Schlieffen Plan

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For the French plan, see Plan XVII.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1906

The Schlieffen Plan (German: Schlieffen-Plan, pronounced [ʃliːfən plaːn]) was a 1905 German General Staff thought-experiment which later became a deployment plan and set of recommendations for German commanders to implement, with a considerable measure of discretion to adapt to local circumstances. It was adopted as Aufmarsch I (Deployment [Plan] I) in 1905 (later Aufmarsch I West) and modelled a Franco-German war, which would not involve Russia but was expected to include Italy and Austria-Hungary as German allies. "[Schlieffen] did not think that the French would necessarily adopt a defensive strategy" in such a war, even though their troops would be outnumbered "but he recognized that this would be their best option and it therefore became the central [sic] theme of his analysis."[1] In Aufmarsch I, Germany would have to attack to win such a war, which entailed all of the German army being deployed on the German-Belgian border, to invade France through the southern Dutch province of Limburg, Belgium, and Luxembourg. The deployment plan assumed that Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops would defend Alsace-Lorraine.[2]

The French General Staff Plan XVII and the German Aufmarsch I were deployment plans not operational plans, though both were made with particular campaigns or operations in mind. The operations that followed from the German General Staff deployment plans, including Aufmarsch I, had no timetables or durations, because it was assumed that the timing of operations would be decided by army commanders (each with about 100,000 troops), who were responsible for carrying out plans. Schlieffen thought that an offensive operation following from Aufmarsch I could force the smaller French army to commit itself to a decisive battle. Much of the French army would be destroyed, attempting to stop the German army breaching their second defensive area, the Marne and the fortress-sectors of Verdun and Paris. If the French army was defeated in battle, it would be weakened but if it refused battle, the defensive value of the second defensive area could be greatly reduced. A decisive first campaign would lead to the defeat of France.[2]

Helmuth von Moltke the Younger succeeded Schlieffen in 1906 and became convinced that an isolated Franco-German war was impossible, given the Franco-Russian solidarity shown during the Moroccan Crises (1905 and 1911) and Bosnian Crisis (1908). Moltke expected Italy to remain neutral, due to increasing Italian-Habsburg enmity and the anticipation of British entry into a Franco-German war, in which the Italian economy would be highly vulnerable to blockade.[3] Under Moltke, Aufmarsch I was superseded but in 1914 he attempted to apply the offensive strategy of Aufmarsch I West to the deployment plan Aufmarsch II West. This plan was for a two-front war and reduced the forces available in the west by a fifth, which meant that a German offensive was too weak to inflict a decisive defeat,

From his assessment of French defensive capability Schlieffen concluded that the German army would need at least 48 12 corps [1.36 million combat troops] to succeed with an attack on France by way of Belgium, but Moltke planned to attack through Belgium with just 34 corps [970,000 combat troops] at his disposal in the west. The Schlieffen plan [sic] amounts to a critique of German strategy in 1914 since it clearly predicted the failure of Moltke’s underpowered invasion of France. [...] Moltke followed the trajectory of the Schlieffen plan, but only up to the point where it was painfully obvious that he would have needed the army of the Schlieffen plan to proceed any further along these lines.[4]

— Terence Holmes

German deployment plans, 1905–1914[edit]

Aufmarsch I West[edit]

Aufmarsch I West anticipated an isolated Franco-German war, in which Germany might be assisted by an Italian attack on the Franco-Italian border and by Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces in Germany. It was assumed that France would be on the defensive because their troops would be (greatly) outnumbered. To win the war, Germany and its allies would have to attack France. After the deployment of the entire German army in the west, they would attack through Belgium and Luxembourg, with virtually all the German force. The Germans would rely on an Austro-Hungarian and Italian contingents, formed around a cadre of German troops, to hold the fortresses along the Franco-German border. Aufmarsch I West became less feasible, as the military power of the Franco-Russian alliance increased and Britain aligned with France, making Italy unwilling to support Germany. Aufmarsch I West was dropped, when it became clear that an isolated Franco-German war was impossible and that German allies would not intervene.[5]

Aufmarsch II West[edit]

Aufmarsch II West anticipated a war between the Franco-Russian Entente and Germany, with Austria-Hungary supporting Germany and Britain perhaps joining the Entente. Italy was only expected to join Germany if Britain remained neutral. 80 percent of the German army would operate in the west and 20 percent in the east. France and Russia were expected to attack simultaneously, because they had the larger force. Germany would execute an "active defence", in at least the first operation/campaign of the war. German forces would mass against the French invasion force and defeat it in a counter-offensive, while conducting a conventional defence against the Russians. Rather than pursue the retreating French armies over the border, 25 percent of the German force in the west (20 percent of the German army) would be transferred to the east, for a counter-offensive against the Russian army.[6] Aufmarsch II West became the main German deployment plan, as the French and Russians expanded their armies and the German strategic situation deteriorated before 1914, Germany and Austria-Hungary being unable to increase their military spending to match them due to legislative deadlock.

