German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm seen here cracking a joke with officers and men during an Iron Cross award ceremony for the 1st Company, Bavarian Infantry (Bavarian King’s Guard Regiment), during the Verdun campaign, July 7, 1916.
The First Battle of the Marne had recently been won by the French Army when, in the first half of November 1914, American Hearst Corporation journalist Karl von Wiegand paid a visit to the commander of the German 5th Army at Stenay in occupied France.
He was stunned to hear its commander—Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm himself of the reigning House of Hohenzollern—assert in a private aside, “We have lost the war! It will go on for a long time, but lost it is already!”
This accurate analysis was not published until 1961 by German author Klaus Jonas in his groundbreaking, and still singular today, biography of the man his enemies both foreign and domestic derided as Little Willy, to denote him from his father the Kaiser.
Crown Prince Wilhelm’s offhand remark was seen as all the more surprising in that it had been said three and a half years before the bloody struggle ground to a halt following the also lost Second Battle of the Marne in 1918.
The other surprise was that it had been correctly foreseen by a man many considered to be a failed soldier, and also a morally discredited heir to the throne who was long thought to be an ineffectual fool supremely interested in chasing women, racing cars and horses, playing tennis, and hunting stags.
Ironically, this supposed intellectual lightweight had foreseen what the learned gentlemen of the German general staff at supreme headquarters had failed to admit—even to themselves—that the former, much-touted Schlieffen Plan to defeat the combined Allied armies of France, Great Britain, and Belgium on the Western Front had been stillborn. Thus, their expected war of movement was abruptly over, that of the stalemated trenches begun, and the vaunted victories in the east ultimately made meaningless thereby.
Beyond that, His Royal Highness also grasped simultaneously that Imperial Germany and his own ruling dynasty—caught in the maw of war—had thus doomed itself, and this at the very start of the conflict it had worked a generation to win.
Not so ironically, this very same young prince—aged thirty-two at its outset—had been a trained soldier for most of his life: in childhood, adolescence, and on into adulthood, as had also previously been the case with all the male members of his family, commissioned lieutenant at the age of ten. Oddly, the 1914 celebrated “Hero of Longwy” soon emerged early on in the conflict as one of the most cruelly maligned figures of the entire Great War.
Noted Horne: “The leptic, unfinished-looking figure—with the narrow, sloping shoulders and almost deformed Modigliani neck in its high collar, and the elongated features of an amiable greyhound—was a boon to the caricaturists.”
Added Tuchman, “The cartoonists’ pet was the Crown Prince, whom they delighted to draw as an exaggerated fop with pinched waist, high tight collar, rakish cap, and an expression of fatuous vacuity” that, often enough, unfortunately for him, was not very far from being the truth.
Yet German and foreign women the world over found the prim, prudish Kaiser’s eldest son and offspring wildly sexy and attractive, an attribute that, in the end, helped materially in losing him his 300-year-old rightful crown as his father’s legal successor. In studied contrast to his father—who himself had served as crown prince for a mere ninety-nine days—Little Willy was fated to be the long-suffering heir for sixty-nine years, one of the longest such stints on record.
As a six-year-old at his father’s 1888 accession, from then on, Willy’s most personal dealings with his august, austere father had to occur through the latter’s formal chief of the military cabinet, as a younger officer to his army superior.
He became a corporal in the Prussian Army at the age of seven, having been placed within the daily regimen of a series of martial tutors. Indeed, in full Prussian dress kit and regalia, “the pathetic little boy” saluted on a parade ground his own father on the latter’s thirtieth birthday in 1889 during the first year of the latter’s three-decade-long reign.
One of his thousands of ardent female admirers was his own younger and only sister, Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia, who gushed that “He looked brilliant, and—because of his natural, unaffected manner—won a lot of sympathy,” but rarely from his Imperial father, however.
Tuchman described Little Willy in rather less fulsome terms. In 1914, “The Imperial scion was a narrow chested, willowy creature with the face of a fox,” who was known as an avowed militarist who had already glorified war in a book he had edited for children entitled, Germany in Arms, which celebrated the centennial of the War of Liberation against the hated, but feared, Napoleon Bonaparte that had been led by his own earlier dynasty, no less, and won. Postwar, the imperial author published a pair of autobiographical works that I have found useful here, both in 1922, while he was in his Dutch exile: The Memoirs of the Crown Prince of Germany and My War Experiences.
In the latter, young Wilhelm recalled watching with glee his invading, “Joyous German soldiers with sparkling eyes,” as they launched the later famed Battle of the Frontiers of August–September 1914 against the French. During the heady general mobilization days of August 1914, as all Europe went to war, it seemed, Albrecht Duke of Württemberg (1865–1939) and Kronprinz Rupprecht (1869–1955) of Bavaria of the ruling House of Wittelsbach each received Army commands from their imperial master the Kaiser. Thus it was both politically and dynastically essential that the German Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm as his own heir receive one as well.
