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The Schlieffen Plan (1905)

Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913) had a long and distinguished military career, having fought as an officer in both the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871. In 1891, he replaced Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891) as Chief of the General Staff of the German Army. Fear of a two-front war with France and Russia, particularly after France’s signing of an Entente Cordiale with Great Britain in 1904, led Schlieffen to devise a military strategy against encirclement. The Schlieffen plan, as it came to be known, proposed the swift defeat of France in a scythe-like maneuver through Belgium and Holland, with the goal of cutting Paris off from the sea. The bulk of the German Army was to focus on defeating France while a much smaller contingent was to keep the slowly mobilizing Russians at bay in the east.

Schlieffen died a year before the outbreak of World War I. He was thus unable to experience the eventual failure of his famous plan. The Germans did not anticipate the strong resistance of the Belgium Army, the arrival of the British Expeditionary Forces in France, or the Russian Army’s sudden advance into East Prussia. The result was a German retreat, the building of a line of trenches from the North Sea to the Swiss Frontier, and a long war of attrition. Admittedly, Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke (1848-1916), had modified plan by weakening the right wing in the west in favor of sending more troops to the east. Thus, the original version of the Schlieffen Plan was never fully implemented. In any event, Schlieffen’s theories, as described in his book Cannae, became standard reading at military academies in Europe and the United States after WWI and are said to have influenced the German blitzkrieg doctrine in WWII.

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Berlin, December 1905

War against France

In the event of a war with Germany, France will probably restrict itself to defensive measures, especially since it cannot count on effective support from Russia.

France has been preparing a military line for this purpose for quite some time, one that is to a great extent permanently fortified and whose main bases include the fortresses of Belfort, Epinal, Toul, and Verdun. This line can be adequately manned by France’s large army and will be extremely difficult to attack.

An attack will not be directed against the large fortresses since victory there would require a massive siege army and a great deal of effort and time, even more so because the fortresses cannot be encircled and the attackers can only lay siege from one side. The attackers could perhaps move against the areas between the fortresses. Two of these (Belfort-Epinal and Toul-Verdun) contain defensive forts, but these are not of any great importance. A more important consideration is that the intermediary spaces form strong natural lines, many sections deep. The large fortresses on their flanks will prevent attackers from carrying out an enveloping maneuver, and the attackers themselves must fear encirclement.

An attack on the right flank of the Mosel fort (Fort Ballon de Servance) offers the best prospects for success. Yet insufficient preparations have been made to overcome the difficult terrain. Even if these preparations are successful, Germany will hardly want to open a campaign with a siege of “Ballon de Servance,” though it may be important to take this fort in a later stage of the war.

An attack on Nancy also offers prospects for success. The city is protected primarily by field fortifications and will be easy to encircle and shell. Once the city and the elevated position behind it (Forêt de Haye) have been taken, the attackers will encounter the fortifications of Toul. Practically the only advantage to attacking Nancy is that – in order to save Lorraine’s capital – the French will perhaps be lured out of their fortifications to fight a battle in the field. Even so, their protective lines are so close behind them that defeat would not cause them serious harm or bring the victor any great success. It would be a defeated sortie from out of a fortress, and it would cause the besieger and the defender the same losses and not alter the situation.

Thus a frontal attack on the Belfort-Verdun line offers little chance of success. An enveloping maneuver to the south would have to be preceded by a victorious campaign against Switzerland and a defeat of the Jura fortresses. This undertaking would be time-consuming, and the French would not remain idle while German forces were thus engaged.

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