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Military Plans and World War 1

Reasons for the Stalemate on the Western Front

Lyn Gorman
Charles Sturt University


From this tutorial you will learn about the reasons for the stalemate on the Western Front.




When war was declared in 1914, the initial military moves were dictated by military plans which had been drawn up by the European powers in the years before the war. Implementation of the plans was to have enormous consequences for the course of the war. This tutorial concentrates on the impact of the plans on the war in Western Europe. It also considers briefly the military plans of Russia and Austria-Hungary, particularly during the crisis of July 1914.

War plans and Western Europe

The plan which had most impact on the war as it began and developed in Western Europe was Germany's Schlieffen Plan. France's Plan XVII was also important in dictating France's initial moves in August 1914.

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The Schlieffen Plan

Most important of the war plans was Germany's Schlieffen Plan. This had been developed by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1905. German military planning occurred within the context of Germany's geographical position and the alliance system in Europe. Even before Schlieffen, German military leaders had been faced with the prospect of a two-front war in which Germany faced enemies to east (Russia) and west (France). Schlieffen decided that, in the event of a war in Europe, Germany's first priority should be to concentrate on a crushing offensive against France in the west.

In December 1905 Schlieffen set out his plan in a detailed memorandum. Its key features were:

Schlieffen assumed that a rapid victory - within six weeks - would be achieved against France; after this Germany would turn her attention to Russia in the east. It was expected that Russia would take six weeks to mobilise fully, so the French danger would be neutralised during this time.

Historians have both praised and criticised Schlieffen's plan. It has been called "a conception of Napoleonic boldness", but criticised for failing to take account of the development of railways. Thus, while the German troops would have "to march on their own feet round the circumference of the circle, the French would be able to switch troops by rail across the chord of the circle".[1]It has been praised from a military and strategic point of view as it "offered a real prospect of forcing a decision in the west and avoiding the agonizing trench war deadlock of 1914-18" and accurately predicted French strategy in 1914. However, from a broader perspective it has been condemned for its "immorality..., the political folly of violating Belgian neutrality, and the almost reckless indifference to British intervention."[2]

In any event, the plan was not put into operation in exactly the form in which Schlieffen had prepared it. Schlieffen retired as Chief of the General Staff on the last day of 1905 and was succeeded by General Helmuth von Moltke. Schlieffen died in 1913. In a final memorandum in the year before his death he expressed concern about the role of the British in a European war, and he continued to stress the need for an immensely powerful right wing to sweep westward. He declared: "The whole of Germany must throw itself on one enemy - the strongest, most powerful, most dangerous enemy: and that can only be the Anglo-French!"[3]

Schlieffen's successor, von Moltke, was a courageous soldier but not a bold or daring Chief of the General Staff. He once stated, "I lack the capacity for risking all on a single throw...." He proceeded to modify the Schlieffen Plan, with disastrous consequences for Germany in 1914.

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In 1914 these changes had important implications.

First, because Moltke abandoned the wide sweep through Holland, the German advance was through Belgium alone. Two German armies had to capture and move through the Belgian fortified town of Liege within the first days of the war. This created a huge bottleneck and a chronic supply problem. It also had the most serious political consequences. It meant that any possibility of negotiation to prevent war disappeared. At the very beginning of mobilisation Germany took an irrevocable step, violating neutral Belgian territory and virtually ensuring that Britain would enter the war against Germany. Thus German mobilisation in 1914 effectively meant war, with no 'going back'.

