Was Germany Doomed in World War I by the Schlieffen Plan?

Was Germany Doomed in World War I by the Schlieffen Plan?

The Schlieffen Plan, devised a decade before the start of World War I, outlined a strategy for Germany to avoid fighting at its eastern and western fronts simultaneously. But what had been meticulously designed to deal a swift “right hook” attack on France and then advance on Russia, dragged on to become an ugly, brutal war of attrition.

“The Schlieffen Plan didn’t work because it was based on everything going right and it had no contingencies for the fog of war,” said Peter Fritzsche, professor of history at the University of Illinois.

The Schlieffen Plan got its name from its creator, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, who served as chief of the Imperial German General Staff from 1891 to 1906. Count Schlieffen drew up the operation between 1897 and 1905 after an alliance established between Russia and France in 1891 meant that Germany could face a two-front war.

The Schlieffen Plan assumed Russia was slow and France was weak.

Schlieffen’s strategy assumed that Russia, having recently lost the Russo-Japanese War, would take at least six weeks to mobilize its troops and attack Germany from the East. In that time, Germany would stage an attack on France by marching west through neutral territory of the Netherlands and Belgium.

This route avoided the heavily fortified direct border with France. Then German forces would swoop south, delivering a hammer blow through Flanders, Belgium and onward into Paris, enveloping and crushing French forces in less than 45 days.

Once France was defeated, according to the plan, Germany could transport its soldiers east using its railroad network and deploy them against the Russian troops, which Schlieffen believed would require six weeks to mobilize and attack Germany’s eastern border.

The original Schlieffen Plan was later modified by other military leaders.

Schlieffen’s plan was adopted by Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the German General Staff when war broke out in 1914. Moltke made some critical modifications to the plan, including reducing German forces making up the right hook attack into France and invading through Belgium, but not the Netherlands, during the initial offensive.

The problem, says Prof. Fritzsche, is the Schlieffen blueprint proved inflexible. First, Belgium refused Germany free passage and fought the incoming German soldiers.

The English army got involved immediately.

Moreover, the violation of Belgium’s neutral territory drew England into the war since they had promised to defend Belgium under the Treaty of London of 1839.

After facing fierce resistance in Belgium and with soldiers from the British Empire in the fight alongside France, Germany’s planned swift offensive was slowed.

Russia was quicker to respond than Schlieffen had assumed.

Russia also proved to be more adept at mobilizing its army than German military leaders had expected. Russia managed to attack East Prussia within 10 days in August 1914 – not six weeks as was earlier assumed.

The Russian initial offensive was defeated, but their advances prompted Germany to send corps from France to East Prussia, bleeding Germany’s forces on the Western Front of essential fighting manpower.

The French and English armies were a lot tougher than expected.

The Schlieffen Plan’s strategy required that France be defeated swiftly – but this didn’t happen. That failure led to sustained trench warfare on the Western Front. In those grim battles of attrition, such as the Battle of the Somme and the Battle of Verdun, Allied forces ultimately outnumbered the Germans.

As Moltke told Kaiser Wilhem II after exhausted German forces were defeated at the Battle of the Marne, “Sir, we have lost the war.”

Four years later, Moltke’s prognosis would prove correct.

Why Germany's Schlieffen Plan Failed

The “Schlieffen Plan” of the First World War is arguably the most widely known battle plan in the history of warfare. It is thought that Count Schlieffen’s plan was based on Hannibal’s victory at Cannae and inspired by the last chapter from Carl Von Clausewitz’s “On War” entitled “The Plan of a War designed to Lead to the Total Defeat of the Enemy.” Ultimately the plan failed. Or did it? It is well known that certain aspects of the plan were changed by Schlieffen’s successor Moltke the Younger. Many of these changes were crucial to the original plan and Count Schlieffen criticized Moltke the Younger for altering his magnum opus before he died.

As Moltke the Younger had made several changes in the plan, once it failed to defeat the French he became the obvious scapegoat. But while it is true that his changes had significantly warped the original version of the “Schlieffen Plan,” one must also remember Moltke the Elder’s (Moltke the Younger’s uncle) sound maxim that “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” For even Count Schlieffen’s original plan, with all its methodical calculations, failed to take into account a few variables that with or without Moltke’s changes, may have doomed the “Schlieffen Plan” from the start.

