The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War

Alexander Meddings - July 6, 2017

It’s impossible to write about the First World War in good terms. As wasteful as it was preventable, it all started with the assassination of a relatively obscure Austrian archduke on June 28, 1914. None could have known that this assassination would ignite a political tinderbox, wrapped tightly in a barbed web of impossible alliances, and lacquered in layers of chauvinistic arrogance and diplomatic incompetency. The scale of the war’s slaughter and the sluggishness of its commanders to adapt to its technological demands popularized the phrase: “lions led by donkeys”. But there were some generals whose brilliance shone out even through the gas clouds and shellfire of the war’s front lines.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
Ferdinand Foch at Lafayette’s statue, 1917. Maritime Quest

Ferdinand Foch

“My center is in retreat, my right is giving way. Situation is excellent. I am attacking.” Whether or not Ferdinand Foch ever spoke these words, so often attributed to him, maybe a subject of doubt. But apocryphal or not, the pugnacious, all-out-offensive philosophy they convey captures the essence of the man perfectly. Ferdinand Foch was a firebrand, a standard-bearer of the “no retreat” mentality. If you were unfortunate enough to be a French infantryman serving under him in the early stages of the war, he was also—one can only assume—a devil in uniform.

Foch was a staunch defender of the power of the offensive (a subject on which he’d written two widely-read treatises as Military Professor at École Supérieure de Guerre). And if there was just one thing he had more conviction in, it was himself. In this respect, Ferdinand Foch stood in stark contrast to his counterpart Joseph Joffre. The latter was calm and reassuring; his steadfast resolution at the Battle of the Marne in 1914 almost certainly prevented the capture of Paris and, most probably, the war’s immediate conclusion in the West.

The strength of Foch’s self-conviction led to remarkable inflexibility. He incurred appalling French casualties at Ypres in October-November 1914, at Artois in late 1915 and at the Somme in late 1916. So why, you might ask, does he deserve a place among the war’s best generals? For a start, Foch was the French journeyman of the First World War, an immensely decorated soldier at the center of command from beginning to end. His experience might have been more of a quality if, like other generals of the war, he’d learned from it. But, controversial though it might sound, perhaps Foch’s best quality was in fact his stubbornness.

Foch’s famed obstinacy, which he used to just as good effect with his allies as he did with his enemies, certainly cost lives. But if we’re to judge him for his ability to bring the war to a conclusion, then we must also regard it as a virtue. And although we enter into the realms of counterfactualism when we say that he saved more lives by crushing German resistance in the Spring Offensive than he lost before, we do have to say that after being appointed generalissimo of the Allied Forces in March 1918 he certainly fulfilled his responsibility by bringing about a conclusive allied victory.

Assessments over Foch’s virtuosity as a general have waned with each passing generation. In the initial postwar euphoria he was placed on the same pedestal as Caesar and Napoleon. But as the nation came down from its high, this appraisal came to be replaced with questions: why such inflexibility, why such intransigence, why such needless death? This view belongs more to writing, rather than monumental history however, and as a mark of national respect for saving France in her direst time of need, Foch’s body rests at Les Invalides in Paris, interred in a resplendent tomb in a wing adjacent to France’s last great emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
John Monash receiving his knighthood from King George V, August 1918. Australian War Memorial

John Monash

Regarded by Bernard Montgomery as “the best general on the Western Front”, John Monash wasn’t your conventional military man. The Australian was, by trade, a civil engineer, covering a brief stint as a militia officer before the war’s outbreak. At Gallipoli, he led the 4th Brigade from 1915-1916. Then in June 1916, he was then transferred to the Western Front where he was appointed Commander of the Australian 3rd Division. Upon his arrival, he would write, in one of his many letters home, that: “War in France is simply child’s play compared to what it was in Gallipoli.” He’d revise this view the following month, however, as the Australians were called up for duty in the Somme Offensive.

The disaster at the Somme—in which ANZAC lost more men in two months than they did during the entire Gallipoli campaign—was sobering for Monash, as were the battles that followed at Fromelles and Pozières (at which he won a victory, albeit a pyrrhic one). Monash took General William Birdwood’s place as commander of the Australian Corps in May 1918. And, following his own motto of “feed your troops with victory” won a series of victories that led to the breaching of the Hindenburg Line and the signing of the armistice.

