The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
ON JULY 14, 1922, there was unveiled at the City Hall of Beauvais, a French town midway between Paris and Amiens, a memorial tablet commemorating the fact that in this place, on the 3rd of April, 1918, General Foch was charged with "the strategic direction of military operations." The French are well advised in commemorating that day, and the celebration at Beauvais is fraught with special significance. The act of conferring upon General Foch the supreme command over the Allied forces marks a turning point in the World War, the importance of which may well be likened to that of the battle on the Marne.[i]
On both sides the World War had the character of a coalition war. The military history of all ages teaches how extremely difficult it is in a war of that type to subordinate to the higher demands of a unified command the rarely harmonizing interests of the individual allies. In the campaign of 1866, Moltke had figured that the interests of the Austrians and the South-German states would clash on a good many points, and subsequent events showed that he was right. In the World War, the German offensive of March 21, 1918, in the region of St. Quentin, was directed against the British right wing and the point of junction where the French section of the front joined that of the British. This was indeed the most vulnerable point of the enemy. The same course of action had already been followed by Napoleon in Italy when, in 1796, he broke through the Piedmontes-Austrian line, calculating that the Piedmontese would, in such an event, retreat toward their capital Turin, whereas the Austrians would follow their line of communication and retreat toward Milan. So in March, 1918, after the German attack had opened a breach, there was indeed danger for the Entente Allies that Field-Marshal Haig would fall back in the direction of the Channel ports and General Petain upon Paris.
It was in this critical situation that the British, in the conference of Doullens on March 26th, suppressed their doubts and misgivings as regards placing their own forces under French command, and agreed that General Foch be charged with the duty of coordinating the military operations of the Allied armies on the western front. Subsequently, on April 3rd at Beauvais, he was charged with the "supreme strategic direction of operations;" and finally, on April 24th, he was given "supreme command over the Allied armies." Thus a change of method had been completed which was to have a decisive influence upon the further course of the war. General Foch succeeded in centering the entire interest of the Allies upon one point, Amiens, so that the front at that place could be strengthened and the opened breach closed again. From then on, unity of command on the Allied side was assured.
A like unity of command was never attained by the Central Powers. Germany was the strongest among the Central Powers. It would have been but right and fair to put the supreme command into her hands, to place the Austro-Hungarian forces under her control. But the Austro-Hungarian High Command was too much concerned about the prestige of the monarchy on the Danube to agree. Developments during the war made it necessary for the Germans to come to the assistance of their Austrian allies in increasing measure. Gradually an arrangement was made for a unified common leadership in the form of a Supreme War Council (Oberste Kriegsleitung) which, however, was only in the nature of a half-and-half measure and did not mean that the Austro-Hungarian forces were unconditionally placed under the German Commander-in-Chief. Toward the end of the war, under the unreliable Emperor Charles, it even came to such a pass that Austria-Hungary's loyalty as an ally began to waver in an alarming manner.
In the following lines an attempt will be made to examine and set forth in what a decisive manner the conduct of the war by the Central Powers was influenced by these circumstances.
When the World War broke out the Central Powers had no knowledge of the Franco-Russian Military Convention of 1892-94, by the terms of which France and Russia agreed, in case of mobilization on the part of the Triple Alliance or of any one member of that Alliance, to mobilize at once their entire forces and to employ them without delay in an energetic offensive. The object of this plan was, of course, to compel Germany to fight on two separate fronts simultaneously. However, without being cognizant of this convention, the Central Powers in 1914 took it for granted that in the case of a German-Russian war France too would promptly enter the lists against Germany. The only thing for Germany to do, therefore, was to prepare for a war on two fronts. She was threatened on both sides, while Austria-Hungary was threatened chiefly in the east. For Germany to take the offensive on both sides at the same time was clearly impossible. Finding herself between two enemies, Germany could not but decide to turn all her available strength against one of her opponents, while using as little strength as necessary to hold the other in check until he too could be taken care of. But before it was possible to decide against which of the opponents the initial offensive should be directed it was necessary to come to an understanding with Austria-Hungary. Obviously a common supreme command would have been of paramount importance for the drawing up of a plan of operations and for the actual execution of such a plan by the two powers. But it seems that the idea of such a supreme command was not even so much as conceived of, nor does it seem probable that unity of command could really have been secured prior to the war. It was not until the World War was well under way and the military situation required an ever increasing support of Austria-Hungary with German troops that negotiations towards establishing a unified supreme command were taken up.
