Oberste Heeresleitung

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Hindenburg, Wilhelm II, Ludendorff, January 1917 Hindenburg, Kaiser, Ludendorff HD-SN-99-02150.JPG
Hindenburg, Wilhelm II, Ludendorff, January 1917

The Oberste Heeresleitung (German pronunciation: [ˈoːbɐstə ˈheːʁəsˌlaɪtʊŋ] , Supreme Army Command or OHL) was the highest echelon of command of the army (Heer) of the German Empire. In the latter part of World War I, the Third OHL assumed dictatorial powers and became the de facto political authority in the empire.

German Army (German Empire) 1871-1919 land warfare branch of the German military

The Imperial German Army was the unified ground and air force of the German Empire. The term Deutsches Heer is also used for the modern German Army, the land component of the Bundeswehr. The German Army was formed after the unification of Germany under Prussian leadership in 1871 and dissolved in 1919, after the defeat of the German Empire in World War I.

German Empire empire in Central Europe between 1871–1918

The German Empire, also known as Imperial Germany, was the German nation state that existed from the unification of Germany in 1871 until the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.


Formation and operation

After the formation of the German Empire in 1871, the Prussian Army, Royal Saxon Army, Army of Württemberg and the Bavarian Army were autonomous in peacetime, each kingdom maintaining a separate war ministry and general staff to administer their forces. On the outbreak of war, the Constitution of the German Empire made the Emperor Commander-in-Chief of the combined armies (Oberster Kriegsherr, Supreme Warlord).

Prussian Army 1701-1871 land warfare branch of Prussias military, primary component and predecessor of the German Army to 1919

The Royal Prussian Army served as the army of the Kingdom of Prussia. It became vital to the development of Brandenburg-Prussia as a European power.

The Royal Saxon Army was the military force of the Electorate (1682—1807) and later the Kingdom of Saxony (1807—1918). A regular Saxon army was first established in 1682 and it continued to exist until the abolition of the German monarchies in 1918. With the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine by Napoleon the Royal Saxon Army joined the French "Grande Armée" along with 37 other German states.

Army of Württemberg military unit

The army of the German state of Württemberg was until 1918 known in Germany as the Württembergische Armee.

The Emperor's role as Commander-in-Chief was largely ceremonial and authority lay with the Chief of the General Staff, who issued orders in the Emperor's name. The pre-war Chief of the General Staff was Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke (The Younger) and the Oberste Heeresleitung was the command staff led by Moltke as Chief of the General Staff of the Army. [1] :180

Helmuth von Moltke the Younger Chief of the German General Staff

Helmuth Johannes Ludwig Graf von Moltke, also known as Moltke the Younger, was a German general who served as the Chief of the German General Staff from 1906 to 1914. He was a nephew of Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke who is commonly called "Moltke the Elder" to differentiate the two.

The General Staff was initially formed into five divisions and two more were created during the war:

In addition to the General Staff of the Field Army, the Supreme Army Command consisted of the Emperor's Military Cabinet, the Intendant General (responsible for supply), senior advisers in various specialist fields (Artillery, Engineers, Medicine, Telegraphy, Munitions and Railways) and representatives from the four German War Ministries and representatives of the other Central Powers. The Emperor was also Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial German Navy, which was led by the German Imperial Admiralty Staff and from August 1918 by the Seekriegsleitung (SKL, Naval Warfare Command). Co-ordination was poor at the beginning of the war between OHL and SKL, the navy did not even know about the Schlieffen Plan, an initial attack on France through Belgium.[ citation needed ]

Central Powers group of countries defeated in World War I

The Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria—hence also known as the Quadruple Alliance —was one of the two main coalitions that fought World War I (1914–18).

Imperial German Navy Navy of the German Empire between 1871 and 1919

The Imperial German Navy was the navy created at the time of the formation of the German Empire. It existed between 1871 and 1919, growing out of the small Prussian Navy, which primarily had the mission of coastal defence. Kaiser Wilhelm II greatly expanded the navy, and enlarged its mission. The key leader was Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who greatly expanded the size and quality of the navy, while adopting the sea power theories of American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. The result was a naval arms race with Britain as the German navy grew to become one of the greatest maritime forces in the world, second only to the Royal Navy. The German surface navy proved ineffective during World War I; its only major engagement, the Battle of Jutland, was indecisive. However, the submarine fleet was greatly expanded and posed a major threat to the British supply system. The Imperial Navy's main ships were turned over to the Allies, but were sunk at Scapa Flow in 1919 by German crews.

German Imperial Admiralty Staff

The German Imperial Admiralty Staff was one of four command agencies for the administration of the Imperial German Navy from 1899 to 1918. While the German Emperor Wilhelm II as commander-in-chief exercised supreme operational command and control of the naval forces, the military staff was split into the Admiralty, the Naval Office, the Naval Cabinet, and the Inspector-General. The command structure had a negative impact on German naval warfare in World War I, as a professional head of the Imperial Navy, similar to the First Sea Lord, was not established until August 1918. After the war and the German Revolution of 1918–19, the Admiralty Staff became subordinate to the Naval Office and was finally disestablished by order of the German President.

