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How Close The Schlieffen Plan Came To Success

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Schlieffen Plan was a strategic plan produced by the German General Staff in the early 20th century. The plan was designed to deal with the threat of encirclement, as Germany had France to the west and Russia to the east. The plan was put into action during the opening of The First World War in which Germany had to fight on both a Western Front and an Eastern Front. The plan was designed to take advantage of the difference in time that it would take each of the three countries to mobilise for war. The thinking behind the plan was for Germany to avoid a two front war by focusing their armies in the west, quickly defeating the French forces as they had done in the franco-prussian war and then to move its armies using its internal rail network to the east, to deal with the Russian forces before they had time to mobilize fully. The Schlieffen Plan was created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen and modified by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger after Schlieffen’s retirement (1). The plan was actually used by Moltke, and, in its modified form, was executed to near victory in the first months of the First World War. However several factors, including the modifications to the original plan; a French counterattack on the outskirts of Paris (the Battle of the Marne); and surprisingly speedy Russian offensives, prevented the plan from reaching its conclusion, thus ending the German offensive, and resulting in prolonged trench warfare.

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the province of Alsace-Lorraine, which had been French and contained a mixed population of French and Germans, had become part of the German Empire. France was clearly eager to regain its lost territory. However because of Bismarck’s alliances, (2) France was unable to threaten Germany, once Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne in 1888 he began to let the alliances slip and German leaders began to fear encirclement.

The first element of the plan involved Germany quickly deploying its forces as well as ignoring the neutrality of Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. The strategic element of the plan was the powerful German right wing moving southwest through Belgium and Northern France, “letting the last man on the right, brush the Channel with his sleeve, in the words of Schlieffen (2), while maintaining only a defensive posture on the central and left wings, in Lorraine, the Vosges, and the Moselle.

As previously mentioned, Russian mobilization was thought to take around six weeks, this time was largely due to Russia’s poor rail network. Therefore after France was defeated within the scheduled forty two days, German high command would transfer the bulk of the German army to the Eastern Front. The plan initially deployed 91% of the German troops to France and only 9% to Russia. The goal was to overwhelm France in six weeks, (the time it took for Russia to mobilize its army), and turn back to the Eastern Front before Russia was fully prepared for war. Kaiser Wilhelm II is quoted as having said “Paris for lunch, dinner at St. Petersburg.”(7)

However the German offensive was not successful and we can identify seven major reasons that the Schlieffen Plan failed these are:

The effectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force:

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was small compared to the vast armies being mobilised by France and German the total number of ‘Tommys’ was only 75,000 at the beginning of the war. The French amassed millions of troops, and their aim was to use this number to push the German invasion back quickly and retake Alsace. To this end, the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre deployed the small but highly professional BEF on the left flank, where it was thought that there would be no combat. However because of the spped at which the German forces advanced through Belgium, the British were nearly routed several times (3), but they managed to hold-up the Germans long enough for French and British reinforcements to arrive. While the BEF was forced to draw back throughout the month of August, it provided enough resistance against the German First Army under Alexander von Kluck to help encourage the German general to break off the Plan. Instead, von Kluck turned south-east towards Compiègne, showing his flank to the Garrison of Paris under Gallieni, making possible the “Miracle of the Marne”. (5)

The speed of Russian mobilization:

The Russians moved faster than anyone expected, taking ground in Eastern Germany far quicker than the Germans had thought possible. While the initial Russian invasion was little more than harassment, had the Germans not moved forces to check them they would have come dangerously close to Berlin. To prevent this Germans moved more troops from the western front to the east. This However was unnecessary and counterproductive as while the forces moved away from the Western Front were still being transported the German forces in the east won the victory at Tannenberg in early September 1914, while at the same time battles on the Western front were going badly for Germany.(6)

The French railway system:

Because the Germans had been held up by the British and Belgians, the French had more time to organise and transport troops from the border to Alsace-Lorraine. The Germans had not accounted for how quickly the French would be able to do this, This resulted in the Germans encountering a very differently organised French deployment than the one they were expecting The French moved most of their troops by train, although there are reports of the French using taxis and marching large numbers of troops to get them into position in time. All of this meant that by the time the Germans got into France, the French were there waiting for them.

