The Great War by Field Marshal von Hindenburg

Author: Field Marshal von Hindenburg, Edited by Charles Messenger.

Publisher: Frontline Books 2013,  236 pages plus five pages of maps before the Introduction, ISBN Number 978-1-84832-724-5

Illustrations: Other than a portrait on the front cover the edition does not have illustrations.

Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg entitled his autobiography, "Out of my Life." He wrote it in 1918 in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, when the detail of the Great War was very fresh in his memory. Thus the writing provides an invaluable source of the strategic thinking of the German High Command during 1914 to 1918.

This book is an edition of that work, edited by the historian, Charles Messenger. The editor has abbreviated von Hindenburg's writing by some 30%, much of which the editor describes as "little more than a rant". However some of the excluded passages express his praise for the Kaiser, which I consider represent an important aspect of the Field Marshal's personality. von Hindenburg was the epitome of the Prussian Military officer class, created by King Frederick the Great.

The present work is divided into five parts and twenty-two well-structured chapters, with each chapter dealing with a small and carefully delineated portion of von Hindenburg's life.

Early Life

Paul von Hindenburg was born on 2 October 1847 in Posen, Prussia (later known as Poznan, Poland) into an aristocratic German family. He was the eldest of three sons and a daughter. His father was a lieutenant in the army and his mother the daughter of a surgeon-general. His parents, he says, gave him "a confident belief in our Lord God and a boundless love of the Fatherland ... and our Prussian Royal House." He was educated at cadet schools in Wahlstatt, where energy and resolution were valued just as highly as knowledge. Prince (later King) visited the cadets while at Wahlstatt. In 1863 he was transferred to a special group and was transferred to Berlin. He was sad to miss the war with Denmark.

He was commissioned second-lieutenant in the third Regiment of Foot Guards, a regiment proud of its "feudal loyalty" to the king. He served in the Seven Weeks War against Austro-Hungary. He saw this, even at the time, as settling the question of supremacy between Austria and Prussia, following in the footsteps of Frederick the Great in 1747. He first saw military action at the Battle of Koniginhof and then Koniggratz, where he suffered a head wound, in 1866. Later he saw action again in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. A key event in his early life was the unification of Germany in 1871 under the King of Prussia, at which he represented his regiment, accompanied by a sergeant. During this campaign he saw Bismarck and notes with disappointment that he narrowly missed seeing the Emperor Napoleon. He enjoyed riding in Paris, which he entered under a Prussian flag, as there was as yet no German flag.

His Higher Military Training began when he sat for and passed entry to the Kriegsakademie. He was subsequently appointed to the General Staff in 1878. He married Gertrud von Sperling in 1879 while stationed at Stettin. His wife was the daughter of General von Sperling; they had three children, a boy and two girls. In 1881 he returned to regimental duties "commanding a unit recruited from Poles". Interestingly in 1885 he joined the Great General Staff department of Colonel Count von Schlieffen and also worked with von Falkenstein. The following year he met the prince destined to become William II.

Hindenburg taught for five years at the Kriegsakademie. He reached General rank in 1905, during an honourable but undistinguished military career. At the age of 64 Hindenburg might have expected to have hung up his sword for the last time.

Retirement to Recall

Between retirement and recall to the colours, Hindenburg describes some of his most defining characteristics: a lover of detail; a man who describes the advent of war as a call from "the All-Highest War Lord", the Emperor; as one who missed the affection of his subordinates; as one who feared French Chauvinism "allied with Russia or England or both". Hindenburg comments, "We had an excellent opportunity of realising the weakness of the Italian army in the war in Tripoli." He describes the outbreak of war as feeling "almost a release from the perpetual burden we had carried all our lives." "I waited in longing expectation" for recall."

1914 – 1918

In August 1914, Hindenburg was recalled to military service to lead the Eighth Army in Prussia. His famous meeting with Erich Ludendorff on the railway station at Hanover changed the world. Within half an hour the Prussian aristocrat and the Pomeranian, fresh from having distinguished himself with his brigade outside Liege, had established a long-lasting rapport. Ludendorff had just been briefed by Colonel-General von Moltke.

The Campaign in the East.

By mid-September 1914, serving on the Eastern Front, he had achieved national fame by inflicting two severe defeats on the Russian Army at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. Tannenberg, he saw as avenging the 500-year-old battle when the Slavs (Poles) had defeated the Teutonic army. (Later Ludendorff showed the site of the victory to Hitler.) At the Lakes Hindenburg estimates that the German army faced three million men under General Rennenkampf, while he had "scarcely one third of that." Hindenburg became a national hero in Germany. He was promoted to Field Marshal and given the sole command of the Eastern Front in November 1914.

