Magazine article History Today

Plan of Campaign. (Letters).(Brief Article)

Magazine article History Today

Plan of Campaign. (Letters).(Brief Article)

Article excerpt

I read with great interest Terence Zuber's article The Schlieffen Plan, Fact or Fantasy? (September 2002). His thesis was that the German High Command never intended a pre-emptive strike through Belgium with a deep penetration of France in the first phase of the war, but only a counter-attack against the flank of any French attack on them. This is based on records of exercises carried out by Schlieffen and his staff up to 1906, which show a number of different stratagems being tried out (including dealing with Russia first), all of an essentially reactive nature.

The historiographical analysis of the origin of the prevalent view of these events is very interesting. The traditional criticism of German militarism and inflexibility is opposed by the idea that planners' needs must consider their responses to all possible contingencies and that there was no fixed plan to allow for different combinations of enemy forces and routes of attack. So far so good.

My main problem with the thesis is this: if the Germans never planned to strike deeply into Belgium and France (and then only in the event of the Belgians allying with the French or in response to a first French strike through that area) how did their armies come to invade Belgium immediately the war began and be within striking distance of Paris a few weeks later? The movements of such large forces required a great deal of preparation. In the light of events it would seem reasonable to assume the Germans were planning such a move. There seems to me a huge gap between what the Germans were supposedly planning and what they actually did.

The assassination in Sarajevo took everyone by surprise but there seems to have been a consensus in German military circles that 1914 was the optimum time for a war. The way events unfolded (with an attack on France rather than against Russia or Serbia), the speed of the German attack and the chronology thereof (i.e. that Germany declared in response to the Russian mobilisation, rather than lose the window of opportunity to fight the French alone) lend support to the idea of detailed advanced plans adhered to rigidly.

The Schlieffen Plan has a fascination for many people. One is tempted to think it could have succeeded and brought the war to a speedy (and merciful) end if only it had not been tampered with by Moltke to please the princely commander of the left wing. I am more inclined to the view that it could never have worked because the German right wing had to march hundreds of miles while the French could regroup rapidly by train. …

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