The only thing, then, that could be done prior to the war was to arrive at a clear understanding regarding a common plan of operation. As a matter of fact, negotiations had been conducted for years between the Chiefs of Staff of Germany and Austria-Hungary without producing any definite and clear arrangements that would hold water if subjected to technical military analysis.
When, owing to Austria's annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there arose in 1908-09 a political crisis which made war imminent, the Chiefs of Staff of both countries--General von Moltke and General Conrad von Hotzendorf--entered into the first discussions as to what to do in case it should become a joint undertaking.
Austria concurred in the plan that Germany should employ the bulk of her armies against France so as to bring about a decision there as promptly as possible. This achieved, considerable German forces were to be taken to the East and employed there together with the Austro-Hungarian troops in order to win a decision against Russia. Up to that time, it was agreed, comparatively small German forces--from 12 to 13 divisions--should engage and hold the Russians in East Prussia, who would presumably appear there in a strength of 19½ divisions, while Austria-Hungary would take it upon herself to conduct the war against Russia on the rest of the front unaided. Within this wide outline, either ally was to be free to carry on military operations as it saw fit.
It must be admitted that in consenting to this plan Field-Marshal von Conrad showed himself to be free from any Austro-Hungarian particularism and to hold a disinterested point of view. Nevertheless, the agreement did not meet the situation adequately and it was at least in part based on an insecure foundation. It was in no way suited to take the place of a supreme command. Conrad counted on a very early decision in France and prompt transfer of forces to the east. In fact, he thought himself justified in anticipating that the German reinforcement would arrive in the eastern theatre of war as early as forty days after mobilization, or thereabouts. It is true that Moltke expressed himself very guardedly, saying that it was not possible to fix any points of time except in a very general way; but he too acted on the supposition that probably a signal decision would be achieved in the west before matters on the Austro-Russian frontier would come to a head. Evidently it was still believed at that time that the Russian mobilization would be a comparatively slow process. At any rate, Moltke gave assurances that the offensive against France would be carried through with the greatest energy, and that any forces becoming available would be dispatched to the Eastern Front without delay. He added that Germany would not leave her ally in the lurch.
The difficult task, then, which fell to the Austro-Hungarian High Command was for it to take up the fight with the superior Russian armies practically single-handed and to hold out until the German reinforcements should arrive. It was Conrad's intention to solve this problem by taking the offensive and advancing between the Vistula and Bug rivers, but on the supposition that the few German divisions which were to concentrate right at the beginning near the eastern frontier would support his offensive by advancing from East Prussia toward the Narev along a line converging with that of his own advance. Moltke, naturally, had very grave doubts as to the feasibility of such an undertaking, inasmuch as the twelve or thirteen German divisions in East Prussia would, in all probability, be held back there by much stronger Russian forces. But by Conrad's insistent urging he was finally prevailed upon.
It must have seemed very doubtful even at that time whether it would be possible to live up to these agreements. Moltke's promises appear altogether too far-reaching if looked upon in the light of actual events. That the decision in France would come in three or four weeks and that the German reinforcements would arrive on the eastern front forty days after mobilization was, although not impossible, still extremely uncertain. Conrad ought to have known that himself. And even less justified was the hope that those thirteen German divisions in East Prussia would be in a position to undertake an offensive.
