Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria was the most able of Germany’s Royal generals during the First World War. He was born in Munich in 1869 to the then Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, the future King Ludwig III. He was also a Jacobite claimant to the British throne, as he was descended from the Stuarts through Prince Rupert of the Rhine.
Before the war he combined a military and a legal career. He attended the war academy in 1889, rising through the ranks from regimental commander in 1899 to commander of the Bavarian I Army Corps in 1906, with the rank of general of infantry. Bavaria had retained some independence after the unification of Germany, one feature of which was the possession of its own army. While his status as heir to the Bavarian throne helped him rise through the ranks, Prince Rupprecht took his military duties seriously, and would prove to be a capable commander.
In August 1914 he was appointed to command the Sixth Army, consisting of three regular Bavarian corps, one Bavarian reserve corps and one Prussian corps. General Krafft von Dellmensingen was appointed to serve as his chief of staff. The left wing of the German army was significantly stronger than was needed for the Schlieffen plan, in which its role was to retreat slowly into Germany, pulling part of the French army east and preventing them from being moved west to counter the main German attack through Belgium. Prince Rupprecht wanted a more active role in the German attack, and was able to convince Moltke to allow him to launch a counterattack. The French advance began on 14 August (battle of Lorraine). On 20 August the Germans counterattacked, pushing the French back to their starting line by 23 August. Their attack then came to a halt against the French border fortifications.
By mid-September fighting on the southern part of the line had largely died down. This allowed the new German chief of the General Staff, Falkenhayn, to move Prince Rupprecht around to the right, to take part in the Race to the Sea, dissolving the original Sixth Army and creating a new one behind the Aisne. The same happened on the French side of the front, where General Castlenau’s Second Army at Nancy was dissolved, and a new Second Army, again under Castlenau, was formed around Amiens. The armies clashed in the first battle of Picardy (22-26 September 1914), which saw neither side able to outflank their opponents. They then clashed again around Lille (first battle of Artois, 27 September-10 October 1914).
Prince Rupprecht then came up against the BEF for the first time, clashing with them at La Bassée (10 October), Messines (12 October) and Armentieres (13 October), before reaching the southern approaches to Ypres. Once again neither side could find an open flank. A new German army, the Fourth, made one further attempt to attack north of Ypres, but again without success.
Prince Rupprecht’s army then became involved in the first battle of Ypres, forming the left wing of the German army attacking the BEF. It was his army that provided the troops to form Army Group Fabeck, used during the battle of Gheluvelt (29-31 October) and then Army Group Linsingen, used to launch the final attack at Ypres (battle of Nonne Bosschen, 11 November 1914).
Prince Rupprecht’s Sixth Army held the sector of the front running south from Ypres until August 1916. During this period he had to fight off a series of British attacks, starting with the battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. He clashed with the BEF again during the second battle of Artois, 9 May-18 June 1915. Although his army fought off these attacks, it was at a great cost. He became an opponent of General Falkenhayn, and because of his royal status was able to express that opposition. He would later clash with Ludendorff in a similar way.
In July 1916 Prince Rupprecht was promoted to field marshal. On 28 August he was appointed to command Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht, containing the First, Second, Sixth and Seventh armies, covering the front from the Lys down to Reims. To his right Prince Albrecht of Wurttemberg commanded the Fourth Army on the coast, while to his left was Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm, stretching from Reims to Switzerland.
The Prince took up his new command towards the end of the first battle of the Somme. Although the British and French failed to achieve the long hoped for breakthrough, Prince Rupprecht later stated that the battle of the Somme had destroyed what was left of the first class pre-war German army. He supported the retreat to the Hindenburg line of early 1917. While Ludendorff was worried about the potential impact on German morale of what would be seen as a retreat, the Prince made it clear that his troops wouldn’t be able to stand up to a renewed offensive on the Somme in their current positions. The order to pull pack to the Siegfried (Hindenburg) Line was given on 4 February.
While he supported the withdrawal, Prince Rupprecht was opposed to Operation Alberich, the scorched earth policy that accompanied the movement. He even considered resigning in protest, but was persuaded that this might result in a split between Bavaria and the rest of Germany and stayed on.