Monash is often overlooked, owing to his subordination to the British Command (Australia being one of the many dominions making up the British Commonwealth). And this is an injustice; as Australia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer has commented, it was at Monash’s rather than Haig’s headquarters where “the seeds for victory on the Western Front were devised and implemented.” Monash was meticulous in his planning of the battle of Hamel and Amiens in 1918, sometimes writing out orders detailing strategies down to the levels of individual platoons.

He also showed compassion and respect for human life conspicuously lacking among others in Allied Command. Always aiming to minimize needless casualties, he would pore over aerial photos and intelligence on enemy movements and set sensible, achievable targets. He would often say that in this new era of warfare, the commander of a battle was like the conductor of an orchestra. In grasping the modern complexities of war, Monash certainly commanded the respect of his band of men.

In spite of his achievements, John Monash is still something of a stranger to history. Granted, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Amiens he had his moment: receiving a knighthood from George V on August 12, 1918. Since then, however, his name has come to be overshadowed by the big beasts of the Franco-British-German armies. In 1958 Monash had a university—currently ranking in the world’s top 100—named after him, and rather less prestigiously his name is also attached to one of Victoria’s busiest freeways. But his reputation is now undergoing a renaissance, particularly in his native Australia, and the modest man from Melbourne is starting to get some of the recognition he deserves.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
John Pershing (center in the light uniform) and Joseph Joffre in France, June 1917. The State Historical Society of Missouri

John J. Pershing

Picked by President Woodrow Wilson as the man who would lead the US military in “the war to end all wars”, Pershing and his expeditionary force arrived in France between June and July 1917. The symbolism of their arrival can’t be understated. One of the first things Pershing did was make a trip to the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who’d helped free the Americans to struggle free from British tyranny during the War of Independence. A comment made by Pershing’s aide: “Lafayette, nous voilà“—(“Lafayette, we are here“) sent a simple but powerful message: by freeing Europe from a Teutonic tyranny of its own the Americans had come to repay the favor.

The Missouri-born man had gained a great deal of valuable experience prior to the Great War. Graduating from West Point in 1886, he commanded the African-American 10th Cavalry in the Spanish-American War (1898), acted as Brigadier General in the Philippine Insurrection (1906 – 1913) and fought against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1916. But despite the impressive résumé, the military hadn’t been Pershing’s primary calling. Briefly a pedagogue, Pershing also flirted with a career in law. And the exponential growth of the AEF under his generalship (from 130,000 to two million within 18 months of the US’s entry) shows an astute and meticulous mind that would have done well in a legal context. Thankfully, for the allies, he chose not to put it to one.

Pershing’s AEF carried out three vital operations on the Western Front: the Battle of Cantigny in May 1918, the assault of the Saint-Mihiel Salient in September and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from September through to the signing of the armistice in November. For almost a year he kept the American Expeditionary Force autonomous instead of having them sucked into depleted European units on the front. And this unquestionably paid off; German morale plummeted when faced with Pershing’s fresh-faced “doughboys”. And it plummeted further still against the fresh tactics of aggressive “open warfare” his forces waged—something the Europeans had long since become too exhausted for.

Pershing’s postwar reputation has survived pretty much intact. Logistical and operational errors notwithstanding—including the wasteful loss of life against German machine guns at the Meuse-Argonne—honors were heaped upon him. He was promoted to Chief of Staff of the US Armies in 1921, holding this position until his retirement in 1924. When he died in July 1948, an estimated 300,000 came to pay their last respects. And, in accordance with his wishes, Pershing was finally laid to rest in Arlington National Ceremony; under a modest tombstone but, most importantly, beside the men he’d led.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
Aleksei Brusilov at work, 1916. Den Store Krig

Aleksei Brusilov

An officer who served with distinction in the Russo-Turkish War (1877 – 78); an aristocratic commander who survived the political storm of the Bolshevik Revolution; an innovative and uniquely successful general on the Eastern Front: many are the historical accolades that can be given to Aleksei Brusilov. Born in 1853, Brusilov was already in his senior years when Russia entered the Great War. He was, at the time, enjoying a holiday (in Germany of all places) and scarcely made it back to assume command of the 8th Army. That he did, though, was to prove a blessing to the Russians. For without him, they would likely have drowned beneath the waves of Austro-Hungarian men long before they could have their revolution.

