At the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was in an unenviable military position. Caught in the middle by the Franco-Russian alliance, the German army had to solve a major problem, how to fight simultaneously on two fronts. France, Germany’s traditional enemy, was making strong preparations to take revenge after its humiliating defeat in the war of 1870. From the east, Germany was threatened by its former ally, the Russian Empire, which had become its adversary since Berlin renounced the policy of Otto von Bismarck.
Through the foreign policy led by German Chancellor Bismarck, France was politically and militarily isolated from the other European Great Powers for almost 20 years. After Emperor Wilhelm II ascended the throne in 1888, Germany distanced itself from Russia and Great Britain in hopes of building an expansive empire.
As a result of the new German policy, but also of the existence of the Triple Alliance, France and Russia signed a joint military convention in 1894 by which they protected each other’s interests. Thus arose the problem of a future war in which Germany had to fight simultaneously on two fronts.
Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 to 1905, had to solve this problem, especially since in 1904 Britain and France concluded the Pact of Cordial Entente.
Battle of Cannae, Hannibal and Schlieffen
Schlieffen came up with an ingenious solution inspired by the tactics of the great Carthaginian ruler Hannibal. In the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal applied a battle plan of enveloping attacks against the Romans.
Although he commanded an army of only 50,000 men, Hannibal managed to defeat the Roman army of over 80,000 soldiers.
Schlieffen was so passionate about the battle of Cannae that he wrote a book about the famous battle and developed Hannibal’s strategy in a whole series of articles.
“A battle of annihilation can be executed today, according to the same plans devised by Hannibal in long-forgotten times. The enemy front is not the main objective of the attack… Troops and reserves should not be massed against the enemy front, the essential thing is that the flanks be crushed. The wings should not be called upon at the points of forward advance, but rather along the entire depth and extent of the enemy formation. Annihilation is completed by an attack against the enemy’s rear… To bring about a decisive and annihilating victory an attack against the front and against one or both flanks is necessary…’ wrote Schlieffen.
Schlieffen’s Plan for the French Campaign
Inspired by Hannibal, Schlieffen drew up a military plan that called for a quick attack on France by the German army, with the main forces concentrated on the right flank through Belgium and the Netherlands, knowing that Russia, because of the extent, could mobilize its troops more slowly. In short, the German soldiers were to penetrate through the northeast, then change their direction of travel to the south, capture Paris and fall behind the French device on the German border.
The campaign against France was to last a maximum of six weeks, after which the main German forces were to be transported by train to the Eastern Front to fight against the vastly larger Russian army, which would mobilize over a somewhat longer period.
If from a military point of view the attack planned by Schlieffen was innovative and could surprise the French army, from a political point of view it had a big problem. To reach France, the German army had to attack Belgium, a neutral state at the time. Germany’s attack on Belgium could lead to war with Great Britain, which it did.
Moltke changes Schlieffen’s plan a bit
Schlieffen’s successor at the helm of the German General Staff, Helmuth Johannes Ludwig von Moltke, modified the plan slightly by organizing two strikes instead of the one established by his predecessor. He maintained the main attack on the right flank, but the advance of the German soldiers was to take place only through Belgian territory. Instead, Moltke reduced the number of soldiers to take part in the flanking attack on France and significantly strengthened the German forces on the Eastern Front to fight against Russia.
Since the forces at his disposal were insufficient to fight on two fronts, Moltke violated a fundamental principle of armed struggle, that of concentrating forces and means in order to support a broad attack.
Alfred von Schlieffen did not agree with his successor’s changes to Germany’s war plan. It is said that Schlieffen’s last words before passing into eternity were: “Right wing! Right wing! Strengthen the right wing!”
The paradox made French military strategists unwittingly contributors to the German military plan. The French battle plan provided for a frontal attack on Germany, given in divergent directions, with the aim of breaking the enemy’s device and advancing towards Berlin. At the border with Belgium, only a quarter of the French forces were left, which was against Schlieffen’s ideas, facilitating the mission of the German armies.
Military plans and reality on the battlefield
In the very first weeks after the start of the first World Conflagration, the belligerents would learn that the plans made before the war did not match the reality on the battlefield. The Germans underestimated the resistance beyond expectations of the Belgian army, the maneuverability of the French army, as well as the duration of the mobilization of the Russian army, which was much shorter.
This is how Germany ended up, from the very first moment of the outbreak of the war, fighting on two fronts. Another paradox was that, in spite of the German planners, the Reich army should succeed in the east, where they least expected it, and fail in the west, for four years in a war of positions, even though they were supposed to defeat the army French in just six weeks.