During the first week of August men and armies all over Europe were preparing for war. Millions of troops were being mobilized and moving toward the front and the fighting had begun in many places in Serbia, Belgium, and France. This week we will look at what the leaders of the armies of Europe planned to do with these millions of men, and how they planned to win the war.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 6. Last week we left off with everybody being at war with everybody else. We covered the diplomatic moves of the last week of July which led up to the declarations of war by the nations of Europe. This is the first week of August, an extremely eventful month in 1914, and the next four episodes will be full of exciting tales battles and campaigns across France, Belgium, Prussia, Serbia, and Russia. We will start this episode by focusing on some of the tactical concepts used by the armies that we will see a lot of during the next few months. We will then dig in to the war plans of the nations involved ending on the almost mythical Schlieffen Plan put into action by the Germans in the first week of August 1914.
The first world war was a clash between the ideas of how a war should be fought and the realities of the impact of technologies on the battlefield. These ideas of war also affected the equipment that the armies possessed and how they planned to use them this delayed proper adaptation to battlefield conditions until the tools were available to support that adaptation. We will first look at the almost exclusively offensive philosophies of most European armies, especially those of the French. We will then look at the usage of mass frontal attacks, which while at times unavoidable were still used far too frequently. Finally, the best example of these out-of-date ideas was the role of Cavalry on the battlefield.
In war somebody has to attack, without someone taking the initiative the armies would just sit there until they die of old age. In the years leading up to the war the belief in the all-powerful offensive became even more pervasive in the minds of the armies of Europe. The plans the nations put into place predicted a nice short war that would be won by a bold striking thrust at their enemy. The plans by France, in Plan XVII, and Germany, in the Schlieffen Plan, are great examples of these bold daring thrusts at the heart of the enemy. The French believed that the offensive spirit, the elan, of their forces would be all that was needed to win a battle. If their troops believed that they could then they would. This would turn out to not be entirely accurate, as the defenders, and their machine guns and artillery, had a bit to say about it. The plans put in place by France and Germany specifically were not bad plans really and it certainly gave them the initiative but they ignored some important realities of the battlefield in 1914. Plan XVII ignored the immense power of defensive weaponry when attacking prepared positions without proper levels of artillery support. The Schlieffen Plan did not account for the vast geographical distances required to achieve the encirclement of millions of men that was the underpinnings of its entire strategy.
On the Western front, after the first few weeks of the war, it became a trench warfare stalemate from the Swiss border all the way to the ocean. This presents the “classic” idea of World War 1 but in other theaters that was not the case. The Eastern front for example saw much larger geographical swings in the front line in the 3 years of war in the East. This was mostly due to the much larger geographical areas where the war took place which resulted in less men per mile of front. This distance allowed the armies far more room to maneuver and also more space to fall back should they need to. For example the offensives by the Triple Alliance in 1915 pushed the Russians back over 200 miles in some areas. For reference in 1915 armies in the West often measured their gains in yards instead of miles.
Many instances early in the war involve mass frontal attacks on strongly held enemy positions. This is at times a necessity, especially after the line in the West settled down a bit in late 1914, so not all of these attacks were ill advised. However, early in the war thr problem was mostly in how they were executed. Often times, before some lessons were learned, the men ran at the enemy almost shoulder to shoulder, much like the armies of Napoleon did almost a century before. This had somewhat predictable results in battlefields with machine guns and rifles accurate to several hundred meters. The fervor with which the French attacked head on, wave after wave, in the opening stages of the war resulted in Joffre sending two letters to his commanders telling them to temper the men’s attacking spirit and to be a bit smarter about their movements and usage of artillery.
The armies did become better at attacking well prepared positions throughout the war. The need to use massed artillery to soften up the enemies prepared positions was an early alteration to the plans. This was countered on the German side by moving most of their troops out of the front line and manning them only with some machine guns and a thinly spread line of men. These troops would fall back into a secondary line where troops were available to counter attack before the attacking troops could consolidate their gains. One artillery tactic that the British were famous for using was the creeping barrage. This artillery tactic moved a curtain of artillery shells forward with the infantry, it took a few tries for the British to get this tactic right, they first had issues with the artillery moving too fast or more disastrously not fast enough, but when they did it proved to be effective. The Germans made what might be considered the final big tactical innovation late in the war with the use of Stormtroopers. These were small bands of highly trained infantrymen whose purpose wasn’t to take the strong points in the enemies line but to completely bypass them and move on. These strong points were then surrounded and forced to surrender. While this proved to be effective in Spring 1918 the casualties for the Stormtroopers were still disastrous.
