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The Schieffen Plan

Discussion in 'World History' started by YNCS, Apr 20, 2006.

  1. YNCS

    YNCS Ex-bubblehead

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    For almost three generations, historians have accepted a version of the opening of WWI in August 1914 which has taken the following form: Germany placed all her hopes on the famous Schieffen Plan, a massive hook by five German armies that were to pass through Belgium, Artois, Picardy and then to the west of Paris before crushing the French against two remaining German armies in Lorraine. However, by violating Belgian neutrality the Germans brought Britain into the war alongside France and Russia, and ironically it was the tiny British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that was to administer the coup de grâce to German hopes on the Marne in September 1914.

    The Schieffen Plan had supposedly been a brilliant concept, aimed at winning the war in the West in six weeks, before moving German forces east to deal with Russia, who, it was thought, would be slow to mobilize. Thus the Germans would avoid the strategic nightmare of a two front war. However, in reality the plan contained fatal flaws. Simple geometry shows that Kluck's 1st Army, on the extreme right of the hook, would have to travel much further and much faster than the Crown Prince's 5th Army at the pivot of the wheel. Any delays encountered by von Kluck from unexpected Belgian or BEF resistance would be disastrous. Meanwhile, a thousand miles away in East Prussia, an invasion by two Russian armies prompted von Moltke to send two corps from his right wing in Belgium to reinforce the beleaguered 8th Army. This, according to the accepted view, was a catastrophic error. Moltke had apparently made the cardinal mistake against which the dying Schlieffen warned, he had not kept his right wing strong. Ironically, the troops sent east did not reach Prussia in time to fight against the Russians in Tannenburg and were in training crossing Germany when the Battle of the Marne was lost.

    The Plan was doomed from the outset. The German military historian, Holger Herwig, writes:

    The plan sought through a General Staff brain centre to dictate not only the opening moves of the campaign but also all subsequent operations of millions of men in a foreign land. Not only would this deny army commanders initiative, but the slightest disruption of communications threatened to unravel the overall timing of the advance.​

    In addition, so entrenched had the fear of a two front war become that the military planners were willing to gamble on a plan that would violate Belgian neutrality and probably bring Britain into the war against them. In addition, the plan was so inflexible that nothing could be allowed to interfere with its smooth operation. The Schlieffen Plan was the albatross around the neck of the German Army in 1914 and Moltke was condemned to put the plan in operation, for which he received the blame that should really belong to the staff planners. The plan was more fantasy than fact. As the British historian Niall Ferguson explains:

    When Schlieffen devised his famous, notorious plan in 1905, he imagined an army which…had twenty more divisions than the Germany Army actually had in 1914, so there was a fictional quality to the planning. These…imaginary divisions being deployed and the whole notion of being able to sidestep the French by going through Belgium was in many ways a fantasy designed to make a point "We have a problem here; we need twenty more divisions."​

    Germany did not have those 20 divisions either in 1905 or in 1914, and yet the General Staff acted as though they did. The plan, though Schlieffen himself knew it was impossible, became Germany's only reality.

    The General Staff was so smug that they never gave adequate attention to what the other side was planning and made unwarranted assumptions. Denis Showalter points out:

    The failure of the Oberstab (German General Staff) is a lack of empathy, they are…like surgeons. They think everyone else is a surgeon, that every officer, every reserve lieutenant and sergeant, every recently mobilized civilian in the Heer [German Army] will be not merely willing but able to do what these professionals can do, and do so under conditions of extreme physical and psychological stress. They do not pay enough attention to the fog and friction of the human elements of the Heer. The Oberstab officers also fail to understand the mindsets, the attitudes of their opponents because they despise them. Increasingly, as the Schlieffen Plan becomes as much a set of mantras as a military plan, the enemy is expected to conform to German intentions. Therefore it is not particularly necessary to know much about his psychology, his military structure, how generals in Russia or France will act and react; they will react the way the Plan makes them react.​

    The Schlieffen Plan was a nightmare of logistics. For example, Kluck's 1st Army needed 1 million kilograms of fodder daily for its 84,000 horses. Food for men and horses had to vie for roadspace with ammunition being brought forward from miles behind the front line, which was constantly moving away from the railheads at a rate of 20 miles per day. Showalter asks:

    How are these men going to be fed, going to be kept moving, how is their everyday health going to be maintained, because four-fifths of them are not professional soldiers or serving draftees? They are officers and men called back from civilian life who have very often forgotten much of their military training. They are not particularly physically fit, they are not emotionally geared for marching twenty miles a day under the stress of potentially having to fight a battle along the way.​

    Relentless schedules prepared by military hierarchies, based on calculations applicable only to fit, regular soldiers and assuming ideal conditions, make the Schlieffen Plan as much a regimen of torture for the Germans as for their opponents. Showalter continues:

    [A] platoon commander in the Heer is supposed to check his men's feet at the end of a day's march for blisters. That is regulation in every army, the British, Russian, French. But a reserve officer at the end of a fatiguing march might very well neglect to inspect his men's feet. When he does, the blisters become worse, feet become infected, men start dropping out of the ranks, and stragglers will feed themselves by stealing or looting from the country…As rations fail to come forward, the officers and NCOs, again mostly reservists, will requisition food locally. But to see that the men cook it properly is quite another problem. The Schlieffen Plan takes no account of these things. The Plan assumes that every officer, every soldier, every horse in the Heer will do his duty as the plan provides. Perhaps the horse never heard.​

    Schlieffen was planning a war within a vacuum, which did not take account of technology, transport or communications. It was estimated that each of Germany's thirty corps consumed 130 tons of food and fodder, requiring 20 miles of road and a whole day to resupply them, and this while they were standing still. The attempt to follow a fast-marching army advancing through battle zones with everyone's meals was not usually successful.

    The 320,000 strong 1st Army on the outside of the wheel was the biggest problem. Continually in action against Belgian, French and British forces, it was also required to maintain a killing pace of 20 miles per day for weeks on end.

    To the German military bureaucrats the Plan was a vast war game, and it was unfair of the enemy to cause them to miss their deadlines. Moreover, what were the British doing in Belgium? The German planners did not believe Britain would go to war just to protect Belgian neutrality. As Ferguson explains:

    You had to attach far more significance to British intervention than Moltke did, and so when he and Bethman-Hollweg [the German chancellor] dismissed the Treaty of 1839 as "just a piece of paper," they showed a basic misunderstanding of traditional British foreign policy with its concerns about defense of the Channel coast. This misunderstanding gave Britain a pretext for getting involved in the war, something that the Schlieffen Plan did not account for.​

    The first thing to go wrong with the Schlieffen Plan was that it assumed everything would go right at all levels. It assumed that from Supreme Headquarters down to the rifle companies, officers and men would understand what they had to do and implement this against an enemy who would make all the right mistakes.

    Secondly, the Plan overlooked the practical problems of effectively supporting, logistically and administratively, a massive sweep through the Low Countries by men marching on their feet and horses that ate their own weight of fodder each week. The logistical elements of the army were expected to keep up with the fighting troops, something that did not happen.

    Thirdly, the Plan assumed not merely an obliging enemy but an enemy who would accept defeat, an enemy unable or unwilling to rally from the kinds of defeats the Germans expected to impose.

    The German General Staff contained the best and brightest military minds of the day. The problem was they had less common sense than the average German householder because they tied themselves into knots of their own creation. They made an impossible plan and, when faults were found with it, simply continued to make the impossible plan better. By 1914 they had an almost impeccable plan that would work only in the never-never land of their own minds.
     
  2. Knight-Dragon

    Knight-Dragon Unhidden Dragon Retired Moderator

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  3. Adler17

    Adler17 Prussian Feldmarschall

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    Yes, it is true, what you say here. Nevertheless IMO the Schlieffenplan worked! I mean if Moltke the younger did not give his reserve troops to Hindenburg to assist him at Tannenberg, which should indeed come too late, he had won the Marne battle and consequently taken Paris. France K.O. and the war won.
    However the plan was everything else than perfect as you said but IMO it worked.

    Adler
     
  4. simonnomis

    simonnomis Warlord

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    Lol. You mean it worked if only all these other 'little' factors (like a sudden Russian offensive and the B.E.F. in Belgium) hadn't happened? That is precisely why the plan failed. A good plan takes account of these potential problems; ie, it exists in the real world, not some fantasy land. Schlieffen was inflexible, poorly strategised and made far too many assumptions that didn't come true.
     
