Wars seldom follow the blueprints set out by commanders who apply past experience to present dilemmas. In World War One, past experience was largely irrelevant and often actively unhelpful. To formulate a strategy based on the presumption of a short, fluid war was unwise.
The military leadership of every country was more or less cast from the same mould – they were wedded to the cult of the brave offensive, that attack is the best form of defence. This manifested in the grand early war plans of the three primary Western belligerents – Germany, France and Britain.
Each plan failed to adequately take into account their opponent’s intentions, or to consider the scale and essential character this conflict would assume. Redundant classical concepts of war framed early strategy. In the age of huge citizen armies wars were now between nations, and so any strategy had to also take into account the distribution of goods and labour between domestic and military fronts.
The German Schlieffen Plan
Germany’s overriding fear was of fighting a two-front war. A plan whereby the French would first be defeated and then the Russians was devised.
Alfred von Schlieffen, the plan’s eponymous chief architect, anticipated that France would fall in 6 weeks, which would allow Germans forces to wheel around to face the mobilising Russian hordes.
There were several shaky assumptions to this plan. The first and most obvious was the idea that, in this era of huge armies and devastating technology that favoured the defender, that France could be conquered in 6 weeks. Also central to this plan was that France would be considered conquered once Paris was captured. Whether this principle would hold true in the modern age is disputable.
In the end there were simpler errors in the execution of the plan – 8 divisions of the German Army that were integral to it simply did not exist.
Also, as we all know, the idea that Germany could violate Belgium’s neutrality and avoid bringing Britain into the war was not sound. The BEF were a major contributing factor in the German army failing to reach Paris.
The French Plan XVII
The French had decided that the primary goal of their war was to recover Alsace and Lorraine. Even though they were aware of the Schlieffen Plan, they were not prepared to gather and wait in Northern France for a colossal German attack.
Instead they would deploy the bulk of their forces in the South in preparation for a campaign of conquest. This ‘Plan XVII’ was based on the assumption that a small French force allied with BEF could halt the German advance.
In reality France’s entire army was soon committed to halting a barrelling German offensive and thoughts of conquest soon evaporated.
For those who don’t know French the map above shows the initial troop deployment (encircled) and the direction of attack in line with Plan XVII. What unfolded was the Battle of the Frontiers – by all accounts, a catastrophe for the French army. 300,000 casualties had been sustained by early September and the attack soon turned into retreat.
The British ‘business as usual’
The key presumption to this plan was that the British could not avoid being militarily involved in the war but must limit its commitment.
The BEF would be deployed in Northern France, providing ‘token support.’ Meanwhile the Navy would impose a blockade on Germany, and in doing so Britain would become the backer and supplier of the war effort in which French and Russian lives were sacrificed.
Britain would also take the opportunity to capture German overseas markets.
However, the plan relied on avoiding the massive drain on labour that would entailed in a large military commitment, something which was not adequately communicated to the military leadership. Kitchener’s call for massive enlistment ran directly counter to the broader strategy, and the response it elicited saw ‘Business As Usual’ die a quick death.