First it is necessary to illustrate the context in which the original “Schlieffen Plan” was devised and how it was supposed to work. In the event of war, Germany assumed it would have to fight the French in the west and the Russians in the east. Faced with such a strategic nightmare the obvious solution was to quickly defeat one nation, freeing the greater part of the German army to then concentrate against the other. The only question was which country would be dealt with first. Although Russia was still a backward state with an inefficient army, its geography made it difficult for the German Army to strike a quick and decisive blow. France on the other hand had a relatively competent army and a frontier lined with powerful fortresses.

Early Successes

In 1914, the war began. Due to the Schlieffen Plan, a war against Russia in the east forced the Germans to immediately make war against France in the west.

Despite having fewer troops than in the original plan and less space through which to advance, the Germans at first seemed to be succeeding in their plan.

Belgium relied upon its concrete fortifications to hold up the Germans. They were to buy time for the Belgians, so they could receive support from the French and British, who despite Moltke’s hopes joined in the war. However, German and Austro-Hungarian superguns swiftly smashed the forts around Namur and Liège. The Belgians fell back to Antwerp, their last redoubt, leaving the Germans free to advance through the rest of the country.

German troops rushed through Belgium and Luxembourg into France. The French followed their own strategy, Plan XVII, with support from the British. In early August, the enemies clashed.

A series of battles followed. In the Battles of the Frontiers, the Germans send their opponents reeling again and again. They advanced a hundred miles in France. The Schlieffen Plan seemed to be working.

Why Germany Lost World War I

While historians will likely continue to debate the ways that Nazi Germany could have won the World War II—a topic that The National Interest has previously addressed—less considered is how Imperial Germany had a far better chance of victory in the earlier war. In the case of World War II, there are countless "what if" scenarios that could have brought victory to Nazi Germany, including simply not going to war at all, to not invading the Soviet Union.

There has been some discussion on the things Imperial Germany could have done to reach a different outcome including using its High Seas Fleet more effectively and not conducting unrestricted submarine warfare.

However, the real mistake lies in German strategy in 1914, which was formulated even before the war began. Unlike a generation later when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi high command actively sought to create a two-front war, Imperial Germany knew that a war with either Russia or France meant a war with both.

Thus was born the Schlieffen Plan, created by General Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the Imperial German General Staff from 1891 to 1906. It called for a bold and swift invasion of France through neutral Belgium, which would capture Paris and knock France out of the war before Russia could mobilize and be a threat in the east.

It sounded good, but as history showed it didn't work. The British Expeditionary Force arrived in France sooner than the Germans expected and in a series of collective actions known as the Battle of the Frontiers in August 1914, the German lines were disrupted enough that Paris wasn't captured. Instead, the armies of Europe were forced to dig in, resulting in four years of hellish trench warfare.

With more than one hundred years of hindsight, we can see that the plan was doomed before it was launched, and it was one that presented more risk than reward. It is also something that should have been seen by German military planners. Nearly a decade had passed from when Schlieffen devised the plan and when it was put into action.

Notably, Great Britain moved closer to France and Russia—and it should have been obvious to anyone in Berlin that the British would come into the war to defend Belgian neutrality. The Schlieffen plan never really addressed that fact, but when Germany crossed the Belgian frontier the British declared war.

Even if somehow the British stayed out of the war the plan called for Germany to defeat France in six weeks! That assumed that the French capital could be captured, but clearly Schlieffen and the rest of the Imperial German high command failed to remember that the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War lasted from September 19 to January 28. Why would it be expected that France wouldn't or couldn't hold out at least as long again?

Thus the better course of action for a victory should have been a swift move to the east, while defending the western frontier. Great Britain likely wouldn't have come into the war on the side of Germany and its Central Power allies, but historians have generally agreed that the doves in the cabinet—who did support war when Belgium's neutrality was violated—would have likely pushed for neutrality.

It is possible that the British Expeditionary Force could have been sent to Belgium as a de facto peacekeeping force to ensure neither side violated that neutrality.