In March the army groups were rearranged. Prince Albrecht was moved from the right of the line to the left, the quiet sector running up to the Swiss border. His Fourth Army moved into Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht, while the Seventh Army, on its left, was transferred to the control of Crown Prince Wilhelm. This change was made to make sure that all the armies threatened by the planned French offensive of spring 1917 would be in a single army group, and demonstrated how badly General Nivelle’s plans had been leaked. The resulting second battle of the Aisne was a French disaster that ended in mutiny.
The change also meant that Prince Rupprecht’s army group would face all of the BEF’s attacks of 1917, starting at Vimy Ridge and second Arras in the spring and ending with the third battle of Ypres and the battle of Cambrai. Once again the Prince’s armies held off the British attacks, but during the year he became increasingly concerned about the material advantages held by the Allies and the decreasing quality of German recruits arriving at the front. He began to believe that a negotiated end to the war would have to be found.
His army group was heavily involved in the German offensives of 1918 (the Ludendorff Offensives). It provided two of the three armies used during the second battle of the Somme – von Below’s 17th army and von Marwitz’s 2nd. Originally the third army, Hutier’s Eighteenth, had also been part of Army Group Prince Rupprecht, but it had been moved into Army Group Crown Prince Wilhelm in January 1918, because Ludendorff did not want to leave control of the entire operation in the hands of Prince Rupprecht. Crown Prince Wilhelm then began to agitate for changes in the plan for the attack to increase the importance of his role. As a result the original plan was modified to include an attack south of the Somme, and the strength of the crucial attack to the north reduced.
Prince Rupprecht was apparently unconvinced by Ludendorff’s plan, but carried it out to the best of his abilities. The attack came close to splitting the British and French armies apart, but the success of the southern attack convinced Ludendorff to abandon his original plan and concentrate on an attack west towards Amiens, which came to a halt just short of the city. As the German advance slowed and then stopped some of Prince Rupprecht’s efforts to intervene north of the Somme were overruled by Ludendorff, who diverted reinforcements to what should have been the subsidiary attack south of the river.
After the failure on the Somme, Ludendorff tried again in Flanders, this time in a sector entirely within Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht. The German Fourth and Sixth Armies pushed the British hard (battle of the Lys), but the line held. The focus of the German offensives then moved south, away from Prince Rupprecht’s part of the front. As the third offensive (third battle of the Aisne, 27 May-3 June 1918) came to a halt, Prince Rupprecht informed Chancellor Count Georg von Hertling that Ludendorff no longer believed in victory. He suggested that peace negotiations should begin, with German offering to restore the pre-war status quo in the west while keeping her conquests in the east. If this offer had been made, it may well have succeeded, but no such offer would be made.
Prince Rupprecht was soon proved to have been right. As Ludendorff’s offensives ran out of energy, the Allies counterattacked. As the time the British launched their attack at Amiens (8 August-3 September 1918), his army group was split in two, and a new Army Group Boehn created in the centre of the German lines. Prince Rupprecht was forced to retreat by the Allied attacks in Flanders, and his armies ended the war on the Scheldt.
On 8 November his father, Ludwig III, abdicated. On 11 November Prince Rupprecht resigned from his command and retreated into private life. After the war Bavarian royalists saw him as the rightful king, but he refused to get involved in any attempt to restore the monarchy by force. In 1933 he briefly considered a restoration in an attempt to see off the Nazis, but nothing came of it. In 1939 he moved to Italy, returning to Bavaria at the end of the Second World War.
Crown Prince Rupprecht was the only one of the German royal generals who deserved to hold his high command during the war. He combined military ability with an understanding of the suffering of his troops, and towards the war an appreciation that the war was being lost. His suggestion for a negotiated peace in June 1918 was perhaps Germany’s best chance to salvage a partial victory by that stage in the fighting – even in October Allied leaders were concerned that a German peace offer combined with a last stand on German soil could have undermined the public will to fight on.
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