- From the book Behind the Scenes in Warring Germany
- 'The Hero of All Germany'
- 'Field Marshal von Hindenburg '
- by Edward Lyell Fox, 1915
- American Journalist
An American Reporter Interviews Germany's Hero
painting and photo portraits of Field Marshall von Hindenburg
To the accompaniment of heels clicking in salute we passed the Saxonian sentries and hurrying through the darkened gateway were met by an orderly. Field Marshal von Hindenburg was expecting us. Down the corridors of the castle into a great hall into which opened many doors ever opening and closing to the passage of hurrying soldier clerks; here a telegraph was chattering, there a telephone buzzing, messengers coming and going, staff officers gliding from one room to another, the warm stuffy air vitalized with magic import this was my first impression of the headquarters of the commander in chief of the German armies of the East.
I was looking at a placard written with a pen and fastened to one of the unpretentious doors, opening into little ante rooms from the great hall, which read "Commander in Chief." On the other side of that door was the sixty-eight-year-old warrior who has become the national hero of Germany. To name the town where this took place would be a breach of military etiquette. I am, however, permitted to say that the Field Marshal has had his headquarters at Posen, Allenstein, Insterburg, and another place south of Insterburg about one hundred and fifty kilometers which the officers of General von Eichorn's Tenth Army spoke of as "a place unnamed." The reason for this secrecy was reflected in "the town." Plunged in total darkness, save for a few lanterns, it was impossible to locate from the sky. Russian aviators could not steal over it by night and drop bombs to kill the man who is so utterly a master of the armies that the Czar sends against Germany.
There came Captain Cammerer, first adjutant of Hindenburg, a Prussian officer of artillery, who said that the Field Marshal would soon receive us. One gleaned that although the Captain appreciated the distinction, he longed for the battlefield; one heard him talk eagerly of Tannenberg where he had made some Russian prisoners. "But now my fingers are covered with corns," and Cammerer smiled in a melancholy way. "I have to write much." And then the door that bore the sign, "Commander in Chief," opened, and the officer bowed us in. Field Marshal von Hindenburg had risen to meet us.
My first impression was that Von Hindenburg's pictures have done him an injustice. There is no denying that his photographs create the impression of a tremendously strong face ruthless almost to the point of cruelty. But the camera fails utterly to catch the real Hindenburg. His, is a face tremendously strong, with a chin that is like a buttress and a forehead of the width that means power and there is a firmness to his little blue eyes; all these things the camera shows. It does not show the twinkle in these eyes; nor does it show the kindness that lurks in the wrinkles of his warty weather-beaten skin. It fails utterly to depict the pleasant smile that his small sharply cut mouth can show. Sixty- eight years you are thinking in amazement. This man does not look more than fifty. All his faculties seem at their zenith. His nose is the nose of the eagle and it impresses you with wonderful alertness. There is much color in his mustache, a tawny shade, a large curving but rather peaceful looking mustache that has not the aggressive angle of the Emperor's. So massive are his shoulders that I thought at first that his close cropped gray head was perhaps a little small. But it is a typically round German head of the strong mold that you see in the pictures of Durer and Holbein.
Von Hindenburg impressed me as being a big man, physically and mentally big, the embodiment of what the conqueror of the Russian armies should be, though I had heard of his suffering with the gout and every known ill; that he was a decrepid invalid who was called from a sick bed to save East Prussia. But simply dressed in field gray, wearing only the order Pour le Merite bestowed upon him by the Emperor for his marvelous skill in the Russian drive, Paul von Beneokendorff und Von Hindenburg has the directness and simplicity of men of real greatness. He is. wholly without ostentation, and easier to engage in conversation than many a younger officer who only sports the second class of the Iron Cross.
He eats simply and he works hard. Dinner at Von Hindenburg's headquarters consists of soup and one course around an undecorated table with ten officers. He likes a good wine; when he is drinking a toast he takes his glass of champagne at one gulp to the despair of some of his younger officers. The dinner hour showed him to be very lively. He likes stories where the wit is keen; also he is not a Puritan. He avoids talking military matters and seems at dinner to have thrown off all responsibilities. This light inconsequential converse sounds almost incongruous when you can hear the ta ta of the horns of military automobiles outside. Indeed it is with difficulty that Von Hindenburg can be induced to say anything about the war. His very able assistants, the silent Ludendorff, Chief of Generality, and the lively gesturing brilliant Hoffman, also avoid talking shop. After he has agreed with you that the French are fighting bravely, better than one expected them to, and that everybody in Germany is sorry for them; after he has urged with exaggerated seriousness that the Austrian officers are efficient; after he has uttered his contempt of Belgium and echoed the curse of the German nation for England, he will discuss the Russians.
