Erich von Falkenhayn was a German soldier and Chief of the General Staff during World War I and he became a military writer after the war. Falkenhayn is most associated with the Battle of Verdun of 1916, one of World War One’s bloodiest battles. Falkenhayn was in many ways a representative of the Prussian generals; he was a militarist in the literal sense, as he had undeniable political and military competence. His blood-mill approach was copied and successfully used by the Allies, who had larger resources, and, in that sense, Falkenhayn’s method would, indirectly, have led to Germany losing the war.
Erich von Falkenhayn was born on September 11, 1861, in Burg Belchau, West Prussia. As Prussia had a strong military tradition, it was not unusual that young Falkenhayn joined the army. He served in Qing China between 1896 and 1903, and saw action during the Boxer Rebellion. Afterwards, he was stationed in Braunschweig, Metz, and Magdeburg, with ever-increasing rank. He became Prussian Minister of War in 1913, serving with one of Germany’s most famous military men; Helmuth von Moltke, and the two did not get on as they argued over most everything.
Erich von Falkenhayn succeeded Moltke as Chief of Staff after the Battle of the Marne on September 14, 1914. Confronted with the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, Falkenhayn attempted to outflank the British and French in what has been called the "Race to the Sea", a series of engagements throughout northern France and Belgium with the aim to reach the North Sea coast. The Germans were eventually stopped by the British and French at the First Battle of Ypres.
As a strategist, Falkenhayn preferred a fast offensive campaign on the Western Front while conducting a limited war in the east in the hope that Russia would accept a separate armistice much more easily if it had not been humiliated too much. This brought him into conflict with Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who favored massive offensives in the east.
In the hope that a massive slaughter would lead Europe’s political leaders to consider ending the war, Falkenhayn staged a massive battle of attrition at Verdun in early 1916. Not being able to take Verdun and with more than a quarter million men dead during the unsuccessful assault, Falkenhayn was replaced as Chief of Staff by Hindenburg.
Falkenhayn witnessed the end of the Great War as commander of the 10th Army in Belarus. In 1919, he retired from the Army and withdrew to his estate, where he wrote several books on war, strategy, and his autobiography. He died at Schloss Lindstedt near Potsdam on April 8, 1922. Militarily, Falkenhayn had a mixed record. His offensive at Verdun was a failure, but his planning and subsequent conquest of Romania was a near perfect example of how to conduct an offensive against superior forces.