Could Germany have Won World War 1?

Like World War 2 much of the historiography on World War 1 suggests Germany could not have won.  Given the considerable advantages her enemies had in manpower, industry, resources, finance, and naval power, as well as her obvious crushing defeat in 1918, it can be hard to fathom how she could have triumphed.  However, Germany arguably could have pulled off a victory at key moments, or at least accomplished a negotiated peace to her advantage under certain circumstances.  Certainly Germany’s impressive battlefield victories, her overrunning of countries and territory during the war, that she knocked Russia out of the conflict, as well as inflicting disproportionate casualties on her enemies, suggests this is not impossible.  German prospects of victory may not have been great but were better than is usually supposed.

What is sometimes forgotten, or downplayed, in histories of the war is that while Germany may have been inferior against her enemies overall she was considerably superior to her enemies individually.  Her army in 1914 was by far the best trained, equipped, and led in Europe while her navy was second only to the Royal Navy.  Her economy, and industry, were superior to Russia and France combined, and although Britain titled the advantage towards the Entente it took years for the British Army to build itself up and become strong, or her war industries to be developed.  In a one on one conflict Germany would have beaten France or Russia while a war with Britain would have been a standoff given the power of the Royal Navy.  However, Germany would have also probably won a war against both France and Russia since during the war she brought the former’s army to mutiny in 1917 and the latter to Revolution during the same year even though Britain, and eventually America, were on their side.

Additionally, for the first half of the war the Germans had a considerable edge in weaponry (especially heavy artillery and machine guns) and the French did not catch up until 1916, the British in 1917, while the Russians never did.  This combined with superior German military skill and leadership for most of the war, and the fact that the Germans, and their allies, had the advantages of interior lines and the central position gave Germany some opportunities to challenge the manpower and material advantages the Entente had as a whole.  Essentially this meant Germany using these advantages to win battles, and campaigns, to knock Entente countries out of the war, or at least convincing some of them to agree to a separate peace with Germany and thus give the latter a better chance to fight on better terms against other powers.  Thus Germany tried to defeat France outright in 1914, defeat or bring Russia to terms in 1915, bleed the French Army white at Verdun, starve the British into submission with her submarines in 1917, and bring the French and British to terms in 1918.  It is debatable how likely any of these aims were but they were not impossible, and in some cases the Germans could probably have had more success if they had adopted other strategies, or made different decisions, at certain points in the war. 


Could Germany have Won the War in 1914?

Perhaps Germany’s best chance of winning the war was in 1914 at the outbreak of hostilities.  Germany faced a war against Russia and France and whereas the former may have been militarily weaker than France she was also vast and it was doubtful a quick campaign could have knocked her out of the war.  Therefore Germany attacked France using the infamous Schlieffen Plan.  The plan involved bypassing the strongly fortified French frontier by sending the majority of the German Army through Belgium and then marching behind Paris to hit the French armies from behind who were expected to mass for an attack to retake Alsace-Lorraine, which the French had lost to the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War.  There is considerable debate whether or not the Schlieffen Plan could have succeeded due to many considerations but the plan itself had been modified from an earlier version, and arguably could have gone better had many of these changes not been made.

In the event the Schlieffen Plan as modified in 1914 resulted in disproportionate French casualties and gave Germany a considerable slice of French territory, which captured a big chunk of French industrial capabilities and resources, as well as giving Germany a buffer zone to defend German territory (indeed the war on the Western Front would be fought on French and Belgium soil for the rest of the war).  However, it failed to defeat France in 1914 and was therefore a strategic failure.  General Moltke the Younger, the German military leader at the beginning of the war, told the Kaiser in its aftermath:  “Your majesty, we have lost the war.”

Yet with the original plan, or at least some variations, the Schlieffen Plan would probably have had better prospects of success.  In the original plan the right wing of the attack was much stronger and had it been so in 1914 it probably could have handled the British Army much better and maybe not have had to turn east of Paris instead of trying to outflank it as originally planned.  Also the German forces in Alsace-Lorraine were supposed to not only have stayed on the defence but even pull back to lure the French further into the trap the German advance through Belgium was facilitating.  Instead Moltke bowed to pressure to allow German commanders to attack in that region as well which gave the French (who were still terribly bled in the operations) enough time to double back and protect Paris once they saw the threat from the northern German armies.  Additionally, the Germans were originally supposed to have invaded Holland, or at least the Maastricht region, which would have greatly eased the logistical problems of the Schlieffen Plan.  Had they done so it would have helped the German Army’s advance but on the flip side it would of had to deal with Holland and her army; though it is doubtful the latter would have had the capacity and enough aggressiveness to seriously challenge German plans.

Finally, Moltke’s decision to transfer significant troops from the Western Front during the campaign to the Eastern Front, due to pressure by the Russians against East Prussia, proved to be a big mistake in hindsight.  They were in transition between both fronts when Germany won the decisive Battle of Tannenberg, as well as losing the even more decisive Battle of the Marne, which halted the momentum of the Schlieffen Plan, pushed the Germans back, and led to trench warfare which brought the end of maneuver on the Western Front until 1918.  Had these choices, and modifications, not been made perhaps Germany could have encircled Paris, destroyed the French armies on the frontier, and knocked France out of the war.  While this is not necessarily probable given the complicated logistics of the Schlieffen Plan, the unanticipated strong resistance of the Belgians, or Britain’s intervention, but its chances of success would have been better than how the plan unfolded in 1914.

