In the grey area between historical military analysis and political and historical exegesis, one is frequently confronted with the somewhat dubious thesis, that the existence of Germany’s war plan – created in 1905 by then Chief Of Staff Field Marshal Schlieffen and executed in August 1914 under the direction by the Younger Moltke – proves the aggressive character of German policy and therefore constitutes the “prima facie” evidence of German War Guilt – as notarized in the famous Section 231 of the Treaty of Versailles and, most likely, one of the reasons for the Second War.

The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, John C. Johansen (1876–1964) [Wikipedia Commons]

This post shall not discuss the thirty years of diplomatic tomfoolery that preceded the outbreak of the war in 1914 – these are thoroughly documented in Luigi Albertini’s seminal work “The Origins of the War of 1914“, summarized in the chapters XIII to XVII of the author’s own “The Little Drummer Boy” and their major implications may be reviewed in the author’s article “The Road to War – European Imperialism 1878 – 1914” (including links).

The history of the Schlieffen Plan of 1905 and an introduction into the only recently discovered original documents for Moltke’s Plan of 1914 are provided in the posts “Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan” and “The Real German War Plan of 1914“.

Schlieffen 1906

The question at hand is the thesis – or proposition – that the existence of the plan proves war guilt, i.e., that preparations for war are (1) inherently a sign of aggressive, and therefore criminal intentions, and that (2) Germany, as proven by the plan, is guilty of the charge as stated.

This case has not only recently been made, a.o., by Annika Mombauer and has come up again in the recent discussion of the Schlieffen Plan, which was instigated by the articles of Terence Zuber from 1999 on, which disputed the traditional interpretation of the matter and are introduced in the author’s articles above.

As the attentive reader of the above-mentioned articles will have recognized, there is blame for the outbreak of the war easily found in both camps and all the participants, but what was the factual, respectively historical situation in 1914? If the charge were true, the following conditions had to apply:

(1) Germany had an aggressive war plan, planning to attack, defeat and possibly conquer its enemies, and other nations had no such plans.

(2) Germany did in fact prepare for war, and subsequently mobilized, unprovoked and in an aggressive manner and

(3) Germany did in fact attack other countries first, therefore compelling them to defence and subsequent counterattack.

Terence Zuber, as the creator of the brouhaha, has come – not surprisingly – under a concerted attack by the guardians of the historical truth and has attempted, in an abstract from 2014, to summarize his critique, and therein discusses the case of the Schlieffen Plan as being used as evidence of war guilt. It is presented here as a PDF file, the original is on his website.

Even in elementary analysis, the claim of a war plan being exemplary evidence of aggressive, indeed criminal intentions – thus constituting a case of war guilt – appears asinine when confronted with the basic facts of the plan at hand.

Condition One

(A) After the end of Bismarck’s Reinsurance Treaty with Russia, France and Russia entered – since the mid-1890s – into a Military Convention, i.e., a formal military, if not a political treaty, with the express intent of attacking Germany (and Austria) – under given circumstances – with certain numbers of troops in a given time. See the post “The Entente Cordiale“. Subsequently, France developed its own – aggressive military plans against Germany, of which Number 17 (Plan XVII) was in effect in 1914. It envisioned a classic two-pronged attack into the Lorraine on both sides of Metz.

More interesting is a look at the state of the existing strongholds of 1914, for it allows to reiterate the basic assumptions behind the strategy.

It is obvious that France, hoping, naturally for the best outcome of its attack as per Plan XVII in the Lorraine, was aware of the possibility of a German attack through Belgium, along the line of the fortresses Liège, Namur and Maubeuge. Various provisions in Plan XVII allowed for the shifting of the French 5th Army (and possibly more troops) to the north to defend against such an eventuality.

The respective Russian plan in 1914 was called Plan 19 and envisioned separate deployments against Germany – with two armies – and Austria-Hungary – with another two armies, with the Fifth Army to be deployed where it was to be most useful – in the event itself in the south, near Kowel and Lublin. Both army groups were to attack the respective enemy on his own ground.

