The initial stages of the war
Initial strategiesHelmuth von Moltke, chief of the German general staff from 1858 to 1888, decided that Germany should stay at first on the defensive in the west and deal a crippling blow to Russia's advanced forces before turning to counterattack the French advance. His immediate successor, Alfred von Waldersee, also believed in staying on the defensive in the west. Alfred, Graf von Schlieffen, who served as chief of the German general staff from 1891 to 1905, took a contrary view, and it was the plan he developed that was to guide Germany's initial wartime strategy. Schlieffen realized that on the outbreak of war Russia would need six full weeks to mobilize and assemble its vast armies, given the immense Russian countryside and population, the sparsity of the rail network, and the inefficiency of the government bureaucracy. Taking advantage of this fact, Schlieffen planned to initially adopt a purely defensive posture on the Eastern Front with a minimal number of troops facing Russia's slowly gathering armies. Germany would instead concentrate almost all of its troops in the west against France and would seek to bypass France's frontier fortifications by an offensive through neutral Belgium to the north. This offensive would sweep westward and then southward through the heart of northern France, capturing the capital and knocking that country out of the war within a few weeks. Having gained security in the west, Germany would then shift its troops to the east and destroy the Russian menace with a similar concentration of forces.
By the time of his retirement in 1905, Schlieffen had elaborated a plan for a great wheeling movement of the right (northern) wing of the German armies not only through central Belgium but also, in order to bypass the Belgian fortresses of Liège and Namur in the Meuse Valley, through the southernmost part of the Netherlands. With their right wing entering France near Lille, the Germans would continue to wheel westward until they were near the English Channel; they would then turn southward so as to sever the French armies' line of retreat from France's eastern frontier to the south; and the outermost arc of the wheel would sweep southward west of Paris, in order to avoid exposing the German right flank to a counterstroke launched from the city's outskirts. If the Schlieffen Plan succeeded, Germany's armies would simultaneously encircle the French Army from the north, overrun all of northeastern France, and capture Paris, thus forcing France into a humiliating surrender. The large wheeling movement that the plan envisaged required correspondingly large forces for its execution, in view of the need to keep up the numerical strength of the long-stretched marching line and the need to leave adequate detachments on guard over the Belgian fortresses that had been bypassed. Accordingly, Schlieffen allocated nearly seven-eighths of Germany's available troop strength to the execution of the wheeling movement by the right and centre wings, leaving only one-eighth to face a possible French offensive on Germany's western frontier. Thus, the maximum of strength was allocated to the wheel's edge—that is, to the right. Schlieffen's plan was observed by the younger Helmuth von Moltke, who became chief of the general staff in 1906. Moltke was still in office when war broke out in 1914.
Eastern Front strategy, 1914Russian Poland, the westernmost part of the Russian Empire, was a thick tongue of land enclosed to the north by East Prussia, to the west by German Poland (Poznania) and by Silesia, and to the south by Austrian Poland (Galicia). It was thus obviously exposed to a two-pronged invasion by the Central Powers; but the Germans, apart from their grand strategy of crushing France before attempting anything against Russia, took note of the poverty of Russian Poland's transportation network and so were disinclined to overrun that vulnerable area prematurely. Austria-Hungary, however, whose frontier with Russia lay much farther east than Germany's and who was moreover afraid of disaffection among the Slav minorities, urged some immediate action to forestall a Russian offensive. Moltke therefore agreed to the Austrian general staff's suggestion for a northeastward thrust by the Austrian Army into Russian Poland—the more readily because it would occupy the Russians during the crisis in France.
The Russians, for their part, would have preferred to concentrate their immediately available forces against Austria and to leave Germany undisturbed until their mobilization should have been completed. The French were anxious to relieve the German pressure against themselves, however, and so they persuaded the Russians to undertake an offensive involving two armies against the Germans in East Prussia simultaneously with one involving four armies against the Austrians in Galicia. The Russian Army, whose proverbial slowness and unwieldy organization dictated a cautious strategy, thus undertook an extra offensive against East Prussia that only an army of high mobility and tight organization could have hoped to execute successfully.
The strategy of the Western Allies, 1914For some 30 years after 1870, considering the likelihood of another German war, the French high command had subscribed to the strategy of an initial defensive to be followed by a counterstroke against the expected invasion: a great system of fortresses was created on the frontier, but gaps were left in order to “canalize” the German attack. France's alliance with Russia and its entente with Great Britain, however, encouraged a reversal of plan, and after the turn of the century a new school of military thinkers began to argue for an offensive strategy. The advocates of the offensive à l'outrance (“to the utmost”) gained control of the French military machine, and in 1911 a spokesman of this school, General J.-J.-C. Joffre, was designated chief of the general staff. He sponsored the notorious Plan XVII, with which France went to war in 1914.
Plan XVII gravely underestimated the strength that the Germans would deploy against France. Accepting the possibility that the Germans might employ their reserve troops along with regular troops at the outset, Plan XVII estimated the strength of the German Army in the west at a possible maximum of 68 infantry divisions. The Germans actually deployed the equivalent of 83 1/2 divisions, counting Landwehr (reserve troops) and Ersatz (low-grade substitute troops) divisions. But French military opinion ignored or doubted this possibility; and during the war's crucial opening days, when the rival armies were concentrating and moving forward, the French Intelligence counted only Germany's regular divisions in its estimates of the enemy strength. This was a serious miscalculation. Plan XVII also miscalculated the direction and scope of the coming onslaught: though it foresaw an invasion through Belgium, it assumed that the Germans would take the route through the Ardennes, thereby exposing their communications to attack. Basing itself on the idea of an immediate and general offensive, Plan XVII called for a French thrust toward the Saar into Lorraine by the 1st and 2nd armies, while on the French left (the north) the 3rd and 5th armies, facing Metz and the Ardennes, respectively, stood ready either to launch an offensive between Metz and Thionville or to strike from the north at the flank of any German drive through the Ardennes. When war broke out, it was taken for granted that the small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under Sir John French should be used as an adjunct to France's forces, more or less as the French might see fit. It is clearly evident that the French were oblivious to the gigantic German offensive that was being aimed at their left (northern) wing.