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Profile - Planning for "The Day": Germany, 1871-1914

In peace armies prepare for war, elaborating plans within the framework of their national security priorities, the resources available, geography, their military institutions, and their ideas about the conduct of war.  Since the German and French war plans were the most important to the shaping of the Great War, we’ll deal with those in some detail, starting here with German planning, addressing French plans and, albeit more briefly, those of the other armies in a subsequent issues.

The Era of the Elder Moltke.  Almost as soon as the Franco-Prussian War ended, the German General Staff, headed by Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891), began thinking about a possible future war between the two countries.  During a “war scare” in 1875 Moltke realized that the French Army had already recovered sufficiently as to be competitive in size with the German Army.  But he also noticed that French military preparations seemed most likely defensive; not only were they fortifying the relatively short frontier with Germany, but their deployment plans (procured covertly) had the bulk of their army concentrated relatively far behind the front, lying in wait, as it were, to see what direction a German offensive would take.  Moreover, France was diplomatically isolated.  Widely viewed as a radical republic, France lacked allies among the other major continental powers.  This gave Moltke time to consider his options.  As long as both Austria-Hungary and Russia were allied with Germany, France wasn’t much of a threat.  He was fairly certain that Austria-Hungary would never break with Germany, given the Hapsburg Monarchy’s need for German help to protect itself from Russia.  Of Russia Moltke was much less certain, however.  So from the late 1870s he began to plan for a war in which France and Russia were allies, though he preferred avoiding such by careful diplomacy, at which Bismarck was adept.

Working on the assumption that even if allied with Russia, France would initially take a defensive stance in the event of war, in his first post-1871 war plan Moltke proposed making his main effort in the East.  He would put half the army in the West, with seven army corps in the newly-won provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and two corps covering the frontier with the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, lest the French attempt an end run through the neutral countries.  The other nine corps in the army would undertake offensive operations against Russia.  Moltke did not believe Russia could be defeated quickly, but expected his armies would be able to inflict severe reverses on the Russians, and throw them back sufficiently as to give Germany a good defensive position in the event the war dragged on.

In 1888, Germany concluded a secret military convention with Italy and Austria-Hungary, under the terms of which Italy was to put a substantial army on the Rhine.  Initially of 12 divisions, later of 10, this force was to reach Alsace by rail via Austria and be ready for operations on the 20th day of mobilization.  In the event of a war just between France and Germany, these troops were to support a German offensive in Lorraine by besieging Belfort and defending Alsace, while Germany would support Italian efforts against France in the Alps with four divisions, an undertaking which whether successful or not would tie down about eight French divisions.  Simultaneously, a combined Italo-Austrian naval offensive in the Mediterranean would impede the movements of the strong French forces in North Africa to France. 

If Russia allied herself with France, the Italian troops would bolster a German defensive against the France, while the bulk of Germany’s forces were concentrated in the East for a series of offensives against Russia in cooperation with Austria.  Moltke accepted that it would not be possible to strike a decisive knock-out blow against Russia, and thus the war would be a long one, and such a situation would be best avoided through political and diplomatic action.

The Waldersee Era.  Moltke retired shortly after the agreement with Italy was concluded, just about the time that the Russo-German alliance came apart, due largely to the ineptitude of Kaiser Wilhelm.  Moltke’s immediate successor as chief of the Great General Staff was Alfred von Waldersee (1832-1904).  Although he too agreed that it would be best to avoid a two front war, Waldersee developed two different operational plans in the event one erupted.

  • “Good Campaigning Weather” (i.e. after the Spring rains and before the first frosts of Autumn): five to seven army corps would undertake an offensive into Russia, while fifteen to thirteen corps would deploy against the French, blunt any offensive, and then attack in turn.
  • “Bad Campaigning Weather”: three corps would hold the Russians, while seventeen would undertake an offensive against France

But Waldersee made several mistakes.  He was perceived as meddling in politics and was critical of the Kaiser’s plans to build a great navy.  Worse, during the autumn maneuvers of 1891, Waldersee made the mistake of defeating the Kaiser.  Waldersee was promptly demoted to command of a corps.  He was replaced as chief-of-staff  by Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913), who would let his “Supreme War Lord” win whenever he wanted to.

