications near the city of Verdun.

Von Falkenhayn should have been aware that the French had allies.  Perhaps he dismissed the Russians as an ill-supplied horde led by imbeciles.  But the British had proved tenacious, and Vicks armaments were nearly as good as Krupps.  Indeed, the British would mount an offensive to relieve Verdun, and that effort was the Somme.  It turned out that the British were a well-supplied horde led by imbeciles.  (The junior officers, however, proved fine poets–even if the acclaim was usually posthumous.)

But Von Falkenhayn also overlooked the calibre of his ally.  The Austrians were an adequately-supplied, polyglot mob more likely to defect than fight; and their commanders were more conspicuous for their charm than ability.  (The last decade of the Hapsburg Empire was described by a British diplomat as “situation critical but not serious.”)  True, the Austrians were only facing the Russians but what if….

And that IF actually happened.  In June, four Russian armies attacked the Austrian lines in the Ukraine and Southern Poland.  The campaign, named for its commander Alexei Brusilov, lasted until September when the Russians finally ran out of supplies; but in that time, the Austrians lost 15,000 square miles, 1.5 million men– including 400,000 prisoners, and any claim to having an army.  The Brusilov Offensive was actually the greatest victory of the War; if it had happened on the Western Front, the War would have ended.  But the incompetent Tsarist government and the disintegrating Russian society couldn’t support this unparalleled victory.  Russia no longer could afford to win a battle, let alone fight it.

However, Russia’s victory was France’s salvation.  To keep Austria-Hungary from collapsing, 15 German divisions were rushed from France to the Eastern Front.  So the French held on to Verdun, losing 160,000 men but not their will to fight (at least until 1940).  Having lost 140,000 men themselves, the Germans abandoned the campaign.  Von Falkenhayn could claim his attrition strategy had succeeded, but Kaiser and the German General Staff didn’t seem to agree.

The general was replaced.  He eventually would be reassigned as the military advisor to the Ottoman Empire.  There, no one expected him to win.


  1. tsitrian says:

    “The junior officers, however, proved fine poets.” I’ll never forget the day on the trading floor when I mentioned Wilfred Owen and you proceeded to recite “Dulce et Decorum Est” all the way through, with me finally joining in on those last lines, “that old lie, dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Great piece, as ever. A wonderful friend sent me a photo journal of the battlefield at Verdun a few years back. I love the way the grounds were left to grow and evolve the way they would naturally–quite a contrast to our own Civil War battlefields, which are carefully maintained to match their exact looks during the war. I think I like the French method more, as the naturally developed setting is haunted by vestiges of the battle itself, a decaying bunker here, some rusting artillery there–much of it practically hidden from sight by the new growth. John

  2. tsitrian says:

    Last time Dawna and I were there (’05) we traveled around quite a bit and got a laugh at the many statues depicting the bravery of French soldiers, all of them standing in militantly victorious poses. They were everywhere. Then when we went to the D-Day museum in Caen, Normandy, I just shook my head at the way the invasion was presented: a grand French enterprise, ably assisted by the Americans, the Brits, and the Canucks.

  3. tsitrian says:

    “All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love”–Dick Diver while he’s walking along the trenches of the Great War in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night. And to anyone here who feels like following up, John Keegan’s history of the war is the best one I’ve read.

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