The First World War, also known as the Great War, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, saw one of the worst losses of human life in history. The war was led by tough generals on both sides who devised strategies and displayed a tremendous amount of courage in leading their troops. Some of them gained respect for their sharp battle decisions while some became controversial figures due to the number of casualties their decisions caused. Here are the top 10 generals of the First World War:
10. Maurice Sarrail
Maurice Sarrail was a French Army officer during the First World War. Born in 1856, by the time the war broke out, Sarrail was already one of France’s most senior officers. When his troops performed well in the invasion of the Ardennes in August 1914, he was promoted to command the Third Army. His views on socialism made him popular among certain sectors of the French public. This also made him a rarity among the Catholics, conservatives and monarchists who at that time dominated the French Army officer corps under the Third Republic before the war. This also became one of the main reasons behind his appointment to lead at Salonika.
The Salonika Campaign was drafted with the intention of supporting Serbia, with Bulgaria entering the war on the side of the Central Powers, and also to provide a chance for France to show its economic and political influence over Greece and the declining Ottoman Empire. Despite numerous offensives, Sarrail’s forces failed in the conquest of Bulgaria and in the prevention of the Central Powers from capturing Serbia in 1915 and Romania in 1916. Later, in December 1917, Sarrail was dismissed by Georges Clemenceau.
9. Erich Ludendorff
Educated in the cadet corps, General Erich Ludendorff was a top German military commander during the latter stages of the First World War. At the start of the war, he was the quartermaster general to Bulow’s Second Army, having the responsibility of capturing the Liege forts. After this successful task he was sent to East Prussia where he worked with Paul von Hindenburg as his chief of staff. Hindenburg relied heavily on Ludendorff for the victories at Tannenberg in 1914 and at the Masurian Lakes in 1915.
Ludendorff supported unrestricted submarine warfare, which was a controversial policy with the then neutral Americans. This eventually dragged the US into the war. He also played a central role in the Brest–Litovsk peace treaty, which was negotiated at great cost to Russia. After the failure of the great German push in the spring of 1918, due to the arrival of fresh American troops, Ludendorff resigned. After the end of the war and the Armistice, he left for Sweden. During his exile, he wrote many books and articles related to the German military’s conduct during the war claiming that they had been backstabbed by Germany’s left-wing political element.
8. Frederick Stanley Maude
General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude was a British Army officer. He was the most successful commander on the Mesopotamian Front during the First World War. He is also known for conquering Baghdad in 1917. Maude’s career during the war began on the general staff of General Pulteney’s III Corps in France. In October 1914, he was promoted to brigadier general and was the commander of the 14th Brigade. Maude suffered serious injuries during April 1915 and was sent home to England for recuperation.
After returning to service, he was promoted to major general in June 1915 and was appointed commander of the 33rd Division. The division was currently training in England before leaving for France, but Maude was never posted to France. He was known as Systematic Joe, for being cautious and consistent rather than a spectacular commander. He led his forces to a series of victories including the Battle of Kut and the capture of Baghdad on March 11, 1917. During the same year Maude fell ill from drinking contaminated milk and eventually died of cholera. A peak in the Cascade mountain range, Mount Maude, was named after him by the explorer Albert H. Sylvester. In 2003, the British military headquarters in Baghdad were named Maude House.
7. John Monash
General Sir John Monash was a civil engineer and an Australian military commander during the First World War. He held the command of the 13th Infantry Brigade before the outbreak of the war. After the start of the war he became commander of the 4th Brigade during 1915 in Egypt and took part in the Gallipoli campaign. After the campaign he took his brigade to France in June 1916. During July 1916 he was in charge of the new 3rd Division in northwestern France and in May 1918 was made the commander of the Australian Corps which was the largest corps on the Western Front during that time.
The victorious Allied attack during the Battle of Amiens on August 8, 1918, which speeded up the end of the war, was planned by Monash and executed by British forces which also included the Australian and Canadian corps. Monash is regarded as one of the best generals of the First World War and the most well-known commander in the history of Australia. He was an innovative leader and earned high regard from many top political and military figures. After his death on October 8, 1931, he was given a state funeral.
6. Louis Franchet d’Espèrey
General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey was a French commander who saw active service during the First World War on the Western and Balkan fronts. His participation in the war began as a commander of 1 Corps which was part of General Lanrezac’s Fifth Army at Charleroi. After d’Esperèy’s success in defending the Fifth Army and disrupting the German Schlieffen Plan, he was made commander of the Fifth Army replacing Lanrezac. He led the Fifth Army in the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. After the victory there he was promoted to commander of the Eastern Army Group on the Western Front.
General d’Espèrey was defeated by the Germans on the Chemin des Dames in May 1918 and he was sent to lead the polygon Allied armies in Macedonia. It was there that he gained a decisive victory that forced Bulgaria out of the war in September 1918 and opened the road to Vienna for the Allies. After that he led a bold attempt at the Danube, which caused the collapse of the demoralized German forces, which had been sent back from Russia, and the surrender of Hungary. In 1921, he was made Marshal of France and in 1934 was elected to the French Academy.
5. Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg had retired from the army in 1911 but the outbreak of the First World War led to his coming back in August 1914. He was sent to the Eastern Front as commander of the East Prussia army. During that year, the Germans scored a big victory at Tannenberg where Hindenburg’s troops overcame a much larger army, subsequently leading to his appointment as commander-in-chief of the German Army in the east during September 1914.
Hindenburg was also part of the final great German push in France during the spring of 1918 which ran from March to July. It had almost succeeded, but an Allied counter-offensive, with the help of US troops, broke through and caused the Germans to surrender in November 1918. After the end of the war, he directed the withdrawal of the German forces from France and Belgium. Later he also organized the suppression of left-wing radicals in Germany. He retired for the second time in June 1919 as a popular hero. While Hindenburg was due to be tried as a war criminal as per the Treaty of Versailles, his popularity ensured that he was not even indicted.
4. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was a German general during the First World War. He was also known as the Lion of Africa as he was the commander of the German East African Campaign. He is known to have lived by the warrior’s code of chivalry, honor and respect for one’s enemies, and was famous for the humanitarian treatment of his men as well as civilians. During a time when black soldiers were being discriminated against by the US Army, Lettow-Vorbeck treated his African Askaris no different to the white Germans under his command. He was fluent in Swahili and this earned much respect from his African soldiers.
During wartime, for four years, Lettow-Vorbeck led a force that did not exceed 14,000 men against a much larger force of 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops. He is famous for never having been defeated in battle and only surrendered after the Armistice in November 1918. He was the only German commander to be successful in invading imperial British soil during the war. After the war when the British repatriated the white German soldiers but confined the Askaris in camps, General von Lettow-Vorbeck refused to leave until he had guaranteed decent treatment and early release for them.
3. Douglas Haig
Douglas Haig was a British commander on the Western Front for most of the First World War. At the outbreak of war in August 1914, Haig was the general in charge of the 1st Corps. In December 1915 he became the commander-in-chief of the British Army on the Western Front. Haig had little time for new ideas and strategies. He started the Somme offensive on July 1, 1916, with the aim of breaking the stalemate on the Western Front and reducing the pressure on French troops at Verdun. Approximately 600,000 lives were lost during the offense which included 400,000 from the British and Commonwealth side. This number of casualties made him a controversial figure. After the end of the offensive, the British had gained some 10 miles of land.
In July 1917 a new offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres began which brought further casualties but managed to weaken the German Army and paved the way for their defeat in 1918. During the spring of 1918 when the German attacks almost broke the British and French armies, Haig strongly supported a single command of the Allied side led by Ferdinand Foch which eventually brought the war to an end.
2. Ferdinand Foch
The son of a civil servant, Ferdinand Foch was determined to become a solider and served as a key military commander during the First World War for the French side. He was named the commander of the XX Corps at the start of the war. Foch was in charge of the French Ninth Army after the early success in Nancy and forged a victory at the First Battle of the Marne by blocking the German advances at the marshes of St. Gond. He was promoted and was given the command of the Northern Army on the Western Front in October 1914. After the Somme offensive, which resulted in high casualties on the Allied side, he was sacrificed as the French scapegoat and was banished for a while.
In 1918, when the French and British armies were in danger of splitting, Foch was called back and took command of the Allied force in March of the same year and managed to withstand the Ludendorff Offensive. His victory at the Second Battle of the Marne helped put an end to the bloody fighting. In November 1918, he personally dictated the Armistice terms to a German delegation in a railway carriage. After the war, Foch was also made a British field marshal and Marshal of Poland.
1. John Pershing
John J. Pershing is well remembered for commanding the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe on the Western Front during the First World War. He served as the president and the first captain of the West Point class of 1886. He also served in the Spanish and Philippine–American wars and led the punitive raid against the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. Pershing was selected by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to command the AEF leaving for Europe. In the short space of 18 months, Pershing transformed the ill-prepared American military into more than two million disciplined soldiers.
At the beginning of the war, Pershing rejected the British and French demands that the American forces should be integrated with their armies and demanded that the AEF should operate as a single unit under him. During October 1918, in the Meuse–Argonne offensive, the AEF helped destroy the German resistance. Later, his willingness to integrate into the Allied operations helped end the war. On the Allied side, he was the only commander who was against the Armistice and insisted that Germany be continually pressured until they surrendered unconditionally. After his death in 1948, he was buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
These key figures and many others from the two warring sides led the war that lasted for four years with a total of 42,200,000 troops from the Allied side and 22,850,000 representing the Central Powers. Over 38 million lives were lost during the war including civilians and soldiers. While commanders on both sides vied to win the war, some strategies led to victories and other to mistakes which eventually ended the war in favor of the Allied forces.