Erich Ludendorff was a talented military strategist. It has been argued that credit for Ludendorff's invasion of Russia was misdirected to Hindenburg. Hindenburg describes their relationship "as being those of a happy marriage."

The Campaign in Poland

Briefly separated from Ludendorff, Hindenburg drove towards Silesia. He concentrated his troops north of Cracow. Hindenburg states that his aim was to tempt the Russians to attack the Prussians thus allowing the Austro-Hungarians to achieve victory. Hindenburg, like Napoleon before him, encountered mud. Hindenburg then faced what he estimated to be four Russian armies (totaling some sixty divisions, against eighteen German divisions). Victory in Galicia was not achieved and the battlefield of Warsaw was abandoned to the Russians. The Austro-Hungarians failed to execute a strategy once completed brilliantly by Field-Marshal Blucher, which might have saved the situation for the Germans. Hindenburg's request or for reinforcements from the Ypres campaign were not granted. An intercepted Russian radio message revealed that an attack on Germany was imminent. Hindenburg in the Battle of Lodz again says that the numerical superiority of the Russians was the key factor.

Hindenburg considers that the reason victory eluded the German forces in 1915 is that a decision was taken "prematurely to draw away to the East strong forces from the West." Unlike Napoleon, Hindenburg considers it would have been possible to transport his army by railway, deep into Russia.

General Ludendorff had serious concerns about the Austro-Slavic Units. Hindenburg was concerned about the deterioration of the body politique of Austro-Hungary. He also was become ever more convinced that Russian numeric superiority was overwhelming. The winter campaign inflicted heavy casualties on Russia but still an attack on the Magyar homelands was feared but Hindenburg believes, convincingly, that this was prevented by his attack through Lithuania.

A visit by Grand Admiral Tirpitz confirmed Hindenburg in the view that the "sensitiveness of the English to the phantom of a German invasion would have justified" the use of the German navy.

In August 1916, Hindenburg was appointed Chief of the Greater German General Staff. This position gave him vast power even in the civil sphere. Hindenburg had a major input into the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia.

Western Front

Only at this stage does Hindenburg share his attention with the Western Front, well into the second half of this edition. He notes that shortage of men means that he cannot send reserves to Verdun and the Somme. Indeed he recommends that the Germans should break off the battle of Verdun, due to the exhaustion of the German troops. He comments that with hindsight it would have been better for Germany to have withdrawn from the ground "we had captured" but felt unable to recommend this at the time. He hoped that with the break off of the German offensive at Verdun the allies would confine themselves to trench warfare. Instead the French changed their artillery tactics with a short intensive barrage on the east bank of the Meuse.

"From the end of August the Somme battle too had taken on the character of an extremely fierce frontal contest of the forces of both sides." He contends that the "reason our western adversaries failed to obtain any decisive results must mainly be ascribed to a certain unimaginativeness in their generalship."

In September 1916, Hindenburg visited the Western Front. He attended a conference at Cambrai with the Crown Prince of Bavaria and Württemberg and the Chiefs of Staff on the Western Front. Their comments showed that rapid and ruthless action was urgently necessary. Hindenburg says that later discussion with field officers reported how effective the conference had been. He says, "It was only now that I fully realised all that the Western (German) Armies had done."

Hindenburg notes that at the Somme "the fearful spectre of this battlefield which for desolation and horror seemed even worse than that of Verdun."

English stubbornness is noted.

U-Boat Warfare

Hindenburg's views can be summarised by his comment that "In the pitiless blockade against our non-combatants at home ... everything else seemed callous ... towards our own flesh and blood."

Hindenburg was responsible for preparing the entire German state for war and became immensely popular throughout the country.

In 1917, after Austro-Hungarian headquarters had been moved to Baden and German headquarters to Kreuznach, German defensive strategy was significantly changed from single lines of strong points, to a network of lines and groups of strong points. This allowed German defences to resist artillery and to counter–attack all points regarded as essential after an attack, by means of these deep defensive lines. Numbers of machine guns were also increased.

In assessing the battle of Rheims, Hindenburg glories in Nivelle's failure to understand that his artillery had not destroyed or cowed German defences and not to realise that German deep defence allowed successful counter attack once Nivelle's infantry advanced. This tactic caused losses to the Allies at Arras; Soissons and Rheims.
Messines was a defeat, which Hindenburg attributes to topographical features. "The ground rose from beneath the feet of the (German) defenders."

Hindenburg then spends time again discussing the Eastern Front and the attack on Italy. He discusses the final blow to Russia and the brink of defeat of Italy. Before the Flanders campaign of the second half of 1917, he became aware that "...any considerable success of the English success might easily prejudice (the German) operations in other theatres. As we anticipated, England was now making her supreme effort ... in a great and decisive attack upon us even before the United States could in any way make itself felt."