"The Russians are good soldiers," he says. "They are well disciplined. But there is a difference between their discipline and ours. The discipline of the German army is the result of education and moral. In the Russian army it is the dumb obedience of an animal. The Russian soldier stands because he is told to; but he stands like one transfixed. Napoleon was right when he said 'it does not do to kill a Russian; he must also be thrown down.' The Russians have learned a good deal since the Japanese war. They are very strong in fortifying their positions on the battlefield and understand excellently how to dig trenches and holes. As soon as they have chosen their position they disappear under the ground like moles. Our soldiers had to learn how to do that too. Our soldiers did not like it. They like to fight in the open, to storm and have it over with. But I had to make them wait in position until I was ready. We are not afraid of the Russian superiority of numbers. Russia is vast, but not as dangerous as it looks. The modern war is not decided by numbers. In East Prussia we have broken two Russian invasions. Each time they are outnumbered as three to one. An army is not a horde of uniformed men. An army must have good guns, ammunition, and brains."
The lively Hoffman, a wonderful strategist, adds, "We have absolute confidence in our superiority to the Russians. We have to win and therefore we will win. It is very simple."
And the silent Lieutenant General Ludendorff, a hero of Liege, says shortly, "We will manage it."
When the dinner is over and it is drawing near to eleven o'clock, you get ready to go, for you have heard that around midnight Von Hindenburg generally has "something to do." It is said that he works hardest at that hour. And as you leave the quiet house, it dawns upon you that the little threads of wires leading out from the windows connect with different army corps headquarters and that somewhere to the east under the Russian night gigantic armies are advancing and that the officers with whom you have been talking so peacefully, are the leaders of these armies and that the thing they are making is called The History of the World.
I have seen the likeness of Hindenburg a thousand times. In Houthem, which is a little shell torn village where the Bavarians come to from the firing line in front of Ypres and get a few days' rest, I saw Von Hindenburg's photograph pasted on the window of the canteen. I have seen it in every big city in Germany ; I dare say, it is in most houses. I was in the Winter Garden one night when a Berlin crowd went mad over an impersonation of the Field Marshal by one of the actors. The crowd thumped its beer steins on the backs of chairs and got up and cheered.
An American "movie man" finally induced Von Hindenburg to stand before a camera. He did it in a way that made you think of the old J. P. Morgan who wanted to smash every camera he saw. For only a few seconds did Hindenburg walk in front of the movie machine but when that picture was shown in a Berlin theater the audience broke into wild applause. Von Hindenburg is the big man in Germany to-day. As a popular idol he rivals the Kaiser. The Germans have a new war poem that you hear recited in the music halls. It tells of different German generals, heroes of the war, and it ends "but there is only one Hindenburg."
Idol of the people, colossus of the battlefield, Von Hindenburg goes quietly about his work, unconcerned with any of the popular clamor. It is said that one of his staff officers was in great indignation because a high order of war had been conferred upon a general who had not done any actual fighting or big battle-direction in the West. The loyal officer mentioned this to Hindenburg and the old warrior said, "I don't care how many orders they give out, so long as they let me alone out here."
His task is to keep Russia from invading Germany. It is obviously a huge undertaking. It is a bigger job than is held by the head of the great corporation in the world. As with all popular figures, writers have romanced about Hindenburg. When the correspondents in Berlin couldn't get out to the front in the early part of this war, they made copy out of the first idea in sight. So they made a Cincinnatus out of Hindenburg. It pleased them to imagine him ill at his home, with the gout, when there came a special telegram from the Emperor ordering him to take charge of the army of East Prussia. They pictured him getting up from a sick bed, limping on a cane to an automobile and saving Germany. When you mention this to Hindenburg, he gets so red in the face that you think the blood vessels are going to burst and when he can speak, he roars, "Do I look like a sick man?"
Graduated from a military academy at sixteen, appointed to the infantry as a lieutenant before 1866, he fought in the war against Austria. He first came to the attention of the eyes of the German army at the Battle of Königgrätz when with fifty of his men he charged an Austrian battery. A grape shot grazed his skull and he fell stunned. Lifting himself up, he saw that his men had gone on and had captured two of the Austrian guns. The other three field pieces were being dragged away by the Austrians. Staggering to his feet, young Von Hindenburg, his face streaming with blood, rallied his men and with a wave of his sword charged after the fleeing Austrians. On their heels for more than a mile, he finally attacked them, although outnumbered three to one, and captured them. For this he was decorated with the Red Eagle Order.