Like all other generals of the First World War, Brusilov suffered enormous causalities among his ranks. But the difference was that, in an attritional and largely static war, time and again Brusilov was able to penetrate fortified lines. He did this to great effect during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916, making considerable inroads into Austro-Hungarian lines, practically shattering them between Kovel and Lutsk in Ukraine. And he did this by departing from conventional military strategies, which, as time went on, were proving inflexible, ineffective and deplorably wasteful.

Brusilov saw little point in notifying the enemy about the time and place of an imminent charge by launching prolonged artillery bombardments along that line. He preferred instead to concentrate fire on key areas: targeting logistics, transportation and communication lines. At the start of the Brusilov Offensive, he was the first to deploy shock troops, sending them at vulnerable points along the Austro-Hungarian line and briefing them to hold it before waiting for the main Russian army to arrive in support and exploit the weak point.

Aleksei Brusilov may well have broken the stalemate on the Eastern Front if he’d been granted full control over the Russian Army during his eponymous offensive. As it was, however, his fellow commanders poured scorn over his innovations, preferring instead to stick to what they knew. They abandoned Brusilov’s signature speed and precision-based style of attack and returned to conventional tactics of prolonged artillery bombardments and dragged-out consolidations. As their men became locked into attritional fighting, soldiers were reassigned from Brusilov’s front. And this, in all likelihood, threw away Russia’s best opportunity to break through on the Eastern Front.

The Romanians capitalized on Brusilov’s gains along the Austro-Hungarian front, joining the war against the Central Powers on August 27 1916. The Germans too capitalized, but on the innovations that led to such gains. Coming to the rescue of their collapsing Austro-Hungarian allies, they quickly came to learn about his shock tactics, incorporating them into their own campaigns on the Western Front: particularly in the Ludendorff Offensive. The Bolsheviks also recognized his value, despite his conflicting loyalties. When he offered his services to lead the Red Army to success in the Polish-Soviet War of 1920, they accepted. And after his death in 1926—two years after his retirement—they granted him an honorable state funeral.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
Marshal Philippe Pétain around the time of the Battle of Verdun, 1916. Thought Co

Philippe Pétain

Known as “le sauveur de la France” (“the Savior of France”), Philippe Pétain is one of those rare historical figures whose life you can split cleanly into two halves: the good and the bad. As Charles de Gaulle—first his protégé, later his adversary—would posthumously comment, Pétain’s life had been “glorious, then deplorable, but never mediocre.” And it was during France’s darkest days of the Great War that Philippe Pétain could count his most glorious days.

Philippe Pétain rose from relative obscurity. A 58-year-old colonel commanding an infantry brigade, his organizational prowess, keen eye for detail and reliance on artillery swiftly propelled him through the ranks of the French military. By June 1915 he’d taken command of the Second Army and, despite the French failure to break through German lines at Champagne in September of that year, he was able to pinpoint specific strategic failings that could be put right in the future.

His moment of glory, though, came during his command of the Second Army at Verdun between February and May 1916. Pétain adopted the German tactic of rotating men from the frontline on a biweekly basis, and applied a principle he’d learned at the École de Guerre (College of War) to great effect: “Le feu tue“—”Firepower kills”. To illustrate the extent to which he meant it, over 15 million French shells devastated the Germans in the first five months of the battle. And his willingness to favor shell over soldier and to shy away from needlessly sending men on suicidal sorties earned him his soldiers’ trust and fierce respect.

History has judged Pétain kindly for his heroism at Verdun. It’s been less forgiving, however, for his postwar conduct. Riding the wave of his reputation into French politics, Pétain established himself as a nationalist republican. He harnessed (rather too strongly) the support of the far right, cozied up to Franco’s Fascist regime and upon the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, figuratively got into bed with Hitler: shaking hands with him at Montoire on October 24, 1940.

Pétain’s apologists cite his patriotism as the driving force behind his actions. But this does nothing to exculpate him from some of the more heinous deeds he was involved in. In July 1940, as Chief of State, he signed anti-Semitic orders, refused asylum in the face of Nazi persecutions, banned the formation of democratic movements and branded fighters of the Resistance “terrorists”.

