The Schlieffen Plan in World War 1

The Schlieffen Plan in World War I

Nick Strain

The Schlieffen Plan was an offensive military strategy that contributed to Germany’s defeat in World War I. The purpose of this plan was for Germany to break up a two-front war between France and Russia. Germany produced the idea of the Schlieffen Plan due to Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen. Alfred Von Schlieffen was a former Chief and General Staff of the German Army. Schlieffen was successful as a Chief and General Staff. For example, before World War I began, Germany was successful in battles such as “smashing the Danes in 1864, the Austrians in 1866, and the French in 1870-71.” (Bolger, 1). Instead of continuing to run the same plan, Schlieffen was overconfident that he wanted to design a new plan for Germany. The Schlieffen plan according to Schlieffen took inspiration from “Hannibal Barca of Carthage during the Battle of Cannae.” (Bolger, 1). Hannibal during the Battle of Cannae inspired  Schlieffen that Hannibal was known for attacking such as “swinging in both of his flanking contingents, bagging the stunned Roman legionaries.” (Bolger, 1). Germany agreed to an alliance with Austria-Hungary, which led them to a two-front war between France and Russia.

Not only did Germany have to deal with France and Russia, but the plan also failed dramatically in World War I due to them entering through Belgium, not having enough resources, and underestimating France and Russia.

The Schlieffen Plan was designed for Germany to defeat France in six weeks before Russia could mobilize. The reason Schlieffen gave an estimated timeline of six weeks is that Russia suffered considerable damage to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War. While Schlieffen was planning to attack France, he had to think about where he had to send his troops to. Schlieffen decided to send his troops up North instead of South because the Swiss army was “ready for war and the passes through the Jura mountains.” (Foley, 226). So, they decided to enter through Luxembourg and Belgium. His reasoning behind this is that Luxembourg “possesses no army, and through Belgium, which will withdraw its relatively weak army into its fortress.” (Foley, 226). While the Schlieffen Plan initially seemed that it was going to be successful, when the Germans entered Belgium, it violated a treaty forcing Britain to declare World War I. The significance of the Schlieffen Plan was for Germany to “capture Paris before France’s allies could join the battle.” (Reid,1). Due to Britain declaring war, the plan was less likely to be successful because the purpose of the plan was for Germany to conquer Paris without one of their alliances joining them. Not only did Germany incite Britain to declare war by entering Belgium, but they also underestimated Russia and France throughout World War I. This led to the Schlieffen Plan being a failure in World War I. The failure of the Schlieffen Plan illustrates how a lack of planning and respect for the opposition had repercussions that led to the greater conflict of World War I.

The Schlieffen Plan was a failure in World War I due to Kaiser Wilhelm II being overconfident. For example, before World War I began, the French were not successful when it came to wars. Daniel Bolger, a writer for the Army Magazine, discussed “Schlieffen’s Perfect Plan” and “the war of 1870-71 indicated that France could not beat Germany.” (Bolger, 1). The purpose of the Schlieffen Plan was for Germany to “keep France isolated.” (Bolger, 1). Instead, what happened to Germany was that Kaiser Wilhelm II did not keep good relations with the Russians. The reason he did not keep good relations with Russia is that he believed that the Russians were not prepared for war after the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War. Not only did Wilhelm II believe that Russia was not prepared for war, but he was also overconfident and not afraid of a two-front war between France and Russia. Before Wilhelm II took office, Germans such as Chancellor Otto von Bismarck were trying to keep a good relationship with Russia. Since the goal of the Schlieffen Plan was to “isolate France,” “Bismarck wove elaborate diplomatic schemes to ensure good relations with Russia.” (Bolger, 1). Germany had a good relationship with Russia before Wilhelm II took office. The reason Wilhelm II was a major problem for Germany was that he did not agree with Bismarck’s idea of keeping an alliance with the Russians. When Wilhelm II took over, “he dumped Bismarck, while he watched Russia and France create an alliance.” (Bolger, 1). Not only did Wilhelm fire Chancellor Bismarck, but he was also overconfident in World War I, which gave Germany a huge disadvantage. For example, Daniel Bolger on page one emphasizes that “Wilhelm II didn’t fear a two-front war and was confident in Germany’s burgeoning strength, he intended to win it.” Not only was Kaiser Wilhelm II overconfident in World War I, but General Alfred Moltke was also guilty of being overconfident with the Schlieffen Plan.