France certainly would not, and really could not, have violated Belgian neutrality to invade Germany with British forces there, and likely wouldn't have invaded further than Alsace-Lorraine—the territories lost in the Franco-Prussian War.

Russia had mobilized far faster than Germany and Austria-Hungary expected, but bungled things in battle in the early stages of the war and saw an army destroyed at Tannenberg in Prussia. With the full might of the Germans and Austrians in the east the Czar may have been forced to the peace table by winter.

With its main ally out of the war, France may have settled for peace, potentially gaining back part of Alsace or Lorraine while giving colonial concessions to Germany. It is likely possible that David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, or Sir Edward Gray, the foreign secretary, could have been the peacemakers—potential Nobel Prize Winners for their efforts in the Treaty of London.

It could have potentially been a short war that spared millions of lives, and even stopped the rise of communism—although it is just as possible the Romanov monarchy in Russia may have collapsed anyway. Of course, it wouldn't have resolved all the underlying issues of the day and may have only pushed a truly "Great War" down the road a bit.

How Nazi Germany's Infamous "Lightning War" Came Into Existence

Key Point: Using the right combination of forces would prove deadly. Thankfully, in the end even this could not save Hitler's evil project for domination.

The attack was beginning despite the widespread lack of artillery support, engineers, or armor. Normally this would be a recipe for disaster. Clusters of gray-clad German infantrymen braved the torrent of enemy fire, carrying assault boats right up to edge of the Meuse River. On the opposite bank, French soldiers crouched in their bunkers and trenches as German aircraft roared overhead, bombing and strafing, paying particular attention to the French artillery positions within range of the river. The Luftwaffe pilots were determined to keep French heads down with a storm of bombs and bullets. Men on both sides braved fire to accomplish their respective missions on the afternoon of May 13, 1940.

On the German side of the river, Lt. Col. Hermann Balck urged his men forward. His command, Panzergrenadier Regiment 1 of the 1st Panzer Division, was tasked to get across the river and establish a bridgehead. The situation was already unfolding against his unit. Earlier in the day, the least German movement drew artillery fire, keeping the German troops pinned in their hastily dug foxholes and entrenchments. Their own artillery was hopelessly mired in a traffic jam rearward and could not get there in time. The boats for the crossing had arrived, but the operators had not. The only thing that had gone right was the Luftwaffe’s air attack. The aviators’ efforts had been so successful the French gunners had reportedly abandoned their guns and refused to return to them.

It was here that Balck’s meticulous training and leadership came into play. He had trained his men to operate the boats themselves, planning against just such an occurrence. Now he did not have to wait. The French artillery’s cessation had an immediate effect on his men. Just minutes earlier they were lying in slit trenches, trying to avoid the maelstrom of steel flying mere inches above them. Now they leaped from cover and got the boats into the water. Ordering his regiment to cross the Meuse, Balck climbed into a boat, set on accompanying the first wave.

The German troops huddled in the fragile inflatable boats they were at their most vulnerable point with nothing to protect them from enemy fire. Bullets fell like hail. Balck, always one to lead from the front, impressed his men by his willingness to share the risks of combat. It would enable him to get the most out of them now and in the future. Today, however, the crossing was quick as the Meuse is only a few hundred feet wide.

It took only minutes for Balck and his men to scramble ashore while the boats returned for the second wave. The Panzergrenadiers hurriedly attacked the first line of bunkers nearest the riverbank. Within a short time they carved out a small perimeter and steadily began to expand it. The battle for Sedan was well underway its outcome would soon decide the fate of France itself.

The blitzkrieg legend has stayed with the German Wehrmacht to this day. The term itself was made famous by the Western press the Germans referred to the concept as bewegungskrieg, or war of movement, only rarely using the term blitzkrieg at the time. Nevertheless, the word has gained common usage since and there is no better example of it than the Battle of Sedan in 1940. It was a critical point in the Nazi invasion of Western Europe if the Germans were held up here it could have fatally doomed the entire effort into stalemate. Success would mean victory and revenge over hated France, which imposed harsh terms at the end of World War I.

