By Paul Comben
An Evaluation of Initial German and French Strategy on the Western Front
Like many a student of military history, I spent years believing in something called “The Schlieffen Plan.” It was in near all the books; it featured in documentaries; it was the essence of the very first wargame I ever owned (1914), and its presence as a key aspect of how the war began, and how it then progressed in its opening stages, was considered a simple matter of fact.
Today, however, the plan is having some serious credibility issues. Perhaps the best known revisionist, Terence Zuber, has dismissed the entire notion that Schlieffen or his plan was irrevocably linked to the evolution of the military struggle in Belgium and France during August and September 1914. There are a number of reasons for this, including the difficulty of linking a dead military administrator to contingencies beyond his time, and conferring upon his somewhat uncertain legacy the aura of divine writ. But beyond whether this or that humourless Prussian wrote anything well before the war that had any especial relevance to its early conduct, we would do well to remember that whatever the Germans did go to war with as the plan of campaign, it would not be the only time in that long conflict that they would confuse both themselves and others as to what they were trying to do.
Let us advance something like eighteen months to the commencement of the operation named Gericht – the attack on French forces around Verdun. Again, the assumption has been over long years that Falkenhayn wanted to bleed France white by luring her forces into a killing ground – a place of execution. The French could not afford to relinquish Verdun for reasons of prestige and honour; and so the military logic on the German’s part was to use just enough men to threaten the fortress, whilst a lot of guns did the actual killing. The trouble is, Falkenhayn himself only seems to have expounded this grisly attritional theory well after the war was over; but in contrast, whilst the operation was still in its preparation, the Crown Prince, commander of the 5th German Army, was speaking about the objective being “to capture Verdun by precipitate methods.” So what, in this case, are we left with – were the Germans aiming to capture Verdun or not? Who knows; though it is safe to say that trying not to capture a place you are attacking is a bit like trying not to reach a destination you are pointing your car at.
And then there are those German offensives of spring and summer 1918. From a certain perspective, it might well be said that the Germans seemed to use up all their planning acumen in this period getting the troops in place and giving them a collection of handy tactics. Or, to put it another way, they were like the prom suitor, who has been endlessly coached as to what to say and when to turn up, but then, on the day, goes blundering all round the venue talking to every girl in the hope that one will actually accept a dance and prove a winner. In other words, the German forces had a push and a prod all over the place, made some gains…without really getting anywhere, and for want of any clear idea of what would really work and where to find it, then simply decided to give up.
So, in a sense, there is nothing new in the German military getting its plans in a mix. Then again, the situation confronting Germany and its faltering ally in 1914 was hardly one with the air of simplicity about it. Of course, the Germans did not intend to lose the war – they just were not particularly certain how they were going to win. This is more than an extrapolation from Zuber alone, as other historians have given serious consideration to just what the German High Command was really aiming to do; and they in turn, are hardly inventing things to suit some wild new theory, given that we had as good as this from Molkte the Younger himself, whose “I’ll do my best, but…” assessments of what he and his Fatherland were up against hardly resounded to the same theme as was being brashly chalked on railway carriages the length of the country.
So why did the Central Powers ever embark on a war in the first place? There is a plethora of reasons that could be offered, far too many in fact; but in essence the Central Powers’ drive to war can be gathered into three main themes.
1) There was that uncomfortable mindset of the Kaiser’s nation, caught halfway between modernity and social progress on the one hand, and autocratic swagger on the other. Here we find the Germany that was hankering for her place among the great nations, wanting an empire, building a fleet, evincing various levels of contempt for anything that did not fit with its perception of Kultur, and at the same time was full of incredibly clever people who were capable of thinking incredibly stupid things. Norman Stone, in his short history of the First World War, refers to the seminal pronouncements of one German academic of the time, who told his attentive audience that Britain did not have social problems (!) because she had long been able to export her undesirables to overseas colonies and comfortably forget all about them. This he used as the logic behind why Germany needed an empire as well.
2) In this odd, mad world, many of the reasons that might have been logically presented as arguments against fighting a war, actually became transformed into reasons to have one there and then – “If it were done, it were best done quickly.” As much as relations with France were not that good, and tended to get worse every time the Kaiser opened his mouth, it was actually the condition of Russia that alarmed Germany the most. Awash with paranoia, Germany felt menaced on all her frontiers – east and west…and south, as whatever crumbled off the Hapsburg domains was inevitably going to bother Berlin. The intelligence gathered by the German military saw Russia as improving her military potential on a yearly basis. Russia’s industrial output was steadily growing, and, key in the fraught days of the early Twentieth Century, Russia’s rail network, and thus her ability to mobilize swiftly and effectively, was deemed likely to grow to the point where the Germans army would not be able to cope with the ensuing force. This in turn fed into worries over the dire state of Austria Hungary. “We are shackled to a corpse” was how the Germans saw their alliance with their doddery neighbour; but as it was the only ally they actually had on board, they could not afford her to get even more ill than she already was, which meant propping her up against the Serbs…and then the Russians…which would bring in the French. In short, there was the opinion in Germany that if they did not fight their war of nationhood in the near future, it was simply going to be too late.