  5. Verbose

    Verbose Deity

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    Giving a greater proportion of the manpower available to Germany military training in the years prior to the war would have given Germany the necessary numbers to pull it off.

    Though the problems of logistics would also have increased. Question remains if German infantry would ever have been able to march as far and as fast, in sufficient numbers, as required to make it work.
     
  6. Verbose

    Verbose Deity

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    I'd say that's one of these statements that gets bandied about because at one level all participants can reasonably claim their specific effort won the war.

    The BEF got stuck into the line at the last minute after Joffre personally pleaded with John French. And of course the BEF did superbly well, as was expected of these super-professionals.

    But it's just as true that the Paris garrison under Gallieni won the Battle of the Marne after being whisked to the frontline of the city's fleet of taxis in the nick of time.

    Same goes for the efforts of any of the other 80 or so French divisions fighting in 1914. They just don't get the partisan press of the Brits and they weren't felt to exemplify the more or less mythical French virtue of a knack for improvisation, like Gallieni's taxi-stunt was.
    :)
     
  7. Adler17

    Adler17 Prussian Feldmarschall

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    I did not say the plan was good. I only said with the reserves Moltke sent to East Prussia he could have taken Paris as these forces could have won the battle either. However I only say they could and only say the plan did work nearly despite the lacks.

    Adler
     
  8. EdwardTking

    EdwardTking Deity

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    Well Quite.

    However this is based upon the assumption that the Germans might have made none of the mistakes they did, but their opponents would still have made all the mistakes they they did.

    For instance, if the French had realised what was going on and moved central reserves up North faster than they did, the flanking advance could have been stopped slightly earlier and with a little less penetration.
     
  9. Adler17

    Adler17 Prussian Feldmarschall

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    I think we can discuss plans until the extreme. However no plan is perfect. Plans which were so bad they could not succeed succeeded because of the errors of the opponenent while others had only a small error and then this error was found. And again others succeeded or nearly succeeded. All in all I agree with Moltke the elder:
    No plan survives contact with the enemy.
    On this base I argumented that despite of all errors the Schlieffenplan did work until the Marne and probably would have succeeded if the Russians did not invade East Prussia. However I did not negate the errors of the plan but only showed that even such a faulty plan can succeed if the enemy makes more mistakes or the coincideces are lucky.

    Adler
     
  10. Verbose

    Verbose Deity

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    But one of the problems of "the Plan", IIRC, was that it actually wasn't of a plan to begin with.

    Schliffen proposed it, knew there were kinks to be worked out, but then others, after his death, turned into THE Plan, ignoring the inherent problems.

    And as for the French managing to develop a frontline west of Paris in time, that seems to have been discounted by German planners as they decided it would be too difficult for their own capabilities (with diasgreement, as the railway planners after the war all claimed that, if asked, they could have done lots of things more senior officers decided were impossible) — no way the French could pull it off then.
    So it might be that the Plan also assumed a certain incompetence on the adversary's part.;)
     
  11. Archduke Otto

    Archduke Otto Warlord

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    Actually, the plan was quite good. It was an attempt to solve the problems of a two-front war by a darig offensive in the west. It correctly identified the French army as the primary target. Had it been executed as it was originally devised - who knows what would have happened.
    Schlieffen correctly planned for 'total war'; he didn't care about Belgium's neutrality or the entry of the British into the war.
    Moltke the younger did think in categories of the old 'limited war' and so wanted to protect Alsace-Lorraine from French invasion. Schlieffen wouldn't have minded if Alsace would have been temporarily occupied by the French - he wanted to have the entire French army hit at the fortresses of Metz and Strassburg, while the Germans would outflank them far to the north (farther to the north than actually happened in 1914).

    As said, the plan was daring - nothing can guarantee a plan to work. Many great strategists failed. But can you actually think of a better alternative for the Germans in 1914 - I mean, if you try not to be betrayed by hindsight?
    Remember, everyone thought of a short war. So the option of leaving Belgium in peace and just defending Alsace in order to concentrate on the weak Russians wasn't really an option.

    And what if you think about the other plans in WWI? At least in comparison, the Schlieffen Plan is immaginative and quite successful.
    Just take a look at the shambles of the Gallipolli campaign - a monstrous strategic desaster. Or the Nivelle Offensive? Or the Somme? Or the Isonzo Battles?

