Son of Prussia
'A clever but very serious young man.'
Martha von Sperling-Manstein
Family and Early Life
Erich Fritz von Lewinski, named Manstein, was born in 1887, a year of birth he shared with none other than the British soldier Bernard Law Montgomery. Both learned their trade in their nations' general staffs during the First World War, became noted tutors of staff and trainers of men and won great victories in the Second World War; both earned their field marshal's batons in the process and wrote controversial memoirs afterwards, remaining contentious figures thereafter; both forged their nations' post-war armies in their mould: such were their enduring legacies.
Manstein's and Montgomery's characters also exhibited further similarities: critical of others, to many their very self-confidence bordered on conceit. Their well-organized and highly capable staffs, however, were intensely loyal. Unsurprisingly, notwithstanding their exceptional military abilities, both Manstein and Montgomery managed to annoy their diverse superiors with uncommon regularity, a trait, it must be observed, rather more apparent in the latter. That said, there was little else in common between the aristocratic Prussian officer's son-born to serve the German Kaiser-and the son of a modest Anglo-Irish parson, who took the King's commission. Patrician Manstein, on the losing side, became a convicted war criminal; in his opinion, and that of many others, a victim of 'victors' justice'. Humbler Montgomery, in birth if not in attitude, on the winning side, was feted as a national hero. They never met despite Manstein's best efforts at the war's end to surrender personally to Montgomery on the Lüneburg Heath in early May 1945.1
Fifty-eight years earlier in the small Thuringian town of Rudolstadt, a curious telegram arrived from Berlin: 'Today a young boy is born for you. Mother and child well. Best wishes. Helene and Lewinski.' Thisbrief communication announced the birth of baby Erich on 24 November 1887, the tenth son of Eduard Julius Ludwig von Lewinski (1829-1906) and fifth child of his second wife Helene, née von Sperling (1847-1910).2 Before Erich's birth his mother had arranged for her childless younger sister Hedwig (1852-1925) to adopt the baby if it were a boy. This sort of pragmatic pact seemed to run in the family: previously Hedwig, married to Georg von Manstein (1844-1913), had adopted Martha, the young daughter of her recently deceased brother and naval officer Erich von Sperling (1851-89).
The Lewinski, Manstein and Sperling families had strong aristocratic roots and were proud of their long, loyal service to the Prussian Crown, producing officers in every generation. A particularly notable exemplar was General Christoph Hermann von Manstein (1711-57), who had fought with distinction against the Austrians during the Seven Years War. Despite being blamed-somewhat unfairly-for the Prussian defeat at Kolin (18 June 1757), he was judged generously by Frederick the Great in his assessment of Prussian generals as 'très bon'.3
The royal connection was maintained in the latter half of the eighteenth century when a lieutenant colonel von Manstein served as 'Generaladjutant von der Infanterie' to King Frederick William II, acting as an equerry who handled the sovereign's military correspondence.4 Manstein's grandfather Albrecht Gustav (1805-77) commanded the 6th Prussian Division in the wars of 1864 against Denmark and 1866 against Austria. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, he commanded IX (Schleswig-Holstein) Corps, distinguishing himself particularly at the battles of Gravelotte and Le Mans. The city of Altona (now part of Hamburg) made him a freeman in 1872. So the Manstein name in the final quarter of the nineteenth century had at least local, if not regional, fame: the 84th Infantry Regiment stationed in Schleswig was called the 'Mansteiner'. Schleswig still has its Mansteinstrasse today, as do Berlin and Hamburg.
Military traditions ran as deeply in the Manstein family as they did generally in Wilhelmine Germany. On retirement, Albrecht Gustav von Manstein was presented by his grateful corps with a commemorative dagger. Engraved with the battle honours Düppel, Alsen, Königgrätz, Gravelotte, Orléans and Le Mans it represented a gazetteer of the most famous actions of Prussia's wars of unification. Following the example of his forefathers, Manstein carried the memento throughout his career. His natural father Lewinski served on the Prussian staff in the wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870-71, retiring as a general of artillery in 1895.5 His maternal grandfather Major General Oskar von Sperling (1814-72) waschief of staff of the Steinmetz and Goeben armies during the Franco-Prussian War. Meanwhile, the brothers of his adoptive mother were all officers. Hedwig's younger sister Gertrud von Sperling (1860-1914) had married in 1879 no less a catch than Paul von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg (1847-1934), the victor of Tannenberg and national hero of the First World War, and late Reich president between 1925 and 1934. With all these close military connections, as Manstein himself remarked, it was 'little wonder that he had wished to become a soldier from an early age'.6
The family in which Erich grew up was relatively well to do. Although the Mansteins had lost their landed estates in East Prussia several generations before, both his grandfathers (Manstein and Sperling) had received substantial grants from the German parliament (the Reichstag) in recognition of their meritorious service in the Franco-Prussian War. So the family, if not uncommonly rich, enjoyed a certain status and financial independence. Manstein's adoptive father was a Prussian officer of the old school. And yet his strictness, maintained his son, albeit moderated by a dry humour, disguised a fundamentally kind heart. Hence Erich von Manstein appears to have enjoyed a genuinely close family life. He knew and accepted his position as an adoptive child, enjoyed the tender affection of his adoptive mother in particular, whilst retaining a link to his natural parents through visits to Schloss Burgwitz-Trebnitz in Silesia.
Manstein records that he was surrounded by love and happiness on both sides of his family, natural and adoptive, and he enjoyed a close relationship with Martha (1884-1956), three years his elder. The warmth of feeling was mutual: Martha von Sperling-Manstein's memoirs portray a picture of genuine sisterly love and deep affection, of happy if not halcyon childhood times together at home and on holiday. Within the family, Erich was known throughout his life as 'Erli'; his early attempts to say Martha came out as 'Atta', a nickname that stuck. Both children called their adoptive parents 'father' (using the more familiar Väterchen rather than Vater) and 'mother' (Mütterchen rather than Mutter) as opposed to uncle or aunt.