Pétain was tried in August 1945, found guilty and sentenced to death. Charles de Gaulle, however, decided to commute his sentence: firstly to imprisonment at Fort du Portalet in the Pyrenees and then to exile on the Île d’Yeu. It was there, on July 25, 1951, that Pétain died, senile and in public disgrace. The final blow to his legacy was the government’s refusal to grant his request that his body be buried beside his men at Verdun; instead, they had it interred in a graveyard on Île d’Yeu.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
“The Duke of Victory” Armando Diaz during the Great War. Trentino Libero

Armando Diaz

Naples-born Armando Diaz deserves his place on this list irrespective of how he compares to his appalling predecessor, Luigi Cadorna. But the comparison is still worth making. From the beginning of his career, Cadorna was horrendous to his troops. Favoring the stick over the carrot, he operated on the rather more antiquated Italian principles of brutal discipline and severe punishments (even allegedly implementing the Roman practice of decimation). In spite of this—and the dreadful relationships he had with his political and military superiors—he ascended astronomically through the ranks. Aged 64, he was offered command over the Italian Army as Chief of Staff. He accepted, but on one condition: that he enjoyed absolute authority over all military decision-making.

His subordinates (and superiors) hated him yet they had no power to remove him. So they tolerated his frequent dismissals, summary executions—the highest number of any First World War army—and strategic incompetency. That is until the calamitous Battle of Caporetto in the fall of 1917, which ultimately proved too much. Diaz replaced Cadorna immediately afterwards, and put into effect a complete reversal of his predecessor’s style of leadership. He paid particular attention to his men’s well-being: extending periods of leave, improving the quantity (and quality) of rations, ensuring adequate accommodation behind the frontline and making sure they had recreational activities to participate in.

Diaz also orchestrated a series of reforms to the Italian Army’s frontline organization, bringing it more in line with the other more modernized armies of the Western Front. He departed completely from Cardona’s authoritarian approach, decentralizing command and assigning responsibility to capable commanders along his lines. He worked closely alongside General Pietro Badolgio—who later went on to become Italy’s 28th Prime Minister—in modernizing the Italian Army’s weaponry. But most importantly, he recognized that morale played just as important a role as machine guns and instated effective propagandists.

He saw to it that such propaganda was distributed among the troops: “Per la libertà e la civiltà del mondo” (“For the liberty and civilization of the world”); “Aiutarci a vincere” (“Help us win”). But not only did Diaz inject patriotic fervor into those on the frontlines, he also established a system whereby superiors could identify where it was such fervor was lacking and, where necessary and for the preservation of morale, move reserves around and plug the gaps.

Diaz was instrumental in the final stages of the war. On October 28 1918, he led the final Italian offensive from the Piave front. It wasn’t long before he routed the Austrians, and on 4 November he was able to declare an Italian victory. He went on to serve under Mussolini’s government as Minister of War: a role he held until he retired in 1924. During his tenure, he was rewarded for the part he played in the First World War with the title “First Duke of Victory”, granted to him by Italy’s King Victor Emanuel III in 1923.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
Douglas Haig visiting his troops, 1916. Toronto Star

Douglas Haig

“The Master of the Field”, “The Man who won the War”, “The Butcher of the Somme”: there’s nothing balanced about the many assessments made about the British Field Marshal over the years. Then again, there was practically nothing balanced about the man. A dour Scot from a family of whiskey distillers, Haig was a man of few words and even less charisma. He was also a fanatical Presbyterian—so much so that he believed God had informed him directly that he would lead the British and Canadians to victory on the Western front. But his faith also shaped his loyalty: to his men, to his country and to the Empire.

Haig took over the British Expeditionary Force in December 1915, relieving old friend and colleague John French. French’s replacement was inevitable; ironically French struggled to understand French, and would often leave meetings with his counterpart Charles Lanrezac with both unclear as to what they’d agreed. Haig was more suited to modern warfare than his predecessor. Willing to grind out attritional warfare, he adopted a “bite and hold” philosophy, combining the power of artillery, infantry, tanks and air support. Losses were huge, especially at the disastrous bloodbaths of the Somme and the Passchendaele. But this was inevitable, given the destructive power of the war’s defensive weaponry. And if he’s to be held accountable for these losses, Haig is also credited for the British Army’s steamrolling succession of victories after August 1918.

A barrage of criticism can be directed at Haig, as it can at other generals of the First World War. By modern standards, the lifestyle he led behind the frontlines was contemptible. From the comfortable safety of one châteaux or another, he consigned hundreds of thousands to their deaths. While theirs was a life of rats and rations, his was one of quail eggs and flowing champagne. But, though hindsight may judge him heinously, there was calculation and commitment to his cause. After issuing the “backs to the wall” command, at the apex of the German Offensive in 1918, he and his staff went several nights spent without sleep, organizing the counterattack that won the war.

