Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning, 1871-1914

By Terence Zuber | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Inventing the Schlieffen plan

The history of German war planning prior to the First World War has been dominated by the ‘Schlieffen plan’, which was developed in a Denkschrift (study) written in early 1906 by the recently retired Chief of the German General Staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen. The intent of the Schlieffen plan was to annihilate the French army in one quick enormous battle (Vernichtungsschlacht). The concept was to deploy seven-eighths of the German army between Metz and Aachen, on the right wing of the German front, leaving one-eighth of the army to guard the left flank in Lorraine against a French attack. No forces would be sent to protect East Prussia against the Russians. The right wing would sweep through Belgium and northern France, if necessary swinging to the west of Paris, continually turning the French left flank, eventually pushing the French army into Switzerland. If the French attacked the German left, in Lorraine, they would be doing the Germans a favor, for the attack would accomplish nothing and the French forces in the north would be that much weaker. Beginning in 1920, semi-official histories written by retired First World War German army officers such as Lieutenant Colonel Wolfgang Foerster, General Hermann von Kuhl, and General Wilhelm Groener, as well as the first volume of the official history of the war produced by the Reichsarchiv in 1925, maintained that this Denkschrift represented the culmination of Schlieffen’s military thought, and provided Germany with a nearly infallible war plan: all that Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth von Moltke, had needed to do was to execute the Schlieffen plan, and Germany would have been practically assured of victory in August 1914. They contended that Moltke did not understand the concept of the Schlieffen plan, and modified it—‘watered it down’—by strengthening the forces on the left wing at the expense of the main attack on the right. For this reason, the German army failed to destroy the French army in the initial campaign in the west in 1914.

The German historian and publicist Hans Delbrück had another explanation for the German defeat: he said that Germany had used the wrong war plan. The Germans should have stayed on the defensive in the west and attacked in the east. That was, after all, the plan of the

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