Could Germany have Won “World War 1?”

Like much historiography of “World War 2” it is generally assumed that Germany could not have won “World War 1.” 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 unreasonable. German prospects of victory may not have been likely 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 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. 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.

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 knock 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, himself told the Kaiser in its aftermath: “Your majesty, we have lost the war.”

Yet with the original plan, or some variations, the “Scheliffen Plan” probably had better prospects of success. In the original one 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 stay 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, one 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 “Scheliffen Plan,” pushed the Germans back, and led to trench warfare which brought the end of maneuver warfare 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 were better than how the plan unfolded in 1914.

Or what if Germany had not invaded Belgium in 1914, not giving 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 lose 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 one 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, is the main consideration. 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 in German defeat). However, much like almost everything else to do with the war conjecture regarding the outcome of Germany not invading Belgium is ultimately guesswork.

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, 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 probably would 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 that 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 on 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 inconceivable German pressure could not 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, 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.

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 General’s 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.

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,” or that war requires considerable adaptation but to have no overarching strategic plan to defeat the enemy, or to not deliberately focus on a Clausewitizian 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 or 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, they 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 objective, 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 given that if 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 much 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 German 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.

However, the odds of a German victory in “World War 1” were still considerably 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, but 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 defeat 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 German 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 her 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). 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, 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 War.  London:  Cassell, 1999.

Sheffield, Gary and John Bourne.  Douglas Haig:  War Diaries and Letters.  London:  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”

Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius and the best general of his time. During the “French Revolutionary Wars” and “Napoleonic Wars” he turned France from a reeling state under siege into an empire which practically dominated Europe. Napoleon fought 60 battles (winning perhaps all but 7), defeated a succession of armies, countries, and coalitions, and rightly belongs among the great military captains of history. However, in the end he lost everything, France was defeated, and he spent the rest of his life bitter and disillusioned in exile. For despite his unequaled military skill, Napoleon made a few fatal strategic mistakes, underestimated his 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” led to his downfall.

Napoleon’s main strength was as a military commander in conventional land warfare. From his two Italian campaigns, to his triumph at Austerlitz and later successes against Prussia, Russia and Austria in Central and Eastern Europe, he excelled at quick wars of movement and decision where he used speed, surprise, and maneuver to overwhelm his enemies. This worked partly due to the generally superior training, motivation, and leadership of the French armies and because his enemies were often cautious, poorly led, or militarily backwards. Either way, Napoleon used his Grand Armee’s superior capabilities to defeat enemies who often outnumbered and outgunned him, much like Hannibal Barca and Erwin Rommel did against similar opponents.

However, there were additional factors at play. To accomplish such feats, Napoleon had to push his army more ruthlessly than his enemies pushed theirs and take considerable risks the latter were often unwilling to do. To accomplish his bold maneuvers, Napoleon had to execute long forced marches if he wanted to surprise his enemies, which sometimes exhausted his troops. Additionally, to accomplish such marches, Napoleon’s forces had to be light and nimble, and thus he took considerable liberties with logistics. Instead of maintaining large baggage trains and reliable lines of communication, he often instructed his forces to live off the land and pillage whatever food or resources they needed. Meanwhile his risky maneuvers such as using the strategy of the central position, massing against the enemy’s lines of communication, or getting in between an enemy army and its capital or allied army, which could have been defeated by competent foes versed in modern warfare, succeeded against older and conservative generals used to an age of warfare that focused on sieges, maneuvering for position, and few pitched battles.

With his superior army, and using these methods and stratagems, Napoleon was able to win decisive battles and defeat nations in Italy and Central Europe. In smaller countries with denser populations and readily available resources in a small area, Napoleon’s forces could win quick battles against armies that were concentrated and could not retreat very far. Unfortunately for him, these favourable conditions did not exist in Spain and Russia, or against Britain which was protected by the Royal Navy and the English Channel.

