What was the Schlieffen Plan?
Count Alfred von Schlieffen drew up the Schlieffen Plan in 1905 when he was German Chief of Staff.
In a general European war, Germany would face France in the west and Russia in the east, and would need to defeat France within six weeks before Russia mobilised her troops.
1. As most of the French army was stationed on the border with Germany, the Schlieffen Plan aimed for the quick defeat of France by invading it through neutral Belgium and moving rapidly on to capture Paris.
2. The Germans did not believe that Britain would go to war over their 1839 treaty with Belgium, which they described as a ‘scrap of paper’.
3. Even if Britain did defend Belgium, the Kaiser believed that there was no need to fear the British Expeditionary Force, which he called a ‘contemptible little army’.
4. Having defeated France, Germany would then be able to concentrate her efforts on defeating the Russians in the east rather then having to fight on two fronts at once.
What actually happened?
Belgium, Britain and France responded to the launching of the Schlieffen Plan in different ways.
The Germans were not expecting any resistance from Belgium, but the Belgian army fought bravely and managed to delay the German advance. Members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived to help, and the Germans were held up at Mons. The Belgians later prevented the Germans from taking the French channel ports by flooding their land.
Britain declared war on Germany in response to the invasion of Belgium. Although the BEF consisted of only 125,000 men, they were well trained and equipped, and ready for action within less than one week. Having helped the Belgians hold the Germans up at Mons, the BEF then moved to support the French on the River Marne and prevent the Germans from reaching Paris. Losses were heavy and by December 1914 more than half of the original BEF were dead.
France responded quickly to the German attack by launching an invasion of Alsace and Lorraine, but this failed. They then switched troops to the defence of Paris in a desperate attempt to hold the Germans up, which involved transporting troops to the front line in fleets of taxis. The battle at the Marne was a turning-point; with the help of the remaining members of the BEF the German advance was not only halted but the Germans were also pushed back about 35 miles. The British and French then moved to secure the Channel ports.
Why did the Schlieffen Plan fail?
The plan relied upon rapid movement. The resistance of the Belgians and the BEF prevented this.
Russia mobilised its troops quicker than expected. Within 10 days the Russians had invaded Germany, which meant that the Germans had to switch troops away from western Europe to hold up the Russian invasion.
Both sides now had to secure the land that they held. Trenches were dug and machine-gun posts erected. The first exchanges of the war were over; from now until 1918, neither side would advance more than 10 miles forward or backwards from the positions they now held.
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Battles of the First World War – First Battle of the Marne – The Gallipoli Campaign – Battle of Verdun – Battle of Jutland – Brusilov Offensive – Battle of the Somme – Battle of Passchendaele – The Spring Offensive – Battle of Amiens – Victory on the Western Front?