German Military History Research Office Edition 2007

This post is a follow-up on the original post

Heretics of the Schlieffen Plan

which gave an introduction to the subject and remains the basis for this extended version. Please make sure you read it first, as an introduction in these matters. The original post solely discussed the Schlieffen Plan of 1905/1906 – now we shall consider the actual developments of August and September 1914 until the Battle of the Marne and the developments arising thereof.

Various newly discovered historical documents regarding 1914 will be translated into the English language and presented here for the first time, so hang on!

Before discussing the plans of Schlieffen, the “Schlieffen Plan”, and the real German war plan of 1914 in any detail, we must first familiarize ourselves with the geography of the battlefield. A common border between France and Germany exists only in the south, between Switzerland and Luxembourg, along the Vosges Mountains west of Mulhouse and Strasbourg, and the high terrain of the Lorraine between Donon and Thionville, through the upper half of which flows the Moselle River via Metz to the Rhine. These stretches of mountains respectively highlands are in general territory where the lay of the land favours the defender and hence were fortified by both sides. France built four principal modern fortresses in a north-westerly oriented line, from Belfort near the Swiss border, to Epinal, Toul/Nancy and Verdun at the Meuse River, which forms the main defence line in the north-western quadrant of the region.

The principal defences on the German side of this stretch ran along the ridgeline of the Vosges opposite the Upper Rhine and were strengthened by a fortified fallback position at Strasbourg. The highlands stretching out between Donon, Sarrebourg, Morhange and Metz had been fortified only weakly, for it was thought that a flexible defence in this area offered a good chance of mounting a counterattack. Along the Moselle river, from Metz to Thionville (Diedenhofen) near the border to Luxembourg, ran the “Moselstellung”, the ‘Moselle Position’, the main fortified German area, which was considered impenetrable. The good defensive perimeters on either side ensured that, once French attacks during the opening Battle of the Frontiers in the first weeks of August had been repulsed, and the Germans blooded their noses in attacking at the Grand Couronne de Nancy, the whole Franco-German border saw little action until late in 1918.

The middle part of the western theatre consisted of the independent Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and the Ardennes Forest, a high plateau that stretches from northern Luxembourg about thirty miles on each side of the German- Belgian border into the respective countries, almost to Aachen (Aix-La-Chapelle) and Liège (Lüttich). The strategic pièce de résistance on this part of the front is Verdun, for an outflanking of Verdun from the north-west along the Meuse in south- eastern direction would outflank the whole French fortress belt.

But it was the northernmost part of the Franco-Belgian-German borderlands that received the most attention of military strategists, for the plains of Flanders and in particular a path following the northern bank of the Meuse and Sambre Rivers, along Liège and Namur in Belgium to Maubeuge at the Franco-Belgian border, offered a convenient route for an army crossing from northern France into western Germany or vice versa, presenting a good opportunity to outflank the enemy. It could thus not surprise anyone that Belgium fortified the areas of Liège and Namur, and France did the same with Maubeuge. Still, the opportunity provided by the plains loomed large in the minds of continental generals, and, as Gerhard Ritter explains, it was taken more or less for granted that the roads would be used. By whom, remained a topic of discussion.

We know that the idea of forcibly raising the Belgian frontier barriers played a great part at the height of the French struggle for hegemony under Napoleon III. After his fall there could be no thought of a French offensive for many decades. But when French chauvinism flared up again under Boulanger in 1887 and there seemed to be an immediate threat of a Franco-German war, European public opinion was not at all certain that Belgian neutrality would be respected by either belligerent, since both had secured their positions on the Lorraine front by strong fortresses.

In England there were uneasy memories of the obligation assumed in 1839, and renewed in 1870 by treaties with France and the North German Bund, to guarantee Belgian neutrality. British diplomacy at first assured Brussels that the obligation would be honoured; but soon it was advising the Belgians not to count on effective British help, for which there were too few military resources, but to try to defend their border on their own.

At the same time there appeared in the semi-official press some very strange articles, obviously inspired by the Foreign Office, which can only be regarded as “kites” to sound public opinion on the question of neutrality. They discussed whether, in the event of a German march through Belgium into northern France, England could not accept the situation provided Bismarck gave his word not to infringe Belgian sovereignty and only to use a “right of way” through the country. The question was answered in the affirmative.