The majority of aristocratic families had at least one son in the army, bound by oath and tradition to the Prussian king and German Kaiser. Manstein's character reflected the norm found in a close-knit circle of Prussian military families, in which duty, honour, obedience and a sense of responsibility for others were all dominant virtues. Such qualities also reflected the sober, no-nonsense German-Prussian work ethic in which Manstein was brought up. As he later mused, his heart lay
in the vast, if not often monotonous landscape of northern Germany, in the quiet forests and lakes of the Mark [Brandenburg], Pomerania and Prussia, in the German seas, in the wide expanse of the eastern plain and in the mighty brick [church] domes of the north that, like castles, watch over the east.7
Young Manstein was a bright, temperamental and somewhat tender child, who despite his conventional family upbringing, resented the dumb authority of school. Whereas he accepted the word of his family and of his adoptive father in particular, 'encouraged' by the occasional punishment, he was argumentative and difficult at times with his peers and teachers alike. Not being a physically strong youngster, he tended to live on his wits. He was forthcoming and lively enough in class but not particularly industrious. Unsurprisingly, his school reports reflected the familiar refrain: 'with more application ought to do much better'. We see here also the origins of Manstein, who in his own words was in later life 'not a simple or easy subordinate', wishing to discuss and debate an issue on its merits rather than accepting a matter 'because it is so'.8
Manstein, as he later freely admitted, could often appear 'cool and sharp in tone', attributes that did not always engender him to others.9 As a result, and particularly to those who did not know him well, Manstein could be regarded as a cold and unfriendly individual. Only the moderating influence of his wife, his dear Jutta-Sibylle von Loesch whom he married in 1920, he declared, helped suppress his 'tendency to egotism'-another uncanny similarity to Montgomery.10
Manstein's early school years were spent in the successive garrison towns of his adoptive father, who served in the Prussian-controlled lands of eastern, northern and western Germany. These included Rudolstadt in the minor principality of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt within the modern-day federal state of Thuringia; in Schwerin, the capital of the former Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin; and, latterly, in Strasbourg in Alsace. Following the Franco-Prussian War, with the German accession of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, Strasbourg had become Strassburg in Elsass-Lothringen, a Reichsland or imperial territory.
The Strasbourg of Manstein's childhood remained very much a militarized frontier city, housing the best part of an army corps, on account of its geostrategic situation and mixed Franco-German history and heritage. His father commanded the 132nd Prussian Infantry Regiment, with its headquarters in the citadel. In later life Manstein was to stress Strassburg's origins as a free city of the German Reich, which had been rudely interrupted by nearly two hundred years of French rule, followingLouis XIV's seizure of the city in 1681. When Manstein attended the Lyceum in Strasbourg between 1894 and 1899, if the historic tensions between the French and German-oriented populations did not erupt frequently in the classroom or on the streets, they smouldered on none the less never far below the surface.
Manstein looked back on his early years in Strasbourg with many fond memories of his family life. Inside his parents' villa at the Schiltigheimer Tor, his most treasured possessions (and top wish for birthday or Christmas presents) were his prized Heinrichsen tin soldiers, with whom he fought many a battle on the dining-room table. But a healthy young lad could not stay indoors all the time. His sister recorded a typical episode of their childhood days together:
On 24 November, Erli's birthday, we could still play outside without our coats, oblivious of winter. We were really proud that on such special days, [father's] regimental band would often give a recital. However, we had to go forward to the circle of bandsmen and thank the bandmaster. I would have preferred to have hidden myself when our big Newfoundlander began to howl at the beginning of the music. I grabbed him ... by his collar lead, and we both gave our thanks: I for the concert; the dog for its conclusion.
Strasbourg's fortifications provided a magnet for young Erich's curiosity and enthusiasm for all things military. The city's defences were held to be impregnable, so strong that even the Prussians could not breach them during the war of 1870-71! Martha recalled that her precocious brother would frequently drag around a bemused escorting lieutenant through the casements and magazines, pumping him full of detailed questions.11
In his adult life Manstein was imbued with a deep sense of the culture and history of Strasbourg, with its striking medieval centre crowned by its world-famous Gothic cathedral. For him, Strassburg and Elsass (Alsace) exemplified the enduring sore between France and Germany that had brought such misery to these two great nations in three recent wars. In 1958, one year after the signing of the Treaty of Rome, Manstein suggested that Strasbourg should become the capital city of the European Community.12 He had already called for European unity in his unpublished work 'Der Weg zum Weltfrieden' ('The Way towards World Peace'), written in a British prisoner-of-war camp between 1946 and 1948.13 Prophetic words indeed: whilst Brussels represents today the economic and political hub of the European Union, the European Parliament also sits in Strasbourg for twelve plenary sessions a year.14 It is of no coincidence that the headquarters of the modern-day Eurocorps,a symbol of European military integration, is stationed in that city.
Manstein's pleasant schoolboy days in Strasbourg were cut short by a new stage of life, which turned out as his first step in a long and distinguished military career. His adoptive father Georg retired from the Prussian Army in the autumn of 1899, and after a brief stay over the winter in Berlin, his parents embarked on a series of journeys at home and abroad. Young Erich needed education and a home, so at the beginning of the new school year after the Easter of 1900, at the tender age of 12, he entered the Royal Prussian Cadet Corps. This step very much matched his personal wishes and those of his father. For the first two years of military education he was sent to the junior cadet school at Plön in Holstein prior to spending his last four years at Prussia's senior cadet institution (Hauptkadettenanstalt) at Gross-Lichterfelde in Berlin.
As a young cadet housed in the Plöner Schloss, Manstein undertook a busy regime of classes, gymnastics and sport, completing his Lower and Upper Third years of secondary education (the Unter- and Obertertia).15 Plön also acted as a school for the royal princes. During Manstein's time there, Prince Oskar of Prussia was also a pupil, although his education was conducted on a largely separated basis. Whilst Manstein was not selected to sit with the prince during his special private tutorials, he none the less attended a demonstrably royal institution, which helped set the tone of his subsequent military education and service at court.
