Important dates in History. Well, not just important dates but moments which quite literally changed the narration of time. I was discussing these recently with a friend of mine. A friend who lives and breathes all things History – not only did he teach it for thirty years but he lives through it. His grandmother dated the man who killed Rasputin, his uncle bought a fountain pen which belonged to Goering only to ceremoniously burn it in a gas oven and the historical objects at his fascinating house include a painting which belonged to Bismarck and a letter to him from Rosa Parks. Recently we were discussing these earth shattering moments and he explained his choice for the twentieth century – 4th January 1913, the day Alfred Graf von Schlieffen died. Or as he calls it ‘The day Germany lost World War One’.
Once Bismarck led a united Germany in 1871 he was determined to keep a defeated France weak and isolated. He was also determined to keep the diplomatically defeated Russia apart from the French lest Germany face a war on two fronts. In 1895 his fears were confirmed – both countries had joined together in a formal alliance. It fell to Schlieffen to try and solve the problem.
Schlieffen’s predecessor (and father in law) Count von Moltke had always advocated striking the first blow at Russia but the new strategist disagreed. He had learnt from Napoleon in 1812 that to invade Russia was a disaster waiting to happen. He saw the best chance of success as swiftly defeating the French then turn the might of greatest army in history towards the Russians who would most likely have taken at least six weeks to mobilise their dated army. The plan was meticulously devised and revised each year until his official retirement in 1905. So well planned it was that the comings and goings of each train had been precisely co-ordinated to ensure the Prussian success.
Schlieffen based success on six assumptions:
- That any future war would be waged against France and Correct.
- That France would be a major theatre of war and Germany should remain defensive against Russia. Correct.
- That the French fortifications facing Germany were impregnable. This was dubious as the advancement of artillery from approximately 1900 onwards swiftly showed that defences more than a few years old would soon crumble in the face of modern warfare.
- That Belgium, seeing the might of the vast German army, would stand aside and allow them to walk through unchallenged. This was not the case and the gallant Belgian struggle bought the French vital time to organise against the impending assault. False. (Although he did advocate guaranteeing the Belgians neutrality at any cost which would prevent the German army losing vital time, but more importantly it would give Britain little reason to join the European war)
- That Britain would not fight on the side of the French and would ignore their 1839 neutrality pact with Belgium. False.
- From 1912 onwards he became convinced that such were Britain’s problems with Irish Home Rule that they would not become involved in a continental war. False.
At this stage it is worth noting that although Schlieffen had retired in 1905 he regularly discussed the plan with his successor (and that’s right – his son in law) Helmut von Moltke. The message was simple; keep the right flank strong. However von Moltke’s father still had influence from the grave and his son was reluctant to concentrate the bulk of the German army on France which ultimately led to the slow descent into trench warfare in Autumn 1914. When the documents were released in 1956 they showed that von Moltke did in fact agree with Schlieffen and abandoned the plan in a panic as war commenced.
So could the famous Schlieffen Plan have succeeded? Perhaps not as it was based on so many assumptions as any gambler will tell you is foolhardy. However the early weeks of war showed rapid and widespread gains from the Germans at the expense of the French right the way across the front. This slowed only because reservists had been sent east to deter a Russian attack rather than to keep the left flank strong as Schlieffen had advocated. Even the uniforms of the soldiers showed a distinct lack of preparation on the French side. As the Germans wore a dull dark grey the French donned red sashes with flamboyant Napoleonic hats which unfortunately made them rather conspicuous to German machine gunners.
It cannot be said for certain if Germany would have won a brief war if Schlieffen was alive. However let us suppose the naughtiest question of all in History – What if? Assuming that Albert I of Belgium had accepted neutrality and the Germans won a swift war in France they would have quickly turned to defend themselves against a Russian assault. Most likely they would have been defeated like the French or simply sued for peace in light of recent events. This would not only have saved the throne of Tsar Nicholas II but his life as well as those of his family and dynasty. The Russian Revolution would not have happened and indeed any growth in the strength of communism would have been faced with the united forces of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren rather than a weakened and isolated Romanov government. The Austrian empire would have remained intact and the emergent nation states would never have fallen to Hitler who would not have seized power in Germany anyway!
A swift German victory would have kept America out of the war and there never would have been a need for American bankers to lend huge amounts to nations at war. The British Empire would have remained intact, the Cold War would never have happened and the pencils for drawing the new borders of Ireland, Palestine, Germany, Yugoslavia and Russia would never have been sharpened.
When appointing bishops in 1837 Lord Melbourne complained that, “They only die to vex me.” Kaiser Wilhelm may well have uttered the same grievance about Schlieffen when von Moltke did not heed the great piece of advice – keep the right flank strong!