In 1909 the annexation crisis was amicably settled. But despite the grave doubts to which they gave rise those military agreements remained in force, in the form first made, through all the following years until and including 1914. However, General von Conrad, evidently realizing that the German divisions in East Prussia were far too weak a body to carry an offensive to the Narev, urged that they be augmented. A prospect was reluctantly held out by the German General Staff that this would be done. As a matter of fact, General von Moltke would have preferred it very much if the few German troops allotted to the east could also have been employed in the west. "If Austria," he wrote to Conrad, "needs all her f[ILLEGIBLE WORDS]es to carry through the fight against Russia, the same is true of Germany in her struggle with France." But Conrad refused--and rightly--to entertain the idea.
Such, then, was the understanding as regards a common plan of operations with which the Central Powers entered the World War. The Austrian General Count Stürgkh, sent to the German General Headquarters at the beginning of the war as representative of the Austro-Hungarian High Command, took with him an order which showed that the Austrians were, in the main, following out the stipulations that had been made. It was stated therein that the German Army which had been assembled in East Prussia was to advance in a southeasterly direction upon Siedlece, simultaneously with the Austro-Hungarian offensive against the line Lublin-Cholm. However, a well justified limitation had been added, namely that the German Army in East Prussia might possibly itself be attacked by superior Russian forces, and that in such an event it must be its task to engage and hold the Russian forces there, thus facilitating the Austrian offensive.
Soon after the beginning of the war it became evident that the agreements regarding concentration and coordination of operations were inadequate. One cannot help feeling that an energetic supreme command would not have rested satisfied with the existing stipulations, but would have set about making a clearer distribution of the tasks of both armies. As it was, the failure of the Austrian offensive, right at the start, created an atmosphere of ill-humor between the two Headquarters which later on proved a great obstacle to the evolution of a supreme command.
All the military force that Germany was able to concentrate in East Prussia in August, 1914, amounted to only nine divisions of infantry. With these she accomplished all that was possible in the face of great Russian odds. But despite the Tannenberg victory an offensive in the direction of the Narev remained out of the question. Nor was the intended transfer of strong German forces from the western to the eastern front ever carried out. General von Conrad claims in his memoirs that the German failure on the Marne in September, 1914, made this part of the agreement ineffective. While the Austro-Hungarian armies, he says, obedient to the agreement, bled themselves to death in their struggle against an opponent numerically far their superior, the strong German forces which had been promised for a joint attack upon Russia failed to appear. In his opinion, the entire crushing burden thus created was thrown upon Austria-Hungary.
Still it is a question whether Conrad himself, by his own decisions, did not contribute toward the misfortune of the Austrian arms. Half of his force was first concentrated against Serbia, manifestly in the vain hope that it might be possible to restrict the war to Serbia. But he might well have known that such a thing was out of the question. Even before the first transports for the concentration of troops began to move there was no room for doubt that Russia would intervene. The subsequent concentration of troops against Russia was made in Central and Eastern Galicia. Although the hoped for assistance from Rumania in 1914 had failed to materialize, Conrad persisted in his intention to solve his problem by means of an offensive carried forward between the Vistula and Bug and calculated to prevent the Russians from marching against Germany or, through Silesia and Moravia, against the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. But the Russians appeared in the field with five separate armies, drawn up in a semi-circle around East Galicia, and started to advance along converging lines. It was extremely difficult for the Austrians to proceed against this formation in any one direction without being outflanked from some other direction. The Austrian High Command was, moreover, mistaken in its assumption that it would be able to gain a considerable lead over the Russians in concentrating its forces. It had hoped to anticipate the Russians in attacking and to swoop down upon them while they were still in the midst of assembling their troops. However, the Russians were ready for action sooner than had been expected. Whether under these circumstances Conrad's reckless offensive could still be justified, or whether it would not have been possible to find some other solution of the difficulty, is a question which shall not be discussed here.
