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What Was The Schlieffen Plan? [Warfare in Retrospect]

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: July 5, 2023

One strategy that has intrigued scholars and enthusiasts alike from the annals of military history is the Schlieffen Plan. Devised as an audacious blueprint for victory on two fronts, it promised to reshuffle European power dynamics at the precipice of World War I. But exactly what was the Schlieffen Plan?

It was intended as Germany’s best bet to ward off an impending war with two powerful neighbors, France and Russia. Named after its chief architect Alfred Von Schlieffen, it represents one of the most ambitious military strategies of the time.

Detailed, exquisite, and ultimately unsuccessful, today, we delve deep into understanding what made this plan so significant in shaping modern warfare.

What Was the Schlieffen Plan?

The Schlieffen Plan was a strategic military proposal for Germany to win a potential two-front war with France and Russia. The primary goal was to deliver a rapid knockout blow to France before Russia could effectively mobilize its forces. More than just an abstract idea, it was a meticulously designed offensive stint that, if successful, could have dramatically altered 20th-century history.

What Was The Schlieffen Plan? [Warfare in Retrospect]

The Origin of The Schlieffen Plan

The Schlieffen Plan had its roots in the late 19th and early 20th century when Europe was teetering on explosive political tensions. Amid geopolitical shifts, Russia and France made diplomatic overtures intending to form a powerful alliance. This unfriendly configuration would place Germany between two vast military powers, potentially leading to an unsavory two-front war.

Fearful and somewhat uncertain, Germany sought a solution. Enter Count Alfred von Schlieffen, a profoundly thoughtful and meticulous army strategist who influenced German military planning between 1891 and 1905. His ideas culminated in what came to be regarded as the Schlieffen Plan.

The Strategy Behind The Schlieffen Plan

The Schlieffen Plan, presented in 1905, aimed at exploiting the speed of mobilization and striking force of the German army to actualize its ambitious objectives. Its essence lay in a swift knockdown blow intended to incapacitate France within six weeks while slowly drawing Russia into war at a pace aligned with Germany’s capabilities.

Noteworthy elements integral to this plan included:

  • The French defensive line, the Maginot Line, fortified a rapid invasion through neutral Belgium to circumvent French borders.
  • We ensure maximum force concentration on one flank (France) while keeping minimal troops on the other (Russia).
  • Baiting Russia into slow mobilization courtesy of its rudimentary infrastructure.
  • After defeating France with substantial swiftness, redirecting forces eastwards to deal with Russia should it mobilize quickly, contrary to expectations.

It’s important to understand that these elements worked on the assumption that Germany could outpace both France and Russia in terms of speed.

Who Were the Key Figures Behind The Plan?

Count Alfred Von SchlieffenArchitect
Helmuth Von Moltke (the Younger)Executor

Count Alfred Von Schlieffen was a chief designer and lent his name to this grandiose plan. While he did not live long enough for his plan’s execution during World War I, Helmuth Von Moltke (the Younger) would have the weighty task of carrying out this complex strategy under unexpected circumstances.

In short, the Schlieffen Plan symbolizes an era where swift mobilization dictated victory conditions before mechanized warfare became dominant. Despite its failure, it persists as a crucial subject for study in military academies worldwide, underpinning lessons about strategic planning under constraints.

Fact Check: Why Did the Schlieffen Plan Fail?

Details of The Schlieffen Plan

To comprehend the magnitude and intricacies of the Schlieffen Plan, it is essential to delve into its detailed strategy. Characterized by its strict timeline, grand maneuvers, and pinpoint precision, the plan was not merely an outline but a fully fleshed-out roadmap for warfare.

Objectives and Strategy

The principal objective of the Schlieffen Plan was to achieve a swift victory over France and then mobilize eastwards to tackle Russia. The idea was to avoid a protracted two-front war that could potentially culminate in Germany’s defeat.

Schlieffen aimed to attack France’s undefended northern flank through Belgium (a neutral nation), bypassing the heavily fortified Franco-German border. According to the plan, about 80% of German forces would be deployed in the west along this northern flank to deliver a knock-out blow to France within six weeks.

This swift maneuver was critical because it would then offer Germany sufficient time to mobilize its troops eastwards before Russia could fully prepare itself for war, thus precluding a full-scale two-front war which Germany could not afford both in terms of resources and manpower.

Execution Approach

The operational approach pertaining to Schlieffen’s grand scheme can be termed nothing short of audacious. The specifics called for rapid mobilization along with precise timings embedded into the strategic formulations. This was primarily due to the recognition of Germany’s geopolitical challenge being ensnared between two major forces.

