This page contains brief biographical summaries of some significant World War I military leaders. Click or tap a link to open or close profiles. These profiles have been written by Alpha History authors.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) was a prominent Ottoman military commander of World War I. Born in Salonica, Mustafa Kemal was the son of a civil servant, who encouraged him to enter one of the empire’s military academies. He graduated in 1905, received an officer’s commission and was given his first posting. In 1908 Kemal participated in the ‘Young Turk’ revolution, which replaced the Ottoman sultanate with a constitutional ruler. He later served in the empire’s unsuccessful wars against Italy (1911-12) and the Balkan League (1912-1913). When the Ottomans entered World War I in late 1914, Kemal, by now a colonel, was tasked with defending the Dardanelles from a probable Allied landing. Though short of men and equipment, Kemal’s astute analysis of both the terrain and Allied military objectives allowed him to organise a robust yet well-planned defence of the peninsula. The victory at Gallipoli revived Ottoman hopes of keeping the empire together, while Kemal was promoted and given more significant command postings. Between 1916 and 1918 he served against the Russians in the Caucasus, against British imperial forces in Palestine and as an envoy to Germany. By 1918 Kemal was convinced that the Allies would win the war, so his interests turned towards securing the future of his homeland. Kemal is best known for his leadership of the Turkish War of Independence (1919-22) and his long tenure as Turkey’s first republican president. The surname Ataturk, meaning ‘father of the Turks’, was bestowed on him in 1934.
General Erich von Falkenhayn (1861-1922) was Germany’s Chief of General Staff (commander in chief of the military) for the first half of World War I. A lifelong soldier, the Prussian-born Falkenhayn served in colonial China during the Boxer Rebellion; after this he returned to Germany and worked as a staff officer, involved in military planning and logistics. Like others of his generation, Falkenhayn was a militarist who believed that a great European war was inevitable and that Germany should prepare accordingly. This attitude earned him the favouritism of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was behind Falkenhayn’s surprise 1912 promotion to major-general and Prussian minister of war. In September 1914 Falkenhayn replaced von Moltke as the Chief of General Staff, after the failure of the Schlieffen offensive. Recognising the great difficulties along the Western Front, Falkenhayn instead focused in the east, where he hoped to force Russia to sign a separate armistice. He also initiated the assault against French positions at Verdun, the failure of this campaign leading to his replacement in August 1916. Falkenhayn remained in the war, serving as a commander in eastern Europe and the Middle East. Historians consider Falkenhayn to be a true figure of the old regime: conservative, authoritarian and militaristic – but nevertheless a skilled general, more competent and innovative than many of his contemporaries.
Marshal Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) was an important French general, perhaps best known for repelling German advances in both 1914 and 1918. Born in southern France near the Spanish border, Foch served in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and remained in the army after the French defeat. He completed further studies, obtained a lieutenant’s commission and began to make a name for himself as a military strategist. Foch’s writings on strategy drew heavily on Prussian ideas and contributed to a transformation of French military thinking in the first years of the 1900s. Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Foch was given command of the Ninth Army which halted the German Schlieffen advance at the first Battle of the Marne. For much of the war, Foch worked closely with British commanders, who mostly held him in high regard; their most notable collaboration was at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, however, the heavy casualties there resulted in Foch’s deployment away from the Western Front. He returned to active service in France in 1918 when he coordinated a successful response to the German Spring Offensive. In mid-1918 Foch was given the titles ‘Supreme Commander of Allied Forces’ and ‘Marshal of France’; in November he oversaw armistice negotiations with the Germans. During the Paris peace conferences, Foch urged a full Allied occupation of the German Rhineland; when this was denied he condemned the Versailles treaty as a failure, considering it an “armistice for 20 years”. Foch was later hailed as a war hero and showered with honours and titles. Historians have been more sanguine about both his strategic approach and his effectiveness.
Field Marshal Sir John French (1852-1925) was the commander-in-chief of British forces in continental Europe for the first half of World War I. Born into a military family, French enlisted in the Royal Navy but an abject fear of heights forced his transfer into the army. He received an officer’s commission in the Irish Hussars and participated in colonial campaigns in Africa. French also served as a major-general in the Second Boer War in South Africa, where he was commended for his decisive but calm leadership. He was later promoted to full general, then to field marshal, and contributed to British military reforms and organisation prior to the outbreak of World War I. In 1914 he was appointed the commander of the British Expeditionary Force in northern France. French proved unsuited to this mission. Thinking the war would be over within months, on arriving in Europe he became despondent and pessimistic about the chances of victory. Sir John had little confidence in either French generals or their men and was reluctant to commit British forces to French-planned operations. His inability to work with French commanders led to criticisms at home and Sir John’s resignation and replacement with Haig in December 1915. Recalled to England, French was given the less important task of organising home defence. Apart from providing occasional advice to the government, he played no further part in the war on the Western Front. His tarnished reputation was only recovered by the higher losses suffered by Haig and other generals, after French’s removal.
