The Schlieffen Plan

Explain how the Schlieffen plan was meant to work.

The Schlieffen plan was the strategy Germany planned to adopt in the event of a war in 1914. It was intended to bring a fast, effective victory for Germany, and was devised by Count Alfred von Schlieffen who was the Chief of the General Staff of the German Army.

If a war broke out, Germany would be faced with a war in the west against France, and a war on the east against Russia.

German generals knew that they could not sustain this war on both fronts, and the Schlieffen plan was devised to deal with this.

It was calculated that if a war started, Russia would take a long time to mobilize, and therefore Germany planned to defeat France before Russia had enough time to mount an invasion. They would do this by sending the majority of the German forces to attack France, leaving the eastern boarder vulnerable to attack. This was a risky strategy, as if Russia mobilized quickly, than Germany could be easily invaded.

As a result of the Franco-Prussian war, ending in 1871, France had built strong defences around the French-German boarder to prevent another German invasion. Rather than invading through the heavily defended boarder at Alsace-Lorraine, the German army was to attack France through neutral Belgium. By using overwhelming force, it was planned that the German army would surround Paris within six weeks, thus causing France to surrender. Afterwards, the German army could be turned around back to Germany and concentrate their force on the Russian army to the East.

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The Schlieffen Plan was a huge gamble on the German behalf, as for it to work several assumptions would have to remain correct.

It was predicted that Belgium would not resist against a German invasion, and British intervention was completely unaccounted for. It was also assume that the capture of Paris would lead to the defeat of France. However, the success of the plan pivoted on the time Russia spent to mobilize, and was the fundamental assumption required for the plan to work.

For the Schlieffen plan to be successful, all these assumptions would have to remain correct, showing that even before it was put into practise, it was already fundamentally flawed.

Why did a stalemate develop on the Western Front?

At the beginning of the war, both sides predicted that the fighting would be based upon a war of movement. With more devastating technology and effective weaponry, it was harder for either side to advance with resulting in heavy casualties, which contributed towards the establishment of the trench system.

No one had predicted the effects modern technology would have on warfare, and is partly responsible for the stalemate that developed on the Western Front. However, there were other factors and contributing events that also lead towards the stalemate.

Perhaps the most significant cause of the stalemate was the failure of the Schlieffen plan. This was because many of the assumptions that the plan depended on were wrong. Firstly Germany had not accounted Belgium resistance or the involvement of the British Army in the fighting. However, the intervention of these two counties slowed the German advance into France, which reduced the likelihood of Germany defeating France within the allotted six weeks.

The Belgium army was outnumbered ten to one, however they managed to slow the rapid German advance, which was essential for the success of the Schlieffen Plan. British involvement was also unexpected, as the British-Belgium treaty dated back to 1839. The Kaiser did not believe that Britain would go to war over a ‘scrap of paper.’ However, Britain did uphold their alliance with Belgium, and on 4th August 1914 declared war on Germany and sent 120,000 troops across the channel to meet the German advance.

Also Russian army mobilized quicker than Germany had anticipated, resulting in many German soldiers being withdrawn from the west to be used to stop the Russian invasion in the east. This considerably weakened the German invasion into France, and as a result the German troops were forced to advance east of Paris, away from their original goal. This over-stretched the German supply lines, and after weeks of fighting, eventually exhausted the German army.

The German 1st Army encountered French troops returning from the failed Plan XVII at the Battle of the Marne on 6th September 1914, resulting in around 250,000 casualties for both sides. Although the German army were not beaten, all hopes for a quick decisive victory had been dashed. As a result, German forces retreated to higher ground, where they dug a series of trenches to protect themselves. The British and French forces soon followed suit, however they were forced to construct their trenches in the flood-prone lower ground.

This was the start of the trench warfare that would dominate the Western Front for the next four years. As both fatigued armies rested, their trench systems became more intricate and fortified, and eventually both Allied and German troops were to heavily ‘dug in’ to be forced out of their trenches by a single attack or offensive. As a result, little ground was gained by either side. This was the start of the stalemate that would remain throughout the duration of the war, until the final German offensive in March 1918.

Why was the stalemate broken on the Western Front?

The German surrender on 11th November 1918 was due to a number of different factors and events. Each contributed to the final end of the war, and were all of significant importance. Some factors contributed towards the armistice more than others however combined they resulted in the end of the war.

The first contributing factor was the introduction of modern technology, such as gas shells and tanks. This was of vital importance, as with improved methods and machinery, it was hoped that the stalemate would be broken more easily. It was hoped this would happen in 1916, where tanks were first used in the Battle of the Somme. However, although the appearance of tanks took the Germans by surprise, there were not enough to have the intended effect. Many tanks broke down in ‘no-man’s land’ or became stuck in shell holes, and were generally very unreliable. As they were a new aspect of warfare, the Allied commanders had no experience of how to command tanks, and as a result they were not used effectively, resulting in hundreds being destroyed.

However, by 1918 the design of the tanks had been greatly improved, and the importance of them on the battlefield had been widely recognised. Tanks were being used to break German lines whilst protecting troops from machine gun fire. This was illustrated at the Battle of Cambrai on 20th November 1917, where 378 tanks advanced six kilometres into German territory. However, the use of tanks had not yet been perfected by the Allies, as there was often not enough infantry to follow behind a tank assault, leaving gaps in the Allied lines. However, even though Cambrai was not without losses, it clearly demonstrated how the effective use of tanks could play a decisive role in a battle.

