Hermann Josef von Kuhl (2 November 1856 – 4 November 1958) was a Prussian military officer, member of the German General Staff, and a Generalleutnant during World War I. One of the most competent commanders in the Imperial German Army, he retired in 1919 to write a number of critically acclaimed essays on the war. Hermann von Kuhl is one of only five recipients to be distinguished with both the "military class" and "peace class" of the Pour le Mérite, Prussia's and Germany's highest honor.
Hermann von Kuhl was born in Koblenz, Rheinpreußen (Rhenish Prussia), the son of a high school teacher. He studied philosophy, classical philology, German studies and comparative linguistics at the Universities of Leipzig, Tübingen, Marburg and Berlin. In 1878 he received his D.Phil. with the dissertation De Saliorum Carminibus. During his studies, he was a member of the University of Leipzig's singing group St. Pauli.
On 1 October 1878 he joined the 5th Westphalian Infantry Regiment No. 53 – Köln as a cadet. There he was promoted to Leutnant in 1879 and Oberleutnant in 1889. After attending the Prussian Military Academy from 1889 to 1892, he served in the Royal Prussian District Command (Bezirkskommando) Wesel and the Grenadier Regiment "King Friedrich Wilhelm I" (2nd East Prussian) No. 3 – Königsberg, where he was a company commander.
In 1897 he returned to the Prussian Military Academy in Berlin as an instructor and concurrently served as a Section Chief in the German General Staff. During his time on the General Staff von Kuhl was heavily influenced by Feldmarschall Alfred Graf von Schlieffen and the Schlieffen plan. Working well with the often-difficult Schlieffen, von Kuhl's career flourished. Schlieffen came to believe von Kuhl would become a "great captain of the future" and in 1899 promoted him to Major. During this period von Kuhl also served on the General Staff of the Imperial German Navy until the end of 1902. His first major publication, Bonaparte's Campaign of 1796, the Starting Point of Modern Warfare, also appeared in 1902.
On 4 June 1912 von Kuhl was promoted to Generalmajor. One year later, during the 25th anniversary of the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm II, he was knighted and thereafter named von Kuhl. At this time he received his first command, that of the 25th Infantry Brigade Münster, from 3 June 1913 to 2 August 1914. His last position prior to the start of World War I was an appointment as one of the five Oberquartiermeister who served as deputies to the Chief of the General Staff in Berlin.
World War I
At the outbreak of World War I on 2 August 1914, von Kuhl became General Alexander von Kluck's 1st Army Chief of Staff on the Western Front and would prove an expert commander. He received a promotion to Generalleutnant on 18 April 1915. On 22 September that same year, he became General Max von Fabeck's 12th Army Chief of Staff, and then served in the same capacity in the 6th Army after 24 November 1915. For exemplary service during the Battle of the Somme, Generalleutnant von Kuhl received the Pour le Mérite on 28 August 1916
The end of August 1916 also saw von Kuhl's elevation to Chief of Staff of Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht (German: Heeresgruppe „Kronprinz Rupprecht“). There he served Feldmarschall Rupprecht, Crown Prince of Bavaria, one of four senior members of German royal families who were appointed army group commanders. As they had little military experience, their chiefs-of-staff exercised actual operational control. Von Kuhl was particularly able in this regard. During this time he saw action in the Ypres Salient and received the Kingdom of Bavaria's highest purely military honor, the Military Order of Max Joseph, on 13 December 1916.
After the Battle of Amiens on 11 August 1918, Rupprecht and his staff recognized that Germany's position had become hopeless. The Army Group's command headquarters had moved to Tournai (24 April 1918), to Mons (2 September 1918) and finally to Brussels (17 October 1918), reflecting the long withdrawal from the Western Front and the final collapse of the German Army. At war's end, Rupprecht resigned his post on 11 November 1918. During the march back to Germany, the Army Group was designated "A" (German: Herresgruppe A) and von Kuhl was made General der Infanterie to oversee its orderly demobilization. Following this final military assignment, Hermann von Kuhl retired.
