Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Great Myths of the Great War Part 3: The Schlieffen Plan

A more specialised blog today after the past two general political explorations, this time on the Schlieffen Plan.

I have seen the German strategic plan for the defeat of France that was enacted in 1914 described variously as a piece of genius that failed through pure chance, or a bastardised version of Alfred von Schlieffen’s brilliant original concept that had been ruined by the unnecessary tinkering of Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. In fact, in neither its execution nor its original concept was the plan brilliant, nor was it ever likely to succeed.

As I discussed in an earlier blog, the French alliance with Russia convinced Germany that it was surrounded. If war came, it would face the ultimate strategic nightmare of France marching into its industrial heartland along the Rhine while the Russian Steamroller made its slow, inexorable advance through East Prussia. It was obviously right of the German Army to plan contingencies to ensure the survival of its country, but the political atmosphere these plans precipitated, as they appeared to offer quick, easy solutions to huge problems, arguably made a general European war more likely.

The first of Germany’s Generals to confront the problem of a two-front war were the great Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and his successor as the Chief of the German General Staff, Alfred von Waldersee. They were acutely aware of the enormous danger Russia’s massive numbers posed, as well as the impossibility of breaking through the new line of French forts that stretched across the Franco-German frontier. Consequently, “the Great Silent One” and his successor Waldersee envisioned a holding operation along the Rhine against France while directing the bulk of their effort to the east against Russia. The aim would be to gain a defensive line just inside Russian Poland, for both knew well the mistakes of Napoleon’s 1812 campaign: entire armies could disappear into the vast space of Russia’s interior, letting the invader outmarch his supply lines, and slowly let him bleed to death amid the steppes and snows.

The obvious flaw in such a plan is that it cedes the initiative to the enemy. For a man who praised the teachings of Clausewitz as the inspiration for his victories over Austria and France, Moltke the Elder’s plan is arguably anti-Clausewitzian: while the defender has a great advantage, as the First World War would show, a war can only be won through the attack, and to win one must destroy the enemy’s army. However, a close confidant of Otto von Bismarck, Moltke always factored political calculations into his plans. Perhaps he believed that mounting losses, combined with careful diplomacy, would convince the Russians to conclude a separate peace with Germany and allow them to concentrate all their efforts against the French.

Moltke the Elder died in 1891. Waldersee retired as Chief of the General Staff the same year. His successor was Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, a man monastically focused on war even by the standards of the German General Staff. He was known to work until long after midnight, and then relax by reading military history to his daughters. The same criticism of him may be made as that of Spencer Perceval during the Napoleonic Wars:

His range of mental vision was confined in proportion to his ignorance on all general subjects. Within that sphere he saw with extreme acuteness – as the mole is supposed to be more sharp-sighted than the eagle for half a quarter of an inch before it; but as beyond the limits of his little horizon he saw no better than the mole.

Thus the personality of the man whose plan would lead Europe to war. If the men of the German General Staff were students of Clausewitz, then Schlieffen had learned all the wrong lessons. Clausewitz had known that his vision of “absolute war” – conflict divorced from all politics characterised by the utmost use of force to disarm the enemy – was nothing more than a philosophical construct. It appears Schlieffen did not. As his casual dismissal of Belgian neutrality and its potential impact on Britain shows, his vision of war was one completely divorced from politics. As will be shown, it also seems to have been divorced from logistics and geography as well.

Schlieffen recoiled at the indecision suggested by Moltke the Elder’s plan, but he was not ignorant to the protection provided to Russia by its vast space. In his mind, therefore, the decisive action must be fought in the west against France. Its fortresses were impregnable to Germany’s best artillery, so in 1897 his gaze turned north to France’s undefended frontiers with Belgium and Luxembourg. His plans to violate the neutrality of these countries were first tepid, but by December 1905 they reached a mammoth scale.

Arranged in seven armies from the Belgian to the Swiss frontier, seven-ninths of the German Army would march on France, the decisive point being the hugely-reinforced right wing, composed of thirty-five corps in five armies. The rightmost army would cross a narrow strip of Dutch territory (the “Maastricht Appendix”) before sweeping through Belgium and then on south into France. It would then angle west to encircle Paris while the rest of the army continued its massive wheeling movement to take the French armies arrayed along the Lorraine frontier in the rear. Victory was expected to take forty-two days. Following this, the entire German Army would be relocated east by rail to defeat the Russians. Schlieffen pinned his hopes in the slowness of Russian mobilisation, which was expected to take six weeks owing to the poor condition of the Russian rail network.

It was a strategy of heroic ambition, and of Olympian disregard for international conventions. To his credit, Schlieffen seems to have considered the possibility of the British Expeditionary Force being deployed to the Continent as a response to the invasion of Belgium, but he dismissed its small size as being easily dealt with. As long as “the last man on the right brush(ed) the Channel with his sleeve”, the BEF would be taken in with the rest of the French armies. He seems to have ignored the potential impact of the Royal Navy on Germany utterly, for he despised his own county’s navy as a distraction from the army. Despite the fact that the Royal Navy blockade of France in the Napoleonic Wars had been a major fact in Napoleon’s defeat, as it would be again for Germany in 1918, Schlieffen paid seapower no heed. Nothing could be allowed to detract from his decisive six-week victory.