Then, as Little Willy looked forward to the “happy, cheerful war,” as he initially called it, German general headquarters—where sat his own father as Supreme Warlord, no less—created the imperial crown prince an army commander as well, complete with his own first chief of staff, Gen. Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf (1860–1936.)
The crown prince’s father-cum-military superior sternly admonished his oldest—and by then, well wayward—son as he left for the Western Front: “Whatever he advises you, you must do!”
Thus did Little Willy enter upon a four-year-long top combat command with but a prior colonelcy of the famed Death’s Head Hussars under his belt, that and a year on the general staff at Berlin, but no experience as either a divisional or a corps commander—and more was to come, too.
Nevertheless, the steeple-chasing imperial crown prince had faith in himself, as he later wrote, and believed as well that what he had, “Gave [him] the theoretical groundwork for command of large units.” Indeed, von Moltke told HRH personally that he had “a good military outlook and a healthy common sense.” He would both need and display them before the Great War played itself out, four years and more later.
Indeed, to almost everyone’s astonishment, on both sides, his 5th Army won the Battle of the Frontiers, making him instantly renowned as the “Hero of the Battle of Longwy” of August 23, 1914, and this on the very day that far to the east the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team was being forged in steel as well.
That day, his 5th Army bypassed the Longwy Fortress itself, leaving it to be taken later by follow-up siege troops and engineers. Thus freed of this obstacle now to his rear, the intrepid imperial crown prince won laurels in the media for advancing, impressing for the very first time even his stern papa. Flush with this victory that reflected well on their dynasty jointly, the Kaiser joyously awarded him, as well as Rupprecht, the coveted Iron Cross, both First and Second Class, simultaneously.
“Deeply moved,” the proud crown prince handed his father’s telegram around for all his personal staff to see as well. Soon, the handsome young prince would be awarding combat medals for battlefield bravery himself, clad in “A dazzling white tunic, walking between two lines of soldiers distributing Iron Crosses from a basket carried by an aide,” thus aping his father’s own front visit style.
The coveted telegram trumpeted, “Well done! Am proud of you!” In fact, the incident even made the famous American New York Times edition August 26, 1914 thus:
Kaiser Decorates 2 Sons for Bravery
Berlin, via Copenhagen & London—Emperor William has conferred the decoration of the Iron Cross of the 2nd and 1st Class on Crown Prince Frederick William and Duke Albrecht of Württemberg.
He has conferred also the Iron Cross decoration of the 2nd Class on his son Prince Oskar. His Majesty also sent the following telegram to the Crown Princess: “I thank thee with all my heart, dear child; I rejoice with thee over the first victory of Wilhelm!”
“God has been on his side, and has most brilliantly supported him! To Him be thanks and honor! I remit to Wilhelm the Iron Cross of the 2nd and 1st Class. Oskar also fought brilliantly with his grenadiers!
“He has achieved the Iron Cross of the 2nd Class. Repeat that to Ina and Marie! Also in the future, God be with thee and all wives! Papa Wilhelm.”
The younger son again made the New York Times on February 8, 1916:
Kaiser’s Son Oskar is Wounded Again. Hit in the Head and Thigh by Shell Splinters on the Russian Front
Amsterdam—Prince Oskar of Prussia—fifth son of Emperor William—has been slightly wounded in the head and on the upper part of the thigh by shell splinters during the fighting in the eastern war theater, according to a Berlin official report received here.
Prince Oskar was wounded at Virton, Belgium in September 1914. He was ill for a long time, and was declared to be suffering also from an affection of the heart. He returned to duty in the field in November 1914, and narrowly escaped capture the following month during the fighting in Poland.
In Klaus Jonas’s The Life of Crown Prince Wilhelm, it was written that in that same early spirit of wartime magnanimity, the crown prince’s own 5th Army Chamberlain Elard von Oldenburg-Januschau (1855–1937) recalled in his postwar memoirs of 1936:
I shall never forget how the Crown Prince with a noble gesture returned the sword to the brave French commander, and gave him the choice of returning to France if he would give his word of honor not to fight any longer against Germany.
However, the officer frankly refused the offer, and accepted the hard fate of imprisonment.
Following the sudden and totally unexpected loss of First Marne—for the remainder of 1914 and all of 1915—Imperial Crown Prince Wilhelm remained at his Stenay Field headquarters while the interminable trench warfare dragged on.
By the end of 1915, he had concluded that Germany simply could not win a two-front war, and, therefore, must seek to conclude a peace in either the east or the west. He even floated the controversial idea himself of returning to the French their famous lost Fortress Metz of 1870 as an olive branch toward a peace settlement with at least the Gauls, if not yet the English.
