Fritz von Loßberg
Friedrich Karl "Fritz" von Loßberg (30 April 1868 – 4 May 1942) was a German colonel, and later general, of World War I. He was a strategic planner, especially of defence, who was Chief of Staff for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th armies. He was present at the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Arras and the Battle of Verdun. Loßberg was born in Bad Homburg in Hesse-Nassau. Erich Ludendorff refers to him as Loszberg in his memoires. English-speaking sources often spell his name Lossberg. Loßberg was later to become "legendary as the fireman of the Western Front, always sent by OHL to the area of crisis". (Oberste Heeresleitung, OHL, Supreme Army Command).
He was the "foremost German expert on Defensive Warfare. Was made a floating Chief of staff during crises, with Vollmacht the right to issue orders in a superior's name". In Military Operations France and Belgium 1917 part I, Cyril Falls, the British official historian, referred to him as ...a very remarkable soldier..... Loßberg was awarded the "Pour le Mérite" (the Blue Max) for his work on the Western Front on 9 September 1916 and oak leaves on 24 April 1917.
Throughout the eight months which Colonel von Loßberg spent in Mézières [in early 1915] he was straining at the leash to return to more active work at the front, and the first opportunity, which came by accident, he seized with both hands. His chief, Colonel Tappen, was still away when the French offensive [in the Champagne region] was delivered on 25 September and Loßberg deputized for him when General Falkenhayn explained the situation to the Kaiser, William II, the following morning. A message had come through earlier from the chief of staff of the Third Army, Lieut.-General von Hoehn, that the left corps might have to be withdrawn two miles to behind the Dormoise, and Colonel von Loßberg during his account of the situation on the Champagne battlefront expressed strong disapproval of such an action. Within three hours of that interview he was on his way to replace General von Hoehn as chief of staff, a marked honour for a junior colonel of only two months' seniority, as all the other chiefs of staff of armies were at least major-generals.— Wynne
Loßberg was one of the leading proponents of the system of defence-in-depth.
Early life and the first years of World War I
Loßberg was commissioned in the Guards Regiment in 1888; the third generation of his immediate family to serve in it. He qualified as a general staff officer and in 1911 became an instructor at the Kriegsakademie(War Academy). He was appointed chief of staff of the XIII Württemberg army corps in 1913, in 1914 it fought on both the Western and Eastern Fronts. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in January 1915, he was transferred to OHL (Oberste Heeresleitung , Supreme Headquarters) at Mézières France, as deputy chief of operations. He already knew the supreme commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, as well as the chief of operations and other members of the staff, while the Kaiser remembered him as “the fencing lieutenant in Berlin”.
The Germans defended the Western Front in the Prussian tradition: the defenders were massed in the front line and instructed to “Hold what you are ordered to hold “. Some of the OHL staff foresaw that with more guns and ammunition the enemy’s pre-attack barrages would soon be converting their crowded front line into a slaughterhouse. Their thinking was stimulated by instructions captured from the French Fifth Army in May 1915 stipulating three lines of defense. The first line was manned by sentry groups, with listening posts in front. It was to be strongly built but lightly garrisoned. If attackers broke through they would face a second, main line of resistance, which included dugouts to accommodate all of the defenders of the first two lines. A third line incorporated shell-proof shelters for the reserves. The artillery was just behind it. On the OHL staff Colonels Max Bauer and Bussche and Captains Geyer and Harbou liked the idea of defense in depth and discussed making it flexible, by permitting the garrison of the front line to retreat to join the main line of resistance if the front was breached. Loßberg was attracted by defense in depth, but argued firmly against elasticity, because he had been impressed in battle by the demoralizing effect of fleeing men.
