Military Tactics of WWI: The Failure of the Schlieffen Plan

From the Lecture Series: World War I—The Great War

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

Developed long before the war itself, the German Schlieffen Plan was part of an extensive military preparation. Unfortunately, it was doomed to fail.

Map of operations of Schlieffen Plan (Image: Tinodela/Public domain)

The Schlieffen Plan

Photo of Alfred von Schlieffen, 1906
Alfred von Schlieffen, 1906 (Image: Photo studio E. Bieber/Public domain)

Developed long before the war itself, the German Schlieffen Plan was part of an extensive military preparation.

The man who crafted it was the German general chief of staff, General Alfred von Schlieffen. He served as chief of staff from 1891 to 1905 and excelled precisely at careful preparation and thinking in abstract terms about the military challenge that Germany’s geopolitical position represented.

Simply put, Germany’s geopolitical challenge was the possibility of war on two fronts simultaneously. At the center of Europe, it might find itself forced to fight against both France in the west and Russia in the east.

Schlieffen’s plan was a sweeping, bold conception of how to achieve victory in a two-front war. Essentially, speed would be of the essence: first, by very quickly destroying France, and then turning on the Russian great power, a country that was expected to be slower to mobilize and more ponderous in its preparations for war.

This is a transcript from the video series World War I: The “Great War”. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Schlieffen Plan disregarded the political implications of what was regarded as essentially a technical solution to a military problem. It called for the violation of Belgian and Dutch neutrality by invading both those countries to achieve surprise in a vast attack on France.

A huge German force would come swinging through northern France after invading Belgium and Holland, arcing around Paris to achieve decisive victory within a timetable of about six weeks. It was hoped that Paris itself would be surrounded—French armies and French leadership—and that this would represent a military masterpiece, a battle of annihilation.

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The Schlieffen Plan’s emphasized a huge concentration of force on the right wing, whereby the German movement would come plunging through northern France. After von Schlieffen died, this plan was further worked on and altered by Helmuth von Moltke, his successor.

Von Moltke changed certain aspects of the plan. He did not solve the political problem of violating neutrality, but he lessened it by declining to invade Holland. He also took troops away from the vast movement that was projected for the invasion of northern France; he instead drew off some of those troops to the Eastern Front and others for the defense of the territory of Lorraine to the south.

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The French Plan

Image of Joseph Joffre, French Marshal, CiC of French Army in 1914
Joseph Joffre, French Marshal, CiC of French Army in 1914 (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

At precisely the same time the Schlieffen Plan was put into action, its opposite, the French’s Plan XVII, was enacted.

The French plan, endorsed by commander Joseph Joffre, called for an all-out attack into Germany to regain the lost territories of Alsace-Lorraine, avenging the humiliating defeat of 1871, and redeeming French honor. Stressing the “cult of the offensive,” Plan XVII tended to underestimate German reserves that could be deployed in the defense of these territories and, in a very real sense, played into the expectations of the Schlieffen Plan.

An attack of the south would ensure what the German planners hoped for: that their sweeping movement would capture even more French troops. In practice, however, both plans broke down in disaster.

Plan XVII, which was launched on August 14, 1914, broke against German defenses in Lorraine and suffered enormous losses. The fate of the Schlieffen Plan proceeded a little more positively at first and seemed to be succeeding, but then it broke down in what afterward was called the “Miracle of the Marne” by French patriots, a truly remarkable moment of salvation and national mobilization to expel the German invader.

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The Invasion of Belgium

On August 4, 1914, German troops invaded Belgium. They moved through Belgium, then plunged into France. By early September, they had reached the Marne River, some 20 miles from Paris.

It is said that German advance troops could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The German advance, however, had been slowed, with the Schlieffen Plan running behind schedule at crucial moments. The German advance had been hampered by fiercer Belgian resistance than had been anticipated—as well as by the destruction of railroads and other strategic assets by the Belgians or the French—and was also slowed by German anxieties by the fear of snipers.

Belgian soldiers
WWI Belgian soldiers resisting the German invasion on the River Nethe slowed the German advance, disrupting the ‘Schieflen Plan’ timetable, which allowed French armies critical time to mobilize in 1914. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Nonetheless, there were remarkable and celebrated successes that gave a sense of optimism about enacting the Schlieffen Plan. On August 7, the main citadel of Liege, a key strategic point that was supposed to hold up the German advance, was captured.

Heavy German guns were brought up to demolish other forts. Soon this resistance was quelled. It seemed to some that this represented the triumph of military technology over old-style fortifications, a success, for the cult of the offensive. As German armies approached Paris, the French government packed up and fled to Bordeaux.

Nonetheless, Paris was to be defended. The bridges of Paris were mined in preparation for blowing them up in case the German troops reached the capital. At the same time, another factor came into play that had not been expected quite so soon. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), mobilized quickly and was thrown into battle in northern France. The British forces moved forward and reached Mons.

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600 Taxicabs to the Rescue

Upon discovering that they were overextended and in peril of being simply overwhelmed by the German advance, both British and French forces moved back in a fast retreat, seeking a place to make a concerted stand.

In the process of the German advance, as the Schlieffen Plan continued to move through the stages of its prospective sections, it was discovered that a gap had opened up between the advancing German armies, between the First Army under General von Kluck and the Second Army under General von Bülow.

This became a concern, the result of which was that the German armies moved closer together. The German armies, in an alteration of the plan, did not come around Paris to encircle it but instead began their inward turn that had been projected for the Schlieffen Plan, further east. The result strategically was that the German armies had left their flanks exposed to Paris itself, not expecting that Paris would be the site of considerable resistance or military peril.

Photo of French Infantry charging, 1914
French Infantry charge, 1914 (Image: Agence Rol – Bibliothèque nationale de France/Public domain)

This was the opportunity the allies had been waiting for. French and British forces counterattacked on the Marne from September 6 to 10, 1914. They were aided in this by a heroic and legendary effort, which was celebrated ever afterward, as hundreds of taxicabs—600 of them, to be precise—brought troops that had been stationed in Paris itself out to the battlefield, shuttling these men back and forth to get them to the places where they needed to be.

The taxicabs and their forces were not the sole decisive element, but it gives a sense of the heroism that was involved in this mobilization to expel the invader. Following an order from Colonel Hentsch, German forces fell back to the Aisne River and began to dig in. This was a crucial moment: it was an admission that the Schlieffen Plan had ultimately not succeeded and was the beginning of trench warfare.

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Common Questions About the Schlieffen Plan

Q: What was the Schlieffen Plan and why did it fail?

In World War I, the Schlieffen Plan was conceived by German general General Alfred von Schlieffen and involved a surprise attack on France. The plan failed because it wasn’t realistic, requiring a flawless unfolding of events which never occurs in wartime.

Q: What was the purpose of the Schlieffen Plan?

The Schlieffen Plan, devised by Germany, was intended to force France into submission and then invade Russia. It didn’t work because Russian troops attacked Germany while German troops were busy invading France.

Q: How would the Schlieffen Plan work?

In World War I, both Russia and France wanted to battle Germany. To address this, Germany came up with the Schlieffen Plan, which would allow Germany to quickly defeat France in a surprise attack before Russia had a chance to build up its forces.

Q: Was the Schlieffen Plan used in WWII?

The Schlieffen Plan was used by Germany in WWI, but they employed a similar (though not identical) version in WWII. Once again, Germany planned a surprise attack on France. This time, though, rather than invading France by way of North Belgium, Germany defied France’s expectations by invading instead from South Belgium. This caught French troops off-guard and they soon surrendered.

This article was updated on May 29, 2020

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