Both France and Britain entered the war just days after the Third Reich attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. The war since then had been marked by a lack of combat in the West. British pundits labeled it the “Sitzkrieg” due to the inactivity. An American senator called it the “Phony War.” This low tempo was just what the Nazis needed they were unprepared to fight a two-front war, and their western defenses were manned by underequipped second-rate troops. They did not waste this precious time but instead began planning their campaign to knock France out of the war. With luck, this would cause Britain to negotiate, leaving Germany in control of mainland Europe.

The German plan was the brainchild of General Erich von Manstein. He was unhappy with the existing plan, which he feared would not achieve the fast, decisive victory Germany needed. It called for one army group to demonstrate in front of the Maginot Line to keep the force occupying it in place. A second group would advance through the Ardennes region and southern Belgium, acting as a pivot point for the main effort, an attack by a third group that would sweep through the Netherlands and northern Belgium to drive the Allies back until the Channel ports were captured. To Manstein, this was an unimaginative repetition of the World War I Schlieffen Plan, which ultimately ended in four years of stalemated trench warfare.

Instead, Manstein devised a plan that could trap the Allies away from their lines of communication and end the war quickly. His plan also involved three army groups. Army Group C would still attack the Maginot Line to keep the troops manning it focused away from the real action. Army Group B would invade Belgium and the Netherlands using a large number of airborne troops and just enough armored divisions to make it look like the main thrust was occurring there. This would hopefully draw the Allies’ main armies north into Belgium. In actuality, this was just what the French expected to happen. Army Group A, with the bulk of the tank and mechanized units, would be the primary force. It would attack through the Ardennes Forest, which was thought impassable to heavy forces. Once through, it would quickly cross the Meuse River and strike for the English Channel coast. This would cut off the Allied armies in Belgium and place them in a position to be annihilated if they would not surrender.

Army Group A would send its best units through the Ardennes first in the hopes they would quickly get to the Meuse River, crossing it between Sedan and Namur. This included the panzer divisions supported by motorized infantry units of both the Heer (Army) and Waffen SS. If they could get across the river quickly, it would allow the Germans to get behind the French lines and make their break for the coast. It was difficult but not impossible. The roads through the Ardennes were narrow, and only a few of them ran east to west. Moving so many divisions through the area quickly would require using both lanes of each road for westbound traffic. Even worse, the units would have to abandon the usual rules for spacing they would be packed together almost bumper to bumper, making them vulnerable to air attack. To offset this risk the Luftwaffe would deploy much of its fighter strength over the area to beat back any Allied air attacks. Likewise, large numbers of antiaircraft guns would accompany the advancing German columns.

Among the subunits of Army Group A was the XIX Panzer Corps, commanded by General Heinz Guderian, Germany’s premier bewegungskrieg theorist. Aggressive and confident, he was a good choice for such a daring operation. Under his command were the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Panzer Divisions along with the attached Grossdeutschland Infantry Regiment, an elite Army unit that would later be expanded to divisional strength. Photographic evidence of the campaign shows the armored divisions were well equipped with PzKpfw. III and IV tanks, the best the Wehrmacht possessed at the time, though not available in great numbers. Each division also contained motorized infantry and artillery.

On the Allied side, French planners were convinced the main German thrust would come through the Netherlands and Belgium, believing a large army could not quickly move through the Ardennes. The Allies’ Plan D was created for this eventuality. This plan would send three French armies and the entire British Expeditionary Force northward into Belgium to meet the German attack along the Dyle River. The Royal Air Force and French Air Force would prioritize their effort in this sector, leaving the Ardennes and Sedan defended by second-rate French units and some Belgian cavalry. To the south, the Maginot Line would stop any attacks from Germany itself.

Though the Germans have since become known for their tanks, during the Battle of France they actually had fewer tanks than the Allies. Moreover, French tanks were more heavily armed and armored than their Wehrmacht counterparts. Several factors served to negate this advantage, however. French tactics dispersed most of their tanks among their divisions in an infantry support role. The Germans concentrated their panzers to strike decisive blows where needed and exploit breakthroughs. German tank crews were usually better trained, and their vehicles were all equipped with two-way radios, allowing them to communicate and coordinate during battle. Only a few French tanks had radios at all, reducing many of them to using signal flags and other methods, which distracted tank commanders from controlling their crews. The French were also quite deficient in antiaircraft guns most of those they had were obsolete. In terms of aircraft the Germans were dominant in numbers and overall quality. The German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka could act in the role of artillery with its accurate dive-bombing capability.

