World War I/Lesson 4 - The Schlieffen Plan - First weeks of war

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First World War

In 1896, Germany began to make preparations for war. The strategy, which took 9 years to finalise, became known as the Schlieffen Plan. The plan, however, was fatally flawed as it was built on too many assumptions and did not take into account any other factors which may have occurred. It was also Germany's only plan for war and due to the very fixed nature of the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans would have been completely unprepared if any other situation were to arise. Ultimately, the Germans lost the war, in part, because of this strategy.

The Plan[edit]

The basic view of the plan was that if Germany went to war, it would come under attack from two fronts: France from the west and Russia from the east. Therefore the Germans wanted to avoid dividing their army to defend themselves from two distant fronts. Thus, the Schlieffen Plan was an offensive strategy; aimed to eliminate the threat from one front and then focus on the other.

An assumption made by the Germans was that France could mobilise their troops quickly, but were weak, and that Russia's troops were strong but would take a long time to mobilise. Therefore, the Germans wanted to sweep through France quickly, close that front off and then get their troops over onto the Eastern front and prepare for a longer war against Russia. The plan envisioned using 90% of the German army to sweep through Belgium and Northern France and deliver a Hammer-blow at Paris quickly and decisively.

Another assumption made was that the Belgians would let German troops into Belgium and attack France via Belgium.

The plan put into action[edit]

Germany's war started when Germany declared war on Russia for declaring war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of whom had declared war on Serbia when assassins had killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand. However, the UK and France had not yet declared war on Germany and German troops were caught up fighting on the Eastern Front, so the Germans came up with a pretext and war was subsequently declared between the UK/France and Germany.

Things became even more problematic for Germany when Belgium refused to let German troops onto Belgian soil, so this slowed down the Germans further as they had to fight their way through Belgium and not be able to deliver the quick and decisive hammer-blow at Paris that they wanted. As well as that, the German invasion of Belgium prompted the British entry to the war, due to a treaty signed between the UK and Belgium in 1839, so the Germans were further held up due to the presence of British troops.

From the assumptions made about the enemy forces on the two fronts, the Germans underestimated the strength of the force on the Western Front and would also go on to underestimate the speed of mobilisation of Russian troops on the Eastern Front; it only took 10 days for Russian troops to mobilise their forces and the German High Command was forced to withdraw a large force from the Western Front and send them onto the Eastern Front.

Ultimately, Germany had been forced into fighting a form of war it wanted to avoid in the first place; fighting a defensive war where their force was divided into East and West. The war would then go on into a fight of attrition with neither side making any significant gains on the other and was became bogged down in trench-warfare.

The later course of the war[edit]

Germany would eventually go on to defeat the Russians, thereby closing off the Eastern Front and allowing troops to be withdrawn and replaced on the Western Front. However, as the Western Front found further support from the Americans, the Western Allies would be able to fight a war somewhat indefinitely compared to the Germans who were running low on essential supplies.