Chief of staff
In September 1915 the French attacked in Champagne, east of Reims along a front of 30 km (19 mi), advancing behind a cloud of poison gas and smoke. The German 3rd Army was driven out of their front line, their chief of staff proposed to withdraw 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) further to shelter behind a river. He was replaced by Loßberg, who just as he arrived at army headquarters was telephoned by a corps commander asking whether they would still withdraw that night. Loßberg ordered him to hold where they were. A few minutes later he met his commander, General Karl von Einem, who endorsed the cancellation and agreed that Loßberg might go immediately to the front with full powers. The French were sure to attack again once they had moved their artillery forward. When Loßberg arrived at the height on the north side of the valley they had been driven into, he was immediately struck by the strength of the position they had been forced to occupy. They were now defending a reserve trench on a reverse slope 200 metres (220 yd) beneath the crest. This line was hidden from French artillery observers on the ground but still gave the defenders plenty of space to mow down attackers who emerged over the crest. Its flaw was that the German artillery observers, usually placed in the front line, were also blind. Loßberg ordered the observers to set up their positions along the crest where he was standing, which gave them a perfect view of the slope opposite where attackers would appear and they would no longer work in the noisy, smoky confusion of the front line during an attack. The reserves were placed just behind the northern hill, Loßberg ordered shelters to be built for them. Pickets were dotted along the crest of the hill facing the French. These depositions fit perfectly to his belief that the "Strength of the defense lies in concealment from enemy observation". Then he motored to the headquarters of each of his corps to direct them to position their lines similarly. The new defense stymied further French attacks.
When the British and French attacked at the opening of the Battle of the Somme, Falkenhayn summoned Loßberg to his bedside at 0100 to ask him to take over as chief of staff of the 2nd Army, the southernmost on the attacked front, where the French had penetrated. Loßberg would agree only if the German attacks at the Battle of Verdun were stopped. Falkenhayn shook hands—but never kept his promise. At 2nd Army headquarters its commander, Fritz von Below, gave Loßberg permission to go to front with full power to issue commands. When Loßberg saw how the original front line trenches had been utterly demolished by the enemy barrage, he ordered the defenders to stand where they were but to adopt a mobile defense in depth. The front line was to be held lightly, with the defenders moving forward into shell holes as soon as a bombardment began. The artillery observers were moved behind the main line of resistance to heights where the reserves for the battalion holding the sector were also sheltered. Enemy penetrations would be driven back by counter-attacks. If possible an immediate counter-attack would be launched by the two reserve battalions of the regiment holding the sector. It would be led by the front-line battalion commander, who knew the conditions best. Close behind the front Loßberg stationed counter-attack divisions. In Loßberg's system, corps, which had contained a set trio of divisions, became responsible for the length of front held by three divisions: the divisions making up the corps were changed if necessary, but the corps remained responsible for its terrain. If an attack threatened, Loßberg tried to be in the front line at daybreak to gauge morale. Most days Bellow and Loßberg visited a section of the front, except during attacks when they had to be at the telephone exchange. They were careful to relieve divisions when they had given their all.
After Hindenburg and Ludendorff took over OHL on 29 August 1916, Loßberg was delighted to watch the spirit of the army revive. The German attacks on Verdun were stopped immediately. Unlike their predecessors Moltke and Falkenhayn, the new team solicited and freely discussed ideas. Loßberg was asked for a report describing his defensive tactics. In September construction began on a new backup line well behind the current front, which the enemy called the Hindenburg line. It was built with all recent refinements, including shallow dugouts with concrete roofs that could be left quickly when attacks began. When Loßberg motored through the almost completed line he saw that the artillery observation posts were built into the front line trenches, which therefore were on a forward slope exposed to enemy ground observers. Supported by Below and their Army Group Commander the Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, Loßberg successfully argued for building a new front line, wherever possible on a reverse slope, with positions for a light line of first resistance on the crest, so now the artillery observers were in the second line, overlooking the enemy. OHL issued a paper the "Conduct of the Defensive Battle" on 1 December 1916. Mostly written by junior staff officers, it incorporated many of Loßberg's ideas for mobile defense in depth but also recommended elasticity: permitting the defenders of the front line to retreat if forced. Loßberg still strongly opposed elasticity in his report that OHL published on 30 January 1917.
