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Twilight of the Captains

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

Ludendorff: The Tragcdy of a Military Mind. My Karl Tschuppik. Boston: Houghton Milllin Company. $5.00. Voch: The Man of Orients. By Captain B. II. Liddell Hart. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $4.00.

Of all bubbles reputation, that of martial renown in our age is the most quickly punctured. Fame, for the soldier, always has been conditioned upon success. For apotheosis he must gain victories, even if he is denied final and crowning Victory. This is a fundamental of his profession. But when by good luck and good management he has found a pedestal whereon to stand today, he discovers chipping happily at its base a busy group of investigators who, in the most scientific and honorable of spirits, proceed to whittle it to the form of a Simeon’s pillar. He is judged on his statesmanship, for with the nation in arms he is a symbol and architect of national policy. He is judged on his economics, for modern war becomes automatically his country’s leading industry. And whereas, in the past, judgment of his tactics and strategy was filtered largely through the minds and prejudices of his peers, today the record of his every action is documented, properly initialed, dated to the minute, and filed literally with millions of its fellows at the call of the cold-blooded historian. As the records are scrutinized by successive shifts of learned probers, it is inevitable that his pedestal should crumble under their activities. Each historian may be the most unprejudiced and amiable of men; yet the limitations of current historical method are such that the rendition of a balanced opinion almost invariably results in a diminution of the measure of glory previously accorded the military figure. Subtraction is the line of least resistance for the biographer of soldiers.

This process is illustrated fittingly in two books which have recently appeared on those opposed protagonists of the World War, Foch and Ludendorff. Captain B. II. Liddell Hart and Karl Tschuppik have chosen subjects who differed widely in character, outlook, and scope of activity. Yet while each emerges from his researches with respect and admiration for the man he depicts, the popular stature of both soldiers comes out unquestionably diminished.

Of the two biographers Tschuppik notably is the more sweeping in his military estimates. He regards Ludendorff not only as the greatest, but as possibly the only, general produced by the World War on either side. He feels that Germany’s tragedy lay not in the fact that she had a Ludendorff, but rather because the bankruptcy of her statesmanship projected him unwillingly into the control of her internal and external policies. Tschuppik’s meaty, close-linked paragraphs set up his main thesis with an imposing solidity. Yet in this very process his honesty and his glossing of the record compel him to reflect on Ludendorff’s military ability. He holds that the Quartermaster General should have reasoned out the concept that the fatal 1918 offensives were foredoomed, that they could hold promise only of tactical, not strategic, success. The subject opened up is obviously controversial. It is supported by the logic of events. It was negated by the fears of several million men on the Allied side of the lines at the time of its inception. It is cited here, not for discussion, but merely as an instance of how glamour clouds at the touch of the scientific investigator.

Still another and more characteristic instance of this process is shown in the attention Tschuppik feels obliged to pay Ludendorff’s military collaborators. When the picture is completed, we do not see Ludendorff alone. There is necessarily present Hindenburg, who “completely absorbed Ludendorff’s mentality and conferred the sanction of his higher rank upon the strategical plans of the Quartermaster General.” But behind Ludendorff also stand Hoffman the strategist, Bauer the technician, Bruchmuller the artilleryman, and a host of others who sometimes inspired, sometimes developed the German war plans. The part which these men played is well known to every soldier; Ludendorff goes out of his way to do them justice in his memoirs. But as they take their places beside their chief in a full-length portrait, he is no longer Colossus; they are all men together, some greater, some less, but all of a comparable order of magnitude. Once again the glamour fades.

When we come to Foch and his biography by Liddell Hart, we find another soldier, another literary method, but the same shrinkage in popular renown. Where Tschuppik is objective and depicts the man of works, Captain Liddell Hart is subjective and portrays the man of faith—”the Man of Orleans.” In this faith—faith in God, in a definite philosophy of life and war, in a circumscribed and inflexible tactical doctrine—is summed up both the man and his accomplishment. Foch could believe with a strength unbelievable; but his very intensity induced narrowness of thought and outlook. He was an individual organized in depth. Such in fine is Liddell Hart’s judgment. And he maintains that Foch indeed led the Allies to victory, but not by accommodating himself to a specific military situation. He says, rather, that after four years of Allied blundering, short-sightedness, and ineptitude, a state of affairs developed where Foch’s rigid tactical and strategic system became valid, with resultant success. It was a true case of man and hour, two precise and definite quanta, meeting. And while the biographer builds up the structure of faith, he busily tears down the tradition of works. He ruthlessly debunks Foch’s part in the “Miracle” of the Marne. He belittles the Frenchman’s co-ordinating activities in the muddy bloodletting of the first Ypres. He limits the general’s influence even on the last flood tide of Allied effort, which brought, among other things, his baton.

It is true that Liddell Hart makes manful acknowledgment that Foch cannot be expressed in his entirety by a phrase. He is at pains, for example, to detail the Marshal’s slow gravitation away from his own rigid pre-war doctrines and toward a healthy strategic opportunism. And he reports in full Foch’s common-sense attitude on Clemenceau’s proposal to force Pershing’s recall. Foch pointed out that a change would merely result in the substitution of an obstinate man whom the French did not know for an obstinate man with whom they were already acquainted. Liddell Hart gives full weight to these and other similar matters. He has made the deepest and most satisfying excursion into Foch’s character yet recorded, far surpassing his previous thumbnail sketch in “Reputations: Ten Years After.” But as with Tschuppik, his portrait gains in perspective, solidity, and reality and loses in atmosphere and spiritual compulsion. All is won, save glamour.

What is the answer? Five years ago it would have been another question: “Who wants glamour nowadays, least of all in generals?” Today the world is not so sure. There are signs of an earnest, if hesitant, search for dew on roses and lustre on great names. Perhaps if we are to derive stimulus and exaltation from the mention of future Captains, even now should we set about the discovery and training, not of soldiers, not of scholars cunning in research, but of Plutarchs.


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