The Schlieffen Era.  Soon after Schlieffen became chief of the general staff he began to reconsider Moltke’s “Russia first” plans.  It seems likely that the staff had become aware that in the event of war in which Germany made its main effort against them, the Russians planned to retreat about 100 miles into the interior, abandoning Poland and parts of Belarus to take up defensive positions in a fortified zone they were building roughly between Kovno and Brest-Litovsk.  If this happened, Schlieffen feared that Germany would find herself involved in a protracted two front war of attrition, with little chance of a quick victory, a situation which Erich Ludendorff later said was confirmed by “countless war-games.”   So Schlieffen posed the question “Would it be possible to knock France out of the war quickly, and then take on Russia?” 

The basic strategic problem of a war with France was that the Franco-German border was only about 150 miles long.  The southern part of the frontier ran through the rugged Vosges mountains, and the French had built elaborate fortifications behind the frontier at Verdun, Toul, Epinal, and Belfort.  This left little room for maneuver.   In 1893 Schlieffen developed his first plan for a “France first” war, involving a frontal attack across the border, through the approximately 50-mile “gap” between the fortified zones of Epinal and Toul, against the center of the French line along the River Meurthe.  Wargaming apparently demonstrated that this was a bad idea, as it was the premise of French deployment Plans XII and XIII, which had been kindly provided by an agent in the French railway system.

 By 1899 Schlieffen decided he had found a solution, one more than 2,000 years old.  He read the account of Cannae in the first volume of History of the Art of War within the Framework of Political History by the classicist Hans Delbrück (1848-1929).  Cannae (August 2, 216 BC) was a stunning victory, in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal executed a double envelopment against a greatly superior Roman army, virtually annihilating it, in what was perhaps the most devastating single defeat of any “Western” army in history.   Schlieffen felt this was the solution to the problem of France, encirclement of a numerically superior army by an inferior force.  But in his enthusiasm over Hannibal’s brilliance at Cannae he seems to have overlooked the fact that while Hannibal won the battle, against an inept enemy commander, Carthage lost the war. 

To achieve this envelopment, Schlieffen decided to attack France by going through Belgium and the Netherlands.  Decades earlier Bismarck had warned that a German invasion of Belgium or the Netherlands would immediately bring Britain into a war against them, calling the idea “complete idiocy,” but by 1899 he was long dead.

To effect this plan, Schlieffen divided the German Army into three parts:  

  • Four army corps (eight divisions) would deploy in the East, to watch the Russians
  • Nine corps and four reserve divisions (22 divisions) would be in Alsace and Lorraine. 
  • Seven corps and six reserve divisions (20 divisions) would deploy on the Belgian-Luxembourg frontier.

While the forces in Alsace-Lorraine pinned the French, those further north would invade Luxembourg and eastern Belgium, and then swing south along the line of the Meuse to envelop Verdun, unhinging the French lines further south.  At the time, the French had adopted their Plan XIV, which presumed a German frontal attack from Lorraine, so Schlieffen’s plan had a fair chance of succeeding, especially since the Belgian Army was a very feeble force.  But it was not a formula for a knock-out blow, as the French could fall back and juggle forces to continue the fight.  So Schlieffen kept working. 

His planning came to fruition in 1905.  By then the German army had grown to 23 army corps plus about two dozen reserve divisions which were suitable to undertake field operations, making 72 infantry divisions in total.  In contrast the French had 21 army corps, for about 45 active infantry divisions, but virtually no useful reserve divisions, which meant Germany had about a one-third superiority in field forces.  There was also some question as to the will of the French to sustain a war at this time, as relations between their people and their Army were amazing bad, in the aftermath of the “Dreyfus Affair” (1894-1906) and the “Affair of the Fiches” (1904-1905), in which anti-clericals and Free Masons in the war ministry hampered the promotion of officers they deemed too religious .  Moreover, French ally Russia was debilitated by her recent defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and subsequent internal disorders, and would hardly be able to pose a threat to Germany in the East.  Given these factors, Schlieffen saw an opportunity for a truly decisive victory over the French.  He would put just ten divisions in the East to keep an eye on the Russians, put eight divisions in Alsace and Lorraine on his left flank to hold the French back, and 54 divisions on his right, to execute a wide sweep through Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands into northern France, enveloping Paris and destroy the entire French Army in little more than a month, so that he could begin shifting forces to the Eastern Front by the 42nd day of mobilization. 

