The Schlieffen Plan: Whose Plan Was It?

Excerpted from Schlieffen’s Plan: Myth, reality, or just a bad idea? by Dana Lombardy. Published in World War One Illustrated #3, Fall 2014. This issue is still available for purchase here. This issue also included an introductory game: On to Paris! that can be played solitaire. Read more about the other issues of WWOI and our projects here. Help us to preserve the stories of this critical period of history. Here’s how.

When you make a mistake, you have three options:

1. Correct the mistake and carry on.

2. Ignore the mistake.

3. Cover up the mistake and blame someone else for it.

In his controversial 2010 book Inventing the Schlieffen Plan: German War Planning 1871-1914, Terrence Zuber wrote that what became the accepted understanding of German planning for World War One was a misrepresentation by former German officers writing after the war.

Accepted history recognizes Alfred von Schlieffen, the Chief of the Imperial German General Staff from 1891 to 1906, for developing the offensive plan used in 1914. This was through a series of memoranda he prepared. Schlieffen was in office until 1906 and died in 1913.

In Zuber’s book, the German officers wanted to deflect blame for Germany’s defeat from themselves to Helmuth von Moltke. He was Schlieffen’s successor as Chief of Staff. They claimed that Moltke did not correctly employ Schlieffen’s recommendations and thus did not defeat France in 1914. Since Moltke had died in 1916 he could not defend himself.

For 100 years, history has called the German attack in the West the “Schlieffen Plan.” Comparison between Schlieffen’s notes and Moltke’s orders shows that Moltke did not follow the plan. Instead of deploying the 83 divisions that Schlieffen recommended, Moltke only used 52. Schlieffen’s Plan suggested a pause to rest the weary troops. This would allow the men, artillery and supplies spread out for miles along roads behind the front to catch up with the most advanced units. Moltke hoped by continuing the advance it would be possible to push the bulk of the French toward the southeast, away from Paris.

Moltke did not carry out Schlieffen’s proposal for his plan in 1914. He did not pause the German advance. It was not possible for Moltke to have the additional divisions needed to try Schlieffen’s idea due to budget constraints. The plan belongs entirely to Moltke.

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