Why Did the Schlieffen Plan Fail?

The Schlieffen Plan failed for several reasons. Firstly, the Schlieffen Plan implemented was not the one that was supposed to occur. In a two front war the Schlieffen Plan called for a defensive first strategy, followed by strategic counterattacks.

Instead, Germany went on the offensive on the Western Front, despite not having the manpower. Schlieffen himself estimated that Germany would need 48.5 corps to succeed in an offensive attack, yet Molke only deployed 34 corps, 6 of which were held back to defend Alsace and Lorraine.

The lack of manpower led to a weakened attack that stalled and caused the formation of a gap in the German lines that French forces exploited.

The failure of the Schlieffen Plan also resulted from several incorrect assumptions that hampered the attack. First, they underestimated how quickly the Russians could deploy their troops.

Six weeks were estimated, leading Moltke to believe France could be defeated before the Russians fully mobilized. In reality, the Russians first attacked in less than half that time, forcing Moltke to further weaken the German offensive on the Western Front by sending additional troops east.

The Germans also downplayed the political ramifications of invading neutral Belgium. The Germans did not believe the British would stand firm on their commitment defending the Belgians and they would not become bogged down in a continental European war.

This assumption proved to be false, as Britain joined the war just days after the German invasion of Belgium. Fighting the British and French together on the Western Front was never part of the German strategy.

The combination of the execution of the wrong strategy and a series of key incorrect assumptions led to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan. With it Germany was forced to settle into a brutal war of attrition that dramatically lowered their probability of victory in World War I.

Was Germany Doomed in World War I by the Schlieffen Plan? - HISTORY

After the German army had begun its retreat to the Aisne River on September 9, 1914 (following its defeat at the first Battle of the Marne), Helmuth von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff, told Emperor Wilhelm II: „Majestät, wir haben den Krieg verloren!" (Your Majesty, we have lost the war!) 1

The goal of the German war plan had been to deploy the vast majority of the army in France first, to deliver a fast, decisive victory there, before moving most of the troops to the Eastern front to deal with the Russian Empire. But now that there was not going to be a decisive victory in France, the German Empire would in all likelihood face a prolonged two-front war it could not win.

No one knew this better than Moltke himself, since he had been responsible for the German war plan of 1914. Although history books often still call it the Schlieffen Plan, the reality is that Moltke had already succeeded Count Schlieffen as Chief of the Imperial General Staff eight years earlier, in 1906, and had not implemented the latter’s final war plans without making some key alterations. But Moltke had indeed taken much of his inspiration from the two deployment plans Schliefen had devised just before his retirement, called Westaufmarsch (a.ka. Aufmarsch I) and Ostaufmarsch (a.k.a Aufmarsch II). 2

Aufmarsch I was based on an isolated war between Germany and France, with a numerical superior Germany army outflanking the French forces by marching through the southern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg, to counter-attack what Schlieffen believed would be a French attack on the French-German border in Lorraine. 3 Aufmarsch II was based on a two-front war with Russia and France and diverted more divisions to East Prussia, to defend against a Russian attack before mounting a counter-attack. 4

Moltke based his own operational plan on Aufmarsch II, but used the overall strategy of Aufmarsch I, meaning the wheel-like motion of the right wing to attack the French forces - who would presumably be engaged in Lorraine - in the flank and rear. There were however two fundamental differences between Schlieffen’s plan(s) and Moltke’s.