Schlieffen developed this plan with certain assumptions in mind.  To begin with he assumed that the French would stand on the defensive, which was reasonable given their existing war plans were known to him.  In addition, he assumed both Belgium (with six divisions) nor the Netherlands (with four) would put up little or no resistance to Germany’s violation of their neutrality, and in any case dismissed their military prowess, writing “the armed forces of both states have a militia tinge about them.”  In addition, he assumed that Britain would not intervene, as they were still recovering from the unpleasant revelations of the Boer War, although he did make provisions in case six British divisions did turn up.  In what was perhaps his greater error, also assumed that beginning on the 16th day of mobilization (M+16) the troops on the outermost edge of the German right flank would be able to march on foot an average of about 20 kilometers a day for nearly four weeks, in the heat of summer, despite engaging enemy forces as necessary, keeping to a rigid timetable while their lines of supply grew ever longer, to attain victory by M+39.  The four weeks were critical, because by Germany’s M+39 Russian mobilization would be almost completed, and they would presumably soon be able to attack in the East.

Finally, Schlieffen assumed that the French would adhere to their war plan, which in 1905 was Plan XV.  That was essentially a defensive plan, which, although it had some provision for possible German maneuvers in eastern Belgium, presumed that the main threat would be a German offensive out of Lorraine.   

There is some argument as to whether Schlieffen actually wrote an executable plan based on these premises at the time, as no detailed version of the war plan of 1905 survived  What did survive were Schlieffen’s “Memorandum of 1905” dated December 1905 and an “Addendum to the Memorandum” dated February 1906 which are actually discussions of a plan.  They outline what amounts to the plan, and argue the need to increase the size of the German Army to 96 active and reserve divisions,  plus six “ersatz” divisions, but largely incorporated the assumptions described above.  Schlieffen wrote another memorandum in 1912, in which he argued for a total reorganization of the German Army in addition to its expansion, on which more later.  While it is clear that Schlieffen did not leave a plan in which “the last man on the Right” would “brush the Channel with his sleeve,” in the dubious death-bed phrase attributed to him, over the next few years his 1905-1906 vision, with its preponderance of effort on the German right and the grand turning movement that pivoted on Metz and Thionville certainly can be seen in all plans that have survived from 1905 through 1914.  Moreover, senior officers often invoked his name when discussing operations even as the campaign unfolded in 1914 .  

The Younger Moltke.  Schlieffen’s successor as Chief-of-the-General Staff was Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916), known as “Moltke the Younger” to distinguish him from his uncle.  In many ways Moltke was a much better chief-of-staff than Schlieffen.  For one thing, unlike Schlieffen, he managed to get the Kaiser to stop meddling in the annual maneuvers.

Almost as soon as he assumed command, Moltke began to tinker with the plan.  The differences between Schlieffen’s plan and Moltke’s are outlined on the accompanying table.

Infantry Division Allocations, 1905 & 1914
Plan Schlieffen 1905 Moltke 1914

Total Divisions

72 (100.0%)

80 (100.0%)


10 (  13.8%)

9 (    8.9%)


62 (  86.1%)

71 (  88.7%)

    Right Wing

54 (  75.0%)

54 (  67.5%)

    Left  Wing       

8 (  11.1%)

17 (  21.1%)

    Ratio R:L

6.75:1 Divisions

3.2:1 Divisions

Note: Active and reserve divisions only. In both plans numbers of Landwehr were to be used for occupation and other duties, and also six “ersatz” divisions, composed of new recruits and volunteers, were to be available on the Right after a few weeks.