For the most part, Haig’s contemporaries respected him, John Monash calling him: “calm, resolute, hopeful and buoyant”. Given the context, buoyancy could admittedly be confused for callousness, and considering the millions who died under his direction Monash could have chosen a better adjectival complement. But the biggest testament to Haig’s popularity among the broader populace came not from other generals but from those he’d led and saved. When Haig’s funeral was broadcast on the BBC on February 3 1928, it’s estimated that at least one million people watched.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
Mustafa Kemal as Commander of the Yıldırım Army Group, 1918. Haber Sert

Mustafa Kemal

Born in 1881 in Salonika (modern-day Thessaloniki), Kemal joined the military at a very early age: attending military school aged 12 and graduating from Istanbul’s military academy aged 24. He was politically radicalized as a young man, participating in the Young Turk Revolution against the ineffectual Ottoman government in 1908, which stripped the Sultan of his autocratic powers and brought the country under a parliamentary government. He served in two campaigns before the Great War: in 1912 against the Italians in Libya and then in the Balkan Wars (1912 – 1913). But it was on the Gallipoli Peninsula at the Dardanelles where Mustafa Kemal really made a name for himself.

The British, under the leadership of Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, wanted to bring the war to a swift conclusion by circumventing the stalemate on the Western Front. Bringing the might of the British Navy up against the fledging Ottoman Empire (the “sick man of Europe”), the plan was to pass through the narrow Dardanelles and open up access to the Black Sea. To do this, though, they had to clear the devastating Ottoman artillery that was decimating the navy from the heights of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Assigned to do this were Britain’s Indian colonials and Australian and New Zealanders ANZAC forces.

Mustafa Kemal had been in the right place at the right time. As soon as he heard the naval bombardment he directed his 19th Division to take the critical crest of Sari Blair: the ANZAC target. En route, he encountered retreating Turkish soldiers who complained that they were out of ammunition. His response: “lie down and fix bayonets!” They did exactly this. And at the exact moment when decisive allied action was needed, the British—under the incompetent command of Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stopford—stopped and did the same. This fatal decision guaranteed that the next nine months would be spent fighting costly, attritional trench warfare.

By the end of the fighting, Kemal had become commander of the entire northern sector. The casualties were enormous on both sides. By the end of the campaign, the Turks had suffered around 300,000 casualties and the Allies around 265,000. Kemal’s victory was nothing if not Pyrrhic. However, it was also vital for the Central Powers. For if the Allies had succeeded in establishing a route through the Dardanelles, joining up with the Russians and outflanking Austrian and German forces, that would have spelled the end of the war.

Mustafa Kemal served as Turkey’s first President from 1923 until his death on November 10, 1938. From the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, he established a secular nation-state, instituting a series of radical social, cultural and political reforms including: equal civil and political rights for women, free and compulsory primary education, the institution of Western legal codes the cultural process of secular “Turkification”. The esteem in which he was held was enough to earn him the title “Atatürk”—father of the Turks.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
Kaiser Wilhelm II (center) consults with Paul von Hindenburg (left) and Erich Ludendorff (right). Wikiwand

Paul von Hindenburg

One reason why it’s remarkably difficult to judge Hindenburg for the consequences of his actions in the First World War is because there are just so many of them. An immensely experienced soldier, Hindenburg had already fought in two conflicts prior to the First World War’s outbreak: the Austro-Prussian and the Franco-German wars. Hindenburg officially retired in 1911, but that was never going to stop the Kaiser from recalling one of his most experienced generals. So from the first to the final shot of the First World War, Hindenburg was at the fore exerting command over German forces.

Hindenburg managed to cultivate a popular persona throughout the war: one that was much needed but lacking in the German Army. Strong, steady and stalwart, he embodied a type of mature Teutonic virility that—for the first time in history—was conspicuously absent among the Imperial Family. The victory that enabled him to do this was that won at Tannenberg, Poland, in late August 1914. It was a remarkable battle by the war’s standards—one of the only engagements in which an enemy was encircled. Militarily it dealt a crushing blow to the Russians—with 50,000 killed or wounded and 92,000 taken prisoner. Strategically, however, it meant that with the Russians crippled for the foreseeable future Germany no longer had to press for a quick victory in the West.