In the further course of the war everything hinged on the question whether Germany and Austria-Hungary would succeed in concentrating their mutual strength on the decisive point in accordance with a single uniform plan. This was actually accomplished on the eastern front in 1915 during the comprehensive operation which began with the breaking through at Tarnow-Gorlice and ended with a signal defeat of the Russians, but it was achieved without there being any supreme command. Mutual conferences and arrangements were the substitute for comprehensive unity. For that purpose the German Headquarters had been transferred to Pless, near the Austro-Hungarian High Command in Teschen. To be sure, the views of the two Chiefs of Staff, Generals von Falkenhayn and Conrad von Hotzendorf, differed on more than one matter while carrying out this operation; still they managed to bring this campaign against Russia to a successful end without an over amount of friction. Thus the idea began to gain ground that the same method would serve equally well in the future, and the quest for a supreme command slackened.
But precisely at that time there was ample reason to make this demand as urgent as possible. In those very conferences and arrangements it had become more and more obvious that Falkenhayn and Conrad were two utterly different natures and that real teamwork could not be expected of them. The unfavorable personal relations existing between them corroborated Conrad in his fundamental unwillingness to place the Austro-Hungarian army and himself under a supreme command exercised by the Germans. Add to these personal reasons Conrad's anxiety for Austrian prestige, always first with him in everything, and we shall see why not only the establishment of a joint supreme command, but even the bare unity of operations was threatened. Emperor Francis Joseph, who adhered strictly to the alliance once formed with Germany, would probably not have objected personally to a supreme command in German hands.
Up to that time (1915), the negotiations aiming at the creation of a common supreme command had involved only Germany and Austria-Hungary. But when, prior to the beginning of the campaign against Serbia in the autumn of 1915, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers, new and grave difficulties were added to those already in the way. The immediate command over the German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian troops which were to be employed in attacking Serbia was to be entrusted to the German Field-Marshal General von Mackensen. But which of the two High Commands, German or Austrian, was to be in supreme authority? Conrad demanded this position for Austria-Hungary.
The German authorized delegate in the Austrian General Headquarters, General von Cramon, who had to conduct most of the negotiations, reports on this point as follows: "Colonel Gantscheff (representative of Bulgaria) declared, shortly before the convention was made, that Bulgaria was not inclined to enter the war except under German supreme command. It is easy to imagine the reception that was accorded me when I came with this news to Teschen. Pleasant as always, but in an unmistakable manner, Conrad informed me that my efforts to persuade him were useless, that there was a limit to everything, and that he could not submit to any further humiliations. I asked him whether he would persist in this attitude even at the risk of preventing thereby the convention from being concluded. He replied that he would sincerely deplore such an outcome, but that his duty to his emperor, the army and his country required him to look out for Austrian prestige." After a long parley, a formula was at last found with which Falkenhayn, Conrad and Gantscheff declared themselves satisfied for want of something better. The military convention merely contained the statement that General von Mackensen would be Commander-in-Chief against Serbia; but nothing was said about the question as to which of the High Commands should have the right to give Mackensen instructions. In an arrangement, made merely between Falkenhayn and Conrad personally, this authority was conceded to the latter.
In the course of the campaign against Serbia, it soon became manifest that the solution of the problem, which had been adopted with so much trouble, was far from adequate. This was felt almost immediately after the subjection of Serbia, when the question arose as to whether or not to continue the campaign against Saloniki in an attempt to drive the Allies from the Balkans, and also against Montenegro. Conrad was in favor of doing so; he wanted to make a clear sweep of the Balkans. Falkenhayn opposed the project on the ground that the principal object of the Balkan campaign--the establishment of direct communication with Turkey--had been achieved. Although, formally, the supreme direction had been conceded to Conrad, it was natural that in such important operations, where the bulk of the work would fall upon the German troops, the German High Command should also have a say. Again it was demonstrated how unsatisfactory it was for the Central Powers to carry on operations merely on the basis of arrangements and personal promises.
