August von Mackensen (1849-1945)
“Germany thinks too much of her big guns and not enough of her cavalry.”
The efforts of the Central Powers were clearly flagging in early 1915. Germany had fought off several Russian incursions, but could only defend the borders. The Austro-Hungarians, meanwhile, had been pushed out of Galicia and into the Carpathians, and Krakow was under threat. Only a few months later, the situation had turned around completely. Russia had been forced out of Galicia and East Prussia, unable to do anything except retreat, while the German and Austrian armies lunged towards Warsaw. The man responsible for this outright turnaround was German field marshal August von Mackensen.
Von Mackensen was born in Saxony in 1849, the son of an agricultural functionary. Mackensen’s father hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. But it was in the military that Mackensen saw his calling, and in 1869 he joined a Prussian regiment of Hussars, just in time to participate in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, where he earned a lieutenancy and an Iron Cross for gallantry shown while behind enemy lines. He resigned his commission after the war and briefly served as a tutor in military history to future emperor Wilhelm II, which formed a close bond between the two men that lasted for life. He rejoined the army in 1873 and was promoted directly to the General Staff.
Mackensen commanded a corps in the fighting of 1914, where he distinguished himself in the battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. In November of that year he received command of the German Ninth Army, newly formed in Poland. In April his command was transferred to the Eleventh Army, a fresh force composed of both German and Austro-Hungarian units. It was to be the spearhead of an offensive to drive back the Russians.
In May, Mackensen opened the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive. Within 24 hours he had driven back the Russians out of their front line positions and taken 30,000 prisoners. He displayed a mastery of breakthrough tactics, reconquering all of Galicia by the end of June. The Russian opposition disintegrated, with over a quarter of a million prisoners fallen into the bag, for which the Kaiser promoted him to field marshal. By now he had received command of three German and Austrian armies, known as Army Group von Mackensen.
The field marshal was silent and morose, averse to discussing his plans with any of his subordinates. He was one of the few German generals not to have graduated war college, and so some of his peers suspected him of being a “court general”, one who only received his position from his close connection to the Kaiser. Mackensen did not bother to defend himself with words, his actions spoke loudly enough. Though he was never tested against the British or the French, he defeated every foe arrayed against him during the war. His soldiers loved him, and he respected his enemies, even honoring the Serbian defenders of Belgrade after the city fell to his troops. His first love was always the cavalry, and he was almost always pictured wearing the theatrical all-black uniform of a Death’s Head Hussar, complete with giant busby with a skull-and-crossbones in the center.
In September 1915 Mackensen lead the combined Central Powers attack on Serbia, doing in a matter of months what Austria-Hungary had been unable to do in over a year. One year later he commanded the veritable blitzkrieg that knocked Romania out of the war only four months after it had joined the Allies. Mackensen spent the rest of the war in Romania, overseeing the occupation. When Bucharest fell in December, the Kaiser awarded him the Grand Cross of the Iron Cross. He was one of only four recipients during the war.
Mackensen retired from the army in 1919. He avoided the public eye for a few years until 1924, when he started to vigorously campaign with monarchist groups and conservative military organizations. Though he supported von Hindenburg against Hitler in the election of 1932, he often attended Nazi rallies in full uniform, as the last remaining German field marshal of the First World War.
Despite this, Mackensen remained a firm monarchist his whole life. He objected to some of Hitler’s actions, and deplored the assassinations committed during the Night of the Long Knives. When the Kaiser died in 1941, Mackesen disobeyed orders not to attend the funeral. The old field marshal himself died four years later, in November 1945, just months after the end of the Second World War. During his life he had gained renown for speed and surprise with which he conducted operations, and a well-deserved reputation as one of the most impressive German field commanders of the war.