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The Schlieffen Plan was the German General Staff's early 20th century overall strategic plan for victory in a possible future war where it might find itself fighting on two fronts: Francemarker to the west and Russiamarker to the east. The First World War later became such a war with both a Western Front and an Eastern Front. The plan took advantage of expected differences in the three countries' speed in preparing for war. In short, it was the German plan to avoid a two-front war by concentrating their troops in the west, quickly defeating the French and then, if necessary, rushing those troops by rail to the east to face the Russians before they had time to mobilize fully. The Schlieffen Plan was created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen and modified by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger after Schlieffen's retirement. It was Moltke who actually put the plan into action, despite initial reservations about it. In modified form, it was executed to near victory in the first month of World War I; however, the modifications to the original plan, a French counterattack on the outskirts of Parismarker (the Battle of the Marne), and surprisingly speedy Russian offensives, ended the German offensive and resulted in years of trench warfare. The plan has been the subject of intense debate among historians and military scholars ever since. Schlieffen's last words were "remember to keep the right flank strong", a request which was watered down by Moltke.

The Plan

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French province of Alsace-Lorrainemarker, with a mixed population of both French and Germans, had been made part of the German Empiremarker. The revanchist French Third Republic vowed to regain the territories France had possessed for nearly 200 years. Due to Bismarck's alliances, France was initially isolated, but after Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne in 1888 and gradually estranged Germany from Russiamarker and Britainmarker, fears about having to fight a future war on two fronts simultaneously grew among German leaders.

France, having been beaten in a few weeks in 1870, was not considered as dangerous in the long run as the Russian Empire, which was expected to be hard to defeat if the Czar was allowed the necessary time to mobilize his huge country to the fullest extent. After the Entente Cordiale of 1904 was signed between Britain and France, Kaiser Wilhelm asked Count Schlieffen to devise a plan which would allow Germany to fight a war on two fronts, and in December 1905 von Schlieffen began circulating it.

The idea of the plan was to win the two-front war by first quickly beating France again in the west – the plan scheduled 39 days for the fall of Parismarker and 42 for the capitulation of France – before the "Russian Steamroller" would be able to mobilize and descend upon East Prussia. The plan depended on Germany's ability to quickly mobilize troops and invade France before France could fully mobilize its troops to defend itself, and then to turn on Russia, seen as the slowest of the three to mobilize, before the Russians were ready.

It envisaged a rapid German mobilization, disregard of the neutrality of Luxembourgmarker, Belgiummarker and the Netherlandsmarker, and an overwhelming sweep of the powerful German right wing southwest through Belgium and Northern France, "letting the last man on the right, brush the Channel with his sleeve," in the words of Schlieffen, while maintaining only a defensive posture on the central and left wings, in Lorrainemarker, the Vosgesmarker, and the Mosellemarker.

Paris was not to be taken (in 1870, the Siege of Paris had lasted for months) but was to be passed by the right wing to the west of the city. The intent of the plan was not to conquer cities or industry in order to weaken the French war efforts, but to capture most of the French Army and to force France to surrender, in essence a repeat of the strategy used to defeat France during the Franco-Prussian War. The plan was that the French Army would be hemmed in around Paris and forced to fight a decisive envelopment battle.

A seed of disaster lurked in the conception of the plan: both Schlieffen and the man who would eventually implement his plan, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, were seduced by the possibility of the double envelopment of the entire French Army by the right wing coming from the north and west of France and the left wing coming from the east. The inspiration was the destruction of the Roman Army by Hannibal's forces at the Battle of Cannaemarker in 216 BC, which was the object of meticulous study by Schlieffen. In essence, his plan was a very large scale strategic readdressing of Hannibal's tactics, capitalizing on the recent breakthroughs in communications and transport.

Politically, one of the major drawbacks of the Schlieffen Plan was that it called for the invasion of neutral states in order to pass through German troops to France. As it turned out, at least formally, it was the decision to invade Belgium which led to war with Great Britain.

As noted previously, Russian mobilization would supposedly be extremely slow, due to its poor railway system. Following the speedy defeat of France, the German General Staff would switch German concentrations to the Eastern Front. The plan called for sending 91% of the German troops to France and 9% to Russia. His goal was to defeat France in six weeks, the time it took for Russia to mobilize its army, and turn back to the Eastern Front before Russia could react. Kaiser Wilhelm II is quoted as having said "Paris for lunch, dinner at St. Petersburg."

