The Schlieffen Plan? | 10 Aug 1914

The Schlieffen Plan?

Right. Let’s buckle in. Let’s discuss whatever the hell it is the Germans think they’re trying to do. This will take a while. I do want to start by making one thing clear. The old idea of “The Schlieffen Plan” as a Teutonically inflexible and impractical plan for immediate and complete victory, drawn up in arse-numbing detail by a chap called Schlieffen in about 1905 with no reference at all to real-world concerns, and slavishly followed in 1914 by unoriginal thinkers and duffers who were in love with their railway-timetables, is very probably inaccurate, at least to some degree. Let’s try to untangle the threads.

In 1906, Alfred von Schlieffen retired as commander-in-chief of the German army, leaving behind him a number of different documents (even the question of whether or not they should be called “plans”, with all that that word implies, is a Matter of Some Debate – they’re often described instead as think-pieces) which in some way contain some ideas about various scenarios for a European war. If you squint hard enough and tilt your head to the side, you can see at least a few similarities in all of them with what eventually happened in 1914.

Until the last years of the 20th century, no historian had actually seen them and they were assumed lost; IIRC they were found by accident in a completely different set of files by someone who was looking for something entirely unrelated. A notorious rabble-rouser called Terence Zuber then picked up on them and concluded that there was no such thing as “The Schlieffen Plan”. He then proceeded to tell everyone. In a very loud voice. And started a lot of rather amusing (for a given value of “rather amusing”) bunfights in the pages of various learned journals.

So, the first point to note is that of Schlieffen’s various “plans”, the ones that deal with a two-front war against Russia and France acting together (and possibly Britain as well) are fundamentally defensive. Which is interesting in itself; the traditional Schlieffen Plan narrative presents its author as an inflexible single-minded cult-of-the-offensive berk. However, in his two-front documents, the German army deploys primarily to resist an offensive by one or other of France or Russia and evict them from German soil. It then turns about and does the same thing on the other front. Then the war continues, and we go outwith the scope of the document. Neither of them are intended to be war-winning plans, just plans to secure Germany’s borders against invasion.

Then there’s the really interesting “plan”, which is the one dealing with a one-front war against France. This one is offensive, and it assumes a larger army than Germany would have been likely to field (and is also much larger than the one that was fielded in 1914). It’s got the familiar curved arrows/revolving door concept, and it looks something like this.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons

The concept goes something like this. France mobilises on the border, the French Army kicks the door in and rushes into Alsace and Lorraine, but they get stalled out by a combined German/Austro-Hungarian/Italian watch on the Rhine. As soon as the French Army stops moving forward, the door keeps swinging round, having marched through the Low Countries, and kicks them firmly up the arse, cutting the French supply lines, besieging and capturing Paris, and eventually starting to squeeze the French army down into nothing on about the 40th day of mobilisation.

Right then. So von Schlieffen retires, von Moltke takes over, the years tick on. The Russians begin vastly expanding their army and improving their railway connections towards the German border. The General Staff starts to worry about their existing plans for a two-front war. They’re both essentially defensive deployments that will probably be very good at not losing the war, but don’t seem to offer too many opportunities to win it, at least not quickly. Nobody wants a long war, so something must be done.

The solution is to have their cake and eat it. The staff begins by bolting the revolving door from the France-only plan onto the two-front defend-against-France-first plan. They’re looking for a quick western victory that will allow them to turn full force against Russia as soon as possible. And, what they’ve come up with (we can infer from what actually happened) is naturally very different from Schlieffen’s 1905 documents.

In a two-front war, their allies will be busy dealing with Russia; that weakens the right wing, because now you need more Germans defending on the Rhine. Then the staff gets worried about letting the French so far into Alsace and Lorraine, strengthens the left again, and possibly start making plans to defend further forward. Somewhere in here the far right wheel through the Netherlands disappears entirely, and only Belgian neutrality will be violated.

So now there’s the question of the extent of the right wing’s march into France. Until very recently it was absolutely unchallenged that the original intent was to encircle Paris (as in the 1905 one-front document), which was then changed on the fly to a march east of the city by von Moltke for reasons unknown but heavily speculated about, on about the last day of August.

However, something that struck me when I was writing about the actual advance is how absolutely knackered all the blokes on both sides were by the end of it. Many of them literally had their boots wrecked and falling off their feet. What this implies for the practicality of the 1914 plan is absolutely killer. (By the route they took, the German First Army marched about 250-odd miles in 30 days and fought several actions.) A march around Paris would have left the Germans having to put even more miles on the legs of that strong right wing.