The British attacked the 6th Army near Arras on 9 April 1917, advancing behind a creeping barrage for almost 4 kilometres (2.5 mi), capturing the heights of Vimy Ridge, which gave their observers a commanding view over the Douai Plain. On 11 April, Loßberg was made chief of staff of the 6th Army. He found the defenders in chaos but in the Crown Prince Rupprecht’s words he was "almost superhumanly imperturbable". He swiftly organized new defensive lines, telephoning Ludendorff that this time the defense would be elastic because the front line was so readily observed. If forced the front line defenders would withdraw and the battle would be fought at the second line, which was mostly on a reverse slope, easily observed by artillery observers. Counter-attacking infantry were now using newly developed stormtrooper tactics. When reserve divisions advanced from the artillery protection line to counter-attack, they came under the command of the division they were supporting. Repeated British attacks gained no significant ground.
After the brilliant British capture of the Messines Ridge on 8 June 1917, Ludendorff asked Loßberg to move to Flanders as chief of staff of the Fourth Army, commanded by General Friedrich Sixt von Armin. Loßberg knew the typography of the Ypres Salient from 1914. For the first time he could organize a mobile defense in depth before an attack began. He strove to make the defenders invisible to attackers on the ground and even to their aerial observers. As soon as the bombardment began the men in the foremost line left their trenches to shelter in shell holes scattered randomly about in front of the line that the British artillery was smashing. These defenders were provided with boards so they could shelter above the ground water that filled the bottoms of the holes and with corrugated iron and canvas for crude roofs. They were to fight to the end from these holes with their light machine guns. The second line of resistance was about 4.5 kilometres (2.8 mi) behind the front, near the effective limit of the enemy’s field guns. It had concrete nests for heavy machine guns and shelters for riflemen, mortar crews and light machine gunners but if the attackers broke through, most of the defenders moved into shell holes so they could strike from unexpected directions. They also were to hold their positions even if their line was penetrated. Before successful attackers reached the artillery protection line, they would be met by counter-attackers from the reserve division. The 14-day, 6-million-shell bombardment ended on 31 July 1917; the British anticipated that their infantry would advance 5–8 kilometres (3.1–5.0 mi) on the first day. By midday the surviving attackers were penetrating the second line of resistance when they were smashed into by counter-attackers, who pushed them back even as the rain began to pour down, the start of dismal, sodden, bloody weeks. The day after the attack, Loßberg was promoted to Major-General.
On 16 August, the British attacked again but with orders to advance only 1,500–2,000 yards (1,400–1,800 m) before digging in to repel counter-attacks. Such bite and hold tactics forced the Germans to change also. Ludendorff, who increasing directed the defense, placed more men in the foremost line and waited until the following day to mount a carefully organized counter-attack. The British artillery overwhelmed the foremost defenders and their immediate supports. On 7 October the Germans returned to a lightly held front which would retire to the main resistance line where they would be joined by counter-attack troops, while a dense artillery barrage would be laid in front of the main resistance line. The emphasis was still on a mobile defense, companies were assigned zones, rather than lines, to defend. After Ludendorff took responsibility, Loßberg does not describe the further changes in his book, which was based on a diary.
Their final configuration was that each front division should establish a main line of resistance 400 metres (440 yd) behind the front. It consisted of strong points which would hold out even if the line was breached. Heavy machine guns, working in pairs, were just behind this position, along with a few field guns as anti-tank weapons. The battle zone extended to a depth of 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) behind the front; it was dotted with points of resistance that if necessary would be held until relieved by the counter-attack. Since the maximum range of field artillery was 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) attackers nearing the end of the battle zone could only be supported by their heavier guns. A reserve division was in position close behind this battle zone. If it launched a counter-attack it was led by the commander of the division at the front. This defensive doctrine was carried over after the end of World War I. After enormous sacrifice, by bite and hold, the British took the Passchendaele Ridge on 30 November 1917. Now they faced another strong line of German field works while still another behind that was close to completion.