Condition Two: Mobilization

There is much confusion over the actual dates and proceedings as far as the actual orders of mobilization in the belligerents are concerned, although the study of the respective documents in Albertini [Albertini, Luigi, The Origins of the War of 1914, 1st Ed. Oxford 1952, 3 Vols., Enigma Books 2005, ISBN 1-292631-26-X] and especially the recent work of Sean McMeekin [McMeekin, Sean, The Russian Origins of the First World War, Belknap Press Harvard 2011, ISBN 978-0-674-06210-8] allows a close approximation.

All parties – Russia, Germany, France and Austria had plans for preparative military measures short of actual mobilization. Hence, in Russia, the following occurred in the night between July 24 and 25, 1914, when the war department, the foreign department and the Tsar kicked around some unimplemented, plain impossible, and all together dangerous ideas about how to react to the Austrian Ultimatum to Serbia:

Strangely enough, the story goes that Sazonov [the Foreign Minister] was alerted of the Austrian ultimatum around 9 p.m. on the evening of July 23, at Tsarskoe Selo 36 not via Strandmann, his man in Belgrade, nor via Spalaikovic, the Serbian ambassador at St. Petersburg, but via Marquis Carlotti, the Italian envoy, who had allegedly alerted a lower-level Russian diplomat at Chorister’s Bridge, who in turn sent a cable to Sazonov at Tsarskoe Selo. (159) Yet the Foreign Minister did not return to the capital until 10 a.m. or so on the 24th, but, reportedly, exclaimed immediately after only cursory examination of the Austrian note, “C’est la guerre européenne!” (160)

He then proceeded to receive the Austrian Ambassador Count Szapary, who officially delivered the Austrian
notification to the Russian government of the note to Serbia plus a few other documents and informed Sazonov that a
dossier with evidence of Serbian guilt would be forwarded to the ministry soon. 37 A few hours later, Sazonov received a
telegram from the Serbian Prince-Regent, Alexandar, directed to the Tsar, in which he indicated Serbia’s preparedness to
submit to those parts of the Austrian démarche “whose acceptance shall be advised by Your Majesty.” (161) Hence the burden was squarely put on Sazonov’s shoulders, who immediately, that is about 11 a.m., met with the Chief of the General Staff Yanushkevich, whom he advised to make “all arrangements for putting the army on a war footing”; it might become necessary to “proclaim only partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary,” in which case Yanushkevich was to take care that “nothing must give Germany occasion to perceive in it any hostile intentions against herself.” (162)


There was a problem. No such plan existed.

As Sean McMeekin points out, the order as well the concept underlying it was – quoting General Dobrorolski, the Chief of the Army’s Mobilization Section – a “folly”: “impossible both in the general sense, in that [the Russian Mobilization] Plan 19 required mobilization against Germany and Austria simultaneously with no variant separating the two, and in the
more specific sense that it was physically impossible to mobilize against the Austrian border without extensively using the Warsaw railway hub, which would inevitably alarm the Germans.” (163)
Originally, the plan to mobilize against Austria only but not Germany had been an idea of War Minister
Sukhomlinov that had been kicked around during the Council of Ministers’ meeting of November 23, 1912 – during the First Balkan War – when it had almost been attempted, as far as a non-existent plan could have been implemented. The problem
on this July 24, however, was that Yanushkevich – promoted to Chief of Staff only five months earlier, unfamiliar with the
mobilization plan and hence a disaster waiting to happen – had already promised Sazonov that the imaginary option was indeed viable and would be implemented forthwith.

As Luigi Albertini has pointed out, the absurdity to insist on a non-existing mobilization plan, which to implement
immediately Yanushkevich ordered Dobrorolski despite the latter’s protestations around noon of July 24, was to have the
most lethal consequences. “Had Yanushkevich from the beginning warned Sazonov of the mistake he would be making in proclaiming partial mobilization, Sazonov would never have got the Council of Ministers on 24 July and the Tsar on 25 July to approve it in principle, nor would he have proclaimed it on the evening of 28 July with incalculable consequences. If he had been asked to choose between no mobilization and general mobilization against the Central Powers, Sazonov would have hesitated to plunge headlong into the venture, whereas, believing he could threaten Austria without provoking Germany, he found out too late that this could not be done.” (164)