In 1916 the question of unified command attained an importance nothing short of paramount. The thing which it was above all necessary to do was to gather together the principal forces of the Central Powers for a single big blow, and in every way to avoid a scattering of forces. No final decision had been reached in 1914 in the west, nor in 1915 in the east. Yet a final decision was absolutely necessary, otherwise the war would be protracted indefinitely. And that was just the thing which the Central Powers must avoid, for the effect of the blockade was weighing more and more heavily upon Germany, while England was gaining time to put her newly created divisions in the field. It was impossible that questions of such paramount importance, questions which were to decide the issue of the war, should be successfully settled simply by arrangements between Falkenhayn and Conrad. That could not be expected in view of experiences up to that time, and in view of the more and more intense personal antagonism between the two men. The result was that Germany and Austria-Hungary did not act in unison in 1916.
Conversations between the two Chiefs of Staff as to the plans for the spring of 1916 were begun in December, 1915. The Austrian General Staff at Teschen was in favor of an offensive against Italy. Falkenhayn objected to this on the ground that such an operation could not decide the war. Conrad, on the other hand, gave a detailed exposition in writing of the reasons which led him to make his proposal. He began with the statement that it was not wise to keep on waiting for a more propitious time and to allow the war to drag on indefinitely, because in that case the Central Powers would simply be crushed by the superior forces and resources of the Entente Allies, which were steadily developing and increasing. On the contrary, he said, it was imperative to force a decision by one big operation. Conrad admitted that a signal success in France would be a far better means of bringing the war to a victorious end. But he held that the two different operations could not be carried out simultaneously, and further that an attack upon France promised success only after Italy had been beaten and necessary forces set free. He added: "I say this not from a selfish consideration of Austro-Hungarian interests, which would demand the defeat of Italy first of all, but exclusively from the conviction that this is the only way for us to take if we wish to bring the common struggle for the existence of our two countries to a victorious end . . . I regard the offensive against Italy as the indispensable preliminary for the final decisive contest in which, for many urgent and imperative reasons, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy must seek to win success before the year 1916 closes."
General von Falkenhayn held a different view. What he was planning for 1916 was an attack upon the French forces near Verdun. But he did not expect or intend this to be an operation which would decide the war. In fact, he deemed it impossible, in view of the superior strength and resources of the enemies, to inflict upon them a defeat severe enough to compel them to ask for peace. He thought Germany's strength should not be overstrained. His idea was to inflict upon the enemy the greatest possible damage with the least expenditure of human material. France, he hoped, would wear herself out in defending Verdun.
Thus it came to a parting of the ways between the two responsible leaders. In fact, they even concealed from each other their further intentions. General von Cramon, in his book "Our Austro-Hungarian Ally in the World War," recounts on this point that at the beginning of 1916 he was assailed in Teschen with questions as to what the German plans were, but in vain; for he was in no position to make any statements whatsoever, having been unable to obtain more detailed information from Falkenhayn. It was not until directly before the attack upon Verdun, which began in February, 1916, that Conrad was notified.
On the other hand, however, General von Cramon received the impression that Conrad was not so displeased at Falkenhayn's dissenting view as might have been expected, because he now had an excuse to undertake the Italian offensive independently, without the assistance of his ally. This impression is confirmed by statements by various Austrians that they had hoped to be able to dispose of their old hereditary enemy unaided. And, indeed, Conrad decided to start the offensive against the Italians without German support. He too kept his intentions strictly secret from the German High Command. In replying to repeated inquiries from the German liaison officer in his own headquarters, General von Cramon, he gave evasive answers, and waited until the end of April before he advised him that two armies were drawn up in Southern Tyrol ready for an offensive.
The development of the German attack upon Verdun, as well as of the Austrian offensive from Southern Tyrol, was not what had been hoped for.
In Italy a conclusive success could have been achieved only by a double attack coming from the Tyrol and the Isonzo at the same time. Such an operation might have succeeded in cutting off and annihilating the entire Italian army. Although that would not have decided the issue of the war, as Falkenhayn had realized, yet the elimination of Italy would have set the forces of the Central Powers free for the great blow in the west. But the Austro-Hungarian forces alone were not numerically strong enough for such a double attack. Hence it was necessary for Conrad, after Falkenhayn had refused his cooperation, to limit himself to the attack from Southern Tyrol. To carry this out, moreover, he was compelled to weaken the Austrian eastern front in Russia. Good divisions and much heavy artillery were transferred to Italy. After great initial successes, the offensive soon came to a standstill and finally had to be given up.
