Alfred von Schlieffen Chief of the German General Staff
Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff

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.

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.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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