France’s intervention in Spain was motivated by a desire to occupy Portugal because it defied Napoleon’s embargo against Britain (a similar reason would lead to the invasion of Russia). Moving French troops through Spain also gave Napoleon the opportunity to effect a regime change in Spain as he was unsatisfied, and less than trusting, regarding the conservative monarchy and government there that not only did not reflect the ideals of the “French Revolution” but had been tempted to join the coalition against France in 1806. Thus he replaced it with a government more to his liking with his brother in charge. Used to winning, imposing his will, and dealing with little resistance, Napoleon assumed the Spanish would acquiesce in all of this. Unfortunately, his brother and revolutionary government did not mesh well with the predominantly Catholic and conservative Spanish society, and so rebellion against French rule soon engulfed the country with terrible results. With French defeats such as at Bailen, and Britain deploying forces to the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon was faced with a major crisis.

Napoleon characteristically met the challenge with speed and overwhelming force, and managed to salvage some of his Spanish venture by securing much of Spain and kicking the British army (only temporarily as it turned out) out of Spain, but did not accomplish a decisive coup before having to turn his attention back to Austria which in 1809 challenged France once again. Leaving control of affairs in the hands of local French commanders, he assumed the conflict in Spain would be over soon. This would prove to be exceedingly optimistic.

French efforts in Spain would be frustrated, and the “Peninsular War” as it became known would prove to be one of Napoleon’s gravest mistakes. Unlike Central Europe and Northern Italy, Spain did not enjoy the logistical and topographical advantages which allowed French forces to win easily. The population was less densely populated, communications in Spain were not as advanced, and food stocks and resources were spread out more. Then there was the fact that the Spanish army and rebels, after being defeated in open battle, wisely adopted guerrilla warfare (in fact the term “guerrilla warfare” grew out of the insurrection in Spain). This compounded the weak French position in Spain as the French had to fight an elusive enemy which enjoyed the traditional insurgent advantages of local sympathy, knowledge of terrain, and mobility. To make things worse, the British secured Portugal from French rule, and Wellington and his army would prove to be unbeatable. As such the French faced in Spain perhaps the worst circumstances any counter-insurgents could: A hostile population which rebelled against France and Revolutionary ideals, a battlefield with plenty of terrain which favoured the insurgent and was hard to live on or resupply from the homeland, and the opposition of a strong foreign power which not only supplied and supported the insurgents but 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 massing as many as 300,000 French troops in Spain, the French were neither able to subvert the Spanish rebels or destroy Wellington’s army. These forces could have been better employed elsewhere, such as in the aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, the “German Campaign of 1813” or frankly anywhere rather than for a war that was not necessary. An especially damning statistic is that the French Army suffered more casualties in Spain than in Russia later on.

To win in Spain, the French had to eliminate Britain from the war, or failing that, kick her out of Portugal (indefinitely) to end her support of the Spanish rebels, or enact an effective counter-insurgency campaign to neutralize the Spanish insurgents. None of this happened, nor was it likely. To beat Britain, Napoleon needed to neutralize the Royal Navy and invade Britain, or starve the island or interdict her trade enough to make her submit -Napoleon, even if he had understood naval warfare, simply did not have the means to do so. Meanwhile French attempts against the British forces in Portugal were doomed, considering the poor land based communications of the Iberian peninsula versus the excellent seaborne communications dominated by the British, as well as the British defensive lines of Torres Vedras which the French could not breach. Finally, the French were too inflexible and aggressive to compromise the ideals of the French Revolution enough to win over adequate popular support in a predominantly Catholic and conservative Spain in order to neutralize the insurgent base there.

The next main factor in Napoleon’s downfall was his invasion of Russia. Frustrated by his lack of success in Spain, still fighting Britain, and wanting to end Russia’s circumvention of France’s continental blockade against England (which Russia was supposed to honour via treaty), Napoleon amassed an unprecedented army of over 600,000 soldiers to coerce Russia into falling back in line. Napoleon’s objective was not to conquer Russia (his resources obviously could not allow that) but to cross the border, meet the Russian army, rout or destroy it, and convince Russia to acquiesce to French policy in Europe. With hindsight it is easy to see how foolish and disastrous this invasion was, but it should be remembered that at the time Napoleon’s army all but dominated Europe, that with the exception of the Egyptian venture he had won all of his previously led campaigns, and that his force, initially at least, dwarfed the Russian army. Perhaps Napoleon was arrogant, underestimated the Russian army, and was complacent regarding logistics and the idea perhaps the Russians would do something else besides stand and fight against poor odds, but after such a winning streak is it a surprise Napoleon acted boldly and gambled again when it had always given him success before?

