Toastmasters: The Schlieffen Plan

Note: This speech was for the “Team Collaboration: Researching and Presenting” Pathways project. The speech length was 5:00 - 7:00, though I went over that time when I delivered it.

If you learned about World War I in high school or university, you might be familiar with the “Schlieffen Plan.” The Schlieffen Plan is the term given to the opening move by Germany in World War I, as it attacked France almost immediately as war broke out. It’s intent was to be a quick, decisive, knockout blow against France, leaving Germany to concentrate its attention and its forces on other belligerents. But, it was a plan full of gambles and calculated risks.

Spoiler alert: it didn’t work. But it almost did - German forces came within 45 miles of Paris before being turned back. And thus, it’s been the subject of much controversy over the past century. Some scholars have argued the plan was inherently flawed and doomed to fail. Others have argued that the plan itself was sufficient, but execution of the plan in the field was faulty. And yet others have argued that the Schlieffen Plan was never actually prosecuted in its pure form, but was modified by those in command, and thus criticism of the plan based on the battlefield results are not justified. In this speech, I’m going to talk a little about the background, go into more detail about the plan, and discuss the gambles the Germans took with the plan.

Prior to World War I, Germany had been a rising power in Europe, winning a few smaller wars throughout the 19th century, threatening the balance of power in Europe. The traditional European superpowers, France, Britain, and Russia, had formed an informal alliance called the Triple Entente to combat this new power on the world stage. It was an uneasy alliance, but as my high school history teacher said: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” France and the United Kingdom were traditional enemies, often engaged in squabbles across the English Channel. France was a republician state with an elected legislative body, but allied with Czarist Russia, led by an autocratic monarch. Britain and Russia were not best of friends either; both had been engaged in a long-standing political struggle over Russia’s presence in Central Asia, which was seen as a threat to British India.

With France on one side and Russia on the other, Germany had an encirclement problem: in the case of a war, Germany would be fighting on two fronts. Out of this perilous situation, the Schlieffen plan was born. Barbara Tuchman, in her book “The Guns of August” about the first month of World War I, quotes Alfred Schlieffen, originator of the plan, saying it was a military necessity in a two-front war that “the whole of Germany must throw itself upon one enemy, the strongest, the most powerful, the most dangerous enemy.” Germany’s solution to a two-front war was to quickly knock one enemy out so then it could focus on the remaining one.

Between the two adversaries on either side, France was the more immediate threat. The other foe, the Russian Empire, was a lumbering giant. Slow to move, but powerful once it did. It was a large land mass, with faulty and inconsistent communication across the empire and an inefficient government. This was Germany’s first gamble: it wagered that Russian mobilization, the process of gathering troops, readying transportation, and prepping supplies would take at least 6 weeks.

Now that the initial opponent was decided, the main question for Schlieffen was how to deliver a knockout blow in a quick enough manner?

For this, Schlieffen devised a two-pronged approach. It consisted of two “flanks”, the left flank and the right flank, with left and right being relative from the point of view of Germany looking at France. A small left flank would feign a large attack at the southern part of the French-German border, with the intent of engaging the French there and drawing troops into the fray. At the same time, a massive right flank would pass through the country of Belgium into the northern regions of France. It would then continue to sweep west and crash down upon Paris to deliver a knockout blow. The Russian front would be scantily protected by a small German force.

The fulcrum of the plan was a strong and concentrated right flank, and to move as many troops as possible from other fronts to amass into the large right flank, so that it could more easily overwhelm any obstacles on its march to Paris.

In using Belgium as a passage to attack France, Germany was making two wagers:

The first was that Belgium would allow the German army to pass through unfettered. The Schlieffen plan was completely dependent on the speed of its execution: Remember, the Germans allotted only six weeks to deliver a knockout blow to France before turning back to fight Russia. Any resistance by the Belgians would slow down the approach and foil the timetable of the plan.

The other wager Germany made was that attacking Belgium would not inspire other neutral countries to come into the war against Germany. Belgium was a small, neutral state that had become independent less than a century earlier, and had its neutrality guaranteed by various powers such as Austria, Russia, France, Germany, and Britain. Practically, the German concern applied to Great Britain: the other four protectors were already embroiled in war. In short, the German army was weighing the benefits of traversing through Belgium on the way to a quick victory against France vs. the costs of Britain, up until then a neutral country in the war, potentially coming into the war against Germany.

With this great risk in mind, why was it necessary for Germany to continue through Belgium rather than approach France on the existing border between the two countries? Earlier conflicts between Germany and France had led to France fortifying its borders. As Tuchman writes in “The Guns of August”: “French fortresses constructed along the frontiers of Alsace and Lorraine after 1870 precluded the Germans from manning a frontal attack across the common border.” For the Schlieffen plan to work, speed was paramount, and the German army could not waste time engaging in a full-frontal assault. Thus, circumventing the main defenses was necessary.

Schlieffen, the originator of the plan, passed away a mere 19 months before the outbreak of World War I. He was never able to see his plan in action. It is said that his last words were about his plan, murmuring “keep the right arm strong” as he died.

With the Schlieffen plan, the Germans made many gambles: 1) Gambling that Belgium would not put up resistance, 2) Gambling that Russia mobilization would not finish before six weeks, 3) Gambling that Britain would not enter the war to protect Belgian neutrality, 4) Gambled that their advancing army could circumvent the French armies and land a knockout blow.

None of these gambles paid off, and ultimately, the German offensive did not work. Belgium bravely put up a fight, slowing down the German advance. Russia mobilized quicker than expected, causing some forces to be pulled from the right wing of the French attack to protect the Russian-German border. Britain eventually entered the war and allied with France and Russia. And steps away from Paris, the German push, which had made its way across most of France and was bearing down on the capitol, lost steam. The French heroically resisted the incoming German forces by exploiting a small fissure between German army units, and pushed them back, extinguishing any chance of success for the Schlieffen plan.

So, where does the blame for the failure lay? In the past century, historians have provided many answers for that question. A few have blamed luck, in that none of the calculated risks taken by the Germans fell in their favor. Others have said that those odds of those risks were miscalculated and their success overestimated, and so that the plan itself was faulty. Most have said that the commanders who actually prosecuted the offensive broke from the original plan, mostly by diminishing the strength of the right flank, so that it was never executed in the exact form Alfred Schlieffen outlined, and thus, it will never be conclusive as to whether or not the Schlieffen plan, in its pure form, would have been successful.