An Old-School Feldmarschall
Germany, Gottlieb Graf von HÃ¤ÃŸler, WWI
Gottlieb Ferdinand Albert Alexis Graf von HÃ¤ÃŸler (1836-1919)
“Our civilization must build its temple on mountains of corpses, an ocean of tears, and the groans of innumerable dying men.”
–stated in an address to his troops.
The Literary Digest History of the World War profiles him thusly:
You can just imagine how much Allied propagandists during the Great War must have loved that one!
When the war began the Crown Prince was entrusted with nominal command of the army which invaded France by crossing Luxemburg and reaching France at Longwy. It was his command that made the long and fruitless assault on Verdun in 1916.
Only in a titular sense was he the director of these assaults. The operations were in reality under control of Marshal von Haesler, one of the oldest commanders in the German army, if not the oldest, his age variously stated at from sixty-eight to seventy-nine, reference books not agreeing as to the date of his birth. He was old enough, however, to have been in the war against Denmark in 1864.
Haesler’s rotund form and the severity of his facial expression combined to make him one of the “figures” in militarist Germany. “The old guardian of the Moselle,” Germans often called him. It was Haesler’s business to advise the Crown Prince.
All agreed that the Crown Prince needed him and that he took the advice offered. Gossip said Haesler was the most abstemious war-horse in the empire. For fifty years he had risen every morning at five to drink a glass of milk and swallow two raw eggs. At two in the afternoon he ate a small piece of steak and a cup of broth. Characteristic of him was an anecdote that included Prince Henry, the Kaiser’s brother. At an annual maneuver Prince Henry had been asked to come to Haesler at eight in the evening. “When he arrived, he had to wait until nine, and then found that he and all Haesler’s guests were to sit down to a glass of water and an apple. ‘This,’ said the old man, ‘is set before you as a practical lesson in war conditions, when absolute necessities only can be obtained and appetites, like baggage, must be restricted.” ‘His Highness alone,” added the General, “having a special claim, may eat two apples and drink two glasses of water.’
In his capacity of inspector, Haesler for years was the terror of German soldiers. If he was to inspect a garrison at some place, such as Morhange, he would board a train that did not stop there, and then, just before getting to Morhange, would have the train halted under an emergency signal he had ordered. Fined as he would be for having stopped a train, he would pay the conductor the regular amount of a hundred marks and then rush off to the barracks. On returning to Berlin he would insist on repayment of his hundred marks, turning the administration upside down until he got the money. Haesler was known to think a long time before spending a mark. In the war he sometimes wore a suit of clothes that he had bought thirty years before and a hat that his father wore in another century. Candor was his least liked trait and Emperor William had as much reason as any one to be aware of it.
Soldiers, according to Haesler, should eat very little. Eating he regarded as a bad habit. ‘March a lot, eat a little, and shoot all the time,’ was his motto. He made his own corps a model of efficiency, knowing none of the caste distinctions common among Prussians, and yet maintaining an admirable discipline. His personal ascendancy was absolute, a circumstance the more remarkable because of deformity and invalidism. Once in the saddle he seemed a part of the horse. He was indulgent to men in the ranks, but severe with his staff. Thus he reversed an order usual among Prussian military magnates, being considerate to inferiors, grim to equals, and merciless to superiors, not excepting the Emperor himself, whose “conceptions” he sometimes openly laughed at in conference with the general staff. Not many years before the war, he once ordered maneuvers near the town of Siereck, where many lines of trenches had been dug, and a blue corps was on the defensive theoretically for a whole week living on dry bread. On going his rounds, Haesler saw an improvised table, made from a plank and four sticks, around which several officers sat on boxes, eating sausage. ‘Do you gentlemen think you are in a lady’s boudoir?” roared Haesler, as he forced his horse against and over the table. ‘The Sixteenth Army Corps is not a school of domestic manners,’ he added; ‘it is an institution that teaches trench life.’ Not daring to offer an apology, the offending officers, when the old man disappeared over the brow of a hill, were said to have vented their feelings in a single untranslatable word: ‘Heligkreuzkanonenbombengranathageldonnerwetter-elementnocheinmal!’
Between this old man and the one-time heir to the imperial throne there long existed warm affection. Alone among marshals, Haesler took seriously the conception attributed to the Crown Prince that Verdun was the true German objective in 1914. Stories were current of the fury with which he had received the decision of the General Staff in August, 1914, to make the rush toward Paris through Belgium. The road to Paris, he believed, lay through Verdun. On the basis of a common purpose before Verdun he and the young Prince were in firm alliance. The long and futile drive of 1916 was believed to be an expression of the very soul of Haesler. The grimness of the fray, its implacable continuity, its steady hail of projectiles, its stern unyielding advance, its disdain of all cost as well as the enthusiasm of the attack â€” these manifested the mood of Haesler in war. In great contrast as a man to the Crown Prince who was gentle, smiling, boyish, and gay, Haesler’s devotion to the Prince illustrated the familiar attraction of opposites. Haesler never read a book, except the manual, and his favorite relaxation was the society of horses.