Moltke’s overconfidence in the Schlieffen Plan resulted in its failure. Since Wilhelm II burned bridges with the Russians, Alfred Von Schlieffen had to produce a plan to defeat a two-front war between France and Russia. Before Wilhelm burned bridges with Russia, the Schlieffen Plan was designed for Germany so that they “must make our right-wing strong and extend it as far west as possible.” (Foley, 225). So, what Schlieffen did with the plan is that he attacked up North through Belgium and Luxembourg. The reason Schlieffen did this was due to the mountainous terrain of Switzerland, as well as their army. In addition, Schlieffen wanted to do this due to the flat terrain of Belgium and Luxembourg helping the Germans send their troops. Another reason Schlieffen attacked through Belgium instead of France was to avoid the strong defended French Border fortifications through the South.” (Reid, 10). On the other hand, the problem with Wilhelm II was that he made things complicated after not setting up good relationships with Russia. This led to General Moltke staying offensive in a two-front war between France and Russia. Due to the German’s overconfidence in World War I, they continued to use the Schlieffen Plan. General Moltke was overconfident in World War I because he continued to use the Schlieffen Plan in 1915 when it was proven to be a failure in 1905. The Schlieffen Plan was a failure since Alfred Von Schlieffen left his own plan. For example, “some surviving military leaders blamed the deceased Moltke, claiming he perversely ignored a plan for sure victory that Schlieffen supposedly left.” (O’Neil, 806). What Moltke did to the Schlieffen Plan is that he changed the plan, which made the plan a failure during World War I. Before World War I even began, General Moltke “weakened the Schlieffen Plan even before the start of World War by Tannenberg worries and had a nervous collapse before the two sides made their race to the Channel.” (Gadfly). The French were not good compared to the Germans but their leaders being incompetent, helped the French defeat the Germans.

Alfred Von Schlieffen was also to blame for the Schlieffen Plan. Even though the Schlieffen Plan was designed for Germany to beat France in six weeks and then defeat Russia, “Schlieffen did not give any instructions for adhering to a precise and imperative timetable; he even allowed for the whole advance to be brought to a temporary halt if it became necessary to deal with a British landing on the northern coast of France.” (Holmes, 514). For example, the reason Schlieffen said six weeks is that it was an estimate. According to Buchholz, “Russian forces were expected to cross the German border by the fortieth day after mobilization.” (Holmes, 514). This quote supports that Schlieffen estimated that it would take six weeks to beat France while Russia would take a long time to mobilize. Schlieffen’s switching to a new plan cost Germany from being successful during World War I. Even though Schlieffen took many years to prepare for the war, it was not successful due to the plan being reckless. For example, the Schlieffen Plan was not “a rational war plan but a reckless adventure: In Herwig’s words, “fourteen years of General Staff work came down to a gambler’s dice.” (Holmes, 514). The reason the Schlieffen Plan is described as a “gamblers dice” is that the plan did not give any timeline on when Russia would mobilize, how long it would take for them to defeat France and they underestimated Belgium, France, and Russia during World War I. For example, some “German commanders like Cluck and Bulow, as well as the royal commanders, were either too old (them) or not fully competent for general reasons (some of the royals).” (Gadfly). Another reason Schlieffen was overconfident about his own plan is that he was confident to switch things up. Historians believed that the Schlieffen Plan was “a sobering reminder of the high price of military arrogance.” (Bolger, 76). Since Schlieffen wanted the Germans to march through Belgium, the Schlieffen Plan became one of the causes of World War I.

Since the Germans were afraid of Switzerland due to its terrain as well as their army, the Germans decided to enter through Belgium. When the Germans marched through Belgium, they violated a treaty that England had with them in 1839. The treaty of London was to make Belgium neutral throughout World War I. The reason Great Britain wanted Belgium to stay neutral throughout World War I is that Great Britain was afraid of the expansion of Germany through Western Europe. Since Schlieffen decided to enter Belgium, Britain decided to join forces with France in World War I. The purpose of the Schlieffen Plan for Germany was for them to capture France without one of their allies joining them. Germany should have done a better job on “geopolitics such as not doing international law violations of Britain’s blockade by extension later in the war.” (Gadfly). Due to the Germans trying to expand through Western Europe through the Schlieffen Plan, caused the plan to fail drastically as well as it made Great Britain join forces with France. Not only did the Schlieffen Plan cause Great Britain to join World War I, but Germany also had a lack of resources that caused the plan to fail dramatically during World War I.

