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Analysis - A Critique of Planning for "The Day"

In several recent CICs we’ve taken a look at the 1914 war plans of Germany, France, and the other powers. Here we’ll attempt a short critique of the various plans

While planning is necessary for military organizations, if plans become too detailed, they tend to become too rigid. Leading into the Great War, some of the planners seem to have forgotten the maxim “No plan survives first contact with the enemy," variously attributed to either the great theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) or the great strategist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800-1891). As military historian Richard M. Watt once put it, "Fortunate is the general staff which sees a war fought the way it intends."

Of course, everyone made mistakes in their planning, but since it was the interaction of the German and French plans that led to the disaster of 1914-1918, it’s worth starting with those, and we’ll take up the plans of the other powers, and some other aspects of planning another time.

The Germans. The biggest problem with the German plan, whether you blame it on Schlieffen or on Moltke, is that it made too many assumptions: about the willingness of the Belgians to resist, about the ability of the troops to maintain marches of up to 30 kilometers a day in August for several weeks, about the availability of resources to feed troops and animals, about the speed of Russian mobilization, about the ability of the French to react to the right hook, about Britain’s possible role in the war, and so on.

The plan was so obsessively detailed that reportedly it even included the site where French delegates would be directed to meet German delegates to negotiate an armistice, the railroad station at Provins, in the Seine-et-Marne prefecture about 75 km southeast of Paris. There were many lapses in planning, but a few examples will suffice.

First, the German plan seems to have totally ignored what Clausewitz had called "friction."

  • The Plan put 22 army corps – about two-thirds of the troops in the West – with the four armies on the Right Wing, to execute the sweep through Belgium and into northern France. Contemporary doctrine held that an army corps advancing in anticipation of action required several parallel roads, ideally covering a front of about 10 to 15 miles. So the 22 corps of the Right Wing ideally required at least 220 miles of front. Unfortunately, when the four right wing armies deployed on the Belgian and Luxembourg frontiers they were only on a front of about 100 miles. As all 22 corps were deployed abreast, rather than some being held in reserve, there were far too many troops being crammed into too little space. The resultant crowding slowed the movement of the troops, hampered their ability to get into action quickly, and impeded the movement of rations and supplies. Of course, as the Germans advanced, the front broadened; by the 22nd day of mobilization (M+22) it would have been about 250 miles wide, as the troops closed up on the Franco-Belgian frontier along its length and pressed the Belgians toward Antwerp, and corps frontages would have been appropriate. But then, if the time table were kept, as the troops on the outermost end of the right wing were reaching their objectives southwest of Paris on M+39, the front would have been well over 350 miles, and corps frontages would have become too wide, especially given that troops had to be detailed to invest Antwerp, Namur, and other places. Worse, well before the 39th day all of the corps, but particularly those on the far right would have been seriously weakened by losses from combat, disease, accident, and fatigue.
  • To envelop Paris on the southwest by M+39, the men on of the German First Army, on the rightmost end of the great wheel (who were not supposed to “brush the Channel with their sleeves”) would have had to march over 350 miles (c. 560 km) from M+16. This meant a daily average of slightly over 16 miles ( c. 25½ km) from August 17th (M+16) until they passed southwest of Paris on September 9th (M+39), while carrying more than 50 pounds of arms, clothing, and equipment, in high summer, and with increasingly tenuous lines of supply; by the outbreak of the Battle of the Marne (September 6, 1914), the German First Army had marched about 300 miles (c. 500 km) in 20 days, almost meeting the prescribed daily rate, but had lost many men to fatigue, heat, straggling, or combat.
  • The German timetable made no allowance for time lost due to enemy action, such as the seemingly slight delays imposed by fortresses such as Namur, Maubeuge, or Givet, or rear guard and spoiling actions such as at the Gette, Charleroi, Mons, or Le Cateau, or the effects of sabotage on the movement of equipment, munitions, and supplies, with each incident consuming time and tying down troops needed elsewhere.

Each of these problems created “friction,” adding slight delays or divergences from the timetable. Now “friction” is one of the fundamental Clausewitzian ideas about the nature of war, and should have been familiar to those writing the German war plan, but they seem to have overlooked it.

The German plan also made no allowance for “contingency,” the need to cope with unforeseen developments, a major tenet of the Elder Moltke’s planning process.


