The Schlieffen Plan

First World War 1914-1918 from the German perspective.

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Osterhase
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The Schlieffen Plan

Post by Osterhase » Tue Jun 05, 2012 5:47 am

I would like to share a few thoughts regarding the debate surrounding what we’ve come to know as the Schlieffen Plan. Since author Terrence Zuber’s several controversial books have come out in the last ten years or so there has been a renewed interest in pre-WWI German planning. Much of the debate centers on if there was indeed an actual Schlieffen Plan per se and if so, what did it look like.
First of all there is the issue of translation, Schlieffen’s original memo as we call is was a “denkschrift” which has no 100% accurate English translation. The denkschrift was not a schematic type plan, it was a guide to action in order to solve a particular problem. Schlieffen’s denkschrift was the product of years of thought, experiment and testing.
To me, the German General Staff was very much keeping up and evolving with the potential military threats to Germany (France, Russia) and that von Schlieffen was at the core of the effort during his time as Chief of Staff. Regardless of von Moltke's (elder)or later von Waldersee's plans involving war on two fronts, it is much more significant that the relative calm of those times was replaced with rapid military expansion and an open arms race (in land armaments, not to be confused with the Anglo-German naval arms race) during von Schlieffen's tenure. The period that von Schlieffen was Chief of the GGS was a far more dynamic period in terms of technology, politics and nationalism. As much as Bismarck defined Realpolitik, I think that Schlieffen can be looked at as a military strategist who looked for an optimal yet very pragmatic military solution in the complete absence of the political element. A sample of his writings will reveal exactly that as will his military solution for a two front war.

"Resolute action is consequently of first importance in war. Every individual from the highest commander to the youngest soldier, must always remember that supine inaction and neglect of opportunities mil entail severer censure than an error in conception of the choice of means." German Field Service Regulations 1908

"Arms and the mode of combat have undergone a complete change during these 2000 years. No attack takes place at close quarters with short swords, but firing is used at thousands of meters range; the bow has been replaced by the recoil gun, the slingshot by machine guns. Capitulations have taken the place of slaughter. Still the greater conditions of warfare have remained unchanged. The battle of extermination may be fought today according to the same plan as elaborated by Hannibal in long forgotten times. The hostile front is not the aim of the principal attack. It is not against that point that the troops should be massed and the reserves disposed; the essential thing is to crush the flanks. The wings ought not to be sought at the advanced flank points of the front, but along the entire depth and extension of the hostile formation. The extermination is completed by an attack against the rear of the enemy.
A condition of success lies, it is true, in a deep formation of the hostile forces with shortened front through massing of reserves, thus deepening the flanks and increasing the number of combatants forced to remain in inactivity." -Alfred von Schlieffen

The "Schlieffen Plan" as most understand it is a practical example of Schlieffen's principles of war that were infused into and shaped the mindset of the German Armies during and also after his tenure. Schlieffen’s concept of the Feldherr (great captain, one who shapes the army according to his concept of military principles in every aspect) had a deep impact on the psyche of the German Army prior to WWI.

The origins of "the Plan" have to do with Schlieffen and the GGS creating contingency war plans based on the ideal military solution, regardless of political ramifications. The ideal military solution for Schlieffen would almost always involve a "Cannae" like war or battle of annihilation and Belgium's borders meant very little to Schlieffen beyond the possibility of added resistance. The morality of that is much more open to debate than the military necessity of Belgium's territory to Schlieffen's concept of a war with France (with or without Russia).

Thoughts?

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John W. Howard
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Re: The Schlieffen Plan

Post by John W. Howard » Fri Jun 08, 2012 1:44 pm

There is a good discussion of The Schlieffen Plan in Benoit Lemay's book on Manstein. I found it very interesting, especially how it related to Manstein's plan in 1940. I cannot recommend it enough. There are about three chapters dealing with Schlieffen's expectations in relation to Manstein's. Manstein felt leading with the right flank against the Allies would only lead to eventual stalemate as in 1914, due to the fact that the plan thought only of the initial phase of the conflict. Manstein's plan encompassed the initial phase as well as a subsequent phase designed to annihilate Allied forces. Unfortunately for Germany there were modifications and adjustments made by higher command which kept the German victory from being all it could have been. Best wishes.
John W. Howard

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Re: The Schlieffen Plan

Post by Osterhase » Sat Jun 09, 2012 6:54 am

Thanks for the book tip John, very much appreciated.

I believe Moltke (younger) and Schlieffen were following the guidance of Moltke (elder) in regard to the planning of operations beyond the initial contact from the Aufmarsch:
"Tactical victory formed the center of Moltke's vision of war. He saw strategy--a "free, practical, artistic activity"--as a "system of expedients" designed to establish, as far as possible, the conditions for tactical success. Strategy must remain flexible to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and to react to unpredictable factors like "weather, illnesses, railway accidents, misunderstandings, and disappointments."[16] Attempting to carry a war plan beyond the opening engagement he considered the greatest of follies, for the first clash of arms brought only new opportunities and necessities to attacker and defender alike. Nonetheless, staff officers should spare no effort in planning for as many contingencies as possible."
http://www.carlisle.army.mil/USAWC/para ... hevarr.htm

I believe the underlined portion to be the key to the deviation of Moltke from Schlieffen's original concept. I read the campaign of 1914 to demonstrate that Moltke anticipated incorrectly that there would be an opportunity to execute a double envelopment and thus reduced the right wing and placed an unnecessary number of corps on the left which ultimately proved ineffective against the French fortifications as forseen by Schlieffen and was a critical strategic error.

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Re: The Schlieffen Plan

Post by mconrad » Tue Nov 13, 2012 4:56 pm

"The hostile front is not the aim of the principal attack. It is not against that point that the troops should be massed and the reserves disposed; the essential thing is to crush the flanks. The wings ought not to be sought at the advanced flank points of the front, but along the entire depth and extension of the hostile formation. "

This makes no sense. Perhaps the translation is not entirely accurate.

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