The first months of war resounded with the collision of the war plans pored over for decades by the general staffs of Europe. The original German plan for a two-front war, drafted by Helmuth von Moltke the elder, had called for taking the offensive against Russia and standing on the defensive in the rugged Rhineland.
The plan showed military prudence and complemented the stabilizing diplomacy of Bismarck. But Alfred, Graf von Schlieffen, presided over the German military in the era of Kaiser William’s Weltpolitik and adopted a more ambitious and risky course. His plan, conceived in 1891 and completed by 1905, envisioned a massive offensive in the west to knock out the compact French forces in six weeks, whereupon the army could shift eastward to confront the plodding Russians. But a quick decision could be achieved in France only by a vast enveloping action.
The powerful right wing of the German army must descend from the north and pass through the neutral Low Countries. This would virtually ensure British intervention. But Schlieffen expected British aid to be too little and too late. In sum, the Schlieffen Plan represented a pristine militarism: the belief that all factors could be accounted for in advance, that execution could be flawless, that pure force could resolve all political problems including those thrown up by the plan itself.
In the event, the Germans realized all of the political costs of the Schlieffen Plan and few of the military benefits.Like the Germans, the French had discarded a more sensible plan in favour of the one implemented. French intelligence had learned of the grand lines of the Schlieffen Plan and its inclusion of reserve troops in the initial assault. General Victor Michel therefore called in 1911 for a blocking action in Belgium in addition to an offensive into Alsace-Lorraine. But this required twice the active troops currently available. France would either have to give up the Belgian screen or the offensive. The new chief of staff, J.-J.-C.
Joffre, refused to believe that Germany would deploy reserve corps in immediate combat and gave up the screen. By October 1914 all the plans had unraveled. After the German defeat in the Battle of the Marne, the Western Front stabilized into an uninterrupted line for 466 miles from Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast south to Bapaume, then southeast past Soissons, Verdun, Nancy, and so to the Swiss frontier. Both sides dug in, elaborated their trench systems over time, and condemned themselves to four years of hellish stalemate on the Western Front.The situation was little better on the other front.
A necessary assumption of the Schlieffen Plan was the inadequacy of the Russian rail network to support a rapid offensive. By 1914, however, railroads through Poland were much improved, and the Russian general staff agreed to take the offensive in case of war to relieve the pressure on France. Similarly, the Germans had asked the Austrian commander, Conrad von Hotzendorf, to attack Russia and ease the threat to Germany. Austria also had a two-front war, however, and an army too small to fight it. Owing to penury and its nationality problems, the monarchy fielded fewer battalions in 1914 than it had in the war of 1866.
As the saying went, Austria was always “en retard d’une armee, d’une annee et d’une idee” (“one army, one year, and one idea behind”). Austria’s solution was to send one army south against Serbia and one to Galicia against the Russians and to deploy a third as need required. The reserves, a third of Austria’s already outnumbered forces, spent the opening battles shuttling back and forth on the rails. Austria failed to penetrate Serbian defenses, while the Germans smashed the Russian attack into East Prussia. In the east, too, stalemate set in.By mid-1915 the Germans had overcome supply problems and were better prepared for trench warfare than the Allies.
They also pioneered the concept of “defense in depth,” making a second trench line the main barrier to assault. Allied generals responded with longer and denser artillery bombardments but thereby relinquished the element of surprise. Such tactics turned western battlefields into seas of wreckage, with a “storm of steel” raging above, and condemned hundreds of thousands of men for the sake of a few thousand yards of no-man’s-land. Allied attacks in 1915 cost the British more than 300,000 casualties and the French 1,500,000.
The only German initiative, the Second Battle of Ypres, introduced poison gas to the Western Front. But no commander could see a means of breaking the deadlock, and all confessed their strategy to be one of attrition.