Loßberg wrote little in his memoirs about 1918, the year in which the Germans launched their astonishing breakthrough offensives on the Western Front, starting with Operation Michael which smashed through the British lines near Cambrai. It created a vast salient that increased the length of the German defensive front but failed to take any strategic objective. Loßberg urged OHL to withdraw from the useless but costly salient but they did not. The next offensive was by the 4th Army in Flanders, in which Loßberg was chief of staff, at the Battle of the Lys. There was another brilliant breakthrough, which after the initial successes was stalled by reserves manning a stout mobile defense in depth. On Loßberg's advice they stopped attacking even though they had not reached the major railway junction that was their objective.
OHL then shifted the attack to Champagne, to draw away the French troops who had been sent to help the British in Flanders. The German advance in the Third Battle of the Aisne was the most remarkable yet, they reached the right bank of the River Marne, only 56 kilometres (35 mi) from Paris, which the French government prepared to evacuate. OHL decided that they must enlarge this salient, so they would be able to bring forward enough supplies to drive on to Paris. On part of the sector assaulted the French front line was lightly held and easily overrun but as they thrust forward the attackers unexpectedly encountered the main line of resistance, beyond the range of the German field guns, where they were stopped.
OHL decided to strike again in Flanders, to finish off the British. Ludendorff came on 18 July 1918 to discuss the next operation with the commanders there, including Rupprecht and Loßberg, who found Ludendorff "aggressive and confident". His mood was shattered by a telephone call reporting that the French and Americans had smashed through the right flank of the salient pointing toward Paris, on the opening day of the Battle of Soissons. Everyone in the room realized that they had lost the war. There were no more German attacks, instead OHL was forced slowly to withdraw their Western Front, hoping to establish a shorter defensive line that could be held. First they had to evacuate all of their wounded, then essential supplies like food and ammunition, and finally the fighting troops, who were being assaulted all along the front. They reorganized for withdrawing, on 8 August, Loßberg became chief of staff of Army Group von Böhn, made up of Second, Eighteenth, and Ninth Armies. Early in November he was reassigned to OHL. The Armistice specified that all German troops still remaining in France, Belgium, Luxembourg or Alsace-Lorraine after 14 days would become prisoners of war. They were all out in time, a final display of the organizational skill of the German staffs.
In the small post-war German Army, the Reichswehr, Loßberg was first in charge of defending the new eastern border with Poland. Then he became general chief of staff and later commanded the 6th Division. He retired in 1927 as a general of infantry and died in Lübeck on 14 May 1942. His son Bernhard was also a general staff officer, known for the Lossberg study for the invasion of Russia.
Decorations and awards
Loßberg was an honorary citizen of Bad Homburg, his home town and received medals and decorations:
- Iron Cross of 1914, 1st and 2nd class
- Pour le Mérite (21 September 1916) with oak leaves (24 April 1917)
- Order of the Red Eagle, 4th class
- Order of the Crown, 3rd class (Prussia)
- Knight's Cross of the Royal House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords
- Service Award (Prussia)
- Honor Cross 2nd Class of the Princely House Order of Hohenzollern with Swords
- Knight's Cross of the Military Order of Max Joseph (Bavaria)
- Military Merit Order, 3rd class with Swords and Crown (Bavaria)
- Commander's Cross Second Class of the Military Order of St. Henry (Saxony)
- Knight's Cross Second Class of the Albert Order with Swords (Saxony)
- Commander of the Military Merit Order (Württemberg)
- Knight's Cross of the Order of the Crown (Württemberg)
- Commander Second Class of the Order of the Zähringer Lion (Baden)
- Bravery Medal (Hesse)
- Military Merit Cross, 2nd class (Mecklenburg-Schwerin)
- Knight's Cross, First Class of the Order of Henry the Lion
- Knight's Cross, First Class of the House and Merit Order of Peter Frederick Louis (Oldenburg)
- Commander of the Order of the White Falcon
- Hanseatic Cross of Bremen
- Commander, First Class of the Ducal Saxe-Ernestine House Order with Swords
- Cross for Merit in War (Saxe-Meiningen)
- Ludendorff, 2005, p.