Outlined below is a clear representation of what Schlieffen had envisaged:

PhaseMilitary encirclement maneuver around Paris from the west leading towards Alsace-Lorraine
1Swift attack on France through Belgium, bypassing frontier fortifications
2Military encirclement maneuver around Paris from west leading towards Alsace-Lorraine
3Rapid defeat and surrender of France
4Mobilization eastwards toward Russia

Naturally, anticipation for such chronological occurrences projected immense confidence in German military prowess, presuming French resistance would collapse under this surprising onslaught, and Russia would be slow enough in her mobilization process that by the time she was ready for action, all German focus would have shifted towards dealing with her.

Assumptions in Plan

A fundamental facet worth noting about the Schlieffen plan is that it was entirely based on several assumptions:

  • Belgium would not put up significant resistance.
  • Due to infrastructural limitations, Russia would take six weeks or more for full-scale mobilization.
  • After breaching Franco-German borders, France would be defeated swiftly within six weeks.
  • The British military aid won’t intervene soon enough on behalf of Belgium or France.

These bold estimates were pivotal aspects forming the crux upon which lay Germany’s faith in Alfred Von Schlieffen’s blueprint for victory, a striking testament indeed!

Reasons Behind The Formation Of the Schlieffen Plan

Returning to pre-World War I Europe is pivotal to fully grasp the complexities and rationale behind the Schlieffen Plan. This was a time of simmering geopolitical tensions, burgeoning arms races, and an intricate network of strategic alliances.

The Landscape of Pre-War Europe

In the late 19th and early 20th century, Europe was a jigsaw puzzle of budding nation-states. Each was locked in a delicate balance of power, secured by an intricate web of alliances. France shared an abusive relationship with Germany following their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, from which Germany emerged as a significant European power.

While France sought potential opportunities for revenge, Germany aimed to maintain its territorial gains and newfound status.

The Threat of a Two-Front War

The Triple Entente, an alliance between Russia, France, and later Britain became formal by 1907. This increasingly menaced Germany with the nightmare scenario of a two-front war. This meant fighting off Russia in the East, followed swiftly by France in the West, which would stretch their army thin.

Alfred Von Schlieffen’s Solution

In light of these escalating threats, Chief-of-Staff Alfred Von Schlieffen designed a bold strategy to counteract this predicament. Devised over a decade between 1897–1905, the Schlieffen Plan proposed dramatically changing Germany’s military posture from defensive to offensive.

Schlieffen’s conviction lay in delivering a swift crippling blow to France first via Belgium, which remained neutral at that time. By doing so, it aimed not just at defeating France but doing so within six weeks! Post this victory, they would redirect their troops eastward to combat Russia.

In essence, all these factors significantly fueled the genesis of what came to be known as “The Schlieffen Plan.” And it is therein where we continue exploring one of history’s fascinating military strategies.

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Why Did Germany Believe In The Success Of The Schlieffen Plan?

In the early years of the 20th century, Germany approached the imminent threat of war with unwavering confidence in their ability to emerge victorious. This belief largely hinged on a meticulously conceived military strategy, the Schlieffen Plan. German confidence was not unfounded but rather a result of a well-grounded faith in their military prowess and strategic planning.

Germany’s Military Prowess

Germany’s military strength was one of the most formidable in Europe at that point. With advancements in military technology, a skilled line-up of generals, and soldiers trained to perfection, Germany rightly considered its army as a crucial element for success.

At that time, they possessed one of the largest pools of trained reserves and an efficient railway system that could mobilize these soldiers rapidly, a fact heavily accounted for in the Schlieffen Plan. Also, their belief in “quality over quantity” made them confident that they could overcome more populous nations like Russia.

Alfred von Schlieffen and His Tactical Brilliance

Count Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of German General Staff from 1891-1905, held high regard within German and international circles for his astute understanding of warfare strategy. His lucid maneuver warfare concept aimed at defeating an enemy by encircling them was unlike anything seen before.

The crux of the Schlieffen Plan proposed leveraging this advantage by focusing first on quickly defeating France to their west before shifting attention eastwards towards Russia, considering Russian forces would take longer to mobilize due to their vast size and less developed infrastructure.

However, it is important to understand that this unwavering faith in quick victory through the Schlieffen Plan didn’t acknowledge potential changes on volatile war front scenarios, nor did it factor in possible British intervention.

Equally essential is noting how lessons from botched execution would later iterate more adaptable strategies during World War II by German High Command.

Ultimately though, we need to remember that the reality of war is always far removed from plan tables despite most tactful placements, even if framed by most brilliant strategists like Von Schlieffen himself.

Failure of the Schlieffen Plan

The desired outcomes of the Schlieffen Plan dramatically contrasted with reality, as it fell short during World War I. The primary reasons lay in both strategic miscalculations and unexpected events, the combination of which marked its conclusion as a military failure.

