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Liveblogging World War I: July 16, 1914: The Schlieffen Plan

NewImageGerhard Ritter: The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth:

Discussion of the Schlieffen Plan up to date has... always tried to discover a formula for success in the one-sided massing of attacking forces on the right wing—-a rather primitive formula in view of the restricted deployment area on the upper Meuse, the destruction of the Belgian railway network and the consequent enormous marches needed to outflank the enemy front line! The great Schlieffen Plan was... an over-daring gamble whose success depended on many lucky accidents. A formula for victory needs a surplus of reasonable chances of success if it is to inspire confidence—-a surplus which tends quickly to be used up by "frictions" in the day-to-day conduct of war. The Schlieffen Plan showed an obvious deficit in these chances: it was, in Schlieffen's own words, "an enterprise for which we are too weak." True, he wanted to cure this weakness by improvising at least eight Ersatz corps. But he could neither say how such improvised corps were to be made militarily efficient and provided with equipment, nor show how they were to be brought to the decisive point of the front in time.... Thus the Reichsarchiv (I, 55) referred to the Schlieffen Plan as "at the same time a programme for the further enlargement of the army and for its mobilisation."

Well, if it was a programme, it remained ineffective as such: a strictly guarded secret in the safes of the Great General Staff. The request to the War Ministry does not alter the fact that during his fifteen years in office as Chief of the General Staff, Schlieffen did very httle to expand the German Army to the figure needed for the fulfilment of his plans. Nor did his successor do anything.... There remains a strange disproportion between the high aims of the German General Staff and the forces available to them in practice. For active defence, as the elder Moltke envisaged it, the existing forces would have sufficed.... But for what Schlieffen had in mind, a quick, total annihilation of the enemy, Germany's strength was simply not adequate, particularly when, after the French, the mighty Russian Army was to be "annihilated" too!...

Schlieffen had not the least use for the German Navy either, though its development reached a new and decisive stage in 1906. It was to be used neither as an offensive weapon to support the Western front, nor in the Baltic, where its superiority was already unquestioned and where one might have thought its task was to secure sea lanes and enable the German Army to operate in the Baltic coastal provinces—perhaps even to force Russian harbours....

The extent of Schlieffen's uncertainty as to whether there would really be enough troops to inundate and occupy so many areas, and to invest so many fortified positions, is shown by bis suggestion that the Germans should resort to terror measures if necessary... giving the Belgian Government the choice of "a bombardment of its fortified towns, particularly Liege, as well as a considerable levy—-or of handing over all fortresses, railways and troops." To be able to carry out the bombardment if necessary, and also to force French towns like Lille or Nancy to capitulate quickly, the heavy artillery is to be suitably equipped.

When the long-expected crisis broke in July 1914, Germany had prepared nothing diplomatically, not even the ultimatum to Belgium. She had nothing but a plan for a military offensive, whose rigid time-table robbed her diplomacy of all freedom of manoeuvre.... There can be no doubt that the Chief of the General Staff kept the Government informed from the beginning of his plan to march through Belgium in case of war—-of course, only confidentially... for it was, after all, a military secret of the first order. But this did not preclude confidential discussions.... Count Hutten-Czapski, who at the time played the role of confidential adviser and "private secretary" to Prince Hohenlohe, records that in May 1900 the Chiet of the General Staff... asked... if he would agree to sound Holstein and the Chancellor confidentially on the following matter:

After long and conscientious reflection he had become convinced that in the event of a two-front war, success might possibly depend on Germany's not allowing international agreements to restrain her strategic operations. It would mean a great deal to him if Holstein could give him his personal point of view...

The whole conversation lasted only a few minutes. The name of the country to which Schlieffen referred was never mentioned, but Count Hutten immediately thought of Belgium.