The Schlieffen Plan and Why it Failed


Count Alfred von Schlieffen

Background on the Schlieffen Plan

In the December of 1905 Count Alfred von Schlieffen developed a plan that would later take the title of his surname, the Schlieffen Plan. The essential strategy of the plan was to rapidly attack France and swing the German military around to attack Russia.

During 1905, Schlieffen was Chief of Staff for German Army High Command. In this time in Europe the powers of the continent had effectively divided into two coalitions of imperial military power Germany, Austria, and Italy with their own coalition and Great Britain, France, and Russia. Schlieffen believed that the most decisive area for any future war on the European continent would be in the western part. Schlieffen identified France as Germany’s number one arch enemy, mostly due to the tensions that arose from the Franco-Prussian War. Russia was not technologically advanced as France in numerous areas and Schlieffen believed that Russia would take six weeks to mobilize their forces> Russia was archaic with their military in the specific regards to their Calvary, Navy, Artillery, and weaponry. Fighting  in the depths of the Russian- German border which essentially are parts of modern day Poland and the Baltic States could be absorbed by the Germans for a few weeks while the bulk of their forces were concentrated on defeating France and capturing Paris in hopes of a eventual French surrender. Schlieffen had concluded that a massive and successful surprise attack against France would be enough to put off Great Britain from becoming involved in a continental European war. This would allow Germany enough time to transfer soldiers that had been fighting in the successful French campaign to Russia to fight the Russian forces.[1]

Russian Cossack Unit

Schlieffen also planned for the attack on France to go right through Belgium and Luxembourg. Belgium their neutrality guaranteed by Britain in 1839. Therefore, Schliffens  strategy for success depended on Britain not supporting Belgium. The Schlieffen Plan was revised as tension in Europe increased. However, the basic mechanics of it remained the same which was  a devastating attack on France going through Belgium as soon as Russia had announced their intention to mobilize a holding operation on the border German border to be carried out if necessary and if required. Germany had six weeks to defeat France. Germany would then use her modernized rail system to move troops from the French operation to the Russian front. Russia would then be attacked and defeated. The Schlieffen Plan was not at all perfect in the respect that it had numerous flaws to the plan which lead to its ultimate failure.[2]


The Strategy of the Schlieffen Plan

Schlieffen set his sights on finding a way to invade France, capture Paris and force a French surrender quickly, ideally within two months, after this Germany would be able to turn its full attention to Russia. Schlieffen’s battle plan involved some German troops entering France through its very lightly defended northern borders but most would instead invade by going through the small nations of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. These three nations were neutral, lacked large military forces and had borders with France that were largely unprotected. Once into northern France, four waves of German troops would sweep south-west and down toward Paris. Since most French troops would be positioned on the German border, they could be outflanked and surrounded. Schlieffen and his planners predicted victory could be achieved in as little as 40 days. In military terms the Schlieffen Plan was partially successful, in that it allowed some rapid penetration into France. But the nature of this advance created its own problems. The speed of the German advance placed great strain on German troops, most of whom were traveling on foot throughout the advance. Within a month German divisions had reached the Marne River to the immediate northeast of Paris but they were fatigued from marching, plus many small skirmishes along the way. There was also considerable strain on long German supply lines, the routes by which an advancing army receives its food, munitions, and reinforcements. The Schlieffen Plan also underestimated the military, infrastructure and rapid  mobilization of both France and Russia. On the Eastern Front, the Russians were able to launch an offensive against Germany faster than anticipated. The French also organized and moved their own troops rapidly. Several hundred Paris taxis were even commandeered by the military and used as ferries for thousands of troops to get to defensive positions. The German advance was ultimately stopped at the week long Battle of the Marne in the September of 1914 their inability to advance further became a major factor in the development of trench warfare and the Western Front.


The Failure of the Schieffen Plan

The faults of the Schlieffen plan are many, all with different events and reasons. First,Schlieffen reduced the number of troops that the plan required by 30%. This left the Germans incapable changing their tactics or strategy if the unexpected occurred as they lacked the troops necessary to do so. When the German Army first encountered element of the British Expeditionary Force, they thought  that they were  being fired upon by nests of machine guns instead solitary shooters used to firing 20-30 rounds  per minute and hitting targets at 500 yards or greater with routine accuracy. By the  time that the Germans had adapted to the British Expeditionary Force , they had lost their momentum and the Schlieffen  Plan had failed. At one point, the German Army was 62 miles from the nearest railhead that  could be used for  resupply. In an era before trucks and cargo aircraft were commonplace, this was a disaster. The  German infantry and cavalry had to wait days for resupply of food, ammunition and fodder for their animals. Had the planning including preparations for this being a possibility, the Germans  could have adapted. For the plan to succeed, the Germany Army needed to trap the French Army  and then destroy it and the British Expeditionary Force at the Battle of the Marne. When the German Army was stood up,  the entire plan collapsed and the static trench war that became the hallmark of World War I.


In my argument The Schlieffen Plan was always going to be a gamble as it depended on a number of things happening a which were a limited Russian response, the British being neutral, the and the French Army being more incompetent. Fortunately for the Triple Entente, the plan didn’t work and Germans were forced to alter their strategy and spend the remainder of the war fighting over limited gains in Eastern France by the means of trench warfare.



[1] Terence Zuber, The German War Plan 1904-14 (Oxford, 201, Oxford University Press).

[2] Terence, Zuber, Inventing the Schlieffen Plan, (Oxford, 2002, Oxford University Press).


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