  • There was no strategic reserve. Only one reserve corps and some Landwehr were briefly held in Germany for contingencies when the armies began to march, and they soon went to the front as well, to take part in either the great flanking movement in the West or the defensive in the East. So when the unanticipated early Russian offensive unfolded in the East, the only way to send additional forces were to take them from the troops in the West.
  • Command arrangements lacked flexibility: subordinate commanders were expected to keep to the plan and the timetable, and granted no freedom of action to respond to unexpected developments. This was in contrast to the Elder’s Moltke’s willingness to delegate responsibility for decision making to lower commanders. A good example of the consequences of this policy occurred on August 22, 1914, when General der Infanterie Bruno von Mudra (1851-1931), commanding XVI Army Corps, saw an opportunity to envelop the southern flank of the French Third Army, which arguably might have become the decisive maneuver of the campaign; Appealing to Fifth Army headquarters, he was refused permission and told to maintain contact with his right-hand neighbor, the V Reserve Corps.


The accumulation of these planning flaws combined with the flaws in the basic assumptions underlying the plans:


  • The Belgians would offer little or no resistance to Germany’s violation of their neutrality, and if they did resist, their troops would not be formidable opponents.
  • The British would probably not intervene, if they did, their “contemptible little army” would be swept up in the French disaster.
  • The French would adhere to their war plan, and keep the bulk of their forces on the Alsace-Lorraine front long enough for the German Right Wing to position itself for a death blow.
  • The German forces in East Prussia would be able to hold off the slowly mobilizing Russians until victory had been won in the West.

One of the most curious things about the German plan is that it relied on maneuver by an inferior force to defeat the French, with no decisive battle until, by the meticulous execution of the plan, the French Army would have been encircled and in essence given the choice between annihilation or surrender. So arguably Schlieffen or Moltke the Younger were risking Germany’s future on a single role of the dice; if the plan didn’t work, Germany had no Plan B.

Despite the inherent flaws in the German plan, for a long time it was held up as an outstanding example of strategic planning, being taught a the German war college and in many others. For example, in 1923 1st Lt. Ellis Bates (1895-1940), taking the Company Officer’s Course at the U.S. Army Infantry School, wrote “Germany’s plans in the event of a two front war were the results of years of study on the part of great soldiers, the German General Staff. That those plans failed was not due to any unsoundness on the part of the plans, but rather due to the fact that the plans could not be carried out by the field armies.” Bata had it exactly backwards: the plan could not be carried out by the field armies because it was unsound.

Schlieffen and the Younger Moltke and all of the other military thinkers of Wilhelmine Germany believed they were close students of Clausewitz and the Great Moltke. Regardless of which general pronounced the famous maxim “No plan survives first contact with the enemy," every German staff officer would have known it. But as German military historian Herbert Rosinski (1903-1962) would write, the planners of the great offensive were “second-hand, second-rate compilators and commentators, incredibly pompous and stuffy, almost wholly devoid of any original inspiration of their own, and largely concerned with hair-splitting controversies about the subtleties of Moltke’s strategy and its difference, or not, from that of Napoleon.”

Much of the argument about whether the Younger Moltke “tampered” with Schlieffen’s plan was fabricated postwar, by German Army historians seeking to bolster the “Stab in the back” image of an invincible Imperial Army brought down through no fault of its own.

In fact, the primary problem with German planning in 1914 was that it assumed everything would work according to plan. As the brilliant Serbian general-in-chief Radomir Putnik once remarked, “The concentration of troops can be done fast and easy, on paper.”

Excursus: Germany’s “Missing” Divisions. Schlieffen’s notes from 1905 and 1906, with their vision of a sweeping envelopment by the German right, which more or less inspired the plan executed by Moltke, required more divisions than were actually available to the German Army, whether in 1905 or in 1914.

A case can be made that these divisions could readily have been available, given the political will.

  • In contrast to France, which in peacetime maintained 2 percent of its population on active duty, Germany only had about 1 percent of its people on active duty. In 1913 the War Ministry proposed raising three new army corps, to bring the total on active duty to 29. Concerned that there were not sufficient men of noble blood available to provide a solid cadre for these new corps, Kaiser Wilhelm declined to authorized their activation, as they would have required admitting more commoners to the officer corps.
  • The Imperial Navy, the existence of which had probably done more than anything to cause a rift between Britain and Germany, had some 80,000 officers and enlisted men on active duty in peacetime, plus about 170,00 reservists. The millions of marks spent on the navy, the mountains of resources needed to build warships and naval infrastructure, and the men who served in the fleet could easily have been invested in expanding the army by four or five army corps. As it was, in November of 1914 the 6th Battle Squadron, consisting of seven obsolete coastal battleships dating from 1890-1896, was dissolved to provide the cadre for about 22,000 naval reservists who formed the Marinekorps Flandern, which performed occupation and coast defense duties in Belgium.