In the diplomatic crisis of July 1914 the need to capture Liege swiftly at the beginning of war led Moltke to exert pressure for rapid military action by Germany's ally, Austria, and for early declarations of war by Germany. The German historian, Gerhard Ritter, commented in the 1960s that "Germany was therefore obliged by purely technical necessities to adopt, before the whole world, the role of a brutal aggressor - an evil moral burden which...we have not got rid of even today." Turner concludes on the role of Germany's military plan in the diplomatic crisis of 1914: "the Moltke-Schlieffen Plan not only stampeded Germany into committing gross political errors in 1914, but it also accelerated the whole tempo of the crisis in eastern Europe and went far to make a peaceful solution impossible."[4]

Second, Moltke's redeployment of German military strength meant that he had changed the ratio of right to left wing from Schlieffen's approximate 100:15 to 100:42. Schlieffen's original plan had anticipated that the weak German forces on the Franco-German border would lure the attacking French toward the Saar and then counter-attack at an appropriate moment. Moltke, by placing powerful German armies in Lorraine, drove the French back on their own fortress barrier, and effectively destroyed German chances of victory.

In August 1914 the German army achieved initial victories in the west against both French and British forces (the small British Expeditionary Force was sent to France at the beginning of the war) at Charleroi and Mons. By the beginning of September the German army was only 48 kilometres from Paris. However, it did not have the strength that Schlieffen had originally envisaged to make a sweeping encirclement of the city. In addition to his pre-war changes to the Schlieffen Plan, during August 1914 Moltke detached two army corps from the German right wing and sent them across Germany to the eastern front against Russia, further weakening the army in the west.

The commander of the German First Army, General von Kluck, decided not to encircle the French capital. Instead he chose to go east, moving past Paris and temporarily halting on the River Marne. This further modification in practice of the plan had disastrous consequences for the German military effort. It not only meant that Paris was not captured - very significant for French national morale - but it also gave the French a chance to counter-attack. The result was the Battle of the Marne from 6 to 9 September. Here the apparently invincible German armies were defeated. Von Moltke ordered a retreat to the River Aisne, where the German forces dug a line of defensive positions which they were to hold for the remainder of the war. This was the beginning of the trench warfare which characterised the Western Front.

Thus the Schlieffen Plan, in the form in which it was implemented in 1914, made a diplomatic solution of the crisis virtually impossible. It did not achieve the decisive German victory against France in the west. It did not solve Germany's problem of a two-front war. The Battle of the Marne signalled the end of the war of manoeuvre; this gave way to static warfare and the long line of trenches across France from the Swiss frontier to the English Channel.

For more information and a map see Trenches on the Web (external website)

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France's Plan XVII

One of the ironies of the original Schlieffen Plan is how accurately it predicted French strategy in 1914. The French war plan, known as Plan XVII, had been presented to the French War Board in 1913 by General Joffre (who, as Commander-in-Chief, led the successful French counter-attack at the Battle of the Marne in September 1914).

The most important features of Plan XVII were that:

The French plan provided for all-out offensive French action in Lorraine, that is, along the Franco-German border to France's north-east. Joffre divided the French forces into five armies. Three were to be deployed in this area; only one (the Fifth Army) was to cover the Franco-Belgian frontier. A fourth army, consisting of three infantry corps and one cavalry division, was to give some flexibility, as it could be moved either to join the main bulk of the French forces in the east or to support the army to the north. Joffre also hoped that the British Expeditionary Force would be sent rapidly to France to support the Fifth Army. However, Plan XVII was not specific about military coordination between the French and British armies.

General Joffre had, from 1911, considered the possibility of a French offensive through Belgium. However, he did not have political support for this. Successive French prime ministers ruled out the Belgian option, mainly because of its likely repercussions on the British. They did not want to endanger the Anglo-French alliance by an offensive French move into Belgium.

The British, for their part, had begun to consider possible military involvement in a European war by about 1905. The General Staff, in a country previously preoccupied with the problems of defending Britain's far-flung empire, began to plan a European role for the British army. A strategy for despatching an expeditionary force to Belgium and northern France was formulated; a General Staff study recommended that, if Germany violated Belgian neutrality, two British army corps should be landed at Antwerp within twenty-three days. From 1906 there were "unofficial communications" between British and French military authorities to plan moves in the case of war against Germany.[6]

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France's Plan XVII can be criticised on several counts. The basic offensive idea - that French forces would strike against Germany on the eastern frontier - was itself open to question. French manpower resources were inadequate to provide security as well as undertaking offensive operations in 1914. Geographically, and given her developed frontier fortress system, there were good reasons for France to adopt a defensive strategy. The plan ignored the difficulties of the terrain for the French soldier - the high wooded hills of the Ardennes, intersected by valleys and generally sloping uphill from the French side. It also ignored the fact that French artillery was unsuitable for hilly country.

