A bold plan timidly executed
At the dawn of the 20th century, Germany and France were already preparing for the war that would break-out in 1914. Following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, these two Great Powers spent the intervening 44 years preparing for a Franco-Prussian War redux. But after analyzing their first encounter, each had drawn a very different conclusions as to how to best fight the next one.
The problem for the potential combatants was one of space and magnitude of forces available. There was too little of one and too much of the other.
The Franco-German frontier was only 150 miles long, from Belgium and Luxembourg in the north to the Swiss border in the south. Because of the conscription system developed and implemented by both countries in the years since 1870, both had greater masses available to fill this frontier zone than ever before; creating a virtual wall of divisions from north to south.
The Kaiser inspects his troops on the eve of the Great War. All the Great Powers had instituted universal conscription, with much of the male population of Europe enlisted in either regular or reserve formations. This created massive armies, on a scale unseen. The Schlieffen Plan gave the Kaiser’s General Staff confidence that they had the means of defeating the French Army rapidly on the Western Front; allowing them to then shift forces east to meet the Russians.
To make matters worse for any offensive-minded theorist, both countries had spent a great deal of effort and treasure in creating fortress belts on their side of the frontier. An attack across the mutual border by either promised to be a very hard slog indeed!
For the Germans, the problem was also one of time: they were facing a potential two-front war, with the possibility of Tsarist Russia throwing-in with the French out the outbreak of hostilities. But Russia was a backwards country, whose poor (or nonexistent) roads and limited rail system would not allow for a rapid mobilization of its immense human resources. So, for German planners, the optimal solution called for a rapid campaign in the west against France, bringing about her decisive defeat before Russia could mount a threat from the east.
THE SCHLIEFFEN PLAN: THE WEIGHTED WING
In 1905, the Chief of the German General Staff, Graf Von Schlieffen, developed a plan to achieve this much-needed rapid victory. The plan, which bore his name, called for a strategic “indirect approach” to capture Paris; using maneuver instead of blood to defeat the French armies.
Faced with the solid wall of divisions and forts along the French frontier, Schlieffen decided the logical solution was to by-pass the French defenses and defenders via a ruthless drive through the relatively weak nations of Belgium and Luxemburg to their north. That these nations were neutral meant nothing to the single-minded Teutonic planners in Berlin.
To achieve success, the Schlieffen Plan placed 53 of the available 72 divisions (roughly 75 percent of the available combat strength) in the north, opposite the Belgian border; attached to the right-wing. In strategic terms, this would be the “wing of decision”, tasked to move forward and crush all opposition. Only 10 divisions in the center would form a pivot, in front of Verdun; and even fewer, a mere 9 division, would anchor the left, guarding most of the Franco-German border.
The very weakness of the German defenses in the south, Schlieffen postulated, would draw the French across the border, deep into Alsace-Lorraine, the German provinces that bordered France and which had been ripped from her as part of the terms of surrender to Germany in 1870. Schlieffen (and all the world) knew how French honor burned to recover these lost territories. Schlieffen had little worries about French success: any offensive would eventually fizzle when it reached the fortress of Strasbourg and the Rhine River. By which time, Schlieffen was betting, the German right-wing would be through Belgium and encircling Paris.
The German left-wing was in strategic terms the “wing of delay”. They would trade space for time. The deeper they allowed the French to press into Alsace-Lorraine, the more difficult it would be for the French to correct their mistake and extricate themselves in time to parry the main German thrust through Belgium, and to protect Paris.
The strong right, Schlieffen’s “Hammer of God”, would make short work of the Belgians; and push through the weak French defenses in Flanders. With most of the French Army tied up in Alsace-Lorraine, there would be little to stop the oncoming German masses from reaching and enveloping the city of Paris.
At that point, the German First Army, right-most in the deployment (and the one which would be furthest west once they had turned south into France) had the crucial assignment of sweeping out to the west of Paris, avoiding its defending forts. Instead of a direct assault on the heavily fortified French capital, the German forces would swing wide of the city to the west; and then encircle it to the southeast. By this maneuver, Paris would be surrounded and cut off from its supplies and from the rest of the country. A city of more than four-and-half million souls could not long go without daily replenishment and would very soon be forced to surrender.