Yet since Yanushkevich was eager to please but unprepared to admit his lack of knowledge of the true
mobilization plan, the catastrophe ran its course. [FN2] At the emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers that convened at 3 p.m. of the same day, the following resolutions were approved, and signed into law by Tsar Nicholas II on the next morning, July 25 (165):

That (1) Austria would be asked to extend the 48-hour deadline, (2) that Serbia pull back her army into the inner
country without attempting to resist an eventual Austrian invasion, (3) to inaugurate the “Period Preparatory to War” [FN3] in the military districts of Kiev, Moscow, Odessa and Kazan, (4) to authorize the War Minister “without delay to speed up the stockpiling of war materials for the army”, (166) and (5) the Finance Minister to immediately retransfer liquid Russian assets in Germany and Austria-Hungary to the Russian Central Bank.

Thus, only twenty-two hours after the presentation of the Austrian note in Belgrade, Sazonov had his arrangements
approved and, save for a miracle, committed Russia, France and – most likely – Great Britain to war; given the flanking
measures, it seems likely that he did so in full awareness of the consequences.


[FN2] There is some disagreement over Sazonov’s cognizance of the implications of his scheme. L.C.F. Turner believed that Sazonov “did not understand that a partial mobilization involving thirteen Russian army corps along her northern border would compel Austria to order general mobilization, which in turn would invoke the Austro-German alliance and require general mobilization by Germany.” (168) Sean McMeekin, however, points out that “there is good reason to believe that Sazonov himself knew perfectly well what he was doing when he proposed Sukhomlinov’s “partial mobilization” plan to the government – that is, that he was knowingly plunging Russia into war. Sazonov, after all, had been present [unlike Yanushkevich] at the emergency ministerial council held at Tsarskoe Selo on 23 November 1912, when [Prime Minister and] Chairman Kokovtsov had warned everyone that the “partial mobilization” plan, by forcing Austria to order general mobilization, could not but lead to a European war. As Kokovtsov had concluded his winning argument, then, ‘no matter what we chose to call the projected measures, a mobilization remained a mobilization, to be countered by our adversaries with actual war.Emphasis in Original But this July 24 was the day after which the French President and Prime Minister had just left St. Petersburg – in the wake of the summit – and it is unlikely that the Austrian ultimatum of which, we know, Sazonov was warned as early as the 16th, or at least its eventuality had not been discussed at this meeting and a strategy developed how to respond to it. If nothing else, probability speaks for the theory that Sazonov had indeed asked for, and received, a “Blank Cheque” of his own, drawn on the Bank of Paris.

[FN3] The “Period Preparatory to War” meant “the period of diplomatic complications preceding the opening of hostilities, in the course of which all Boards must take the necessary measures of preparation for security and success at the Mobilization of the Army, the Fleet, and the Fortresses, as well as for the march of the Army to the threatened frontier.” The military commission upon whose work the official “Regulation Concerning the Period Preparatory to War” was based, had explained that ‘it will be advantageous to complete concentration without beginning hostilities, in order not to deprive the enemy irrevocably of the hope that war can still be avoided. Our measures for this must be masked by clever diplomatic negotiations, in order to lull to sleep as much as possible the enemy’s fears.” Emphases in original

Whatever the Russian intentions, German travellers notified Berlin as soon as the afternoon of July 26 about a suspicious increase in Russian railway traffic and military movements in the western military districts. How did Berlin react?

Around 7 p.m. Sazonov received the German Ambassador Count Pourtales, whom Bethmann Hollweg had already on the 22nd instructed to express “the view that the present question is purely a matter for settlement between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, and that to confine it to the parties directly concerned must be the earnest endeavour of the Powers. We urgently desire the localization of the conflict, because any intervention by another Power might in consequence of the various alliances bring incalculable consequences in its train.” (171)
How the German Chancellor could hope to get away with this impertinence remains a mystery – in essence, he demanded liberty for Austria to beat Serbia to a pulp, yet warned everybody that Germany would be on Austria’s side should anyone complain. Luigi Albertini rested on this utter and undisputed blunder the following indictment of the German government:

Let us … turn our attention to the fact that Germany demanded a free hand for Austria against her small Slav
neighbour under threat otherwise of going to the help of her ally. This thesis was summarized in the expression “localization of the conflict” which has remained notorious….
Let us pause a moment to analyse this thesis, bearing in mind that it formed the basis of German diplomatic action from 24 July onward and that the European conflagration broke out precisely because at the opportune moment the German Government refused to renounce it, and in order to ensure its success, urged the Austrian Government to make haste and declare war on Serbia.
“Localization of the conflict” meant that: 1. no one else was to have a say in the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia (not that this would have been possible in the brief time limit set for the reply), [and] 2. unless Belgrade played the dirty trick on Austria of submitting for the time being to all her demands, the invasion of Serbia would take place, and if it took place no one was to interfere on pain of war.
It is sufficient to define the terms of this injunction to measure the immensity of the miscalculation it contained. It was universally admitted that Russia, for reasons of kinship and because of her own designs on Constantinople and the Straits, had a special interest in the autonomy and evolution of the small Balkan States. The history of Europe in the previous half-century was shot through and through with disputes between Russia and Austria over their rival claims for hegemony in the Balkans. War had been just round the corner in 1908-9 and 1912-13 over the struggle between Austria and Serbia in which Russia had always taken
her stand with Serbia. And now the rulers in Berlin thrust themselves forward and thought they could solve the knotty problem once and for all by confronting Russia, her ally France, her all-but-ally England and indirectly Italy as well, with a blustering “aut-aut” – the misguided notion that they would all bow to the German fiat. But this was
tantamount to willing war, the war of which, when it did break out, they declared that their hands were clean.
We have in fact already seen that they were prepared to have a war, while at the same time thinking it on the whole improbable and counting above all on England’s standing aside and letting them have an easy victory. The reasoning was absurd, almost unbelievable, all the more as the German rulers were on the point of violating Belgian neutrality to make a speedy end of France. (172)


Yet the mutual Russian and German diplomatic imbecilities had not yet reached the German military, which remained on a peace footing for the time being, while Russia was, in actuality, already preparing for war. For the time being, at least. But what did Sazonov suspect?

Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Sazonov informed Pourtales that Russia considered Austria’s accusations of Serbia as groundless and that he thought she was only seeking a pretext to “swallow” the smaller country. “In that case, however,” Sazonov blurted out, “Russia will go to war with Austria.” (173) Pourtales replied — quite truthfully, as far as we know, that…

“… in the most extreme case it would only be a matter of an Austrian punitive expedition against Serbia and that Austria was far from contemplating territorial acquisitions. At this M. Sazonov shook his head incredulously and spoke of far-reaching plans of Austria’s. First Serbia was to be devoured, then it would be Bulgaria’s turn and then ‘we shall have them at the Black Sea’. I answered that such fantastic exaggerations
did not seem to me worthy of serious discussion.” (174)


Did Pourtales have a hearing problem? What he reported to Berlin from this communication was his opinion that …

“that Russia will not take up arms except in the case that Austria were to want to make territorial acquisitions at Serbia’s expense. Even the wish for a Europeanization of the question seems to indicate that an immediate Russian intervention is not to be anticipated.” (175) 42


Pourtales’ report was thus a quite erroneous and tragically optimistic assessment in the light that Sazonov had already ordered preparative measures for Russia’s mobilization. The country’s inner situation may have contributed to the idea that the immediacy of war and an ensuing wave of patriotic fervour would disengage the people’s attention from the extensive
strikes momentarily petrifying St. Petersburg – thus providing “a desperate way of escape from domestic difficulties.” (176)
On the next morning, Saturday, July 25, the Council of Ministers met again, in the presence of the Tsar, Grand Duke Nicholas, prospective C-in-C of the Russian forces, and General Yanushkevich. The measures agreed upon the previous day were formally enacted, and Sazonov informed the attentive luminaries of Germany’s far-reaching designs. Austria he deemed but a “stalking horse for a malevolent German policy,” whose “ultimate objectives,” however, “beyond the acquisition of ‘hegemony in the Near East,'” remained, alas, “unclear”. (177)
If we subscribe to the view that Bethmann Hollweg and Jagow viewed Sazonov’s handling of the Sarajevo crisis as a litmus test for Russia’s peaceful or warlike intentions, we must note that the difference between the German option of “accepting a war, should Russia choose to start one”, (178) which could not – and was not – used to justify pre-emptive military preparations against Russia (before the latter began her general mobilization) and the Russian measures enacted on July 25 was exactly that the latter, explicitly effected policies that were “proactive in nature, did not arise from a direct
threat to Russia, and were highly likely (if not certain) to further escalate the crisis.” (179) Did Berlin understand Russia threatened war? And what exactly were these Russian measures? Following the Council of Ministers, the Russian General Staff held its own meeting, late on July 25, resolving that…