Deviations From the Plan

Firstly, Germany diverged from the original plan’s stipulations in significant ways. Alfred Von Schlieffen had proposed a strong right flank to encircle Paris by moving through Belgium, but his successor Helmuth von Moltke weakened this approach due to apprehensions over the violation of Belgium’s neutrality and logistical challenges.

Moltke shifted additional forces to defend their Eastern Front against Russia, contrary to the initial Envelopment strategy, which focused on overpowering France first.

Allied Resistance and British Intervention

Secondly, stronger-than-expected opposition from the Allies impeded Germany’s progression. The Battle of Marne saw a resilient French Army halt German advances toward Paris, leading to a shift in war dynamics.

In addition, Britain’s entry into the war was not accurately anticipated. Despite initial hesitations, Great Britain initiated military actions after Germany invaded neutral Belgium. This added another potent enemy that greatly strained German resources.

Slow Russian Mobilization

Lastly, Russia’s mobilization did not proceed at the slow, predictable pace Germany had banked on while drafting the Schlieffen Plan. Instead, they were far quicker and threatened Germany’s Eastern borders well before expected, compelling alterations in Germany’s troop deployment.

Implications Of The Failure Of Germany And WWI

The failure of the Schlieffen Plan, engineered to presage a swift victory for Germany, sharply swayed the course of the First World War while triggering a cascade of consequences for Germany herself. This strategic blunder left an indelible mark on the annals of military history and curtailed Germany’s ambition to secure a decisive win.

Immediate Repercussions for Germany

Firstly, the plan’s failure inflicted a major blow on German morale. While hoping for a quick victory, they instead found themselves mired in protracted trench warfare against France and its allies most notably, Britain.

Moreover, the unanticipated resilience of Belgian forces, coupled with the British Expeditionary Force’s efficient response, led to a significant loss of men and resources. Above all else, unforeseen logistic challenges further complicated their predicament.

Impact on World War I Progression

The stalemate at the Western Front following the failed Schlieffen Plan led to detrimental alterations in warfare dynamics from quick maneuvers to slow grinding battles characterized by trench warfare. The profound transformation resulted in protracted periods of deadlock and unspeakable human costs.

One could view these developments as direct precursors to many significant events during World War I. For instance:

  • The dramatic increase in casualty rates
  • Extended duration of hostilities
  • Erosion of civilian morale due to a longer war

Lessons from The Schlieffen Plan

Despite being a failed military strategy, the Schlieffen Plan offers invaluable lessons for future strategists and military historians. Created to secure victory for Germany on two war fronts against France and Russia, the plan eventually fell short in World War I. Yet, it gives us crucial insight into understanding the intricacies of strategic planning.

A Deviating Strategy

Firstly, the Schlieffen Plan outlines the risks of deviating from an established strategic blueprint. Von Schlieffen’s original plan asked Germany to keep a minimal force on their eastern front against Russia and focus over 90% of their army on France.

However, when Helmuth von Moltke took over command, he redistributed forces more evenly between both fronts. This alteration weakened the attack on France significantly and contributed largely to its failure.

Assumptions VS Reality

Secondly, it teaches us an essential lesson about understanding the gap between assumptions and reality. Germany’s assumption that Russia would take at least six weeks to mobilize its forces proved fatally incorrect; instead, Russia moved quicker than expected, severely undermining Germany’s strategic goals.

Viable Backup Plans

Lastly, a significant takeaway is the need for viable contingency plans. When faced with unexpected resistance at the First Battle of Marne, combined with faster-than-anticipated Russian mobilization, German forces were left without any effective backup plan. This ultimately resulted in a static trench warfare system along their fronts, contrary to their initial goal of a swift victory.

Deviation from strategyRisks involved in changing established tactical approach
Assumption VS RealityReflection on how wrong assumptions can ruin strategies
Need for Contingency PlansImportance of having robust backup plans during uncertainties


In the chronicles of military history, the Schlieffen Plan is a stark reminder that even the most meticulously drafted strategies aren’t immune to failure. Mapping out military objectives in a hypothetical scenario is far from actual wartime execution.

The plan’s over-ambitious approach, underestimation of enemy capacity, and logistical bottlenecks led to its downfall. Its study continues to offer crucial insights into military strategy and act as a case study for modern-day armed forces. It underscores how significant it is to factor in all possible eventualities while devising strategy armies on battlegrounds or businesses on the corporate front.

Here are some essential aspects:

  • Tactical oversights: German High Command overlooked vital aspects such as political alliances, terrain challenges & enemy resilience.
  • Strategic flaws: Heavy dependence on time-bound objectives, wherein slight deviations led to unraveling.
  • Purpose: The value of studying historical failures like the Schlieffen Plan lies in understanding what went wrong and learning and improving upon those mistakes.
Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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