Schlieffen Plan

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The red dashes show the deployments proposed by Schlieffen in 1905.

The Schlieffen Plan was a plan for a German invasion of France that was drawn up in 1904 by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1906. It evolved into the plan of attack used in World War I (1914-1918). Although the plan used in 1914 was quite different from any plan that Schlieffen himself was responsible for, it is customary to refer to it as the Schlieffen Plan.

Schlieffen proposed that the German army outflank the fortresses on the Franco-German border by advancing through Belgium. After Moltke replaced Schlieffen in 1906, he made various modifications to the plan. However, this basic concept was retained. If France could be knocked out of the war quickly, Germany could then focus on Russia. When Moltke put the plan into effect in 1914, the speedy result the Germans desired proved unobtainable. The plan involved violating Belgian neutrality, which provoked Britain to enter the war as a French ally. So the plan can be considered a major factor in Germany's defeat.


In the 1890s, German strategy was defensive with most troops assigned to deterring a Russian attack. With Russian attention focused on the Far East during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905), such caution seemed excessive. Schlieffen sketched a plan to outflank the French fortresses on the Franco-German border by advancing through Belgium. A large German force would swing around Paris and attack the French from the south. This "Memorandum for a War against France" was an early version of the Schlieffen Plan. It ignored Russia altogether.

The plan is based on the "battle of annihilation" doctrine taught by Clausewitz. In his writing, Schlieffen cited Sedan, where the Prussians encircled French forces in 1870, as an example of the German way of warfare. Some historians cite Hannibal's victory at Cannae as an additional source of inspiration. This is less likely since Schlieffen's interest in ancient military history developed as a result of reading Hans Delbrück's History of the Art of War (1900), probably after he retired.[1]

The most controversial feature of the plan was the proposed advance across Belgium, a nation whose neutrality was guaranteed by Britain and other countries. Kaiser Wilhelm II invited Belgium's King Leopold II to Berlin in January 1904 and offered him "the crown of Old Burgundy" if the Belgians consented to the plan. Leopold responded with the greatest astonishment.[2]

When the Japanese defeated the Russians in 1905, the kaiser expressed interest in going ahead with the plan, even without Belgian consent. Schlieffen had to confess that the German army was not ready for war. The French had recoilless artillery, which the Germans lacked.[3] The plan contemplated a significantly larger army than the one Schlieffen commanded.[4] Despite these admissions, Schlieffen and subsequent chiefs of staff continued to use the plan as a tool for obtaining weapons and more soldiers.[5]

The beauty of the river Pregel was not enough to distract Schlieffen. "When an aide, at the end of an all-night staff ride in East Prussia, pointed out to him the beauty of the river Pregel sparkling in the rising sun, the General gave a brief, hard look and replied, “An unimportant obstacle.”" -- Barbara Tuchman.[2]

Schlieffen's practice of creating plans based on men and resources that Germany did not have puzzled many of his fellow officers.[4] An agent called Le Vengeur provided a copy of Schlieffen's plans to French intelligence in 1904. There is no record of any traitor being punished. The plan was no secret after January 1909, when a magazine article about it was published. The author of this anonymous article was presumably Schlieffen himself.[6] If Schlieffen's army lagged behind in terms of artillery, bluster was an inexpensive and effective equalizer. Despite the military advantage they enjoyed for much of this period, French war plans remained timidly defensive until 1911.

Use in World War I

Schlieffen retired in 1906 and was replaced by Moltke. Moltke showed little interest in the Schlieffen Plan until 1911, when the Agadir Crisis inspired the General Staff to prepare for war in earnest.[7] German outrage against Britain's intervention in the crisis boiled over, but there was little the army could do against Britain directly. An offensive against France, Britain's partner, would have to do.