Modifications to the Plan, 1906

Map of the Schlieffen Plan and planned French counter-offensives
Following the retirement of Schlieffen in 1906, Helmuth von Moltke became the German chief of staff. He disagreed with at least some of the Schlieffen Plan, thinking it to be too risky. The Plan, however, having been devised in 1905, was now too much a part of German military thinking to be abandoned completely, so all Moltke could do was modify it.
  • Moltke decided to pull significant numbers of troops away from the main force entering France from the north, in order to fortify the forces in Alsace-Lorrainemarker, and the forces at the Russian border.
  • The other significant change he made was not to enter through the Netherlandsmarker, instead sending troops through Belgium and Luxembourg only.
These changes have been the subject of much debate. L.C.F Turner in 1970 described von Moltke's changes as "a substantial modification in the Schlieffen Plan and one which probably doomed the German campaign in the west before it was ever launched." Turner claims that by weakening the main German offensive, they did not have a real chance of defeating the French army quickly enough; hence they became stranded in a two-front-war. He also says that not going through the Netherlands not only created a bottleneck at the German-Belgian border, but also that not having the Dutch railways at their disposal created a huge supply problem, a problem which outweighed the benefits they gained by still having access to the Dutch ports.However, in 1977 Martin van Creveld, analyzing the role of logistics in the plan, felt that the effects of Moltke's alteration to avoid invading Dutch neutrality were more apparent than real, since two corps of troops which had been allocated to contain the 90,000-strong Dutch Army could instead be used for the invasion of France. Further, van Creveld points out that while Schlieffen had assigned five corps for the investment of Antwerpmarker, Moltke made do with only two. "Though it is therefore quite true that Moltke's right wing was not as strong as Schlieffen had planned to make it, this loss was more than compensated for by the economies effected in [Moltke's] version of the plan."Early in the war, according to the directives of Plan XVII, the French mobilized and hurled their forces towards the German border in an ill-fated attempt to recapture Alsace-Lorrainemarker. This played exactly into Schlieffen's conception of a trap through double envelopment, which called for a loose defense of the border, and actually for retreats by which the French forces would have been lured further away from the main thrust of the German advance. However, Moltke's weakening of the German right, the defense of Alsace-Lorraine, and the transfer of three army corps and one cavalry division from the western front to help contain the Russian advance into East Prussia, all contributed to the failure of the German army to break through the Allied forces at the Marne. Without that breakthrough, the plan was destroyed.

Activation, and subsequent failure

Though debate continues about the merits of the Schlieffen Plan and even on whether the Schlieffen Plan was ever truly executed, ultimately the German invasion failed for seven major reasons:

A British postcard reflecting Belgium's determination to retain sovereignty
  • Belgian resistance: Although the Belgian army was only a tenth the size of the German army, it still delayed the Germans for nearly a month, defending fortresses and cities. The Germans used their "Big Bertha" artillery to destroy Belgian forts in Liègemarker, Namurmarker and Antwerpmarker, but the Belgians still fought back, creating a constant threat on German supply lines in the North. In addition, the German attack on neutral Belgium and reports and propaganda about atrocities turned public opinion in many neutral countries against Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm. Still, despite stiff Belgian resistance, the timetable for the Schlieffen plan was going according to schedule before it was halted in France.

  • The effectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force: The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was small, numbering only 75,000 at the start of the war. The French mobilized millions of recruits, and their goal was to use this number to defeat the Germans quickly in Alsacemarker. To this end, the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre placed the small but highly trained BEF on the left flank, where he believed there would not be any fighting. Due to the rapid German advance through Belgium, the British were almost annihilated several times, but they managed to delay the Germans long enough for French and British reinforcements to arrive. While the BEF was forced into retreat throughout the month of August, it provided enough resistance against the German First Army under Alexander von Kluck to help induce the German general to break off the Plan. Instead, von Kluck turned south-east towards Compiègnemarker, showing his flank to the Garrison of Paris under Gallieni, making possible the "Miracle of the Marne".

  • The speed of Russian mobilization: The Russians moved faster than expected, gaining ground in Eastern Prussia more quickly than the Germans had planned for, surprising them. While the Russian advance may not have posed much real threat at the time, had they kept gaining ground at that pace, they would get dangerously close to Berlinmarker. This caused the Germans to pull even more men from their main force, in order to reinforce the Eastern Front. This proved counterproductive, since the forces pulled from the Western Front were still in transit during the German victory at Tannenberg in early September 1914marker, while the battles on the Western front were being lost for Germany.