Although now a cadet, Manstein was still a young lad who went home during his long vacations. In 1900 he spent one last idyllic summer holiday with Martha at the Baltic fishing village of Ahrenshoop, which later became a famous seaside resort. She recalled Erli's arrival that year:
He appeared in his cadet uniform, which was far too big for him, his tender neck disappearing into a stiff collar. Mother was quite aghast at his appearance-whilst he was so proud of his royal tunic. Despite his protestations she made him change immediately into a sailor suit, and only the reminder that sailors of the Imperial Navy wore such uniforms calmed him down.16
In comparison with provincial Plön, Gross-Lichterfelde was a much larger and grander establishment, which at its peak in the 1900s housed over 1,600 cadets. With royal support, the institution had moved on to its sprawling new site in south-west Berlin in 1878.17 Although it housed 14- to 18-year-olds, in many respects Gross-Lichterfelde represented Germany's equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point in inculcating the enduring officer ethos of serving to lead. The majority of the German Army's future stars in the Second World War were educated there,including Gerd von Rundstedt who had undergone cadet training twelve years before Manstein.18 Manstein completed a full period of education at Gross-Lichterfelde, gaining his Abitur, as he would have done in a civilian Realgymnasium.19 Hence he was qualified to study for a degree. But Manstein followed the norm by direct entry into the field army on completion of his cadetship: a university education was equally uncommon in the Prussian Army at the time as it was in the British, French or United States armies.20
Life as a cadet was physically and mentally hard, occasionally if not systemically brutal, and deliberately designed to be so in the manner of a British public school or American military institute of the same period. Apart from the formal academic instruction and physical training, other aspects of a junior cadet's 'education' were left in the hands of the senior cadets, who, when appointed as under officers, performed the roles of company commanders, prefects and dormitory monitors. Whilst the German public's perception of the cadet schools was poor on account of recurring tales of harassment, bullying and corporal punishment, it would appear that the vast majority of individuals who survived the Spartan system benefited from their education, and saw things rather more positively. Heinz Guderian, who followed in Manstein's footsteps to Gross-Lichterfelde in 1903, recalled: 'When I remember my instructors and teachers from these formative years it is with emotions of deep gratitude and respect. Our education in the cadet corps was of course one of military austerity and simplicity. But it was founded on kindness and justice.'21
The cadets valued the sense of camaraderie and comradeship. For his part, Manstein looked back on the strong team spirit (Korpsgeist) between cadets that arose from their similar backgrounds, the families of officers or civil servants (Beamte). He maintained that such homogeneity represented 'what every army needs', despite the hidden risk of uniformity. 22 Common standards and values such as a sense of duty, obedience and responsibility were all drilled into cadets such as Manstein. Self-discipline, self-control and the ability to overcome fear through personal pride were all prized qualities, and especially, 'learning to keep a stiff upper lip'. The latter quality, Manstein remarked, was the same one that made 'British colleges' so famous in Germany.23
As Manstein came from a well-connected aristocratic family he was entitled to be selected as a page of the royal court during his time as a cadet. He described his various page duties with great pride, his account tinged unmistakably with sentimentality for the regal pomp and ceremony that was lost irretrievably with the abdication of the GermanKaiser in November 1918. The whole complex apparatus and pageantry of court, the colourful uniforms, music and dance, arcane orders of chivalry and strictly enforced rules of precedent all impressed the young Manstein. This was a captivating world of glitter and glamour for an aspiring man of his class, rubbing shoulders with royalty, senior military figures and the diplomatic corps in the grand state rooms of the Berliner Schloss.
Manstein acted as both a Hofpage, a handsome boy who provided a decorated background presence in the staterooms of court, and in an even more privileged status, as a Leibpage or personal escort. In the case of a lady, he would carry the train of her ballgown. Undoubted highlights of royal page duty were the splendid weddings, grand balls, state dinners and investitures in orders such as that of the 'Knights of the Black Eagle'. Manstein did not seem to spare a critical thought for such events, nor indeed consider their exorbitant cost.24 Yet he was neither in the position nor remotely inclined to question the requirements of the German Kaiser and King of Prussia. 'Firm in loyalty' (In Treue fest) was, after all, the personal motto given to him by his adoptive father.
Despite the pleasant distractions of page duties at the royal court, Manstein's education proceeded apace. At the end of his fourth year at Lichterfelde (the Oberprima) he passed his Abitur with a respectable 'good'. This result, Manstein noted, was but 'to the amazement of some his teachers'.25 He had already demonstrated an ability to pass examinations without excessive stress; his calmness under pressure in his later career would do much to enhance his military reputation.
There were cultural diversions too: on occasions he accompanied his sister to the theatre in Berlin. Martha recalled him (then a tall, slim youth of 16 years old) on one such excursion to see a performance of Faust as a 'clever but very serious young man, following Goethe's text word for word to check that nothing-on account of the afternoon performance-had been left out'.26 Manstein's attention to detail would become legendary, be it for the military or for more mundane family matters.
Entry into the Guards
On completion of his time as a cadet at Gross-Lichterfelde, Ensign (Fähnrich) Manstein joined the prestigious 3rd Prussian Foot Guards, a regiment in which his uncle Hindenburg had served. Indeed, this close family connection provided the rationale for his entry. In his first year in the army proper (1906), Manstein undertook a period of specialistinstruction at the royal military school in Engers am Rhein near Neuwied, north of Koblenz, before returning to his parent regiment in Berlin. He was promoted to second lieutenant on 27 January 1907, his commission being backdated to 14 June 1905.
Life as a young subaltern in an élite Prussian Guards unit was certainly not all one elegant social whirl, although living in Berlin had its obvious attractions. Manstein's first responsibility at regimental duty was to train contingents of new recruits, which involved not only ceremonial duties but also the vital tactical skills of shooting and field craft. His soldiers, mainly volunteers drawn from across Prussia, were of a quality higher than the conscripts of the regional line infantry. The military training year followed a well-worn pattern of drill and exercising at company, battalion and regimental level, culminating with larger-scale autumn manoeuvres involving divisions and army corps. So Manstein had ample opportunity to get to know the young men in his charge through exercises on nearby training areas such as the Döberitz Heath, as well as performing on the Tempelhof parade ground, where the Kaiser's splendid reviews were held every spring and autumn. Yet, as Manstein stressed, the Guards were combat troops first and foremost, and 'parade drill was an additional burden' as opposed to a primary task. 27
Manstein described his mess life in some detail. At the time, the Offizierskasino represented, as it still does today in the British Army, the centre of regimental life and tradition. So guest nights celebrating famous battle honours such as the storming of the Düppel entrenchments (18 April 1864), the battle of Königgrätz (3 July 1866), the famous assault of the Guards at St Privat (18 August 1870) and, of course, the Kaiser's birthday (27 January 1859) were all important events in the regimental calendar. Former officers and wider friends of the regiment were invited back to such commemorations and to the monthly dining-in nights, broadening the company and lending gravitas to the occasion. On being invited to become an officer of the regiment, an individual would remain on the books as an honorary mess member on posting or retirement: the wider regimental family looked after its own.
