Fritz von Below, 1853-1918

Fritz von Below (1853-1918) was a German general who came to prominence on the Eastern Front before commanding the Second Army on the Somme during the fighting of 1916 and the First Army on the Aisne in 1917.

Fritz Wilhelm Theodor Karl von Below was born in Danzig on 23 September 1853 into a military family. His father was a Prussian general, and his younger brother Otto von Below also achieved high rank during the First World War.

Fritz von Below joined the Prussian Army in about 1870. He was commissioned in 1873 and attended the Prussian Kriegsakademie. Before the First World War he held a mix of staff and unit commands, before in October 1912 he was appointed to command XXI Corps at Saarbrüken.

He commanded this corps for the first eight months of the First World War. He first came to prominence during the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes (7-21 February 1915), part of a wider Austro-German offensive. The Germans won a major victory at the Masurian Lakes, but the wider offensive was a failure. He was awarded the Pour le Mérite on 14 March 1915 for his role in that battle.

On 4 April 1915 von Below was appointed to command the Second Army on the Western Front, replacing Field-Marshal Karl von Bülow. The Second Army was posted on the Somme, and by the spring of 1916 von Below was aware that the British were preparing for an attack on his front. In March 1916 he suggested that the Germans should launch their own spoiling attack, starting to the north of the River Somme, then spreading south. This plan was rejected by the high command as all available troops were needed for the battle at Verdun.

After his offensive plan was turned down von Below concentrated on improving his own defences. More dugouts and more wire were placed in the front line, the second-line was strengthened and work began on a third line. On 2 June he sent another message to von Falkenhayn, warning about the threat on the Somme. Von Falkenhayn acknowledged that von Below's concerns were genuine, but at the same time the Brusilov offensive began in the east. The Austro-Hungarian line was almost broken, and the Germans were forced to rush reinforcements east to restore the situation. By 1 July Below had only received four extra infantry divisions and some heavy artillery.

On the first day of the Somme the front line was held by XIV Reserve Corps (General Hermann von Stein). His corps was badly mauled on the first day of the battle, and was pushed back in some areas, but generally the German lines held and the British suffered massive casualties.

On 19 July 1916 von Below and his chief of staff Col. Friedrich von Lossberg moved to command of a new First Army, on the northern part of the Somme sector (the original First Army had been disbanded in September 1915). The new army formed part of Army Group Gallwitz (with the Second Army), commanded by General Max von Gallwitz. On 28 August this became Army Group Kronprinz Rupprecht von Bayern, with command officially held by the Crown Prince of Bavaria.

Von Below's part in the successful defence of the Somme was recognised with the award of the Oakleaves to the Pour le Mérite on 11 August 1916, but his series of counterattacks in the later periods of the battle saw the German army suffer heavy casualties of its own without making any progress.

In April 1917 von Below and the First Army moved to the Arras-Champagne front, with his new HQ at Reims. Von Below played a part in repelling Nivelle's Aisne-Champagne offensive (Second Battle of the Aisne, 16 April-15 May 1917), the failed attack that helped trigger the major mutinies in the French Army.

Von Below was still in command of the First Army during the German offensives of 1918, but his role is somewhat unclear (as is the date when he began to suffer from pneumonia). During the Third battle of the Aisne (27 May-3 June 1918) his army attacked the British 9th Corps, on the left of the German attack, and made great progress in the early stages of the battle, but attacks at the start of June failed, and the entire offensive came to an early end.

On 17 June 1918 von Below was given a commission in the prestigious 3rd Grenadier Guard Regiment, and on 18 June he was transferred to command of the Ninth Army when it was moved from Romania to the Western Front. This was a short-lived appointment, for in June 1918 pneumonia forced him to go on leave. In August he was placed on the standby list, and was given the task of preparing a new infantry manual. He died at Weimar on 23 November 1918.

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 August 2014), Fritz von Below, 1853-1918 ,

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