Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front
Oxford University Press, 2020
The first thing that I should say is that I do like the book. The author has a very readable style and, thankfully, uses short chapters so that the author’s theme at that point does not get lost in a sea of pages, as is too often the case with history books. There are in fact 26 chapters, with clear titles, as you would expect.
I read the paperback version which has a set of maps at the front of the book that illustrate the military situation at various times and places. According to the reviews on Amazon, the Kindle version does not have the maps, which would make the battle histories difficult to understand, unless of course you are a WFA nerd who knows the ins and outs of the locations anyway!
The title is wonderful marketing, but not entirely accurate. Surely Falkenhayn and then Ludendorff were Haig’s counterparts and therefore his “enemy”? Rupprecht was an army commander, not the overall chief on the Western Front.
Rupprecht was the Crown Prince of Bavaria, as his father, Ludwig, was King of Bavaria. Germany at this stage had a number of provincial royal families, Kaiser Wilhelm II being the King of Prussia as well as being the Kaiser of all Germany. In the case of Rupprecht, these differences led to political and cultural problems. The Prussians are Protestant and the Bavarians are Catholic. The Prussians therefore tended to look down on the Bavarians and regarded them as ignorant peasants. So, when Ludendorff in 1916 considered making Rupprecht the overall commander on the Western Front, it did not happen because that would have put a Bavarian in charge of all the Prussian troops on that front, especially the Prussian Crown Prince. For the record, Falkenhayn, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were all Prussians.
The fact that Ludendorff even considered Rupprecht for such a command position indicates the basic fact about Rupprecht – he was a competent general. Unlike the Prussian Crown Prince, he did not have a “ghost” general installed nominally under his command, where in reality the “ghost” was the real commander. Rupprecht was his own man. This became clearer in the latter phases of the war when Ludendorff became even more obsessed with being in control of minutiae, and his mental instability led to him having an unrealistic view of Germany’s position. Rupprecht was not a clairvoyant but undoubtedly had a much more balanced view of the situation.
The book does have a lot of detail on the major battles on the Western Front which may seem superfluous to the WFA reader with his or her extensive knowledge but, like the sketch maps in the book, are needed for the more general reader. As is often the case with history books, the analysis is at the end of the book when it would be better having it at the front, but of course the reader can do that for themselves by first reading the chapters on Rupprecht’s character and views.
On Rupprecht’s character and abilities, to quote the author:
He proved far from a figurehead, much less a dilettante. He set a high personal standard for his officers to follow: his army and, later, his Army Group seem to have been well run and to have operated smoothly, at least until the army as a whole began to break down. His military judgment was generally good: he made sensible decisions; his troops were well prepared to fight; he oversaw an efficient logistics system which kept them equipped during combat; and he managed and directed the deployment of his reserves with care and skill. His ability was rewarded with extended responsibilities in 1916……………………
Nonetheless, it would be silly to claim that Rupprecht was one of the great captains of history. The First World War did not produce many of those. It did shatter the reputations and careers of many, though, and Rupprecht was good enough to avoid such a fate.
On the BEF and the French army:
…Rupprecht forces us to revise long cherished views about the armies of the Entente too. Most obviously, his diary reminds us how important the French were. Not only were they the main enemy from August 1914 to the end of 1916 but even thereafter he still viewed the French army as a more dangerous opponent than the BEF. Rupprecht tended to look down upon the British, considering them brave enough most of the time but clumsily handled. Even into 1918, the BEF sometimes remained poor at coordinating attacks and exploiting any temporary success it managed to achieve. The main factor behind the British success, Rupprecht thought, was weight of numbers, in men and especially in artillery. There is little evidence that Rupprecht was aware of, much less worried by, any British tactical improvement. He was less likely to note threatening British tactical innovations than instances of them repeating the same mistakes.
After WWI, there was considerable political upheaval in Germany, and certainly in Bavaria. Rupprecht fled to the Netherlands in November 1918 as Mr Landsberg. The Bavarian government guaranteed his safety, but it was not until the autumn of 1919 that he returned to Bavaria. The royal family had been deposed. His father died in October 1921, so he was then the pretender to the throne of Bavaria. More importantly, the family were able to reach a settlement with the government involving payment to them of a lump sum, and rights to certain castles and other buildings. The state took the rest.
He married his fiancée in 1921, who was 20 years younger than he, and they eventually had five children. He had a son from his first marriage but another son had died of polio during the war. Between the wars, he was a popular public figure in Bavaria. The rise of the Nazis caused him to retreat into internal exile in the late 1930s, and then flee to Italy. He narrowly missed being arrested by the gestapo in 1944, after the attempt on Hitler’s life when the Nazis hit out at anyone who was not a supporter. The rest of the Wittelsbach family were rounded up and sent to the concentration camp at Dachau, but did survive.
He died at the age of 86 in 1955 at Schloss Leutstetten. He was buried “with ceremony and pomp fit for a king” in the Theatinerkirche St Kajetan in Munich, alongside his first wife Marie-Gabriele and their son, Luitpold.
Well, as I said at the beginning of this review, I do like the book. You cannot help but admire Rupprecht for all that he was constrained by his position in the Royal Family and the politics of the era.