Friday, March 10, 2006

The Failure of the Schlieffen Plan

Having attacked in the West the Germans soon found their detailed plans were unravelling all around them. The first blow was the unexpectedly strong resistance from the Belgians, both in military terms and in terms of the destruction of infrastructure. Railway lines and bridges could be replaced but the destruction of railway tunnels caused considerable hold-ups. Soon the Schlieffen Plan was falling behind schedule, though Liege was taken only two days late. However, the delays enabled the British Expeditionary Force to land and play a part in delaying the Germans at Mons and Le Cateau. At the same time the French Plan XVII (the advance into Lorraine) failed at the cost of 300,000 casualties. However, this allowed Marshall Joffre the time to redirect his forces in order to counter the German advance; time he might not have had if his troops had been allowed to advance into Lorraine as in Schlieffen's original plan. On August 25th 1914 Moltke was forced to send 60,000 troops to the Eastern front to deal with the unexpected Russian invasion; given that he also had to leave two corps to deal with the Belgian army, his crucial right wing was now reduced from 16 to 11 corps. The last day of August proved critical as the French halted the German Second Army at Guise and von Kluck wheeled south-east to assist, thereby changing the direction of his advance to the east rather than the west of Paris. The capital could not now be encircled. In any case, the shortage of men was forcing all the German armies to close up on each other. By the time they reached the Marne they were exhausted; they were short of supplies and had only six days left in which to win and then turn east. What was of even greater concern to the Germans was that they were now increasingly vulnerable and their right wing was now exposed to a flanking attack from the direction of Paris. The French counter attack – the Battle of the Marne – began on September 5th. A gap appeared between Army Groups 1 and 2 and the BEF stumbled into it. All was confusion. It would appear that at this decisive moment, when a decision had to be made, there was no communication between the Army Groups 1 and 2 and Moltke for four days. Eventually, Moltke ordered a retreat to the Aisne. However, by now he was a broken man, believing the war to be lost, and he was quietly replaced on September 14. Whether or not the Germans had needed to retreat at this point has been debated ever since. Nevertheless the great gamble had failed and there existed no fall-back plan. Therefore von Falkenhayn tried to resurrect the Schlieffen plan. He reinforced the right and decided on an outflanking movement. In what has been inaccurately termed the 'race to the sea', each of the two armies subsequently tried unsuccessfully to turn the flank of the other before halting at the English Channel. This second failure shook Falkenhayn, and he informed the Kaiser on November 13th that the army was exhausted and that the campaign in the West had probably been lost. He stated: 'As long as Russia, France, and England hold together, it will be impossible to beat them'. Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg, however, refused to contemplate defeat at this early stage and the war went on. Now the soldiers dug in to avoid the murderous fire of the machine gun, and soon a line of trenches 475 miles long ran from Flanders to Switzerland. Static trench warfare had begun. It was a stalemate. Conclusion What the German generals had failed to appreciate in 1914 was that the alliances had created a remarkable balance of power in Europe: no single country had sufficient superiority for decisive victory in the short term. There is no doubt that Germany could have beaten France on a one to one basis, just as Russia could have beaten Austria, but 1914 was not to be a rerun of 1870. The alliance system virtually guaranteed that the war would not be decided quickly. Once the war became one of attrition, resources would prove decisive; and the Central Powers simply didn’t have the numbers. The Allies mobilised approximately 40 million men during the course of the war, whereas the Central Powers could only manage about 25 million. Given these odds, it is remarkable that Germany had such military success and held out for so long. Accordingly, they suffered defeat and a complete breakdown of their economic and political structures. It was the price they paid for starting the war. The failure of the Schlieffen plan had embroiled Germany in a long term war they simply could not win. In a sense then the Great War was over before Christmas and Germany had lost, it would simply take four more years to confirm an outcome that had been decided in September 1914 when Schlieffen’s great plan had failed to achieve the short, decisive victory that Germany so desperately required.


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