List of Commanders

Supreme Army CommanderTook officeLeft officeTime in office
The Road To War Q81806.jpg
von Moltke, Helmuth the Younger Helmuth von Moltke the Younger
1 January 190614 September 19148 years, 256 days
Erich von Falkenhayn.jpg
von Falkenhayn, Erich Erich von Falkenhayn
14 September 191429 August 19161 year, 350 days
Paul von Hindenburg (1914) von Nicola Perscheid (cropped).jpg
von Hindenburg, Paul Paul von Hindenburg
29 August 19163 July 19192 years, 308 days


First OHL - Moltke

Upon mobilizing in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, the Großer Generalstab (Great General Staff) formed the core of the Supreme Army Command, becoming the General Staff of the Field Army [1] :180. Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke (The Younger), who had been Chief of the General Staff since 1906, continued in office, as did most of the Division heads. Partially as a result of these longstanding working relationships, Moltke delegated substantial authority to his subordinates, especially to the chiefs of the Operations Division, Colonel Gerhard Tappen, and the Information Division, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hentsch. These officers were often dispatched to subordinate headquarters to investigate and make decision on behalf of OHL.

German General Staff Full-time body at the head of the Prussian Army and German Army

The German General Staff, originally the Prussian General Staff and officially Great General Staff, was a full-time body at the head of the Prussian Army and later, the German Army, responsible for the continuous study of all aspects of war, and for drawing up and reviewing plans for mobilization or campaign. It existed unofficially from 1806, and was formally established by law in 1814, the first general staff in existence. It was distinguished by the formal selection of its officers by intelligence and proven merit rather than patronage or wealth, and by the exhaustive and rigorously structured training which its staff officers undertook. Its rise and development gave the German armed forces a decisive strategic advantage over their adversaries for nearly a century and a half.

Although the German armies were victorious in the Battle of the Frontiers their advance was brought to a halt at First Battle of the Marne. Communications between OHL and the front line broke down and Hentsch was dispatched by Moltke to the Headquarters of the First and Second Armies to assess the situation. After discovering the Armies were separated from each other by a gap of twenty-five miles and in danger of being encircled, Hentsch ordered a retreat to the Aisne. On hearing the news from the front, Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown on 9 September.

Battle of the Frontiers series of battles; part of the Western Front of World War I

The Battle of the Frontiers was a series of battles fought along the eastern frontier of France and in southern Belgium, shortly after the outbreak of the First World War. The battles resolved the military strategies of the French Chief of Staff General Joseph Joffre with Plan XVII and an offensive interpretation of the German Aufmarsch II deployment plan by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. The German concentration on the right (northern) flank, to wheel through Belgium and attack the French in the rear, was delayed by the movement of French Fifth Army towards the north-west to intercept them and the presence of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on his left flank. The Franco-British were driven back by the Germans, who were able to invade northern France. French and British rearguard actions delayed the German advance, allowing the French time to transfer forces on the eastern frontier to the west to defend Paris, resulting in the First Battle of the Marne.

First Battle of the Marne First World War battle

The Battle of the Marne was a World War I battle fought from 6–12 September 1914. It resulted in an Allied victory against the German armies in the west. The battle was the culmination of the German advance into France and pursuit of the Allied armies which followed the Battle of the Frontiers in August and had reached the eastern outskirts of Paris. A counter-attack by six French armies and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along the Marne River forced the Imperial German Army to retreat northwest, leading to the First Battle of the Aisne and the Race to the Sea. The battle was a victory for the Allied Powers but led to four years of trench warfare stalemate on the Western Front.

Aisne (river) River in France

The Aisne is a river in northeastern France. It is a left tributary of the Oise. It gave its name to the French department of Aisne. It was known in the Roman period as Axona.

Second OHL - Falkenhayn

Moltke was replaced by the Prussian Minister of War, Lieutenant General Erich von Falkenhayn, first informally in September and then officially on 25 October 1914. [1] :179 Although Tappen was retained as head of the Operations Division, Falkenhayn brought in two of his own associates, Generals Adolf Wild von Hohenborn and Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven, into the OHL. Hohenborn served as Generalquartiermeister until January 1915 when he succeeded Falkenhayn as Prussian Minister of War. [2] Freytag-Loringhoven replaced Hohenborn as Generalquartiermeister. Unlike his predecessor, Falkenhayn centralised decision making in his own hands and rarely explained himself to his subordinates; this characteristic has caused historians difficulty in assessing his actual intentions. [3]

After taking command Falkenhayn became engaged in the Race to the Sea as the German and Franco-British armies attempted to outflank each other to the north. The campaign culminated at Ypres where both combatants launched major offensives that failed to achieve a breakthrough. [4] Two strategic issues dominated the remainder Falkenhayn's tenure as Chief of the General Staff.

