Erich von Falkenhayn

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Erich von Falkenhayn
Erich von Falkenhayn-retouched.jpg
Prussian Minister of War
In office
7 June 1913 – 21 January 1915
Monarch Wilhelm II
Prime Minister Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Preceded by Josias von Heeringen
Succeeded by Adolf Wild von Hohenborn
Chief of the German General Staff
In office
14 September 1914 – 19 August 1916
Monarch Wilhelm II
Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Preceded by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger
Succeeded by Paul von Hindenburg
Personal details
Born 11 September 1861
Burg Belchau, Prussia, Kingdom of Prussia
Died 8 April 1922 (aged 60)
Potsdam, Brandenburg, Weimar Germany
Awards Order of the Black Eagle
Pour le Merite with Oak Leaves
Military service
Allegiance  German Empire
 Ottoman Empire
Service/branch German Army
Ottoman Army
Years of service 1880–1922
1917-1918 (Ottoman Army)
Rank General of the Infantry (German Army)
Field Marshal (Ottoman Army)
Commands 4th Foot Guards (German Empire)
Chief of the German General Staff
9th Army (German Empire)
Army Group F (Ottoman Army)
10th Army (German Empire)
Battles/wars Boxer Rebellion
First World War

General Erich Georg Anton von Falkenhayn (11 September 1861 – 8 April 1922) was a German soldier and Chief of the General Staff during the first two years of the First World War. After his removal from that position he held important field commands in Romania and Syria. He became a military writer after the war.

Early life[edit]

Falkenhayn was born in Burg Belchau near Graudenz (now Białochowo in Poland) in the province of West Prussia om 11 September 1861. Becoming a cadet at the age of eleven he joined the Army in 1880. He served as an infantry and staff officer and became a career soldier. Between 1896 and 1903 he served in Qing China, on leave for several years, and saw action during the Boxer Rebellion. He also spent time in Manchuria and Korea. Afterwards, the Army posted him to Brunswick, Metz, and Magdeburg; becoming a Major General in 1912. In 1913 he became Prussian Minister of War, in which capacity he acted as one of the key players in the genesis of World War I when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo took place. Like most German military leaders, he did not then count on an overall war, but he very soon embraced the idea and joined with others pushing for Kaiser Wilhelm II to declare war.

Chief of Staff[edit]

Falkenhayn succeeded Moltke as Chief of the General Staff of the German Army after the Battle of the Marne on 14 September 1914. Confronted with the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, he attempted to outflank the British and French in the "Race to the Sea", a series of engagements throughout northern France and Belgium in which each side tried to turn the other's flank until they reached the coastline. The British and French eventually stopped the Germans at the First Battle of Ypres (October–November 1914).

Falkenhayn preferred an offensive strategy on the Western Front while conducting a limited campaign in the east: he hoped that Russia would accept a separate armistice more easily if it had not been humiliated too much. This brought him into conflict with Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who favored massive offensives in the east. Eventually – either in the hope that a massive slaughter would lead Europe's political leaders to consider ending the war, or that losses would in the end be less harmful for Germany than for France – Falkenhayn staged a massive battle of attrition, as claimed in his post-war memoires, at Verdun in early 1916. Although more than a quarter of a million soldiers eventually died – for which Falkenhayn was sometimes called "the Blood-Miller of Verdun" – neither side's resolve was lessened, because, contrary to Falkenhayn's assumptions, the Entente was able to replace their dead with fresh "human material" via the Noria system, which refers to French General Phillippe Pétain's practice of allowing a unit to remain for only a few days in an area of intense combat before it was replaced. Thus, troops were rotated between the front line and the rear, analogous to the operation of a "noria", a type of water wheel that continuously lifts water and empties it into a trough.[1]

After the failure at Verdun, coupled with several reverses in the east and incessant lobbying by Hindenburg and Ludendorff, Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of Staff by Hindenburg.

Later career[edit]

Falkenhayn then assumed command of the Ninth Army in Transylvania, and in August launched a joint offensive against Romania with von Mackensen. Falkenhayn's forces captured the Romanian capital of Bucharest in less than four months.

Following this success, Falkenhayn went to take military command in then-Turkish Palestine. Given the rank of Mushir (Field Marshal) in the Ottoman Army he was assigned to command the Yildirim Army Group, or Heeresgruppe F (Army Group F). He eventually failed to prevent the British under General Edmund Allenby from conquering Jerusalem in December 1917.