… not only Moscow but also St. Petersburg, a city nearly a thousand miles from the Austro-Hungarian border (and still farther from Serbia) was placed under martial law. Everywhere in Russia, training manoeuvres were broken off and troops recalled to quarters. Cadets enrolled in Russia’s military academies were immediately promoted officers, thus not only filling gaps in the army’s command structure with new subalterns but also “freeing for active service in the field many mature officers who had hitherto been detailed on educational work.”
Yanushkevitch emphasized that all of these tasks should be carried out “energetically” and stipulated crucially that, if necessary, mobilization officers “would be permitted … to overstep the boundaries laid down in the ‘Period Preparatory to War’ regulations.” Taking the hint, General Dobrorolski had already wired Zhilinsky in Warsaw, instructing him to recall all troops in his districts to quarters. At 1 am the night of 25-26 July, the Warsaw district (that is, Russian Poland) was placed under martial law.
Later that night – at 3:26 am – Yanushkevitch wired Warsaw that the morrow (26 July 1914) would mark “the beginning of the ‘Period Preparatory to War’ in the entire region of European Russia,” covering all six of the main military districts – Warsaw, Vilna (Vilnius, i.e., the Baltic area), Kazan, Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa. What this meant in practice was that “all fortresses in the Warsaw, Vilna, and St. Petersburg districts were placed ‘in a state of war,’ frontier guards were brought up to strength and the frontier posts were fully manned, censorship and security measures were tightened, harbours were mined, horses and wagons were assembled
for army baggage trains, depots were prepared for the reception of reservists, and all steps were taken to
facilitate the impending mobilization.”
The Period Preparatory to War inaugurated on 26 July further allowed for the “call-up of the three youngest classes of reserves in areas threatened by enemy action,” including, significantly, Russian Poland west of the Vistula. Expanding the net of Russia’s “intended partial mobilization” still further, on 27 July 1914 Yanushkevitch wired Tiflis command that the Period Preparatory to War was now also in force for the military districts of Omsk, Irkutsk, Turkestan, and the Caucasus.

Russia may have begun mobilizing in Omsk and Tiflis even earlier than this, as Norman Stone, drawing on Austrian sources, concluded: “There is also certain evidence to suggest that the Russians began to mobilize considerably earlier than they made out: at a comparably early stage in the Lemberg campaign, Austro-Hungarian units took prisoners from Siberian and Caucasus units, which could scarcely, in view of Russia’s great transportation problems, have reached the West if mobilized only at the end of July.”

Manfred Rauchensteiner, a leading Austrian historian of the eastern front, went still further than this, arguing that the unexpected speed of Russia’s mobilization against Austrian Galicia in August 1914 suggests that “the Russians began mobilizing towards the beginning of July and systematically prepared for war.” An early, secret mobilization of this kind was entirely consistent with the understanding of the Period Preparatory to War by the members of Russia’s General Staff – and by Tsar Nicholas II. (182)


The partial mobilization of Austria-Hungary against Serbia was more or less expected to be ordered following the Ultimatum and was published on July 26. Latest at that point Berlin should have either made up its mind or started some diplomatic initiatives to stop the war, for the situation became rapidly clear:

At any rate, the Journal of the Russian General Staff Committee reported in its June 25 edition that “according to
information received, certain preparatory measures for mobilization were being taken in Austria-Hungary and Italy. Therefore, H.M. the Tsar has been graciously pleased to confirm the order of the Council of Ministers that in the night of 25/26 July the pre-mobilization period shall begin.” (185) Whatever hopes on the secrecy of the measures the Russian staff may have hedged were, however, in vain, for already on 3:25 pm on the 26th, the German military attaché in St. Petersburg, Major Eggeling, wired to Berlin that “mobilization had been ordered in Kiev and Odessa.” Habsburg consuls in Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa sent in reports of Russian mobilization measures on 27 July 1914.”(186)