3) In the classic Hollywood horror of long ago, Colin Clive’s manic Henry Frankenstein exclaims “It’s alive!” as his blasphemous creation lumbers forth. We all know what then happens – the monster starts going out of control, misery ensues, and death and destruction are the inevitable conclusion. For Germany, the equivalent of “the monster” was their mobilization plan – the colossus bolted together with timetables and schedules, carefully elongated railway platforms, and to push it on, mindsets of “win before you lose,” which all taken together carried the imperative that there had to be a war because the beast needed to be fed and taken “walkies”. As AJP Taylor stated, there was hardly anything new in the European powers squaring off against each other, issuing threats and going to the brink. But in 1914 the difference was the baneful science of mobilization; for, at the very last, the Kaiser tried to curtail the war he had sought for so long by moving solely against Russia; but by then the beast was out of the lair and entirely beyond restraint as the mobilization plan was put in motion. There was no option but to go on, as no functioning mobilization meant no army in place anywhere, and soon after, as it was fervently believed, there would be no Germany.
So what plan did the Germans have for in 1914? In my opinion, it is going too far to say that the schemes of Alfred von Schlieffen played no part in what the Germans did in the opening weeks of hostilities. The Schlieffen plan as a conceptual theme might be as far as we dare venture. Schlieffen himself is reputed to have said on his deathbed “Keep the Right Strong.” Clearly he was referring to his plan, and clearly he thought it was going to have some form of life beyond the ending of his own. And then, the very pattern of deployment of the German forces along the French and Belgium frontiers appeared to have the essence of Schlieffen about them. On the other hand, with the bulk of their forces in the west, the deployment of the greater part of those German forces against Belgium and northern France was plain commonsense, whatever we deem the German plans to have consisted of at the start. The French border regions alongside Germany were heavily fortified and full of French armies. Going directly against the enemy’s strength was never a good idea, and the Germans were not going to do that if Belgium offered the easier passage to better possibilities.
The revisionist argument essentially looks at a plan of very large scale “bite and hold,” with the intention of weakening the French to a considerable degree and setting up what could be described as either a war winning position, or at the least, a reasonably viable position. What this meant, in stark terms, was that unless the Germans had a Western Front they could manage without massive additions of troops, they would be faced with an unaddressed Russian force pressing against East Prussia, and more importantly, Russians engaging the Austro-Hungarian army with a substantial numerical superiority, which could possibly knock out the weaker part of the Central Power alliance in one fell blow.
However, I for one do not mind admitting that the operations of the German armies on the Western Front in these early days never quite tie up into a coherent picture of anything. Part of this is probably due to the failings of Moltke himself – whose declining physical health did not help a mood of despair and despondency into which he lapsed almost immediately the campaign got underway. Whilst Joffre was stuffing his gut even at the time of supreme crisis, Moltke was silent, depressed, and given to episodes of weeping. Little wonder perhaps, that those army commanders with the loudest voices started yanking the operational shape of the German advance in several different directions and to diverse priorities. Von Bulow went one way, and von Kluck went another…and made a hole that the BEF walked into. Meanwhile, Rupprecht was convinced he could make a breakthrough around Nancy, and clamoured for an operational priority that Moltke meekly acquiesced to as matters slipped further out of his faltering hands.
But there is one oddity about the German advance that sort of hangs there begging to be answered. Considering the sort of force shifts/deductions that were made to “observe” Antwerp and take Mauberge, reinforce the 8th Army in East Prussia and support Rupprecht, just why no serious effort was made to capture at least one French channel port prior to the first clash at Ypres is a definite mystery. Unless we presume, perhaps not too unreasonably, that it was simply a matter of dilatory planning and muddled priorities as the campaign moved on, bypassing the ports can otherwise only be explained as the Germans being after a bigger catch – complete victory, or something very much like.