  • The French railway system: Because of the delays caused by the British and Belgians, the French had more time to transfer troops from the border to Alsace-Lorraine. The Germans greatly underestimated how well they would be able to do this, especially with the extra time they were granted by the slowing of the German forces. The French sent some of their troops by train, some through taxis, and marched the rest of them. By the time the Germans got into France, the French were there waiting for them.

  • Logistical shortcomings: van Creveld asserts that:
    ...Schlieffen does not appear to have devoted much attention to logistics when he evolved his great Plan.
    He well understood the difficulties likely to be encountered, but made no systematic effort to solve them.
    Had he done so, he might well have reached the conclusion that the operation was impracticable.
    Moltke did much to improve the logistic side of the Plan.
    Under his direction, the problem was seriously studied for the first time and officers trained in the 'technics' of warfare ...
    He did, it is true, make a number of changes in the Plan.
    From an exclusively logistic point of view, some of these were beneficial, but most were harmful.
    Nevertheless, taking his period of office as a whole, he probably did more to improve the Plan than to damage its prospects.
    He concludes that, overall, the logistical shortcomings of the Plan did not contribute to the German defeat on the Marne. However,
    Had the battle gone in Germany's favour ... there is every reason to believe that the advance would have petered out.
    The prime factors would have been the inability of the railheads to keep up with the advance, the lack of fodder, and sheer exhaustion.
    In this sense, but no other, it is true to say that the Schlieffen Plan was logistically impracticable.
    In van Creveld's view the design of the Plan was not characterized by the kind of thoroughness and detailed planning that is usually thought to be the hallmark of the German General Staff, but by "an ostrich-like refusal on Schlieffen's part to face even those problems which, after forty years of peace, could be foreseen." Although Moltke did improve the Plan somewhat in this respect, it was not methodical advanced planning which enabled the German advance to succeed, but "furious improvisation"
    That the Army achieved as much as it did, at a time when the standing orders could only be said to have caused no actual harm, is remarkable indeed.
    Critics of the advance would do well to keep this in mind.

  • Moltke's changes to the plan: Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke made several changes to the Schlieffen Plan, initially reinforcing the east with 180,000 men from the right-wing armies, weakening the invasion force in favor of defense. Moltke also had ideological opposition for the proposed passage of the invading armies through the neutral Netherlands, the subsequent shift delayed his armies in Belgium and resulted in the "race to the sea" after the Marne. Moltke also further reinforced his left-wing with Corps from the right to prevent Allied forces from penetrating too far into Germany itself, an issue Schlieffen was not concerned with (Schlieffen's plan called for the invading French forces to be enveloped, putting the political concern of hostile invasions behind the strategic opportunity to destroy the invading armies). This proved problematic, because the German units who were supposed to fall back and lure the French away from Paris and the German right flank, were now driving the French before them. Rather than diverting the French forces from the action, this placed the French units much closer to the German 1st and 2nd armies threatening Paris. Moltke also chose to send 80,000 more men to the east to assist with the Russian invasion against the advisement of General Ludendorff (Two days before the reinforcements arrived the Germans had destroyed the Russians at Tannenbergmarker). Ultimately Moltke reassigned 250,000 men (an entire army's worth) from the right-wing assault before finally abandoning the Schlieffen Plan. Repulsed by the left wing of Moltke's forces near Sarrebourgmarker, the French retreated to the hills around the city of Nancymarker. Rather than sweeping around them and enveloping the French armies and Paris itself from the east, Moltke opted to directly attack their reinforced positions around Nancy which ended in an unmitigated failure.

  • German underestimation of the British-Belgian alliance: Britain and Belgium had an alliance due to the London Treaty of 1839, Germany believed that Britain, which was wary of making alliances due to its wish to remain neutral, would not honour the treaty and would not rush to the aid of Belgium. The British, however, greatly amazed Germany by keeping with the terms of the treaty. The famous line "The Britons will go to war for a mere scrap of paper?" comes from the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg asking the British Ambassador Goschen about the decision.

The failures in the West resulted in defeat at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, a stalemate, trench warfare, and a two-front war for Germany.

