Saturday, 9 August 2014

Von Schlieffen is Spinning in his Grave

The man with the plan
This is my third post in the series on the Great War. Few families in Britain were untouched by this conflagration. Both my grandfathers fought. My maternal grandfather was a professional soldier in 1914 and fought in the first battles in August.  He was captured by the Germans and spent the next four years in captivity. My paternal grandfather joined as part of the patriotic wave which overtook all combatants. Eventually he fought on the Somme in 1916. I knew this man as as a child. He never spoke to me directly; he never spoke about the war to my father. In fact he spoke little.

I will continue to post on the Great War. In keeping with the chaotic nature of my mind, posts will be in no particular order with regard to chronology or theme.  

The initial battles on the Western front were marked by much marching and ferocious encounters. The Schlieffen plan envisioned the Germans moving rapidly in a great arc through Belgium and Northern France, sweeping all before them before crushing the remnants of the allied armies near Paris. Once Paris was taken it had been determined that the French would capitulate and the war in the west would be over. The German armies would then move east to take on the Great Bear. The German timetable allotted 6 weeks for this part of the war; it was an audacious plan and completely divorced from reality. The German High Command, with breathtaking arrogance, expected their armies to brush aside armed resistance as a man would bat away a fly. The German army was to move as an unstoppable machine, but even well designed machines break down sometimes, or at least become deficient in times of mechanical stress. The allies resisted fiercely, first in Belgium, and then in Northern France, thus introducing grit into the well oiled, German, war machine.

The French also had a plan. On the out set of war they attacked on the border with Germany in an attempt to regain the lost provinces of  Alsace-Lorraine. The Germans had anticipated this move and intended to fight a purely defensive war- a holding action while their attacking armies decided the war further to the north and east. The French attacked with great courage, spirit and elan. Consequently the French were slaughtered in great numbers by an enemy well prepared in defense. The situation so favoured the Germans that they started to attack hoping to take advantage of the French chaos.

Further to the east, the battles were reaching a crescendo. At a critical moment the Germans transferred troops to the Eastern front thus weakening the German right wing. The Russians had mobilised faster than the Germans had decreed and had invaded East Prussia. However, the local commander in East Prussia defeated both Russian armies before the reinforcements could effectively intervene. It is interesting to ponder whether this transfer of strength to the east would have made a difference to the ultimate outcome in the west; I suspect not. The German armies had been severely mauled and the soldiers were becoming exhausted. The allies were falling back on interior lines and becoming more effective in defense.

To the east of Paris the German advance faltered and became vulnerable to a flank attack. The German High Command perceived the danger and ordered a general retreat. The allies advanced and there was talk of allied soldiers entering Berlin by Christmas. Then the Germans did something that no one anticipated, least of all the Germans. They stopped retreating and started to dig in. A few men with machine guns could dominate the ground and cut down whole companies of men. The allied advance halted and trench warfare began by default. Trench warfare would now dominate the war in the west almost to the end.      

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