Who was your favorite WWI commander?
My pick would be General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, one of the most brilliant guerrilla commanders of all time. His campaign in German East Africa – which spanned the entire war and even outlasted it by a couple of days – successfully achieved its objective of tying down disproportionately large numbers of Allied troops (by a ratio of better than 20-to-1) who would otherwise have been free to serve on the Western Front.
Favorite WWI ship?
I’d say the German battlecruiser Goeben, on the grounds of sheer dash, gutsiness (to the point of effrontery) and geopolitical impact. She and the light cruiser Breslau evaded and outran a British force of 25 warships – including three battlecruisers – in a spectacular chase across the Mediterranean, to the great humilation of the two pursuing British Admirals (one of whom was later court-martialed). The German commander, Admiral Souchon, then took refuge in neutral Turkey and negotiated a clever deal to avoid internment: he, his crew and his ships nominally became part of the Turkish Navy. Not long afterwards, he conducted a raid against the Russians in the Black Sea, and the rulers of the Ottoman Empire – who had been dithering over which side (if any) to join in WWI – found themselves dragged into the war on the side of the Central Powers, much to German’s satisfaction. The Goeben survived WWI and, indeed, served up to the end of WWII and remained afloat (though decommissioned) until 1971, when she was scrapped.
On land: Tannenberg, an Eastern Front operation involving the kind of large-scale maneuvering that makes for a refreshing contrast with the trench warfare which the Western Front settled into after the Marne. It was characterized by tactical brilliance on the German side and a good deal of stupidity and incompetence on the Russian side, with predictable results. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were able to use successfully the Napoleonic principle of concentrating most of their strength against one part of the enemy’s divided forces, then doing the same against the other part. On the Russian side, where coordination of effort would have been invaluable, there’s a (possibly apocryphal) story which says that the two Russian commanders, Rennenkampf and Samsonov, hated each other and had even once gotten into a fistfight on a railway platform in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. Their boss, War Minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov, was also a problematic character: he apparently believed that he had learned everything there was to know about war in a cavalry charge he had led against the Turks in the 1870s, and was allegedly proud of the fact that he had not read a military textbook in 25 years.
At sea: Jutland, the biggest dreadnought clash in history, even if the main action only lasted a matter of minutes and was conducted in the failing light of early evening through a haze of engine smoke and cordite fumes.
WWI infantry weapon?
I’m not sure if “favourite” is the right word, but arguably the most significant one was the heavy machine gun. It greatly increased the length of front that a squad of men could hold from a protected (i.e. entrenched) position. Multiply that amount of frontage by the millions of men that the mass armies of the time could deploy, crammed into the relatively cramped geography between the Alps and the North Sea, and you end up with a front that can’t be flanked and that can’t be taken by conventional assault because its defensive powers have become vastly superior to the offensive strength of foot soldiers (especially once they’ve gone beyond the range of their supporting heavy artillery, which wasn’t self-propelled in those days).
This isn’t an area about which I know enough to make an informed choice, so I’ll go with the Fokker Dr.I triplane as the only WWI plane I could identify without the help of a museum sign.