Or what if Germany had not invaded Belgium in 1914 which gave Britain an excuse to intervene and thus making Germany an enemy of the world’s greatest empire, financial power and strongest navy.  On one hand without the chance to invade Belgium Germany would have lost her best chance to defeat France quickly and a long war would be inevitable.  However, superior German industry, finance and military skill (assuming Britain was neutral), along with her allies, would have likely beaten France and Russia.  On the other hand it is possible Britain would have found an excuse to intervene on the Entente’s side anyway considering it was usually a British goal in foreign policy to prevent any country from dominating mainland Europe, and that Germany’s attempts to build a fleet to match the Royal Navy made them Britain’s obvious military rival.  However, Britain did not have an alliance with Russia or France in 1914, a war against Germany was not popular amongst the British populace until the unprovoked invasion of Belgium, and governments do not always go to war even when their interests are at stake (certainly Britain and France would have been better off attacking Germany over the Rhineland in 1936, or Czechoslovakia in 1938, when they had a much better chance of success than in 1939).

As such, depending whether or not Britain entered the war if Germany did not invade Belgium anyway, or if she delayed doing so long enough to give Germany a decent military victory, or advantage, against France or Russia, are the main considerations.  For example the small, but professional, British Army sent to France in 1914 certainly bloodied the German right wing of the Schlieffen Plan and potentially gave France the edge during the Battle of the Marne that saved Paris and pushed the Germans back.  Likewise British money financed a disproportionate amount of the Entente war effort and her navy blockaded Germany (which was one of the main factors for Germany’s defeat).  However, much like almost everything else to do with what if history the conjecture regarding the outcome of Germany not invading Belgium is ultimately guesswork.

Could Germany have Kicked Russia out of the War in 1916?

After 1914 it was arguably not until 1916 that Germany had a decent chance of winning the war.  While Germany admittedly had a very successful year in 1915 by decisively beating the Entente’s offensives on the Western Front, overrunning Serbia and thoroughly smashing several Russian armies (inflicting perhaps 2 million casualties on the Russians), she realistically had no chance of knocking one of her major enemies out of the war.  Germany did not have the military means, or sufficient experience and doctrine, to beat trench warfare on the Western Front, or enough manpower and logistics to defeat the Tsarist regime in Russia in 1915.  Perhaps she could have tried all out unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to starve Britain but realistically she did not have the amount of u-boats to do so and it arguably could have made America enter the war much earlier than she did. 

However, Germany had a decent chance of beating one of her enemies in 1916.  In February General Falkenhayn, who had replaced Moltke in late 1914, reasoned he could bleed the French Army white at Verdun with a combination of French pride and superior German artillery.  Falkenhayn was correct that he could make the French fight at Verdun, and inflict more casualties, but he was mistaken in thinking he could bleed them out more quickly than the Germans, and their allies, considering the Entente had vastly superior reserves of manpower.  While he was also correct that the western powers of the Entente would have to be defeated to win the war the chances of an outright victory on the Western Front in 1916 were very questionable.

But what if the Germans had concentrated against the Russians in 1916, as they did in 1915, instead of attacking Verdun?  Given that the combined British-Franco offensive on the Somme that year, as well as an even stronger one in the Spring of 1917, were contained, it is hard to see the Germans suffering a major defeat in the West in 1916 had Verdun not been attacked, had the Germans concentrated on the Eastern Front, and if the French could focus on the offensive on the Somme instead of the defence of Verdun.  The Germans suffered nearly the same casualties as the French at Verdun when they were on the offensive, certainly they would have suffered less had they remained on the defensive in the west in 1916 (as indeed German losses were almost inevitably lesser when on the defence).  It took until the latter part of 1917 for the western powers of the Entente, principally the British, to gain the necessary experience, doctrine and tactics to seriously contemplate defeating trench warfare, and as such the Germans would have arguably been smarter to focus on Russia in 1916 attempting to knock her out of the war.

For despite Russia’s considerable superiority in manpower, and territory, she was still relatively backwards versus the Germans in industry, military skill and political stability.  This latter factor was especially relevant considering the despotic, oppressive, and frankly incompetent nature of the Tsar’s regime.  German victories in 1914-15 had not been sufficient to destroy Russian political will, or her military means to resist, but certainly it exposed the backwardness of the Russian state, the corruption of its leadership, and its military inferiority versus the Germans.  In 1917 it led to a revolution in the spring that toppled the Tsar, as well as a later one in the autumn that brought the communists to power (who quickly sued for peace allowing the Germans to mass most of their army on the Western Front).  

Had the Germans and their allies moved aggressively against Russia in 1916, say overrunning the Baltic States to threaten Petrograd (the Tzar’s capital), moving towards Moscow (the Russian railway hub), or the Ukraine (Russia’s food basket), or some combination of these, it is conceivable the Russian could have been knocked out of the war in late 1916 or early 1917.  Given that Russia did have a revolution in early 1917, after which she never recovered her determination to continue the war, it is conceivable German pressure could have been decisive in 1916.  As an added bonus it would have preempted the Brusilov Offensive which was a near death blow to the Austrian Army, as well as either deterring Romania from entering the war (which she did in the latter part of 1916 against Germany) or even perhaps getting her to join the Central Powers.  All of these potential gains were of course better than the fallacy of bleeding out the French at Verdun.

What this arguably could have accomplished was give Germany an extra year to fight Britain and France alone (had Russia quit the war in early 1917 instead of actually doing so in early in 1918).  An added benefit would be that America would still not be in the war, especially if Germany would have been happy enough by the collapse of Russia not to embark upon the disastrous U-Boat campaign against England which provoked the Americans.  Additionally, while the French would not have had to endure the slaughter of Verdun, but given that she would have gone all out on the attack on the Somme she probably would have suffered as much at Verdun, and perhaps even more considering she would be on the offence instead of the defence (the defence of course having a major advantage for most of the war).  What this means is that had the Germans stood on the defence again in 1917 behind the Hindenburg line (as they did in 1917) the French Army may have conceivable mutinied just as she did after the disastrous Nivelle Offensive in early 1917.  With Russia out of the war, America neutral, and the French Army mutinying it is not hard to imagine either Britain, or France, agreeing to a separate peace, or perhaps a joint compromise peace with Germany.