Aufmarsch II West was implemented in August 1914 but using the overall strategy of Aufmarsch I.

— Terence Holmes[7]

Aufmarsch I Ost[edit]

Aufmarsch I Ost was for a war between the Franco-Russian Entente and Germany, with Austria-Hungary supporting Germany and Britain perhaps joining the Entente. Italy was only expected to join Germany if Britain remained neutral; 60 percent of the German army would deploy in the west and 40 percent in the east. France and Russia would attack simultaneously, because they had the larger force and Germany would execute an "active defence", in at least the first operation/campaign of the war. German forces would mass against the Russian invasion force and defeat it in a counter-offensive, while conducting a conventional defence against the French. Rather than pursue the Russians over the border, 50 percent of the German force in the east (about 20 percent of the German army) would be transferred to the west, for a counter-offensive against the French. Aufmarsch I Ost became a secondary deployment plan, as it was feared a French invasion force could be too well-established to be driven from Germany or at least inflict greater losses if not defeated sooner. The counter-offensive against France was also seen as the more important operation, since the French were less able to replace losses than Russia and it would result in a greater number of prisoners being taken.[5]

Aufmarsch II Ost[edit]

Map of French, Belgian and German frontier fortifications, 1914

Aufmarsch II Ost was for the contingency of an isolated Russo-German war, in which Austria-Hungary might support Germany. The plan assumed that France would be neutral at first and possibly attack Germany later. If France helped Russia then Britain might join in and if it did, Italy was expected to remain neutral. About 60 percent of the German army would operate in the west and 40 percent in the east. Russia would begin an offensive because of its larger army and in anticipation of French involvement but if not, the German army would attack. After the Russian army had been defeated, the German army in the east would pursue the remnants. The German army in the west would stay on the defensive, perhaps conducting a counter-offensive but without reinforcements from the east.[8] Aufmarsch II Ost became a secondary deployment plan when the international situation made an isolated Russo-German war impossible. Aufmarsch II Ost had the same flaw as Aufmarsch I Ost, in that it was feared that a French offensive would be harder to defeat, if not countered with greater force, either slower as in Aufmarsch I Ost or with greater force and quicker, as in Aufmarsch II West.[9]

Marne campaign, 1914[edit]

Holmes supported Zuber in his analysis, that Schlieffen had demonstrated in his thought-experiment and in Aufmarsch I West, that 48 12 corps (1.36 million combat troops) was the minimum force necessary to win a decisive battle against France or take strategically important territory. Holmes questioned why Moltke attempted to achieve either objective with 34 corps (970,000 front-line troops), only 70 percent of the minimum required. In the 1914 campaign, the retreat by the French army denied the Germans a decisive battle, leaving them to breach the secondary fortified area from Verdun–the Marne–Paris. If this defensive position could not be overrun in the opening campaign, the French would be able to strengthen the line with field fortifications. The Germans would have to breach the reinforced line in the opening stages of the next campaign, which would be costly. Holmes wrote that

Schlieffen anticipated that the French could block the German advance by forming a continuous front between Paris and Verdun. His argument in the 1905 memorandum was that the Germans could achieve a decisive result only if they were strong enough to outflank that position by marching around the western side of Paris while simultaneously pinning the enemy down all along the front. He gave precise figures for the strength required in that operation: 33 12 corps (940,000 troops), including 25 active corps (active corps were part of the standing army capable of attacking and reserve corps were reserve units mobilised when war was declared and had lower scales of equipment and less training and fitness). Moltke’s army along the front from Paris to Verdun, consisted of 22 corps (620,000 combat troops), only 15 of which were active formations.

— Terence Holmes[10]

Lack of troops made "an empty space where the Schlieffen Plan requires the right wing (of the German force) to be". In the final phase of the first campaign in the Schlieffen Plan, the German right wing was supposed to be "outflanking that position (a line from Verdun, along the Marne to Paris) by advancing west of Paris across the lower Seine" but in 1914 "Moltke’s right wing was operating east of Paris against an enemy position connected to the capital city... he had no right wing at all in comparison with the Schlieffen Plan." Breaching a defensive line from Verdun, along the Marne to Paris, was impossible with the forces available, something Moltke should have known.[11]

Holmes could not adequately explain this deficiency but wrote that Moltke's preference for offensive tactics was well-known and thought that unlike Schlieffen, Moltke was an advocate of the strategic offensive,

Moltke subscribed to a then fashionable belief that the moral advantage of the offensive could make up for a lack of numbers" on the grounds that "the stronger form of combat lies in the offensive" because it meant "striving after positive goals".

