Thursday, August 18, 2011

Royal Commanders in World War I

The new blog Lost in the Myths of History recently posted on some of the common misconceptions regarding The Myths of the First World War. The myths and misconceptions involving that disastrous conflict could fill a volume. However, one of the often-repeated lies that has always bothered me the most is the idea that royals were often given high rank in the armies of the monarchial nations solely because of their blue blood and despite the fact that they were absolutely incompetent as military commanders. To some degree this is also often related to the idea that the top commanders in the Great War sat back in luxurious chateaus or safe in underground bunkers while the common soldiers were being massacred by machine gun and artillery fire. In fact, during World War I a greater number of generals were killed in the fighting than in most other conflicts. However, I want to stick to the tired lie that the royal commanders in the Great War were all a bunch of idiots who needlessly got men killed by their ineptitude but who owed their rank solely to being royal born. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I have tried myself to highlight some of the cases that prove this premise false. Probably none has been cited more often than the Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm III or “Prince Willy” as the Allies dubbed him. He was constantly portrayed as a dandified playboy who owed his rank solely to royal tradition and as an incompetent commander. That is simply not so. The Crown Prince was no military genius but he was no idiot either and was a capable and reliable commander. Much of the criticism of him involves the murderous offensive at Verdun which nearly bled both the French and German armies to death. However, the Crown Prince did not develop the strategy employed at Verdun and, in fact, he put forward his own plan that would have, in all likelihood, succeeded in capturing the city which he assumed was the goal. It was not, of course, and the plan was rejected. An honest look at his actions during his early victories at the start of the war and his plans and opinions during the conflict shows that he was a very competent commander with a clear grasp of the situation and even a more realistic view than held by many of his comrades.

Other, less well known examples include Prince Henry of Prussia, younger brother of the Kaiser, Grand Admiral of the German Baltic fleet. Despite having fewer resources at his disposal he successfully defended the German north coast from Russian attack and kept Russian naval forces on the defensive throughout the conflict. There was Duke Albrecht of Württemberg who won the battle of the Ardennes in 1914 and, again, while not a miracle-worker, he was known as a very competent and reliable general who won promotion to field marshal and command of his own army group. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria was widely admired in his own time and even today he stands out as one royal commander about whom one does not find much criticism. Many historians consider him to have been the best of the German royals to hold major army commands. On the Eastern Front, Prince Leopold of Bavaria led German forces to some of their greatest victories such as the capture of Warsaw, Poland and the eventual defeat of Russia as command of all Central Powers forces in the eastern theatre of war.

In the Hapsburg dominions, Archduke Friedrich, commander-in-chief of the Austrian-Hungarian forces from 1914-16 was also a more talented man than he is often given credit for. He was overshadowed by his Chief-of-Staff Conrad von Hötzendorf but Archduke Friedrich did express misgivings about Conrad’s aggressive plan of simultaneous offensives on multiple fronts, misgivings which proved well founded. Archduke Eugen of Austria-Hungary was also a capable commander, popular with his troops and had undergone extensive military training just like the non-royal officer candidates did. He successful held off superior enemy forces as commander of the southwestern front against Italy. Archduke Josef Augustin was one of the most successful generals of the Imperial-Royal army, particularly popular with the Hungarians, with victories to his credit against the Italians and the Romanians. In fact, of all the royal commanders in the Austrian-Hungarian forces during the war, the only one to emerge with a poor reputation was Archduke Josef Ferdinand who had the misfortune to bear the brunt of the most successful Russian offensive of the war. Emperor Charles I (Kaiser Karl) did not have much of a chance to prove himself but he did perform quite capably on the Italian front before the death of his uncle placed him on the Hapsburg throne.

