Ulrich Wille

Ulrich Wille

General Ulrich Wille (1914-1918)
Born (1848-04-05)5 April 1848 
Hamburg, Germany
Died 31 January 1925(1925-01-31) (aged 76)
Meilen, Switzerland
Allegiance   Switzerland
Years of service 1867 - 1925
Rank General
Commands held Swiss Army
Battles/wars World War I

Conrad Ulrich Sigmund Wille (April 5, 1848 – January 31, 1925) was the General of the Swiss Army during the First World War. Inspired by the Prussian techniques that he had been able to observe at the time of his studies in Berlin, he tried to impress the Swiss Army with a spirit based on instruction, discipline and technical control.

Nomination as General

General Ulrich Wille, Commander-in-Chief of the Swiss Army during World War I.

At the dawn of the First World War, Switzerland confirmed its will to remain neutral and to avoid the conflicts which were going to set Europe ablaze. However, Switzerland was divided between the German-speaking Swiss who favored the Central Powers, and the French and Italian-speaking Swiss whose opinions tended to support the Allied Powers.

As a Germanophile, close to Kaiser Wilhelm II, Wille benefitted from the pro-German current and the disparity within the Swiss Federal Council, which counted only one member from the French areas.

In 1914, at the outbreak of warfare, a general mobilization of all military forces was issued. Wille, then a Colonel, was named General of Switzerland by the Federal Parliament on August 8, 1914 with 122 votes, against 63 votes for the other candidate, Theophil Sprecher von Bernegg. Von Bernegg would soon assume the rank of Chief of the General Staff and become a reliable partner of Wille's. The opponents of the general described him as "militarist" whereas his partisans saw in him a chief ready to manage an army in mobilization thanks to his pedagogical talents. Wille decided to concentrate the bulk of his forces (238,000 men and 50,000 horses) close to the borders, particularly in Ajoie and Engadine.

Political issues

The mandate of Wille was rife with political problems. Wille caused a scandal in French-speaking Switzerland by proposing to the Federal council on July 20, 1915 to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers. Thereafter, the "Colonels' Affair" in 1916 also had a great repercussion. Two Swiss colonels had given German and Austro-Hungarian diplomats specimens of the "Staff Gazette", a confidential journal, and Russian messages deciphered by Swiss cryptanalysts. The affair risked Swiss neutrality since it implied relations with one of the belligerents. Wille decided to condemn the two colonels to 20 days detention, an unsatisfactory sentence in the eyes of the pro-Allied party.

The confrontation between French-speaking Switzerland and German-speaking Switzerland widened. The Germanic newspapers supported the German actions in Belgium, whereas the French ones highlighted the resistance of the Allied troops.

The economic situation was poor and many strikes occurred, reaching their apogee with the Swiss General Strike from November 11 to November 14, 1918. In a note dated November 10, 1918, Wille announced his concern for the rise of Bolshevism and the internal disorders to come in the country:

Two years ago, I was brought on several occasions to share with the Federal Council my conviction that the congresses of Zimmerwald and Kiental had decided to begin with Switzerland the process of inversion of the established order in Europe. The triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia supported this project. Everyone knows that many messengers of Russian Bolsheviks, having vast sums of money, are in Switzerland with an aim of exploiting the situation and to accelerate the execution of this plan.

But he added that it was necessary to avoid violence:

We should not seek the confrontation, nor the civil war. Our duty is to prevent them. (...) All risings which occurred in Zurich so far showed clearly that the local authorities are not capable of intervening without causing serious bloodshed. I do not reproach the persons in charge. Their difficulties are inherent in the democratic institutions. This has been known for a long time and this is why the Confederation must intervene in time.

Meanwhile, Wille had to manage the pandemic of the Spanish influenza, which affected the troops and the recruit schools. In order to combat the spread of the epidemic, enlistment of new recruits was delayed.

Personal life

Wille was married to Clara Gräfin von Bismarck (1851–1946), the daughter of Frederick Wilhelm, Graf of Bismarck, with whom he had two daughters and three sons.

His eldest son, also named Ulrich Wille followed his father's footsteps in the military, ultimately becoming a Corps Commander. Wille Jr. also managed to keep his father's pro-German tendencies throughout his career, including during the Second World War. This would unfortunately contribute to his tensions with the next Swiss General, Henri Guisan.

His granddaughter was the renowned author Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a friend of Erika and Klaus Mann.


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