Senior officers (whether still serving or not) were expected to look after and guide their juniors in an unofficial mentoring role. Serving in Berlin or in nearby Potsdam offered keen, young Guards officers such as Manstein the additional advantage of attending specialist lectures and undertaking private study in preparation for entry into the General Staff, thus improving career possibilities.28 Talking shop in the officers' mess, however, was frowned on-young officers were expected to have widercultural tastes and interests. Recreational sport was one of them. Manstein made good use of his regiment's two sailing yachts, cruising on summer Sundays on the pretty lakes of the upper Spree near Berlin. In addition, he had to exercise his horse Frechdachs (Cheeky Little Thing) regularly.
Serving in an army at peace, Manstein also had extended periods of leave to enjoy; accordingly, he travelled widely throughout Germany, the Baltic and to Switzerland. At the end of September 1908, he undertook a particularly interesting four-week journey by train and steamer to Turkey, Greece and Italy. The opportunity for an extended vacation arose through his close personal friendship with a fellow subaltern, Wilhelm Dietrich (Dico) von Ditfurth, whose father was a German instructor of the Turkish Army in Constantinople. The Ditfurths had invited Manstein, along with a mutual friend Gebhard von Bismarck, to come out to stay with their son. Apart from their adventures as tourists sampling the exotic delights of the bazaar and inspecting architectural charms such as the Hagia Sophia, Manstein and his two comrades were able to extend their military education whilst abroad. Invited to view an exercise of the Turkish Guard Corps, he noted that the troops displayed considerable enthusiasm and their officers (many of whom had been trained by Germans) also made a 'good impression'.29
On their return to Germany the happy trio voyaged through the Mediterranean, visiting Greece and Athens briefly, and then spending a week in Italy, taking in Messina, Naples, Capri, Pompeii and Rome.30 This extensive 'grand tour' represented one of Manstein's most cherished memories of his youth. Not only had he got to know himself and his closest friends better, but he had also learned something of the wider world outside Berlin and Germany. Whilst such broadening of horizons through foreign travel is taken for granted today, a century ago it represented an exceptional opportunity for a young German officer. In Manstein's case it was one evidently well taken.
Within Germany, 1910 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of 3rd Prussian Foot Guards. Manstein recalled that thousands of former officers and guardsmen came to Berlin to watch the grand parade and to take part in the celebrations, a proud and misty-eyed day for all involved. For Manstein, as for thousands of other young officers in the German and other armies, regimental duty created bonds of close comradeship and friendship that were to last for life, survival in war, of course, permitting. Apart from Ditfurth and Bismarck, Manstein's regimental chums also included his cousin, Hindenburg's son Oskar, who was a regular visitor to the Manstein family. Few, if any, who enjoyed thosecarefree pre-war days could have imagined the catastrophe that was to engulf Europe in the late summer of 1914.
During the first half of 1910, Manstein was detached to the Military Gymnastics Institute in Wünsdorf, south of Berlin, prior to becoming adjutant of the fusilier battalion of 3rd Foot Guards in July 1911. He served successfully in that capacity until his entry into the War Academy (Kriegsakademie) in Berlin for general staff training in the autumn of 1913. Meanwhile, his professional talents were becoming all apparent: his battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel von Schulzendorff, described him on departure as 'the best adjutant I've ever had'.31
Into the General Staff
Before the First World War, no other army in the world enjoyed the tradition, prestige and reputation of the German General Staff. The creation of the great Prussian military reformers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst in the early nineteenth century, it had come to international renown through the spectacular Prussian-German successes during the wars of 1864, 1866 and 1870-71. By way of contrast, the United States and British General Staffs were not set up until 1903 and 1906 respectively.
Under the steady guidance of Moltke the Elder, its long-serving chief from 1857 to 1888, the General Staff had developed into two branches. The Great General Staff (Grosser Generalstab), housed in Berlin, had a simple strategic function: to prepare the concentration and deployment of forces for war. At the operational and tactical levels, members of the Field General Staff (Truppengeneralstab) planned and executed operations in army, corps and divisional staffs. In this manner, unity of purpose and commonality of method was achieved within an imperial army that apart from the Prussian mass contained substantial contingents from Saxony and Bavaria. Amongst the General Staff 's roles at this level was the ironing out of the idiosyncrasies of the individual royal commanders.
The operational effectiveness of German armies in the latter half of the nineteenth century had benefited enormously through good organization, detailed preparation and realistic training as much as any technological advantage on the battlefield. General staff branches for railways and cartography developed timetables and maps in great thoroughness to facilitate deployment (Aufmarsch). Doctrine in the form of field service regulations was written to provide a unifying framework of understanding for the employment (Einsatz) of troops on operations. In addition, the duties of the staff were set out in detailed handbooks, whichwere of such quality that the new British General Staff copied them.32
Meanwhile, past wars were studied rigorously in order to glean lessons for the future. All this professional activity supported a German Army that had not fought-unlike those of Britain, Japan and Russia-any major campaign or war since its defeat of France in 1871, excepting its involvement (along with other Western powers) in suppressing the Boxers in China (1900-01) and its brutal subjugation of the Hereros and Hottentots in German South-West Africa (1904). Yet no one could accuse Germany generally or Prussia specifically of neglecting its military. Far from it, the largest and most professionally organized and trained army in Europe had long prepared for a large-scale war, and was keen to show its mettle in combat.
