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.
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
The story had to be taken on
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:
[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
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.
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 Fuhrer 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.
Updates on this article you will find on the new post
(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)