Germany’s lack of resources, including the number of railroads and troops, resulted in the plan’s failure. The Schlieffen Plan was a big project that needed several pieces of equipment. For example, what Schlieffen was trying to do was build a railroad through Luxembourg as well as Belgium. Building a railroad takes a long time and it was difficult for Germany to build one on Belgium territory. The reason it was difficult for the Germans to build a railroad in Belgium is that “Belgium refused Germany’s request to match troops through Belgian territory.” (Reid, 10). When the Germans tried to build railroads, Belgium destroyed them. Another reason General Moltke was overconfident during World War I is that the Germans did not have enough resources such as troops to be sent over to France. According to Schlieffen, “the German army would need at least 48.5 corps to succeed with an attack on France by way of Belgium.” (Holmes, 193). Instead, General Moltke switched up the plan by changing the original plan that Schlieffen had. The difference between what General Moltke did compared to Schlieffen is that Moltke “reduces the strength of the right-wing.” (Holmes, 193). What Holmes is referring to in his book is Moltke having fewer troops compared to Schlieffen. While Schlieffen said that the Germans need “48.5” troops for the plan to be successful, Moltke had different ideas. Instead, General Moltke had only, “34 corps at his disposal in the west.” (Holmes, 193). Not only did Moltke have fewer troops than Schlieffen intended to have, but he also had troops in a different location than Schlieffen such as being in the West rather than the North. Due to Moltke being overconfident, he believed that the Germans would be fine with a lack of troops. For example, Schlieffen believed that “the defensive is the stronger form of war.” (Holmes, 213). Moltke on the other hand believed that “the stronger form of combat lies in the offensive’ because it represents a striving after positive goals.” (Holmes, 213). Moltke later explains that the “offensive could make up for a lack of numbers.” (Holmes, 213). Terrence Holmes is not the only author that highlights Germany’s lack of troops during World War I. Since Germany was suffering from a lack of troops, it made it difficult for them to “invade Belgium, Germany’s advance was slow.” (Reid, 10). Not only did the Germans suffer from a lack of resources, but the Schlieffen Plan also failed due to aerial reconnaissance.

The Germans were superior on land rather than air. The Germans were successful due to aerial reconnaissance, which helped them win the Battle of Tannenberg. For example, “The combined result of German radio intelligence and aerial reconnaissance by both aircraft and Zeppelin dirigibles enabled General von Hindenburg to score a stunning victory over the Russian forces at Tannenberg.” (Hussain). Even though aerial reconnaissance helped the Germans win the Battle of Tannenberg, it gave France and England a huge advantage while the Germans tried to do the Schlieffen Plan. The importance of aerial reconnaissance for the British and French is that it helped them find “the change in orientation of von Kluck’s formation towards the new axis was spotted.” (Hussain). Since the British and French knew where the Germans were going due to aerial reconnaissance, it helped them win the Battle of Marne. For example, “Paris was saved, and the war shifted from the Schlieffen Plan to the bloody trench warfare.” (Hussain). Not only did aerial reconnaissance help the French and British understand where the Germans were, aerial reconnaissance actually “stalled the German offensive at Marne that ground the revolving door at a halt.” (Hussain). As Hussain later says in his article, the Germans were stuck in trench warfare rather than using the Schlieffen Plan. Aerial reconnaissance forced the Germans to stop being offensive as well as it helped stalled them during World War I. Although aerial reconnaissance was a key factor as to why the Schlieffen Plan failed, geography was also a key factor for them.

The geography made it difficult for Germany to deal with a two-front war between Russia and France. Since Kaiser Wilhelm II fired Otto von Bismarck, the Germans did not have good relations with Russia. This made the Schlieffen Plan difficult because the plan was originally designed for the Germans to just capture Paris before an alley joined them. The reason the Germans went through Luxembourg and Belgium was that they were both neutral and flat countries. In addition, the Germans did not go through France because the Germans wanted to “avoid the strongly defended French border fortifications through the South.” (Reid, 10). The reason the French improved their borders was that the French lost to the Germans in 1870- 71 and lost the “provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.” (Bolger, 10). Not only could the Germans not go through France due to their improved borders, but they would also have had a tough time if they had gone through Switzerland.

The reason Schlieffen did not consider Switzerland for the Schlieffen Plan to set his troops to mobilize into France was two things, their army as well as location. Even though Switzerland was neutral during World War I, it had a powerful army. For example, if Schlieffen decided to send his troops down to Switzerland, the Swiss would have been “ready for war.” (Foley, 226). Since the Germans did not want to attack a neutral country, they decided to go through Belgium and Luxembourg. Also, Switzerland is known for its elevation such as the Jura Mountains. The importance of Switzerland’s geography is that it would have been difficult for Germany to mobilize their troops due to the Swiss mountains. Not only would it have been difficult for Germany to mobilize their troops, but it would also have been difficult for them to build railroads on steep mountains.