The first was that Schlieffen did not factor in war with Russia in Aufmarsch I (his deployment plan for war with France) and thus positioned only a few divisions in East Prussia, using the rest on the Western front. Considering the fact that in 1905 the Russian Empire was mired in revolution and war with Japan, this was not an altogether unreasonable presumption. Secondly, Schlieffen used more divisions in his plan than had actually been at his disposal. In his 1905 attack plan for war with France for instance, Schlieffen deployed ninety-two divisions, twenty more than actually existed. 5

In other words, Moltke based the overall strategy for the Western part of his two-front war plan on a one-front war plan in which twenty extra, non-existent divisions (two entire armies) had been added to the equation. One could therefore argue that in the eyes of Count Schlieffen at least, Moltke’s attack plan was doomed to fail from the start, simply because it lacked the necessary military strength. 6

During the first weeks of the war, when it became clear that Russia was mobilizing much faster than had been anticipated, Moltke sent three more corps and a cavalry division to the East, further weakening the right wing on the Western front.

As it turned out, those troops were still in transit when General von Hindenburg's Eighth Army delivered a crushing defeat to the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg, between 26-30 August 1914. They were dearly missed at the Western front though, where the Germans came very close to breaking the French lines at the First Battle of the Marne (5-12 September 1914) but were ultimately defeated by a last ditch effort from the French, who threw everything they had in the fight, including 1,200 Parisian taxicabs that had been commandeered to transport 6,000 French reserves to the battlefield.

Did Moltke really believe Germany had already lost the war in September 1914? Perhaps. In any case he was relieved of his position and succeeded by Erich von Falkenhayn on 14 September 1914 (just two days after the conclusion of the First Battle of the Marne) and therefore no longer in a position to act upon it.

Moltke died on June 18, 1916, with casualties of the Battle of Verdun already in the hundreds of thousands and the even bloodier Battle of the Somme about to begin.

1 Der Erste Weltkrieg. Otto Ernst Schüddekopf. p. 18. Bertelsmann Lexikon-Verlag. 1977.

2 Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning 1871 - 1914. pp. 32 - 33. Terence Zuber. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002. ISBN 0199250162.

5 The Real German War Plan: 1904 - 14. Chapter: Schlieffen’s Last War Plans, 1891 - 1904. Terence Zuber. Spellmount. 2011. ASIN: B0078XH704. In this chapter, Zuber discusses Schlieffen’s last war plans and Generalstabsreisen in detail. It is important to note that Schlieffen did not add the extra, non-existent divisions to the Germany army because he was overly optimistic or bad at losing, but because he strongly believed the army should be enlarged for Germany to be prepared for every eventuality. Like Moltke, Schlieffen was a strong proponent of universal conscription after French example, which did not exist in the German Empire at the time.

6 This point is made by Terence Holmes in his article ‘Absolute Numbers: The Schlieffen Plan as a Critique of German Strategy in 1914’. (War in History. Vol. 21, No. 2. 2014) Holmes writes that Schlieffen concluded that the German army would need at least 48.5 corps to succeed in a French attack through Belgium, while Moltke planned this attack with only 34 corps at his disposal.

World War I and Germany

The Weimar Republic was born in the ruins and ravages of World War I. Four years of total war against some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation-states decimated Germany. By October 1918, Germany’s surrender was imminent, its people were starving and its government on the brink of collapse. On these ruins, the Weimar Republic was built.

Germany ‘screams for war’

Germany’s role in the outbreak of World War I is well documented. No single entity did more to instigate a European war than Germany’s haughty Kaiser, Wilhelm II, his overconfident generals and nationalist elites.

In the generation leading up to 1914, Wilhelm II and his government adopted policies, foreign and domestic, that contributed to rising tensions in Europe. German militarism, nationalism and imperialism – along with the Kaiser’s personal and diplomatic belligerence – all fuelled the mood for war.

Every sinew of German socio-politics screamed for war. German industrialists equipped the Kaiser’s army with a host of deadly new weapons: artillery, machine guns, chemical weapons and flamethrowers. German admirals had taken receipt of new battleships, cruisers and submarines.

German strategists drew up ambitious war plans that promised the conquest of France in just a few weeks. Nationalists talked of expanded German imperial control and influence in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. German newspapers thundered against the bully-boy tactics of the ‘old empires’ of Britain and France.

In another time, the national leader might have sought to defuse this belligerent mood. But the German Kaiser was unworldly, ambitious, impatient and eager for confrontation. Where other heads of state might have said little or nothing, Wilhelm talked tough about German interests and intentions.