- Lupfer, 1981, p. vii
- Wynne, 1976, p. 200
- Falls, 1992, p. 401
- Lupfer, 1981, p. 64
- Wynne, 1976, pp. 89
- Wynne, 1976, pp. 88, 149, 159, 191
- Wynne, 1976, p. 340
- Lossberg, 1939, p. 150.
- Wynne, 1940, p. 149.
- Wynne, 1940, pp. 98-99.
- Meyer, 1981, p. 33.
- Wynne, 1940, p. 332.
- Lossberg, 1939, p. 215.
- Wynne, 1940, p. 118.
- Lossberg, 1939, p. 359.
- Rupprecht, 1929, p. 3
- Meyer, 1981, p. 67.
- Wynne, 1940, p. 206.
- Meyer, 1981, p. 71.
- Wynne, 1940, pp. 310–313.
- Churchill, 1949, p. 800
- Lossberg, 1939, p. 343.
- Fisher, 1996, pp. 440–441
- Churchill, Winston S. (1949). The World Crisis. New York: Charles Scribner Sons. OCLC 246105015.
- Falls, C. (1992) . Military Operations France and Belgium 1917: The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the Battles of Arras. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence. I (Imperial War Museum and Battery Press ed.). London: HMSO. ISBN 978-0-89839-180-0.
- Lossberg, Fritz von (1939). Meine Tätigkeit im Weltkriege, 1914–1918 [My Activity in the World War]. Berlin: Mittler. OCLC 174418084.
- Ludendorff, E. (2005) . My War Memories 1914–1918 (Naval & Military Press ed.). New York: Harper & Bros. ISBN 978-1-84574-303-1.
- Lupfer, T. (1981). The Dynamics of Doctrine: The Change in German Tactical Doctrine During the First World War (PDF). Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College. OCLC 8189258. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
- Oldham, Peter (1997). The Hindenburg Line. Battleground Europe. London: Leo Cooper. ISBN 978-0-85052-568-7.
- von Bavaria, Rupprecht. M. L. F. (1929). Mein Kriegstagebuch [My War Diary]. III. München: Deutscher National Verlag AG. OCLC 643331329.
- Wynne, G. C. (1976) . If Germany Attacks: The Battle in Depth in the West (Greenwood Press, NY ed.). London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0-8371-5029-1.
- Fisher, Stephen D. (1996). "Lossberg, Fredrick von [1868–1942]". In Tucker, Spencer C. (ed.). The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. Garland Reference Library of the Humanities. 1483. New York: Garland: Garland. ISBN 978-0-8153-0399-2.
- "Defense in Depth". Time Magazine. New York: Time inc. 25 September 1939. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 10 August 2008.
- Meyer, Bradley J. (1981). "The Defense Expert: Fritz von Lossberg". Innovation and Expertise: Some Changes in German Tactical Doctrine during World War I (PDF) (MA (unpublished)). Columbus, OH: Department of History, Ohio State University. pp. 30–80. OCLC 9565612. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
- Zabecki, D. T. (2004). Operational Art and the German 1918 Offensives (PhD) (online ed.). London: Cranfield University, Department of Defence Management and Security Analysis. ISBN 978-0-415-35600-8. Retrieved 16 January 2017.
- Lossberg, Fritz von (2017). Lossberg's War: The World War I Memoirs of a German chief of staff. Foreign Military Studies. Translated by Zabecki, D. T.; Biedekarten, D. J. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-6980-4.
- Blue Max website
- Defence in Depth article at the Wayback Machine (archived 30 September 2007)
- Ties Fritz von Lossberg to Frederick at the Wayback Machine (archived 29 July 2009)
- Awarded Oakleaves Friedrich Karl von Loßberg, 24 April 1917
- Genealogy site
- Times, 6 October 1917; pg. 5; Issue 41602; col G Through German Eyes. The Western Command., General Von Lossberg