In some way the Russians were in a dilemma – exactly because everything went slower and took much longer due to the lack of infrastructure, their mobilization had to start as early as possible, and there remains a debate whether or not, as in other countries, the order of mobilization necessarily comprised – once the units had arrived at the frontier – the
order to open hostilities according to whichever plan was momentarily in force. Yet in the strategic aspect, the acute Serbian crisis delivered the suitable inception scenario – result of the Balkanization of the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1913 — to provide Russia with “the optimal casus belli,” (187) and it was thus only logical for Sazonov to instruct Belgrade “not to accept a British offer of mediation,” should one be received. (188) One must keep in mind that St. Petersburg – different from the other parties – saw the Serbian crisis necessarily in the context how it could best be exploited to serve the overriding strategic issue, that is, Constantinople and the Straits; the Serbian affair, even the European war – which, for her vastness alone, Russia believed she could not truly lose – were only a theatre secondary to the true battleground. General Dobrorolski put it in simple terms by observing that, after the Council of Minister meetings of July 24 and 25, “the war was already a decided thing, and all the flood of telegrams between the governments of Russia and Germany were nothing but the staging for an historical drama.” (189) 44


Naturally, the further history of the mutual mobilizations was clouded under a lot of deliberate obfuscation in the various White books the belligerents subsequently published and Luigi Albertini had to write a whole chapter on “THE LEGEND THAT THE AUSTRIAN GENERAL MOBILIZATION PRECEDED THAT OF RUSSIA” (Volume 3, pages 112 – 165), but as far as the Schlieffen Plan is concerned, it remains ineligible to prove a particular German aggressiveness.

Condition Three: Attack

Now we may address the third condition of the quandary; Where and when did the actual fighting begin – one would assume, naturally, with the great German offensive against Belgium?

Actual fighting in the south started on August 7, when Joffre, apparently to “arouse the nation’s passion for war by an early coup de théâtre in Alsace,” (11) ordered VII Corps [Louis Bonneau], stationed in Belfort, to advance to and conquer Mulhouse, which it did on August 8 without meeting initial opposition. The town was, however, given up just as quick on August 10 in the face of German counterattacks.

The grand ambition of Joffre’s Plan XVII, however, had not changed. Its design was still the encirclement of the fortified German positions at Metz and Thionville with two pincers, Dubail’s First and Castelnau’s Second Armies from the south, and Ruffy’s Third and Langle de Cary’s Fourth Army from the north. They were to meet, eventually, near the Saar and Moselle rivers; the German defenders would be trapped; and the way to the Rhine would be free.

An unintentional effect of Bonneau’s visit to Mulhouse and retour was that the German deployment in the south was upended: Heeringen had sent far too much of 7th Army after the single French corps, and the arriving Bavarians of Rupprecht’s 6th Army found it hard to establish contact and flank protection with Heeringen’s troops.

Worse: since the expected Italian reinforcements had to be written off, the Bavarians found themselves fairly extended. They had only about 3,000 men per kilometre of front line available compared with, say, 1st Army’s 11,000 men per kilometre. Slowly, the Bavarians occupied their quarters in the Lorraine between Metz and Dieuze and amused themselves with liberating the local wine cellars. Duty, however, called soon.

Joffre detailed the Armée Alsacée to provide defence the French border from the Swiss frontier up to Mulhouse, and to cover Dubail’s flank. The latter task meant that it had to move north-eastwards and contradicted the first assignment. At any rate, Dubail’s and Castelnau’s forces were to break out just south of the German forts of Metz and Thionville, attacking from the Trouée de Charmes between Toul and Epinal. Dubail’s general direction would be to proceed to and conquer Sarrebourg, followed by moving to Donon (slightly north-eastward) and Strasbourg (slightly south- eastward); Castelnau was to aim for Morhange, making sure to cover Dubail’s left flank against an eventual German sortie from Metz.