Between 1905 and 1914 the army grew from 72 infantry divisions to 80.  Moltke put the additional divisions, plus one extracted from the Eastern Front, on the Left in the West.  This raised the allocation of available divisions on the Left from Schlieffen’s 11.1% to 21.2%, with the result that the Right Wing fell from 75.0% to 67.5% of the total force in the West.  In the aftermath of Germany’s stunning reverse in the West in September of 1914, this action would later spark charges that Moltke "tampered" with Schlieffen’s perfect plan.  The refrain went more or less "If Moltke hadn't disturbed the balance between the two wings the plan would have succeeded."  But while Moltke had “disturbed the balance between the two wings,” the number of divisions on the Right remained the same, at 54, in both versions of the plan. 

Moreover, one could argue that Moltke actually strengthened the Right wing.  There are several reasons for this.  Schlieffen may have written dismissively about the likelihood that the Italians would show up on his left, but detailed staff work to bring them by rail from Italy via of Austria to deploy in Alsace was regularly updated during his tenure at the general staff and continued right through August of 1914.  So it appears that Schlieffen expected ten Italian divisions on his left.  This changes the number of divisions on the German Left from 8 in the 1905 plan to 18, and the ratio between Right and Left from 6.75-to-1 to 3-to-1, which is pretty much where Moltke’s “tampering” had it; by 1912, when Moltke prepared his version of the plan, there was little likelihood that the Italians would show up, despite their recent renewal of the military agreement with Germany. In addition, Moltke saw little reason to add the Netherlands to the list of Germany's enemies.  Schlieffen had decided that the technical requirements of moving the armies necessitated occupying the so-called "Maastricht Appendix," the Dutch province of Limburg, a little sliver of land about 40 kilometers long and between seven and 24 kilometers wide, dangling south from the mass of The Netherlands between Germany and Belgium.  Moltke's analysis of the road net about Liege convinced him that it was possible to funnel both the First and the Second Army through the "Liege bottleneck".  This obviated the necessity of fighting the Dutch, which would require two reserve corps.  Furthermore, the increasing capability of German second-line forces permitted Moltke to substitute Landwehr and Ersatz (replacement) units for the three reserve corps that Schlieffen had ear-marked to blockade  Antwerp, to which the Belgians were expected to retreat after a token resistance.  So where Schlieffen had committed ten of the 54 divisions on his “strong right wing” to these ancillary operations, leaving only 44 for the famous “sweep” into northern France, Moltke was able to commit all 54 divisions to the supposed war winning flanking maneuver. 

Moltke was, of course, aware of the French war plans, about which we will have more say shortly.  These were primarily contingency plans, with the troops in positions where they could resist a German offensive from Alsace-Lorraine, or, if opportunity arose, undertake offensives of their own into the disputed provinces.  While by 1914 French Plan XVII did make provision for a German threat through Belgium, and included a strong mobile reserve, Moltke believed the French would persevere in their focus on Alsace-Lorraine until it was too late to do anything to stop his Right Wing from sweeping through Belgium and encircling Paris.

So Moltke’s plan retained essentially the same basic flaws that Schlieffen’s had, and added a couple more.  

As the campaign unfolded, many German commanders thought the plan was working.  But Moltke was probably the most clear-headed of any of the senior German officers.  In the heady days before the Battle of the Marne he was the first to realize that the French were not beaten, but merely retreating in good order.

While one can argue with the British military historian and theoretician Basil Henry Liddell Hart on many issues, he was certainly right in his assessment that the plan was,

“a conception of Napoleonic boldness, and there were encouraging precedents in Napoleon's early career for counting on the decisive effect of arriving in the enemy's rear with the bulk of one's forces.  If the manœuvre went well it held much greater promise of quick and complete victory than any other course could offer, and the hazards of leaving only a small proportion to face a French frontal attack were not as big as they appeared.” 

But Liddell Hart went on to add that in an era when the advancing German troops would be moving on foot on exterior lines, while the defending French troops could be shifted from place to place much more quickly by rail using interior lines.  The German plan required “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.”

Note:  A look at French war planning will follow in a few weeks, and then a summary overview of the planning by the other European powers.

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