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Schlieffen Plan

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The Schlieffen Plan, the German General Staff's overall strategic blueprint for victory on the Western Front against France in the years up to 1914, takes its name from its author, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen. In essence it envisaged a rapid German mobilisation, disregard of Luxembourg, Belgian and Dutch neutrality, and the overwhelming sweep of German armies through Belgium southwards in the back of the French defences pivoting on weakly-held left-wing positions in the province of Alsace-Lorraine.

Paris was not to be taken but to be by-passed in the east. The intent of the plan was not to conquer cities or industry in order to weaken the French war efforts, but to capture most of the French army and to force France to surrender, in essence a repeat of the strategy used to defeat France during the Franco-Prussian War. Schlieffen in fact viewed the double encirclement of the entire French Army by the right wing coming from the North and West of France and the left wing coming from the East as the ultimate objective of his plan, his inspiration being the encirclement of the Roman Army by Hannibal's forces at the Battle of Cannae.

One motivation was defence by means of attack. In the event of a European war, von Schlieffen most feared an attack against Germany on two fronts. Because of the Franco-Russian Alliance, it was inevitable that Germany would have to face both France and Russia. Therefore von Schlieffen hoped to eliminate France's ability to wage war against Germany before Russia had a chance to mobilize. Following the speedy defeat of France, von Schlieffen imagined switching German concentrations to the Eastern Front. His goal was to defeat France in the time it took for Russia to mobilize their army, and turn back to the Eastern Front before Russia could react.

The Failure of the Schlieffen Plan

Schlieffen regularly updated details of his master plan as a labour of love even after his retirement from the General Staff in 1905, but his successor, Helmuth von Moltke (the younger) weakened the plan's execution in 1914 at the beginning of World War I, avoiding invading the Netherlands (although the German army marched a few kilometres through Dutch territory), weakening the German right wing from a ratio of 7: 1 to 3:1, and maintaining forces in the threatened East Prussia. However, it should also be mentioned that respecting Dutch neutrality saved 2 divisions from fighting with the Dutch defenders.

Early in the war, Moltke worried that the German left wing was too weak to contain the French Army in Alsace-Lorraine and transferred divisions from the right wing to the left one. In late August 1914, Moltke transferred two entire Army corps to the eastern front from the right wing right before the battle of Tannenberg because he feared that the German Army would lose the battle and be forced to retreat to the west of the Vistula, an overly pessimistic opinion since the battle of Tannenberg was in fact probably the most devastating blow to the Russian Army during World War I. Furthermore, the two army Corps arrived only after the battle was over and the German Army in the East was able to triumph over the Russian Army without them. Not only did they not help the German Army in the East, but they could not be returned to France in time to take part in the offensive on Paris in early September 1914. Additional forces were transferred from the right wing to the left wing to support Crown Prince Rupprecht's offensive in Lorraine, which began in late August 1914. All these troop movements weakened the German right wing to the point were it was no longer certain that it could achieve its objectives outlined in the Schlieffen Plan. Furthermore, General Von Kluck, the commander of the Sixth Army, tried to reach Paris as early as possible, which exhausted his men, and turned to the East right before reaching Paris. This exposed his right flank to an attack by General Gallieni's men stationned in Paris and part of the French Army in Lorraine. As could be expected, he was defeated by the French in the First Battle of the Marne.

The plan was also spoilt by the unexpected appearance of the British Expeditionary Force in the small mining town of Mons. "The British rifle fire was so accurate that the Germans thought it came from machine guns."

However, a modified form of Schlieffen's concept proved effective over the same terrain in the defeat of France in 1940 (von Manstein's Sichelschnitt).

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