    Numbers made up for the German failure, not a bad plan...
     
  12. willemvanoranje

    willemvanoranje Curitibano

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    What about Holland? I think in the original plan, German troops would also go through the south of Holland.. this they did not do however.
     
  13. Archduke Otto

    Archduke Otto Warlord

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    You're right. That was the original, more daring plan. It should save time and allow the Germans to just bypass Liège.
     
  14. Adler17

    Adler17 Prussian Feldmarschall

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    But that was not very needed as Lüttich was captured by a single general knocking on the door with his sabre...

    Adler
     
  15. Cheezy the Wiz

    Cheezy the Wiz Socialist In A Hurry

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    They also had not expected 1. the belgians to resist at all and 2. the BEF (british expidentiary force) really put their timetable back
     
  16. YNCS

    YNCS Ex-bubblehead

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    Of course, being bombarded by 42cm howitzers had nothing to do with it.
     
  17. North King

    North King blech

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    In my humble (not really) opinion, the Schlieffen Plan was a fantasy, taking place in a world where the enemy were acting just as their moves were choreographed, and where political implications of attacks on neutral powers were null...

    Even supposing that the Russians hadn't invaded East Prussia (North King sniggers as he writes this; seriously, do you expect the Russians to just say, "oh, since the Germans are busy invading France, we'd better twiddle our thumbs"), and supposing that the Germans had all the divisions they needed, and gave up Alsaece and Lorraine like Schlieffen had planned...

    The Germans were at the end of their railheads. They were marching on very thin threads logistically speaking; the French were falling back on their supply dumps, and had plenty of railroads to reorganize.

    Paris might be shelled, and France might come close to breaking... on the other hand, the movies of the Eiffel Tower smoking might inflame rather than discourage.

    Much more interesting in World War One what ifs is if the Russian invasion of Galicia had gone better, breaking through the Hungarian Plain... but that's for another thread. ;)
     
  18. Adler17

    Adler17 Prussian Feldmarschall

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    North King, considering the troubles the Russians had, it was everything else than unrealistic the Russians would not attack. Indeed the Russian soldiers were mostly had no boots but only papers or cloths on the feet as there was no time to give the boots from the magazines. Thes same is for rifles.
    Also the supply broke down after crossing the German border as the Russian trains had, and IIRC still have, broader railways. Because of this the soldiers were mostly spending the time to find something to eat. And the officers did not know the way as they had not many maps and to ask civilians was also only a solution for the time being in Russia or Poland.
    That was not only known the Russian command, which tried to convince the Czar from acting now but waiting until they had a sufficient force equipped, but also to the Germans. They knew about the status of the Russian army. And in the end this and bad leadership were the reasons for the catastrophy of Tannenberg. Also the few Russian soldiers coming back were also the cell for the Russian revolution.
    I will make an article about Tannenberg later. So expecting the Russian advance was unrealistic, not the other way round.

    Adler
     
  19. Dragonlord

    Dragonlord Fantasy Warlord

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    That the Schlieffen Plan was 'doomed at the outset' is too strong, IMO. Granted, it was a daring plan - which, by definition, gives a large chance of failing if too many factors don't align perfectly... which is just what happened.

    Seeing how close the German Army got to actually reaching their objective, Paris, it seems obvious to me that they COULD have achieved it ... with just a little more luck and, especially, if Moltke hadn't stupidly weakened his army by sending reinforcements from it all the way across Germany to the Russian front - it should have been obvious they could never get there in time to make a difference... simple logistics, after all!

    Call it a very daring plan with small probability of total success and I'm with you...
     
  20. simonnomis

    simonnomis Warlord

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    I would say it was a plan with a small probability of moderate (certainly not total) success. The German objective may have been Paris, but it was another fallacy in the Plan to assume the French would have simply crumbled with its fall and that "total success" could be achieved from that. The war was not a local affair dependent on a single battlefront. Germany's most dangerous foe wasn't even on the European mainland. It was also not 1870-71. France was not standing alone and had no reason to give up despite such a setback. The initial German thrust could never have been expected to maintain steam even under the most perfect conditions. And certainly not while simultaneously trying to encircle the unexpected presence of British and Belgian troops. The French knew very well they would be able to counter-attack once the Germans were stretched enough, and this would have been the case whether they had been able to break into Paris or not.
     

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