They would thus avoid to meet German strong points or known troop concentrations, but “the farther French forces advanced … the broader their fronts became: eventually, eighty kilometres for First Army and seventy for Second Army. Dubail’s dual objectives of Sarrebourg and Donon necessitated splitting his forces and thus exposing his flanks to German counterattack.” (12)

Joffre discounted intelligence reports that indicated that the Schwerpunkt, the main concentration, of the German deployment was directed against Belgium. In addition, he expected no more than six German corps defending Alsace-Lorraine, and so advised a sceptical Castelnau, while, in reality, 6th and 7th Armies were composed of eight corps. In Joffre’s opinion, the mass of the German troops was in the Moselstellung, the fortified position between Metz and Thionville along the Moselle River, on the defensive, and the rest in East Prussia facing the Russians, who would, as the news from St. Petersburg informed him, begin their attack on August 14.

Dubail’s and Castelnau’s German opponents, Rupprecht and Heeringen were as unhappy as was Castelnau, but for the opposite reason: their role was far too defensive for their taste, and they began to stir at Moltke’s reins. Their more offensive plans were rejected, but when Krafft von Delmensingen, Rupprecht’s chief of staff, devised an option to “sack” any French forces that would be bold enough to follow if 6th Array pretended to retreat, the plan won preliminary approval, and 6th Army was withdrawn behind the Saar, as a lure.

On the morning of the fourteenth, he [Joffre, ¶] sent the armies of the right wing – roughly four hundred battalions and sixteen hundred guns, almost one-third of the chief of staff’s entire strength — into Germany.

… Overall, the French force formed a gigantic wedge aimed straight at Sarrebourg and the left wing of Rupprecht’s Sixth Army. Progress was good. (13)

Joffre was aware of the danger of encirclement and took precautions. He demanded that Dubail and Castelnau’s units always maintained close contact, for mutual flank protection. That they did, until after Dieuze and Sarrebourg had been occupied without resistance, Joffre ordered Castelnau north-eastwards to Morhange, into the Saar valley. Consequently, First and Second Army lost touch, since Dubail was still progressing eastward to Strasbourg.

For four days the Germans fell back, contesting but not firmly opposing the French advance, which in places reached twenty-five miles into Reich territory. A German regimental colour was captured and sent for presentation to Joffre at Vitry-le-François, where he had established General Headquarters (GQG).

Chateau-Salins was taken, then Dieuze, finally on 18 August, Sarrebourg, all places that had been French since Louis XIV’s war against the Habsburgs in the seventeenth century. [They had been German, however, the many centuries before Louis XIV, ¶] Then the front lost its sponginess. The French infantry found German resistance stiffening. The small Army of Alsace, advancing continuously on the First’s right, recaptured Mulhouse next day, but its success lent no support, for a wide gap yawned between it and Dubail’s positions. It was not the only gap.

First Army was not firmly in contact with Second; west of the Saar Valley, Dubail and Castelnau were not in operational touch at all. Dubail was conscious of the weakness and intended on 20 August to mend it by launching an attack that would both restore contact and open a way through for Bonneau’s Cavalry Corps (2nd, 6th and 10th Divisions) to debouch into the enemy’s rear and roll up his flank; but even as he set the attack in motion on the night of 19/20 August, the Germans were preparing to unleash their planned counter-offensive.

Rupprecht’s and Heeringen’s Armies had been temporarily subordinated to a single staff, headed by General Krafft von Delmensingen. Thus, while the French Second and First Armies co-ordinated their actions only as well as sporadic telephoning could arrange, the German Sixth and Seventh fought as a single entity. Here was the anticipation of a new trend in command, which would bring into being formations as large as existing communication systems could control.

On 20 August its worth was swiftly demonstrated. Dubail’s night attack was checked as soon as begun. The setback was followed by a simultaneous offensive along the whole line of battle by the eight German corps against the French six. The French VIII Corps, which had reached the Saar at Sarrebourg, was overwhelmed; its artillery was out metalled by the heavier German guns, under the fire of which the German infantry drove the French from one position after another.

Heavy artillery did even worse damage to Second Army, which was struck by a concentrated bombardment along its whole front as day broke on August 20. The XV and XVI Corps abandoned their positions under the infantry attacks that followed. Only the XX, on the extreme left, held firm. It was fighting on home ground and was commanded by General Ferdinand Foch, of exceptional talent and determination.