Finally we come to the cavalry that most glorious of the military arms. Several of the commanders in the armies of Europe in 1914 got their start in the cavalry. The theory at the time, when you could not outflank the enemy, was that the job of the infantry was to attack an enemy head on and punch a hole through the line that the cavalry could ride through in their glorious charge to victory. There were very clear examples during the Franco-Prussian and Russo-Japanese war that demonstrated the liabilities of cavalry on the modern battlefield but the lessons that could have been learned were not absorbed by all the commanders in 1914. There had been some moves toward primarily using cavalry as mounted rifleman in the years preceding the war, especially after the examples brought back from the Russo-Japanese war, but there were still a large number of cavalry units carrying sabers, lances, and out of date firearms. In the open field the cavalry was still very useful for reconnaissance and quick maneuvering there are even examples in some of the opening campaigns, for instance some actions in Belgium, where there were cavalry on cavalry battles.
On the Eastern front where the geographical scale of the conflict put movement speed at a premium there were more cavalry actions during the war. Here once again they proved their worth for reconnaissance and quick actions from the flanks however they were not used often in large scale confrontations. One of issues that all of the armies faced when trying to field large squadrons of cavalry was supplying them. Supplying even a hundred thousand horses from a country was difficult, let alone feeding them and keeping them properly equipped. Most horses from their home countries were needed for the role they played in the economy, in a world before the complete motorization of farm implements and transportation. By the middle of the war most cavalry had been retired, the Germans had dismounted almost all of their cavalry by 1916. The time of the glorious cavalry charge to win the day was over, and it would not be seen again.
While the commanders in Europe had some misconceptions about how to fight the current conflict they had many complex plans on what they planned to use their armies for when the war did start. Each nation had spent countless hours poring over maps and mobilization schedules trying to find the answer to the question of how they would win the war when, not if, it happened. Each of the plans that were created represented the situation faced by each nation in the coming conflict. Russia was bound by treaty with France to attack as soon as possible, Austria-Hungary had to parry the thrust of Russia while dealing with those pesky Serbians, Britain had decided to help France while trying to not let their little army get destroyed, France had prepared a daring charge into Germany, and Germany had prepared one of the biggest and strongest right hooks in history. The geographical positioning of some of the information below can get a bit confusing so I have included several maps of army concentration areas and planned routes for troop movements in this episodes show notes on historyofthegreatwar.com.
Everybody included the time tables for Russian mobilization in their planning since everybody knew that the Russians were slow to mobilize due to their geographical size. The Russians had two plans of action a defensive plan to be used if the primary effort of Germany was directed towards Russia that saw them standing their ground and waiting for the Germans to attack and an offensive one that saw them attacking into East Prussia and Galicia, to be put into action if it was determined that the main German attack would be directed towards France. Due to the agreement that the Russians had with the French the Russians were required to start an offensive as soon as possible after war was declared, at around mobilization + 16 days if it was determined that the primary target of Germany was France. This put them in an awkward situation because their mobilization would not be complete at this time. They would have to attack before mobilization was complete which is a risky proposition for any army.
When it became clear that the primary German attack was focused on France the Russians took to the offensive. Their plan was for the attack to be aimed against the German territories in East Prussia with 2 armies and for another 2 armies to attack Austria-Hungary in Galicia. East Prussia was chosen as the target because it was the closest German territory to Russia but it had the nice side benefit of being the homeland for many of Germany’s top generals, this would play at least some role in the decisions made by Moltke, the Chief of the German General Staff, in the coming weeks. The Russians also planned to have an offensive that would move in to attack Austria-Hungary in Galicia, which is the eastern most area of Austria-Hungary. These attacks were planned to be executed at the same time. The need for a speedy offensive resulted in the Russians being forced to execute the offensives with the men on hand which while still impressive was not the full weight of the Russian army.
