The Schlieffen Plan

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Podcast Transcript

When the Austro-Hungarian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated it set off a chain reaction resulting in the First World War.

The war was fully anticipated and one of the belligerent countries, Germany, had a plan in their back pocket ready to go. 

It was a highly detailed plan, nine years in the marking, which was designed to give them a swift victory.

Learn more about the Schlieffen Plan, and why it didn’t work, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

One of the most remarkable things about the first world war is that everyone saw it coming. 

While no one knew when it would start or what would be the trigger, all the parties involved knew that such a war was eventually going to come.

The Germans saw the writing on the wall almost a decade before the war started. 

Most of the alliances which were put into play for the first world war were developed in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and 1871. 

During this war, which was the last major European war in the 19th century, Prussia defeated France taking the border territory known as Alsace-Lorraine. 

It also indirectly lead to the creation of a new country called Germany, which was a union of Prussia, Bavaria, and a few smaller German-speaking areas. 

France, seeing this new, unified Germany posing an even greater threat than just Prussia, signed a treaty with Russia in 1894 which stipulated that an attack on one country would be an attack on both. 

Both countries saw Germany as a threat, and their alliance was used to put Germany in the position of having to fight a two-front war should they choose to be belligerent.

It was this strategic reality that Chief of Staff of the German Army, Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen, had to plan for. von Schlieffen was the head of the German army from 1891 to 1906. 

In late 1905, von Schlieffen realized that the world had changed dramatically. Russia had been soundly defeated in the Russo-Japanese War. Railroads had made the movement of troops easier, and the telegraph and telephone had made communications faster. Weapons had improved, and become more lethal.

Von Schlieffen felt it was necessary to totally rethink how Germany would fight a war against France and Russia. 

There were several big-picture assumptions that von Schlieffen made which went into the development of his plan.

The first was that if a war with France and Russia turned into a war of attrition, Germany would lose. They simply didn’t have the manpower or resources of a combined France and Russia to take them both on simultaneously.

Second, was that Russia’s military had been overestimated. Their defeat at the hands of the Japanese showed their weakness, and they wouldn’t soon recover from that defeat. 

von Schlieffen estimated that Russia would take at least six weeks to mobilize before they could seriously begin to challenge Germany.

Finally, von Schlieffen believed that France’s top priority would be retaking Alsace-Lorraine, and that is where they would put most of their forces. 

The incredible thing is he was proved to be right about all three of these assumptions. 

So what were the implications of these assumptions? 

To von Schlieffen, the meaning became obvious. Germany had six weeks from the start of a war to take out France before they could then turn their attention to Russia. 

How would they go about taking out France?

That was really the key to the Schlieffen Plan. 

As von Schlieffen figured the main French advance would be at Alsace-Lorraine, he thought the Germans only had to hold the French there along the French-German border. 

The rest of the German forces would attempt a giant flanking maneuver through Belgium. 

He envisioned a line of troops swinging through Belgium like a door with its hinge at the French-German border. 

Von Schlieffen was adamant that this line that swept through Belgium couldn’t be allowed to get flanked. That is why he thought that the German line had to go all the way to the sea. 

He was famous for having said, “When you march into France, let the last man on the right brush the channel with his sleeve.

The troops going through Belgium would then march into France and swing around Paris, enveloping the capital and eventually the majority of the French Army near the German border. 

The key to this plan was speed and organization. It all had to be done in six weeks before they had to deal with Russia. If it could be done quickly enough, Russia might give up if France was already defeated. 

Soon after creating the plan in 1905, von Schlieffen was kicked by a horse and was forced to retire. He died in 1913, about 18 months before the start of the war. 

Supposedly, his last words were “Remember: keep the right-wing very strong”. That is probably not true, but it does reflect that he was thinking about his plan to the very end.

After he retired, his replacement was Helmuth von Moltke who was known as the Younger because his uncle was Helmuth von Moltke who was the Chief of Staff of the Prussian Army for 30 years. 

Von Moltke made some changes to von Schlieffen’s plan and he created several variations based on what the conditions might be during the war. This included the status of Italy and Austria as an enemy or an ally.

Mostly, the plan became more and more detailed. It included exactly which units would go where at exactly what time. It also made some very important assumptions about what sort of resistance they would encounter along the way. 

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. Germany, who had a treaty with Austria, saw how the dominos were going to fall and preemptively declared war on Russia on August 1, and France and Belgium on August 3.

This is mostly so they could get a head start on implementing their war plans. 

So, what happened? Why didn’t the Schlieffen Plan work if so many of the base assumptions behind it turned out to be true?

There were several reasons. 

The biggest reason was that the plan was very rigid. Once put in motion, it was difficult to impossible to change. Trains moving equipment and troops had very exact timetables they had to meet. 

Battles, however, never go according to plan. There needs to be some flexibility in a plan to adapt to conditions on the ground, and the Schlieffen plan totally lacked that. 

Second, they didn’t anticipate the resistance of the Belgians. Belgium was neutral before the start of the war, and the Germans basically assumed they would just walk through the country. 

Specifically, their plan assumed that they would take the Belgian city of Liege in 2 days, and it ended up taking 2 weeks. 

Third, they really didn’t plan for the British at all. You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the British up until this point, and that is because they really didn’t factor into the German plans.  

The British Expeditionary Force in Belgium gummed up the plan as the German door tried to swing through the country. 

Finally, some of the German units got flanked by the French, which was the big no-no in the plan. This resulted in the First Battle of the Marne, which completely ended the German advance, and caused them to start digging trenches to fortify their position. 

From there, the rest was history. 

Von Moltke, upon the loss at the Battle of the Marne and the collapse of the Schlieffen plan, reportedly told Kaiser Wilhelm “Sir, we have lost the war.”

He knew that if they couldn’t defeat France quickly there was no way they could win. They would be stuck in a two-front war of attrition. 

The Schlieffen Plan also played a part in World War II. The Nazis used a variation of the Schlieffen Plan, but this time it worked much better. 

Again, the French set up defenses on the German border, this time with the Maginot Line. Again, the Germans swept through Belgium. 

This time the French assumed that the Germans were running the same play, but in reality, the Germans were just baiting them, getting them to come out into Belgium. 

Then, German armored units ran through the Ardennes, which absolutely no one expected or thought was possible, catching the French from behind. 

This time, France fell in 46 days, and the Germans met the 6-week goal they had originally established in the first world war.

The Schlieffen Plan, at least at a conceptual level, wasn’t a bad plan. As I noted before, the big picture assumptions that von Schlieffen made were actually correct. 

The biggest problem was in the inflexibility of the plan. When they encountered obstacles that didn’t fit the plan, everything fell apart. When it fell apart, they were forced into a war which they knew that they would lose over a decade before it happened.