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The German Schlieffen Plan of 1914

Excerpt from How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War—From Ancient Greece to the War on Terror, by Bevin Alexander, pages 276 and 278-79

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the lesson of Cannae [won by Hannibal in Italy in 216 B.C.] was directed most often not at attaining victory in one local tactical decision, but rather was used in planning strategic campaigns to achieve total victory. Planners realized that a great envelopment was less likely to be perceived by the enemy---and therefore more likely to be successful---if it took place across large stretches of landscape. Space could create obscurity, and veil intent.

The German General Staff was especially active along this line, notably under Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the staff 1891-1905. He sought to achieve modern Cannaes in Vernichtungskriege, or “wars of annihilation.” The aim was to avoid frontal attacks by deep concentric encircling movements around enemy flanks with infantry armies in order to drive enemy forces into pockets where they either had to surrender or be annihilated....

The Schlieffen Plan prescribed a gigantic enveloping movement, concentrating the vast preponderance of German strength on a right, or western, wing, that would wheel through the plains of Belgium and northern France, cross the Seine river near Rouen, circle around south of Paris, and turn back northward to press the rear of the French armies, which would be pinned down by much smaller German forces along the frontier in Lorraine.

The greatness of the plan rested on Schlieffen’s distribution of force. Of the seventy-two German divisions expected to be available, fifty-three were to be allocated to the wheeling movement, ten to form a pivot facing Verdun, and only nine to be held on the left, or eastern, wing along the French frontier. The object was to keep the German left wing so weak that the French would be encouraged to attack into Lorraine and press the Germans back toward the Rhine river. The farther the French drove forward the more difficult it would be to extricate themselves when the German pincer movement swept around onto their rear.

Schlieffen’s plan was not a true Cannae, in that he prescribed a turn around just one flank. However, the effect would have been the same, because this great sweep would extend all the way to the rear, and then push the French armies back northward against German forces in Lorraine, who would act as a holding force, completing the encirclement and creating a caldron.

Moreover, if the French, as expected, took the offensive against the Germans in Lorraine, the effect would be, as the English military strategist Basil H. Liddell Hart wrote, “like a revolving door, the more heavily the Frenchman pressed on one side, the more forcefully would the other side swing around behind him.”

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