Was the Schlieffen Plan Foredoomed to Failure?
To avoid the French fortress system, the Germans had developed a plan to surround Paris in a flanking maneuver to quickly conquer France. The plan was expected to be carried out in only 40 days, however, many important steps were not taken which cost the Germans the vital element of haste. The Schlieffen plan was not foredoomed to failure, yet it it did fail due to three factors: the reduction to the right wing on the Western Front, the choice to avoid the path through Holland, and the poor coordination and regulation of the German armies.
Alfred von Schlieffen built this plan around the inevitable outcome of a two front war. It was inevitablele that Germany was going to have to face Russia and France. Although Russia had the weaker army, her vast geography posed many issues; it was France that was decided to be the first country to invade. Schlieffen planned for a quick victory on the Western Front which would allow the armies to travel back across Germany to meet Russia at the Eastern Front. He also believed that France was the most decisive factor in the war and defeating them quickly would deter their allies from joining. The German forces had to surround Paris and conquer France before the Russians could mobilize her army. The German Chief of Staff knew that with the advanced rail systems of Germany this transition of armies was possible. Schlieffen predicted that it would take Russia 6 weeks to mobilize. However, Russia prepared her armies much faster, which resulted in attention being shifted from the west to the east.
One can argue that the Schlieffen plan was doomed from conception rather than poor execution because of Count Schlieffen’s underestimations. However, even with these miscalculations, the plan could have worked with proper execution. In 1906, Schlieffen had retired and Helmuth von Moltke was appointed as Chief of General Staff. Moltke was never a confident leader, in fact, he had doubts about his ability to lead the German forces. Before war had begun, the Kaiser appointed Moltke to military plenipotentiary, telling him to do whatever he felt necessary to win the war. The Chief of Staff’s first mistake was moving 180,000 troops back across Germany to the Eastern Front. He did so because he feared Russia and felt that the Eastern Front was not secure. He followed by deciding to alter the right wing’s path into France by excluding the route through Holland. Passing through Holland would have posed many benefits for the war effort. Amongst Moltke’s fatal alterations, the German army also lacked coordination due to a nonexistent nearby headquarters. The absence of adequate coordination and Moltke’s unconfident decisions can be blamed directly for the failure of the Schlieffen plan.
The Dutch zone, known as the “Maastricht pocket,” lies in between Northern Germany and Southeast Belgium. Going through this area would have been faster and safer for the right wing. Also, it would have provided Germany with access to Dutch railways. However, Moltke decided not to use this pocket for two reasons; the first was to avoid damaging their neutrality with Holland, while the second was the fear of pulling Great Britain into the war. Therefore, the only way into Belgium was through a small bottleneck opening that led directly to the city of Liege. This city was fortified with 12 forts that held the Germans over their allotted timeframe. By choosing to bypass Holland, Moltke delayed the right wing’s advance allowing more time for the French and Belgian forces to mobilize. The delay also allowed the British to move her forces across the channel, a factor that Schlieffen anticipated would not happen in time due to the haste of the right wing.
Schlieffen had always emphasized the need for a strong right wing attack. It is even reported that his last words were “keep the right wing strong.” However, Moltke reduced the German forces in the right wing from 7 to 1 to 3...
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