Or Germany could have gone on the attack on the Western Front in 1917 and hoped for a decisive victory.  Of course this is before she had developed her sophisticated stormtrooper tactics and crushing artillery techniques, and it is hard to see them being better than the western powers at offensive operations on the Western Front had Germany been on the defensive in 1915 and 1916.  Then again the German Army learned dangerously quickly, and had they not gained a decisive advantage Germany could have always attack again the next year as she did in 1918.  The main point is that America would probably not be in the war and whatever skeptics say it is unlikely the Entente could have won an outright victory without her.  Thus attacking Russia in 1916, instead of France, could theoretically have given Germany an extra year to fight the Western Entente, prevented America from joining the war, and either given Germany a negotiated peace to her benefit or perhaps even an outright victory.


1917: Could Germany have Starved Britain into Submission, or What If America had Not Entered the War?

As the war actually unfolded it is hard to see what the Germans could have done in 1917 to outright win the war.  However, there are perhaps two ideas that would have seemingly give them an advantage.  Had they built enough submarines by the beginning of 1917 to have a reasonable chance of sinking enough British shipping to starve out England, or conversely had they not launched the submarine campaign, which brought America into the war, at all.  The first one is perhaps unrealistic; it is hard to see the British not knowing if the Germans were constructing so many submarines (given the former’s excellent naval intelligence) and as such simply focused their superior ship building capabilities on smaller, lighter vessels like destroyers, and other ships, adept at taking out submarines instead of larger, and more clumsy, battleships and cruisers.  Additionally, the main reason the Germans did so well initially in their submarine campaign was that the British foolishly did not adopt the convoy system to protect their merchant shipping until later in the spring.  Perhaps the Germans would have inflicted more losses with more subs but Britain still had enough escort ships to enact convoys, and protect her shipping, as soon as she realized it was the correct thing to do.  Frankly it has always been unlikely for a predominately land power to decisively defeat a a superior naval power via naval means (besides Sparta managing to do so during the Peloponnesian War it is hard to think of another example).

As for the idea of Germany not enacting the unrestricted submarine campaign in 1917 the advantages are plain in hindsight:  No American troops to beef up the Entente in 1918, no potential American Army of millions had the war gone into 1919, and no devastating psychological blow to the Germans once they realized they had to face another massive army which they had no chance of beating.  The Entente of course benefited from this as British and French forces were outnumbered by the Germans on the Western Front in 1918, and the arriving American forces tilted the numerical balance in the Entente’s favour.  Had the war continued into 1919 without American intervention then the Germans would have faced considerably smaller British and French armies than a year ago; their manpower reserves finally thinning out (as Haig and other Generals memoir’s can attest to).  Of course the German Army’s manpower was also thinning out and perhaps they could have still cried uncle first given the increasing domestic upheaval in Germany and widespread starvation due to the Royal Navy’s blockade.  Either way it seems hard to believe the French Army and Haig’s British forces accomplishing such a decisive military feat as the Hundred Days Offensive in 1918 without American manpower to back them up and replace losses.  Perhaps Germany could have won in 1918 had the Americans not been in the war, or still lost, but given the mutual exhaustion of both sides, and Germany’s massive territorial gains on the Eastern Front, Germany would have been in a good position to effect a negotiated peace to her advantage had she not gambled on all out attacks to win the war. 


1918: Germany’s Last Chance

Germany’s last chance to win the war was during Ludendorff’s Spring Offensive in 1918.  After Russia quit the war in early 1918 Germany had a brief window on the Western Front where she significantly outnumbered the British and French forces regarding soldiers.  The British had been bloodied, and disappointed, by the battles of 3rd Ypres and Cambrai, the French were recovering from the mutinies the year before and the Germans had refined their stormtrooper tactics, and special artillery techniques, which they hoped would solve the problems of trench warfare, break through the front and win a decisive victory.  There remains some question is to what Ludendorff was trying to accomplish by his offensives in 1918.  Was he trying to split the British and France armies then defeat them in detail, or overrun Amiens and other vital logistical chokepoints to cripple the British Army in France?  Or was he simply attempting to “punch a hole and let the rest follow” as he stated himself to win some victory and see what happened.  Certainly the first two strategic options made sense; using Napoleon’s classic use of the Central Position to separate allies, and thus hopefully splitting the French and British armies, and then pushing back the British Army to the English Channel to evacuation or destruction.  Likewise overrunning Amiens in the spring would have been a crippling logistical blow to the British armies and could have potentially crippled them. 

The last option of blowing open the front and then improvising is less valid and perhaps intellectually lazy.  No one denies that a “battle plan never survives contact with the enemy,” to quote Moltke the Elder, or that war requires considerable adaptation but to have no overarching strategic plan to defeat the enemy, or to not deliberately focus on a Clausewitzian centre of gravity like destroying the British Army, overrunning Amiens or even taking Paris was foolish for the Germans.  It seems to confirm the military stereotype of the battle-centric German Army that focused too much on winning battles at the expense of planning how to conclude campaigns to reach victory in a long war.  Perhaps this could be labelled as the Curse of Cannae where Generals were so focused on winning tactical, and operational, successes that they ignored more important concepts like logistics, politics, manpower, and even strategy!