There came the Franco Prussian war. Von Hindenburg was now an Ober-Lieutenant. He came through the battles of Gravelotte and Sedan; he was in the siege of Paris and when LeBourget was stormed, the young officer led a charge and they gave him the Iron Cross. From that time on his rise was rapid. A captain on the General Staff, then Major, so up through the grades of the Chief of Staff of the Eighth Army Corps to the Commander of the Fourth Army Corps to a General of Infantry, which high office he held until 1911.
During the period of his retirement which came in 1911, he began to study the farm lands of East Prussia socketed with the lakes and swamps. This was to be the battleground of an inevitable war with Russia. He began to study the region until he knew every square mile by heart from Königsberg on the Baltic down through the network of lakes south of Tannenberg. On paper he fought there a thousand different campaigns. It is said that he became almost fanatical on the subject. In his classes at the War Academy where he was an instructor he became known as The Old Man of the Swamps. He used to go round Berlin with a folder of maps, and any officer whom he could buttonhole, he drew him aside and talked of the Masurian lakes. He became so obsessed with this subject that officers fled at his approach. They began to call him Swampy Hindenburg. But as he rose in rank and as he commanded troops during the maneuvers in East Prussia, the General Staff realized that Hindenburg knew the country.
There came a day when Von Hindenburg was appointed umpire of a big maneuver in East Prussia. The Army of the Red so the story runs was commanded by the German Emperor, opposing him was the Army of the Blue. The sham battle ended rather undecisively. The Emperor and all the lesser generals met in the center of the field at the Grosse Kritic to hear the criticisms of umpire Von Hindenburg. Hindenburg was unmerciful. He tore the reputation of the General of the Blues to tatters. He demonstrated that this officer had made the grossest blunders. For half an hour in unsparing language Hindenburg, who had his own ideas about how every battle in East Prussia should be fought, criticized the General. It occurred to the Emperor that Von Hindenburg was concentrating his criticism upon the Army of the Blue and that he had said nothing whatever about the Army of the Red, which the Kaiser himself commanded. The Kaiser asked Von Hindenburg about this, remarking that it was noticeable that nothing had been said about his army and adding that for the benefit of all the officers the Army of the Bed should also be criticized. Von Hindenburg continued to say nothing about it. Again the Emperor asked him.
"Your Majesty," Von Hindenburg said bluntly, "I deliberately refrained from criticizing your army. That is why I took the leader of the Blues so severely to task. For if I had been he, with his opportunities, I would have driven Your Majesty's troops into the Baltic Sea."
The Emperor concealed his displeasure. Presently Von Hindenburg was retired. Though retired, Von Hindenburg managed to obtain a detachment of grumbling troops from Königsberg and led them down into the Masurian swamp region to work out his problems. He would insist upon the cannon being pulled through the muddiest parts of the lake district and when they became mired fast it always seemed to please him. After several days he would bring the exhausted soldiers and horses and muddy guns back to Königsberg where the officers would tell each other that the "old man" was quite mad.
In those few years Von Hindenburg got the reputation for being a bore. All he would talk about was the swamps. They even say in Berlin that he would pour the blackest of beer on a table top to indicate swamp water, and then would work out a military problem during his dinner. Absurd exaggerations obviously, but still there must have been some basis for it. One day one of those members of the Reichstag who believe that all a country has to do is to make money, proposed that the Masurian lakes be filled in, and that the ground be given over to intensive farming. Von Hindenburg read the news that night in Posen and caught a train for Berlin. He was in a rage. Fill in his pet lakes and swamps! Unglaublich! Not to be thought of! They say he went to see the Emperor about it, that he brought with him all his maps and battlelines.
a soldier's progress - von Hindenburg as cadet in 1860 and as lieutenant in 1866
They say that he told the Emperor that if Masuren-land was filled in it would be the greatest military crime in the history of the German nation. He did not go away until the Emperor promised that the swamps should remain.
Then came the war. The Russians were mobilized. They were on the frontier. The Old Man of the Swamps offered his services to the Emperor. He was a retired general, though. The Emperor had his regular generals to the army of East Prussia. There was General von Prittwitz, for instance. The Russians got into East Prussia. General von Prittwitz was soon deposed. Everybody in military Germany knows that through the blunders of certain high officers the small army that the Germans had in the field against Russia early in August was very nearly annihilated. I personally know of one atrocious blunder when a single unsupported cavalry division was sent from Insterburg to rescue a Landwehr division that was outnumbered eight to one by the Russians. The cavalry knew that there was so few that they could do nothing. Still the orders were to go and they had to go. Such was the campaign of East Prussia.
The Emperor went to Moltke, then his Chief of Staff. The Emperor said that the German troops in East Prussia were not being handled properly. He demanded another general. Moltke named one man after another and the Emperor shook his head. Moltke was at the end of his list. "Is there no one else you can recommend?" asked the Emperor.
"There is one man, Your Majesty, but, knowing your feelings in the matter, I have purposely refrained from mentioning his name."
