Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, October 3, 2022

The Central Powers: A Failed Coalition

It was said that we held Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey by the throat, so to speak, ready to strangle them if they did not do exactly as we wished. Yet there could not be a greater perversion of the truth than this assertion. I am convinced that nothing showed the weakness of Germany, in comparison with England, more clearly than the difference between the political grip each of them had on her allies.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg,  Out of My Life 


The exigiencies, frustrations, and complexities of coalition warfare are exemplified by the evolution and operations of the Quadruple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria) during the Great War, 1914-1918. There are several excellent lessons inherent in the functioning of the "Central Powers," a coalition of states characterized by extremely divergent war aims, radically different socio-economic structures, and contrasting strategic capabilities. The cultural and geographic differences were enormous. Unless one reviews the historic setting and events leading to the cataclysmic days of August 1914, he would conclude that the alliance was a most improbable one; that these states had no business coalescing for the purposes of hemispheric conquest. Yet, in spite of the disparities, the alliance, as a military endeavor, performed remarkably well throughout the war, achieving a degree of harmony and collaboration which eluded its adversaries until the spring of 1918. While their practice of statesmanship and the formulation of strategic guidance were significant  shortcomings, the four powers were signally successful in the conduct of combined military operations against the Allies on several fronts.  

The alliance [however] was handicapped from the outset by a plethora of shortcomings which persisted and were exacerbated not only by the actions of its enemies but by the nature of the coalition itself. There were such immense diversities and conflicts among the partners that it is remarkable that the entente functioned as well as it did through four arduous years of warfare.

German officialdom's view of its allies lacked consensus; there were as many opinions as there were proponents to express them. The Kaiser, while espousing a royal affection for Austria-Hungary's venerable Emperor Franz Joseph, was  disdainful of the Monarchy's strategic capabilities. General von Hindenburg, latter-day Chief of Staff, appeared to respect the Austrian Army but in his memoirs suggests that Austrian statesmen had dragged a reluctant Germany into a Viennese-fomented conflict. Ludendorff was characterized as "tactless in his handling of the Austrians." General van Hoffman viewed German support of the Austro-Hungarians as a critical obligation. In sum, the prevailing attitude was one of paternal condescension, tempered by restrained pessimism.


Of Austria-Hungary's forces, Liddell Hart gives us the best brief appraisal:

The Austro-Hungarian Army, if patterned on the German model, was a vastly inferior instrument. Not only had it a tradition of defeat.. .but its racial mixture prevented the homogeneity that distinguished its ally. . . . The troops within the borders of the empire were often racially akin to those beyond, and this compelled Austria to a political instead of a military based distribution of forces, so that kinsmen would not fight each other. 

The view toward Turkey was even more ambivalent, based upon two separate and usually conflicting sources of information-that of the German Embassy and the reports compiled by the resident Mission Chief, Liman von Sanders. Von Sanders' organization had been installed over the objections of German Ambassador von Wagenheim; therefore, the two agencies were at odds. According to von Sanders, the Attaches, desk bound in Constantinople, transmitted roseate accounts of Turkish military capabilities. Von Sanders, with advisers throughout the structure, submitted  comprehensive reports of corruption, leadership shortcomings, abysmal sanitary conditions and lassitude, characteristic of the true state of affairs. Alas, the Kaiser, often bereft of good news from the Eastern or Western fronts, was more receptive to the optimistic embassy dispatches. This eventually resulted in an unrealistic German allocation of tasks and resources to the Turks, with adverse results in the Mediterranean Theater.


.  .  . Under German tutelage, Turks were to eject a British lodgment at Gallipoli, fight a very successful delaying action in 1917–1918, hold Russia in check in the Black Sea and thwart Allied linkup with its eastern partner. These were considerable accomplishments for the semi-feudal, poor and disheartened nation that was Turkey in 1914. Turkey's waterways remained objectives of Allied strategy throughout the war. 

Bulgaria's military effort was only regionally important in operations with her allies against Serbia (1915) and against Rumania (1917). While her relations with her allies were cordial, her marginal power status precluded her treatment as a full partner. 

If coalition warfare failed the Central Powers, the blame must be laid at other doorsteps than tactical execution. The field commanders of all four partner states cannot be excoriated, as the cases of Serbia, Gallipoli, Rumania, and Caporetto demonstrate. The Allies would have done well to emulate these examples earlier than they did.


The alliance was probably a nonstarter from its inception. Divergent and even contradictory war aims, geographic separation and a tremendous disparity in strategic capability should have suggested the potential obstacles. There just wasn't enough horsepower. Ultimate success was highly tenuous, dependent upon the occurrence of too many events which the partners were unable to effect-the entrance of Italy, Rumania and Greece on the side of the Central Powers, or at least their assured neutrality; early defeat of either France or Russia, neither of which happened; coincidence of national objectives; and an early, genuine strategic amalgamation of forces.

The fundamental premise for failure was that the partners bit off more than they could chew, separately and collectively. Germany fought in all theaters; Austria-Hungary deployed to east and south; and Turkey, at times, had forces on three fronts. All were realizing only marginal success against an ever-increasing array of opponents. America's entrance into the war rendered the overwhelming preponderance of sheer power that the coalition could no longer absorb.  In conclusion, the partners probably expected more from the partnership than it was capable of yielding in light of the odds. In 1914 and 1915, they were unwilling to pay the price of total strategic unanimity when it could have paid the best dividends. Coalition warfare did not fail the Central Powers. Their leaders did.

Excerpted from:  James B. Agnew, "THE IMPROBABLE ALLIANCE: THE CENTRAL POWERS AND COALITION WARFARE, 1914-191 8," Parameters 2, no. 1

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