Georg von der Marwitz was a German general of the First World War who played a prominent part in the first major tank battle in history at Cambrai in 1916 and in the first major German offensive of 1918 on the Somme. During the war he became something of a fire-fighter, swapping between the eastern and western fronts four times between 1914 and 1916.
Marwitz was born in Pomerania into a military family. He joined the army in 1875 and spent much of his early career serving on the General Staff. In 1900 he was promoted to command the Third Guards Cavalry Regiment, one of the most prestigious units in the German army, holding that post until 1905. He then served as chief of staff for the XVIII Army Corps, commander of the 1st Brigade of the Guards Cavalry and from 1911 as commander of the Third Division, with the rank of lieutenant-general. Finally, in 1913 he was appointed as inspector general of cavalry.
At the start of the First World War Marwitz commanded a cavalry group operating in Belgium. His role was to advance ahead of the First and Second Armies, causing confusion and disguising the main advance. During this period he suffered one of the few early German defeats of the war, at Haelen (12 August 1914) when dismounted Belgian cavalry prevented his men from crossing a key bridge. This was only a temporary reprieve for the Allies, for on 16 August the fortress of Liege surrendered, removing one of the main obstacles to the German advance.
Marwitz’s cavalry took part in the advance to the Marne, advancing with von Kluck at the right flank of the German army. He fought at Le Cateau and on the Ourcq River (5-9 September), before taking part in the German retreat after the battle of the Marne. During the battle of the Aisne his cavalry formed part of Crown Prince Rupprecht’s Sixth Army.
The cavalry had one more chance to make a real impact on the western front. In October von Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps was detached from the Sixth Army and took part in the Race for the Sea. It became involved in the fighting at La Bassée and Givenchy, before being relieved by infantry on the night of 15 October. Finally, the corps took part in the fighting around Ypres.
By now it was clear that the fighting on the western front was not going to suit the cavalry. On 24 December Marwitz was moved from II Cavalry Corps to take command of XXXVIII Reserve Corps. This unit was almost immediately transferred to the eastern front, coming under the command of Hindenburg and Ludendorff for the first time. There he took part in the second battle of Masuria (7-21 February 1915), where his corps formed the right wing of General von Eichhorn’s Tenth Army and helped to trap the Russian XX Corps at Augustov. Marwitz received the Pour le Mérite for his part in this victory.
His next move was south to Hungary, where the Austro-Hungarian front was threatened. There he took command of the Beskiden Corps (ski corps). He arrived in March 1915, and during the next month helped repulse a Russian attack through the Laborcza Valley in the Carpathians. This put him in the right place to help exploit the breakthrough of Gorlice-Tarnow (2-10 May 1915). The Beskiden Corps took part in the operations that drove the Russians out of Lemberg. On 14 May he was awarded the oak leaves to his Pour le Mérite for his part in this operation.
From July-November 1915 he was out of action recovering from an illness. On his return to duty in November he was appointed to command VI Army Corps on the western front, based around Péronne. This had been a quiet sector during 1915, and so when in June 1916 the Brusilov offensive threatened to break the eastern front, Marwitz and his corps were once again sent east. Once there he helped to block the Russian advance, and played a part in the recovery of the Austro-Hungarian Fourth Army. This move east also meant that the corps missed the start of the battle of the Somme – Péronne was on the edge of the area attacked by the French.
Marwitz did not remain in the east for long. On 6 October he was appointed ADC to the Kaiser, before returning to the western front on 17 December 1916 to command the Second Army near St. Quentin. He would remain with the Second Army until late in 1918.
After a period of small scale trench warfare, Marwitz was involved in the German withdrawal to the Siegfried Line (known as the Hindenburg line in English). This was a carefully planned and constructed fortified line that shortened the German front, freeing up experienced troops for use elsewhere.
On 20 November 1917 those new defences became the first to be subjected to a major armoured assault, when the British attacked at Cambrai. The initial attack broke a hole in the German line, but Marwitz kept his nerve. The Germans successfully defended both flanks of the gap in their line, and were able to launch a counterattack that regained most of the ground lost on 20 November. Although this first major tank attack was beaten off, Marwitz would come up against tanks again in 1918, with less success.
In 1918 Marwitz’s army would be at the centre of the first of the great German offensives aimed at breaking the deadlock in the west before the Americans could arrive. His army had perhaps the most important role in the original plan for the second battle of the Somme. To his south Hutier’s 18th army was meant to form a flank guard along the Somme. To his north Below’s 17th army was to form the hinge of a great turning movement. Marwitz’s second army would form the outer edge of the turning force that would role up the British lines to the sea. To achieve this he was given 20 divisions, supported by 1,789 guns.
The battle was launched on 21 March. General Gough’s Fifth Army was forced out of its lines and began a chaotic retreat. However, the British collapse was only temporary and even the Fifth Army soon recovered. The original German plan was derailed by Ludendorff himself, who on 23 March removed the focus on the swing to the north. Instead Hutier was to attack across the Somme and Marwitz was to push west, along the Somme towards Amiens. Only Below would continue to attack north, and he was not making good progress.
Marwitz came tantalisingly close to Amiens, but his last gasp attack was defeated at the first battle of Villers-Bretonneux (30 March-5 April). On the evening of 5 April Ludendorff called off the great offensive, recognising that the British and French lines were now too strong for his weakened troops. Marwitz would launch one final attack at Villers-Brettonneux (24-27 April), in the hope that Allied attention would be distracted by the fighting then going on in Flanders (battle of the Lys). This attack came even closer to breaking the British line before a counterattack launched by two Australian brigades restored the situation
The tables would soon be turned on Marwitz. Over the spring and summer of 1918 the Germans worked hard to fortify their new front line. According to Ludendorff, “the divisional fronts were narrow, artillery was plentiful, and the trench system was organised in depth. All experience gained on the 18th July had been acted upon” (18 July was the first day of the Aisne-Marne offensive, the first successful Allied counterattack of the year). Despite all of that effort, on 8 August Marwitz suffered a dramatic defeat – the “black day” of the German army according to Ludendorff (battle of Amiens). For the first time during the war entire German divisions collapsed – Marwitz lost four in this way, and the Germans were forced out of most of the salient they had gained in March. The BEF had learnt how to combine their artillery, tanks and aircraft to launch devastating attacks.
This was the beginning of the end for the German army in the west. Marwitz suffered another defeat at Bapaume (21 August-1 September), once again partly at the hands of British tanks. This forced his army back to the Siegfried Line, but even that did not hold, and during the battle of Cambrai-St. Quentin (27 September-9 October) the Allies broke through the main German defensive line in the west.
In the aftermath of this third defeat, Marwitz was moved to command the Fifth Army at Verdun, part of Army Group Gallwitz. This was hardly a quiet sector by this stage of the war, and Marwitz found himself facing the Americans in the last period of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. He remained in this post until the armistice.
Marwitz retired in December 1918, and spend his retirement working with officer clubs. He died in 1929 of a heart attack. He had been one of the most successful German army commanders, and had gained the trust of Hindenburg and Ludendorff early in the war. Until the final months of the war he had been a successful commander, but from August 1918 he found himself facing ever more confident Allied armies with an exhausted army.