After attendance at the War Academy, the professional understanding and competence of members of the General Staff were developed through exercises, war games and staff rides. Manstein was later to benefit from, and contribute greatly to, such activities. No other nation at the time competed in the scope and rigour of such training.33 The staff ride, in particular, became a key event in the military calendar to examine new operational plans and test the commanders and staffs entrusted with their execution. It was said of von Moltke the Elder's successor but one, Field Marshal Alfred Count von Schlieffen, that he would set tactical problems to his subordinates on Christmas Eve and expect their solutions on Boxing Day.34 Schlieffen, best remembered for his famous plan to defeat France in one massive turning movement around Paris, was an avid student of military history. He was intrigued by Hannibal's spectacular destruction of the Roman Army in 216 BC through encirclement at Cannae and believed he had discovered the Holy Grail of military success. His 'Cannae' thesis was to become a piece of operational dogma, a striking case study in the abuse of military history that remained a Leitmotiv of German operational thought for another generation.35 Whilst Hannibal had won the famous battle of annihilation through better leadership and tactics, the Romans with superior strategic means, including greater resources of manpower and not least maritime power, had won the Second Punic War, a lesson that the Germans forgot to their cost in two world wars.
Manstein entered a three-year course at the Royal Prussian War Academy (Königlich Preussische Kriegsakademie) in Berlin on 5 October 1913. Entry followed a highly competitive selection procedure designed to identify young officers with the character, intellect, industry and potential to make them thoroughly reliable and flexible 'commanders' assistants' (Führergehilfen). The specific object of the training was the'initiation of a limited number of qualified officers of all arms into the higher branches of the military science, so as to deepen and widen their knowledge, and to clear and sharpen their military judgement'.36 Such was the rigour of the assessment and examination regime that only 20 per cent of the initial entry would complete the full three years at the War Academy.
By the time Manstein joined the academy in central Berlin, housed in an elegant building wedged between Unter Den Linden and the parallel Dorotheenstrasse, the institution had lost some of its original character as a military university. In 1910 the proportion of non-military subjects in the syllabus had been dropped from 50 to 36 per cent, and much of the remaining material became optional.37 Although it retained its rich historical tradition, the academy had become more a junior staff college in the process, albeit one in the heart of a capital city, and whose teaching faculty included professors from Berlin universities.
Manstein's year had 168 officers.38 Whilst he was not the youngest course member (that privilege belonged to his famous classmate Heinz Guderian, one year his junior), it was significant that the German Army would train an officer for three years in his mid to late twenties when other armies such as the British would spend less time at a later age. A military education at the War Academy was a formative experience and investment for life. Although Manstein completed only one year of his general staff training before the outbreak of war, his professional military education thereafter was completed 'on the job' in a variety of assignments designed to test and to extend his capabilities. Apart from Guderian, another notable member of the 1913 entry was Erich Hoepner, Manstein's immediate superior as commander of the Fourth Panzer Group during the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. He became a prominent member of the opposition to Adolf Hitler and was put to death following the failure of the 20 July plot to assassinate the Führer in 1944.
Manstein did not describe his War Academy days whatsoever in his memoirs, which in view of his later appointments in the General Staff, including those involving professional military education, is surprising. Likewise, he devoted little attention to documenting his career during the First World War, as he was but a 'small wheel in a big business'.39 None the less, it is possible to sketch a brief summary of his general staff training and wartime career from other sources.
Mandatory courses in tactics and military history formed the core of the syllabus in each of the three years; general staff duties were added in the third. Manstein would also have taken classes in weaponry,fortifications, military survey, military law and transportation. Hence the bulk of the instruction was operationally focused. There were several surprising omissions in the syllabus, which reflected a traditional German-Prussian aversion to studying personnel, intelligence or logistic matters in any depth. Apart from general history, which was obligatory, a student would have opted to study either a block of science (mathematics, physics and physical geography) or a mixed block of general geography and a language (French, Russian, Polish or English). In total there were twenty-five hours of formal instruction during the working week in the first and second years, allowing the remainder of the time to be devoted to private study and sport. Course members were expected to keep a healthy mind and body, notwithstanding the obvious diversions of Berlin.40
A further enduring weakness of the German General Staff educational system before the First and Second World Wars was its emphasis on tactical and operational level matters to the near exclusion of wider strategic study. This was to lead to successive generations of technically superb senior and middle-ranking officers, generally more proficient than their enemies, but who none the less had been denied the opportunity to learn about the crucial interdependence of all three instruments of national power: diplomatic, economic and military.41 Whilst it could be argued that higher-level strategy was not suitable curriculum material for a lieutenant, there was no subsequent opportunity for such formal education in the career of a general staff officer other than attendance at specific training events such as war games and staff rides, which were pitched at the operational level.
In Manstein's case, his informal education continued after the First World War when he became a tutor of the General Staff. Throughout his military career he broadened his general knowledge by extensive study of both military and non-military material; his extensive personal library is vivid testament to this. In consequence he was an extraordinarily well-read individual. His particular cultural interests were confirmed by one of his aides-de-camp (ADC ) during the Second World War. Writing of their service together in France, Rudolf Graf recalled:
In my opinion, Field Marshal von Manstein possessed a very good sense and empathy for art. On all the journeys that I was allowed to take part in, he took every opportunity to visit cathedrals, galleries, museums and castles. I was always amazed by his comprehensive knowledge of French history, as well as architecture, painting and the fine arts.42
Ironically, Manstein was as much an autodidact in this respect as his future supreme commander, Hitler, was in matters of higher command.
The First World War
As the storm clouds gathered over Europe during the fateful summer of 1914, Manstein and his contemporaries from the War Academy were undertaking attachments to units and formations of the field army. This was a routine event and integral to the course of study, balancing theory and practice, giving students an opportunity to learn about different branches of the army and to gain staff experience by working in headquarters at various levels. Following the German mobilization on 2 August 1914, all students were ordered to return to their parent arm and unit. Reporting back to Berlin, Manstein was appointed adjutant of the 2nd Guards Reserve Infantry Regiment of the 1st Guards Reserve Division. In consequence, he was to experience fierce fighting on both the Western and Eastern Fronts over the next three months before he was severely wounded in action in Poland.
Manstein did not record his feelings at the time, but it would be reasonable to suppose that he followed the mood of the army and nation, confident of a quick victory through the triumph of German arms against the French and Russian foe. As he went off to war, his mother wrote to him: 'My dear child, place these lines on your heart, for they will take care of you and protect you. In these lines lies my whole rich and great love for you, my Erli, and my and Father's blessing ... . March proudly under our dear Kaiser's flag.'43 Manstein carried this talisman in his breast pocket for the rest of the war.