Either way, whatever Ludendorff was planning, it is conceivable that given the German Army’s numerical superiority and new battlefield tactics in the spring of 1918 that it had a brief chance of winning the war.  When the offensive began on March 21, 1918 it hit the British 5th Army hard, inflicting 38,000 casualties (though the Germans suffered approximately 40,000 of their own), taking almost 20,000 prisoners and breaking quickly through the British defensive lines which were undermanned, under-fortified, and not properly used with the concept of defence in depth.  In the subsequent days, weeks and months the Germans made spectacular advances (10s of miles versus the few mile advances the British and French made from 1915-17), inflicting terrible reverses on the British, and later French armies, and bringing the Entente to the edge of despair. 

However, the Germans did not split the British and French armies, conquer Amiens or other logistical hubs, take Paris, or frankly conquer any vital ground, or strategic point or objectives, to give them a decisive victory.  Between March and July the Germans suffered nearly as many casualties as the Entente (which they could afford less due to the arrival of American soldiers) and the casualties were much larger than offensives from 1915-17.

The battles in Artois and Champagne in autumn 1915 resulted in around 390,000 French, German and British casualties overall with a daily average rate close to 4000 casualties.  Verdun cost the Germans and French approximately 700,000 casualties in total with a daily average of 2300.  The Somme was even bloodier with nearly 1,100,000 British, German and French casualties and a staggering 7800 daily average.  In 1917 the losses ebbed and flowed with 300000 British and German casualties at Arras (7500 daily), 350,000 French and German casualties in the misguided Nivelle Offensive (14,000 daily), and 500000 British and German casualties at 3rd Ypres (5000 daily).

These were dwarfed by the titanic battles of 1918.  The German’s first offensive that year resulted in 500,000 casualties between the various combatants in a matter of 16 days which gave a sickening daily rate of approximately 31,000 casualties.  All of Germany’s offensives combined (from March to July) produced perhaps 1,500,000 casualties for a daily rate of 12,000.  It is ironic that Ludendorff, although having overseen battles that killed a significantly larger amount of his own soldiers (in a campaign that sought no valid strategic objectives), than Haig’s battles had for his own that Ludendorff is often seen as a great military leader, despite being a lousy strategist and losing the war, while Haig is often seen as an incompetent butcher despite the fact his army was the best on the Western Front by the end of 1918 and won the war.

These casualties were so ruinous that the significant German advantage in manpower on the Western Front in the spring had been eroded by mid-June and ended up falling so much that it was barely over half of the Entente’s by the end of the war.

This is what happened but what if Ludendorff had shown more strategic acumen (he is universally seen as a great tactician but lousy strategist by historians, as well as his own colleagues) and smartly focused on perhaps the one objective his forces had the resources to achieve that spring:  Amiens.  Amiens was Britain’s most important logistical hub on the Western Front and its fall would have given the British Army a major defeat at worst or resulted in a rout at best.  Ludendorff was close to achieving this in late March 1918, and arguably could have done so before significant French reserves arrived to stop him, had he not foolishly launched attacks to the north of the British 5th Army near Arras to widen the German breach to protect its flank.  This was a classic example of failing (or it would have been had Amiens been the stated objective) to adhere to another Clausewitzian principle:  Maintain the objective by focusing on an important strategic centre, or objective, instead of succumbing to lesser distractions.  Ludendorff’s attacks against the 3rd British Army to the north was repulsed brutally, and his momentum towards Amiens eroded, and despite further attacks towards its direction, and getting tantalizingly close, it remained outside the Germany’s grasp.

After this the odds of breaking through were unpromising given the build up of French reserves, as well as logistical issues, and severe casualties, for the Germans.  Germany then launched several successful operations on the Western Front but never came as close to victory in 1918 as near Amiens.  Of course it is debatable if the British would have collapsed had Amiens been taken, and that if in such case either the British or French would have agreed to a peace benefiting the Germans yet in 1918 it was Germany’s last hope.

It is clear that German odds of winning the war were less than satisfactory.  Her chances of winning an outright victory were perhaps best had they adopted a better version of the Schlieffen plan in 1914, not invading Belgium at all in 1914, or focusing their attacks against Russia in 1916.  If Germany had somehow built many more submarines for her unrestricted submarine campaign in 1917 without the British knowing, along with the latter being foolish enough to have never adopted the convoy system to protect her shipping then perhaps Germany could have won another outright victory here as well but this was much less realistic.  Conversely, if Germany had not enacted the unrestricted submarine campaign America would probably not have entered the war, and Germany could have potentially won a decisive victory on the Western Front in 1918.  However, given her sad internal state Germany could have lost just the same while it is just as plausible she could have accomplished a beneficial negotiated peace for herself given her considerable territorial holdings in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Russia.  Finally, it is conceivable Germany could have taken Amiens in early 1918, routed the British Army, and gained a negotiated peace with one, or more, of the Entente powers before American soldiers arrived in strength to turn the tide.


How Likely Was a German Victory?

However, the odds of a German victory in World War 1 were still arguably less than 50% overall given the considerable advantages the Entente had in manpower, resources, industry, finance and naval power.  Perhaps this does not include military proficiency and morale (which one could argue the Germans probably often had the advantage during the war), or the fact that numbers are not everything.  Yet in total war (a fight to the death) the side with material and numerical advantages will usually win, especially if the conflict is long and they can learn to adapt, innovate and compensate for whatever advantages a smaller, but initially more skilled, opponent has.  The ultimate defeats of Hannibal Barca, Napoleon, and Erwin Rommel, who were unmatched in generalship during their conflicts, provide some examples of this.  Additionally, Sun Tzu wrote that “there is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare” and nothing illustrates this more than German military history from the Seven Years’ War, to both World Wars, where Prussian, and later German, superior military proficiency was slowly eroded into irrelevancy.