So, between Kaiser Wilhelm’s refusal to authorized new army corps for fear of commissioning too many commoners and his decision to create a major Navy, Germany easily might have had seven or eight additional army corps available in 1914. Used wisely – and arguably the German Army did not use its resources wisely – a few additional corps might have been immensely helpful in August and September of 1914.

The French. The French planners also made a lot of mistakes. The notion that the élan of their infantry attacking a la baïonnette could overcome any amount of fire, the assumption that the Germans would never commit reserve troops to the front lines, the belief that heavy artillery would only slow down the troops, the unwillingness to recognize that the German incursion into Belgium was more than a diversion, and so on.

A second flaw was in execution. The essence of Plan XVII was that the French were to undertake massive offensives after they had determined the direction of the main German effort. In the event, the French, right up to Joffre, ignored that part and began attacking immediately.

Then there was the problem of the reserves, which, in contrast to the Germans, the French relegated to a purely secondary role; had their reserve forces been better prepared and properly integrated into the field armies, the Germans might have found tougher going.

Nevertheless, Plan XVII had some important features that in many ways made it better than the Schlieffen Plan. Most notably, Plan XVII did not mandate a rigid timetable, and allowed commanders considerable flexibility of action. Albeit belatedly, when Joffre realized that his offensives into Germany were not going well, and that German troops were pouring into Belgium in enormous numbers, he began juggling forces from his right to his left, effectively abandoning his plans and creating a new ones on the fly.

The Austro-Hungarians: The principal flaw in Austro-Hungarian planning was that at some point a decision had to be made as to whether Serbia or Russia was the main enemy. Making the wrong decision could be disastrous. This was precisely what occurred in 1914, when Plan B was ordered, on the assumption that Russia would not support Serbia. As a result, Austro-Hungarian forces in Galicia were far too weak to cope with the massive Russian offensive that began on August 23rd; by the time the Russians ran out of steam in mid-September, they had advanced 100 miles or so into Galicia, inflicting nearly a half-million casualties in killed, wounded, captured, and missing, plus nearly 100,000 more Austro-Hungarian troops trapped in the besieged fortress-city of Przemysl, while suffering about 225,000 casualties of their own.

A secondary problem with Austro-Hungarian planning was that despite considerable tensions with Italy the plan implemented in 1914 made no provision for a possible war with Italy. To be sure, on paper Italy was an ally, but an unreliable one, and the terms of the alliance were strictly defensive, leaving Italy a loophole. Plans for war with Italy existed – Conrad had something of an obsession about the subject – but none for the possibility that Italy might ally herself with France against Austria-Hungary. So in 1914, as Italy declared its neutrality, Austria-Hungary had little more than customs guards covering the frontier. Had Italy not dithered for months over the question of going to war with her erstwhile ally, Austria-Hungary would have been in an even worse situation by the end of the year than was actually the case.

And in fact, despite the firm belief in the strength of their armed forces by men like Conrad von Hotzendorf, Austria-Hungary was not capable of fighting a two-front war; arguably not even a one-front war against Serbia.

The Russians: The Russian plan for simultaneous attacks on East Prussia from the east and the south was not ill-conceived. But the plan was badly prepared and even more poorly implemented. The Russians were aware that the German defense plan envisioned holding off one wing of their pincer movement into Prussia while piling on the other. So they needed to carefully coordinate the movement of the two attacking armies, the Second advancing from the south and the First from the east, so that they would strike the German defenders simultaneously, preventing them from shifting troops from one front to the other. In at least one of several wargames the Russians conducted for their East Prussia operation, the game revealed that the planned timetables had the First Army moving out too soon for the Second to keep pace, leaving six days during which only the First Army would be in close contact with the Germans, who were then in a position to kick it back, and shift forces to confront the Russian Second Army. Despite knowing this, the plan was unaltered, and the result was the catastrophe at Tannenberg.