Germany violated Belgian neutrality on 4 August 1914 and began to besiege Liège, whose capture would enable the right wing of the German Army to swing round Flanders into France. The 1st Guards Reserve Division, part of the Prussian Guards Reserve Corps under the command of General of Artillery Max von Gallwitz, did not take part in the first two weeks of battle. Its first major action was the storming of the Belgian fortress at Namur, guarding the confluence of the rivers Sambre and Meuse. The corps was part of Colonel General Karl von Bülow's Second Army, which together with First (to its right) and Third Armies (to its left) formed part of the great sweeping arm of envelopment that pivoted round Metz. German war planners since Schlieffen left office in 1905 had assumed that if Germany did not invade Belgium the French would, and if such an act would draw Britain into the war its potential on land would not amount to much.44 Meanwhile, believing a strong right wing would mean a weak German centre, the French commander-in-chief, General Joseph Joffre, ordered a twin offensive into the Ardennes and Lorrainefollowing the false logic and unrealistic objectives of the pre-war Plan XVII.
To a young lieutenant marching off to his first campaign and war, and for tens of thousands like him amongst all the armies involved, such strategic and operational level considerations hardly mattered. Local tactical success, however, did and duty called. Manstein's regiment first saw action on 19/20 August 1914 at the small town of Andenne on the march up the north bank of the river Meuse from Liège to Namur. French and Belgian rearguards hotly contested the probing German spearheads before retiring, leaving a confused and volatile situation in their wake.
German forces in Belgium were already on edge due to the alleged actions of francs-tireurs (Freischärler) in impeding their advance, particularly on the line of march through urban areas. From the evidence available, it is not possible to determine how many members of 2nd Guards Reserve Regiment were involved in the shooting of over two hundred Belgian civilians in the town, only one of several atrocities reflecting the cruel pattern of German frightfulness (Schrecklichkeit) that so enraged the Allies and neutral countries that first summer of war.45 As adjutant, and right-hand man and operations officer to the regimental commander, it would be surprising if Manstein had not been made aware of the incident. Since he devoted such little space in his memoirs to describing his experiences during the First World War, it would be unfair to single out this event as a conscious act of omission. Yet in view of his experiences during the Second World War and subsequent trial and sentence as a war criminal, it has to be said that an enduring feature of the German Army from 1870 to 1945 was its harsh reaction against armed resistance by civilian populations.
The same heavy and 'super-heavy' guns, including a 420-mm siege howitzer (the famous 'Big Bertha') that had pounded Liège into submission (4-16 August), were employed in supporting the German attack on Namur's ring of outlying forts and its impressive central citadel. The Belgian 4th Infantry Division was expected to hold out until relieved by elements of the French Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac. As so often happens in war, such careless optimism was confounded by the unexpected actions of the enemy for the Germans pounced, attacking simultaneously over the Sambre at Charleroi and over the Meuse south of Namur. Thus poor Lanrezac was fixed, mentally and physically: the combined threat from two German armies (Second and Third respectively) prevented him from dispatching more than a token brigade to aid the beleaguered Belgian garrison. After three days of exceptionallyheavy bombardment (21-23 August), even the reinforced concrete of the famous military engineer Brialmont began to shake and crumble. With the German penetration at Charleroi, the Belgians decided to evacuate Namur just as the forts were about to fall, the last capitulating on 25 August. On top of a worsening situation to the north and east, the loss of Namur prompted Lanrezac to order a general withdrawal from the Sambre to avoid 'another Sedan', recalling Napoleon the Third's humiliating surrender there to the Prussians on 2 September 1870. Meanwhile, to his left, Field Marshal Sir John French's British Expeditionary Force was retiring in good order after its plucky stand at Mons on 24 August 1914 against two corps of Colonel General Alexander von Kluck's First Army.
Whether Manstein observed techniques at Namur that were to help him nearly twenty-eight years later at the siege of Sevastopol must remain a matter of conjecture. It suffices to say that by 24 August, after twenty days of war, the 'Battle of the Frontiers' had been decided in Germany's favour but at a considerable price of men, and, as crucially, of time. Meanwhile on the Eastern Front, the Germans' heavy casualties (particularly at Gumbinnen near the border on 20 August) and the growing threat from the Russian advance into East Prussia with two armies pitched against the German Eighth Army had rattled the German High Command (the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL)). When the Chief of the General Staff, General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, lost confidence in the ability of Eighth Army to hold the Russian offensive, on 26 August he ordered the transfer of two army corps from the Western to the Eastern Front. The Guards Reserve Corps was one of these reinforcing formations, which otherwise would have been available for employment at the crucial First Battle of the Marne (6-10 September 1914) when the British and French armies counterattacked, slamming the Schlieffen Plan into reverse gear and thereby dashing at a stroke German dreams of a quick decisive victory.
In East Prussia, the commander of Eighth Army, General Maximilian von Prittwitz und Gaffron, had lost his nerve as the Russians continued their advance. He was replaced by the 67-year-old Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, plucked out of retirement so hurriedly from his elegant villa in Hannover that he possessed no modern field grey uniform.46 To assist him as chief of staff was one of the rising stars of the army, Erich Ludendorff, fresh from making his name by his daring capture of Liège's citadel. Meanwhile, having marched back to Aachen on 31 August, Manstein's regiment was entrained the next day and deployed eastwards, completing its new concentration east of Elbing by 3/4 September 1914.As a result, it arrived too late to take part in the battle of Tannenberg (26-31 August) and the spectacular destruction of Samsonov's 2nd Army. It went into action between Allenburg and Wehlau to the north of Lake Mauer in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes (9-14 September) against Rennenkamp's 1st Army.47 Whilst the decisive action at Tannenberg established the reputations of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, sent to restore the situation in the East, their subsequent success at the Masurian Lakes served to confirm it.