Meanwhile, all the German armies would continue advancing in concentric arcs; from an initial southwest direction to a southern and then eastern direction; until they were in fact rolling up into the rear of the French armies embroiled deep in Alsace-Lorraine. Their very mass would ensure rapid success, as they brushed aside what little opposition the French and Belgians threw in their path.
Like the quintain, the rotating jousting target used during the Middle Ages by knights to practice their skills with lance, when one struck one side the other end swiveled around to hit the rider in the back of the head; just so with the French in Alsace-Lorrain: the harder they pushed on the German left, the harder would come the blow from behind, delivered with gusto by the German right!
With their capital encircled, and the bulk of their armies cut-off from their sources of supply and attacked from behind, France would be sure to collapse. The timetable called for a defeat of France in 6 weeks. After which, Germany’s armies would be rapidly moved via the extensive German rail system east, to confront the (by now) growing Russian threat.
On paper, the Schlieffen Plan was a brilliant piece of strategic thinking, utilizing the concept of economy of force and the “weighted wing” to gain a massive numerical superiority at the point of decision. It only needed the French to take the bait and attack deeply into Alsace-Lorraine to succeed.
The gods of war seemed to smile on Germany, when the French, for their part, developed their own “Plan XVII”.
ATTACK TO EXCESS
France had undergone its own military revolution, of sorts, following its defeat in 1870.
That defeat had been deeply traumatic to the proud French psyche. Before the war, tehy were considered the premiere land power in the world, and the French army second to none. Following their defeat the Germans took pride-of-place as having the best army in the world.
After much soul-searching a new school of tactical thought took root, whose chief gardener was Louis de Grandmaison, Chief Operations Officer of the General Staff. This was the theory of the attaque à outrance: the attack to excess.
The French Army began WWI wearing traditional blue jackets with red trousers; an impractical anachronism in 1914
More a spiritual than a tactical doctrine, it was the belief that constant, aggressive attack carried out with sufficient élan and supported with all available resources could overcome any opposition. In practice, it meant masses of men charging forward, bayonets fixed, into the teeth of enemy fire. In an age of bolt-action rifles with effective ranges of 1,000 yards, belt-fed Maxim machine guns, and very accurate heavy artillery this was tantamount to attacking a meat grinder with great lumps of raw meat; resulting, of course, in so much bloody hamburger. An identical tactical philosophy infected the Japanese Imperial Army in the years leading up to WW-II; and was responsible for thousands of Japanese infantry abandoning well sited and camouflaged fighting positions to throw themselves in mass “Banzai” charges against U.S. Marine defensive-lines throughout the islands of the Pacific; with predictable and disastrous result.
French infantry advancing with bayonets fixed. The French tactical doctrine in 1914 emphasized massed infantry attacks
A plan was developed, the now-notorious Plan XVII, which would take advantage of this new doctrine of attaque à outrance (and, unbeknownst to the French General Staff, play nicely into German hands). It called for an all-out offensive into Alsace-Lorraine by the French Army, abandoning their own fortresses along the frontier and hurling themselves against the German’s. Should the Germans invade Luxembourg (or the battle spill into southern Belgium) the northern, left-wing of the French armies were expected to be able to deal with the threat.
The French planners had no idea that according to Schlieffen’s plan the German’s would have deliberately left this region weak; and so the French plan would indeed have gained much initial success, if success was measured by the depth of penetration into enemy territory. However, they would soon find themselves pushing against the barrier of the Rhine and the strong fortress of Strasbourg; at precisely the same time that Schlieffen’s “Hammer of God” was smashing into their rear area, with Paris encircled.
Neither side knew for certain the other’s plans, but the Germans had correctly taken the measure of their foe; and their plan perfectly exploited his predictability. Success seemed assured.
But there is an old saying: while man plans, God laughs; and in the summer of 1914, God must have enjoyed a very good laugh indeed.
VON MOLTKE’S MEDDLING
When his brilliant plan was finally put to the test in 1914, Von Schlieffen was dead, and had been replaced by the cautious and less detail-oriented commander, Helmuth Von Moltke “the Younger”. Son of the victor of the Franco-Prussian War, he shared nothing of the military brilliance of his great father except a name.
