I had wanted to write about the Schlieffen plan for at least a couple of years now but somehow never managed to do it. Today is the lucky day. 🙂
The Schlieffen plan was part of a memorandum created by Count Alfred Von Schlieffen during the end of his career as Chief of Imperial German General Staff. His tenure as chief lasted from 1891 to 1906. Schlieffen was perhaps one of the greatest military strategist of his time and developed maneuver warfare as a potent strategy. Later German Blitzkrieg was a further development of this school of thought.
The German General Staff was a body at the head of German armed forces tasked with the study and development of warfare. The personnel were selected based on merit and underwent rigorous training and were comparatively free of political influence. This body gave the German armed forces a great advantage compared to the other forces during World War I.
In 1904, France and Britain signed the Entente Cordiale thus in effect creating the Triple Entente. Russia and France had already signed the Franco-Russian Alliance and the British and the Russians were part of the Anglo-Russian Entente. The result of these treaties made it likely that in any future wars on the continental Europe, Germany will have to deal with fighting on two fronts with French on the west and Russians on the East. Schlieffen was tasked to create a war plan that would be used in such a scenario.
There were many considerations that went in the creation of the Schlieffen Plan:
1. The Russians were soundly defeated by the Japanese in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war thus putting into question the might of the Russian Army.
2. Due to the vast territory of the Russian empire, it was assumed that they will take a much longer time to mobilize as compared to the French and the Germans. Plan assumed 6 weeks for the Russians to mobilize.
3. Once the French are taken out, the superior German rail system would allow the army to be quickly transported to the Eastern front against the Russians. Thus the plan gave the German army 6 weeks to defeat the French.
Schlieffen was greatly influenced by the battle of Cannae (BCE 216) of the Second Punic War in which Carthagians under Hannibal defeated the army of the Roman Republic using Double Envelopment. Double envelopment involved avoiding a frontal assault on the bulk of the enemy force, but instead using a flanking maneuver to get on the sides and the rear of the enemy from the two sides. Once the enemy troops are enveloped, they can be destroyed at leisure.
Schlieffen wanted to recreate the double envelopment but on a massive scale. This double envelopment tactics was later super successfully used by the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. The Wehrmacht double envelopment was a much more complex maneuver with combined arms of armor, infantry, Luftwaffe involved. Millions of Soviet and Polish troops would be killed or captured during these envelopments. The plan would be to envelop enemy troop concentrations, isolate them and later destroy them. The blue circles in the figure below are the Polish troops encircled. Look at the sheer size of these envelopments.
But we are digressing. Schlieffen wanted to use this double envelopment against the French army to encircle it and destroy it. This would result in a quick French surrender. If the French army was allowed to escape, it would lead to a protracted war of attrition and this would also give time for Russians to properly mobilize and Britain to send the British Expeditionary force and provide aid.
The plan took into account the massive French fortification on its eastern frontier making it very costly to make a charge through there. The original plan thus planned a massive right sweep through the Low countries of Belgium and Holland as far north as possible (“letting the last man on the right, brush the Channel with his sleeve”) and then into France from the North. This avoided the bulk of the French fortifications. A defensive Central and Left wing would be posted on the French Eastern frontier. The plan thus ignored the neutrality of Belgium and Holland and also believed that Belgium and Holland would be easily defeated. By the time the French wake up, they would have the bulk of German army on their left and behind. The lightly defended French Eastern frontier with Germany was to act as a lure for the French army, who had dreams of taking back the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, pulling them in.
The plan entailed ignoring Paris and instead enveloping the mass of the French army around Paris.
French Plan XVII seemed like designed to fall into the German trap, though it took into account the possible German sweep through the low countries. The plan was created in 1913 and entailed five Corps on the Belgian frontier and ten on the eastern frontier. Six corps were in reserve near Verdun to be moved either north or east once the main thrust of the German attack becomes clear. The plan was to advance through the eastern frontier and capture Alsace and Lorraine and in the meantime stopping any German thrust from the North in Belgium.
We will look at if and how the Schlieffen plan was executed and how the plan XVII performed in a later blog post. Hopefully soon. We will also take a look at the Fall Gelb of the Second World War.