In retirement, von Kuhl published historical-critical books and numerous essays, articles and reviews about leadership problems on the Western Front during the war. He first revealed the existence of the Schlieffen Plan to the public in 1920, in an article entitled Why did the Marne Campaign Fail? This sparked a debate concerning German strategy that continued throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, and again in the 1950s. Perhaps his most popular book in its day was The German General Staff in the Preparation and Conduct of the World War (1920), republished several times. He also wrote the objective essay The World War in the Judgment of our Enemies (1922). In 1929 he published Weltkrieg 1914–1918, two extensive volumes covering the entire war, which firmly established his reputation as a historian.
In the 1920s von Kuhl was appointed to the Historical Commission of the Reich Archives and gave evidence to the Weimar Republic's Parliamentary inquiries on the reasons for the military collapse of 1918. In his testimony, von Kuhl concluded: "The German offensive of spring 1918 had to battle with severe challenges... The mobility of the army was limited. Front-line units were gradually exhausted, while the enemy's combat power grew substantially through the arrival of the Americans and through the new means of combat – the tank." This stands in contrast to General Erich Ludendorff who spent his post-war years promoting a Far Right stab-in-the-back legend that blamed the German defeat without an honorable peace on Marxists and Republicans at home. Military historian Hans Meier-Welcker summed up von Kuhl this way: "For a deep historical understanding of the world war, even if not free of temporal apology, he performed a significant contribution"
For his postwar work, von Kuhl was awarded the Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste (English: Order of Merit in the Sciences and Arts) in 1924, Germany's highest civilian decoration. Hermann von Kuhl spent his last few years living with his nephew in Frankfurt am Main. He died there on 4 November 1958 at the age of 102, possibly the last survivor of World War I to have held general rank in the German army before the Armistice.
- Pour le Mérite, 28 August 1916 (one of the few recipients of both the "military class" and the "civil class")
- Oak leaves to the Pour le Mérite, 20 December 1916
- Commander of the Military Order of Max Joseph (Bavaria, 13 December 1916)
- Order of the Red Eagle, Knight 2nd Class with Oak Leaves and Swords, 12 January 1918
- Order of the Crown, 1st class with Swords (Prussia, 22 March 1918)
- Pour le Mérite for Sciences and Arts for his historical studies (5 December 1924)
- Naming of a street in Koblenz: Von-Kuhl-Straße
- Oakleaves awards at pourlemerite.org, Retrieved 28 April 2012
- Wolfgang Schütz: Koblenzer Köpfe. Personen der Stadtgeschichte – Namensgeber für Straßen und Plätze. 2. Auflage. Verlag für Anzeigenblätter, Mülheim-Kärlich 2005. (German)
Dates of ranks
- Fähnrich—1 October 1878
- Leutnant—12 January 1879
- Oberleutnant—16 February 1889
- Hauptmann—14 September 1892
- Major—13 September 1899
- Oberstleutnant—10 April 1906
- Oberst—24 March 1909
- Generalmajor—4 June 1912
- Generalleutnant—18 April 1915
- General der Infanterie—18 November 1918
Works by von Kuhl
- Der deutsche Generalstab in Vorbereitung und Durchführung des Weltkrieges. Mittler, Berlin 1920 (online).
- Der Marnefeldzug 1914. Mittler, Berlin 1921 (online).
- Ursachen des Zusammenbruchs: Entstehung, Durchführung und Zusammenbruch der Offensive von 1918. Hobbing, Berlin 1923.
- "Unity of Command Among the Central Powers" in: Foreign Affairs September, 1923 (online) at foreignaffairs.com
- Der Weltkrieg 1914–1918. Dem deutschen Volke dargestellt. 2 Bände. Tradition W. Kolk, Berlin 1929.
- with General [Walter Friedrich Adolf] von Bergmann, Movements and Supply of the German First Army During August and September, 1914 (Fort Leavenworth: Command and General Staff School Press, 1929). (Online).
- Hans Meier-Welcker: General der Infanterie v. Kuhl 96 Jahre alt. In: Wehrwissenschaftlche Rundschau. Band 2, 1952, Heft 11, p. 550.