The French plan had been framed against the 1911 Franco-Russian military agreement. This specified that Russia should mobilise as quickly as possible in the event of war. The French hoped that a Russian offensive against Germany in the east would draw off German forces attacking their own armies in the west. Just as in the case of Germany, the existing military plan helped hasten the diplomatic crisis of 1914, so in the case of France the French General Staff brought strong pressure to bear on Russia in July 1914 to order general mobilisation and invade East Prussia as soon as possible.

When hostilities began, the French put Plan XVII into operation, moving the bulk of their forces eastward; but the early battles in Lorraine were bitter disappointments to the French. The French First and Second Armies did, however, escape to regroup. Schlieffen had intended that the German forces would fall back before the French offensive into Lorraine, luring the French further on. Instead, in August 1914 the German commander counter-attacked and pushed the French troops back out of the trap they had almost walked into, to the safety of their own frontier.

Joffre failed to anticipate the German advance through Belgium and the wide sweep into northern and western France. On 8 August General Lanrezac, commander of the French Fifth Army, the only force in the sector to face the German onslaught, tried to impress on French Army Headquarters the threat of a German right-wing outflanking movement. He was told that his concern was premature. Joffre thought that the Fifth Army, the British Expeditionary Force and the Belgian army could hold back any German advance in that area, while the French offensive proceeded in Lorraine.

With the French failure in Lorraine, and the German defeat of French and British forces at Charleroi and Mons, Plan XVII was in ruins. The direction of attack had been completely misguided. The fact that the French escaped annihilation was due not at all to Plan XVII, but rather to German modifications of their own Schlieffen Plan. Joffre did redeem himself in September, regrouping French forces and taking the initiative against the Germans at the Battle of the Marne. However, this was after he had abandoned Plan XVII.

For more information and a map see Trenches on the Web (external website).

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The military plans which had been developed by the major European powers by 1914 help us to understand both the outbreak and the course of the First World War.

They had an impact on the diplomatic crisis that arose after the assassination in June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In the West, Germany's plan, by including the early violation of Belgian neutrality, rendered further diplomatic moves impossible and ensured that Britain would join her continental allies in the war against Germany. In the East, early Russian mobilisation (encouraged by France) had an effect on the speed with which diplomacy gave way to mobilisation and general war.

The war plans explain the initial military moves made by the European powers. Nowhere did implementation of the plans lead to the results hoped for by their originators. Implementation of the Schlieffen Plan certainly did not solve Germany's problem of a two-front war.

Finally, the failure of the Schlieffen Plan helps to explain the nature of the war on the Western Front throughout the next four years - a war of trenches, a static war, a war where efforts to break the stalemate resulted in enormous loss of life.

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1 B.H. Liddell Hart, quoted by L.C.F. Turner, 'The Significance of the Schlieffen Plan,' Australian Journal of Politics and History 13, 1 (1967): 50. This article is also reprinted in P.M. Kennedy (ed.), The War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914. George Allen and Unwin, 1979, Ch. 9, pp . 199-221.

2 L.C.F. Turner, ibid., p. 52.

3 Quoted by Turner, ibid., p. 60.

4 Ritter quoted in Turner, ibid., p. 65; Turner, ibid., p. 66.

5 On the French plan see L. Chaffey, 'Plan XVII,' Army Journal 242 (July 1969): 21-33; and S.R. Williamson, 'Joffre Reshapes French Strategy, 1911-1913,' in Kennedy, op. cit., pp. 133-50.

6 J. McDermott, 'The Revolution in British Military Thinking from the Boer War to the Moroccan Crisis,' in Kennedy, ibid., pp. 108-12.



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