The subsequent story is well known and easily told. Napoleon’s massive army advanced but slowly eroded itself due to several considerations. Napoleon’s previous policy of sustaining his army by pillaging the countryside failed due to the vast distances, poor infrastructure, scarcity or resources, and the fact the Russians enacted a harsh form of scorched earth to deny any food and resources to the enemy, while his own efforts to keep his army supplied by bringing in its own supplies failed. Meanwhile disease, desertions, and combat further thinned his numbers, while the Russians had the advantage of falling back on their lines of communications and could thus amass more soldiers and material as their enemy weakened.

However, the story is not that simple. The Russians probably did not enact, with what proved to be brilliant in hindsight, the strategy of falling back and letting the French erode themselves, purposely. They usually wanted to stand and fight closer to the French armies near the border than is realized but ended up retreating due to a menagerie of reasons. Certainly the pressures of public opinion, as well as considerable outrage from Russian soldiers and generals, forced the Russian commander Kutuzov to fight the French at Borodino despite the fact they were still no match for French forces. In the event, the French won the battle but it proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, not least because Napoleon did not commit his elite Imperial Guard which probably would have routed the Russian army.

Yet realistically what would have been the best case scenario for the French? What if the Russian army had fought the overwhelmingly superior French and allied forces close to the Russian border? Surely a French victory would have occurred, but what if the Russians had decided not to admit defeat, as they did not after Eylau in 1807 or the countless battles against the Germans in both World Wars? Russia would not have been prostate and defeated because her capital would be intact, her population and territory barely scratched, and her capacity to wage war hardly dented. However, according to the rules of Napoleonic warfare, perhaps such a comprehensive battlefield victory would have motived Russia to submit to Napoleon’s limited demand to honour the continental system and rejoin his blockade against Britain. But, this did not happen, and was perhaps unlikely to happen, given Russian capabilities and the fact that perhaps the Russians had more at stake in this war than France’s economic policies against Britain. Perhaps Napoleon was ironically fighting a limited war, despite amassing 600,000 soldiers, whereas the Russians saw it as a struggle to the death.

Either way, the story is again well known and easily told. Napoleon beat, but did not destroy, the Russian army at Borodino, took Moscow and waited for the Tzar and Russian leadership to admit defeat and fall in line with French policy. However, Moscow was burned terribly in a subsequent fire, the Tzar refused to negotiate, and Napoleon’s army had to retreat back to friendly territory during winter. The terrible winter conditions and diseases like typhus reaching epidemic proportions, finalized the destruction of the Grand Armee which miraculously managed to save a sad force of perhaps 20-30,000 soldiers at the end of the campaign. Thus, Napoleon’s usual formula of surprise, maneuver and speed to overwhelm an enemy in a relatively short amount of time to impose a favourable peace had, as in Spain, failed. The French disaster in Russia would influence the “German Campaign of 1813.”

Before that, we should consider Britain’s influence in these conflicts. Even though it was the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian armies that brought down the Grande Armee (Waterloo’s influence being historically overrated), Britain arguably played the main role in defeating Napoleon. Britain was the only country Napoleon never defeated or brought to terms, financed most of the coalitions’ war efforts, and blockaded France and her allies to such a detrimental effect that it convinced Napoleon to intervene in Spain and Russia which eventually doomed the French war effort. Without Britain it is hard to see how Napoleon would not have dominated the continent in the long run.

Napoleon’s victories against enemy coalitions may have gained his empire territory and influence, and sometimes made Prussia, Austria, and Russia reluctant allies of France, but as long as England maintained her economic and industrial advantage, and opposed French power in Europe, she could influence the contest. Given that there were 7 successive coalitions raised, mostly with British financing, to fight France, there is little doubt that Britain was the most dangerous and dedicated enemy of Napoleon.