Meantime the storm which had been brewing in Russia had broken. Brussiloff's offensive inflicted, near Lusk, a serious reverse upon Austria's weakened eastern front. German assistance had to be asked for with great urgency. Although the German army was at that time engaged in very heavy fighting along the Somme, twenty divisions were sent to restore the situation.
Nor did the German attack upon Verdun justify the hopes that had been set upon it. It began on February 21st and during the following days proceeded quite successfully. The fall of the fortress seemed imminent. But in the end the French succeeded in holding their ground. On July 1st began the great English-French attack near the Somme, which brought permanent relief for the French at Verdun and taxed the German forces to the utmost. The attack upon Verdun grew weaker and weaker and finally had to be broken off altogether.
Thus both offensives, in Italy as well as near Verdun, met with the same fate. In either place a great success might have been achieved if the forces of the Central Powers had been properly coördinated. But to carry out the two undertakings at the same time was an impossible task. The incident demonstrated clearly that the cardinal mistake in the conduct of the war had been the absence of unified command. The matter became pressing, and at last the ball was set rolling. It was seen that successful cooperation between the two men then in charge, Falkenhayn and Conrad, was practically out of the question, and that change could be wrought only by establishing a higher authority.
The first measure which the events near Lusk made necessary was a reorganization of command on the eastern front. After numerous protracted discussions an agreement was reached at the end of July, 1916. Field-Marshal von Hindenburg took charge of the eastern front as far south as Brody.
After that, Enver Pasha and the King of Bulgaria suggested that the supreme command over the entire fighting force of the Central Powers be conferred on the German Emperor. But when General von Cramon submitted this proposal to General von Conrad the latter flatly refused--as Cramon reports--and telegraphed to Vienna the same day, asking to be relieved of his position. Emperor Francis Joseph declined to accept his resignation, and the negotiations were renewed. In the meantime Falkenhayn was replaced (August, 1916) by Field-Marshal von Hindenburg and General von Ludendorff. They too urged that the question of unity of command should promptly be settled. At last, in September, 1916, an arrangement was made. By the terms of this, the German Emperor was charged with the supreme command in order that unity in the execution of the larger operations might be assured. In exercising this supreme command he was to have the assistance of the various High Commands. The orders and instructions of the Emperor were to be transmitted through the Chief of Staff of the German field forces.
Thus, in a form, a "Supreme Command" had been created. In reality, however, it was far removed in nature from a really rigid command, and remained so throughout the rest of the war. On the western and eastern fronts, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had perfect control of all war operations, as Ludendorff tells us in his memoirs. But with regard to the campaign against Rumania it was still necessary to come to terms with the other Allies, above all with Austria-Hungary. Under the Austro-Hungarian High Command in Teschen was the Army Group of Archduke Karl, holding the southern wing of the eastern front. This group was so dependent on the measures taken by the German High Command that the unity of authority was in no danger at this point. But the Italian and Albanian fronts were the exclusive field of operations for General von Conrad, and that meant a grave peril.
It was soon after this agreement had been concluded, namely on November 21, 1916, that Emperor Francis Joseph passed away. He had with unqualified loyalty adhered to the alliance with Germany and had been satisfied to know that the supreme command was in the hands of the German Emperor. The loyalty of his successor, Emperor Charles, was not as reliable. The young Emperor took personal command of the entire Austro-Hungarian army and, by this very fact, necessitated a modification of the agreement just made. This modification stipulated that the two Chiefs of Staff should in joint conferences decide upon the operations which were to be undertaken in common. If an agreement could not be reached, the decision lay with the two sovereigns. If they, too, were unable to agree, the decision of the German Emperor was to prevail. This meant, of course, a further weakening of the agreement of September, which had been inadequate as it was. Once again every decision had to be reached by way of conferences and negotiations.