Cambrai,  Hindenburg sees as a brilliant and successful concept by the "English High Command" but feels that failure in subordinate commanders allowed victory to be snatched from the British. Even so the threat of a great surprise attack by tanks became clear to Hindenburg. He accepts that the British tanks had been very greatly improved. The French were limited to local attacks because of their appalling losses in the spring.

Hindenburg considers the Turkish situation of von Falkenhayn and the loss of Baghdad.


Given that Italy had been convincingly beaten and Russia and Romania were out of the war Hindenburg, with numerical superiority of armed strength, focuses on the Western Front. He considers that Germany can "concentrate an immense force to overwhelm the enemy's lines at some point on the Western Front." Hindenburg is certain that the confidence and resolution to secure victory is present in the German army. He sees 1918 as the end of defence and the change to attack. He sees a breakthrough to "unlock the gate to open warfare." Hindenburg admits at this time "I still regard the English as the main pillar of the enemy resistance." He also understands the French political dependence on the goodwill of England. He also expected the Ukraine to provide a source of food. German forces form Bulgaria and Asiatic Turkey were to be transferred to the Western Front., though this was slower than he wished. We faced an "English army of many millions, fully equipped, well trained and hardened to war." Also America was perilously near to entering the war. He did not believe the U.S.A. would enter the war in time to change the outcome.

Hindenburg turns to Germany's "great offensive battle in France." He quotes the Kaiser's battle orders verbatim, including the plan to use Crown Prince Rupprecht's Army Group to cut off the English in the Cambrai salient. Initially, the March offensive achieved brilliant success from Hindenburg's point of view. He realised that the topography was more favourable to the objectives of achieving a breakthrough. However the supply problems were not helped by poor communication. The use of abandoned British supply dumps helped, though these sometimes had a negative effect on German morale as they compared the high quality of what they found, with their own supplies.

Hindenburg thought his attacking force suffered from tiredness. He also comments that his troops lacked some of the discipline of earlier campaigns. This first battle plan was not followed to its hoped for conclusion and was replaced by an attack in Flanders. The object was to deny the Channel ports to the British forces and it would also place long-range guns within striking range of the southern parts of England. The French force was effective in preventing German success in this second phase. Hindenburg and Ludendorff maintained their view that control of the Channel Ports was vital to their victory. They planned to prevent French activity to hinder them. Hindenburg considered that Rheims was the key to this because of its importance as a communication centre. This stratagem would keep the French tied down and reopen the possibility of a Flanders offensive. A French offensive into the German salient helped prevent this scheme working.

On 8 August the British attack at Amiens exposed the weakness of the German defensive position. The truth that the Germans could not win was thus made apparent. Hindenburg however advised the Kaiser that the time was not yet optimal to make peace. He based this on the amount of hostile territory in German control and the hope of improving the military situation.

(Ludendorff now believed that the war should be ended, though Hindenburg does not mention this in his autobiography.)

Foch rallied his forces; Bulgaria was beaten in Salonika and the Turks were decisively beaten by Allenby in Palestine.

In Germany, public dissatisfaction was becoming more and more vocal. A new government under Prince Max of Baden was favourable to a negotiated peace.

Ludendorff's March 1918 offensive on the Western Front had failed and Germany had to save what she could, especially the fact that Germany itself had not suffered invasion.

Hindenburg remained in charge of the army until the Treaty of Versailles was signed, when he resigned.


After Germany's defeat in 1918 Hindenburg retired. In 1925, largely because of his status as a war hero, he was elected president of Germany. There was still a belief amongst many people that the army had not lost the war but had been let down by backstabbing politicians. Therefore, Hindenburg's credentials were good. He won the 1925 presidential election (though not overwhelmingly). In 1930, as economic depression took hold and another government fell, he appointed a cabinet accountable only to him and in July authorised Chancellor Heinrich Brüning to dissolve the Reichstag. New elections saw the National Socialists emerge as the second largest party and with parliamentary cooperation withering, Brüning governed almost exclusively by decree. His deflationist policies aggravated the economic difficulties and unrest mounted, fuelled by the Nazis. Hindenburg was re-elected president, mainly with the support of those who saw him as a protection against Nazi lawlessness and brutality. Yet Hindenburg's own circle thought of the Nazis as a useful - albeit unpleasant - group, who were worth accommodating.

Two successive governments failed to win Nazi support as Adolf Hitler insisted on becoming chancellor in any government in which his party participated. Despite considerable pressure, Hindenburg refused to appoint him, but in November 1932 an agreement was reached between Hitler and Franz von Papen - a former chancellor - to form a Government. Though he did not like Hitler because he did not come from the right social class and had only been a corporal in the war, he was persuaded to appoint him chancellor in January 1933. Hindenburg died in 1934, and was buried at Tannenberg.

Reviewed by Keith Lainton