The Schlieffen Plan
The Troubles of Germany and the Development of the Plan
By 1914, the military powers in Germany believed that a war with Russia was extremely likely. Since the 1880s, relations between the two states had been growing ever more hostile. Some sort of conflict seemed inevitable. The situation was heightened by a treaty (Dual Alliance, 1896) signed between Russia and France, a country with much hatred for Germany from the Franco-Prussian War, that if one of the two was attacked, the other would come to its aid: instant defeat for Germany. This gave Germany a large problem: a war on two fronts. The Schlieffen plan was devised to solve this problem and ensure victory for Germany over both Russia and France should a war occur.
The first principle that was put into place was that Germany would have to initiate an attack to ensure the element of surprise. The first problem was deciding which country to attack first: Russia or France. Russia was known as the ‘Steamroller’, meaning their military was (supposedly) slow to mobilise but was immensely powerful because of its huge military numbers. Schlieffen and his team estimated that it would take at least two months for Russia to mobilise. France, however, would not take so long, and were a smaller military power (and Germany had defeated them a few decades earlier in the Franco-Prussian War). So it was decided that when Germany declared war on Russia, the German Army would march west and conquer France, before turning east and conquering Russia. However, precision planning and timing to the second would be needed to conquer France in such a short amount of time. After all, it’s not that easy to conquer a country in just 8 weeks.
Schlieffen decided that he should leave a portion of the German Army in the east, just in case he had misjudged how long it would take for Russia to mobilise or failed to defeat France in two months. However, this meant a smaller force to take on France, and this increased the probability of the latter problem. With a smaller offensive force than he had initially, Schlieffen that it would be impossible to defeat France by attack them head on across the Franco-German border (because of lack of soldiers and heavy French fortification). So he decided to flank the French Army instead. To do this he decided to go through Belgium, north of France, and bring the German Army round, west of Paris, and then take the capital city of France, whilst leaving some soldiers on the Franco-German Border, to defend against the French army which would move in such a direction, according to Schlieffen.
This presents problems. Firstly, it risked involving Great Britain in the war. The Treaty of London, 1839, stated that Britain would aid Belgium against foreign attack. However, considering Britain tiny army and previous military record (losing to tribal warriors armed with spears in the Boer War a few decades earlier), Schlieffen was not particularly worried.
Secondly, the prospect of moving 10 million soldiers, ammunition, supplies, and spare supplies through a tiny country with a tiny railway system was bordering on impossible to say the least. To complicate matters further, the huge Belgium fort/city of Liege (home of ‘Big Bertha’, a cannon capable of firing 1 tonne shells) stood directly in their path. This meant they would have to spend time capturing Liege, whilst ensuring that everything was moved, by train relay service, through Belgium, whilst ensuring enough time to take Paris. A daunting task that would rely on timing accurate to the second.
However, once through Belgium, hopefully with the element of surprise still intact, it was simply a matter of moving south, perhaps meeting a retreating French army (from fighting along the Eastern Franco-German border), and capturing Paris, this ensuring victory over France, ready to take on Russia; a lot harder than it sounds.
Assumptions and Failures
Although the Schlieffen Plan was well thought out, the amount of assumptions that were taken into account (i.e. How long Russia would take to mobilize) would eventually lead to its failure and the creation of a stalemate.
On the 2nd of August, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium, hoping to get through it relatively quickly in order to reach France. However, it became evident very quickly that Schlieffen has grossly under-estimated the Belgian Army and the Fort Liege. It took an extra two days to finally conquer Liege, and by that time the German Army in Belgium were locked in a battle with the Belgian Army, meaning their progress through Belgium had now been slowed dramatically. If Schlieffen had ever doubted Britain’s military power and loyalty to Belgium when drawing up his famous plan, he was soon to be proven guilty of such an act. The BEF, an elite, though small, company of soldiers were quickly deployed by Britain and came to the aid of the Belgian Army within days of the war starting. The previous German assumption that the BEF was just a ‘contemptible little army’ was soon squashed, and the BEF support at Mons in Belgium slowed the German advance ever more so.
However, the German Army were still a formidably large force, and managed to push the BEF and Belgian armies into Northern France.
At this point, the German High Command had assumed that the French armies had been crushed on the Franco-German border (where Schlieffen the French would go) and were not retreating to Paris. The truth was that the RFC (today’s RAF) with the BEF had given the French tactical advantage through aerial reconnaissance (another factor the Germans did not expect), and had lined up two armies on the River Marne, near Paris, to catch an advancing German Army. Two important events happened at this point. First, Moltke, leader of the advancing German forces, had now become aware that Russia had become mobilized in just 10 days (rather than the predicted 8 weeks), and were now invading Germany. The very worst possible situation had now become a reality: a war on two fronts. Moltke sent a large number of men back to Germany, because he believed that, with the BEF retreating, and the French (supposedly) in tatters, Paris would be easy pickings. This led to the second event, a large mistake by the Germans. Instead of heading straight for Paris, they went east in the hope of surprising a retreating French Army. Instead, the now weakened Germans were surprised to find a large French/Allied Army waiting for them by the River Marne. The two sides fought each other to a standstill further north of Paris, at the River Aisne, and it became obvious that the Schlieffen Plan had failed.
With both sides at a standstill, now dug in shallow trenches which would later became the famous term ‘trench warfare’, both sides made efforts to outflank each other in the hope of gaining a definitive advantage over the other: ‘The Race to the Sea’. The Germans saw the Channel Ports (important to the BEF for supplies, etc) as their main targets, and the Allies sought to protect them at all costs.
Once again, aerial reconnaissance was essential to the Allies, alerting them of outflanking manoeuvres from the Germans and allowed them to retaliate. This continued until the coast was hit, and the port of Ypres was contested in late 1914. With the Allies winning this, it became evident that now there was going to be a stale mate, both sides looked to deepen and fortify their trenches with barbed wire, artillery, bunkers, etc. The nature of ‘trench warfare’ meant that not side could possibly break the stalemate because of the sheer defensive quality of the trenches: the area between the trenches (no mans land), was constantly under bombardment, making it an absolute impossibility to push your trenches forward.
It is evident that many factors attributed to the stalemate on the eastern front: the miscalculated assumptions in the Schlieffen Plan (Russia mobilization, the BEF, etc) brought both sides to a standstill, and then the introduction of ‘trench warfare’ after the ‘Race to the Sea’, which told us that neither side was going to give an inch, even if it did mean the deaths of millions of their own men.