The Schlieffen Plan

Detailed notes on the Schlieffen Plan used by the Germans in WW1. Mainly for AQA, but can be used for revision for other exam boards.

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  • Created on: 31-12-09 20:43
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The Schlieffen Plan
In 1905 General Graf von Schlieffen, Chief of the General Staff of the German Army, drew up a plan which
would be used if Germany had to fight France and Russia at the same time. Even after his retirement, he
revised the plan annually until his death in 1913. The German Army used the plan in 1914.
The essence of the plan was the assumption that France was the stronger of the two enemies, and that
Russia's army would not be ready for combat in less than 6 weeks. On that basis, Germany decided to attack
France first and then concentrate all its strength on Russia: after 6 weeks of fighting, it was thought that
France would be defeated and Russia would be so demoralised by the defeat of her ally that she would
How the Plan was designed to operate
The main strength of the German Army would launch a surprise attack on France by going through neutral
Belgium and Luxembourg: the weaker forces would hold the frontiers with Russia, Alsace and Lorraine. The
main German force would sweep through north-east France, encircle Paris and force the French to surrender.
Simultaneously, the French would attack Alsace and Lorraine (the French General Staff's Plan 17), which
would ironically take them further away from the defence of Paris.
In August 1914 the huge and complex implementation of the Schlieffen Plan began, with thousands of trains
delivering 1,500,000 troops organised into 6 armies with all their guns, horses, tents, engineering equipment,
medical facilities and cooking equipment etc to the frontiers with Belgium and Luxembourg. They were
confident that France would be defeated within 6 weeks and so they would have won the war. However, the
war was far from won 6 weeks later ­ what went wrong?
Below are a number of factors which prevented the successful outcome the Schlieffen Plan offered.
Belgian Resistance ­ was completely unexpected by the Germans, meaning it took several days to capture
strong points like Namur and Liege. As the Belgians retreated they destroyed railway lines flooded low-lying
areas, thus delaying the German advance.
British Intervention ­ was not anticipated by Schlieffen, because there was no formal alliance between
Britain and France until September 1914. Even though the BEF under Sir John French was small (called a
"contemptible little army" by the Kaiser), it was good enough to delay stronger German forces at Mons and
Le Cateau.
Russian Invasion ­ the Russians invaded eastern Germany almost immediately, forcing the Germans to
transfer thousands of troops from the west to stem the Russian attack, thus weakening the plan.
Footslogging ­ the Germans had expected to capture the railways and use them in Belgium at least. Instead
the Infantrymen had to go the long distances by foot, constantly fighting and becoming exhausted.
Supply problems ­ as the advance continued, it gradually became more difficult to get supplies of
ammunition, medical equipment and food along the blocked roads, littered with damaged vehicles and
escaping civilians.
Poor leadership ­ the German Commander-in-Chief, General von Moltke, and the commander of the
German First Army, General von Kluck, panicked when the plan began to fail. Moltke transferred troops from
the right flank of the attack to defend Alsace and Lorraine, in turn weakening the vital move to encircle Paris.
Von Kluck changed direction in his advance to avoid being split from the Second Army, providing time for the
British and French to regroup.
The war should have been over by mid September. Instead, Germany was fighting a war on 2 fronts ­ the
very situation the Schlieffen Plan was designed to avoid.



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