While France won victory after victory on the continent, Britain often found ways to limit or reverse such successes via several means. These included Britain’s exercise of naval power, her economic and industrial superiority via France, and British military interventions in Europe.

Of course, British naval superiority was the lynchpin which guaranteed all of this. Without superior naval power, Britain could not have secured her economic and industrial advantages which she accrued via controlling maritime trade and controlling far flung colonies, let alone launch naval efforts against France and her allies, or intervene on the continent. Britain maintained her naval superiority via significant investments in resources and training for the Royal Navy, fighting and beating French and allied fleets, and even ruthless actions against neutrals. Actions such as the “Battle of the Nile” and “Trafalgar” wore down the French navy, but Britain was also audacious enough to attack the Danish twice (including bombarding Copenhagen) and threaten Lisbon to make sure the Danish and Portuguese fleets did not join Napoleon. A similar instance happened in 1940 when the British attacked the French (who had been their recent ally) at Mers-el-Kebir because Churchill feared the Germans wanted to control the French navy.

However, these were simply means to effect the ends for British naval power. British naval dominance allowed her to supply and finance her allies’ war efforts against Napoleon. While one could point out that Napoleon defeated most of his enemies’ coalitions, the fact remains that unless Britain was forced to make peace she could keep financing Napoleon’s enemies at will. Therefore the “Napoleonic Wars” became a game of “whack a mole” where Napoleon would defeat one enemy or alliance only to see another rise up (supported by England) afterwards. Thus Napoleon’s victory against Austria at Marengo effectively beat the “Second Coalition,” but British support raised the “Third Coalition” which Napoleon quashed at Austerlitz. Thereupon another British supported coalition ended with Russia’s defeat in 1807, but was followed by British intervention in Spain from 1808-14 and her support of Austria in 1809. The Spanish venture obviously continued, but Austria lost in 1809. In the end, the last British-supported coalitions in 1813-14 and 1815 finally beat Napoleon.

British naval power also eroded France’s economy, as well as the economies of countries like Russia and Portugal, due to the British blockade, and this led indirectly to the “Peninsular War” in Spain and Portugal and the invasion of Russia in 1812. In the former, British support of Spanish irregulars slowly bled the French Empire for years, while the latter effectively devastated the Grande Armee and was arguably the Stalingrad for Napoleon.

Meanwhile, British interventions on the continent were not without effect. While it could be argued that the British campaign in Holland in 1799, her intervention in Southern Italy in 1806, and the “Walcheren Campaign” of 1809 ended in failure, British intervention against French forces in Egypt and Spain were decisive. In the former it doomed the admittedly foolhardy French campaign in Egypt, and in the latter it prevented the French from crushing the Spanish rebels and tied down significant French troops that could have been decisive elsewhere. Eventually Wellington’s army, initially based in Portugal, helped liberated Spain and even invaded Southern France.

Then there is the “German Campaign of 1813” which was arguably the decisive campaign of the “Napoleonic Wars.” The “Peninsular War” in Spain may have severely eroded the French army, and the invasion of Russia gutted the Grande Armee, but remarkably enough Napoleon managed to recruit and amass a major force of soldiers from his empire and allies which still had more population and resources than Prussia and Russia, who were arguably just as weakened at this point as the French and their allies. It is likely that without the intervention of Austria, as well as later defection among France’s German allies, that Napoleon could easily have stalemated the Prussians and Russians or conceivably even won the campaign. Certainly Napoleon had no real chance of winning in 1814 when he was vastly outnumbered and fighting on French soil against several armies in the north while Wellington’s army advanced into Southern France. It is even more absurd that the “Waterloo Campaign” was the decisive campaign as the odds were even worse than in 1814, and had he managed to beat the British and Prussia armies (both close to the size of his army) he would have had to defeat even 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 soon after, Prussia declared war on France and allied with Russia. However, the French began to recover, as Napoleon raised 200,000 soldiers which gave him a decent superiority of numbers over the Prussian and Russian forces. On one hand, Napoleon may have had an advantage here, as even if his soldiers were not of the same quality as previous ones they still had his superior leadership as well as the doctrine, tactics, and mid-level leadership which allowed them to beat allied armies that were deficient in many of these respects. On the other, the Prussians and Russians had learned a lot and would not be pushovers as before. Perhaps worse for Napoleon was that Austria was tempted to enter the war and her entry could decisively tilt the numerical balance against him. Thus Napoleon had to either reoccupy Prussia and beat the Russians back, or hurt them enough to gain a satisfactory peace, but certainly he had to prevent Austria from joining the coalition.