Yet perhaps this does not give the German Army in World War 1 its due.  Despite its considerable disadvantages it usually excelled:  Winning the most impressive battlefield victories, overrunning the most territory (in Europe where the main war was waged at least) and inflicting disproportionate casualties on not only the defence but even usually on the attack. 

No battlefield victory by any Entente forces was as spectacular as the Cannae like victory at Tannenberg, the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive which conquered Poland and inflicted 2 million Russian casualties, or the Battle of Caporetto which crushed half the Italian Army in late 1917 in forbidding, mountainous terrain. 

Regarding territory Germany and her allies took most of Belgium, as well as a significant sliver of France, and overran Serbia, Romania and so much of Russia that Lenin had to agree to a harsh peace which gave the Central Powers 1/3rd of Russia’s population (more than 50 million people), at least 1/4 of her heavy industries, the majority of Russia’s iron and coal stores, and a significant amount of her agriculture areas among other things (which by the way was extremely more punitive to Russia than the supposedly Carthaginian Peace against Germany made at Versailles).  Against this the few miles on the Somme, near Ypres, around Picardy, Artois and Champagne that the British and French took from 1915-17 appears inconsequential indeed.  The Entente’s territorial gains outside of Europe such as the economically dubious German colonies in Africa and the Pacific, the sand of the Sinai, the strategically useless sliver of Palestine and Syria, and the forbidding ground gained in Mesopotamia (aside from the Mosul oilfields gained at the end of the war when its acquisition did not matter anyway) were likewise of much less use to the Entente than Germany’s territory gains were to herself and her allies.

As for casualties the German casualty ratio versus Entente forces, as in how many of the enemy she killed, wounded or took prisoner, versus those that were inflicted upon herself, Germany almost always came out on top.  Of course it is easy to say that Germany’s superior casualty ratios versus her enemies did not matter given the exceedingly lopsided manpower the latter enjoyed.  However, it still shows that Germany usually had superior martial prowess.  In 1914 she inflicted more casualties on the French, and especially the Russians, but perhaps lost more casualties against the tiny British professional army (which unfortunately was largely destroyed by the end of the year).  Information and sources, regarding casualty ratios on the Eastern Front are not nearly as reliable as the war in the west but the Germans arguably inflicted as many as 3 or 5-1 (perhaps even higher) casualties against Russian forces during the war.  On the Western Front the Germans generally inflicted 2-1 casualties against the Entente forces in 1915, and while in 1916 the French narrowed this ratio considerably the Germans still inflicted disproportionate losses on the British at the Somme and inflicted more on the French at Verdun.  Even in 1917 when the British Army came into its own and scored notable operational victories at Vimy Ridge and Arras, Messines, and Cambrai, the ultimate exchange rate slightly favoured the Germans (though perhaps this is not that impressive given that the British accomplished this against a German Army used to the defence while her allies France and Russia gave her little help in the field that year).  Only in 1918 did the British match the Germans in inflicted casualties with the French Army slightly behind in this respect.

Besides this, the Germans brought the French Army to mutiny, Russia to revolution and later quitting the war, sank so many British ships she could have potentially collapsed, destroyed half of Italy’s Army in 1917 and prevented all major Entente offensives on the Western Front breaking through, and accomplishing major victories, from 1914-17.  Germany may have been at a distinct disadvantage regarding manpower, industry, resources, finance and naval power, and certainly some German war making capabilities (especially regarding strategy, economics, diplomacy and logistics) were less than satisfactory, but her military accomplishments were more impressive than her enemies, and should not be downplayed.  It is conceivable that with different decisions, and circumstances, Germany could have won the war.  Either way if Germany failed to win Wold War 1 she arguably came as close as she could have to do so.


Ferguson, Niall.  The Pity of War:  Explaining World War 1.  New York:  Basic Books, 1999.

Hart, Peter.  The Great War:  A Combat History of the First World War.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013. 

Keegan, John.  The First World War.  Toronto:  Vintage Canada, 2000.

Philpott, William.  War of Attrition:  Fighting the First World War.  New York:  Overlook Press, 2014.

Prior, Robin and Trevor Wilson.  The First World WarLondon:  Cassell, 1999.

Sheffield, Gary and John Bourne.  Douglas Haig:  War Diaries and LettersLondon:  Phoenix, 2005.

Sheffield, Gary.  Forgotten Victory.  London:  Headline Book Publishing, 2001.

Strohn, Matthias.  World War 1 Companion.  Oxford:  Osprey Publishing, 2013.

Terraine, John.  The Great War.  London:  Wordsworth Editions, 1999.















Why Napoleon Lost the “Napoleonic Wars”

“Virtue is to be admired and praised, even in one’s enemies.” -Niccolò Machiavelli 

Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius and the best general of his time. In the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars he turned France from a declining state into a continental empire that dominated Europe. Napoleon fought 60 battles (winning 53), defeated successive armies, countries, and coalitions, and belongs to the great captains of history. 

But in the end he lost everything, France surrendered, and he died bitter and disillusioned in exile. Napoleon made critical strategic mistakes, underestimated enemies, and became too ambitious. Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, his invasion of Russia, British naval power and money, and the German Campaign of 1813 show this clearly.

Napoleon excelled as a commander in land warfare. From his Italian campaigns to Austerlitz, and victories against Prussia, Russia and Austria in Central and Eastern Europe, Napoleon won quick wars of movement and decision via speed, surprise, and maneuver. Much of this was due to the superior training, motivation, and leadership of the French armies, and because his enemies were initially cautious, poorly led, and militarily backwards. Either way Napoleon used his army’s superior capabilities to defeat enemies that often significantly outnumbered him (much like Hannibal Barca, Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel).

