During the Great European Peace, 1871-14, German generals were redundant. There hadn’t been a German army on a battlefield since 1871. To compound their misery, German society was militaristic. Kaiser Wilhelm II wore full military uniform on every occasion. He set the tone. The 19th century Scramble for Africa was won by the British and French, and amazingly the Italians, because Bismarck vetoed colonial expansion. The German High Command developed intricate ‘war games,’ which is where the Schlieffen Plan emerged from. Schlieffen overturned strategic conformity, producing a new template for German military intervention in the event of war.
Alfred von Schlieffen (1833-1913)
Alfred von Schlieffen lived the dream as a young officer. He joined the army in 1853 and 18 years later had participated in victories over Denmark, Austria-Hungary and France.1 It was exhilarating. He rapidly climbed the hierarchy in the world’s most successful army, becoming chief of staff in 1891. In 1906, aged 72, he retired and his last battlefield experience was 34 years previously.
Schlieffen believed a six-week campaign would defeat France just as it had in 1870.2 This would free the German army to pivot eastwards and defeat Russia. The Schlieffen Plan was planned as two consecutive wars but were interdependent and were actually one campaign.3 Schlieffen’s plan was audacious. Consequently, it should have been rigorously analysed by his fellow generals. It wasn’t. The hierarchy of German military command prevented ruthless critiques of senior officers.
This was catastrophic.
Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1816)
The retirement of von Schlieffen in 1906 led to Wilhelm II appointing von Moltke. He was the least qualified candidate. Wilhelm believed aristocratic virtues literally descended through the bloodline and von Moltke had the greatest surname in German military history. It was his uncle who’d secured Bismarck’s victories and created Germany in 1871.
The new chief of staff was an aristocrat without battlefield experience, except as a junior officer in 1870 (he’d been in the army two years). He accepted Schlieffen’s plan uncritically without imposing any stress tests. He weakened the western front facing France, to strengthen the eastern front. He imagined this was tweaking the plan as opposed to destroying its raison d’etre. As Schlieffen’s plan was predicated on a crushing sledgehammer blow, defeating France in six weeks, weakening the invading army was insanity.
Once war began, von Moltke realised he was hopeless and resigned. The Battle of the Marne4 revealed the truth of Clausewitz’s insight that strategic plans only work until the ‘fog of war’ descends. Von Moltke resigned as chief of staff less than two months after the invasion of France.
The invasion had been planned for eight years and failed within two months.
Eric von Falkenhayn (1861-1922)
Unlike the other two generals, von Falkenhayn had recent experience. He joined the army in 1880 and realised that if he wanted to see a battlefield he’d have to leave Germany. He served the Qing Dynasty in China in 1896 and stayed in Asia for seven years. He wasn’t an armchair general and widened his horizons beyond the hierarchal world of Wilhelm II’s court.
Whereas von Moltke followed the Schlieffen Plan as though it was holy script, von Falkenhayn didn’t. Throughout his period as chief of staff he remained sceptical. He quickly introduced trench warfare and a static attritional approach. His scepticism won him no friends when he needed them after the Battle of Verdun.5
Trench warfare and the Battle of Verdun were utterly bloodthirsty. Verdun, 1916, resulted in the loss of nearly 800,000 French and German men. Von Falkenhayn intended to ‘bleed France dry’ but the unintended outcome was that Germany lost so many men that they were terminally weakened.
Von Falkenhayn’s realism was interpreted as defeatism. The toxic combination of defeatism and the blood-letting in the trenches and Verdun led to him being sacked.
Verdun marked the final nail in the coffin of the Schlieffen Plan.
It can’t be said that the amateurish German generals caused the First World War but they certainly shaped many aspects of it. Bismarck wouldn’t have planned a two-front campaign, which he regarded as a recipe for disaster. Therefore, it’s reasonable to say that Germany’s defeat was partially a self-inflicted wound.
1 Otto von Bismarck – Wikipedia Bismarck is seen as the architect of the Prussian victories which transformed the country into what became known as Germany in 1871.
2 This is a very quick critique For the Franco-Prussian war see Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 | French Foreign Legion Information