Afraid of losing Alsace-Lorraine (a situation the Schlieffen Plan had cheerfully counted upon) Moltke made the foolish decision to dilute the “wing of decision” on the German right, opposite Belgium; and used the divisions stripped from there to bolster what he saw as a too week left wing in Alsace-Lorraine.
Thus, when the Great War broke out in August 1914, and the French armies crossed the frontier in mass, instead of penetrating deeply (and fatally) into Alsace-Lorrain they were repulsed by the strengthened German forces. Worse still, the local German army commanders counter-attacked, throwing the French back to their own frontier. This meant that as the battle in Belgium unfolded, French forces were closer to the point of crises than Schlieffen ever envisioned; all because of Moltke’s unfortunate tampering.
All might still have come out well for the Germans, who by late August 1914 were driving on Paris, seemingly unstoppable. Having overrun Belgium, steadily pushing back the French left wing (reinforced by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under Sir John French), they had won the Battle of the Frontiers and were moving inexorably south towards the French capital. The French were in full retreat, and a battered BEF was pulling out of the battle, retreating towards the west; Sir John choosing to preserve his force from what looked like sure destruction if they continued the fight. All seemed to be working, from the German perspective; when all at once Von Moltke’s mucking-up of the original plan came back to bite them.
Mucked-up the plan was, indeed. Not only had 6 divisions been sent to reinforce the left-wing in Lorraine; but as the German army advanced through Belgium seven more were detached to invest or stand guard over Antwerp, Given, and Maubeuge; to defend against a phantom landing force on the Belgian coast. A rumor circulated that not only was another British corps preparing to land in Belgium behind the advancing German forces; but, improbably enough, that a Russian expeditionary force had somehow made its way to Britain and was preparing to land as well! Four more divisions were also withdrawn by Moltke during the early stages to reinforce the garrison of East Prussia, facing the advance of two Russian armies. All of these reductions in strength to the German “wing of decision” was to cost the Germans the margin of superiority needed to achieve the stated objectives of the Schlieffen Plan.
So, when Von Kluck’s First Army on the extreme right neared Paris, he no longer had enough divisions to both swing wide to the west of Paris; and to maintain contact with the neighboring German army to his east. At that commander’s request, and with Moltke’s blessing, Kluck wheeled southeast prematurely, short of Paris. By doing so, he maintained a continuity of forces along the German line of advance, allowing no gap between his army and the next. But he forfeited an investiture of Paris in doing so.
Worse, the outside, right flank of First Army and the entire German advance was now exposed to counter attack by the considerable French garrison within Paris and by the BEF, back now in the fight; and as French troops streamed to the west from their bloody repulse in Lorraine, they were available to shore up the defenses in and around Paris, and along the Marne. What followed was the extraordinary spectacle of Parisian taxi cabs rushing from the capital to the east; where they ferried lift-after-lift of footsore infantrymen to their new positions, facing the German advance along the River Marne, in time to stop the German advance.
The resulting “Miracle of the Marne” was as much a gift from Von Moltke as it was from God!
In concept, the Schlieffen Plan is (literally) a text-book example of the tactical principle of economy of force and of the “weighted wing” (MASS) theory of offensive operations. That it failed was not caused by flawed conception, but by timid execution. The resulting failure of the German offensive in the west in 1914 doomed Germany to a two-front war, and bloody stalemate in the trenches that soon grew up between the opposing armies from the Swiss border to the English Channel.
Had Schlieffen’s Plan been followed assiduously, it is likely the Great War would have been good-and-done shortly after it began, and four-more years of unspeakable carnage forestalled. Such an outcome, a short and not-too-terrible war that left Europe intact, honor assuaged and all sides little worse for the wear; would have spared the world not only the horrors of four years of bloody trench warfare. It might well have prevented the birth of something much more terrible that followed: the fall of the Czar in Russia and the Kaiser in Germany, replaced respectfully by the communist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. From this bitter beginning would rise all the terrible evils of the 20th century: death camps and gulags, and a butcher’s bill that would eventually reach over 100 million dead killed by repressive regimes.
In a very strange way, we can blame the timid Von Moltke the Younger for Adolph Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin; as well as Mao, the Kim regimes in Korea, and Pol Pot in Cambodia. Failure and its consequences, on a very large scale indeed.
(If you liked this post, perhaps you would enjoy IF WORLD WAR ONE WAS A BAR FIGHT)