Might It Have Worked?

  • Author: Andrew Mangravite
  • Published: July 30, 2014

Count Alfred von Schlieffen had a plan for a quick victory if and when Germany had to simultaneously engage the forces of France and Russia in combat. Fighting a war on two fronts would give most sensible planners pause, but as von Schlieffen reckoned the matter, it was all a matter of timing. The vaunted “Russian steamroller” would need time to build its momentum. The smart thing was to quickly engage and finish off the French forces then the army could pivot and turn its attentions to the Russians.

Although von Schlieffen thought he had taken every possibility into account, he ignored the fact that his plan disregarded an earlier strategic plan drawn up by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder in the aftermath of Prussia’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The elder von Moltke envisioned a main thrust against Russia and a lesser effort against the French who had already been tested and bested in battle. But von Schieffen had no way of knowing that his successor as Chief of the German General Staff would be none other than Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. The younger von Moltke didn’t think much of the new plan. Why make that long swing through Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland and then down the coast to attack France, “letting the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve” as von Schlieffen put it? It was faster and more efficient simply to cut through Belgium to reach northern France. The Belgians wouldn’t put up much of a fight. After all, their neutrality was only a scrap of paper.

One fact overlooked by both von Schlieffen and von Moltke was the London Treaty of 1839. Yes, as it turned out Britain had an agreement to come to Belgium’s aid if Belgium was attacked. This small but effective cog in ”The Machine” doomed any German hopes for a quick victory over France that might induce Britain to ignore their Entente cordiale. Before a single German boot touched French soil, Great Britain was already pulled into the war.

Over the years much ink has been spilled over the question: might the von Schieffen Plan, if left unaltered, have delivered to Germany the one-two knockout punch that it promised? It seems odd that a plan so long in the developing would be so cavalierly altered at the end. Of course 1905 was not 1914 and von Moltke acted in the manner he thought would most benefit Germany’s interests. But as it turned out, the Belgians proved an unexpectedly tough nut to crack. The French managed to rally their forces at the Marne. The British landed an Expeditionary Force in France, and no one would be going home before the leaves fell.

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Last Modified: July 30, 2014