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His retreat on the Marne destroyed the Schlieffen Plan in 1914

A colonel general is five ranks above a lieutenant colonel.

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His retreat on the Marne destroyed the Schlieffen Plan in 1914

A colonel general is five ranks above a lieutenant colonel. In a relationship like this it should be clear who has to obey whom. But only actually. On September 9, 1914, Colonel-General Alexander von Kluck had to obey the instructions of Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hentsch.

Because the 44-year-old career officer, in his main function chief of the intelligence department of the General Staff, was on Wednesday as the representative of the highest German soldier Helmuth von Moltke (the younger) in Kluck's command post in the village of Mareuil-sur-Ourcq about 70 kilometers northeast of Paris. Hentsch had to make the decision for the chief of staff, to whose closest advisers he belonged, how to proceed with the battle of the Marne - Moltke could not judge that from his location, in those days the former German embassy in Luxembourg. So he had given Hentsch general powers to command on his behalf.

Kluck didn't like it at all. The self-confident, 68-year-old general had the feeling that he was on the road to victory - also because he made his own decisions. On August 29, for example, he changed the direction of his 1st Army on the right wing of the German offensive operation against France without consulting General Headquarters plan" to encircle France's capital to the west, he had instructed his troops to turn more and stay east of Paris. This meant that the 1st Army remained closer to the 2nd Army under Generaloberst Karl von Bülow and the right wing of the German troops was more concentrated.

On September 8, 1914, the day Hentsch arrived in Mareuil-sur-Ourcq, Kluck's troops reportedly captured 60 enemy guns and took 4,000 French and British prisoners of war. The German 1st Army was about to encircle France's 6th Army and the British Expeditionary Force was also in danger of being surrounded.

"Even on September 9, at least in the morning hours, Kluck was lucky," says a homage published in Leipzig in 1917. However, that changed twice over – and rapidly. First, the French army brought in "always fresh troops of fresh troops on all kinds of vehicles" in order to "prevent their threatened, almost completed encirclement at the last moment".

Secondly, the Supreme Army Command in the person of Lieutenant Colonel Hentsch gave Alexander von Kluck, who was five ranks above him, "in view of the overall situation, the order to break off the battle that had begun so promisingly" and to withdraw to the Aisne. The Battle of the Marne was lost and with it the chance to actually decide the war in the west in a daring encirclement movement. What followed was trench warfare for more than four years, in which a few kilometers of ground gain were paid for with the blood of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

Was the Kluck-forced retreat right? No one can judge for sure. Perhaps his troops could have encircled the enemy forces and the four columns of British and French forces advancing into the gap between the 1st and 2nd Armies would in turn have been surrounded. But the opposite was also possible: a devastating defeat of the German units that had advanced furthest to the west.

In any case, it was not Kluck, who had brought his 1st Army back largely intact, but Hentsch and (with a few exceptions) Moltke who were made the scapegoats for the aborted Battle of the Marne in the nationalist journalism of the Weimar Republic. Both could no longer defend themselves, for Moltke had already died in 1916 and Hentsch in early 1918.

Alexander von Kluck had had a career untypical for a Prussian general. Born in 1846 in deeply Catholic Münster, the son of a Protestant bourgeois architect, he had neither graduated from a cadet school nor studied at the war academy; nor had he ever been an officer of the General Staff.

At the age of 19, after graduating from the Paulinum Gymnasium, he joined the Westphalian Infantry Regiment 55 in his hometown and fought in 1866 as well as in 1870/71. As a pure practitioner, his career led from his position as company commander to teaching at the NCO school in Jülich (1881 to 1884) to management of the NCO pre-schools in Annaburg near Torgau and Neubreisach in Upper Alsace. In Magdeburg (1889 to 1896) Kluck served as a battalion commander in the Magdeburg Infantry Regiment 66, was in charge of the business of the commander of the Magdeburg Fortress and, from 1892, also managed the construction of the Altengrabow military training area.

Kluck was so successful in his duties that he caught the eye of the military cabinet, the central control point for senior staff. As a probationary position, he became commander of the Landwehr District Berlin I, after which he was given command of the regiment in Bromberg.

Within the next seven years he rose from brigade commander to 1906 to commanding general of the V Army Corps in Posen. In 1907, as successor to General Colmar von der Goltz, he took over the 1st Army Corps in Königsberg and led it until 1913. In this function, Kaiser Wilhelm II had ennobled Kluck in 1909.

In contrast to Paul von Hindenburg, who was a year and a half his junior, Kluck did not retire in his mid-sixties, but took over the inspectorate of the 8th Army in Berlin in 1913, being promoted to Colonel-General. But instead of taking up the supreme command of this activated army in East Prussia the following year, Alexander von Kluck was given command of the 1st Army in the Aachen area; Hindenburg was reactivated for the eastern front.

Kluck's army had the most important and difficult task in the course of the German plan: it had to march as a right wing through all of Belgium and north-eastern France; originally Kluck's task was to encompass Paris westward. On August 29, 1914, he arbitrarily changed this goal. He organized the retreat almost perfectly in terms of craftsmanship.

After the western front had froze, Kluck succeeded in mid-January 1915 in a small offensive operation near Soissons to straighten the front – however, this involved less than a dozen square kilometers, while the German army had cleared a hundred square kilometers on September 9, 1914 within hours .

On March 27, 1915, Alexander von Kluck was seriously wounded by a chance hit by French artillery while inspecting a position near Vailly. Despite a relatively short time in hospital and convalescence, he was dismissed for reasons of age after his convalescence. He lived another 18 years until he died in Berlin in 1934 at the unusual age of 88 for his time. He found his last resting place in the Stahnsdorf Cemetery.

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