Austria-Hungary was the first country to declare war in 1914. They first declared war on Serbia and they knew that there was a very good chance that this action would bring Russia into the war. Because of this Austria-Hungary had a war plan that was prepared for a two front conflict while also being able to compensate for how involved Russia would be in said conflict. The Austro-Hungarian plan involved having 9 army corps facing the Russians in Galicia with 8 divisions on the Serbian front. To compliment these troops there were 14 divisions that were kept as a reserve that could be sent to either front based on need. Austria-Hungary did hope that Russia would not enter the war and all of these troops could be concentrated on Serbia, this Serbian concentration was called Plan B. When they found out that the Russians would be joining the war they did take some of the reserve troops and put them onto the Serbia border and the rest were sent to Galicia, the troops aimed at Serbia numbered around 140,000 and were split into three armies. The plan was for these three armies to go on a limited offensive against Serbia and Montenegro their small neighbor. The armies would then meet in Kragujevac in the heart of Serbia. To face the Russians would be the main part of the Austro-Hungarian army. These troops were placed in Galicia to face the Russian army. When the war started Austria-Hungary was pushed strongly by Germany to start an offensive against Russia to take pressure off of East Prussia. The Austro-Hungarian forces did plan to attack the Russians facing them and in a stroke of good luck for them they planned to attack further west than the Russian expected which allowed them to bypass the main Russian strength by a little bit.
Up until the last few days of July it wasn’t guaranteed that Britain would even get involved in the war on the continent. They had not signed any binding agreements that committed them to action and they didn’t necessarily have a lot to gain from being involved. However in the years leading up to the war some joint plans had been made with the French to determine what the British should do with their troops should a war with Germany become a reality. The plan that the two nations came up with was for the British forces to take up the far left portion of their line that would be against the Belgian border and should be the closest point to the channel ports. These ports were obviously important for the supply and maintenance of the British forces and were seen as a necessary escape route should it be required. In the pre-war years the French believed that this area would be a quiet sector with the main German advance coming well South of the British. The British agreed with this view and they were prepared to play the role of guardians of the French left flank.
To fulfill this role Britain planned to put 4 divisions into Northern France. These were the readily available forces that were present in the British Isles at the time the war began. They were arranged into two corps under the overall command of Sir John French. When French took the army to France he was given orders that made it clear that his first responsibility was to make sure that the small British army was not destroyed. These were the only troops that the British would be able to field for several months as troops were recalled from overseas and the reserves received some training. This order is often blamed for what Joffre and France saw as a British force who only wanted to retreat. They were retreating from what was the primary German offensive in France. Instead of being placed in a nice quiet sector the British had been inadvertently placed right at the tip of the German spear that was plunging through Belgium and into France.
The British were in France to help the French who had their own plans on how to conduct the war. France’s preparations had been based on agreements made with Russia to attack in conjunction from east and west as soon as possible after the war started. They knew that Germany would be in a tight spot with enemies on both sides of the country and hoped to take advantage of this as quickly as possible. They also guessed, correctly, that Germany would send its main force West to face the French. To quote Joseph Joffre, the French Chief of Staff, “The allied plan should strive for simultaneous attacks on the two sides of Germany to achieve the maximum combined effort.” The plan created by France, and which was updated in 1913 by Joffre was called Plan XVII, was a scheme for mobilization and concentration that was designed to put as many French troops as possible on their eastern border as quickly as possible. It was a concentration plan and not a detailed plan of attack. While the plan did speak in broad terms of an offensive to be launched as soon as possible, it would be left up to Joffre when the war started how best to use the troops that Plan XVII assembled on the frontier.
In the years preceding the war French leadership began to believe that there was a good chance that the German army would come through Belgium in the north. Even though Joffre and most of the other French military leaders pressured the political leadership strongly it was decided that it was a political necessity for French troops to not be the first troops to violate Belgian neutrality and therefore they were not allowed to enter Belgium at the start of the war. Plan XVII compensated for this by extending the French line further north than previously planned and also took into account the expected British troops. This reliance on the British and the belief that it was in the south that the war would be won the led to the Belgium-France border being only lightly defended. In fact almost all of the French troops were concentrated on the bottom 2/3 of the French border with Germany. The French intelligence agencies had a reasonably good idea about how many active troops Germany would have at the start of the war, they also believed that Germany would use the French system of using only the active troops and not the reserves in the first wave of attacks. French leadership considered the older reservists basically useless on the battlefield and they assumed the Germans did as well. This led the French to calculate that the German front in Alsace-Lorraine and in the Ardennes would be weakened to free up the necessary troops for the advance through Belgium. This assumption would turn out to be disastrous for the attacking French troops.
