The Schlieffen Plan

The Schlieffen Plan indicated by large arrows; France’s Plan XVII small

The Germans had long anticipated a war on two fronts: against France on its western border and Russia to the east. In 1905, the then German chief-of-staff, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, had devised a plan to meet such an eventuality. The Schlieffen Plan assumed, correctly, that Russia, with its vast armies and its still-backward infrastructure and lack of railways, would take some six weeks to fully mobilize its armies, numbering 6 million men, and be ready for combat. During those six weeks, the Germans would attack France – not via the Franco-German border, which the French had heavily fortified following the Franco-Prussian War – but north, through the flat plains of Belgium, ignoring the fact that Belgium was neutral. The German armies would knock out Belgium, then advance into France along the coast (‘let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve,’ wrote Schlieffen), seizing the Channel ports, before swinging southwards towards Paris. Once Paris had been defeated – the whole process taking five weeks, according to Schlieffen’s plan – the German armies would have a week to transfer to the eastern German border, ready to face the Russians. They would thereby defeat one army before having to face the other, and avoid the costly prospect of a war on two fronts.

Helmuth von Moltke knew that for the plan to work, and with the Russian mobilization already under way, there was no time to lose. Straight away, on 2 August, German forces marched into Luxembourg, meeting no resistance from the Luxembourg army that consisted of no more than 400 soldiers, and began an occupation that would last the entire length of the war.

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