Ger­man Mil­it­ary His­tory Research Office Edi­tion 2007

Per­haps the most fam­ous – and most mis­in­ter­preted mil­it­ary doc­u­ment in world his­tory – but not, as is often claimed, the blue­print for 1914 – is the so-called “Great Memor­andum” (also known as the “Schlief­fen Plan”), writ­ten by Ger­man Field Mar­shal and Chief of Staff Alfred Graf von Schlief­fen – dated 1905, the year of his retire­ment, but prob­ably com­pleted in 1906. It was simply a memor­andum – a mil­it­ary-polit­ic­al state­ment that repeatedly addressed the issue of (in Schlieffen’s opin­ion) a much-needed expan­sion of the Ger­man army at a time when much of the budget went to the Navy. It was not a cur­rent deploy­ment, let alone a mobil­iz­a­tion plan. Link to the PDF – File

Author’s remark: Please keep in mind that this post is about the 1905 ori­gin­al Great Memor­andum of Count Schlief­fen – NOT about what happened in 1914, as described in the map below.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), qual­ity = 95

The “Schlief­fen Plan”, like any oth­er doc­u­ment, must be seen in the his­tor­ic­al con­text in which it ori­gin­ated. Two argu­ments seem to be par­tic­u­larly val­id here: (1) The plan arose from a cer­tain tra­di­tion – that of the Prus­si­an Gen­er­al Staff to plan and carry out rap­id cam­paigns for lim­ited object­ives, which had worked so well in 1866 and 1870/71, and (2) no one had an altern­at­ive. Hol­ger Her­wig – with whom this author does not neces­sar­ily agree on everything – argued in 2003 in the antho­logy “The Ori­gins of World War I,” Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Press, ISBN 0−521−81735−8, p. 155:

But Schlieffen’s crit­ics lacked a viable altern­at­ive. Their vis­ion (or fear) of a peoples‘ war last­ing any­where between sev­en and thirty years was unac­cept­able – to Kais­er, gen­er­als, par­lia­ment and nation. The Second Reich was not the Third; total mobil­iz­a­tion for total war was ana­thema to one and all.
Thus, simply to reject Schlieffen’s blue­print of a short war for lim­ited aims – a strategy deeply rooted in Prus­si­an mil­it­ary annals – was to deny the very viab­il­ity of what the his­tor­i­an Ger­hard Ritter called „Kriegshandwerk“.
Put bluntly, to con­cede that the vaunted Prus­si­an Gen­era Staff could no longer con­duct short wars of anni­hil­a­tion was to admit that war had ceased to be a viable option by the start of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. There were few takers in Ger­many for such a rad­ic­al notion.

Hence, war it had to be. After hav­ing lost the Great War, how­ever, in vari­ous post-war works of Ger­man officers Her­mann von Kuhl, Ger­hard Tap­pen, Wil­helm Groen­er and Reich­sarchiv (Imper­i­al Archives) his­tor­i­ans dir­ec­ted by former Ober­stleut­nant (Lieu­ten­ant-Col­on­el) Wolfgang För­ster, a thes­is or nar­rat­ive was developed that held:

I. That in the years lead­ing to 1905, the former Chief of the Ger­man Gen­er­al Staff, Field Mar­shal Alfred von Schlief­fen, had con­ceived a devel­op­ment and oper­a­tions plan for a two-front war against France and Rus­sia that all but guar­an­teed vic­tory, and

II. that it was the fail­ure of 1914 Chief of Staff Gen­er­alober­st (Col­on­el-Gen­er­al) Helmuth von Moltke the Young­er to fol­low and execute the plan prop­erly that led to Germany’s loss of the World War.