The French troops were arrayed in five armies with the First, Second, and Third in the south with the objective of attacking into the previously French territories of Alsace-Lorraine. The Fifth army would be in the north and would attack into the areas around the Ardennes and the Fourth army would be held in reserve. Joffre did not tell this army commanders their objectives until over a week into August. It was decided that the attack would begin in the south on August 14th with the northern troops waiting until August 21st, and the arrival of the British, before beginning their attack. The armies in the south would advance into the Metz-Thionville region which the French knew Germany had spent a lot of time and money fortifying in the years before the war. However they did not believe that Germany had the men to man these defenses especially after reports began coming in about the size of the German armies who were marching through Belgium. We will cover some of these attacks next week and it will be clear very quickly, even to the French, that these areas were defended by more than enough troops. A good portion of the next few weeks will be spent looking at the trials and tribulations of the British and French troops facing the German army on the fields of Belgium and Northern France.
Now we come to Germany and possibly one of the most famous of military plans, the Schlieffen Plan. This plan was created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen when he was Chief of the German General Staff in 1904. It was created as part of a thought exercise on how Germany should react to a European war. The big assumption of the Schlieffen Plan was that the war would only be between Germany and France. In its original design it didn’t consider the obstacles present in a two front war. The plan was for a massive German attack with the entire German military into France with most of the troops concentrated on the right wing of the attack. The goal was to cut the French forces off from the rest of France by encircling them in the field and capturing Paris. This advance required the German right wing to travel hundreds of miles through Belgium and northeastern France to get to the west side of Paris. To get the troops necessary for this advance Schlieffen planned to only keep a small force in Alsace-Lorraine to defend against the expected French offensive in the region. It is important to note that the original plan required all the forces available to Germany. In later revisions there was a variant introduced by Schlieffen for what to do in a war if Germany was fighting both France and Russia. This variant required Germany to go onto the defensive and to let the opening attacks of their enemies occur before launching a counter attack. The reason for this defensive stance was that Schlieffen believed that Germany would need 1.36 million troops to successfully attack France. In 1906, at the time of the last Schlieffen revision, Germany could barely field this number of troops. In a two front war the forces available to Germany would be split between the east and west, preventing Schlieffen from having the number of troops necessary to execute the attack on France.
Schlieffen’s successor was Helmuth von Moltke. In 1914 Moltke would use a hybrid of the original Schlieffen Plan and its two front variant. He kept the idea of a large offensive sweeping through Belgium and Northern France. However, he used the troop concentrations of the variant to be used in a two front war. This variant required 80% of Germany’s troops to be positioned against France while 20% were stationed in the East to defend against the Russian offensive. With the forces split in this way the German army did not have Schlieffen’s required 1.36 million troops to face France and instead only had about a million. Moltke also shifted some troops from the right wing to the left to defend against the French. There is also some evidence, based on future orders given by Moltke to these southern armies, that Moltke also might have been planning for a double envelopment of the French troops from both the north and the south, a Cannae on a massive scale. The troops in the west were arranged into seven armies with the First army positioned in the north ready to march through Belgium and the seventh army in the south awaiting the French attack. The first army was the largest and also had the furthest to travel in the coming weeks, they were required to march all the way west and south of Paris a distance of hundreds of miles. The entire attack would be on a very tight schedule, a schedule not in the original Schlieffen plans but introduced later by Moltke, and the First army was scheduled to be in Paris in around 40 days.
Over the last 100 years the Schlieffen plan has been both lauded for its ambition and grandeur and criticized for basically the same reasons. It ignored some political realities in 1914. It required the Germans to invade Belgium, something that would most likely trigger Britain to enter the war against Germany. Many historians compare the German’s reliance on the plan to betting everything on one roll of the dice. I tend to fall on the side of it being the best plan the Germans could have had in August 1914 and while it wasn’t perfect it still nearly succeeded. The plan did tend to ignore some physical realities, the German soldiers would have to walk all the way to Paris and by the end of it they were collapsing in exhaustion. I believe that the biggest problem was that it was simply too far ahead of its time. The Germans would use a similar plan during World War 2 during their 1940 invasion of France. This plan, developed by Erich von Manstein, had the benefit of utilizing mechanized and armored troops. However the German troops who on August 4th would begin the war by besieging the Belgian fortress town of Liege did not possess the luxuries that the next generation of German soldier would use.
Those were the plans that were put into motion in August 1914. Each nation had prepared for the eventual war and they had planned for action based on their national goals and the realities of their armies. Some of these plans would be mostly forgotten in the years after the war while some, namely Plan XVII and the Schlieffen Plan, would be studied by generations of military leaders. By the first week of August the battles in Belgium had already begun as the Germans started their big right hook into northern France. Next week we will begin following these events. The Germans move into Belgium, the French attack in Alsace-Lorraine, and the British finally arrive in France, the next few weeks should make for some action packed episodes.