"Who is he?" asked the Emperor quickly.
"Von Hindenburg," replied Moltke.
"It is not to be thought of," declared the Emperor.
But the Emperor went away to think it over. Like a vast tidal wave the Russians were breaking over his beloved East Prussia. The Emperor turned it over in his mind. There could be no delay. He sent a laconic message to Moltke. "Appoint Von Hindenburg."
So they took Cincinnatus away from the plow.
"I was not sick in bed," says Von Hindenburg in telling about the summons. "I was just sitting at the table having coffee when this important telegram came. Ludendorff my Chief of Generality had been summoned from Belgium and he came by special train."
And then began the ride to the East Prussian front traveling all the night in one of the high powered army automobiles discussing as he went the position of the troops. Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived at the place that had been chosen as headquarters and he took command of the Army of the East. You know what happened, you know how the Russian invasion poured in across East Prussia, past the Masurian lakes in a semi-circle from Tilsit southwards.
You know that Hindenburg elected to give battle on a field that was four times as large as Sedan. Back of the German line Hindenburg and his staff were watching the big maps. Like a great pair of tongs his soldiers were closing in from north and south. When they had surrounded the Russians, Von Hindenburg would order the battle begun, not before. Field telephones buzzed, the telegraph clicked, the staff officers were ever changing the positions on the big maps, the black lines, signifying the German soldiers were ever drawing closer together. Soon the Russians would be surrounded. And then an aeroplane with black iron crosses painted under its wings dropped down out of the clouds and landed in front of Hindenburg's headquarters. And its observer dashed up to report, "The enemy is surrounded!"
"Begin the battle," ordered Hindenburg.
And over the field telephones went the commands and the awful slaughter of Tannenberg began that battle of which historians will write as one of the great conflicts of the world. Back into the lakes and swamps that he knew so well, that he had fought so hard to save from the Reichstag, Von Hindenburg drove the Russians. Whole regiments slowly sank in the ooze and disappeared from sight. By regiments the soldiers of the Czar were driven into the soft bottomed lakes and shifting sands of Masuren-land. And behind the line, Hindenburg, who knew every square mile of that country and knowing the topography almost to every tree, could tell the German troops exactly what to do. And from his headquarters the command would go by telephone to the General in the field.
I think it will not be until after this war is over that the world will know in detail what happened at Tannenberg. Von Hindenburg's strategy has jealously been hidden by the German General Staff. Not a single military attache of a neutral country has been able to learn it. All one knows is that the Old Man of the Swamps drove the Russians into the swamps and that they perished by the thousands.
All I know of the battle of Tannenberg is this. I learned it while at dinner with an officer of Von Eichorn's staff.
"Oh, yes," he said quickly, "I was in the battle of Tannenberg. Some of our officers went insane. You see we drove the Russians back into the swamps and as they felt themselves sinking they threw away their guns and put up their hands, clutching at the air in their death throes. We were coming up to make them prisoners when some of them fired on us. So we turned the machine guns on them," he paused. "I guess it is better that we did. For they were in the swamps and slowly sinking to their death. All night you could hear their cries and the horses made worse screams than the men. It was terrible. Four of my brother officers went out of their minds simply from hearing the shrieks."
An intolerant old warrior who cares not what the newspapers say in his praise, who is bored with the thousands of letters and presents that are being sent him from all parts of Germany, who when this war is over has not the slightest desire to become Minister of War Field Marshal von Hindenburg is a military genius with a kind German heart in spite of his grim exterior, fond of a glass of good wine and a good story, but accomplishing both work and play in the fascination of strategical study.
But what amazed me more than anything else about Von Hindenburg is the way he is regarded by official military circles in Germany. I knew that to the mass of people and soldiers he is a hero; they think him a military genius of almost divine inspiration. I mentioned this fact one night to a captain in the Great General Staff.
"Oh, yes," he said, "Von Hindenburg is a great general. He has had his opportunity. If he were killed to-morrow there is another general ready to step in and carry on the same work. And if that general were to be killed there is still another. I could mention five or six. You see Von Hindenburg, great man that he is, is simply a cog in a machine. A very great cog, to be sure, but then, don't you see, it is not a single individual that counts but the whole machine. If we lose a part of the machine it is replaced. It is very simple. I know General von Hindenburg and I know that all this talk about him, all this fuss, this idea of asking him, a super man, is very distasteful to him."
Von Hindenburg, only the part of a system! The real hero of Germany then must be the composite of a myriad of remarkably efficient units of which Von Hindenburg is a single element in the war machine of such consummate ability that he seems to stand alone.
von Hindenburg as lieutenant in 1870/71, as captain in 1876 and as major-general
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