General Count von Schlieffen (1833 – 1913) was Chief of the German General Staff from 1891 until he retired in 1905. As a testament to his work for Germany, he finished an operational plan with which Germany could successfully attack France.
With certain modifications, the ‘Schlieffen Plan’ as it became known, was used as the basis for the massive German attack in 1914. Schlieffen believed a number of things, based on his military knowledge, and general awareness of exactly what was what and what could be done, or not done:
(1) That the war would have to be fought against France and Russia, probably supported by Britain.
(2) That the decisive theatre of war would remain in France, but that Germany must stay on the defensive with Russia.
(3) That in the case of France’s swift defeat, her allies would offer little resistance.
(4) That the French fortifications facing Germany were virtually impregnable, and therefore should simply be outflanked in a great curving, scythe-like movement through Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, even if Germany had been bound by treaty to observe these countries’ neutrality.
During his retirement, Schlieffen revised these plans with the help of his son-in-law, at the end of each year, coinciding with Christmas celebrations. His successor as Chief of Staff was von Moltke, also a brilliant strategist, who decided to limit the ‘scythe’ manoevre to Belgium and Luxembourg.
The Great War began with the usual German triumphs, but Moltke failed to capture Paris in 1914, experts said, because he not fully followed the plans of the ‘masterly military genius’ – von Schlieffen.
The experts’ view was challenged, however, in 1956 by Dr. Gerhard Ritter who published the text of the full plan, with Schlieffen’s amendments and Moltke’s comments. It then became clear that there was not such a difference between the stategy of Schlieffen and Moltke as earlier historians had maintained.
Since the end of the Great War (1918) an intellectual storm has raged between followers of the original Schlieffen Plan, and observers of the campaigns, defeats and victories that occurred during the War. In the 1990s, readers of The Spectator, an important British political weekly, were entertained during nearly seventeen weeks by a furious exchange of letters on the correspondence pages between modern historians, and someone describing herself as a direct descendent of von Schlieffen himself. Her argument was that had the German high command followed the Schlieffen Plan to the letter, Germany would have won the First World War quickly, and with infinitely less loss of life on all sides.
There remains some doubt as to whether the Plan deserves its high reputation, because von Schlieffen had under-estimated the strength of the Russians, as Napoleon had done before, and as Hitler would do later. Schlieffen had also under-estimated Berliners’ panic as Russian forces drew near, the strength and bravery of Belgian resistance, the effectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force, and the importance and efficiency of the French railway system, bringing up reserves.