Now the Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern German Armies, Hindenburg led (and his Chief of Staff Erich Ludendorff masterminded) his forces to another decisive victory at the Masurian Lakes in 1915. Then, with an ill-timed revolution dragging Russia out of the war in 1917, Hindenburg redeployed to the Western Front. There he consolidated the German “Hindenburg Line” and, along with Ludendorff prepared for the final, decisive offensive for the spring of 1918. The Ludendorff Offensive, as it was known, did in fact prove decisive. Unfortunately for Hindenburg, in the wake of its failure, it was decisive for the wrong side.

During the years 1915 and 1916, while Hindenburg’s achievements were reinforcing his titanic reputation, the traditional power base was crumbling. The Kaiser and his closest confidants, the Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg and Chief of Staff Erik von Falkenhyn, were rapidly losing status. To bolster the crumbling German state, Hindenburg and his partner Ludendorff began to lend support to a number of causes; some successful, others disastrous. By the end of 1916, the two were effectively running the country in a de facto military dictatorship, having marginalized the hapless Kaiser Wilhelm and sidelined the German Parliament (“Reichstag“).

Hindenburg’s political prestige meant he remained in public life long after the end of the war. Instrumental in pressing the Kaiser for peace on 29 September 1918 and signing the armistice, he twice went on to become President of the Weimar Republic. In old age and poor health, Hindenburg was eventually outmaneuvered by an up-and-coming national socialist who was appointed chancellor in 1933 and—after Hindenburg’s death in 1934—would make himself head of state: Adolf Hitler.

The Lions That Led: The 10 Greatest Generals of the First World War
Erich Ludendorff: the brains behind Hindenburg’s brawn. Military History Monthly

Erich Ludendorff

As the man credited with saying “the British Army are lions led by donkeys”, we can safely assume that Erich Ludendorff would have viewed his own style of generalship in drastically different terms. Strategically sound, Ludendorff assisted in redrafting the Schlieffen Plan in the lead-up to the war. He served as quartermaster general to Karl von Bulow’s Second Army in spring of 1914 and succeeded in overrunning the Belgian forts at Liege. After this, he was assigned to the Eastern Front where he worked closely with Paul von Hindenburg as his quartermaster general (so close, in fact, that Winston Churchill would henceforth refer to them collectively in writing as HL).

Erich Ludendorff is best viewed as the brains behind Hindenburg’s brawn. While credit went to the latter, Ludendorff engineered victories like those at Liège (August 1914) and Tannenberg with his scrupulous strategic planning and ingenious tactical intuition. Working as Hindenburg’s junior on the Western Front, he personally surveyed and upgraded German frontline defenses and constructed a new heavily fortified defensive line—known as the “Hindenburg Line“—to the rear. This new trench system exerted horrifically heavy losses on the British and the French during 1917. Fortunately for them, Ludendorff’s political acumen was little match for his military.

While he was a hammer to the Russians, his ill judgment made him a ticking time bomb when it came to Germany’s foreign policy. He was an ardent supporter of unrestricted submarine warfare which—although based on the sound strategic principle of starving Britain out of the war by sinking both her ships and her supplies—in reality meant that neutral American vessels were also routinely sunk. It was, to a large extent, this German policy that brought the US into the war and sounded the death knell for Germany’s chances of victory.

This didn’t dissuade Ludendorff from pushing one last time for victory. In March 1918 he launched his great offensive, “the Ludendorff Offensive” against the Allies on the Western Front. The Germans enjoyed considerable early success; the implementation of Ludendorff’s “punch a hole and let the rest follow” philosophy pushed the Allies further and further back. But right on the cusp of victory, their momentum ran out. Concerted allied counterattacks now put the German Army on the retreat. And this time they wouldn’t run out of momentum.

Ludendorff’s postwar success didn’t match that of Hindenburg. Perhaps it was because of his relative lack of political standing; perhaps it was because of the very public breakdown he’d suffered as his offensive collapsed before him; or perhaps it was his rather more dogmatic dedication to “victory at any costs”. Ludendorff briefly held political office as a member of the National Socialist party in the Reichstag, acted as a symbolic figurehead for Hitler’s Munich Putsch (1923), and unsuccessfully ran against Hindenburg for the presidency. And in 1935, two years before his death, he published a memoir whose title perfectly encapsulates the man who wrote it: Der Totale Krieg (“Total War”).