Logistical shortcomings:

van Creveld says that (7)

“Schlieffen does not appear to have devoted much attention to logistics when he evolved his great Plan. He well understood the difficulties likely to be encountered, but made no systematic effort to solve them. Had he done so, he might well have reached the conclusion that the operation was impracticable. … Moltke did much to improve the logistic side of the plan. Under his direction, the problem was seriously studied for the first time and officers trained in the ‘techniques’ of warfare” Moltke did indeed make a number of alternations to the plan. From a simply logistical perspective, some of these changes were for the better, but most were detrimental to the cohesiveness of the plan was a complete stratagy. Creveld concludes that, “overall, the logistical shortcomings of the plan did not contribute to the German defeat on the Marne.””However had the battle gone in Germany’s favour … there is every reason to believe that the advance would have petered out. The prime factors would have been the inability of the railheads to keep up with the advance, the lack of fodder, and sheer exhaustion. In this sense, but no other, it is true to say that the Schlieffen Plan was logistically impracticable.”

In van Creveld’s view(7) the layout of the plan was did not have the necessary standard of thoroughness and detailed planning that was thought to be the hallmark of the German General Staff, but by “an ostrich-like refusal on Schlieffen’s part to face even those problems which, after forty years of peace, could be foreseen.” Although Moltke did improve the logistical elements of the plan to take into account modern communications technology., it was not the execution of carefully laid plans which allowed the German advance to enjoy the successes that it did, but “furious improvisation “(7) That the German Army performed as well as it did when the orders they were receiving were so contradictory and unclear is testament as to what a formidable military force they really were.

Moltke’s changes to the plan:

Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke altered several elements of the Schlieffen Plan, firstly he reinforced the east with 180,000 men from the right-wing armies to defend against Russia this watered down the invasion force in favour of a more secure eastern border. Moltke was also opposed to the idea of invading the neutral Netherlands in order to provide his armies with a route through to France. The result of this was that his forces were held up in Belgium and this resulted in the breakdown of the whole schedule that the plan was meant to follow. Moltke also moved more troops from his right wing to his left as he was worried that Allied troops could threaten Germany. In the original plan Schlieffen wanted to provide the opportunity for invading armies to threaten Germany before they were enveloped, as this would provide a political victory as well as a military one. This shift of man power became a problem, because the German left flank was now pushing the French back rather than luring them away from Paris. This meant that the French forces were much closer to the action than was intended and they were condensed rather than spread out. Moltke also sent 80,000 troops to the east to defend against the Russian invasion. In the end Moltke had shifted 250,000 men away from the right wing invasion force watering the assault down to such a point that he had no choice but to abandon the Schlieffen Plan. The French were beaten back by the strongly reinforced left German armies of close to Sarrebourg; the French forces pulled back and took up defensive positions in the hills near the city of Nancy(5). Instead of avoiding them and enveloping the French armies and Paris as the plan dictated. German high command chose to assault their heavily defended positions around Nancy. This offensive was a total failure.

Belgian resistance:

Even though the forces defending Belgium were only ten percent of the size of the invading German army, they still managed to hold the German forces up for almost a month, the Belgians quickly lost their forts and military strongholds but they continued to fight in an almost guerrilla style, constantly threatening German supply lines in the North. Also the fact the Germany had invaded Belgium turned European public opinion against them.

German underestimation of the British-Belgian alliance:

Britain and Belgium were in an alliance because of the London Treaty that was signed in 1839.(3) Germany did not believe that Britain would keep to the treaty and defend Belgium. The British did keep to their word and surprised Germany by entering the war. This meant that Germany would have to contend with the royal navy and the highly effective BEF in the war.

What actually happened was the opposite of what the plan intended (1) because Russia fell before France. The Russian army was defeated with very little cost to the Germans and Russia was forced out of the war before the western front was resolved. Meanwhile the Western front had huge amounts of manpower poured into it feeding the war of attrition that was taking place. The stalemate began to break in the summer of 1918 when Italy finally managed to defeat Austria-Hungary, and forced them to withdraw from the war. This meant that Germany’s southern flank was exposed. The defeat and withdrawal of Bulgaria also made Germany venerable to an Allied advance up the Danube.

In 1917 the United States entered the war and brought with it a substantial amount of troops, this meant that Germany’s final push in 1918 was defeated and the allies were able to push the Germans out of France and into Belgium and then back towards the German border. Once it became clear that western front was lost, Germany requested terms and the First World War came to a close.

There is no denying that the plan came close to success but with so many factors weighted against it and the poor decisions made German high command in regards to the plans execution. the Schlieffen Plan was never going to win the war for Germany. Moltke’s fear of Russia proved unfounded and his changes in deployment unnecessary. If these changes had not been made then the plan may have enjoyed more successes as it was the Germans did not have the man power to build on their initial gains and therefore had to retreat. The plan itself however has merit and I think that it’s fair to say if the execution of the plan had not been watered down so much by Moltke and Schlieffens original plan was stuck to then France may well have fallen and the thin line that separated defeat from victory would have been crossed by the Germans.

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