Napoleon did well at first, beating outnumbered Prussian and Russian forces at Lutzen (May 2) and Bautzen (May 20-21), yet unfortunately could not 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 temporary truce of six weeks between both sides, as Napoleon was worried about his lengthening lines of communications, and the Austrians, and wanted to rebuild his forces (especially calvary). The Prussians and Russians gladly accepted, assuming time was on their side to bring allies into the war and build up their own forces. It is generally accepted that the truce favoured the latter, especially given the final results of the campaign.

Perhaps the campaign turned against Napoleon in August when Austria declared war against him and joined the coalition, adding a substantial amount of force of approximately 300,000 (by far the largest contingent for the coalition) which shifted the numerical and strategic balance in favour of the coalition. However, even after this, Napoleon still managed to gain another tactical victory at Dresden (August 27), despite being nearly outnumbered 2-1. However, this would be his last victory of the campaign, as the coalition’s newfound numerical superiority, and improved strategy, would win it. Their strategy essentially involved the coalition armies avoiding Napoleon’s own army (at least in a piecemeal fashion which would have led to their being defeated in detail) while focusing on other French and allied armies that were not as well led. The idea was to wear down French and allied forces overall until the coalition was confident and capable of massing its overwhelming forces against Napoleon’s own force. The British used the same strategy in Egypt during the summer in 1942 as their commander, Auchinleck, concentrated on attacking Rommel’s weaker Italian allies so that the German forces would be forced to come to their comrades’ aid instead of being able to concentrate on attacking the British. Montgomery would benefit from Auchinleck’s success as the former’s delaying battles allowed the British to build up enough superiority in manpower and material to decisively beat Rommel later in the autumn.

Thus, Napoleon’s victory at Dresden was balanced by the defeat of French forces under other Generals at Grossbeeren (August 23), Katzbach (August 26) Kulm (August 29), and Dennewitz (September 6). More than a month of maneuver followed and finally the coalition brought to bear its significant superiority at Leipzig (16-19 October). This would be the biggest battle of the “Napoleonic Wars” and arguably the defeat which sealed Napoleon’s fate. Napoleon had no real chance of winning, let alone effecting a stalemate after Leipzig. Here the coalition outnumbered him nearly 2-1 and after a few days inflicted a decisive defeat on the Emperor despite suffering more casualties. Thereupon Napoleon was forced to retreat, his German allies abandoned him, he had to retire to France, and a vengeful Europe pursued him there. While Napoleon inflicted a remarkable series of limited reverses on the coalition in France in 1814, the latter’s numbers told, and once Paris was taken Napoleon was forced to abdicate and go into exile at Elba island and while he did briefly return to France in 1815 to lead the “Waterloo Campaign”, he was leading a lost cause.

Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, his disastrous invasion of Russia, British naval power and financing, and the result of the “German Campaign of 1813”, were the key factors which led to the defeat of Napoleon. Napoleon’s occupation of Spain was his first major mistake, and led to a conflict between the French army versus Spanish irregulars and Wellington’s army, that proved impossible to defeat and slowly wore down French manpower. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia resulted in the destruction of the majority of the Grande Armee and weakened the French empire enough for countries like Russia, Prussia, Austria and even Sweden to finally combine to confront it. British sea power safeguarded England’s survival and supported British operations in Spain and elsewhere, while British money and industry financed most of the coalitions that fought against Napoleon. The “German Campaign of 1813” turned against Napoleon when Austria entered the war, and the significant numerical advantage of coalition forces, and their correct strategy, led to Napoleon’s decisive defeat at Leipzig which effectively decided the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon may have 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”: [April, 2017]

Wikipedia article on the “Napoleonic Wars”: [April, 2017]