The British: The British did a very poor job of planning for the possible coming war. Their army was first rate, probably man-for-man the best in the world at the time. But there was only one war plan: Sir Henry Wilson’s scheme to put a British Expeditionary Force on the left flank of the French Army in the event both nations were at war with Germany. No other options were ever explored. Arguably, the last minute proposal by First Sea Lord of the Admiralty John “Jacky” Fisher to ignore events in France and land the expeditionary force on the German Baltic coast for a march on Berlin had some merit. If the Baltic proposal or some other alternative plan had been properly studied, rather than just thrown out at the last minute, Britain perhaps might have found a better use for the BEF than to help cover the French left. But there had been absolutely no planning for a Baltic undertaking, not even by the Admiralty, or for anything else. So Wilson’s plan was the only way a British army could get into action quickly in order to help the French. Of course, the BEF did well. But it committed Britain to an ever more demanding land campaign on the Continent.

The Other Powers: The other nations that became involved in, or were prepared to take part in, the war in 1914 all had reasonably realistic plans.

  • The Belgians. The pre-war contingency plan for a German invasion specified several optional courses of action, depending upon what the invaders did. All of the Belgian plans in the event of a German invasion called for the fortresses of Liege and Namur to hold out as long as possible, in order to gain time. The specific plan implemented in 1914, to confront a massive invasion, required the Belgian mobile army to concentrate on the west side of the River Gette, to delay the invaders for as long as possible, in the hope of support from France or Britain; but to fall back on Fortress Antwerp rather than risk destruction in the field. This was accomplished in 1914. The Belgians delayed the Germans by a few days, which enabled them to evacuate large numbers of civilians, conduct extensive sabotage to deny critical infrastructure to the enemy, prepare for the defense of Antwerp, and even move large numbers of reservists and recruits to safety, as well as preserve the bulk of their army intact to fight another day. So their plan more or less worked.
  • The Serbs. The Serbian Army was inferior to the Austro-Hungarians in matériel and numbers, but had far more combat veterans in its ranks thanks to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Recognizing their material inferiority, the Serbs opted to cede territory – even Belgrade – while harassing the advancing enemy, until opportunity presented itself for a counterattack. This worked well, more than once, and the Serbs were even able to undertake an offensive into Austria-Hungary, though it was not a good idea. Given the strategic situation in which the Serbs found themselves, they could hardly have done better, and managed to hold out until overwhelmed in late 1915 by the combined efforts of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Bulgaria.
  • The Turks. Still reorganizing after the disasters of the Italian and Balkan Wars, the Ottoman Army had developed a rather realistic plan in the event of another war. The troops were largely positioned defensively, to cope with several different possible threats, with some thought to assuming the offensive if opportunity presented itself. Had the Germans not precipitated war prematurely by raiding Russian Black Sea ports in late 1914 with the Goeben and Breslau, the Turks might have had time to complete their reorganization before committing themselves to war.
  • The Italians. The Italian Army was committed to making war against France as part of the Central Powers. The Italian generals recognized that the formidable defensive qualities of the Alps favored the French. So their plan, developed in cooperation their German and Austro-Hungarian allies, was to put an army on the German left flank in Alsace and get around this obstacle, thus potentially securing for Italy a place at the peace table. Of course, the Italian government had no intention of joining Germany in a war against France and Britain. When Italy declared its neutrality, the Army found its plans useless, and had to quickly improvised an alternative, which permitted the possibility of war with either France or Austria-Hungary.

Some flaws were common to the plans of all the powers. While the German General Staff and all the other general staffs had worked out how to get the troops to the frontier and into action against the enemy, none of them had given any thought to what would happen if, during mobilization, everyone decided not to have a war. No one had plans that allowed them to halt or even pause mobilization. In effect, once mobilization started war was virtually certain, particularly in the case of Germany, since the Army’s plans required an immediate movement into Belgium without a declaration of war, even before mobilization was completed.

All the plans also assumed that when “The Great War” came it would be a short one, a failing shared not only by the generals, but by most political leaders and the respective publics as well; after all, almost every European war since the fall of Napoleon had been a short, if sharp clash with a decisive ending. This was perhaps best expressed by Kaiser Wilhelm who, reviewing troops leaving for the front on August 2, 1914, told them "You will be home before the leaves have fallen from the trees." To be sure, a few people were more far sighted. Both Emperor-King Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary and King Carol of Romania realized the war would a long one, Carol even calling it “a world war.” Perhaps only Britain’s Lord Kitchener had the most realistic idea of what the coming war would be like: On August 5, 1914, the newly appointed Secretary of State for War informed the British War Council “We must be prepared to put armies of millions in the field and maintain them for several years.” His statement was met with incredulity. Kitchener’s perseverance on this matter led to the call for volunteers to form a “New Army” later in the month, but so reluctant were Britain’s political leaders to believe the war would be long, this first call was only for enough men to fill six divisions; it would soon be followed by a call for volunteers to form six more divisions, and then more yet again. And, of course, since none of the countries had plans for a long war, they also had no plans for industrial, economic, and societal mobilization, nor for the disruption to national life that would result from a protracted conflict.