General von Conrad found it impossible to reconcile himself to the new order of things. In February, 1917, his resignation was accepted, and General von Arz took his place.
The cause of harmonious cooperation among the Central Powers was not promoted by the new Emperor, as two events soon showed. It was through the fault of Emperor Charles that a secret report by Count Czernin, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, picturing the situation of the monarchy in the most gloomy hues, came in 1917 into the hands of the German deputy Erzberger and, through an indiscretion of the latter, to the knowledge of the Entente. The latter's will to victory and power of endurance were thereby greatly strengthened. In the following year it became known that in the spring of 1917 Emperor Charles had, in a letter and through his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Parma, applied to President Poincaré, asking for a separate peace and promising to support France's "just demands for a return of Alsace-Lorraine."
These political events, and the resulting tension of relations between the sovereigns of the two Central Empires, could not but have an unfavorable effect upon the supreme command's harmonious conduct of operations.
It is true, there was not much occasion in 1917 to consider extensive joint operations; for the German High Command limited itself in that year chiefly to defense, awaiting the result of the U-boat campaign, which was expected to have a decisive effect upon the war as a whole. In the Western arena this attitude led to the great battles of defense on the Aisne, near Arras, and in Flanders. But meantime the situation in Italy took on a most critical aspect. The result of the fighting on the Isonzo front in the spring and summer of 1917 (the tenth and eleventh battles of the Isonzo) made it appear very doubtful whether it would be possible, in case of another battle, to prevent the Italians from breaking through, with the consequent loss of Trieste. The only means of forestalling this seemed to be a counter-offensive, which however required assistance from the Germans. Emperor Charles, from considerations of prestige, hesitated to appeal for such help, but finally consented. Seven German divisions were placed at the disposal of the Austrians. The brunt of the battle which now followed, and which resulted in breaking the ranks of the enemy near Tolmina on the Isonzo River, had to be borne by the German Fourteenth Army. The success was greater than had been expected, but for a decisive effect it would have been necessary to combine the Isonzo attack right from the start with an advance from the Tyrol. That had been impossible for lack of troops. But after the enemy had once been hurled back on the Isonzo front, it would have been possible to transfer such Austro-Hungarian forces as had become available there to the front in the Tyrol in order to start an offensive here too. General von Cramon recounts that the German General Headquarters favored this line of action, but refrained from pressing its view and did not avail itself of its right as supreme command, because it did not wish to meddle too much with affairs in "the Austrian theatre of war." This circumstance shows how loosely the reins of control rested in the hands of that supreme command.
The last year of the gigantic contest began. Both the contending sides realized that 1918 was bound to bring the decision. The situation had taken on an aspect more favorable for the Central Powers since Russia had collapsed in 1917 and the pressure on the Austrian front in Italy had been materially relieved. All the circumstances existing at the time seemed to urge that the Central Powers undertake another attack in order to force a decision. The longer the war continued, the greater must become the numerical superiority of the Entente, on account of the prospective arrival of the Americans. The conditions prevailing among Germany's allies made it appear very doubtful whether their strength and endurance would allow them to keep up the war much longer. Also, the effect of the blockade made it highly desirable to hasten the end. Once more every consideration demanded that all the available forces of the Central Powers be gathered together for an attack at the decisive spot. But again Germany and Austria-Hungary proceeded along different lines. The supreme command proved that it was not strong enough.