There was no time for Manstein's regiment to recuperate as 1st Guards Reserve Division was redeployed yet again to take part in the German Ninth Army's offensive from Upper Silesia into Poland to the river Vistula. On 28 September 1914 the division started its advance of 300 kilometres, to the vicinity of Warsaw. Although the march to the Vistula was a tactical success, its operational impact proved short-lived. Several strategic factors now came into play to assist the Russians, which were a portent of similar events that occurred on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. First, although the Russians had suffered grievously in East Prussia, their losses did not represent a mortal blow as so many reserves of manpower, however badly equipped and led, remained. Secondly, with Japan Britain's ally and therefore security assured in the Far East, reinforcements could be brought in from Siberia. Thirdly, there was sufficient operational space for both sides on the Eastern Front to manoeuvre in move and counter-move, for which it was now the Russians' turn to act. Fourthly, German overconfidence-manifested in the form of long, exposed and thinly held flanks-could be punished. Accordingly, the Russian High Command, the Stavka, sought opportunities for launching a new offensive on a grand scale involving the North-Western and South-Western Fronts. Thus the German advance into Poland looked increasingly precarious, particularly if co-operation between German forces and her Austro-Hungarian allies on the southern flank broke down, as it indeed began to. So the stage was set for a major counterattack to eliminate the German Ninth Army and as much of the Austro-Hungarian First Army as possible.
In the event, in the face of superior Russian forces, the Ninth Army, including the ad hoc 'Woyrsch' Corps, which encompassed 1st Guards Reserve Division, conducted an orderly withdrawal. It was during the course of this retrograde manoeuvre-a retreat in any other name-that Manstein was severely wounded, removing him from regimental duty and leading to his subsequent duty on the General Staff. In a rare personal vignette, Manstein described the incident of 17 November 1914as his division established a defensive position on the Upper Silesian frontier:
We expected an attack by the enemy, two Caucasian corps, the Czar's élite troops, who were pushing hard forward. Into this situation on 16 November 1914 burst the news of Mackensen's victory at Kutno. Every regiment was ordered to form a pursuit detachment and to advance the very same night. I asked my regimental commander, Oberst von Cramer, for permission to take part. He snarled in agreement. However, the radio orders proved illusory. The Russians weren't contemplating retreat. Thus our battalion ran into an enemy position at Katowice, which we attempted to attack. When Major von Bassewitz, the standard-bearer and I had almost reached the [enemy] trench, the Russians charged us at the bayonet. During the ensuing hand-to-hand struggle, I took a shot that floored me. My adversary, also hit, fell on top of me. A second shot paralysed me.
Manstein, struck down in the left shoulder and left knee, was carried back to the German lines. His regimental commander greeted him with the immortal words 'That'll teach you'.48 Evacuated to Germany, his recovery and rehabilitation in the military hospitals at Beuthen and Wiesbaden took six months.49 In this first period of war, Manstein was decorated with the Iron Cross Second Class for bravery in action.
On release from nursing care and following convalescent home leave, on 17 June 1915 Manstein joined the headquarters staff of Tenth Army on the Eastern Front under the command of General Max von Gallwitz, in whose corps he had served previously. His first staff position was 'assistant' general staff officer to the Ia-the principal general staff officer and chief of operations-where he learned at first hand the complex business of planning and co-ordinating operations at army level. He remained in this function for over a year, taking part in the great German summer offensive between July and September 1915 that conquered much of northern Poland and Lithuania, and then in Eleventh Army's attack in October 1915 from Hungary over the Danube into Serbia. These battles were followed by a winter campaign that culminated with the occupation of Montenegro and Albania. Meanwhile, Manstein was promoted to captain on 24 July 1915.
By April 1916 Manstein was back on the Western Front, where the German major offensive at Verdun on the right (east) bank of the Meuse had been under way since 21 February. Gallwitz's staff formed a special Headquarters 'West Meuse' for an attack up the left of the river. There Manstein witnessed several bloody battles of attrition, including thedesperate fights for the Le Morte-Homme ridge (the 'Dead Man' or 'Toter Mann'). Over the last year he had observed Gallwitz carefully in three campaigns, gaining, he recalled, 'an insight into the requirements of the high command in the planning and conduct of the offensive battle' from one of Germany's most able commanders of the First World War.50
On 1 August 1916 Manstein was posted as the Ib (general staff officer for supply) in the new army headquarters staff of General Fritz von Below. His new chief of staff was none other than Colonel Friedrich ('Fritz') von Lossberg, who gained the reputation within the Kaiser's army as one of its most talented tacticians, the 'Lion of Defence'. His standing was so high that he was shuffled from one threatened army sector to the next as the 'Fireman of the Western Front'.51
Albeit from the comparative safety of an army command post, Manstein exchanged the hell of Verdun for an equally unpleasant one at the Somme. Rather than organizing an attack, Manstein's new headquarters was struggling to contain a combined British-French offensive between July and November 1916. Despite the deep scar left on the British national psyche, the battle of the Somme did succeed in weakening the German Army significantly. So much so, that the German High Command ordered a strategic withdrawal over the winter of 1916-17 to the Siegfried-Stellung, better known in Britain as the Hindenburg Line.
Following the Somme, Manstein witnessed the remarkable transformation of the German Army between autumn 1916 and spring 1917 through the adoption of a new flexible doctrine, the Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare. By abandoning the former rule that 'ground must be held at all costs', the Germans adopted a much more flexible defensive system of depth designed to force the attacker to expend himself whilst the defender preserved his strength.52 Although he never specifically commented on this new approach, there is little doubt that Manstein was considerably influenced by it in the Second World War: one of his hallmarks in army group command on the Eastern Front was his 'elastic defence'.
