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The law made Emperor Wilhelm II the Commander-in-chief of the German Army, but the generals at the OHL made decisions largely on their own. At the end of the war they had practically superseded the government as the center of political power. However, the Imperial German Navy was led by the Admiralty Staff, from August 1918 by the Seekriegsleitung (Naval Warfare Command, SKL). Co-ordination was poor at the beginning of the war between OHL and SKL: the Imperial Navy did not even know about the Schlieffen Plan of an initial attack on France through Belgium.
At the start of the war on 1 September 1914, the commanders of the Prussian, Saxon, Württemberg and Bavarian troops joined forces in the OHL. Colonel general Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916), nephew of the legendary Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and a close confidant of the emperor, was appointed chief of the Great German General Staff. His subordinate as Quartermaster General was Hermann von Stein.
However, Moltke was compelled to resign after 14 days upon the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in the Marne offensive. The Prussian War minister Erich von Falkenhayn was appointed as his successor. Abandoning the initial plans, he threw the German Army into the Race to the Sea, which ended in the First Battle of Ypres. Von Falkenhayn came into conflict with the emperor and his General Staff colleagues, when he—despite the German victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes—pleaded for a peace agreement with Russia. Especially the commanders of the 8th Army on the Eastern Front, General Paul von Hindenburg and Major general Erich Ludendorff reacted with fierce protest. Already in January 1915, von Falkenhayn was replaced as War Minister by Adolf Wild von Hohenborn. On the Western Front, he advocated a "war of attrition" (Abnutzungsschlacht) which showed its limitations in the Battle of Verdun.
Upon Falkenhayn's failure, the "Tannenberg Hero" Hindenburg on 29 August 1916 took over the supreme command. His chief-of-staff Ludendorff, who had instigated Falkenhayn's demission, was appointed deputy chief of the "Third OHL" in the rank of a Quartermaster general (Generalquartiermeister). Hindenburg and Ludendorff had worked successfully in the same relative position on the Eastern Front. By his rhetoric and intellectual skills, Ludendorff was the actual chief manager of the German war effort throughout this time, with Hindenburg his pliant front man. Together, they acted as like military dictators, superseding both the emperor and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.
The third OHL made serious political and strategic mistakes. While the public wanted peace, the OHL by the Hindenburg Programme of a total war strategy sought victory at all costs. Ludendorff ordered the resumption of the U-boat Campaign, which provoked the United States entry in to the war. The OHL ensured safe passage for Lenin and his accomplices from Switzerland to Russia. It negotiated the peace of Brest-Litovsk only to be able to attempt a victory on the Western front in 1918.
Ludendorff was succeeded as Quartermaster General in October 1918 by Wilhelm Groener. The German collapse followed soon after, and in November 1918 the OHL was moved from Spa in eastern Belgium to Schloss Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel, in order to supervise the withdrawal of the German armies from enemy territory. In July 1919 it and the Great General Staff were disbanded by order of the Treaty of Versailles.