The Kaiser’s ‘blank cheque’

In June 1914, Franz Ferdinand, an Austrian archduke and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was gunned down by Serbian nationalists in the streets of Sarajevo.

The Austrians were outraged at the murder of their heir. Rather than suggesting a measured and careful response, the German Kaiser gave them tacit approval for an invasion of Serbia. If Russia, an ally of Serbia, attempted to intervene then the Kaiser promised to act.

One historian later called this ‘the Kaiser’s blank cheque’ for war. It should be noted that it was not only his blank cheque. Wilhelm’s position was supported by most German civilian politicians, even moderates in the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

The Schlieffen Plan

When war did erupt in late July 1914, Germany initiated its famous Schlieffen Plan: a long-standing strategy to invade France via neutral Belgium to avoid heavy fortifications along the French border. The plan succeeded for a time before stalling then ultimately failing.

Instead of marching into France and capturing Paris within a month, as planned, Germany’s invading forces became bogged down in northern France. Defensive warfare replaced rapid advances, leading to the evolution of the Western Front – a 450-mile long network of trenches, minefields and barbed wire, running from the Swiss border to the North Sea.

In the east, German forces were hurriedly mobilised to withstand a Russian advance into East Prussia. They succeeded in pushing the Russians out of German territory, though this led to the development of another theatre of war: the Eastern Front.

Total war

The war would rage for almost four more years. By 1915, all major combatants had implemented a condition of ‘total war’, meaning that civilian economies were harnessed to supply and arm forces in the field.

Backed by the nation’s strong industrial sector, the German military held its own on both the Western and Eastern Front. Within Germany, however, the civilian population endured worsening isolation, blockades and shortages. Sandwiched between enemy combatants – the Russians in the east, the British and French in the west – and with a small coastline blockaded by Allied warships, Germany waged war with very little foreign trade.

In late 1914, the Allies took the unusual step of declaring food as “contraband”. Shipments of foodstuffs headed to German ports became subject to seizure or naval attack. The blockade halted German trade and imports, forcing the nation to rely on its domestic production of food. This had also fallen significantly due to labour being conscripted into the army or redeployed to essential wartime industries.

The ‘Silent Dictatorship’

By mid-1916, the German people were feeling the strain of two long years of total war. The civilian government, led by the ineffectual chancellor Theobald Bethmann-Hollweg, had no real answers. Meat, potatoes and dairy products became difficult to obtain while bread was often replaced by unpleasant ersatz substitutes, made from bran or wheat husks.

As the chancellor dithered and the almost powerless Reichstag debated, the General Staff (Germany’s military high command) gradually assumed control of the government, economic policy and wartime production.

This period, known by some historians as the ‘Silent Dictatorship’, saw Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff assume control of civilian as well as military matters. This junta seized control of the press and propaganda, imposed food rationing and ordered compulsory labour for all civilian males of adult age.

In August 1916, they introduced the Hindenburg Program, which sought to double munitions production by relocating agricultural workers into factories. Ludendorff also forced through the reintroduction of unrestricted submarine warfare against Allied ships – a policy that helped trigger the United States’ entry into the war.

The push for peace

In July 1917, the Reichstag, hitherto supportive of the war effort, responded to the deteriorating situation by passing a resolution calling for peace. This forced the resignation of chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg. He was replaced by unimportant men who served as puppets for Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

By the winter of 1917-18, the availability of food in German cities was critically low. The British naval blockade of German ports had halted food imports while Hindenburg’s reallocation of agricultural labour had a detrimental effect on domestic production.

Germany may well have sought a peace deal in mid- to late-1917, if not for two revolutions in Russia. The collapse of the Russian tsarist government in February 1917, followed by the overthrow of its liberal successor, the Provisional Government, in October, spelt the end of Russia’s involvement in World War I.

With fighting on the Eastern Front war now winding down, this allowed Germany to concentrate its forces on the Western Front. To the German High Command, the war that in early 1917 seemed as if it might drag on forever, now appeared winnable.

1. Kaiser Wilhelm II and German nationalism and militarism played a leading role in the Europeans tensions leading to the outbreak of World War I.