Napoleon used several means to gain military advantages. 

He pushed his army more ruthlessly than his enemies, and took risks they usually didn’t. To accomplish bold maneuvers Napoleon did forced marches to surprise enemies. For this his forces had to be light and nimble, and he took many liberties with logistics. Instead of having large baggage trains and long lines of communication, Napoleon usually made his forces live off the land and pillage food and resources. His armies also used self-contained corps (essentially a mini-army) far before it enemies. These had enough arms and capabilities to operate independently, could move swiftly, and were used to great effect (such as Marshal Davout’s triumph at Auerstedt in 1806 against the main Prussian Army.

Napoleon used risky maneuvers to defeat conservative generals used to sieges, predictable turning movements to gain small advantages, and fought few major battles. His main maneuvers included gaining a central position between enemy armies to defeat them in detail, and massing against enemy lines of communication, or getting in between an enemy army and its capital.

With his superior army, and such methods and maneuvers, Napoleon won decisive battles and defeated nations in Italy, Western Europe and Central Europe. In smaller countries with denser populations and resources in a small area, Napoleon’s forces won quick battles against concentrated armies that couldn’t retreat far. However, these favourable conditions didn’t exist in Spain and Russia, or against Britain, protected by the Royal Navy and English Channel.

Napoleon’s Quagmire in Spain (1807-1814):

France initially intervened in Spain to occupy Portugal because it defied Napoleon’s embargo against Britain. Moving French troops through Spain also gave Napoleon an opportunity to effect a regime change there. He was unsatisfied, and did not trust, Spain’s conservative monarchy that didn’t reflect the ideals of the French Revolution, and had been tempted to join the coalition against France in 1806. Thus, he replaced it with a friendlier government with his brother in charge.  

Used to winning and imposing his will, Napoleon assumed the Spanish people would accept this. Unfortunately, his brother and revolutionary government didn’t win over Spain’s mostly Catholic and conservative society, and a rebellion against French rule engulfed the country. With France suffering defeats such as at Bailén (1808), and Britain sending troops to support the rebellion, Napoleon was faced with a major crisis.  

Napoleon reacted with speed and overwhelming force, managing to salvage some of the Spanish venture by securing much of Spain and forcing the British army to temporarily withdraw. However, he didn’t completely pacify Spain before having to turn his attention to Austria which challenged France in 1809. Leaving control to local French commanders, Napoleon assumed the Spanish conflict would end soon. This proved to be exceedingly optimistic.

French efforts in Spain would be frustrated, and the Peninsular War as it became known was one of Napoleon’s gravest blunders. Unlike Central Europe and Northern Italy, Spain didn’t have the logistical and topographical advantages which previously let French forces win easily. Population density was lower, communications in Spain weren’t as advanced, and food stocks and resources were more spread out. The Spanish army and rebels, after being defeated in open battle, also adopted guerrilla warfare (the term guerrilla warfare originates from this conflict).

This exploited France’s weak position in Spain as the French fought an elusive enemy that enjoyed the traditional insurgent advantages of local sympathy, knowledge of terrain, and mobility. To make things worse the British returned, secured Portugal from French rule, and Wellington and his army would prove formidable. The French faced in Spain perhaps the worst circumstances any occupier could: A hostile population rebelling against France and Revolutionary ideals, a battlefield with terrain favouring the insurgent, and hard to live on or resupply from France, and opposed by a strong foreign power which supported the insurgents and deployed an army of its own. 

Spain became the bloody ulcer of Napoleon’s empire, the equivalent of South Africa for Britain, Vietnam for America, and Afghanistan for Russia. Despite deploying 300,000 French troops in Spain they weren’t able to subvert the Spanish rebels or destroy Wellington’s army. These forces could’ve been better employed elsewhere, like against Austria in 1809, in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, or the German Campaign of 1813. One damning fact is more French troops were lost in Spain than during the invasion of Russia (where at-least half of the invading army was not French)!

To win in Spain the French had to kick Britain off the Iberian Peninsula, end its support of the Spanish rebels, and mount an effective counter-insurgency campaign to defeat Spanish resistance. None of this happened, nor was it likely. To beat Britain the French had to neutralize the Royal Navy and invade Britain, or starve the island, and France simply didn’t have the naval means and enough allies to do so.  

French attempts to crush British forces in Portugal were doomed given the poor land based communications of the Iberian peninsula versus the excellent seaborne communications dominated by the British. The British defensive lines of Torres Vedras, which the French could not breach, also saved them in 1810-1811. Finally, the French were too inflexible and aggressive to compromise the ideals of the French Revolution enough to win over enough popular support in a predominantly Catholic and conservative Spain, in order to neutralize the insurgents.  

Napoleon’s Debacle in Russia (1812):

The next main factor in Napoleon’s downfall was his invasion of Russia. Frustrated by the ongoing war in Spain, Britain’s continued resistance, and hoping to end Russia’s circumvention of France’s continental blockade against Britain, Napoleon mobilized over 600,000 soldiers to coerce Russia into falling in line. Napoleon’s objective wasn’t to conquer Russia (his resources precluded that) but to cross the border, rout the Russian army, and convince Russia to acquiesce to French policy in Europe.  

With hindsight the invasion appears foolish and disastrous, but it at the time Napoleon’s army dominated Europe, he had won all his previous campaigns (except in Egypt), and at first his forces dwarfed the Russian army. Perhaps Napoleon was arrogant, underestimated the Russians, and was complacent regarding logistics. The idea the Russians wouldn’t do anything else besides stand and fight against poor odds seems puzzling, but after such a winning streak is it surprising Napoleon acted boldly, and gambled again when it had always given him success before?