Tim Cook, historian
General Sir Douglas Haig. Ridiculed and parodied in film and television, Haig is often portrayed as elitist and incompetent, though neither was true. Born into an affluent family, Haig had from a young age set his sights on a military career. He saw service in Sudan, the Boer War and a colonial regiment in India before returning to England in 1911. Haig was viewed as a specialist in military training, discipline and battlefield strategies. He also served briefly as aide-de-camp to King George V. By the outbreak of the war, Haig was a lieutenant-general; he was given command of forces at Mons and Ypres where he acquitted himself well. By the end of 1915, Haig was given command of the entire British Expeditionary Force and ordered to begin planning a major offensive at the Somme River in the summer of 1916. It is the Battle of the Somme for which Haig is best known, particularly its disastrous opening day. Despite meticulous planning and preparation, supported by one of the longest and most ferocious artillery barrages of the war, almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed, making it the worst single day in British military history. Haig’s tactics at the Somme, Passchendaele and Amiens were ultimately successful, though they came at an enormous human cost. Some figures, such as prime minister David Lloyd George, condemned Haig for persisting with infantry advances on strongly held German positions – a criticism echoed by many historians. Others more sympathetic to Haig suggest he was placed under extreme pressure by French losses at Verdun, denying him any effective French support in 1916. Whatever the reality, Haig was feted by the British government after the war, given a £100,000 pension and elevated to the peerage.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg was born into one of Prussia’s most distinguished families in 1847. Like many scions of the 19th century Prussian elite, he began military training at a young age and received a commission in time to serve in the Austro-Prussian War (1866). The young Hindenburg was also present at Versailles for the formal unification of the German Empire, a moment he later called one of the proudest in his life. He served in the military for 45 years, rising to the rank of general before retiring to his sizeable estate in 1911. But the 66-year-old Hindenburg was recalled in 1914, given command of the Eighth Army and tasked with defending East Prussia from a Russian offensive. His leadership on the Eastern Front produced great victories between 1914 and 1916, though Hindenburg’s talented subordinates and the incompetent bungling of Russian commanders also contributed to these. In mid-1916 Hindenburg was appointed as Chief of the German General Staff, replacing Erich von Falkenhayn, who had been discredited by his lack of progress at Verdun. Hindenburg became Germany’s military commander, though many important command decisions were in fact made by his deputy Erich von Ludendorff. From late 1916 both men exerted considerable influence over the government; Germany became a de facto military dictatorship. Two of Hindenburg’s decisions contributed to Germany’s capitulation in 1918. He was largely responsible for the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, imposed over the objections of civilian politicians; this antagonised the Americans and contributed to their entry to the war in 1917. Hindenburg also ordered the redeployment of German agricultural workers to the industrial sector, a move which increased military production significantly but worsened Germany’s food shortages. Despite these blunders, Hindenburg remained as chief of staff until early 1919 and enjoyed considerable popularity among the German people. He was elected president of the German republic in 1925, by a people nostalgic for nationalism, strong leadership and military strength. It was as president that Hindenburg committed his greatest folly: appointing Adolf Hitler as chancellor of the republic in January 1933.
General Joseph Joffre. The French commander-in-chief for the first half of the war, Joffre was the son of a wine-growing family who left the vineyards to become a career military officer. He served in the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s then spent many years in colonial postings. In 1911 he was given command of the French army, despite having a background in engineering. Joffre initiated a review of French military strategy and introduced Plan XVII (1913), which was largely concerned with the recapture of Alsace and Lorraine. It also placed a low priority on defending the French-Belgian border, since Joffre and his fellow commanders believed – wrongly as it turned out – that the Germans would not risk bringing the British into any war by invading Belgium. But while Plan XVII was quickly shown to be flawed, Joffre’s leadership was enhanced by his response to the Schlieffen Plan; it was largely because of Joffre that French forces were able to halt the German advance at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914. Joffre’s reputation took a battering in 1915-16, however, after a series of costly and unsuccessful offensives against German-held lines. In early 1916, as Joffre and Sir Douglas Haig began planning a joint Anglo-French offensive, the Germans attacked French positions at Verdun. French generals were unable to formulate an effective response to the German assault at Verdun, and with the French army at risk of annihilation, Joffre began to show signs of strain. In December 1916 he was replaced as commander-in-chief by Robert Nivelle, who spoke fluent English and was, therefore, better equipped to work with British commanders. Joffre was given several advisory or diplomatic roles well away from the Western Front. Despite his failures as a military commander, in retirement Joffre was given several ceremonial roles and a succession of honours.
General Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937) was a German officer, famous for his staunch militarism and his service as Paul von Hindenburg’s second in command. Ludendorff was born in Prussia, the son of a local landowner. His excellence as a student earned Ludendorff a scholarship to a local military academy, after which he received a lieutenant’s commission. He proved an exceptional young officer, receiving numerous commendations, rising through the ranks and being seconded to the General Staff. Ludendorff as an exceptional organiser, known in particular for his ability to plan large operations; from 1911 one of his roles was to assist with the logistics and preparations for the Schlieffen Plan. In 1914 Ludendorff was sent to assist Hindenburg with defending East Prussia from the Russians. This marked the beginning of a long partnership, during which time Ludendorff served as Hindenburg’s chief of staff, then quartermaster-general of the Germany army. Many historians consider Ludendorff to have been the main source of strategic and logistical ideas in this partnership, with Hindenburg the popular figurehead. Among the wartime policies shaped by Ludendorff was the introduction of military control over the German economy, Germany’s move towards unrestricted submarine warfare and the development of the 1918 Spring Offensive. After the failure of this offensive, Ludendorff became depressed and resigned to the inevitability of German surrender. Despite this, after the war he became a leading proponent of the Dolchstosslegende, or ‘stab in the back theory’, which argued that the German military had been betrayed rather than defeated. For a time in the early 1920s, Ludendorff was a fervent supporter of Adolf Hitler and the fledgeling Nazi movement.
Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916) was head of the German military between 1906 and 1914, so was largely responsible for Germany’s war preparations. Born into a privileged family, von Moltke was named after his prominent uncle, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who had served for three decades as Chief of General Staff in the newly unified Germany. The younger von Moltke enlisted in the Prussian army as a teenager and fought in the 1870-71 war with France. He later served on the staff of his famous uncle, then as an aide to Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1906 von Moltke was selected to replace von Schlieffen as Chief of General Staff, probably at the Kaiser’s insistence; his appointment surprised some, as von Moltke had leapfrogged several better-equipped candidates. His tenure as Chief of General Staff was no less controversial. Some historians assert that von Moltke condemned the Schlieffen Plan to failure by downsizing it and depriving it of men and equipment; others suggest it failed because of unforeseen operational and communications difficulties once the attack had commenced. Discredited and in poor health, von Moltke was replaced as Chief of General Staff by Falkenhayn in October 1914. He played no significant part in the war thereafter and died in late 1916.
General Sir John Monash (1865-1931) was an Australian general who proved to be one of the most innovative military commanders of the war. Ironically, Monash was more German than British: he was born in Melbourne but both his parents were German immigrants who had Anglicised their name from ‘Monasch’ and who still spoke German in the family home. Unlike most other high-ranking officers Monash did not graduate from a military academy; he instead completed a university degree in civil engineering while undertaking part-time military service. Monash joined the army full-time with the outbreak of war and commanded a unit in Gallipoli, where he demonstrated initiative and adaptability. Unlike some other generals Monash held the men under his command in high regard: he was an effective communicator and motivator, as well as a supreme organiser. The successful withdrawal from Gallipoli, which was achieved in near-secrecy and with minimal loss of life, was largely the product of Monash’s leadership. In mid-1917 Monash arrived on the Western Front. He served for a year as a divisional commander, leading a series of successful, if costly campaigns. In May 1918 he was promoted and given command of all five Australian divisions on the Western Front. Monash’s calm demeanour and attention to detail earned him the confidence of his fellow officers and the men in his command; an attempt to confect his dismissal by war correspondent Charles Bean and newspaper proprietor Keith Murdoch failed largely because of his popularity. Monash believed in coordinating all available forces – infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft – to increase the likelihood of victory. He employed these tactics in several battles in mid-1918, most notably the successful Battle of Amiens in August, which turned the tide of the war in Europe. Monash was hailed by many as the greatest general of the Western Front. He was knighted by King George V just days after the victory at Amiens.
