World War I/1914: The Battles in the West/Alliance vs. Entente

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Legacy of the Franco-Prussian War[edit]

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 left the German Empire the strongest power on continental Europe. Together with the complete humiliation of France, Germany obtained the French province of Alsace and part of Lorraine. The swiftness of the German victory had alarmed other countries in Europe and created an atmosphere that eventually led to World War I more than forty years later.

For France, the period from 1871 to 1914 was one of hatred of Germany. Although she was militarily beaten in 1870, and forced to pay a large indemnity to Germany, the natural wealth of France, her colonial empire, and her basic national unity enabled her to recover quickly. By 1914 France was second only to Germany among the powers on the continent of Europe. French desire to regain Alsace-Lorraine made it seem that a war of revenge was inevitable.

During this same period, Germany was consolidating her continental empire and expanding her industry at home and trade abroad. As a commercial and industrial nation, she was exceeded only by Great Britain, but her need for markets and raw materials created a desire for a colonial empire. Both Great Britain and France had numerous colonies, but Germany started her colonial search later. Thus she was forced to obtain her colonies in remote and less desirable regions - in southern Africa, bits of Asia, and the South Pacific. In order to maintain and protect this colonial system a fleet was necessary, so, at the end of the nineteenth century, Germany started to build a large navy. This naturally aroused the suspicions and hostility of Great Britain, who, as an island empire, wished to remain the supreme naval power.

Conflicts of Interest in Eastern Europe[edit]

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was slowly decaying. However, the Austrians had hopes of increasing their strength and territory in the Balkans at the expense of the even more decadent Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Hapsburg monarchy in Austria-Hungary was plagued with continuing internal unrest, caused by friction between the Germanic, Magyar, and Slavic peoples within the empire. This friction was increased by the desire of many of the Slavic peoples of the southern provinces to join neighboring Serbia. In addition, the ambitions of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans had antagonized Russia, which also had vital interests in this area.

The Russian Empire, although the largest nation in Europe, was in some ways even weaker than Austria-Hungary. Having been badly beaten in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, Russia was also weakened by internal revolutionary unrest. She was having difficulty in changing from an agrarian to an industrial economy, and in consolidating internal groups as diverse as those of Austria-Hungary. Nevertheless, Russia entertained ideas of expansion in the Balkans to gain an access to the Mediterranean Sea. This resulted in a conflict of interests with Austria-Hungary. It also caused the Austrians to believe that Russia was responsible for stirring up unrest among the Slavs in the Balkans.

The Alliances[edit]

These conflicting national interests in Western and Eastern Europe caused the major European powers to group themselves into protective alliance systems. The first steps were taken after the Franco-Prussian War by Germany's chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, who tried to preserve peace in Europe while strengthening the new German Empire. He soon realized that the friction between Russia and Austria-Hungary made it impossible for Germany to keep the friendship of both countries. So, in 1878, he concluded a defensive alliance with Austria-Hungary against Russia. Three years later Italy joined, to create the Triple Alliance. Germany and Austria agreed they would support Italy, if she were attacked by France, in exchange for Italian agreement to stay neutral in case of war between Austria-Hungary and Russia.

Bismarck also realized the possibility of an alliance between France and Russia against Germany (which actually occurred in 1893). To alance this, he attempted to maintain friendly relations with Britain. In 1890, however, young Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck from the chancellorship and soon aroused British suspicions by building up the German navy and creating a colonial empire in Africa and the Pacific. This led to an Anglo-French alliance in 1904, confirming Bismarck's earlier fears. By supporting Austrian ambitions in the Balkans, Wilhelm also embittered Russia, and this in turn led to an Anglo-Russian alliance. In 1907 these two alliances were joined in the Triple Entente - an alliance between Great Britain, France, and Russia.

The Triple Entente, offset by the Triple Alliance, divided Europe into two armed camps. In addition, several other lesser countries were involved indirectly in these alliances. Great Britain, France, and Germany had jointly guaranteed Belgian neutrality. Also, in order to prevent further Austrian expansion into the Balkans, and out of sympathy with her "little Slavic sister," Russia practically guaranteed aid to Serbia in case of an Austro-Hungarian attack.

The Military Staff[edit]

While European diplomats were busy concluding these alliances, there was comparable activity among military men. The primary reason for France's crushing defeat in 1870-71 was recognized to be the superiority of the German General Staff. Consequently, during the next forty years, all the powers attempted to develop efficient staff systems.

The German Army General Staff was the most select, and most highly trained in all Europe. The German solution to problems of military coordination was to place the burden on a minimum number of carefully selected, highly trained staff officers. This already-efficient staff was steadily improved in the years after the Franco-Prussian War.