In February 1918, Falkenhayn became commander of the Tenth Army in Belarus, in which capacity he witnessed the end of the war.

In 1919, he retired from the Army and withdrew to his estate, where he wrote several books on war, strategy, and his autobiography. His war memoirs were translated into English as "General Headquarters and its Critical decisions"[2] and The German general staff and its decisions, 1914–1916.[3] With the benefit of hindsight he remarked that the German declarations of war on Russia and France in 1914 were "... justifiable but overly-hasty and unnecessary".[4]

He died in 1922 at Schloss Lindstedt near Potsdam.


Falkenhayn in many ways typified the Prussian generals; a militarist in the literal sense, he had undeniable political and military competence but showed contempt toward democracy and the representative Reichstag. For instance, he addressed the Reichstag in 1914 as follows: "Only through the fact that the Prussian army is removed by the constitution from the party struggle and the influence of ambitious party leaders has it become what it is: the secure defence of peace at home and abroad."[5]

Militarily, Falkenhayn had a mixed record. His offensive at Verdun proved a strategic failure. His defence of Palestine in 1917 was also a failure - though it must be admitted that his forces (which were overwhelmingly Ottoman in composition) were both outnumbered and out-classed; casualties were fairly equal in number, as well. On the other hand, his planning and subsequent conquest of Romania was a near perfect example of how to conduct an offensive against superior forces, considering additionally that he had little hand in planning the war effort. Winston Churchill considered him to be the ablest by far of the German generals in World War I. Dupuy also ranks him near the top of the German commanders, just below Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (The Encyclopedia of Military History, p. 915).

Foley wrote that Germany's enemies were far more able to apply a strategy of attrition, because they had greater amounts of manpower, industry and economic control over the world. The Entente powers resorted to many of the methods used by Falkenhayn in Russia in 1915 and France in 1916. As the cost of fighting the war increased, the war aims of the Entente expanded to include the overthrow of the power of the political elites of the Central Powers and by attrition achieved the ability to dictate peace to a comprehensively defeated enemy.[6]

All sources portray Falkenhayn as a loyal, honest, and punctilious friend and superior. His positive legacy is his conduct during the war in Palestine in 1917. As his biographer Holger Afflerbach (de) claims, "An inhuman excess against the Jews in Palestine was only prevented by Falkenhayn's conduct, which against the background of the German history of the 20th century has a special meaning, and one that distinguishes Falkenhayn."[7]

Decorations and awards[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Leonard V. Smith, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, and Annette Becker, France and the Great War, 1914-1918 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), page 82. See also: Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker, The Reader's Companion to Military History (New York, New York: Houghton Miflin Co., 1996),page 361.
  2. ^ Full text at
  3. ^ .full text (1920)
  4. ^ Falkenhayn, E von; "Critical decisions at General Headquarters" Hutchinson, London 1919, at p. 96
  5. ^ Craig, Gordon A., The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945, Oxford U P, New York 1956, at pp. 253-54.
  6. ^ Foley 2005, p. 268.
  7. ^ Holger Afflerbach (1994). Falkenhayn: Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich. Beitrage zur Militargeschichte. Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag. p. 485. ISBN 9783486559729. 
  • Holger Afflerbach: Falkenhayn. Politisches Denken und Handeln im Kaiserreich (München: Oldenbourg, 1994). The standard modern biography.
  • Foley, R. T. (2005). German Strategy and the Path to Verdun : Erich von Falkenhayn and the Development of Attrition, 1870–1916. Cambridge: CUP. ISBN 978-0-521-04436-3. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Josias von Heeringen
Prussian Minister of War
Succeeded by
Adolf Wild von Hohenborn
Military offices
Preceded by
Helmuth von Moltke
Chief of the General Staff
Succeeded by
Paul von Hindenburg
Preceded by
New Formation
Commander, 9th Army
6 September 1916-1 May 1917
Succeeded by
General der Infanterie Robert Kosch
Preceded by
New Formation
Commander, Heeresgruppe F
20 July 1917-6 February 1918
Succeeded by
General der Kavallerie Otto Liman von Sanders
Preceded by
Generalfeldmarschall Hermann von Eichhorn
Commander, 10th Army
5 March 1918-6 January 1919
Succeeded by