The invasion is well known and easily told. Napoleon’s massive army advanced but slowly eroded itself through desertions, weather, disease and combat losses. Napoleon’s old policy of living off the land failed due to Russia’s vast size, poor infrastructure, and the Russians using scorched earth methods to deny food and resources to the enemy. Napoleon did make considerable efforts to bring along supplies but they weren’t enough. Meanwhile, the Russians fell back on their lines of communications and amassed more soldiers and supplies as Napoleon’s army weakened over time.

Yet things were not that simple. The Russians generally didn’t enact this successful strategy on purpose. They usually wanted to stand and fight closer to the border but ended up retreating due to several reasons. The pressures of public opinion, and outrage from Russian officers, eventually forced the Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, to fight Napoleon at Borodino, despite the Russian army being unable to match French forces. While the French won the battle it was a Pyrrhic victory, not least because Napoleon didn’t commit his Imperial Guard which could have routed the Russian army.

What would’ve been the best case scenario for the French? What if Russia’s army had fought the far superior French and allied forces close to the border? A French victory would’ve been inevitable, but the Russians could’ve refused to admit defeat, as they did after Eylau (1807), and after countless battles against Germany in both World Wars? Russia wouldn’t have been defenceless as its capital would be unoccupied, its population and territory barely affected, and would simply have raised more and more armies.

However, according to the usual conventions of Napoleonic warfare, maybe a crushing victory early on could’ve motived Russia to submit to Napoleon’s limited demand to rejoin his blockade against Britain. While it would’ve decreased Russian trade it wouldn’t have weakened Russia decisively, or risk Napoleon overrunning the Russian heartland. But this didn’t happen as Russia’s leadership thought there was more at stake than Napoleon’s continental system. Ironically, Napoleon was fighting a limited war, despite amassing 600,000 soldiers, whereas the Russians saw it as a struggle to the death.  

So once again the rest is well known and easily told. Napoleon beat, but didn’t destroy, the Russian army at Borodino, took Moscow, and waited for Russia’s leadership to admit defeat. However, Moscow soon burned terribly in a fire, the Tzar didn’t negotiate, and Napoleon’s army retreated back to friendly territory during winter.  

Terrible winter conditions and diseases like typhus finalized the destruction of Napoleon’s army, which crossed the Berezina River with a sad force of perhaps 20-30,000 soldiers at the end of the campaign. Napoleon’s usual formula of surprise, maneuver and speed to overwhelm the enemy to impose a favourable peace had failed spectacularly. The French disaster in Russia would influence the German Campaign of 1813.

Britain’s Role in Napoleon’s Downfall:

Before that we should consider British influence in these conflicts. While it was Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies that brought down the French army (Waterloo’s impact is very overrated), Britain played a main role in defeating Napoleon. Britain was the only nation Napoleon never defeated or brought to terms in his many wars. It financed most of the coalitions’ war efforts, and its naval blockade of France pushed Napoleon to invade Spain and Russia, which ultimately sealed his fate. Without Britain it’s likely Napoleon would have dominated Europe, as France and its allies had far more population and military power than his continental enemies (even Russia).

Napoleon’s victories against enemy coalitions gained him territory and influence, and at times made Prussia, Austria, and Russia reluctant allies of France. Yet as long as England kept its economic and naval advantages, and opposed France, it denied Napoleon ultimate victory. Given 7 coalitions were raised, mostly with British money, to fight France there’s little doubt Britain was the most constant and dedicated enemy of Napoleon.

While France won victory after victory on the continent, Britain found ways to limit or reverse many of them. This included Britain’s use of naval power, its economic and industrial superiority over France, and British campaigns in Europe.  

British naval superiority was necessary to guarantee this. Without it Britain couldn’t have secured its economic and industrial advantages by controlling maritime trade and colonies, launch naval efforts against Napoleon, or intervene on the continent. Britain kept its naval dominance by major investments in resources and training for the Royal Navy, decisive defeats against France and its allies’s fleets, and even ruthless actions against neutral powers.  

Naval engagements like the Battle of the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805) wore down the French navy. British actions against neutral powers, like attacking the Danish navy in 1801, bombarding Copenhagen, and threatening to sink the Portuguese navy in 1807 to prevent Denmark and Portugal’s fleets joining Napoleon, showed Britain’s determination to keep the naval edge. A similar thing happened in 1940 when British attacked the French navy at Mers El Kébir as Churchill feared Germany wanted to control it.

These efforts were needed to allow Britain to exploit its naval power. It let it supply and finance its allies’ war efforts against Napoleon. While Napoleon defeated most coalitions sent against him, Britain simply bankrolled them until he was overwhelmed. The Napoleonic Wars became a game of Whac-A-Mole where Napoleon defeated one enemy or alliance at a time, only to see others rise up at inconvenient times. 

Thus, Napoleon’s victory at Marengo beat the Second Coalition, but British support raised the Third Coalition that Napoleon crushed at Austerlitz. Then the Fourth Coalition ended with Russia’s defeat in 1807, but was followed by British intervention in Spain, and its support of Austria in 1809. Finally, the last British-supported coalitions in 1813-14 and 1815 finished Napoleon.

British naval blockades also eroded France’s economy, and those of nations like Russia and Portugal, which helped provoke Napoleon’s wars in Spain and Russia. As noted before, British support of Spain’s rebellion wore down French military power over many years, while Napoleon’s invasion of Russia crushed the lion’s share of his army in a single campaign.