Amongst the Allies there is no more controversial figure than Tsar Nicholas II who took direct command of Russian forces in September of 1915. While it is true that the Tsar was not by training or simple nature a military man, the diminishing fortunes of the Russian war effort under his command have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, there is every reason to believe that had it not been for the Revolution the Imperial Russian Army might have managed to reverse the tide of war in their favor. Better field commanders were proving themselves, better weapons were being developed and arms production was actually increasing. One can debate what, if anything, this had to do with the Tsar being in command, but if he is to be blamed for the defeats he should also be credited with the successes. Prior to the Revolution more supplies were coming in from foreign nations, new tactics had been developed and Russian troops were re-taking territories previously lost to the Austro-Hungarians. It was not the totally hopeless situation everyone thinks. His predecessor and uncle, Grand Duke Nicholas, was also a competent commander but one who suffered from the poor state of readiness of the Russian forces at the start of the war. His forces did win some early victories against the Austro-Hungarians and later as commander of the Caucasian front his armies were quite successful in repelling the Turkish invasion of southern Russia.

The only other Allied sovereign to personally command his troops was King Albert I of the Belgians and he did an admirable job. He relied heavily on his military staff of course and did not presume to try to tell them their business, but had been well trained for his role and everyone was impressed by his calm and steady leadership under the stress of a struggle more lopsided than that faced by almost any other commander. He put up stiff resistance in Belgium, throwing off the German timetable, fought a delaying action at Antwerp where even the notoriously anti-Belgian Winston Churchill had to marvel at his example. The King rallied his forces at the Yser River, ensuring the Allies won the “race to the sea” and toward the end of the war was given command of his own army group which he led in a successful offensive in the closing days of the conflict. His son, the future King Leopold III, fought in the trenches as a regular soldier. The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, wanted to do the same but was prevented by the government.

Among the British forces, Prince Louis of Battenberg, as First Sea Lord, ensured that the Royal Navy was not caught unawares when the conflict began, but concentrated in home waters and on the alert which prevented the Germans from gaining a quick victory at the outset. He had served quite successfully in various positions in the navy but was forced to resign due to the storm of criticism aimed at anyone with German ancestry. He had been a British subject since 1868 but had been born in Austria and was of German-Polish heritage which caused the press to wage a hateful campaign against the Prince, who later renounced his German titles and changed his name to Mountbatten, which finally forced him to resign. However, he had been of excellent service to the navy and played a crucial part in the early days of the war. Likewise, in the Italian military, Prince Amedeo Duke of the Abruzzi had a high reputation as a battle fleet commander when the war began and it was largely thanks to him that the battered little Serbian army was able to be evacuated to safety after a renewed Austro-German offensive. Likewise, on land, Prince Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Aosta, was one of the most competent of all the Italian commanders. His forces had a higher reputation than any other Italian army and he won the only significant victory during what were the darkest days of the war for Italy.

Royals did not tend to hold many major commands in the Allied armies (probably a side-effect of democracy) but royals proved themselves in a number of capacities below the level of top command. As a gunnery officer on HMS Collingwood the future King George VI was noted for his skillful performance at the Battle of Jutland. Even in the French army the future Prince Louis II of Monaco earned high praise for his courage and determination, earning the Military Medal, the Legion of Honor and eventually promotion to major general. All of the Kaiser’s sons served in the army or navy, Prince Oskar was noted several times for his courage and daring attacks. He earned the Iron Cross and was wounded several times during the war, always leading his grenadier regiment from the front.

Obviously, some of these royal figures were more gifted than others in terms of martial talent. None of them rose to the level of Friedrich the Great, Marlborough or Napoleon but it is utterly absurd to think that every royal who served in the Great War was a spoiled incompetent. In fact, from all I have read, it seems that given how few royals there were compared to non-royal commanders, their record comes out quite above average in terms of overall talent. People scoffingly dismiss anyone with a royal title in a command position, assuming that they must be inferior and owe their position only to their ancestry. This is prejudice pure and simple and those who do so should be challenged to back up their condescending attitude with a few examples to prove their point. Hopefully, monarchists can now have a ready list of facts to throw back at them. The royals who led forces in the Great War were almost to a man capable and competent. Some were even exceptional but even for those who were not, they were certainly worthy of their rank and their medals.

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