Comparing the French and the German plans, one can make a case that the French did a better job. Although they would suffer enormous casualties due to the initial flaws in Plan XVII, French plans did not dictate a rigid time table and local commanders were given much more freedom of action than was the case in the German plan. This is what permitted Fifth Army commander Charles Lanrezac (1852-1925) to initiate offensive operations into the German flank in Belgium and later allowed for the massive shift of forces that preceded the Battle of the Marne.

Nearly 40 years after the end of the Great War, and over a decade after the end of an even greater one, Dwight D. Eisenhower observed “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.”

FootNote 1: National Strategic Planning. One of the most surprising things about the planning process of all of the powers on the eve of the Great War was that it was quite literally purely “military” – that is, there was virtually no interaction between the political and military authorities to align policy and military action.

The German government, for example, was not consulted by the General Staff as to the political wisdom of invading Belgium or the Netherlands. Similarly, following the Franco-Italian accords of 1902 that settled most disputes between the two nations, neither government thought to inform their principal military and naval leaders that war between the two nations was becoming unlikely. As a result, military staffs in both countries continued to prepare for a possible war. So when the war began in 1914 the French Army had eight divisions committed to the defense of the Alps, while the Italian Army initiated measures to ship three corps and some cavalry to support the Germans in Alsace.

Likewise, when in the aftermath of the Anglo-French entente cordiale, British Army planners negotiated with their French counterparts about a possible expeditionary force to the Continent, they did not consult with or inform their government about the details of their work. Meanwhile, the Anglo-French Naval Agreement of 1912, which committed Britain to the defense of France’s Atlantic and North Sea coasts in the event of German threat, was not fully communicated to the government. Both of these measures put enormous pressure on the British government to go to war even before the Germans invaded Belgium.

Perhaps even worse, was the none of the powers gave any much thought to preparing for the long term, that is for a war that might not last a few weeks. When the war started, in August of 1914, Germany had no strategic reserves of food, and only about a six months’ stockpile of raw materials. When, as the armies were beginning to move someone brought the question of long term economic planning up with Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, he was told “Don’t bother me with economics, I am busy conducting the war,” a sentiment that was pretty much shared by virtually all the political and military leaders of the day. As a result, in the words of historian Dwight R. Messimer, “. . . by the spring of 1915 [Germany] had to make a choice—feed the war industry or feed the people. They chose the former.”

FootNote 2: Joint Planning. Aside from British plans for the Royal Navy to cover the movement of the BEF to the Continent and French plans for their fleet to convoy troops from North Africa to the Europe, none of the nations that became enmeshed in the Great War developed comprehensive “joint” – that is integrated Army-Navy – war plans. In fact, the German Army did not even inform the Imperial Navy about its war plans, nor make any provision for naval cooperation. But then, aside from the British and French plans to cover troop maritime movements, none of the navies actually had any executable war plans in 1914.

FootNote 3: Combined Planning. Not surprisingly, none of the alliances tried to develop “combined” plans, that is integrated inter-allied plans, at most settling for vague agreements to “coordinate” their actions.

Although the nations had been allied for some decades, the Germany Army’s leaders never even informed their Austro-Hungarian or Italian counterparts of their plans to violate Belgian and Dutch neutrality on the outbreak of war with France, and that thus probably mean Britain would be drawn into the war.

There was one exception to the lack of combined planning: a Triple Alliance plan for integrated naval operations in the Mediterranean.

At a staff conference in Vienna in 1913, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary agreed to place their principal naval forces in the Mediterranean under the command of an Austro-Hungarian admiral. Germany would contribute its Mediterranean squadron, which was usually a battle cruiser and an escorting light cruiser or two, while Italy would contribute three dreadnoughts, four pre-dreadnoughts, seven armored cruisers, and various smaller warships, and Austria-Hungary would add three dreadnoughts, nine pre-dreadnoughts, two armored cruisers, and various lighter vessels.

This combined fleet, which would have greatly outnumbered and outgunned the French and British Mediterranean squadrons, was to prevent the transfer of French troops from Africa to Europe, interfere in Allied commerce, and, eventually, to cover Italian amphibious operations against Corsica and Southern France. Of course, this plan was never put into effect.

--With a tip of the hat to James McCarthy

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