kaiser-billKaiser Bill

The British soldier has always had a healthy attitude of self-deprecation and an even healthier disdain for those he considered over grandiose. Seldom has there been a military figure more deserving of this contempt than Wilhelm II (1859-1941), Kaiser (Emperor) of Germany: Kaiser Bill to the troops on the Western Front in the Great War.

It is definitely not correct to state, as some do, that Kaiser Wilhelm II was the prime instigator of the First World War. But he certainly played a very active role in the awful 'comedy of errors' that led up to it. And certainly he did nothing to discourage the military ambitions of the naval and military elite that increasingly controlled events in Germany after the departure - at the Kaiser's insistence - in 1890, of the architect of the Second Reich, Prince Otto von Bismarck.

So why did the Kaiser earn so little approbation from the British?

The character and deeds of K.B.
Firstly, he had an inordinate liking for the trappings, ceremonies and panoply of the military, whilst lacking the physique and temperament for the swashbuckling cavalryman he yearned to be. Physically, he was fragile and by an unfortunate accident of birth he had a withered left-arm, which he vainly tried to hide. He also had a penchant for over-elaborate uniforms (he was said to change uniforms 5 or 6 times during a single public function) and rode inappropriately large and spectacular horses; he was often in the saddle for 5 or 6 hours a day. Moreover, his infamous dismissal of the British Expeditionary Force on 19th August 1914 as a 'A contemptible little army' certainly did his cause no good in British eyes.

Secondly, his state of mind varied from a patronising arrogance to profound self-doubt and vacillation. It has even been suggested that he suffered from a 'narcissistic personality disorder'. As a consequence, he unnecessarily antagonised alike his royal relatives, erstwhile friends and allies. In particular, he upset his uncle and cousin, Edward VII and George V and, perhaps, most importantly, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who made no attempt to hide his strong distaste for the Kaiser.

Thirdly, he proved to be an extremely poor judge of character; an obvious paradigm being his catastrophic choice in 1906 of General Helmut von Moltke -'Moltke the Younger' - as the German Chief of the General Staff. General Helmut von Moltke's ambition was to emulate the military success of his uncle - 'the Elder' - that, as events proved, he was quite unable to do. Possibily, General von Molkte seriously weakened the 1906 Schlieffen Plan by the virtual elimination the essential 'right hook' element. He failed to keep in touch with his subordinates and, being continually absent from the front, was unable to keep up with developments there. He also diverted vital resources from the Western to the Eastern Front without due cause. The complete mishandling by omission of the First (and critical) Battle of the Marne in September 1914, was only the last of a whole series of catastrophic errors. General Helmut von Molkte is believed to have suffered a mental breakdown before his replacement by General Eric von Falkenhayn in September 1914.

Fourthly, there was the fundamental error when, in January 1917, in concert with the German Naval Chief of Staff, Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, the Kaiser decided to launch a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare to starve Britain of the resources necessary for the continued prosecution of the war. Despite the stongest of reservations in both German military and political circles that such an action could bring the United States of America into the war, in February 1917 the unrestricted U-boat campaign was launched. This action did lead directly to the subsequent entry of the United States into the war. It also finally decided the Allies on the introduction of the successful convoy system that brought a rapid decline in Allied and neutral shipping losses during 1917 and 1918.

Finally, towards the end of 1917, and progressively thereafter, the Kaiser surrendered to the military, under Generalfeldmarchal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, all control of the military and political affairs of Germany. He took no part in the negotiation for the peace on the Eastern Front. The increasing militarism of his country led almost inevitably to the unsuccessful Kaiserschlacht - Emperor's War - on the Western Front in 1918.

The finale
After the collapse of the German Army in late 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on the 9th November 1918. On the 10th November 1918, he retired to his country estate in Doorn, Holland, where he remained until his death in 1941, having recently watched, almost unnoticed, as another German Army passed nearby in pursuit of another unrequited war of conquest.

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