— Terence Holmes[12]

The German offensive of 1914 failed, because the French refused decisive battle, by retreating to the line from Verdun, along the Marne to Paris. Some German territorial gains were reversed by a Franco-British counter-offensive, against the outnumbered 1st and 2nd armies, on the German right (western) flank, during the First Battle of the Marne. Stahel wrote that the Clausewitzian culminating point of the German offensive (a theoretical point at which the strength of a defender surpasses that of an attacker) occurred before the battle, because the German right (western) flank armies east of Paris, were operating 100 kilometres (62 mi) from the nearest rail-head, requiring week-long round-trips, by underfed and exhausted supply horses, which led to the right wing being disastrously short of ammunition. Stahel wrote that contemporary and subsequent German assessments of Moltke's implementation of Aufmarsch II West in 1914, did not criticise the planning and supply of the campaign, even though these were instrumental to its failure,

In the eyes of many later German commanders (including Guderian who fought in the battle of the Marne), the German failure was not a reflection of an overly ambitious campaign objective or the prevailing battlefield conditions; it was the result of excessive caution and a failure to press the attack on Paris with every possible means in the hope of clinching the decisive success. The lesson seemed justified by the first campaigns of World War Two and formed a new cult of the offensive which subsequently pushed the German armies well beyond their limits in Operation Barbarossa.

— David Stahel[13]

The Schlieffen myth[edit]


Most of the pre-1914 planning of the German General Staff was secret and documents were destroyed but guesses have passed into public discourse. In the 1990s, the discovery of a document RH61/v.96, which was used in a 1930s study of pre-war German General Staff war planning, access to incomplete records and other documents, which became available after the fall of the German Democratic Republic, made an outline of German war-planning possible for the first time, proving many of the guesses wrong. An inference that all of Schlieffen's war-planning was offensive, came from the extrapolation of Schlieffen's writings and speeches on tactical matters to the realm of strategy,

There is no evidence here [in Schlieffen's thoughts on the 1901 Generalstabsreise Ost (eastern war game)]—or anywhere else, come to that—of a Schlieffen 'credo' dictating a strategic attack through Belgium in the case of a two-front war. That may seem a rather bold statement, as Schlieffen is positively renowned for his will to take the offensive. The idea of attacking the enemy’s flank and rear is a constant refrain in his military writings. But we should be aware that he very often speaks of an attack when he means counter-attack. Discussing the proper German response to a French offensive between Metz and Strasbourg [as in the later 1913 French deployment-scheme Plan XVII and actual Battle of the Frontiers in 1914], he insists that the invading army must not be driven back to its border position, but annihilated on German territory, and "that is possible only by means of an attack on the enemy’s flank and rear". Whenever we come across that formula we have to take note of the context, which frequently reveals that Schlieffen is talking about a counter-attack in the framework of a defensive strategy [italics ours].

— Terence Holmes[14]

and the most significant of these errors, was an assumption that a model of a two-front war against France and Russia was the only German deployment plan, when the thought-experiment and later deployment plan, modelled an isolated Franco-German war (albeit with aid from German allies) and the 1905 plan was one of three and later four plans, available to the German General Staff. A lesser error were that the plan modelled the decisive defeat of France in one campaign in fewer forty days and that Moltke the Younger foolishly weakened the attack, by being overly-cautious and strengthening the defensive forces in Alsace-Lorraine. Aufmarsch I West had the more modest aim of forcing the French to choose between losing territory or committing the French army to a decisive battle, in which it could be weakened and then finished off later

The plan was predicated on a situation when there would be no enemy in the east [...] there was no six-week deadline for completing the western offensive: the speed of the Russian advance was irrelevant to a plan devised for a war scenario excluding Russia.[15]

— Terence Holmes

and Moltke made no more alterations to Aufmarsch I West but came to prefer Aufmarsch II West and tried to apply the offensive strategy of the former to the latter.[16]

Obsolete analyses[edit]

Before the discoveries of the 1990s, historians had written that the plan was impractical, due to advances in weaponry and transport, brought about by the industrial revolution and the rise of industrial warfare. In the introduction to The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth (Ritter, 1958) Liddell Hart praised the Schlieffen Plan as a conception of Napoleonic boldness but that

The great scythe-sweep which Schlieffen planned was a manoeuvre that had been possible in Napoleonic times. It would again become possible in the next generation—when air-power could paralyse the defending side's attempt to switch its forces, while the development of mechanised forces greatly accelerated the speed of encircling moves, and extended their range. But Schlieffen's plan had a very poor chance of decisive success at the time it was conceived.[17]