Nearing Paris, it defies belief that neither von Kluck or the senior general in the field, von Bulow, did not take that as a marker that they were close to complete victory, even if the city itself was too well garrisoned and fortified to be taken off the march. But the Germans were now overreaching on exterior lines, grabbing at, rather than calculating apparent advantages, and meanwhile the French had redeployed stronger forces directly in front of the invader, as well as having forces nagging at the invader’s west flank. And so, after the Battle of the Marne checked their forward progress, the Germans withdrew/retreated to the Aisne.
At this point, one recalls the argument of John Mosier in The Myth of the Great War, that there was not really a Battle of the Marne, and the Germans were, in fact, conducting a well organized and planned withdrawal. Three things speak against this:
1) The actions of Richard Hentsch, a liaison officer with Moltke, whose reports on the condition of the 1st and 2nd German armies after touring the Marne front nearly had his superior reaching for the revolver.
2) That it simply beggars belief that any army will retreat unless something bad is happening in front of it, or something is broken behind.
3) As Max Hastings states in his recent book, Catastrophe, the Entente armies subsequently advanced over an area replete with military dissolution – masses of empty wine bottles all over the place amongst other discarded plunder, presaging the sort of grotesque bacchanals which would follow in the wake of the Stosstruppen advances of 1918. Furthermore, considering that this, according to revisionist arguments, was meant to be a planned withdrawal, it was surprising to find that the “got it all in hand” invading forces had failed to blow a single Marne bridge.
As for Hentsch, his involvement in the most important German decisions at this point in the campaign speaks volumes as to the dire state of things in the German command structures. Moltke, worn out after a few days campaigning (what a contrast with the oh-so vilified Haig) gave this military nobody carte blanche to authorize changes at the front that were of the highest strategic import. What this had to do with establishing a winning position, Richard telling Helmuth that Alexander and Karl were not speaking to each other, is anyone’s guess; but as far as the Channel ports were concerned, it was only after the remove to the Aisne that the Germans seemed to cotton on to the idea that something might be salvaged by taking them – which they then failed to do.
The Mosier approach, for not a few people, is one that simply goes too far. There is nothing wrong with reassessing the old assumptions and ready truths, but it has to be done with a sense of care and moderation. Proclaiming that: “Everyone else has got it all wrong” is rarely tenable in any field. Lurching away in the opposite direction will tend to create a set of inaccuracies just as manifest as the ones you are seeking to correct; and certainly, after reading Mosier’s book, I found it hard to see how the Germans lost the war at all – which, of course, is precisely what they did do.
Perhaps we should not be too surprised that the old plans of old men trying to control mass new armies of immense destructive potential did not always provide a clear picture of what was unfolding. In a previous article I referred to the pronouncement of the older Moltke regarding the failure/adjustment of plans when faced by the enemy; but it is probably fair to say that few plans fell apart so quickly as those of 1914. Old men needing a rest, or a meal, or time writing to the wife, were never going to implement a plan which was meant to have some sense of durability about it. And it might prove even worse with a plan established in flights of fantasy… and that is where we introduce the supposed French war winner, the notorious Plan 17.
It was the tragi-comic maxim of French military doctrine from the latter part of the Nineteenth Century to the commencement of the Second World War, that France itself was considered best defended by adopting a better way of refighting whichever war La Patrie had just emerged from. After the trauma of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the French deduced that it was a lack of offensive spirit that had beaten them, and resolved to put this right by instilling a spirit of elan throughout the army, (dash, the glint of the bayonet, and officers in chic white gloves); and with near the entire army then moving upon the common border in one blood-curdling mass, the Germans would be utterly overwhelmed…so much so, that what they did in response, these Boches, was deemed totally irrelevant.
The French war plan was essentially one founded in an ambiance of hurt feelings and frustration – the Germans in 1871 had beaten them badly, taken Paris, and generally marched all over the place. And to make it even worse, two French provinces, Alsace and Lorraine, had had to be ceded to Bismarck’s new German state. The French took this very badly – just how badly can be seen in an early episode of the BBC series The Great War. Using period film, one scene shows French schoolchildren being introduced to the sense of national shame by their pining schoolmistress. Doubtless the director had told her to “emote,” but from the look on her face, and the general deportment of her figure, one could be forgiven for thinking she had just seen a ghost, swallowed something hot, been stung somewhere tender, ruptured herself, and realized she had forgotten the garlic for her mama’s soup recipe.
Whichever way you look at it, Plan 17 was a total oddity. It embodied an ethos that had far less to do with manoeuver than with getting everyone in blue coats and red trousers in the right sort of mood. Apart from getting on his horse and shouting “Charge!” it is hard to see what the average French commander was supposed to do in these circumstances. And of course, what then ensued was entirely predictable – against wishful thinking and the anthropomorphic translation of territory that was meant to be weeping every time a Boche went for a walk over it, German artillery and German machine guns tore into the French ranks and caused casualties at a rate that exceeded even the attritional battles of 1916/17.