A particular incident during the spring of 1917 appears as a defining moment in Manstein's early career. In the aftermath of the failed French Nivelle offensive during the Second Battle of the Aisne, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the headquarters of First Army in Rethel (50 kilometres south-west of Sedan). As a young general staff officer, Manstein was privileged to witness the briefing given by General von Below. The commander-in-chief described recent operations, in which the French had suffered grievous losses without achieving a decisive breakthrough, and observedthat several heights seized by the French could not be recaptured in immediate counterattack. Manstein described what happened next, adding his reflections on the scene:
The Kaiser chipped in: 'They'll be retaken of course.' General von Below calmly ignored this remark. We [the staff] were all quite clear that the words of the Supreme Warlord could not, and would not, have any consequences. The Army did not have any forces available for a counterattack, and would not receive them anyway from the High Command for such a purpose. Even if tactically successful, such an attack would not justify the expected sacrifice. The fact that an order, expression of will, or even the actual words of the Monarch could be so easily ignored made me realize the extent to which the Kaiser had already given up real power. For any young officer brought up to believe in the inviolate nature of a regal command, this revelation came as a great shock.53
What Manstein omitted to state in his memoirs was the fact that any commander-in-chief might find himself in a comparable situation in which he has a duty to ignore an inappropriate order, which incidentally, if carried out, would have been against the spirit of the new defensive doctrine. Twenty-five years on, his relations with Adolf Hitler during the Second World War were to take him into that very difficult grey zone of reconciling personal responsibility to his command with loyalty and deference to the national command authority. Manstein learned an important lesson here, as he was later to take many a leaf out of von Below's book in dealing with the Führer. Yet there was one vital difference: whereas the Kaiser had become increasingly irrelevant to the higher direction of war by 1917, Hitler continued to hold absolute sway over his generals to the end.
After serving just over a year in von Below's headquarters on the Western Front, Manstein returned to the East on 1 October 1917 as Ia (equivalent at this level to chief of staff) of the 4th Cavalry Division stationed in Riga. On 16 November he reported to his mother that 'it's always raining here and not much is happening. The Russians are on the other side of the Düna [the river Dvinsk] and they are waving white flags. '54 A month later, an armistice between Germany and Russia came into effect and peace negotiations commenced shortly afterwards. Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik People's Commissar for Foreign Relations, however, stormed out of the peace talks on 10 February 1918. On 18 February, the Central Powers repudiated the armistice in response. The military consequence was the German occupation of the former Russian provinces of Livland (roughly corresponding to Latvia today) andEstonia to 'safeguard their independence from Bolshevist Russia', in which operation Manstein's division took part.
On 3 March, Lenin was obliged by force of circumstance to concede even harsher terms than those demanded during the earlier negotiations, enshrined in the crippling Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. It resulted in Russia's Bolshevik government renouncing all claims to Finland, the new Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, the Crimea and several districts in the Caucasus.55 The enforced peace on the Eastern Front allowed Germany to transfer forty-four divisions to the West in the spring of 1918, including Manstein's, prior to mounting a final all-out offensive to defeat the British and the French and so end the war before America's growing military power could be brought to bear.
Manstein was posted on 4 May 1918 to the 213th Infantry Division under command of Major General von Hammerstein. As an 'attack division', his new formation had received special training in 'storm tactics' for offensive operations as opposed to a normal 'trench' infantry division only deemed capable of holding the line.56 Manstein witnessed the final Reims offensive in July 1918 that was fought to a standstill, the final gamble of Ludendorff 's series of six major operations that year, which ended with the culmination and exhaustion of the German Army on the Western Front. Whereas the previous offensives had scored some tactical and even some momentary operational success, the net result of the stupendous German effort in 1918 was strategic failure.57 During the earlier 'Görz' operation between 27 May and 18 June, for example, 213th Division had achieved a notable breakthrough west of Reims in penetrating the French line by no less than 17 kilometres in five days. Yet the cost in men had been extremely high: not including the missing, Hammerstein's division lost 85 officers and 3,143 men either killed or wounded in action, a third of its strength over a period of three weeks.58 With stretched supply lines, mounting casualties on this scale, and a lack of fresh mobile reserves, the Germans could not convert tactical penetration-however spectacular in terms of distance gained-into decisive operational manoeuvre, let alone realize a strategic victory.
Meanwhile, Manstein had simpler concerns from time to time. Writing to his mother on 25 July 1918, for example, he requested that she send him toothpaste and tobacco, adding laconically, 'things haven't quietened down here yet, therefore there is still much to be done. At the moment we're back to fighting defensive battles for a change, which is not so pleasant.'59 The French counterattack of 18 July (which included two American divisions) in the Second Battle of the Marne was followedby the British counter-offensive of 8 August 1918 at Amiens, two black days for the German Army.60 As one historian has observed, the Reims operation involved many German officers who were to come to later prominence during the Second World War. Gerd von Rundstedt was a corps chief of staff; apart from Manstein, divisional staffs included such famous names as Walther Model, Ewald von Kleist, Hasso von Manteufel and Erwin von Witzleben.61
The tide of war had finally turned. By August 1918 the Allies were advancing across the Western Front with new vigour. Not only were better combined arms tactics, including very effective artillery, tank and air support, yielding important operational successes, but also the presence and growing fighting power of the American forces had tilted the military strategic balance firmly in the Allies' favour. In contrast, the German Army was spent. With shortages of men, supplies, equipment and training, and with Spanish influenza depleting the ranks, all hope of winning the war evaporated.
As Ernst Jünger recalled, Allied propaganda leaflets extolling 'the wonderful life to be had in British prisoner-of-war camps' were sufficiently threatening for the German High Command to reward their collection at 30 pfennigs apiece.62 For Germany, the war was lost, whether or not the home front collapsed. This was the harsh reality that Manstein and millions of other Germans would have to face, even though many were to deny after the war that their army had in fact been defeated in the field.
With a naval mutiny, and no military or diplomatic options left open, hunger taking its toll and civil unrest increasing at home, the Kaiser was forced to abdicate on 9 November 1918. He had accepted advice that his army would no longer follow him. Although the German Army had not been annihilated by a decisive battle (that which von Schlieffen had aimed to inflict on Germany's enemies), since August it had been pushed back steadily towards the homeland in a series of battles that may not be as remembered today as either the Verdun or the Somme, but were none the less as hard-fought and bloody. The Germans' heady optimism of the spring had been extinguished in the power of the Allied counter-offensives of the late summer and autumn, and by the increasingly depressing news from home.
The twin punch of defeat and deprivation delivered a crippling psychological shock to Germany's army and people. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Manstein gave far more detail in his memoirs about the traumatic experiences of armistice, the long march home and revolution in the final months of 1918 than about the military successes he hadwitnessed during the previous spring and summer. Hence it is surely no exaggeration to state that his career thereafter was shaped as much by the outcome of the First World War as by his conduct in it. In any event, he was much wiser for his experience.
MANSTEIN. Copyright © 2010 by Mungo Melvin. Cartography © 2010 by Barbara Taylor. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.