Britain’s campaigns against France were also not without effect. On one hand it could be argued the British campaign in Holland in 1799, its intervention in Southern Italy in 1806, and the Walcheren Campaign of 1809, ended in failure. However, British efforts against French forces in Egypt and Spain were decisive. In the former it doomed Napoleon’s foolhardy campaign in Egypt, and in the latter it prevented France from crushing the Spanish rebels, and tied down countless French troops that could’ve been decisive elsewhere. Eventually Wellington’s army, initially based in Portugal, helped liberated Spain and then invaded Southern France.

The German Campaign of 1813: 

The German Campaign of 1813 was arguably the decisive campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. The Peninsular War in Spain severely eroded the French army, and the invasion of Russia temporarily destroyed it, but Napoleon managed to rebuild a decent force afterwards. He recruited plenty of soldiers from his empire and allies, that still had more population than Prussia and Russia, who were just as weak at this point as Napoleon. It’s likely without the intervention of Austria, and later defection among France’s German allies, that Napoleon could’ve stalemated the Prussians and Russians, or conceivably won the campaign.  

Certainly, Napoleon had little chance of winning in 1814 when he was vastly outnumbered and fighting on French soil against several armies. It’s even more absurd to suggest the Waterloo Campaign was the decisive campaign as the odds were even worse than in 1814. Even had Napoleon managed to beat the British and Prussian armies he would then have to defeat the bigger Russian and Austrian armies that were advancing against him.

In March 1813 the French abandoned Berlin, and with the arrival of the Russian army, Prussia declared war on France. However, the French recovered as Napoleon raised 200,000 soldiers which gave him a decent superiority of numbers over Prussian and Russian forces. Napoleon had other advantages. While his soldiers weren’t the same quality as previous ones, they benefited from his leadership and French doctrine, tactics, and mid-level leaders, which allowed them to beat allied armies that weren’t as skilled in many of these respects.  

However, Prussia and Russia had learned much over the years and wouldn’t be pushovers this time. Perhaps worse for Napoleon, Austria was tempted to enter the war, and this would tilt the numerical balance against him. Thus, Napoleon had to reoccupy Prussia and beat the Russians back, or hurt both enough to gain a satisfactory peace, before Austria joined the coalition.  

Napoleon did well at first, beating outnumbered Prussian and Russian forces at Lützen (May 2) and Bautzen (May 20-21), yet he couldn’t exploit these victories due to lack of cavalry and mistakes by his Marshals. Instead, the allies retreated intact and largely in order. This led to a six week truce between both sides, as Napoleon worried about his long lines of communications, and  Austria, and wanted to rebuild his forces (especially cavalry). The Prussians and Russians accepted, assuming time was on their side to gain allies and increase their forces. It’s generally believed the truce favoured the latter, especially given the end results.  

Perhaps the campaign turned against Napoleon in August 1813 when Austria declared war against him and joined the coalition. This gave it 300,000 more troops (by far the largest contingent) and shifted the numerical and strategic balance against France. Napoleon still gained another victory at Dresden (August 26-27), despite being nearly outnumbered 2-1. But this would be his last victory of the campaign, as the coalition’s manpower, and new strategy, would win it. Their strategy had coalition armies avoiding Napoleon’s main force (when possible) and focus on defeating other French and allied armies that weren’t as effective. The idea was to wear down French and allied forces sufficiently until the coalition was capable of massing its overwhelming forces against Napoleon himself.  

Britain used the same method in Egypt during the summer of 1942 during the First Battle of Alamein. The British commander, General Claude Auchinleck, attacked Rommel’s weaker Italian allies so the German forces were forced to come to their defence, instead of being able to attack the British. General Montgomery benefitted from Auchinleck’s success, as the former’s delaying tactics allowed Britain to build up enough manpower and material in Egypt to beat Rommel in the autumn.

As such, Napoleon’s victory at Dresden was overshadowed by defeats (of other French generals)  at Großbeeren (August 23), Katzbach (August 26), Kulm (August 29-30), and Dennewitz (September 6).  

More than a month of maneuver followed until the coalition brought its massive manpower to bear at Leipzig (16-19 October). This was the biggest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, and the defeat which sealed Napoleon’s fate. He had little chance of winning, let alone forcing a stalemate afterwards. At Leipzig the coalition outnumbered him nearly 2-1 (360,000-190,000) and in a few days inflicted a decisive defeat on the French.  

Napoleon was forced to retreat to France, his remaining German allies abandoned him, and the coalition pursued him. Initially, Napoleon scored an impressive series of limited victories against the coalition in France during early 1814. But the latter’s numbers told, and when Paris fell Napoleon was forced to abdicate and go into exile on Elba Island. While he briefly returned to France in 1815 to lead the Waterloo Campaign, he was quickly beaten by General Wellington and Marshal Blücher.


Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, his disastrous invasion of Russia, British naval power and finance, and the German Campaign of 1813 were the key factors that led to his downfall. Napoleon’s occupation of Spain began a conflict between the French army and Spanish rebels (and Wellington’s army), that proved impossible to defeat and wore down French manpower.  Napoleon’s invasion of Russia destroyed most of his army, and weakened France enough for Russia, Prussia, and Austria to ally together to confront it. British sea power safeguarded England and supported British operations in Spain and elsewhere, while British money financed most of the coalitions against Napoleon. The German Campaign of 1813 turned against Napoleon when Austria entered the war, and the coalition’s manpower, and correct strategy, led to Napoleon’s decisive defeat at Leipzig which decided the Napoleonic Wars.  

Napoleon won all but a few of his 60 battles, but it only took a few strategic mistakes, poor assumptions, and British resilience to guarantee his ultimate defeat.


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Wikipedia article on the “German Campaign of 1813”: [December, 2023]

Wikipedia article on the “Napoleonic Wars”: [December, 2023]