What eventually occurred was a "reverse Schlieffen", in that Russia was defeated prior to the Western Allies. The Russian army, aided by the Romanianmarker and Serbianmarker armies and considered by the German command as more dangerous than the Western Allies, was defeated with relative ease. Meanwhile the Western Allies had a larger manpower base from which to feed the war of attrition taking place. Even though Germany sent many divisions to fight in Italymarker and the Franco-Benelux theater following the collapse of Russia and the Eastern Front in 1917/18, the Western Allies still defeated the Central Powers' forces. In the 1918 summer campaign Italy obtained a long sought decisive victory over Austria-Hungary, and Austria withdrew from the war exposing Germany's southern flank. The defeat of Bulgariamarker also exposed Germany (and Austria) to an Allied advance up the Danube. Finally the entrance of the United Statesmarker on the side of the Allies in 1917, and the arrival of substantial US troops, coupled with the failure of the final German offensives in the West in early 1918, allowed the Allies to push the Germans out of France and into Belgium, towards the German border. Once the long-held static positions were lost, Germany accepted the Allies' armistice terms.


Several historians argue that the plan was unfeasible for its time, due to the recent advances in weaponry and the improved transportation of industrial warfare. Some would say the plan was "too good". B.H. Liddell Hart, for instance, praised the Schlieffen Plan as a conception of Napoleonic boldness, but concluded that:

The plan would again become possible in the next generation—when air power could paralyze the defending side’s attempt to switch its forces, while the development of mechanized forces greatly accelerated the speed of encircling moves, and extended their range. But Schlieffen’s plan had a very poor chance of success at the time it was conceived.

In addition, some historians, including David Fromkin, author of Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?, and David Stevenson, author of Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, have recently made arguments that what is known as the Schlieffen Plan may not have been an actual plan as such, but instead was laid down in one 1905 hypothetical memorandum and a brief 1906 addition.

Schlieffen may not have intended to be carried out in the form he laid down, instead, seeing it as perhaps an intellectual exercise. Fromkin has argued that, given what historians have recently seen in Schlieffen's papers, captured by the US Army along with other German war documents, that the memorandum had never been refined into an operational program. No orders or operational details (such as specific units for each area of the offensive) were appended. Furthermore, Fromkin says that the memorandum acknowledges the fact that for the plan to work the Germany Army needs more divisions, and there needs to be more parallel roads through Belgium. Fromkin continues by putting much of the genesis of the plan, as finally enacted, on Moltke, who had seen the memorandum and believed it to be a fully-operational plan which he then proceeded to expand upon. Fromkin, in fact, has advocated referring to the "Moltke Plan" as opposed to the "Schlieffen Plan", as it may have been more a product of Moltke's misreading of the Schlieffen Memorandum of 1905 and its 1906 codicil.

According to the historian A. Palmer, however, closer inspection of documents regarding the German war plan reveal that Moltke's changes were not that great, and that the plan was basically flawed from the start. He claims that the Schlieffen plan does not deserve its high reputation, because it underestimated pretty much everyone—the Russians, French, British, and Belgians. However, this would tend to support the view of Professor Fromkin, in that a poor plan would indicate its origin as one not fully vetted.

The British military historian John Keegan in summarizing the debate over the plan, criticizes it for its lack of realism about the speed with which the right wing of the German army would be able to wheel through Belgium and the Netherlands in order to arrive outside of Paris on schedule. He observes that, regardless of the path taken, there were simply not enough roads for the masses of troops planned to reach Paris in the time required. In other words, the Plan required German forces to arrive on schedule and in sufficient force, but in reality only one or the other could be achieved, not both.

Keegan also points out to the Schlieffen Plan as a leading example of the separation between military war planning and political/diplomatic considerations which was one of the original causes of the war. Schlieffen conceived his Plan as the best possible solution to a strategic problem, while ignoring the political reality that violating Belgian neutrality was the thing most likely to invite British intervention and expand the conflict.

A factor in evaluating the significance of the Schlieffen plan is the misinformation that was widely disseminated during and after the war. Records were lost and material made up to paint the events in a light more acceptable to those making the decisions at the time.

Another view is also that both Palmer and Fromkin are correct. The Schlieffen plan could have been simply a document that spurred operational thinking and planning, and became the working name for a strategy of bypassing the bulk of the French forces through a flanking maneuver.

