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The Nations Involved in WWI

Between the Wars

Bismarck

Declaration of War (American)

Flanders Field

Gavrilo Princip

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Marne

Otto Dix

Passchendaele

Pershing

Sasson

Schlieffen Plan

Somme

Submarine

Verdun

Wilfred Owen, "Gas"

Woodrow Wilson

World War One Battles

Letters from the Front

Edward Luckart

Albert Smith

A Special Christmas Story

Christmas 1914

Music from World War One

Over There

Long Way To Tipperary

Pack Up Your Troubles

 

World War One, The Schlieffen Plan

The War Strategy,

World War I, the first of the great coalition wars of the 20th century, was an important landmark in the story of the evolution of modern strategy. Never was the phenomenon of cultural lag as applied to warfare more clearly demonstrated. Beginning in the accepted mold of strategic planning popular since 1870, it soon ran head on into countertrends that were altering the very bases of strategic action and that strategic thinking in the intervening years had not yet fully grasped. Despite the experiences in the South African and Russo-Japanese wars with the machine gun as a defensive weapon of tremendous firepower, French and German military leaders at the outbreak of the war continued to put their faith in the offensive. In fact, they were convinced that new weapons and methods of control, the radio and telephone, actually improved the offensive capabilities of their mass armies. The universal underestimation of the effect of modern firearms on the defense had important repercussions on strategy both during and after the war.

The first moves in the war began in 1914 as French and German strategists had planned. In seven days the Germans concentrated more than three million men on the eastern and western fronts from mobilization points. In approximately the same time the French assembled 1.2 million men on the western front. Both sides made heavy use of railroad lines to speed assembly of great masses of troops. Both sides were determined to attack. Out of the movements of mass armies came the first battles on the frontiers. As Schlieffen had planned, the Germans catapulted into Belgium, but the enveloping wing was not as strong as Schlieffen, who had died the previous year, had wished. It was compressed into a smaller corridor by the political decision not to violate Dutch neutrality. The anticipated six-week campaign of annihilation against France envisaged by Schlieffen could not be executed. The French attack also soon hit a snag. Although the French army's right wing reached the Rhine, its center was endangered by a German pincer movement. Only a hasty retreat and a counteroffensive at the Marne River saved Paris. "Pinwheel strategy"--each side attacking and driving the enemy back--had stalled badly.

Meanwhile, on the eastern front, the German prewar strategy of holding until France had been quickly defeated was compromised by the desire of the Austrian ally to push against the Russians, partners of the French. The German victory at Tannenberg counterbalanced the Austrian defeat at Lemberg (Lvov). The eastern front became stabilized.

By the close of 1914 the war had become a stalemate on both the eastern and western fronts. The conflict had resolved itself into trench warfare from Switzerland to the English Channel. Machine guns and artillery took over the battlefield. The conflict had settled down into a war of position, and strategic mobility was lost. World War I became a classic case of arrested strategy.

The first phase of the war was over by the end of 1914. Prewar plans had failed; the war of movement, of mass offensives, had ceased. The big question thenceforth was how to dig the war out of the trenches. In answering that question important elements of grand strategy came into play. The heavy demands upon industry for munitions of war multiplied, and technology was called upon for new means--the tank and poison gas--of breaking the stalemate. Britain's naval blockade to starve Germany took on added significance. The German countermeasures helped bring the United States into the war in 1917. The United States was not prepared for war, however, and the buildup of its forces across the Atlantic was slow. The Germans, seeking in 1918 to forestall the full impact of U.S. might, put their resources into a great offensive that came close to succeeding. When the Americans finally arrived in force, they played a valuable part in military strategy in reducing the salients within the Allied lines. Eventually the German allies were defeated; the German armies reached a point of exhaustion and the homeland a stage of semi-starvation. Germany asked for an armistice.

International History Project