Germany’s Crown Prince Wilhelm’s Assessment of US Troops Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Crown Prince Wilhelm was the son and heir of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and a commander of the Imperial German Army on the Western Front against Britain and France. In a statement to the German public published two months prior to the end of the war, Wilhelm evaluates the potential of American troops as foes of Germany in the context of an overall discussion of Germany’s enemies on the Western Front. Both the impact of the war material and the numbers of soldiers that the Americans had deployed to Europe concern him, but he is unimpressed with American knowledge of the issues at stake in the war in Europe. Wilhelm’s statement is misleading in that the German military situation was far worse by September 1918 than the crown prince acknowledges.

Summary Overview

Crown Prince Wilhelm was the son and heir of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and a commander of the Imperial German Army on the Western Front against Britain and France. In a statement to the German public published two months prior to the end of the war, Wilhelm evaluates the potential of American troops as foes of Germany in the context of an overall discussion of Germany’s enemies on the Western Front. Both the impact of the war material and the numbers of soldiers that the Americans had deployed to Europe concern him, but he is unimpressed with American knowledge of the issues at stake in the war in Europe. Wilhelm’s statement is misleading in that the German military situation was far worse by September 1918 than the crown prince acknowledges.

Defining Moment

The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, but it took some time for the Americans to mobilize and deploy troops across the Atlantic in significant numbers. The prewar US Army was quite small by the standard of the massive European armies that clashed on the battlefields of World War I, and many of the soldiers sent across the Atlantic had only recently been recruited from civilian life. Many European veterans, aware of the technological challenges of early twentieth-century war, were skeptical of the American soldiers’ fighting quality. This skepticism was shared by British and French allies as much as by Germany. Even the proposal to establish independent American units rather than incorporating American troops into British and French units was controversial.

German hopes of victory had been fed by the Russian withdrawal from the war following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Russian withdrawal enabled the Germans to transfer hundreds of thousands of men from the Eastern Front to the west, where Germany hoped that one last push would drive the exhausted British and French forces from the war. However, the last major German offensive on the Western Front had failed in early August with German defeat at the Second Battle of the Marne. Though the Allied counterattack in the Second Battle of the Marne was led by the French, American troops had distinguished themselves in the battle. A British-led Allied counterattack at Amiens on August 8 also proved devastatingly effective, with the Allies making use of a new and deadly weapon, the tank. So successful was the assault, with large numbers of German troops surrendering, that August 8 was referred to as “the black day of the German Army” by German general Erich Ludendorff. The Amiens victory was followed by further successful Allied offensives along the Western Front, shattering the stalemate of the trenches that had existed since 1914.

The ability of the Allies to draw on American manpower and other resources meant Germany had no real hope of stemming the tide of the Allied advance. Despite the triumph over Russia in the east, by the fall of 1918 an exhausted Germany was facing defeat. The German home front was also under increasing stress with the efficacy of the British blockade and the growing discontent of German civilians and soldiers with their political and military leadership. Crown Prince Wilhelm’s statement was issued shortly before the successful Allied assault on the German-held Saint-Mihiel salient, the first American-led offensive of the war.

Author Biography

Friedrich Wilhelm Victor Augustus Ernest Hohenzollern (1882–1951) was the last crown prince of the Kingdom of Prussia and the German Empire. Although he had little military experience at the beginning of World War I, he became a commander of the German Fifth Army in August 1914. By 1917, Wilhelm was pessimistic about the war and tried to influence German leaders toward peace. He believed that the war had been lost following the German defeat at the Second Battle of the Marne, but his proposals for German retreat were rejected by the German High Command. Following the war and the outbreak of the German revolution of 1918, Crown Prince Wilhelm abdicated his claim to the throne and lived the rest of his life as a private citizen.

Document Analysis

In this brief statement published in German newspapers on September 4, 1918, Crown Prince Wilhelm evaluates the German position on the Western Front by looking at Germany’s enemies. Wilhelm is careful not to harm German morale on the home front, which had already been stretched to the breaking point. Nor, aiming at a civilian audience, did he wish to use technical military vocabulary or give away anything concerning German military plans. Therefore, the discussion is general and brief.