Nicholas Nikolaevich (1856-1929) was a Russian royal and the country’s military commander-in-chief for the first 12 months of the war. A grand duke of the Romanov family, Nikolaevich was a grandson of Tsar Alexander I and the son of a prominent military commander. Like many other young royals, the teenage Nikolaevich was given training as a cavalry officer and encouraged to become a career military officer. Commissioned in 1872, Nikolaevich participated in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) where he served with distinction. His military service thereafter was as a St Petersburg staff officer, concerned with training, logistics and planning. During the 1905 Russian Revolution, Nikolaevich was called upon by his cousin, Tsar Nicholas II, to restore order through martial law; he defiantly refused. In 1914 the tsar appointed Nikolaevich commander of all Russian armies in Europe. Nikolaevich was liked and respected, both by his generals and the enlisted ranks, but he was unprepared for the enormity of this task. He had not seen combat for more than 30 years and had no experience of commanding an army in the field. With no clear strategic plan of his own, Nikolaevich simply refereed debates between his generals, while serving as a figurehead. In August 1915 the tsar sacked Nikolaevich and assumed command of the armies himself, a move that would have its own disastrous consequences. He later led a Russian army in the Caucasus, with some success, before fleeing Russia after the revolution of 1919.
General John J. Pershing (1860-1948) was probably the best known American general of World War I. Born to a farming family in Missouri, Pershing worked as a teacher before accepting a position at the prestigious West Point military academy. His superiors there were impressed with Pershing’s leadership skills, particularly his decisiveness and firmness with other cadets. After graduating from West Point, Pershing received a lieutenant’s commission and saw combat in several campaigns against Native Americans, in the Spanish-American War (1898) and in the Philippines. He also rose through the ranks, becoming a brigadier general in 1905. In early 1917 US president Woodrow Wilson appointed Pershing as commander of the American Expeditionary Force to Europe, promoting him to full general. Pershing arrived on the Western Front in mid-1917 and began planning the deployment of American forces. Their first significant use was at the Battle of Hamel, where Americans served under British and Australian officers, the first time US troops had been given to foreign command. By the spring of 1918 Pershing, who now had several US divisions at his disposal, reclaimed command of all American troops in Europe. He led several American divisions at the second Battle of the Marne (July-August 1918) and also at Meuse-Argonne (September 1918). The Marne produced an Allied victory, however, the Argonne offensive was disastrous for Pershing, who repeated many of the same mistakes made by Allied generals in 1915 and 1916. Pershing also insisted that American soldiers continue fighting after the signing of the November 11th armistice, an order that resulted in more than 200 deaths and 3,000 serious injuries. Back in America, Pershing was hailed as a war hero and promoted to General of the Armies, a de facto six-star generalship. Historians, however, have been more divided over Pershing’s role, both as a military leader and his contribution to the outcomes of World War I.
Marshal Philippe Petain (1856-1951) was one of France’s most important military commanders of World War I. The son of a farmer, the teenaged Petain opted for a military career, joining the French army as an officer cadet. His early service was unremarkable; it took him almost 15 years to reach the rank of captain. By the outbreak of war in 1914, Petain was already nearing his 60s and was considering retirement, however, he was made a general and given important command positions on the Western Front. Petain was more cautious and defensive than some other Allied commanders. He did not believe that heavy artillery and machine-guns could be overcome by massed infantry charges; artillery, he argued, could only be countered with artillery. In 1916 Petain was given command of French forces at Verdun; for a year his men held off the German offensive, though both sides suffered enormous casualties. The following year Petain was appointed the commander-in-chief of the entire French army, though by 1918 he was technically outranked by Foch, who exercised command of all Allied armies. Petain emerged from the war with an enhanced reputation: he was one of the few Allied generals who had achieved more successes than failures but without the record of needless slaughter so common on the Western Front. Petain was later discredited by his four-year presidency of the Nazi-aligned Vichy French republic, for which he spent the last years of his life in prison.
General Sir Henry Wilson (1864-1922) was a senior British military commander and government advisor. Wilson was of Irish birth but was a loyal Briton, refusing to support Irish independence or republicanism. Like many British officers, Wilson had risen through the ranks during service in the colonies. He saw combat as a major during the second Boer War, before returning to England and working in both officer training and military operations. By the outbreak of World War I, Wilson had reached the rank of major-general. In 1914 he was deployed to the continent as a liaison with the French, a role Wilson performed well, in part because of his ability to speak their language. He also held corps command positions along the Western Front, though not at any major battles. Wilson was later appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff, a position he held until 1922. He was assassinated by Irish republican terrorists later that same year.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “World War I military leaders” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/world-war-i-military-leaders/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].