In his 2015 book "Towards The Flame - Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia", Dominic Lieven claims:

In Germany, William II was largely replaced by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg as regards charismatic leadership, while General Erich Ludendorff increasingly dominated the actual conduct of the war. The Hindenburg-Ludendorff combination was supported - indeed demanded - by most of the German elite and much of the parliament and population. Their leadership proved a catastrophe, losing a war that Germany would probably have won without their miscalculations.

What were those miscalculations?


3 Answers 3


It is easy for an "armchair general" to criticize an actual general who was fighting a war without a benefit of a 20/20 hindsight.

Both sides made numerous mistakes, and the the Entente's victory was not assured until the very end.

There are two basic ways to win a war:

  • crush the enemy on the battlefield
  • choke the enemy economically

Both sides tried both approaches. However, the Central Powers were better at crushing (because or their central location and Auftragstaktik) - even though submarine warfare brought them some successes; while Entente was better at choking (because they controlled much more resources and could blockade the Central Powers) - even though they scored some coups on the battlefield too.

The Central Powers biggest coup was the defeat of Russia, brought by support of Bolsheviks, which might have won them the war, had they not brought the US into the war by the Zimmermann Telegram.

The biggest mistake (of both sides, but more disastrous for the Central Powers) was trying to break the stalemate "evolutionally" (by massive use of manpower) rather than "revolutionary" (e.g., using tanks, aircraft, infiltration tactics &c). Of course, it is easy for us to theorize now - Ludendorff and Foch did not know what we know now.

See Liddell Hart's works on strategy for more on this.

  • Germany still could have won with the US in the field, just not 1918. For Germany, 1918 was not the year for a decisive showdown. They had just defeated Russia. 1918 should have been spent on exploiting the gains in Russia. To that end, they should have 1) strength and deepen the Hindenburg line. 2) eliminate the entente forces in Macedonia, 3) secure the middle east. 4) sit back and wait for the entente to bleed themselves white against the Hindenburg line. The main reason Germans lost in the West was, the Spring Offensive cost them their best troops and got them out of position. Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 18:23

From a tactical perspective, Ludendorff's biggest mistake in my opinion was Operation Michael. Strategically, he should have sought to end the war on favorable terms, rather than trying to win an all or nothing absolute victory.

1918 actually began quite promisingly for the central powers.

And given Ludendorff's goal to bring the war to an end... and that he had the initiative in 1918, the question became what to do.

The Western Front was the main front, a victory would end the war in Germany's favor. (High risk, high reward) But there were a lot of entente forces there and the reinforcement barely gave the Germans a numerical edge. Besides, the Germans were in the heavily fortified Hindenburg line. And there was no reason to believe Germany couldn't hold the allies there in another year of defense. As it unfolded, Michael's biggest problem was it was unfocused, without a specific strategic goal.

A Michael scale offensive in the Italian front in 1918 was another possibility. The problem is that Italy is a large and mountainous country, and in theory the entente could have just retreated south and absorbed the blows and, therefore, tied down the fresh forces.

A Michael scale offensive in the Macedonia front in early 1918 would have made the most sense. A victory there could have stabilized the Bulgarian regime. It was also a relatively thinly manned secondary front that was far from entente's supply lines. 500,000, or even 250,000 extra German troops could have given central powers a crushing advantage. if that front could be eliminated all together, it could have yielded massive bounties in equipment and men, and it would have freed up a lot of men for action else where.

So from a strategic perspective, it was Ludendorff's mistake to try to end the war in an all of nothing gamble in 1918. He should have small-balled the entente. Won in Macedonia. Then worked with the Turks to take the Suez.

Sure the Americans would have arrived in great numbers. But that would be a problem for 1919 ...

  • 3
    That edit is all you get for free. References to your facts will get you more up-votes. Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 15:14
  • Thank you for the edits. This is largely an opinion question about: How Ludendorff lost WWI. IMO, he lost it in 1918. He tried to use the last reserve of military might to deliver a knock out blow and failed. In poker term, it was even stack size in early 1918. There was no need to go all in. 2 wins in 2 distant theaters could have given him an overall advantage. But he went for the All In and fell short. Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 15:25
  • 1
    Comments are ephemeral and subject to arbitrary deletion by moderators at any time - please edit all content into your answer. Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 15:30
  • In defense of the offensive, the United States was in the war but not yet in significant numbers. The reasoning may have been that Germany needed to win the war in 1918 or they'd lose it in 1919, so that weakening the Entente forces would have been insufficient. Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 16:11
  • That was indeed Ludendorff's reasoning/justification for an All-in offensive on the Western Front. It was certainly a justifiable basis for his decision. Didn't work out for him. And that's how he lost. =) Commented Oct 5, 2018 at 16:17

The mistakes that Ludendorff made are numerous. I would recommend taking a look at the GreatWar series on YouTube for a good brief overview of him. I would say that his biggest mistake was the meat grinder of Verdun and the Somme. Basically, he took on the mentality of bleeding the French Army till they collapsed regardless of the costs in man power. Several counterattacks he ordered basically were : they attacked us, attack them, with a total disregard to the tactical situation or the bigger picture.

  • 3
    I believe Erich von Falkenhayn was in charge of the Western front during Verdun and the Somme, not Ludendorff.
    – mbw
    Commented Jul 20, 2017 at 20:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.