The story had to be taken on faith, because the fam­ous plan was not made avail­able – not a snip­pet of it was pub­lished to sup­port the alleg­a­tions. Yet in prin­ciple – so much was known – the plan pre­scribed an attack on north­ern France through Bel­gi­um and an encirclement and sub­sequent siege of Par­is, which should force a French capit­u­la­tion – more or less like shown in the West Point Map below:

After most Ger­man mil­it­ary archives were des­troyed in the sub­sequent Allied bomb­ings of World War II, the plan was believed lost, that is, until in 1953, Ger­man mon­arch­ist his­tor­i­an Ger­hard Ritter found a copy of Schlieffen’s Memor­andum of 1906 (back­dated to 1905) at the Nation­al Archives in Wash­ing­ton. Indeed it appeared that the ori­gin­al memor­andum had not been stored in the min­istry of defense at all but at his home and was found much later in the estate of his daugh­ter. In 1958 he pub­lished the paper in Eng­lish, with a fore­word by B.H. Lid­dell-Hart, under the title “The Schlief­fen Plan – Cri­tique of a Myth” at Prae­ger, New York (the ori­gin­al Ger­man ver­sion appeared 1956 at R. Olden­bourg, Munich). [No ISBN Num­ber or Lib­rary of Con­gress Card avail­able] It is avail­able here as a PDF File - please read care­fully.

THE GREAT MEMORANDUM by Count Alfred von Schlief­fen, Chief of the Great Ger­man Gen­er­al Staff 1891 – 1902. Often called the blue­print for World War I, although on closer inspec­tion one might devel­op severe doubts. Why?

A few hints: The Memor­andum describes war solely against France – NOT a two-front war includ­ing Rus­sia. The plan employs 94 divi­sions all in all – a num­ber which nev­er exis­ted (Moltke had to do with 68 divi­sions in 1914, of which a few had guard duties at the North Sea Coast and around inves­ted cit­ies like Maubeuge and Brus­sels) – but most cru­cial are logist­ic and spa­tial impossib­il­it­ies. John Kee­gan ana­lysed them in “The First World War”, Vin­tage Books 2000, ISBN 0−375−40052−4361, and I hope I will be for­giv­en if I quote Keegan’s ana­lys­is at length:

The Great Memorandum - Author's Copy
The Great Memor­andum – Author’s Copy

[Schlieffen’s] mid­night pet­ti­fog­gery had as its object an exact adjust­ment not of Ger­man num­bers to those that the French could deploy, but to what the Bel­gian and French road net­work could carry. Such cal­cu­la­tions were
the ground­work of staff-col­lege train­ing: stu­dents, trans­fer­ring from pre­pared tables the length of a march­ing column – twenty-nine kilo­metres for a corps, for example – to a road map, could determ­ine how
many troops could be pushed through a giv­en sec­tor at what speed.
Since thirty-two kilo­metres was the lim­it of a forced march, that would be the advance of a corps on a single road; but the tail of a column twenty-nine kilo­metres long would remain near or at the march­ing-off point at
the day’s end. If there were twin par­al­lel roads, the tails would advance half the dis­tance, if four three- quar­ters, and so on. Ideally, the units of a corps would advance not in a column but in line abreast, allow­ing all
of it to arrive at the day’s end thirty-two kilo­metres fur­ther on; in prac­tice, as Schlief­fen admit­ted in one of his amend­ments, par­al­lel roads were at best to be found one to two kilo­metres apart.

As his great wheel­ing move­ment was to sweep for­ward on a front of three hun­dred kilo­metres with about thirty corps, how­ever, each would have only ten kilo­metres of front on which to make its advance, in which
there might be at best sev­en par­al­lel roads. That was not enough to allow the tails of the columns to catch up with the heads by the day’s end. The draw­back was ser­i­ous in itself; more ser­i­ously, it abso­lutely for­bade any
attempt to crowd more troops into the radi­us of the wheel­ing move­ment. They would not fit, there simply was not room.

Here we come to the ques­tion how the six (non-exist­ing) Ersatz-Corps that the attent­ive read­er will see appear­ing out of thin air in Map 3 could have made their way to Par­is?

It is at this point that a care­ful read­er of the Great Memor­andum recog­nises a plan fall­ing apart: Map 3 in no way shows how the new corps are to advance or to invest Par­is, the cent­ral strong­point of the “great
fort­ress” that was Schlieffen’s France. The corps simply appear, with no indic­a­tion of how they have reached Par­is and its out­skirts. The “capa­city of the rail­ways” is irrel­ev­ant; rail­ways, in Schlieffen’s plan, were to carry the attack­ers no fur­ther than the Ger­man fron­ti­er with Bel­gi­um and France. There­after it was the road net­work that led for­ward, and the plod­ding boots of the infantry that would meas­ure out the speed of
advance.

