Ever since Germany had inflicted defeat upon France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the major
nations of Europe had busied themselves with plans for thenext war, seen by many as inevitable given the
conflicting ambitions of the major powers; which, in the case of France, included the repossession of
Alsace and Lorraine, both lost to Germany as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War.
Much is made of the German Schlieffen Plan and, to a lesser extent, the French Plan XVII. But what of Austria-Hungary's Plan B and Russia's Plan 19? This article details the primary aims of each of these plans, and discusses the rationale behind them.
The chief aim of Plan XVII, devised by Ferdinand Foch in the wake of the humiliation of the Franco-
Prussian War, and taken up by French Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre in 1913, was the recapture of the
territory of Alsace and Lorraine.
Entirely offensive in nature, Plan XVII made extensive use of the belief in the mystical \u00e9lan vital assumed
to be instilled within every Frenchman - a fighting spirit capable of turning back any enemy by its sheer
power. It assumed the average French soldier to be more than a match for its German counterpart. Indeed,
numerous French officers were dismissed from the army during the early stage of the war for a want of
fighting spirit, including General Lanrezac following the French army's failure atCha rleroi.
More technically, Plan XVII called for an advance by four French Armies into Alsace-Lorraine on either side of the Metz-Thionville fortresses, occupied by the Germans since 1871. The southern wing of the invasion forces would first capture Alsace and Lorraine (in that order), whilst the northern wing would - depending upon German movements - advance into Germany via the southern Ardennes forests, or else move north-east into Luxembourg and Belgium.
The architects of Plan XVII, which included Joseph Joffre, took little account of a possible German
invasion of France through Belgium until just before war was declared; and in modifying the plan to deploy
troops to meet such an eventuality, actual French activity to meet an invasion via Belgium was lacklustre at
best in August 1914.
Before war broke out Joffre and his advisers were convinced that the threat of British involvement would keep Germany from invading through Belgium (with whom Britain had a treaty guaranteeing its neutrality; Germany regarded this as a mere "scrap of paper").
Whilst the French had accurately estimated the strength of the German army at the opening of the war, they did not place much emphasis on Germany's extensive use of reserve troops, having little faith in their own. This proved a serious miscalculation which, in conjunction with an underestimation of the Schlieffen Plan, almost led to France's undoing within a month of the outbreak of war.
Within weeks of the war's start, the French attack intoAlsace andLo rr aine had proved a debacle, effectively repelled by the German defences. With the inevitable advance of the Schlieffen Plan meanwhile, the French were thrown very much on the defensive.
Notwithstanding the potentially enormous size of the Russian army, with its never-ending supply of men,
Schlieffen assumed - largely correctly, as it turned out - that it would take six weeks or longer for the
Russians to effectively mobilise their forces, poorly led and equipped as they were.
Banking on this assumption, Schlieffen devised a strategy for knocking France out of the war within those six weeks. In order to do so he would commit the vast majority of German forces in the west to form an overwhelming assault with Paris as its aim, leaving just sufficient forces in East Prussia to hold off the Russians during the latter's mobilisation process. Once France had been dealt with the armies in the west would be redeployed to the east to face the Russian menace.
In striking against France von Schlieffen determined to invade through Belgium; for tactical as well as
political reasons, an invasion via Holland was discounted (Germany desired Dutch neutrality for as long as
possible); and Switzerland in the south was geographically invasion-proof. Passage through the flat
Flanders plains would offer the fastest route to France and victory.
Working to a tight deadline, five German armies would advance through Belgium and France in a grand
wheel motion, turning through the Flanders plains north-east of France. The German forces would move
from Alsace-Lorraine west through France en route for Paris. Schlieffen's often-quoted remark, "when you
march into France, let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve" was based upon this
turning wheel-like advance.
By outflanking the French armies von Schlieffen aimed to attack from the rear, where the French were
likely to be most vulnerable. A small German force would guard the Franco-German border, enticing the
French to move forward, upon which they would be attacked from the rear by the main bulk of the German
army, assuring encirclement and destruction.
A side benefit of the Schlieffen Plan saw the bulk of the French resistance situated within France rather
than in Germany. Even while retreating - which was by no means part of the plan - the Germans could (and
did) entrench themselves deep inside French territory.
Whilst the French aimed to evict the invader from their country - and consequently constructed their own trenches lightly, never intending that they should be in use for any great length of time - the Germans dug deep, sophisticated trenches, content to remain where they were pending a further advance at some later stage.
The weakness of the Schlieffen Plan lay less in the rigidity of the timescale - for the German army very
nearly succeeded in capturing Paris within the time allotted - but in its underestimation of the difficulties of
supply and communication in forces so far advanced from command and supply lines.
Ultimately, it was these problems, particularly in communicating strategy from Berlin, that doomed the
Schlieffen Plan. The Allied forces could rush troops to the front by use of the railway faster than the
Germans could arrange fresh supplies of food and reserve troops.
Most critically, Moltke's isolation from the front line not far from Paris led to a series of poor decisions and a crucial weakening of his forces in the north. A promptly timed French counter-attack exploiting a gap in the German lines at the First Battle of the Marne set off the so-called 'race to the sea' and the onset of static trench warfare. The rapid war of movement was brought to an end.
Austria-Hungary's plans for war are much less discussed than those of France and Germany, and with good reason. In devising first Plan B and then Plan R, Austria-Hungary assumed that the coming war would be limited to Serbia.
Plan R (for Russia) essentially revised Plan B, allowing for a greater volume of troops to guard against
Russian assistance for the Serbs in the south, whilst assuming German activity in the north. This led to four
armies being deployed against Russia and two against Serbia. Whilst the chosen plan in August 1914, in
the event this strategy never came to fruition, since in committing to the Schlieffen Plan Germany devoted
the bulk of its manpower to the west before intending to turn its attention to the east.
Russia, meanwhile, put together two very different plans for war. Plan G assumed that Germany would
launch the war with a full-scale attack against Russia; the opposite of what actually transpired. Unusually,
Plan G was content to permit German infringement of Russia's borders, with the consequent loss of
territory and large-scale casualties, pending completion of Russian army mobilisation.
In short, the Russian military assumed that the country could readily bear a string of defeats at the start of
the war, such was the reserve of manpower ultimately available to the army. Once effectively mobilised,
they believed that the Russian army would inevitably eject Germany from within its borders. Napoleon had
failed to conquer the vastness of Russia; it was assumed that Germany would likewise fail.
In the event, the Russian advance into East Prussia was thrown back almost immediately upon the start of the war, with the Russian army suffering a particularly crushing defeat atTa n n e n b e rg, followed by lesser setbacks at theFirst andSecond Battles of the Masurian Lakes.
The British did not devise a general war strategy in the same sense as France, Germany, Austria-Hungary
and Russia. Unlike these powers, Britain had no particular desire for war to break out, and had no plans for
expansion, although she was keen to protect her interests, in particular her trading links with her far-flung
However once war broke out Britain, governed byAsquith's administration, and after some initial confused dithering, determined to come to the aid of 'Brave Little Belgium' (as Belgium was represented in the initial British propaganda recruitment campaign) and to France.
Now bringing you back...
Does that email address look wrong? Try again with a different email.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?