General Otto von Below, 1857-1944

Otto von Below was a German General of the First World War who served in a senior capacity on four different fronts – in East Prussia, Macedonia, Italy and on the Western Front. He was considered to be one of the best German field officers, and on 7 November 1914 became the youngest general of his rank to command an army.

He entered the army in 1875. After three years at the War Academy (1884-87) he was appointed to the General Staff (1889) with the rank of Captain. In 1897 he was given command of a battalion, and in 1905 was promoted to colonel and given command of the 19th infantry regiment. In 1910 he was promoted to major-general, and appointed to command the 43rd infantry brigade. In 1912 he rose to lieutenant-general, with command of 2nd Division, based at Insterburg in East Prussia. On 2 August 1914, as the July Crisis turned into the First World War, he was promoted to command the I Reserve Corps.

At the start of the war the Russians launched a two pronged invasion of east Prussia. The First Army (Rennenkampf) attacked from the east, while the Second Army (Samsonov) took advantage of the Polish salient to attack from the south. The two armies were separated by the Masurian Lakes. The German plan called for an attack on whichever of these armies first came into range. In the event that was the First Army, and so after some indecision the Germans sent three corps east. The two armies clashed at Gumbinnen. 

I Reserve Corps made up the right wing of the German army at Gumbinnen (18-19 August). In the first phase of the battle von Below’s pushed the Russian left back a short distance, but the retreat of the German centre forced the entire army to withdraw. In the aftermath of that battle, the German commander in East Prussia, General Prittwitz, decided to retreat to the Vistula, but at the same time prepared to fight a second battle against the Russian Second Army.

In mid-August only one corps (XX) was in place on the southern border of East Prussia. The three corps that had fought at Gumbinnen were moved west, I corps by rail to the right (west) of XX corps, XVII corps (Mackensen) and Below’s I Reserve Corps by road to their left (east). Having set this plan in motion, Prittwitz was then replaced by Hindenburg, who would (with Ludendorff) gain most of the credit for the great victory that followed (battle of Tannenberg, 26-31 August 1914). That battle saw Samsonov attack the two corps already at Tannenberg, only to be attacked from his right by Below and Mackensen. The Russian Second Army was surrounded, and over 120,000 prisoners taken.

The Germans then turned back north to deal with Rennenkampf, defeating his First Army in the first battle of the Masurian Lakes (9-14 September 1914). Although this was not such a dramatic victory as Tannenberg, the defeat of two Russian armies in two weeks ended the immediate Russian threat to East Prussia. Below was promoted to General of Infantry for his role in the three battles of August-September 1914. 

The Austrians had not fared so well. After the battles of Lemberg (23 August-12 September 1914), they had been forced back to the Carpathian Mountains. The Germans were forced to bail out the Austrians for the first time, sending troops from East Prussia to Silesia, from where they launched two invasions of Poland. Below remained in East Prussia. There he had to fight off a Russian counterattack.

On 7 November 1914 Below was promoted to command the Eighth Army. The Germans and Austrians developed an ambitious plan for a gigantic pincer movement, with one attack in East Prussia and one from the Carpathians. The failure of the Austrian attack doomed the overall plan, but the attack from East Prussia resulted in the victory of the second battle of the Masurian Lakes (7-21 February 1915). Below’s Eighth Army formed the right wing of the German army which effectively destroyed the Russian Tenth Army, capturing 100,000 prisoners. Below was rewarded with the Pour le mérite for his part in the victory.

The decisive battle in Poland would come at Gorlice-Tarnow (2-10 May 1915). This battle did not directly involve Hindenburg and Ludendorff in East Prussia, but they were ordered to launch a diversionary attack. On 27 April three cavalry and three infantry divisions invaded Courland and Lithuania, threatening the Russian railway from Warsaw to St. Petersburg. The Russians were forced to respond in force, and the fighting slowly expanded. On 26 May 1915 Below was transferred to command this new Niemen Army, which slowly advanced east, until in mid August it had reached a line from Kovno to Riga. By the end of September the Russian retreat from Poland was over, and the new eastern front established, running south east from Riga before turning south to run for some four hundreds miles to the Romanian border.

In December Below was returned to the Eighth Army, second in the line, and on the right of the Niemen Army. This was a generally quiet sector of the front – the main Russian offensives of 1916 happened to the south.

On 10 October 1916 Below was transferred to the Balkans. Romania had declared war on the Central Powers on 27 August, and had almost immediately come under German attack. The Army of the Danube, under von Mackensen, attacked from Bulgaria. The only danger to this attack came from Salonika, where the British and French had maintained an armed camp since 1915. Below was given command of Army Group (Heeresgrupper) Below, made up of the German Eleventh and Bulgarian First Armies.

There he held off an Allied offensive at Monastir for most of November. By the time the Allies had pushed Below out of Monastir, the Germans were on the verge of capturing Bucharest. Below had successfully defended the southern flank of the invasion. He repulsed a renewed Allied offensive in March 1917, before being transferred for the second time.

This time he was moved to the Western Front. On 22 April 1917 he was appointed to command the Sixth Army, close to Arras. There he replaced General von Falkenhausen, who had been in command when the Canadians seized Vimy Ridge on the first day of the second battle of Arras (9 April). The battle continued into May, but not at the same level of intensity. From June the British turned their attention north to Flanders, and the upcoming third battle of Ypres.

On 9 September Below was moved for a third time. This time he was made commander-in-chief of the Austro-German 14th Army on the Italian Front. On 24 October this army was at the spearhead of the attack at Caporetto that broke the Italian lines on the Isonzo and pushed the Italians back seventy miles to the Piave.

At the start of 1918 Below was moved for the fourth and final time. On 1 February 1918 he took over the Seventeenth Army on the Arras-Cambrai front. This army made up the German right wing during the second battle of the Somme (March-4 April 1918), the first of Ludendorff’s series of great offensives during 1918. Below’s role was to attack the British defences around Arras, but this was one of the strongest sectors on the British lines, and Below’s attacks made little progress.

The great British counterattack at Amiens (8 August) struck the German lines to the south of Below’s position. It was on the northern edge of the area attacked at the end of August (battle of Bapaume), and was forced to retreat back to the Siegfried line and then beyond that to Cambrai (battle of Cambrai-St. Quentin).

Below was then transferred to the 1st Army (12 October), still holding on to part of the Hindenburg line on the Aisne. On 8 November, with armistice negotiations well under way, he was promoted to command Home Defence West at Kassel, partly in preparation for a possible Allied invasion if the negotiations failed. Instead Below found himself dealing with attempted left wing revolts.

From January-June 1919 Otto von Below had command of the XVII corps at Danzig, but in June he was either dismissed or resigned after protesting about the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Below died on 9 March 1944.

The Hindenburg Line, Patrick Osborn & Marc Romanych. A good study of the full network of defences generally known in English as the Hindenburg Line, and which spread from the Channel coast to the St. Mihiel salient east of Verdun. Looks at the original purpose behind their construction, the actual shape they took on the ground, and how they performed under attack. Very useful to have a book that focuses on the entire length of this key German fortification [read full review]
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Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 September 2007), General Otto von Below, 1857-1944 ,

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