Trench warfare had begun in 1914, and was the ultimate cause of the stalemate, with both sides only making small advances at a time. The war was expected to be a war of movement, however this prediction was evidently prove incorrect after only a few weeks of fighting. However, as new weapons and technology were introduced, it became easier for either side to advance and to capture the enemy trenches. An example of this would be the introduction of the gas shell.

They were first used by the Germans in the Second Battle of Ypres on 22nd April 1915. At first, only mild tear gas was used, however it was not long before chlorine and mustard gas shells were being used. By using gas attack, it was hoped the enemy would be forced out of their trenches, proving a dangerous yet deadly form of weaponry. With such effective methods being used to a greater extent, it became evident that trench warfare could not sustain such forms of fighting, thus contributing towards the overall breaking of the stalemate.

America entering the war was another important aspect in the breaking of the stalemate. For most of the war, America had not intervened with the fighting in Europe. However, Germany had decided to attempt to force Britain out of the war by cutting off all its supplies, and hoping to force the British into submission. This involved the sinking of American cargo ships, which crossed the Atlantic delivering resources to Britain. The German high command knew that this decision was a gamble, and would ultimately result in America entering the war, but hoped that a German victory would be achieved before America had the chance to play a significant role in the fighting.

In February 1917, Germany began unrestricted submarine warfare, which authorised German U-boats to sink any ships suspected of carrying supplies to Britain.

This was yet another risk taken by Germany in the course of the war, which failed, as America joined the war earlier than expected. On 6thApril 1917, America declared war on Germany before a German victory could be achieved.

America took a long time to mobilize, but eventually over 250,000 American troops were being sent to the Western Front by March 1918.

This was a disastrous event for Germany as America was strong military and economically, and its participation in the war proved a huge threat to Germany, and seriously jeopardised the likelihood of a German victory.

The role of the British Navy in the war also helped to bring about the end of the stalemate. The Navy’s primary responsibility was to enforce a naval blockade around German ports that would cut off supplies reaching Germany, thus weakening the country both economically and military. Without sufficient resources, Germany would not be able support its soldiers on the Western Front, as a restriction of food and munitions would cut off the vital resources needed to sustain the German army in France.

The Allies planned to take full advantage of the blockade, and combined with the new American force, were in a position to weaken the German army, and swing the war into their favour.

The Naval blockade also provoked angry riots in Berlin and other German cities, as the inhabitants began to starve as a result of the limited food supplies reaching Germany. It is estimated that over a quarter of a million Germans starved to death as a result of the British Naval blockade. This pressurised the authorities to take action, and relieve the strain the blockade was causing on Germany, before they were forced into a state of collapse.

As a responsive to the growing number of Allied forces on the Western Front, and the strain of the Naval blockade, Germany mounted a huge offensive. Russia had recently pulled out of the war as Lenin took power, resulting in the end of the fighting on the Eastern front, and also leaving thousands of spare soldiers that could be used to fight in the west. In their unusually strong state, the German commanders believed they could drive back the Allies in the west before the port blockades and extra American troops begun to take effect.

General Ludendorff ordered the training of many stormtrooper units. These were troops specialized in close range fighting, and were used to attack the length of the Allied line.

In March 1918, the Germany army began a huge assault on the Western Front, involving the majority of its military force. This was a gamble on the German behalf, however there were no alternative strategies that would achieve a fast victory, as the port blockade and increase in Allied soldiers were already starting to weaken Germany’s military strength.

The stormtrooper attacks worked well, and within a week the German front line had advanced by 60km, and by April the Germany army was only 80km away from their original goal of Paris. The Allies ended up retreating over the ground they had spent years trying to gain.

However, their rapid advance cause the German lines to over extended themselves, and coupled with the limited food imports, few supplies were reaching the German army at such a distance into France.

As a result, the German advance came to a halt, prompting a vicious counter-attack from the combine British, French and American forces.

The Germans fell back to their heavily fortified Hidenburg line, however this was taken by the overwhelming force of the Allies on 26th September 1918, resulting in over 400,000 German soldiers being captured.

The offensive had backfired tremendously, and left over 1 million German soldiers dead. Faced with the extinction of their whole army, Germany asked for peace, and the Kaiser fled to Holland. The Armistice was signed and the war came to an end on 11th November 1918.

This was a result of a series of cumulative events and factors. Ultimately, it was the German offensive in 1918 that was the event which lead to the end of the stalemate, as the German attacks and British counter-attacks broke the trench system, and for the last few week before the armistice, the war was again a war of movement. However, the German offensive would have never taken place if it were not for the other contributing factors already discussed. The impacts of new technology, as well as the strain put on Germany by the American entry into the war and the port blockades forced the German commanders to respond with the offensive, which resulted in the end of the war.

Although the offensive was the most important factor, the stalemate would have never been broken if it wasn’t for the effect of the other factors, proving that they were all significant contributors to the breaking of the stalemate in 1918.

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The Schlieffen Plan. (2016, Jul 22). Retrieved from

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