It has been argued and with some good reason that military war plans do not in themselves start wars — that is the task of politicians, hopefully advised by their commanders.
And yet in the case of the First World War, two opposing plans which were founded as much on speed as strength, would push the world over the precipice, by inducing in each side the fear of being the second party to push the red button.
Unfortunately once the orders for mobilisation had been given there was no going back.
The Prussian victory over France in 1870 brought about the founding of a German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on the 18th January 1871 — the 2nd Reich as it is sometimes called.
The various German states, looking towards a greater German nationalism, declared themselves prepared to accept the leadership of the Prussian Kaiser, Wilhelm I.
On the political front the German Chancellor, Bismark organised the Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy in 1882.
He then signed a Reinsurance Treaty with Russia in 1887 which ensured that each party would remain neutral in the event of the other becoming involved in a war against a third party: so long as that third party was neither France nor Austria.
Wilhelm II refused to extend the treaty on Bismark’s departure from office in 1890. Two years later France and Russia sealed their own alliance.
The architect of the 1870 victory General von Moltke realised that the new state faced a possible war on two fronts — against France and Russia.
Initially it was thought that the German army could deal with both adversaries at the same time. Then, with the building of the Séré de Rivières fortresses along France’s new frontier, the feeling changed to dealing with Russia first. Prussia/Germany had healed its wounds with Austria-Hungary and this gave them greater military strength on the eastern front.
The Germans began developing heavy artillery capable of defeating the French forts under von Moltke’s successor von Waldersee. He was planning for the eventuality that in the future things might change and it would be necessary to deal with the French first.
In 1891 Field Marshal Alfred Graf von Schlieffen was appointed Chief of the German Great General Staff (OHL) and would observe a number of events that would change German military doctrine.
To the west France was still seething for revenge. School children learned in their history lessons that it was their duty to avenge the national disgrace. The III Republic was preparing itself for the day when the lost provinces of Alsace-Lorraine would be returned to the mother nation, and there was little doubt that this day would come.
To the east, France’s new ally, Russia, would be a force to be reckoned with; if it was given the time to mobilise its huge but ill equipped army. However, Russia’s defeat by the Japanese in 1905 meant that it could, perhaps, be left entirely to the Austrians to contain the initial Russian assaults.
France’s eastern frontier was by now protected by the Séré de Rivières fortresses which suggested that a quick victory would prove difficult and attacking France first would bring in the Russians. Russia however had the space to be able to retire in front of the German army giving the French time to mount a possible offensive. France would be swift to mobilise, Russia slow. France had to be dealt with first. But how ?
German heavy artillery was now superior in weight and numbers to anything that France possessed, and yet it was still thought to be incapable of destroying the new chain of forts and fortresses which provided a curtain along their mutual frontier. Of these, the Verdun system would become the most disputed.
In December 1905 von Schlieffen finally decided that pounding the forts to dust was out of the question and the answer lay in violating Belgian neutrality. Belgium had only come into existence as a nation state in 1830 and its neutrality had been guaranteed in 1839 by Prussia, Britain and France.
Using almost all of its strength (35 Corps of infantry and 8 of cavalry) German forces would swing across Belgium and Luxembourg, before entering France via Flanders in the north. The French forts would, in the main, never be encountered.
By the 22nd day of mobilisation, German forces would be on the Franco-Belgian frontier. A week later it would be approaching the Somme and ready to swing around the back of Paris before turning east.
Along the Franco-German border, where it was hoped that the French might try and seize back the lost territories, they would play a holding game with just five infantry Corps and three of cavalry. They would allow the French to advance into Germany and across the Rhine if necessary as the giant lid on the box closed behind them. The further the French were distanced from Paris the greater their disaster.
The French forces would be crushed in a huge pincer movement on Day 42.
Just six weeks to deal with France before turning east to deal with Russia. It had been achieved in seven weeks in 1870 and von Schlieffen was sure of being able to better his predecessors.
It should be noted that these timings referred to the day of mobilisation and not the declaration of any war, which could come afterwards.
Speed is marked as the prime mover. There was no possibility that the German army could mass itself on the Belgian frontier without giving the game away. The moment those troops arrived, the frontier would have to be crossed.
Von Schlieffen insisted to his dying day in 1913 that the right wing of the German force had to be as strong as possible if success was to be had.
He had doubts though. This was a period when soldiers would still be required to slog great distances on foot. Thousands of troop trains were organised to get them to their starting lines but from there the advance would be governed by how far a man could march and fight every day. Those out on the right wing (1st Army) would be required to march 450 kilometres, to pass through Belgium, come in behind Paris and then fight the greater part of the French forces.
There was also the problem of what to do about Paris and its garrison. Should the Germans come round the back or cut the corner and come round in front.
The essential objective though of the Schlieffen plan was not to gain territory or capture Paris, it was to crush the French army as quickly as possible. Only then could Germany turn eastwards and deal a similar blow to the Russians.
In 1906 Germany had a new Chief of Staff, Graf Helmuth von Moltke nephew of the vanquisher of the French in 1870. He is thus known to history as: von Moltke the younger.
By 1914 his battle plans were drawn up and they differed importantly from the Schlieffen plan. It was now thought that the French would use a much greater force against Alsace and to counter this von Moltke reduced his strength on the right wing and bolstered the units in Alsace-Lorraine.
Five German armies (26 infantry corps and 7 of cavalry) would form the Schlieffen hammer passing through Belgium pivoting on the town of Thionville. Although a number of Belgian fortresses would have to be dealt with, new super heavy guns manufactured by Krupp and Skoda were considered capable of the task.
Facing the French along their common frontier, two armies would not only buffer any French attack but would also advance into France.