Other newspapers, too, gave warnings against going beyond paper protests – an indication of how much the Liberal England of that day disliked being drawn into Continental quarrels. Furthermore it was clearly noticeable that Lord Salisbury regarded France, not Germany, as the country threatening European peace, and that his sympathies were far more on the German side. …

This was the time, in 1887, when the German General Staff, too, was discussing the possibility of the French Army being able to outflank the German position in Lorraine through Belgium. But Count Moltke was not in the least disturbed by this, as one sees from his great strategic plan of 1887:

“On the right our position could only be outflanked at any distance by a violation of neutral countries, Luxembourg or Belgium. This would result in an entirely changed military situation which we need not discuss here, but which would obviously develop unfavourably for the French. However poorly one may estimate the military resistance of these countries, the invasion would be weakened by the need to keep watch on their troops and hold their populations in check.

The whole operation would come to a standstill on the Rhine, while we ourselves would advance in mass from the south. If, incidentally, anything could spur England into action, it would be the occupation of Belgium by the French Army. For all these reasons, the whole enterprise seems highly unlikely.”

This fitted in with the declaration Bismarck had caused to be published in the semi-official “Post”; the British reflections were not only premature but also groundless. Germany would never open a war with the violation
of a European treaty. If one supposed that the German General Staff was bound to contemplate a breakthrough via Belgium, it had to be pointed out that this far from exhausted the ingenuity of the German General Staff. It was furthermore an error to suppose that the conduct of German policy was subject to the views of the General Staff. (26)

As long as Bismarck was responsible for Germany’s policies, nobody doubted that he exercised control, not the generals. But after his retirement in 1890, German foreign policy quickly acquired a vacillating quality – the subsequent chancellors Caprivi and Hohenlohe were not only ignorant of foreign relations but made no efforts to improve their expertise. Soon the situation Bismarck had toiled all his life to avoid came to pass – détente between France and Russia. The spectre of a two- front war first raised its head.

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

In 1914, the axis of the German attack is clearly EAST of Paris, not WEST of it …

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 General 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 plus 12 non-existing “Ersatz”-Divisions all in all – a number which never existed (Moltke had to do with 68 divisions in 1914, of which a few had detached 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 the author hopes to be forgiven for quoting 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

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. The present author has 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.

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 originally only referred to the memorandum of 1905-6, 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 the “Moltke Plan”, i.e. her own possible history of the 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 – or eight – 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 …

[Update July 4, 2019] What then, was Moltke’s plan in August 1914?

These tactical and strategic impossibilities of the 1905/1906 Plan by Schlieffen were clear to his successor, the Younger Moltke. With only 38 corps (23 active, 11 reserve, 4 cavalry) available against the French, British and Belgian armies in the Western Theatre (4 corps and 1 cavalry division remained in East Prussia and 2 divisions guarding the coast), any attempt to follow Schlieffen’s Plan was simply suicidal. Schlieffen had used 94 divisions (= 47 corps) plus 6 non-existing “Ersatz”-Corps against France alone in his plan, and had still called for a further expansion of the army.

The idea of the double encirclement including the gigantic siege of Paris, as envisioned by Schlieffen, remained a pipe dream, as John Keegan’s operational analysis, the relative strength of the armies and geography prove. What did Moltke have in mind then? His full plan has never been published, but some of the underlying documents have seen the light of day since the German Reunification of 1990, which made available some documents from Eastern German sources long believed to be lost. Let us first have a look at the deployment plan for 1914, the underlying assumptions and Moltke’s initial orders.

Original German deployment plan and general intentions in the Mobilization Calendar 1914/15

German Version (PDF)

(To be translated into the English language for the first time, coming in the spring of 2020)

Just in, fresh from the press: The maps of the German “Aufmarsch West” (Deployment Plans West) 1899-1914. Commentary following soon!

1899 – 1900: Note 12 Italian Divisions (marked red …)
Changes 1906/07 – The Transition of Command from Schlieffen to Moltke

In the meantime up to 1914, the only notable changes concern the Upper Rhine, by and by the Italian troops disappear and are replaced by 7th Army, split between the Vogesen heights …

1908/09 – 7th Army appears for the first time (green arrow) …
1909/10 West I
1909/10 West II

1913-14: More or less, the actual deployment in August 1914 …


(26) Ritter, Gerhard, The Schlieffen Plan – Critique of a Myth, Oswalt Wolff Publishers, London 1958, pp. 79 – 81

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

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