Wilhelm sees the principal impact of the American entry into the war as quantitative. This involves both weapons and supplies (“material”) and soldiers (“human material”). The US economy was productive, having supplied the French and British armies in the years prior to the US entry into the war, and the American population far exceeded that of any European country except Russia. In this brief passage, Wilhelm does not distinguish between American imports of weapons and imports of items such as food that enabled the Allies to sustain their war effort. At the time of the report’s publication in September 1918, the United States had already shipped supplies and soldiers in large quantities, and more were coming. Wilhelm’s discussion of the American forces focuses on their numbers and not the Americans’ fighting ability, suggesting that Wilhelm either had little experience of Americans as combat soldiers or that he viewed their numbers as more important than their skill or courage.

Wilhelm’s evaluation of the US troops includes his assessment of both the French and British armies. While Wilhelm admires the French as soldiers–noting that they “fight brilliantly”–he presents the war against France to his readers optimistically. He claims that Germany is winning a war of attrition against France and is “bleeding” the country to death. He also notes that, although the British fight well as individual soldiers, they are less of a menace due to their “deficient” leadership, again reassuring his civilian readers. Wilhelm’s qualified optimism regarding Germany’s conflict with the Allies was an attempt to conceal from his German readers precisely how bad the situation on the Western Front had become. The exhausted French and poorly led British were now on the offensive against Germany, joined by their new American allies.

While acknowledging the American contributions to the Allied war effort in terms of manpower and supplies, Wilhelm is dismissive of the threat posed by the US entry into the war, writing, “Regarding the American forces in France, I’ve found that the majority don’t know what they are fighting for.” To illustrate this point, Wilhelm mentions his encounter with an American prisoner of war who mistakenly believed that the contested region of Alsace was a lake. Alsace is a region of eastern France that had been annexed by Germany following the German victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Many French people wanted to return the region to French control, which was often cited as a principal reason for Franco-German enmity and one of the causes of World War I. The American prisoner’s ignorance–knowing of the importance of Alsace in the war, but thinking of it as a lake rather than a region–serves as an example of what Wilhelm sees as Americans’ ignorance over the real issues of the war. This statement indicates either that the Americans with whom Wilhelm had come into contact, mostly prisoners, had not absorbed US president Woodrow Wilson’s rhetoric on the war as a fight for democracy or that Wilhelm had wished to conceal the truth from his German audience.

Essential Themes

Although Wilhelm’s picture of the German position is far from rosy, one does not get the impression from reading it in isolation that Germany was only two short months from total defeat. The onslaught of American supplies and material, to which Wilhelm refers, played a significant role in the German loss. The assault on Saint-Mihiel, carried out primarily by American forces with some French support, was successful, driving the Germans from the position. (In his discussion of the German defeat at Saint-Mihiel in his memoirs, Wilhelm claimed that the Americans were poor but brave soldiers, whose victory could be ascribed to their use of tanks–then a new invention–and the immense quantity of artillery they brought to bear.)

Wilhelm’s picture of American ignorance drew on German (and European) ideas of Americans as an uncultured people who did not understand European history, politics, or geography; however, this conception was irrelevant to the American ability to fight, a far more serious concern for Germany. In his statement, Crown Prince Wilhelm attempts to reassure the German people–who were greatly strained by the effects of the war and deeply questioned their political and military leadership–that the US entry into the war did little to alter Germany’s position on the Western Front. Just two weeks after the report’s publication, however, the German position at Saint-Mihiel was overrun by an American-led assault, marking a major turning point in the war and setting up the German surrender just two months later.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Craig, Gordon A. Germany 1866–1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1978. Print.
  • Horne, Charles Francis, ed. The Great Events of the Great War. New York: Natl. Alumni, 1923. Print.
  • Lloyd, Nick. Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I. New York: Basic, 2014. Print.
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