World War I Centennial: Schlieffen Is Dead, but His Plan Lives On


The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He’ll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 51st installment in the series. (See all entries here .)

January 4, 1913: Schlieffen Is Dead, but His Plan Lives On

On January 4, 1913, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of Germany’s plan of attack on France, died in bed of natural causes at the age of 79—thus missing, by just 19 months, the flawed implementation of his flawed plan, and the ensuing failure of the German offensive in the west. Born to the wife of a Prussian general on February 28, 1833, Schlieffen joined the Prussian army in 1854 and served for 51 years, including service in the wars that unified Germany in 1866 and 1870. Considered a brilliant strategist and military theorist, he was appointed chief of the German general staff in 1891, and immediately began work on the Schlieffen Plan, which would be the object of obsessive, single-minded effort for the rest of his life, continuing through his “retirement” in 1905 until his death; his last revisions were completed on December 28, 1912.

The Schlieffen Plan was essentially a surprise attack on northern France through Belgium, which would allow the Germans to do an end run around the impregnable line of fortresses built by the French along the Franco-German border after their defeat in 1870 (including Verdun, Toul, Epinal and Belfort). In Schlieffen’s vision, seven armies containing almost 1.5 million troops would be divided into two wings of uneven strength. While the smaller southern (left) wing defended Germany’s border with France, the larger northern (right) wing would advance through Belgium and Luxembourg into France along a broadening front, wheeling southwest towards Paris, with the westernmost army skirting the English Channel and encompassing Chartres. With any luck, the French would concentrate their troops along the Franco-German border and engage the German left wing with an eye to regaining the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1871; as the French were busy with the left wing, the right wing would pivot through northern France to complete a massive encirclement, closing the trap behind them.

Schlieffen modeled his strategy on Hannibal’s destruction of the Roman armies at Cannae: “The enemy’s front is not the objective. The essential thing is to crush the enemy’s flanks … and complete the annihilation by attack upon his rear.” The whole thing would be over in six weeks—just enough time for Germany to redeploy its troops to the east to fight France’s main ally, Russia, which would probably take longer to mobilize its forces. The plan obviously disregarded the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg (and the Netherlands, in an early version), raising the possibility of intervention by Britain, which had guaranteed Belgian neutrality in 1839. But Schlieffen dismissed the small British army as a negligible quantity, and was confident that in any event Germany could defeat France before the British arrived. The most important thing was to avoid the nightmare scenario of a war on two fronts, and this meant finishing off France before Russia could mobilize, which in turn meant violating Belgian neutrality. The Schlieffen Plan reflected the scientific rationalization of warfare over the course of the 19th century, with a special focus on rail transportation, which played a central role in getting troops to the combat zone; indeed, strategy was based to a large degree on railway timetables, including how long it took to board troops, move them a certain distance, disembark them, and then send the train back to get another load—with thousands of trains operating simultaneously and hopefully avoiding traffic jams. Once armies were in the field, the speed of attack depended on how many (old-fashioned) roads were available to accommodate marching columns of troops, as well as how wide these roads were, the presence of bottlenecks, and so on. A large part of Schlieffen’s task, pursued obsessively over two decades, was simply mastering these myriad logistical issues. Although Schlieffen was venerated by many German officers, his plan also had its critics. Friedrich von Bernhardi, commander of the XVII Army Corps, criticized it as “mechanistic,” and Sigismund von Schlichting, the retired commander of the XIV Army Corps, called it “formalistic and schematic.” Both criticisms reflected the resentment of field commanders who stood to lose much of their freedom of action in Schlieffen’s excruciatingly detailed plan. Meanwhile, Count Gottlieb von Haeseler, commanding general of the XVI Army Corps, warned that the plan was too ambitious: “You cannot carry away the armed strength of a Great Power like a cat in a sack.”

In fact, Schlieffen had his own doubts about the plan. For one thing, he was never actually able to make it work: after all the train scheduling, road analyzing, and related number crunching were done, he still foresaw “considerably weakened” German forces facing “more numerous” French forces, probably occupying strong defensive positions along the Marne River east of Paris. To surmount this final obstacle he figured he needed another eight army corps, around 200,000 men, in the westernmost armies—but there wasn’t any room for these troops on the trains and roads between Germany and France, already filled to capacity in his plan. In his “Great Memorandum” setting forth his plan in 1905, Schlieffen admitted that there was no solution to this dilemma: “Make these preparations how we may, we shall reach the conclusion that we are too weak to continue operations in this direction. We shall find the experience of all earlier conquerors confirmed, that a war of aggression calls for much strength and also consumes much, that this strength dwindles constantly as the defender’s increases, and all this particularly so in a country which bristles with fortresses.” In other words, the German offensive would probably peter out somewhere in the vicinity of Paris—which is exactly what happened in 1914. Incredibly, the German general staff seems to have simply ignored this all-important caveat. To make matters worse, Schlieffen’s successor as chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke (“the Younger”) wasn’t convinced of the need for such an overwhelming concentration of German strength in the right wing, and also feared a French victory over the weak left wing. Whereas Schlieffen’s original plan called for a ratio of 7:3 in the relative strengths of the right wing and left wing, in Moltke’s modified version of the plan the ratio was reduced to 5:3, with 580,000 men in the right wing’s First and Second Armies, and 345,000 in the left wing’s Sixth and Seventh Armies. Thus Schlieffen’s final words to Moltke on his deathbed—“Keep the right wing strong”—were in vain.

See all installments of the WWI Centennial series