In November 1912, Moltke wrote a memorandum demanding full army conscription. Rapid army expansion had long been opposed by the Prussian Ministry of War, which worried that it would dilute the institution's character. Wandel, chief of staff at the ministry, complained that "restless and ambitious people" had gained control of the General Staff. This is presumably a reference to Ludendorff, Moltke's head of mobilization. In January 1913, Minister Heeringen reassigned Ludendorff to regimental command. Ludendorff later portrayed himself as a martyr to army expansion. But if Moltke was preparing Ludendorff for wartime command, he would need command experience.[8]

In April 1913, Moltke discontinued work on an alternative plan for an offensive in the east against Russia so that the General Staff could focus on the Schlieffen Plan. This allowed the army "to rule out half measures" and interference from "the politicians," as Waldersee, a former chief of the General Staff, put it.[9]

Army expansion was approved by the Reichstag in June 1913. The way was paved for world war, which broke out in August 1914.

Germany artillery had been upgraded since 1905. But there was still an insufficient number of soldiers to execute the plan, as well as other problems. The retreating Belgians blew up several railway bridges, creating supply problems. (The Germans were astonished and outraged that the Belgians dared to resist.[10]) In September 1914, German forces under Moltke's command arrived at the Marne, a river north of Paris, after an exhausting march across Belgium and northeastern France. After five days of fighting with French and British forces, they stopped to wait for needed supplies. As the armies rested, they dug trenches. Four years of trench warfare followed.

Outcome and reputation

The Schlieffen Plan allowed the Germans to occupy a vast region that included most of Belgium and northeastern France. But this is not usually interpreted to mean that the plan was successful. It fell far short of its goal to capture Paris quickly so that the Germans could turn their attention to the east. French leaders at the time stated that if Paris was captured, they would have retreated south and continued fighting. So the expectation of a quick victory was never realistic. Instead, the plan led to the realization of a worst-case scenario: A four-year two-front war with horrific loss of life and ending in German defeat.

In 1919, Delbrück wrote an article in which he argued that an offensive against Russia would have been a more realistic strategy than one focused on France. As the immediate provocation for the war was Russian mobilization, an attack on Belgium and France was difficult to justify in terms of international opinion.

At this time, Schlieffen's name was not yet publicly associated with any plan. His role was disclosed by former General Staff officers who wrote responses to Delbrück's critique. They argued that Schlieffen's original plan would have worked. Moltke was to blame as he had fatally weakened the plan by not putting enough soldiers on the right wing. For this reason, the Germans were unable to envelop Paris as Schlieffen had wanted. Ironically, this criticism originates with the same group of officers who assisted Moltke in revising Schlieffen's unworkable version. Germany needed heroes to serve as examples to its officers, or "applicatory history" as the army called it. Wilhelm Groener, Moltke's railway planner and later the foremost spinner of the Schlieffen myth, wrote, "I do not write for history," but rather to teach officers "strategy in the next war."[11]


  1. Holmes, T. M., "Classical Blitzkrieg: The Untimely Modernity of Schlieffen's Cannae Programme", The Journal of Military History, Volume 67, Number 3, July 2003: "[Cannae] had no influence on the Schlieffen plan of 1905, which reflects a quite different method of envelopment taught by Schlieffen before he adopted the Cannae paradigm in 1909."
  2. 2.0 2.1 Tuchman, Barbara, The Guns of August (1962). "2 “Let the Last Man on the Right Brush the Channel with His Sleeve”"
  3. Röhl, p. 416.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Gross, Gerhard, "There was a Schlieffen Plan", The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I (2014), pp. 100-101.
  5. Gross, pp. 103-104. Schlieffen's memorandum is, "A program for further expansion of the army and its mobilization," according to the archive's official description.
  6. The Second Oldest Profession: Spies and Spying in the Twentieth Century, (2013).
  7. Mombauer, Annika, Helmuth Von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War (2001), p. 86.
  8. Mombauer, pp. 147-149.
  9. Mombauer, p. 103.
  10. Tuchman, Barbara W.. The Guns of August (1962). "11 Liège and Alsace."
  11. Foley, Robert, Alfred Von Schlieffen's Military Writings (2012), p. xvii.