Additional facts

  • Schlieffen's solution reversed that of his great predecessor, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, whose experiences in the Franco-Prussian War with modern warfare and concerns regarding the increasing lethality of weaponry, made him doubt that a swift success could be achieved. Moltke had accordingly favoured limited operations against France and a major effort against Russia. Schlieffen, on the other hand, would seek an immediate all-out victory.

  • The absence of General Helmuth von Moltke the Younger from the Western Front was a crucial (though not decisive) factor in the failure of the Schlieffen Plan. Communication was especially poor and, in addition, German forces sent wireless messages uncoded, allowing French forces under the command of General Joseph Joffre to pinpoint the location of the German advance.

  • Further, Moltke balked at the weakness of the Alsatian "hinge" region, fearing that the massive strength of the right wing's hammer would allow the French to break through the relatively sparsely-manned left-wing "anvil". This had been part of Schlieffen's design as well—he had been willing to sacrifice some German territory in the short run to decisively destroy the French Army. Moltke refused to run the same risk and shifted some divisions from the right flank to the left flank in Alsace-Lorraine.

  • The rigidity of the Schlieffen Plan has also been a source of much criticism. The plan called for the defeat of France in precisely 42 days. Armed with an inflexible timetable, argue many scholars, the German General Staff was unable to improvise as the "fog" of war became more apparent. Thus, many scholars believe that the Schlieffen Plan was anti-Clausewitz in concept. On the other hand, General von Kluck made the decision at the front to wheel south-easterly instead of continuing on past Paris; German generals were taught to think for themselves, and in fact his decision to wheel inwards made orthodox military sense. However, it deprived Germany of the chance to force a decisive envelopment battle around Paris.

  • German troops were exhausted by the time they engaged French forces; many horses (towing artillery pieces) died, having eaten green corn.

  • German supply lines stretched at the Marne; the front line of the German Army had already broken into retreat before the rear had even arrived.

  • After Germany's defeat at the Marne, there began a series of flanking maneuvres by both the Germans, and the British and French Allies heading northwards in one last attempt to end the war quickly. However, by December, the two armies had built an elaborate series of trench fortifications stretching essentially from the English Channel to the Swissmarker border which would remain nearly static for four years. Schlieffen's great gamble would, ironically, result in the one outcome he had feared: A long, drawn-out war of attrition against a numerically stronger enemy.

  • Before the Schlieffen plan, Britain was officially neutral - despite already being in the Triple Entente with Russia and France. But since it had signed the Treaty of London 1839 (in which the neutrality and territorial integrity of Belgiummarker was guaranteed by the era's major powers, obliging them to enter the war in opposition to the first violator) it was "forced" to engage in the fight against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.


Robert Leckie observed that justice was finally done in the Dreyfus affair in 1906 "as the defenders of Dreyfus had intended. What was not intended was that the French Army Intelligence should have been so discredited that it was placed in civilian hands, with the result that when Germany attacked in August, 1914, the French Army not only 'knew not the day and nor the hour' but actually reacted exactly as the Schlieffen Plan envisioned."

See also



  1. Grenville, J.A.S., A History of the World in the 20th Century, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 21
  2. Rosinski, Herbert, The German Army, London, Hogarth, 1939
  3. van Creveld, Martin, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. pages 121, 138-140. ISBN 0-521-29793-1


  • Foley, Robert Alfred von Schlieffen's Military Writings. London: Frank Cass, 2003.
  • Foley, Robert T. "The Real Schlieffen Plan", War in History, Vol. 13, Issue 1. (2006), pp. 91–115.
  • Fromkin, David, Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? New York: Vintage Books, 2004. ISBN 0375-72575-X
  • Hull, Isabel V. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Cornell University Press, 2005. ISBN 0801442583
  • Landa, Manuel de. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. 1991.
  • Mombauer, Annika, Helmuth von Moltke and the Origins of the First World War Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Ritter, Gerhard The Schlieffen plan, Critique of a Myth, foreword by Basil Liddell Hart. London: O. Wolff, 1958.
  • Rothenberg, Gunther E. "Moltke, Schlieffen, and the Doctrine of Strategic Envelopment." in Makers of Modern Strategy Peter Paret (Ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
  • Stevenson, David Catacylsm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004. ISBN 0-465-08174-3
  • Stoneman, Mark R. “Wilhelm Groener, Officering, and the Schlieffen Plan.” PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2006. abstract
  • van Creveld, Martin, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. ISBN 0-521-29793-1
  • Zuber, Terence, Inventing the Schlieffen Plan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-19-925016-2

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