The French developed an organization of four staff sections under a chief of staff, which was to become the model for the United States Army. The British had two principal staff sections under a chief of staff. The other major European countries imitated the systems of either Germany or France. The Austrian staff system was a poor copy of the German; the Russian system an even poorer copy of the French.

Another major factor in the defeat of France in 1870 had been lack of a well-prepared French war plan. Recognizing this fact, all of the European general staffs began developing war and mobilization plans designed to meet all possible combinations of opponents. The best known of these was the German Schlieffen Plan.

The Schlieffen Plan[edit]

In 1893, two years after Count Alfred von Schlieffen became Chief of the German Army General Staff, France and Russia signed their alliance. Schlieffen was aware of the dangers of fighting a major war on two fronts, and he recognized that France was the greater immediate threat. So he developed a strategic plan to defeat France quickly before Russia could mobilize and become a greater danger.

An attack through the difficult terrain and strong fortifications in the Alsace-Lorraine sector of the French border would be slow and costly, while an envelopment through the Swiss Alps was practically impossible. Schlieffen therefore decided to send a large enveloping force through southern Holland and Belgium. This attack would have the advantages of breaking through the weakly held Franco-Belgian border, and of surprising the French, who would not expect an attack through neutral Belgium and Holland.

Schlieffen planned to have the German right wing, pivoting on Metz, about seven times as strong as the left wing, which was to hold a defensive line from Metz to the Swiss border. Schlieffen rightly assumed that in war France would attack against the weaker German left wing in an attempt to regain Alsace and Lorraine, but he believed the combination of rugged terrain and German fortifications could stop any French attack without giving up much German territory. Schlieffen in fact wanted to induce the French to make such an attack on the German left, so that his sweeping right wing could swing behind the attacking French armies, which would then be crushed in a double envelopment between the two German wings.

On the Eastern Front a small German force was to hold against the slowly mobilizing Russians until Germany defeated France. Then Schlieffen's armies would be transferred to the East to defeat Russia.

After Schlieffen retired in 1905, he was succeeded by General Helmuth von Moltke, nephew of Field Marshal von Moltke of Franco-Prussian War fame. The younger Moltke was a different type of individual, and was faced with a changed situation by 1914. Although he still used the basic Schlieffen Plan, he modified it considerably to meet the new conditions.

Part of the new situation was that the Russian army, under pressure from France, could probably mobilize faster than Schlieffem had expected. Moltke believed this would require more troops to protect German East Prussia than Schlieffen had planned. Also, Moltke did not want to give up any Prussian territory, as Schlieffen had believed might be temporarily necessary.

On the Western Front, Moltke decided to make the left wing stronger than originally planned. This was partly because of his general desire not to give up any German territory, and partly because he thought that the important German Rhineland industrial area needed better protection. He also decided not to attack through southern Holland, perhaps believing Great Britain might not enter the war to defend Belgium if Holland was spared.

As a result of these changes, the German West Front right wing was only four times as strong as the left wing, instead of being seven times stronger, as Schlieffen had planned. Another disadvantage of these changes was that the two rightmost German armies would have to be funneled through the fortified bottleneck of Liège in Belgium.

French Plan XVII[edit]

In 1911 the French Commander in Chief, General Victor Michel, anticipated the Schlieffen Plan, and prepared a plan to attack through Belgium as soon as the Germans violated that country's neutrality. This meant reducing French strength along her eastern frontier, which was opposed by many in the government. They also feared that this plan might lead France to violate Belgium's neutrality accidentally, and thus might keep Britain from entering the war on the French side. Above all, since it meant abandonment of an immediate attack to recover Alsace-Lorraine, Michel's plan was not accepted, and he was replaced as commander in chief by General Joseph Joffre.

Between 1911 and 1914 Joffre developed a new war plan, called Plan XVII. It called for the French armies to concentrate along the border from Switzerland to Belgium and in event of war to attack and regain Alsace and Lorraine. Although Joffre realized that Germany might violate Belgium's neutrality, he believed that the German armies could not go west of the Meuse without becoming overextended. Informal planning with the British resulted in an arrangement whereby the British Expeditionary Force would occupy a position on the French left flank in the event of a general European war.

The primary weakness of Plan XVII was the fact that French intelligence sources did not discover the efficient state of training of the German reserves, which would allow the German army to have a greater initial first-line strength than the French expected. This actually gave the Germans a substantial numerical superiority over the French, and permitted a wider sweep to the west than Joffre had believed possible.