The significance of the railroad is that it helped Germany mobilize their troops faster rather than taking a car, plane, or walking. For example, after Germany was faced with a two-front war, the railroad was designed in the Schlieffen Plan to help the Germans give them a huge advantage during the war “by rail to deal with the slower arriving Russians.” (Bolger, 10). Even though Germany did not expect Russia to mobilize faster than they expected, the Schlieffen Plan was a clever idea but due to their geographical location, it was difficult for the Schlieffen Plan to work during World War I due to France improving their borders as well as Switzerland’s army and geography. Germany instead had to send their troops through Luxembourg and Belgium. Since Germany sent their troops through Belgium, Great Britain declared World War I. Kaiser Wilhelm II burning bridges with the Russians made geography a disadvantage for Germany during World War I.

Kaiser Wilhelm II made it difficult for the Germans during World War I is that he destroyed the relationship that Germany had with Russia. The Schlieffen Plan was designed to be a one-front war instead of a two-front war. The purpose of the plan was to defeat France before an ally joined them. Things changed when the Germans entered Belgium and Luxembourg as Britain decided to join forces with the French. The reason Britain joined France is that the British had a deal with Belgium in the Treaty of London. The Treaty of London was a treaty that forced Belgium to be neutral during the war but since Germany went through Belgium, it violated the Treaty of London, which forced Great Britain to declare World War I. Not only did the Schlieffen Plan cause World War I, countries also such as Britain and France were afraid of Germany due to them creating an alliance with Austria- Hungary. Germany and Austria-Hungary formed an alliance, which led Britain, France, and Russia to create their own alliance before World War I even started. Wilhelm II, Moltke, and Schlieffen being overconfident in World War I, led the Schlieffen Plan to fail.

The reason Wilhelm II was overconfident is that he created a two-front war after firing Otto von Bismarck. The importance of Otto von Bismarck is that he set up good relationships with Russia so Schlieffen could use his original plan, a one-front war. Moltke throughout World War I was overconfident by “weakening the right flanks.” (Hussain). Not only did Moltke weaken the right flanks, but he also revised the Schlieffen Plan. For example, Schlieffen said that for the plan to work, the Germans needed “48.5 troops.” (Holmes, 193). Instead, General Moltke had different ideas. For example, the Germans only had “34 corps at his disposal in the west.” (Holmes, 193). Moltke continued to run the Schlieffen Plan even though the Germans did not have a lot of resources such as troops. During World War I, the Schlieffen Plan was a failure due to the founder, Alfred von Schlieffen leaving his own plan. The overconfidence from Moltke forced the Germans to continue to run the Schlieffen Plan during World War I. The reason Schlieffen was overconfident in the Schlieffen Plan is that he did not produce the plan. For example, Hannibal in the Battle of Carthage inspired the Schlieffen Plan.

Instead of producing his own plan as he did in battles before World War I, Germany might have been successful during World War I. Looking back at the Schlieffen Plan, historians believed that Schlieffen could have done a better job with the Schlieffen Plan during World War I. For example, the Schlieffen Plan was described as “a sobering reminder of the high price of military arrogance.” (Bolger, 76). The failure of the Schlieffen Plan illustrates how a lack of planning and respect for the opposition had repercussions that led to the greater conflict of World War I and contributed to Germany’s defeat.

References

Bolger, Daniel P. “Schlieffen’s Perfect Plan.” Army Magazine 64, no. 8 (August 2014): 74–76. https://search-ebscohostcom.rider.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=97170858&site=ehostlive&scope=site.

Foley, Robert T. “The Origins of the Schlieffen Plan.” War in History 10, no. 2 (2003): 222-32. Accessed April 9, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26061643.

Gadfly. “World War I’s causes”. Socratic Gadfly. February 18, 2016, Thursday. https://advance-lexiscom.rider.idm.oclc.org/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:5J41-R8M1-JCMNY32Y-00000-00&context=1516831.

Holmes, Terence M. “Absolute Numbers: The Schlieffen Plan as a Critique of German Strategy in 1914.” War in History 21, no. 2 (April 2014): 193–213. doi:10.1177/0968344513505499. https://rider.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph &AN=95564642&site=ehost-live&scope=site  

Holmes, Terence M. “”One Throw of the Gambler’s Dice”: A Comment on Holger Herwig’s View of the Schlieffen Plan.” The Journal of Military History 67, no. 2 (2003): 513-16. Accessed April 13, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3093466.

Jamal Hussain. “Development of Air Power Strategy – A Historical Perspective”. Defense Journal. June 30, 2011, Thursday. https://advance-lexiscom.rider.idm.oclc.org/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:53K0-82C1-JBTF64B2-00000-00&context=1516831.

O’Neil, William D. 2016. “The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I.” Historian 78 (4): 805–7. doi:10.1111/hisn.12390. https://rider.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph &AN=119881270&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Reid, Mark Collin. “A War of Attrition.” Canada’s History 98, no. 5 (October 2018): 10–11. https://rider.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph &AN=131803385&site=ehost-live&scope=sit

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