In the first negotiations, to be sure, it looked as if the participation of Austro-Hungarian divisions in the great offensive on the western front being planned by the German High Command would be arranged. A letter by General von Ludendorff, addressed December 15, 1917, to the Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff, contains the following passage: "Your Excellency is aware of the enormous efforts which the French, the British and the Americans are making in order to snatch victory to themselves in the eleventh hour. In view of these facts we should be determined not to slacken our effort, but to strain every nerve, at home as well as at the front. The issue of these coming combats will decide the future of Austria-Hungary and Germany. Victory will be ours if, as hitherto, we stand firmly by each other." Accordingly, General von Arz was requested to use his influence to induce Austria-Hungary to assist Germany to the best of her ability in the decisive struggle which was impending in the west. In the first place it was asked that the German troops still employed on the Austrian front in the east be released by substituting Austro-Hungarian forces for them, and secondly that a fractional part of the western front be likewise taken over by Austro-Hungarian troops. The most urgent thing for the moment, it was stated, was that Austria-Hungary should help out with labor by transferring a contingent of pioneer troops to the western front.
It became manifest, however, that Austria was afraid she might hurt her prestige if she sent to the western front only pioneer troops. To the suggestion that Austro-Hungarian forces participate in the attack Arz assented; he wrote: "I thoroughly concur with your Excellency's view that in the spring of 1918 a decisive blow should be struck on the western front, for which it is impossible to gather too much strength. I am authorized by my Supreme War Lord to declare that Austria-Hungary's forces will most willingly participate in these combats." From further discussions, however, it appeared that Austria-Hungary was planning to send an independent army which was to be employed on the western front as a separate unit. To this the German High Command was unable to consent. At the time the German offensive in March began no understanding had been reached regarding the participation of Austro-Hungarian troops. Finally it was learned that such participation was not agreeable to Emperor Charles, because Empress Zita did not wish that Austrians should fight on French soil. It was apparently her personal objection which prevented the Teutonic allies from cooperating in France.
Inasmuch as direct cooperation of Austro-Hungarian troops on the western front had not been achieved, the only thing that left for the Austrians to do was to start an offensive on the Italian front by way of relief for the Germans in France. In this way Austria-Hungary might at least indirectly do something to help the decision in the west. Thus it came about that just as they had done in 1916 at Verdun and in the Tyrol, so also in the last decisive struggle of 1918 the Central Powers attacked at separate points.
The Austrian offensive in Italy began about the middle of June. It failed completely. Previous experiences might have taught the lesson that, without German assistance, great successes could not be won in Italy. In the western theatre of war, the German attacks on the Somme in March, in Flanders in April, on the Aisne in May and June resulted in considerable tactical success, but they did not succeed in breaking through the ranks of the enemy and bringing about a decision. The German High Command now insisted that the Austro-Hungarian Headquarters send all their available divisions to the western front because the German forces could not possibly endure the strain indefinitely. Upon the advice of General von Cramon, it was also promised that these divisions would be employed at decisive points because it seemed incompatible with Austrian prestige to employ the Austrians at quiet sectors of the front in order to release German forces for the fight.
As the need of assistance became more and more pressing, there was at last, on June 21st, an official request "on the part of the supreme command" and signed by Field-Marshal von Hindenburg addressed to General-Oberst von Arz, in which it said: "Speaking from the standpoint of the supreme command, I beg to express my view as follows: the Austro-Hungarian army should discontinue the attacks in Italy and dispatch all forces which thereby become disengaged to the western theatre of war . . . I indulge in the hope that your Excellency will appreciate this iron military necessity and will concur in my view." All that was asked for at first was six divisions. It is to be noted that even the "supreme command" could only express views and requests, and could not issue orders.
In July the first two of the Austro-Hungarian divisions began rolling toward the western front. Two others followed at the end of August and early in September. They were unable, at that late date, to stem the tide. The great change in the conduct of the war in the western theatre came at the middle of July, and from that time on the scales were turned against the Central Powers until the armistice was concluded in November.
It may well be said that among the numerous and varied reasons which led to the defeat of the Central Powers in the World War the absence of real and strict unity of supreme command played an important part. Germany and Austria-Hungary did not succeed in creating among themselves that unity of interests which is indispensable to success. How exceedingly difficult a thing this is to achieve is shown by the experiences of all coalition wars.
[i]See "The Evolution of the Unified Command," by Gen. Tasker H. Bliss, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Vol. I, No. 2.