And it was in this myopic obsession with the decisive battle that the seed of disaster lay: it paid no heed to Clausewitz’s “frictions”. Schlieffen had served only briefly in a cavalry unit as a young officer, and even then never in combat. If he had ever experienced a soldier’s privations then he had forgotten them. In 1914, German troops arrived at the Marne exhausted, with their feet blistered and their boots in tatters. This was with Moltke the Younger’s inclusion into the Plan of horse-drawn carts specially fitted as mobile cobblers’ workshops. Schlieffen hadn’t even thought of such a problem. Though he envisioned violating their territory, he was utterly convinced that the Belgian Army would give him no resistance. In 1914, though the Belgians were quickly swept from the field, its retreat to Antwerp forced the Germans to detach five corps to mask it and other fortresses. Additionally, logistics arrangements were poorly-thought-out. Horses, necessary not just for cavalry charges and reconnaissance but also for pulling supply carts and ambulances, flagged in the 1914 campaign from hunger. Others collapsed with colic after desperate grooms fed them green corn. Draft animals and warhorses alike went lame after regiments ran out of nails to re-shoe their mounts. To cap all the problems, the plan outlined in the 1905 “Great Memorandum” assumed that Germany had ninety-four divisions available. In reality, she had barely sixty.

All these problems are, to a degree, solvable through proper secondary planning and the reallocation of budgets. There was one crowning problem with Schlieffen’s masterpiece, however, that doomed it from its inception: it envisioned huge armies making great manoeuvres, and yet there was no room to manoeuvre. Schlieffen could stuff as many troops as he liked into his massive right wing, but there was simply no way to bring them all to bear.

This merits closer examination: the German General Staff reckoned that a corps on the march would take up twenty-nine kilometres of road, and it was expected that it would be able to march thirty-two kilometres a day. Thus, when the lead elements stopped to camp for the night, much of the corps would still be at the jumping-off point or marching through the night to catch up. To this end, it was best to march the corps on parallel roads: marching on two separate roads would half the length of the column, and so on. Marching line-abreast also allowed all of the corps’ manpower to be brought to bear in an encounter with the enemy.

To this end, Schlieffen obsessed over road maps of France and Belgium, finding that parallel roads were usually found one or two kilometres apart. With over thirty corps in the right wing, making an advance on a front of three hundred kilometres, however, each corps had barely ten kilometres of frontage. Even in the best of areas there were only seven parallel roads for each corps. It was unlikely, therefore, that the tail elements of each corps would be in a position to support the heads if they came under contact. Even worse, it also forbade any attempt at further reinforcing the right wing: there simply was no room for any more divisions.

In the 1905 Great Memorandum, Schlieffen believed that he would need eight corps to properly invest Paris on top of the thirty-five in the right wing. Yet there was nowhere to put them, no way of quickly getting them to the front. Thus Schlieffen was caught in a dreadful double bind: even he had the numbers, the tyranny of geography denied him any means of getting his men where they needed to be. Yet worse follows in the Great Memorandum. Neither Schlieffen’s maps nor his orders show how these eight corps would arrive at Paris, they simply appear. Schlieffen knew he had no means of achieving the whirlwind victory he so desperately sought. Even if he had the numbers, there was no way to bring them all to bear. But as I have explained it my last blog, Germany needed a quick victory. It needed to break its encirclement. His plan was approved for use nonetheless. Schlieffen continued to tinker with it until his death in 1913, whispering to the end “keep the right flank strong”, but he never found a solution.

Schlieffen retired in 1906 and was succeeded as Chief of the General Staff by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, the nephew of the architect of the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War. He was a competent and diligent officer, but hardly a genius on the same level as his uncle. Furthermore, unlike the icy calm with which the Great Silent One had conducted military operations, he was prone to bouts of low self-confidence and depression. It has been said that he only smiled twice in his life, once when the Belgian fortress of Li├Ęge fell in 1914 and again when he heard that his mother-in-law had died. An exaggeration, surely, but it captures his moods quite well.

Moltke agonised over the Plan, and even considered rejecting an offensive war with France entirely. Furthermore, he fretted over the strength of the two German armies in Alsace and Lorraine, and endlessly pilfered troops from the right to reinforce it. By 1914, the right wing had been reduced from thirty-five corps to just twenty-seven. While this may have reduced some of the clogging on French roads, Moltke also chose to abandon the plan to violate Dutch neutrality. Economically this made a great deal of sense: the Netherlands would indeed be “the windpipe that enables us to breathe” throughout the First World War, but this narrowed the route the First Army could take as it made its great wheel and kept it from “brushing the Channel”. Thus the BEF was given room to concentrate in France before it marched in 1914.

Moltke did nothing to assist the Schlieffen Plan on its way, but this does not detract from the fact that it was a hugely flawed plan to begin with. When it was activated in its modified form in the summer of 1914, it did not have the numbers required to overrun France, and even if it did, there were no means to use these men to the full. Many excuses have been given for the failure of the Plan, ranging from Moltke’s decision to pull back two corps from the right to reinforce East Prussia against the Russians, to Alexander von Kluck’s decision to wheel his army east and not encircle Paris. None of these, however, can conceal the fact that the Schlieffen Plan was, as other, more illustrious scholars of history have put it, “a movements and logistic fantasy.”

Works consulted

Max Hastings, Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War, 1914
John Keegan, The First World War
Simkins, Jukes and Hickey, The First World War: The War to End all Wars
Hew Strachan, The First World War
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August

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