First was the priority accorded to the eastern and western fronts. Victories at the Battle of Tannenberg and First Battle of the Masurian Lakes had made Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg a popular hero and contrasted starkly with the stalemate in the west. Hindenburg and his supporters sought to shift Germany's main effort to the eastern front in hopes of knocking Russia out of the war. [5] Falkenhayn resisted this, believing that France and Great Britain were the true opponents and that a decisive victory against the Russians was impossible. [6]

The second concern was the Battle of Verdun, the centrepeice of Falkenhayn's western strategy. Writing after the war, Falkenhayn stated that his intention was to draw the French Army into a battle of attrition and wear them down. However as the battle developed casualties between the two armies were roughly equal. After the failure of Falkenhayn's strategy at Verdun and the entry into the war of the Kingdom of Romania on the Allied side in August 1916, he was replaced on 29 August by Hindenburg. [1] :451

Third OHL - Hindenburg

Paul von Hindenburg's command became known as the Dritte OHL (Third OHL) but Hindenburg was "neither the intellectual centre of the strategic planning [...] nor of the new war economy", [1] :513 as proposed in the Hindenburg Programme of 31 August 1916. He was mostly a figurehead and a representative of the military command to the public. Control was mainly exercised by his deputy, General of Infantry Erich Ludendorff, who held the title Erster Generalquartiermeister (First Quartermaster General). [lower-alpha 1] [1] :513-514 The duumvirate increasingly dominated decision making on the German war effort, to an extent that they are sometimes described as de facto military dictators, supplanting the Emperor and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, whom they managed to have replaced with Georg Michaelis in the summer of 1917. [lower-alpha 2] [7] :19–20

The OHL, through the Hindenburg Programme, a total war strategy, sought decisive victory. Ludendorff ordered the resumption of the unrestricted U-boat Campaign, which, along with the Zimmermann Telegram, provoked the United States to enter the war. The OHL ensured safe passage for Vladimir Lenin and his associates from Switzerland to Russia. After the October Revolution, the OHL negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk to free troops for the 1918 Spring Offensive on the Western Front. As the tide of the war turned against Germany with the Allied Hundred Days Offensive, in late September 1918, Ludendorff called for the "parliamentisation" of the German government and immediate armistice negotiations. When he reversed course and demanded the fight to be resumed in October, Ludendorff was sacked and replaced by Lieutenant-General Wilhelm Groener. Hindenburg remained in office until his resignation from the armed forces in the summer of 1919.

Armistice and dissolution

As the German Revolution began, Hindenburg and Groener advised the Emperor to abdicate. Groener subsequently came to an agreement with the Social Democrat leader Friedrich Ebert known as the Ebert–Groener pact under which the Army leadership agreed to back the new republican government. With the war over in November 1918, the OHL was moved from Spa to Schloss Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel, to supervise the withdrawal of the German armies from the occupied territories. [8] The final location of the OHL was at Kolberg after February 1919 as the military focus had shifted to preventing territorial encroachment by the Second Polish Republic. [8]

In July 1919, the Supreme Army Command and Great General Staff were disbanded by order of the Treaty of Versailles. For a few days, Groener had replaced Hindenburg as Chief of the General Staff, after the latter resigned in late June. He resigned from his position as head of Kommandostelle Kolberg (as the staff had become on the formal dissolution of the OHL) in September 1919. [9]



  1. Unlike in other armies, the German Generalquartiermeister was not responsible for supply but was the deputy to the Chief of Staff
  2. On 31 October 1917, Georg Michaelis was forced to resign as Chancellor of the German Empire and was replaced with Georg von Hertling. On 30 September 1918 after Bulgaria's capitulation and with both the capitulation of Austria-Hungary and the collapse of the western front imminent, the OHL endorsed Prince Maximilian of Baden as replacement for von Hertling.

See also

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Leonhard, Jörn (2014). Die Büchse der Pandora: Geschichte des Ersten Weltkriegs[Pandora's Box: History of the First World War] (in German). C. H. Beck. ISBN   978-3-406-66191-4.
  2. Foley 2007, pp. 95–96.
  3. Foley 2007, pp. 97.
  4. Foley 2007, pp. 99.
  5. Foley 2007, pp. 109-110.
  6. Foley 2007, pp. 111.
  7. Haffner, Sebastian (2002). Die deutsche Revolution 1918/19[The German Revolution, 1918–19] (in German). Kindler. ISBN   3-463-40423-0.
  8. 1 2 "Biografie Wilhelm Groener" [Biography of Wilhem Groener] (in German). Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Retrieved 26 June 2013.
  9. "Biografie Wilhelm Groener (German)". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Archived from the original on July 11, 2014. Retrieved 22 May 2013.


Further reading