The Myth of the Master Plan

War Plans: German and French intentions in August 1914 (Department of History, USMA West Point)

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In August 1914 those icons of the Great War—the trenches, the barbed-wire entanglements, no man's land, the ingredients of the congealed stalemate to come—did not yet exist. The war began as a war of maneuver, and the battles of  its first few months were decisive for the next four years.

In the west it was the so-called Schlieffen Plan—or rather its failure—that produced stalemate. Field Marshal Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the Chief of the Great General Staff from 1891 to 1906, grappled for fifteen years with the military dimensions of a problem that had long preoccupied Germany’s leaders: the dread prospect of a two-front war. To the west of the Reich lay France, nurturing bitter memories of the humiliation of 1871, meditating upon revenge. To the east loomed Russia, smarting from past slights, maturing vast ambitions. In earlier times Bismarck’s diplomatic sleight-of-hand had prevented the iron ring from closing around Germany, his policy being to keep France isolated by preventing a Franco-Russian alliance. This meant staying on friendly terms with the eastern colossus despite the tensions between Germany’s ally, Austria-Hungary, and Russia over Balkan issues. But after Bismarck’s retirement his policy was abandoned—and a Franco-Russian alliance duly followed.

Diplomacy thus having failed, military solutions were substituted. These took the form of a number of deployment (Aufmarsch) plans, each specific to some particular contingency. For example, Aufmarsch I West was Schlieffen’s deployment plan for a war between Germany and France with Russia remaining neutral. It envisioned an offensive with the bulk of the German Army massed on the right, moving into Belgium and the southern Netherlands, down the Channel coast, crossing the Somme and Seine rivers, wheeling north and south of Paris. The enemy’s left flank was to be crushed in a series of encounter battles, culminating in the annihilation of the French Army.

The march through Belgium was deemed necessary because only in that way could the full strength of the German Army be brought to bear. Along the common frontier the space needed for such a deployment was not available. Between Belgium and Switzerland the French had constructed a number of strongly fortified positions, so sited as to “canalize” any German offensive, narrowing its front and rendering it vulnerable to counterattack. Schlieffen proposed to hold this sector with minimal forces. He reasoned that a French offensive across the common border would actually facilitate Aufmarsch I West  in the manner of a revolving door: The harder the French pushed against the German left wing, the more surely and swiftly the German right wing would descend on their rear. Even so, Schlieffen was dubious about the prospects for success by offensive action. He noted that the German Army was really too small (79 divisions in 1914) to carry out the great right-flank march; 96 divisions, he thought, was the minimum requirement, and for various reasons this appeared impossible. The Reichstag would not give the necessary money, while the naval program so favored by Kaiser William II competed with the army for available funds.

Field Marshal Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, Chief of the Great General Staff, 1891-1906 (Bundesarchiv)

But Aufmarsch I West was only one of four deployment plans available to the German Army and the situation on which it was predicated—Russian neutrality in a Franco-German war—was considered to be the least likely. General Helmuth von Moltke, nephew of the great Moltke, who replaced Schlieffen as Chief of Staff in 1906, at first favored Aufmarsch II West, the plan for a war pitting Germany and Austria-Hungary against France and Russia. It was assumed in that case that both France and Russia would launch offensives after their mobilizations were complete. Aufmarsch II West allotted four-fifths of the Army against France and one-fifth against Russia. In the east, the German and Austro-Hungarian armies would initially stand on the defensive. In the west the Germans would mass their forces against the attacking French, first checking the enemy's offensive, then launching a counteroffensive. After its successful conclusion, about a quarter of the Army in the west would go east to join the Austrians in a counteroffensive against the Russians.

Aufmarsch II West was based on Ermattungsstrategie: the “strategy of exhaustion.” Moltke and his General Staff colleagues had come to doubt that the alternative, Vernichtungsstrategie, the “strategy of annihilation,” was feasible in the age of mass armies. But by standing on the strategic defensive and winning battles on the tactical offensive, Germany might hope to create a diplomatic situation leading to a negotiated peace on favorable terms. In 1906, with the Russian Army in a shambles after its drubbing in the Russo-Japanese War and the country itself reeling from the shock of the 1905 revolution, this strategy seemed to be Germany’s best military option. Owing to Russia’s size, sparse rail net, administrative inefficiency and social instability, mobilization required at least two months: about twice as long as German and French mobilization. There would be ample time, therefore, for Germany to win the defensive battle against France in the west, and then to redeploy forces to the east against Russia. Moltke also counted on the German Army’s qualitative superiority for success on the battlefield.

But with the passage of time the assumptions underlying Aufmarsch II West seemed more and more dubious. Russia and the Russian Army recovered much more quickly than expected from the ravages of war and revolution. An economic boom provided the industrial base and financial resources for large new military and naval programs, while French loans underwrote a major expansion of the rail net. Watching all this with alarm from Berlin, Moltke and the General Staff saw their margins of time and military superiority ebbing away. They reacted with a decision that was to determine the course not only of the coming war but of twentieth-century history.

Fearful that the strategy of exhaustion would commit Germany to a long, eventually losing, war of attrition, Moltke turned again to the strategy of annihilation. Aufmarsch II West was modified to embody the strategic offensive that Schlieffen had drawn up for a war between Germany and France only: the Aufmarsch I West right wheel through Belgium, aiming at the destruction of the French Army. The Chief of Staff believed that Russian mobilization, improved though it was, would still take more time than that of the other powers. Here, then, was Germany’s opportunity. If the French Army could be destroyed before the Russian Army was ready to march, the encirclement of the Reich would be broken. With France prostrate, Russia could then be dealt with at leisure and would probably opt for a compromise peace.

The German deployment plan of August 1914 was, therefore, a hybrid scheme. The balance of German forces between east and west was about equal to that of Aufmarsch II West but the plan of operations envisioned offensives in both theaters of war. In the east the main burden of offensive action would fall initially on the Austro-Hungarian Army, attacking into Russia from Galicia, this to relieve pressure on the small German force defending East Prussia. After France had been defeated a large part of the German Army in the western theater would go east to join in the offensive against Russia.

Moltke also made some important tactical alterations to Schlieffen’s original plan for the offensive against France. Whereas the latter had called for maximum strength on the right and was willing to yield ground on the left, Moltke worried about a French breakthrough in Lorraine. He therefore took forces from the armies of the right wing, allotting them to the left wing. Schlieffen had planned for the right wing to pass through the southern tongue of Dutch territory; Moltke decided that it would be better to preserve the neutrality of the Netherlands. The result was that the front of the German right wing was somewhat constricted in the first phase of the campaign.

Thus the famous Schlieffen Plan was not, as many believe to this day, the brainchild of one man, imposing his will on the future. Though the German deployment scheme of 1914 was largely based on Schlieffen’s work it also reflected the thinking—and the fears—of his successor. And as the day of battle approached, no man could predict the consequences that would flow from Germany's decision to seek victory through Vernichtungsstrategie.

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Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved

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