08/02/2014 10:17 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Week in World War I, August 1-7,1914 Part 2


German Troop Transports Heading to the Western Front, August 1914

"Build no more defensive forts, build railways instead." -- Alfred Graf on Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff, 1905

Schlieffen and His Plan

The French-Russian alliance had raised the prospect that Germany might face a war on two fronts. In response, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff, to develop a plan to successfully fight both France and Russia. The strategy he developed would have a profound effect on both the scope and the conduct of the war.

What came to be called the Schlieffen Plan was not the first attempt to craft a German strategy to fight a two front war. Such a strategy had already existed prior to Schlieffen. Simply put, that strategy had been "hold in the west and attack in the east." The traditional invasion route into eastern France was through the Belfort Gap or "Burgundian Gate," a relatively flat, high plateau between the northern rim of the Jura Mountains and the southernmost part of the Vosges Mountains. This was the invasion route that German armies had taken during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Subsequently, the French had heavily fortified the area. An extensive network of new forts was built centered on the four "front line" cities of Belfort, Epinal, Toul and Verdun.

The German General Staff reasoned that a breakthrough through the heavily defended Belfort Gap would be difficult - a point driven home by the subsequent slaughter at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. Its strategy was to pin down or "hold" French forces on the Western front while it first dealt with Russian forces in the east. Russian mobilization was expected to be slow. Germany's forces, were better trained and more mobile. The combined Austrian and German armies would deliver a knockout blow to Russian forces and force Russia out of the war. Bereft of its Russian ally, France could not hope to take on the combined might of Germany and Austria, and would have little choice but to sue for peace.

In December 1905, Schlieffen began circulating his proposed plan to the General Staff. The first version of the Schlieffen Plan, there would be many modifications, reversed the prevailing strategy. It envisioned a rapid thrust westward with the bulk of the German army in order to envelop the French army and annihilate it in less than 45 days. With France knocked out of the war, Germany would then use its modern railroad network to quickly transfer troops to the east and deal with its Russian opponents. Russia, Schlieffen believed would need at least six weeks to mobilize. That would give the Germany army a window in which to defeat France. Even if the Russians were able to advance into eastern Germany, he reasoned, these gains would be short lived and would easily be reversed.

By using its more rapid mobilization to its advantage, Schlieffen reasoned that he could bring the whole weight of the German army on each of its opponents in turn. The key to Schlieffen's plan was to engage and destroy the French army and quickly knock France out of the war. To do this he envisaged a broad enveloping movement into northern France that would bypass Paris and trap the French army between the German right wing and its central and left wing, and then surround it and annihilate it. A rapid thrust through the Belfort Gap, however, was unlikely given its extensive fortifications. There was one other alternative route, a thrust through the Meuse valley across Belgium to the English Channel and then a pivot into northern France. The Meuse Valley or Meuse Gap was straddled by the Belgian city of Liege, which was in turn protected by a chain of twelve forts.

The original Schlieffen plan had called for an invasion of Belgium, and also of a tiny sliver of the Netherlands, in order to better outflank the Belgian forts defending Liege. Subsequent revisions dropped the incursion into the Netherlands. The Dutch were thus able to retain their neutrality during the war. The proposed invasion of Belgium added a political element to the Schlieffen plan whose consequences were not fully appreciated at the time. By invading Belgium, Germany made it a virtual certainty that Great Britain would intervene on behalf of France in the defense of Belgium. The Anglo-French accords of 1905 did not specifically obligate Great Britain to come to the defense of France in the event she had been invaded. Both the British General Staff and the British government had given private assurances to the French government, and its military, of their willingness to come to their aid, but it is unlikely that a formal treaty of alliance would have had sufficient parliamentary support or public approval to be ratified.

There are too many possible "what ifs" to speculate how both the war and its outcome might have been altered had the Schlieffen plan never been adopted by the German General Staff. Had Germany pursued a policy of "holding" in the west what would France and England have done? Would France have invaded Germany? At the very least, given its preoccupation with the restoration of the "lost provinces" of Alsace and Lorraine, it is likely that France would have seen German preoccupation with a war in Russia as an opportunity to take back its historic territory. In such an event, the "Western Front" might well have been limited to a relatively narrow engagement in the 25-mile Belfort Gap and not the 200 miles of trench warfare that would ultimately result. In such a narrow theater, the participation of the British Army would have been superfluous. Unburdened by its 1839 treaty commitment to uphold Belgian neutrality, British involvement might have been limited to bottling up the German High Seas fleet in the Baltic and to defending the French coasts from naval attack by the German fleet. British involvement might have stopped well short of committing ground troops much less mobilizing the manpower of the Empire.

In this scenario the conflict that erupted in 1914 might have been limited primarily to a war on the Eastern Front, a larger version of the First and Second Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, and falling far short of the world war that resulted instead. The fact is that there was nothing inevitable about the outcomes that eventually produced the First World War. Had the cards that history dealt been played a little differently those outcomes could have stopped far short of the destructive war that resulted -- a possibility that made the consequences of the war all the more tragic.