Rarely in history has a plan been compiled out of such odd components, and then so totally failed in so brief a passage of arms. “No plan survives contact with the enemy…or reality” might have been a better way of putting it. Had Moltke presided over this shambles, he would have been dead by the end of August; but by the odd chance of war, the French had the “good” fortune to be led by someone who was enjoying the pleasures of life far too much to be massively perturbed by several hundred thousand casualties. To think of Joffre is to think of someone who happily combined the military capacity of a big lad with a box of soldiers with the gourmandizing of Monty Python’s Mister Creosote. Emotionally, intellectually, there was not a great deal going on – he had his meals, and a lot of them, at set times; had a good night’s sleep, and with the confidence of a somewhat uncomplicated man, would happily toss aside a failed plan like it was a chunk of stale bread, and pass his appreciation to whatever turned up on his plate next.
That France was saved from another German conquest was at least partly due to her plan failing as quickly as it did, which then allowed for a relatively simple set of reactions to what the Germans were doing – and that just about the limit of what Joffre was capable of. The Race to the Sea ensued, which, on both sides, was hardly a period filled with operational excellence; and then, with the sea finally getting in the way, the Germans made a final effort to prove their superiority in tactical matters by throwing several corps of naively enthusiastic teenage students at the BEF around Ypres with predictable results (the Kindermord bei Ypern).
A couple of things that do need to be added to the assessment of the French plan are whether they really expected the Germans to engage them solely along the length of the common border, and what then was the point of building a vast array of fortresses close to that border if the first thing they did in August 1914 was blow their bugles and leave them? The readiest answer to the first question is that French calculations regarding the extent of German mobilization did not reckon on so great a use of reserve divisions in their reserve corps formations. The most the French originally catered for was for a German advance extending from Lorraine into southern Belgium. That is why “Desperate Frankie’s” 5th French army was where it was, and why it got into severe difficulties when it moved where it did. When it comes to the forts, they may have been France’s shield, but after several rethinks of plan, the French wanted offensive spirit more than they wanted several tons of concrete over their heads, and even late in the campaign, it was difficult enough getting them to accept sitting in a trench let alone hunker down in the confines of a fort.
Perhaps predictably, there has been some reassessment here and there regarding Plan 17’s overall scope and nature – that it was more a plan of concentration than an imperative to go in this or that direction, and was altogether far more flexible than previously thought. As far as I am concerned, this is simply to put a lot of “bois in front of les abres.” For a start, you cannot seriously divorce the French plan from the French tactics of the time, any more than you can separate Fall Gelb from German notions of how best to use a tank. And when push comes to shove, Plan 17 put the French forces in the wrong place, displayed a total want understanding of what the enemy might do from strategic through to tactical levels, and, all told, had about as much chance of working as Hitler had of defending the Oder.
As for the BEF, it fought well in every battle it was committed to, but even with the supposed advantage of being on the defensive, by the November of the year, it was totally used up. Its commander, Sir John French, was yet another example of an old bloke in a very big modern war. Moltke could not cope; Joffre treated the situation like a gardener trying to get pests off his rhubarb; and French was utterly enamoured by the old traditions, bewildered by the present, resistant to the new, and after a year of failure to meet the challenge of the times, was replaced by Douglas Haig.
So neither plan worked – the French plan immediately failed; and the German plan, whatever we care to call it, and whatever was meant to be in it, was left so obfuscated by Moltke’s prevarication and despair, by army command rivalries, by insolent Belgians getting in the way, by the Russians moving into East Prussia, and by Richard Hentsch in his company car, that all sense of direction and cohesive strategy went totally missing.
The war was far bigger than any of the plans were. It was therefore inevitable that each in its own way would ask of men more than they were capable of. The French went down by the thousand to machine guns and artillery that no brave soul could withstand (Churchill later described the Somme as fighting bullets with the breasts of brave men); but a short period after the Battle of the Frontiers, the German infantry of the 1st and 2nd armies was utterly worn out by day after day of endless marching, and could do no more. If we could have visited either supreme headquarters as the time of the Marne approached, and that with due license to view the big plan of both sides, what would we have been offered? Would either Moltke or Joffre have been able to produce a file, or a sheaf or maps, or anything, which had some operable master plan depicted within? No, surely not. The war was bigger than the men most responsible for it; and the weapons of defence more powerful than anything that could be set against them.
It was time for a rethink.