The Battle of Verdun, February–December 1916
Then came the idea of “bleeding white” the French Army opposite the crown prince’s own 5th German Army command at the former’s Verdun fortress system, which was proposed by the Kaiser’s favorite chief of general staff, Gen. von Falkenhayn. He was the Kaiser’s antidote to the politically feared duo of the Eastern Front—Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Here, then, was how the bogged down war in the west would be won, via a brutal wastage slugfest, but it never was.
Asserted Perrett: “The German intention was to impose a ruinous battle of attrition on the French Army, thereby destroying its limited manpower reserves at this fortified city on the upper Meuse River in eastern France.”
The overall main battle lasted from February 21 to December 18, 1916, with Gen. Henri Philippe Pétain and then Gen. Robert Nivelle facing the imperial crown prince of the German Reich.
The epic bloodletting was an inconclusive standoff between Gallic defender and Teutonic attacker, with severe casualties on both sides—overall French Army commander Gen. Joseph “Papa” Joffre lost 362,000 killed to the German toll of 337,000 slain and wounded. Begun under von Falkenhayn’s aegis, it took the succeeding duo partnership another four months to wind down the slaughter, even after they assumed the supreme command on August 29, 1916. This abrupt change-of-command was one that the political intriguer Crown Prince Wilhelm had worked for mightily behind the scenes, proving that he had some powerful domestic chops as well.
The blame on the German side of the ledger for the Verdun debacle—for, indeed, such it was, with very little actually accomplished—has been debated by military historians ever since. Again, proposed by von Falkenhayn at the start, it had nonetheless been warmly endorsed by both the crown prince and his respected chief of staff, von Knobelsdorf. As the grim death toll mounted, however, young Wilhelm began more and more to have his own serious doubts as to the operation’s actual worth.
The story is told that—at the other end of the world—the great British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton reached South Georgia Island in 1916 after two years’ isolation in Antarctica and asked when the war had ended. He was told, “The war is not over! Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad!” according to Horne. Indeed, thought one German writer of the struggle at Verdun, there would be no end, “Until the last German and the last Frenchman hobbled out of the trenches on crutches to exterminate each other with pocket knives, or teeth and finger nails.”
The overall battle statistics were truly staggering: German artillery alone shot about 22 million rounds, with the French guns also accounting for an estimated 15 million. The French Army in 1916 boasted ninety-six divisions stationed on the Western Front, and of these, seventy had been deployed to Verdun, with the Germans throwing in a little over forty-six of their divisional-sized units.
All that either side ever gained territorially was about that of the size of the Royal Parks of London combined, leading the later crestfallen Little Willy—once so fond of glorious wartime exploits—to note postwar that “The Mill on the Meuse ground to powder the hearts as well as the bodies of the troops.”
Nevertheless, both he and his staff learned well the lessons that the sturdy French had so bloodily taught the German 5th Army at Verdun, and they employed them well the following year, as he later admitted: “Had we held to such defenses that had hitherto been the rule, I am convinced that we should not have come through the great defensive battles of 1917.”
By now, Gen. Friedrich von der Schulenburg had replaced Schmidt von Knobelsdorf as the crown prince’s new and final chief of staff, and the former leather pickelhaube (spiked helmet) was superseded by the 1916–35 “coal scuttle” helmet as well. Some things remained grimly the same as always, however, such as the men shitting their pants as they went “over the top” from both ends of the battlefields to their deaths.
By then, the crown prince had joined the scheming duo of the east in their behind-the-scenes political maneuvering at the Kaiser’s court, which helped overthrow the 1914 era’s Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856–1921).
The crown prince went further by backing Hindenburg’s abrupt First Quartermaster General Ludendorff against the interests of his father by campaigning, successfully, to have certain high members of the Kaiser’s various personal cabinets removed as well, especially that of the Civil Cabinet, Rudolf von Valentini.
Indeed, it must have seemed like a long time ago, as Crown Prince Wilhelm later recalled in his postwar memoirs: “The moment when I was standing in the old chapel of the Berlin Castle and took my military oath in front of my father the Kaiser, and stands out in my mind as my most cherished memory.”
Countered Jonas, however, of the crown prince in The Life of Crown Prince Wilhelm:
He had often—without wanting to—shocked soldiers returning from the front lines when he greeted them in his extravagant clothing, with a narrow riding whip in his hand, surrounded by his Indian whippets.
If now and then in his white uniform he threw them cigarettes, many of them indignantly thought that he had just come back from playing tennis. Whenever young French girls waved to him, he made his bright red car stop in the street, picked them up, and listened with a great deal of interest to their worries about the fate of their husbands or sweethearts.
Often, he promised to make inquiries for them in Supreme Headquarters, and by doing so, completely ruined his reputation at the German High Command.