While his soldiers clung on, the rest of the Army was ordered by Castelnau to break contact and retreat behind the River Meurthe, the line from which it had begun its advance six days earlier. It had very nearly been enveloped on both flanks, which would have resulted in irretrievable disaster to the whole French army, and had completely lost touch with the First Army, which Dubail was therefore obliged to disengage from battle also.” (14)


Link: A very useful article on the Battle of the Frontiers and the early days of the Western Theatre

The French attack, necessarily, showed Joffre’s hand: his Schwerpunkt was in the south; consequently, the German right-wing in Belgium would he opposed by less French troops than initially presumed.

So much for the initiation of hostilities at the Western Front.

The situation at the Eastern Theatre and the initial attack of the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies into East Prussia is detailed in the following article:

The Battle of Tannenberg


Armies make plans, and that is what all belligerents in the Great War did. As we have noted in various posts: the “offensive” was believed to serve as the panacea of contemporary strategic thinking and subsequently all the greater continental armies subscribed to the theory and all of them developed suitable plans. We must keep in mind that the idea of a “war of aggression” – as it was later defined in the Nuremberg Trials – and its odium did not exist then.

Unlike the precipitate causes of the Second World War, the antecedents of the First and their interpretation remains the topic of a lively historic discussion. But before we dare to enter the abyss, we must remind ourselves of four instances in which the pre-1914 world was much different from today, and we must keep these conditions in mind when we review what happened.

I. To wage war was considered the natural privilege of a state, a part of its governmental discretion. Smaller wars before the 1870s, say, the Prusso-Danish War of 1864, had essentially been the last “cabinet wars”, undertaken with  limited resources to achieve specific political objectives. But the more technical and economic development allowed increases in army size and firepower, the more such changes aggravated the indeterminable risks – “the fog of war”, as Clausewitz famously called it – and this uncertainty ensured that after 1871 a relatively long period of peace graced much  of the European continent. Even men who could reasonably be accused of having advocated war in July 1914 did so without an idea of the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe they invoked. The odium that two world wars were to inflict on the idea of war itself, it’s now increasingly doubtful legitimacy, did not exist in 1914.

II. Just as war was perceived as a simple, prosaic option of a government, the leadership of its armed forces was expected to be prepared for it. Every nation had copied the system of the Prussian and later German General Staff, and all these staffs were called upon to develop plans for every possible contingency; indeed, not to plan for a likely scenario would be tantamount to treason.

III. Due to false lessons drawn after the Crimean War of 1856 by generals worldwide, the dogma prevailing at European military academies in the years prior to 1914 embraced the superiority of attack; the French general staff called  it “offensive à outrance”, and it became the principle underlying its catastrophic Plan XVII. In addition, the inbred conservatism of cavalry officers – noble to a man – led to the establishment of additional cavalry units in all armies right up to the eve of the war, which had two significant drawbacks: not only took cavalry an exceptional and inevitable drain on  the chronically overburdened supply system, for one cavalry division of 4,000 men and twelve guns needed as many daily supply trains (forty) as an infantry division of 16,000 men and fifty-four guns, (1) but the invention of the machine-gun had punched the death ticket for cavalry attacks, who came to resemble mass suicide. Yet this was, of course, not realized until the occurrence of the first battles. But the reliance on attack would also guarantee, it was surmised, that the decisive  battle and its unavoidable destruction would take place on the enemy’s soil, and, with luck, might disable some of his war industry – as it happened when Germany occupied the ten north-eastern French departments for much of 1914 to 1918  and thus took out approximately 70% of the pre-war French iron industry.

IV. The second half of the nineteenth century was the age of thriving imperialism, and all great powers attempted to partake in or project “world power”1. Colonization was, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, the “white man’s burden”.


The existence of the Schlieffen Plan was thus not an aberration of warfare, but an integral part of a national military plan, as was existent in every major nation. It did not cause, much less provoke, an early German mobilization, and the initial attacks of the war were not its result. German War Guilt may exist and be apportioned in and through other, mostly diplomatical and political failures, neglect, miscalculations and some real stupidity, but it cannot be blamed on a war plan by itself.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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