- The Schlieffen plan was made before World War I.
- It was a plan for Germany to avoid fighting at its eastern and western fronts at the same time.
- But it turned out to be an ugly way of wearing everyone down during World War I
- Eventually, it led to Germany’s downfall.
Germany faced a war on two fronts. Their solution was to fight Russia and France at the same time. The plan for this strategy, which Schlieffen, the German General Staff created, had an important effect on the war.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen
Alfred von Schlieffen was born in Berlin. He was born on February 28th, 1833.
He joined the army when he turned 18 years old. He fought in wars against other countries like Austria-Prussia and France. Since he did a good job there, he was promoted to Chief of the German General Staff.
The Schlieffen Plan
Schlieffen was very worried about Germany’s position with Russia and France. He was sure that if Germany were to fight a war against Russia and France at the same time, it would not be able to win.
Because Europe was dividing into two fronts, he thought that Russia and France were serious enemies. He made the Schlieffen Plan in 1905.
This plan was to attack France (while Russia mobilized its army) and then attack Russia. Germany could place their military might on one frontier, and then move it to another one.
Germany before World War I
This was not the first time Germans had tried to fight in a war on two fronts. Before that, they had “hold in the west and attack in the east.”
The typical invasion route into France was through the Burgundian Gate. This was the way German armies had taken during the Franco-Prussian war in the past. Because of that, the French had fortified this road with new forts.
Schlieffen realized that it would be hard to break through the heavily defended Burgundian Gate. This was shown when there was a lot of killing at the Battle of Verdun in 1916.
Germany’s strategy was to first deal with Russian forces in the east. They thought that Russia would be slower than Germany because they needed more time to gather their soldiers. Germany also had better-trained troops.
Germany and Austria would beat Russian forces. Russia would have to stop fighting. France couldn’t win because it didn’t have a plan with Russia. France had to end the war.
Changes to the Schlieffen Plan
The original Schlieffen Plan was later changed by other military leaders.
In 1906, General Schlieffen retired from the army. His plan was revised at the outbreak of World War I.
When war broke out in 1914, his plan was adopted by another leader, Helmuth von Moltke. Von Moltke made changes to the plan.
He reduced German forces that would attack France and invaded through Belgium instead of the Netherlands during the initial offensive.
What did the Schlieffen Plan say?
The Schlieffen Plan changed a little as the European tension increased. But it was still the same idea:
- Germany planned to attack France through Belgium as soon as Russia had announced she was mobilizing.
- If needed, Germany would also take part in a holding operation on the Russian/German border.
- Germany had six weeks to defeat France before Russia attacked her.
- If successful, Germany would move troops from the French front to the Russian front within a week’s time using modernized railways (trains).
- Russia would then be defeated in two weeks at most and with minimal losses to German troops.
General Schlieffen decided that, even if the French attacked somewhere else in France, he would focus on the right-wing of the German army. He was willing to let them take back Alsace-Lorraine for a short time.
The German general Schlieffen counted on two things. He thought that the war in the West would be quick, and he also thought that Russia would take a long time to mobilize. So he only needed a small defensive force toward Russia while Germany was fighting France.
Weak points in the Schlieffen Plan
The action of Russia determined when Germany had to start her attack on France. Even if Russia was ready, Germany would need six weeks to mobilize. It also assumed that Germany would defeat France in less than six weeks.
The war begins
In the first days of World War I, many Germans felt like they bonded with each other. They all came together and supported WWI. This happy feeling covered up the dangerous situation Germany was in.
Germany went to war with the plan of Helmuth von Moltke. He was younger and his plan was different than Schlieffen’s.
Germany went to war with Russia on August 1st, 1914. On that day, it also declared war on France and sent its army through Belgium to attack Paris.
The attack in 1914 was almost successful. It was only defeated by the Battle of the Marne.
In the Battle of the Marne, the French army attacked the Germans. The battle was in France, 30 miles from Paris. They attacked in the morning and it lasted all day.
The plan fails
The king of Belgium was neutral. But Germany said that if the Belgian government didn’t let German troops go through its land, it would be an enemy. Belgium told them to stop.
One day later, Germany invaded Belgium because of the Schlieffen Plan. Belgium refused to let Germany pass through their land without fighting.
Then the British Army got involved in the fight when they found out that Belgium was being attacked. They had promised to protect Belgium from enemies back in 1839.
Some people say that the generals caused the war. This is not true. The decision to mobilize was made by the government, not by the generals. It does have some truth in it, but there is more to it than this statement says.
With soldiers from Britain fighting alongside France, Germany’s plan to attack quickly was slowed down because they faced resistance and needed more time for their troops to get there.
The poor communication that frontline commanders and army headquarters had in Berlin was not helping Moltke to control his campaign.
Then Russia was quicker to respond than the Germans thought. Russia was also better at mobilizing its army and attacked East Prussia within 10 days, not six weeks as the Germans had thought beforehand.
This led to Germany sending more troops from France to Russia, which reduced the number of troops on the Western Front.
Moltke talked to Kaiser Wilhelm II after German forces were defeated. He said, “We lost the war.” Four years later, Moltke’s prediction would be true. Germany lost World War II.
There are so many “what ifs” that it is hard to know how the outcome of the war would have been different if Germany had not made their plan. It likely means that France would have invaded Germany, but at least they were busy with taking back their land.
This could have meant that the Western Front was limited to a 25-mile area of the Belfort Gap and not 200 miles of trench warfare. British soldiers may not have been needed in this part of the war.
In 1839, Britain made a treaty with Belgium to keep them neutral. But if they had not, it might have been easier for Britain to just keep the German ships in the Baltic and defend France from naval attacks. They might not need to send ground troops or use up their people.
However, many things came from the Schlieffen plan’s failure.
Germany had trouble controlling the seas and that is one reason they lost the war. Neither side wanted a naval war because whoever won would control trade routes. Thus they would be able to end the war quickly since they would make it impossible for resources to reach any army or people on land.
The plan for the war made it very difficult to find a diplomatic solution. This was because of how short-term it was.
Germany invaded neutral countries to the west, which made things much worse and unleashed the war with them.
In the Battle of Jutland, both sides claimed victory. The British lost more ships but the Germans were left with nothing.
The British Navy was also checking on ships to see if there was food for Germany. That lead to the turning point in this war because they could not fight on the sea anymore. Instead, they fought on land.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen died on January 4th, 1913. But his influence continued after that day.
In fact, it continued until the end of World War 1 in 1918. His treatise, ‘Cannae’, was translated into English for military students to read at Fort Leavenworth.