Having an excitable and highly strung temperament, the strong-willed Ludendorff proved a difficult subordinate. Charged with refining and improving the Schlieffen Plan in the years before the war, he became convinced that Germany lacked the trained manpower to defeat the French in a rapid campaign. Ludendorff insisted that the government raise additional forces. When this suggestion met disapproval, he by-passed his superiors and initiated contact with politicians in an effort to influence the budget. That the German political system could not bear the cost of additional units was something he never considered. To him, it was a matter of will. The response was a transfer to a regiment in Düsseldorf, safely away from Berlin. A year later he was given a brigade in Strasbourg and promoted to general, but his mobilization orders as quartermaster general (he should have been an army chief of staff as a brigadier general) of the 2d Army indicated he was still persona non grata in Berlin.
When war came in August 1914, fortune smiled. In the confusion of the attack on Liège, Ludendorff received the surrender of the city, and Germany had its first war hero. The Kaiser personally decorated him with Prussia's highest award, the Pour le merité, the second of the war. The situation in the east, where two Russian armies threatened to break through German defenses, demanded his brilliance and capability for superb staff work. As a counterweight to his volatility, the High Command recalled from retirement General Paul v. Hindenburg, a phlegmatic, no-nonsense, even cautious officer, to command 8th Army. Ludendorff became chief of staff. The two generals met for the first time en route to East Prussia. The situation they confronted was threatening and risky, but by no means hopeless. With the able assistance of the 8th Army's operations officer, Max Hoffmann, the Germans routed the Russians at the Battles of Tannenberg (August 1914) and Masurian Lakes (September 1914). The impressive victories electrified Germany and cemented Ludendorff's reputation as the man of genius. The image of the invincible duo of Hindenburg and Ludendorff took root in the German mind. They became legends to a people demoralized by the bloody stalemate in the west. For Ludendorff, who grew increasingly critical of the western war effort, the lack of success reflected a lack of will. He called for "total war." Convinced of his own judgment, his vocal criticism of the war effort mounted, and he campaigned endlessly against those who opposed him.
The apostle of total war got his chance when the Kaiser, staggered by the losses at Verdun, sent Hindenburg and Ludendorff westward to take-over the German war effort. Ludendorff took the title Quartermaster General and received a promotion to lieutenant general, while Hindenburg, already a field marshal, became chief of the general staff. Shocked by the materiel superiority of the Allies and convinced that the civilian leadership lacked the will to prosecute the war to the fullest, Ludendorff initiated the Hindenburg Program. Largely a military take-over of the economy including compulsory labor coupled with a ruthless exploitation of occupied territories, the unpopular program resulted in considerable production gains while sapping home front morale. Convinced German defense operations were too static and hence costly, Ludendorff introduced new tactics that emphasized an elastic defense in depth. To free divisions for reinforcements, Ludendorff conducted a massive shortening of German lines by evacuating his forces Operation Alberich to the Siegfried Line in early 1917. The Allies called the line the Hindenburg Line. The withdrawn area was left a wasteland.
Ludendorff recognized the strategy of the war had become one of attrition. With her inferior resources compounded by the strangling English naval blockade, Germany could not win with this strategy. Consumed by fears that time was running out, Ludendorff convinced Hindenburg that Germany had to husband resources for a knock-out blow on the western front. Shortening the lines to free up units, stepping up the Hindenburg Program, and wrapping up the war in the east would free the resources needed for the decisive blow.
Convinced that only total effort could achieve victory, Ludendorff shrank from nothing. Accepting the Navy's contention that a return to unrestricted submarine warfare would bring a halt to the delivery of vital American munitions, Ludendorff urged its adoption knowing America would enter the war. He severely underestimated both the U.S. military potential and the speed with which it could be brought to bear.
By now there were voices of opposition in Germany to his increasingly bullying manner and excessive authority. Hardly an area of German life remained outside his grasp by 1918. The Kaiser loathed and feared him, but he could not stand up to him. Ludendorff contemptuously dismissed peace initiatives and war weariness as manifestations of a lack of will. He spared no one, including himself and his family. Two of his stepsons fell in combat, losses which made him harder. He relentlessly attacked those who opposed his measures, including Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, whom he forced from office by mid-1917.
The submarine campaign served only to bring the U.S. into the war. American forces began arriving at a rate undreamed of by their foes. Only the collapse of Russia under the Bolsheviks, to which Ludendorff had indirectly contributed by transporting Lenin from Switzerland to Russia, brightened the otherwise disastrous picture. Convinced any peace terms would be unacceptable, a belief fed indirectly by his own draconic demands upon the hapless Russians, he cobbled together the esources for one last great push, the Spring Offensive of 1918. By stripping units from the east, Ludendorff increased his strength in the west by 30%. Special units (Storm Battalions) trained in new, infiltration tactics, used surprise and mobility to by-pass enemy strong points and emerge behind enemy lines into the open. Traditional infantry units following along reduced the by-passed areas. A complete absence of the new weapon, the tank, constituted a major weakness to the otherwise formidable restructuring. Ludendorff had seen tanks, but he belittled their importance and dismissed his soldiers' concerns as a lack of will, a strange lapse in a man who usually incorporated his subordinates' suggestions.
Ludendorff's spring offensive, code-named Kaiserschlacht, called for a series of attacks rather than a single break-through. The Quartermaster General planned a number of sharp blows to collapse the entire western Allied front. The first onslaught began on 21 March. Although badly shaken, the Allies finally held, and Ludendorff called off the advance in early April. His next two operations followed the same pattern: extraordinary initial successes petering out owing to a lack of reserves and supplies. The end had come; the Germans could not make good their losses.
Ludendorff collapsed under the stress. He had lost his second son in the offensive, and on occasion his ravings against defeatists and incompetent civilians turned into uncontrollable tantrums. On the 28th of September, he told Hindenburg and his staff that Germany must seek an immediate armistice. The Kaiser and Chancellor Hertling heard this sad news the next day, and agreed. When Ludendorff later publicly reversed his position about Germany's ability to continue the war, the Kaiser demanded his resignation.
Ludendorff's post-war career tarnished his reputation. Fearing revenge, he fled temporarily to Sweden. He wrote his memoirs, blaming Germany's defeat on his innumerable foes and their lack of will power. He railed at the new Republic and his new enemies, the Jews, Jesuits and Freemasons, whom he blamed for stabbing Germany in the back. He became the darling of the extreme right, marching with Hitler during the Beer Hall Putsch. In 1925 he ran for Reich President, polling a mere 1%. His views and demons grew more extreme, and he fell to bickering with Hitler and his former wartime comrades. One-by-one he broke relations with his staff and colleagues, including his wife whom he suddenly left for Mathilde v. Kemnitz, a folklore specialist. She encouraged his fantasies. In 1935 he published The Total War, reversing Clausewitz's dictum and arguing that politics must serve war. On 22 December 1937 he died, shortly after declining Hitler's offer of promotion to field marshal with the remark, "a field marshal is born, not made."
Ludendorff, Erich, Ludendorff's Own Story, August 1914-November 1918, 2 vols., New York, 1919, gives a flavor of the man. It bears careful reading, for Ludendorff passes the blame for Germany's defeat onto others.