In line with this, it’s recently been suggested that actually by 1914 the General Staff recognised that a march around Paris was beyond the endurance of their blokes or the reach of their supply lines, and never intended to do that at all; it’s just been assumed that way because (among other things) from the French side it’s easy to assume that if your enemy is marching in the general direction of your capital, he intends to attack it. It also allows people an easy explanation for why the war was in fact not won quickly. If only von Moltke had just followed von Schlieffen’s magic stroke of genius without deviation, repetition, or hesitation!

So what we’re left with from looking again at what the Germans actually did without preconceptions, is a modified attack, which you might call the Moltke strategy or the Moltke-Schlieffen plan (or, indeed, whatever you like; I’m going to use “the 1914 plan”). Calling it “the Schlieffen plan” is probably unhelpful because it does give a misleading impression, in the same way that talking about the “Race to the Sea” (of which more soon) is unhelpful.

However, at the very least, the people who drew it up would have been familiar with Schlieffen’s 1905 thinking, even if you’re minded to think that the 1914 plan didn’t actually look much like any of it. It retains the basic 1905 concept of drawing the main body of the French Army onto a strong defensive line inside German territory, then marching right around them, cutting off their supply lines, and then squeezing them down into nothing. And, as we’ve seen, the French Plan XVII is going to play right into their hands. General Joffre is even now planning to attack in force towards Metz.

Happily, there are still plenty of grounds for critique and disagreement with what actually happened that don’t revolve around “von Moltke changed the magic plan” or “von Moltke sent some men to the East too early” (which seems like a smelly red herring to me). We’ll be investigating those as they crop up, but that’s enough about war-plans for now. Conclusion: the Germans’ 1914 plan for the start of the war was strongly based on a plan produced by von Schlieffen in 1905, and retained the same basic concept, but also had several important differences from that 1905 document.

Goeben and Breslau

Admiral Milne is steaming with his battlecruisers from Malta towards the eastern Mediterranean when they start picking up German radio transmissions. They’re still far too far away to do anything; Goeben and Breslau have arrived at Cape Helles at 5pm, the headland at the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. They call for a pilot, and a boat guides them safely through the minefields in the Dardanelles. Their escape will create quite the storm in a teacup at the Admiralty.


Serbian mobilisation is now complete. They do have a problem. There are at least three armies opposite them. One is sitting across the Sava and Danube, near Belgrade. Unbeknownst to them, it’ll soon start leaving from Galicia, but they still have to deploy to protect against it. They can’t simply concentrate on defending the Drina and their eastern border.


Time now to conduct an interesting comparison. Here is (more or less) what the Austro-Hungarian Official History says about the functioning of their railway system immediately after the declaration of war.

Beginning on the 9th the rail lines to the northeast were operating at full capacity. Every day, 140 “100 axle” trains arrived in the deployment area with a total of 7000 cars. Counting empty trains on the return trip, in mid-August there were over 800 trains with 40,000 cars in motion at once; if lined up one after the other they would have formed a line 400 km long.

The almost perfect operation of this gigantic mass of equipment raised the self-confidence of the Army and its leadership, and strengthened the trust in public officials of all those who stood by the Emperor and his realm in this difficult hour.

Now, here’s an extract from what’s still the most comprehensive (or at least it will be until Prit Buttar gets finished with his gargantuan four-volume series) English-language book on the Eastern Front, Norman Stone’s imaginatively-titled The Eastern Front.

In order to preserve ‘a uniform pattern’ in the movement of mobilisation-trains, all of these were told to go at ‘maximum parallel graphic’—meaning the maximum speed of the slowest train on the worst line, with only minor variations. The average speed of Austro-Hungarian mobilisation-trains was therefore less than that of a bicycle.

Moreover, troop-trains were arbitrarily halted for six hours every day for ‘feeding-pauses’, despite their having field-kitchens with them in the trains. Since stations with the necessary equipment did not regularly occur on the lines, this meant that troops would travel for hours without being fed, then to be given two square meals, more or less in succession, in the middle of the night.

Journeys lasted for an astonishing time. III Army command, for instance, left Bratislava at 6 a.m. on 5th August, and arrived in Sambor at the same hour on 10th August—a performance of which a healthy walker would have been capable. IV Army Command took forty hours travelling between Vienna and the San—three times as long as usual.

As we can see, the two accounts are, ahem, somewhat divergent. This is a very useful cautionary tale. Official histories are extremely useful for many purposes, but they should still be handled with great care.

Actions in Progress

Siege of Liege
Battle of Mulhouse

Further Reading

I have a Twitter account, @makersley, which you can follow to be notified of updates and get all my retweets of weird and wonderful First World War things.

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. Worth a look. I’m reading the paper every day, and it’s where the content for Our Advertising Feature comes from.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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