2. When war erupted in August 1914, Germany’s initial strategy involved an attack on France through neutral Belgium, which drew Britain into the war.

3. By 1916, the war was effectively in a stalemate. Germany found itself surrounded by her enemies, blockaded and unable to import food and supplies.

4. During the war, the Kaiser relinquished control to his military leaders. This ‘silent dictatorship’ redeployed labour to the war effort with dire effects.

5. Two Russian Revolutions in 1917 ended fighting on the Eastern Front. This allowed Germany to refocus its efforts on the Western Front and make a final bid to win the war.

Citation information
Title: “World War I and Germany”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/world-war-i/
Date published: September 5, 2019
Date accessed: Today’s date
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Primary Sources

(1) Manchester Guardian (22nd October, 1914)

Victory on the Allied left in Northern France and West Flanders is confidently expected by the troops. From many quarters come reports of the high hopes entertained by the armies. Apparently the fighting is going well and the German position becoming increasingly unfavourable. Throughout yesterday the enemy vigorously attacked the Allied front, only to be beaten back after suffering heavy losses. These tactics are one more proof of the pressure under which the Kaiser's armies are giving way.

The generals are evidently doing their utmost to check the Allies, but of a genuine offensive there is no sign. About Nieuport, on the Belgian coast, where the Allied front reaches the sea, the British navy has lent the armies valuable aid. Three heavily armed monitors, bought by the Admiralty from Brazil, for whom they were completing in England when war broke out, steamed in close to the shore, and by shelling the German flank powerfully assisted the Belgian troops.

Machine guns were landed at Nieuport, and by that means also the navy reinforced the defence. The seaward flank is attracting much of the enemy's attention. Yesterday, says the Paris official statement, the battle was violent between La Bassee and the coast, but nowhere did the Germans obtain any success.

Russia is more than holding her own. Petrograd, which has been studiously moderate in its reports about the fighting in Poland, now announces a German retreat from before Warsaw. The enemy are falling back utterly routed. It has been obvious for several days that Germany's first effort to force a way over the Vistula had failed the failure now appears to have been costly.

Russia's claims find unwilling support in the Berlin wireless circular, which has taken to announcing "no result" and "no change" on the Polish front. Germany will find herself faced with disaster if Russia is able to continue her good work and beat General von Hindenburg's main army as she has beaten his advanced troops.

(2) Manchester Guardian (28th October, 1914)

On the sea flank of the Franco-Belgian front Germany strives desperately to break her way through to the cost. Report says the Kaiser has ordered his generals to take Calais no matter what the cost.

Already the cost of the effort has been terrible, and the taking promises to be long deferred. A Paris official statement issued yesterday afternoon said the enemy were held everywhere, while between Ypres and Roulers the Allied troops had made progress. The British are fighting in front of Ypres.

Berlin puts the best possible construction on events but cannot pretend to a victory, and has to content itself with announcing minor advances. Germany's dash for the coast has suffered many delays, and now seems to have failed. How heavy the enemy's losses have been is illustrated by an incident mentioned in a despatch from an "Eye-witness present with General Headquarters."

On Tuesday, October 20, a determined but unsuccessful attack was made on virtually the whole British line, and at one point where one of our brigades made a counter-attack 1,100 Germans were found dead in a trench and 40 prisoners were taken. Everywhere the British troops have fought with the most splendid courage. For five days at Ypres they held in check, although overwhelmingly outnumbered, 250,000 Germans who fought recklessly to break a way through.

Russia expects great things from her campaign in Western Poland, so well begun with the repulse of the Germans from before Warsaw. The enemy's left flank has been pushed back far towards the frontier while their right remains near the Middle Vistula. This position would be difficult for the Army holding it in the best circumstances. It has been made dangerous by Russian enterprise.

A strong cavalry force has pushed rapidly westwards to Lodz, and from there threatens the German rear. About Radom, on their advanced right, the enemy have prepared a defensive line, but they can hardly remain in possession while danger draws near from Lodz. On the Vistula, east of Radom, the Russians have taken 3,000 prisoners, cannon, and machine guns.