— Liddell Hart

and Cohn wrote that the plan may have worked if Moltke had followed Schlieffen's original plan. Had Moltke not depleted the right flank in the west, the 1st Army would not have been forced away from the sea, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would have been overwhelmed and the French armies would have been trapped between Paris and the French eastern frontier.[citation needed] That supply difficulties would have prevented this was contradicted by the German supply improvisations that occurred.[citation needed]

Fromkin, Stevenson and Zuber, wrote that what became known as the Schlieffen Plan, may not have been a plan but was laid down in a hypothetical memorandum of 1905 and a brief 1906 addition.[18][19] According to this school of thought, Schlieffen may not have intended his concept to be carried out in the form laid down but considered it an intellectual exercise. Fromkin wrote that the memorandum had never been refined into an operational programme. No orders or operational details were appended and the memorandum acknowledged that for the plan to work, the German army needed more divisions and more parallel roads through Belgium. By ascribing much of the detail of the plan as it was implemented to Moltke, who had seen the memorandum and believed it to be an operational plan, which he expanded on, Fromkin referred to the "Moltke Plan", as it may have been more a product of Moltke misreading the Schlieffen Memorandum of 1905 and its 1906 addition.[20] During and after the war a deception was practised, records were lost and material fabricated for a false alibi, to make more palatable the conduct of the men who made decisions, which led to a lost war.[21]

Example of an erroneous and misleading map, purported to represent a "Schlieffen Plan" by post-war writers.

Zuber wrote that the Schlieffen memorandum was a "rough draft" of a plan to attack France in a single front war, which could not be regarded as an operational plan, as the memo was never typed up, was stored with Schlieffen's family and envisioned the use of units not in existence. The "plan" was not published after the war, when it was being called an infallible recipe for victory, which had been ruined by Moltke. Zuber wrote that if Germany faced a war with France and Russia, Schlieffen's real plan was for defensive counter-attacks.[22]

Palmer wrote that closer inspection of the extant records of the German war plan, reveal that the changes made by Moltke were small, that the plan was fundamentally flawed and that it did not deserve a high reputation, because it underestimated the speed and capacity of the Russian, French, British and Belgian armies.[citation needed] Palmer's opinion that the Schlieffen Plan was a poor plan, was supported by it not being fully vetted. The plan could have been a catalyst for operational thinking and planning and became the working name for a strategy of bypassing the bulk of the French forces, with a flanking manoeuvre.[citation needed] Keegan, summarizing research on the Schlieffen Plan debate, criticized the plan for lack of realism about the speed with which the right wing of the German army could wheel through Belgium and the Netherlands, to arrive outside of Paris on schedule. Regardless of the path taken, there were not enough roads for the masses of German troops to reach Paris in the time required. The Plan required German forces to arrive on time and in sufficient force; only one or the other could be achieved.[23]

Keegan also wrote that the plan was a leading example of the separation of war planning and political-diplomatic thinking, which was one of the causes of the war. Schlieffen conceived the plan as the best solution to a strategic problem, while ignoring the political reality, that violating Belgian neutrality was likely to expand the conflict.[24] The rigidity of the plan has also been a source of much criticism. The plan called for the defeat of France in 42 days, with an inflexible timetable, the German General Staff was unable to improvise in the "fog" of war.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Holmes 2014, p. 200.
  2. ^ a b Zuber 2010, pp. 26–51.
  3. ^ Zuber 2010, pp. 67–73.
  4. ^ Holmes 2014, pp. 194, 211.
  5. ^ a b Zuber 2010, pp. 116–131.
  6. ^ Zuber 2010, pp. 95–97, 132–133.
  7. ^ Holmes 2014.
  8. ^ Zuber 2010, pp. 54–55.
  9. ^ Zuber 2010, pp. 52–60.
  10. ^ Holmes 2014, p. 211.
  11. ^ Holmes 2014, p. 197.
  12. ^ Holmes 2014, p. 213.
  13. ^ Stahel 2009, pp. 445–446.
  14. ^ Holmes 2014, p. 206.
  15. ^ Holmes 2003, pp. 513–516.
  16. ^ Zuber 2010, p. 133.
  17. ^ Ritter 1958, p. 9.
  18. ^ Fromkin 2004, p. 35.
  19. ^ Stevenson 2004, pp. 38–39.
  20. ^ Fromkin 2004, pp. 33–36.
  21. ^ Fromkin 2004, pp. 251–253.
  22. ^ Zuber 2013.
  23. ^ Keegan 1998, pp. 35–39.
  24. ^ Keegan 1998, pp. 31–33, 35.
  25. ^ Keegan 1998, pp. 36–39.



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