Schlief­fen him­self reckoned that to be only twelve miles [just under twenty kilo­metres, ¶] a day. In the crisis of August and Septem­ber 1914, Ger­man, French and Brit­ish units would all exceed that, some­times day after
day – the 1st Bat­talion of the Gloucester­shire Regi­ment aver­aged six­teen and a half miles dur­ing the great retreat from Mons to the Marne, 24 August – 5 Septem­ber, and covered twenty-three and twenty-one miles on 27 and 28 August respect­ively – but Schlieffen’s mean was not far short of the mark. Von Kluck’s army on the out­er wing of the great wheel achieved a little over thir­teen miles a day between 18 August and 5 Septem­ber, 1914, over a dis­tance of 260 miles.

For the “eight new corps,” needed by Schlief­fen as his plan’s clinch­ing device, to arrive at the decis­ive place of action, they would have actu­ally needed to march not only fur­ther and faster, which defied prob­ab­il­it­ies, but to do so along the same roads as those occu­pied by the corps already exist­ing, a simple impossib­il­ity.

It is not sur­pris­ing there­fore, to find bur­ied in the text of the Great Memor­andum its author’s admis­sion that “we are too weak” to bring the plan to a con­clu­sion and, in a later admis­sion, “on such an exten­ded line we
shall still need great­er forces than we have so far estim­ated.” He had run into a logist­ic­al impasse. Rail­ways would pos­i­tion the troops for his great wheel; the Bel­gian and French roads would allow them to reach the
out­skirts of Par­is in the sixth week from mobil­isa­tion day; but they would not arrive in the strength neces­sary to win a decis­ive battle unless they were accom­pan­ied by eight corps – 200,000 men – for which there was no
room. His plan for a light­ning vic­tory was flawed at its heart. It was pigeon­holed for use non­ethe­less.

In the ori­gin­al 1956 edi­tion of Ger­hard Ritter the maps are in the back of the book and of low qual­ity. I have placed them in appro­pri­ate parts of the text and added col­oured lines for bet­ter fol­low­ing the argu­ment.

The prob­lem of the plan, as it lies before us, is its inter­pret­a­tion. After Ter­ence Zuber (former US Army officer and his­tor­i­an in Würzburg) argued from 1999 on in vari­ous pub­lic­a­tions that the plan is just a memor­andum, and there was no indic­a­tion that it ever was the true basis of man­oeuvres or even a com­pre­hens­ible tech­nic­al dis­cus­sion – on the con­trary – doc­u­ments were found in the 1990s at the archives of the former GDR on the actu­al exer­cises that his suc­cessor Moltke held until 1914. Nat­ur­ally, there was a great out­cry of estab­lished his­tor­i­ans, who believed their live­li­hoods threatened. See Zuber, Ter­ence, “The Real Ger­man War Plan 1904 – 14,” The His­tory Press 2001, ISBN 978−0−7524−5664−5.

Inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences have swiftly been con­vened to stop the heresy, but Zuber’s cri­tique, whose corner­stones are per­haps best read in the Eng­lish Wiki­pe­dia art­icle on the plan, makes per­fect sense. The prob­lem is that, if it were a real plan, one would have to assume that the Ger­man Chief of Staff was devot­ing him­self to plan­ning – until 1905 – for a single-front war against France, which was com­pletely out of the ques­tion fol­low­ing the Franco-Rus­si­an alli­ance after the non-pro­long­a­tion of the Rein­sur­ance Treaty in 1890. There would be no single-front war, as Ter­ence Holmes poin­ted out. Hew Strachan, per­haps the dean of World War I his­tory, tends to accept many of Zuber’s con­clu­sions.

The counter-cri­ti­cism also argues that the memor­andum incor­por­ates the brief mil­it­ary weak­en­ing of Rus­sia after the cata­strophe of the Russo-Japan­ese War. This seems, how­ever, rather irrel­ev­ant, as in this war, the main losses of Rus­sia related to their fleet, which did not interest the Ger­man Navy much – the High Seas Fleet pre­pared against Eng­land. The main prob­lem of the present counter-cri­ti­cism is that it argues the events of 1914 – not the memor­andum of 1905.

In 2007, the Ger­man Mil­it­ary His­tory Research Office (MGFA) pub­lished “The Schlief­fen Plan: Ana­lyses and Doc­u­ments”, edited by Michael Epken­hans, Hans Ehlert and Ger­hard P. Gross. Wiki informs us that “This volume con­tains a copy of Schlieffen’s 1905 Memor­andum mis­filed in the Ger­man Mil­it­ary Archives at Fried­berg, and Ger­man deploy­ment plans from the year 1893/94 to 1914/15, most of which had been lost oth­er­wise. These doc­u­ments, not yet avail­able in Eng­lish trans­la­tion, are said to strongly sup­port the tra­di­tion­al ideas of a “Schlief­fen Plan” that Zuber dis­puted.”

First impres­sion [Update 05.06.2019]: The prob­lem of the book prob­ably lies in the organ­iz­a­tion of the con­fer­ence from Septem­ber 30 to Octo­ber 1, 2004, that gave rise to ist exist­ence. The reas­on for con­ven­ing the con­fer­ence in the first place had been the fun­da­ment­al cri­ti­cism of Ter­ence Zuber – see above. In the imple­ment­a­tion of the con­fer­ence, this was, how­ever, not made the order of the day, but vari­ous par­ti­cipants were giv­en the oppor­tun­ity to present their own theses to the “Schlief­fen Plan” – but not, as men­tioned above, in response to the memor­andum of 1906, but to announce their own, pre­vi­ously unpub­lished opin­ions about the devel­op­ments of the Ger­man deploy­ment plans from 1905 to 1914 or about the events of 1914.

There is a need for dif­fer­en­ti­ation: When Zuber called the Schlief­fen­plan a “myth” after 2000, he did not mean that the plan did not exist – the memor­andum lies plain in our sight – but he poin­ted to the incon­gru­ity of the memor­andum (see John Keegan’s ana­lys­is of its tac­tic­al imprac­tic­ab­il­ity and the use of “Ghost Divi­sions”) with the legend developed after 1918 – that Schlief­fen had presen­ted a per­fect plan that the young­er Moltke did not under­stand, or “watered down” by changes to the plan.

Hew Strachan

This blog entry does refer to the memor­andum of 1905 – 6, as stated above, not the events of 1914 or the pre­par­a­tions and pos­sible plans under Moltke. How­ever, such was not the top­ic of the con­fer­ence. Annika Mom­bauer devel­ops theses con­cern­ing some­thing she calls the “Moltke Plan”, i.e. a pos­sible his­tory of the still unknown actu­al war plan of 1914. Oth­er con­tri­bu­tions deal with the mil­it­ary situ­ations, plans and polit­ic­al real­it­ies in Aus­tria-Hun­gary (Günter Kron­en­bitter), France (Stefan Schmidt ), Rus­sia (Jan Kus­ber), Great Bri­tain (Hew Strachan), Bel­gi­um (Luc De Vos) and Switzer­land (Hans Rudolf Führ­er and Michael Ols­ansky). Regard­less of the qual­it­ies of these con­tri­bu­tions, the ques­tion of their rel­ev­ance for the plan at hand arises.

Zuber’s core thes­is was, and is, that the “Schlief­fen Plan” (in the form of the Great Memor­andum of 1905/6) was not an actu­ally feas­ible plan and that there are no indic­a­tions that it actu­ally formed the basis for 1914 plan­ning.

There is much work left for sub­sequent updates, but anoth­er strik­ing example of the tac­tic­al imprac­tic­ab­il­ity of the plan (which John Kee­gan prob­ably omit­ted for lack of space) would be the encirclement of Par­is, as planned by 1st Army (v. Kluck, and the six non-exist­ent Ersatzkorps). If we ima­gine a ring encirc­ling Par­is in a line Compiègne – Pon­toise – Plaisir – Orsay – Évry – Brie-Comte-Robert – see pic­ture below – we are faced with an addi­tion­al front length of over 400 kilo­metres (in a two-sided enclos­ure front as in Alesia) without any flank pro­tec­tion or back­ing – which would all but invite the Allies to a cata­stroph­ic encirclement of the west­ern part.

Siege ring around Par­is ...
Allied counter-attack ...

Updates on the way ... (© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

Hits: 242