The First World War began with precision, acting like clockwork against plans that had been projected up to almost a decade before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the subsequent declaration of war on Germany by Britain. Yet by December 1914 the Western Front had reached stalemate, the exact opposite of what each army had set out to achieve. The question still remains as to how the ultimate attack transformed to stalemate in such a small time period.
The scenario is paradoxical in that such exactitude and precision planned years before the outbreak of war, resulted in massive failure by all parties involved. The war plans of the Great Powers, most significantly Germany’s Schlieffen Plan and France’s Plan XVII tailored this exactitude and thus led to the development of stalemate. Several other factors accounted for the development of stalemate, including lack of communications, training and tactics and the size of the armies.
Individuals that played a key part in both advantaging and disadvantaging the armies of their nations exacerbated these factors. France’s Joseph Joffre and Germany’s Helmuth von Moltke are clear examples of individuals who heightened the events leading to the development of stalemate on the Western Front. The Schlieffen Plan has been both praised and criticised by Historians. It has been called “a conception of Napoleonic boldness”, yet reprimanded for failing to consider the development of railways.
Historian L. C. F Turner praised it in The Significance of the Schlieffen Plan from a military and strategic perspective as it “offered a real prospect of forcing a decision in the west and avoiding the agonising trench war deadlock of 1914-1918”. Yet he denounced the plan for its “immorality… the political folly of violating Belgian neutrality, and the almost reckless indifference to British intervention”. However it is important to remember that the Schlieffen Plan was modified by Schlieffen’s successor, Helmuth von Moltke who was a courageous soldier but not a bold or daring Chief of the General Staff.
He himself recognised this when once saying, “I lack the capacity for risking all on a single throw”. Yet he seemed to risk plenty in modifying the Plan, bringing with it disastrous consequences for Germany in 1914. The Schlieffen Plan already had several faults, for it violated Belgian neutrality by invading Belgium, assumed that Russia would not mobilise for at least six weeks, inadequately protected the Eastern Front and did not take in to account human misfortunes which would alter the strict timetable structure of the Plan.
These faults meant that the plan was extremely inflexible and left Moltke with many issues that only a strong-minded, committed Chief of General Staff could deal with. Through Germany violating Belgian neutrality, the Great Power established itself as violent and forceful. This was confirmed by German historian, Gerhard Ritter who wrote in the 1960s that “Germany was therefore obliged by purely technical necessities to adopt, before the whole world, the role of a brutal aggressor – an evil moral burden which… e have not got rid of even today”. Turner further added to this theory when he commented, “The Moltke-Schlieffen Plan not only stampeded Germany into committing gross political errors in 1914, but it also accelerated the whole tempo of the crisis in Eastern Europe and went far to make a peaceful solution impossible. ” Moltke’s tactical flaws were made most obvious when he transferred two army corps from the German right wing and sent them to the exposed Russian Front, further weakening the army in the west and preventing the German advance.
Moltke’s faults would come to an end on September 14 when he suffered a nervous breakdown and was replaced by General Erich von Falkenhayn, described by historian John Terraine as “a man of decided ideas who possessed the nerve which von Moltke had conspicuously lacked”. Hence the Schlieffen Plan, as it was implemented in 1914, made a diplomatic solution of the crisis virtually impossible. It failed to achieve the decisive German victory against France in the west and did not solve Germany’s problem of a two-front war.
Rather, it provided an opportunity for the development of trench warfare and thus the long-standing stalemate on the Western Front. Plan XVII was similar to the Schlieffen Plan in that it was committed to offensive action against Germany, and had several miscalculations and assumptions. These included the French underestimating the strength of the German army in not taking into account Germany’s use of reserve troops and also assuming that German troops would attack mainly Alsace-Lorraine, and not strike through Belgium. Plan XVII had only been presented one year prior to the July Crisis by General Joffre, Commander-in-Chief.
One of the main faults was that the plan was not specific about military coordination between the French and British armies. This can be greatly attributed to Joffre’s reluctance to share his concept of operations with his political superiors and subordinates, as well as his inability to commit himself to a course of action prior to the war. This became apparent in a meeting with his army commanders in early August 1914. When General Yvon Dubail, commander of the First army asked for additional troops for his attack into Alsace, Joffre coyly responded, “That’s your plan, not mine”.
Additionally, the French plan failed to allocate manpower resources adequately in order to provide security as well as undertaking offensive operations in 1914. The Plan was heavily committed to the offensive strategy and failed to consider the advantages that France’s geographic makeup provided. For if Joffre had considered France geographically he would have concluded that there were good reasons for France to adopt a defensive strategy. However the plan ignored the difficulties of the terrain for the French soldier- the high hills of the Ardennes, intersected by valleys and generally sloping uphill from the French side.
At the beginning of the war, Joffre appeared unable to commit and foresee the strategies of Germany. In his memoirs Joffre explained that even though Plan XVII established the broad outlines of possible maneuvers, it was “impossible to fix a definitive maneuver for execution a long time in advance”. Joffre’s faults resulted in a quick German advance. With the French failure in Lorraine, and the German defeat of French and British forces at Charleroi and Mons, Plan XVII was in ruins. The direction of attack as set out in the plan had been completely misguided.
Sustained by his confidence in the value of the offensive, the vulnerability of the Germans to a two-front war by Russia and France, and the probability of the Germans making their main attack through Belgium, Joffre waited for the right time for his ultimate attack. However the Germans proved more resourceful, resilient, numerous and unpredictable that what he had expected. Had it not been for German modifications to the Schlieffen Plan at this stage, the French would have faced near certain annihilation.
Joffre was by far a more tactical and level-headed leader than Moltke and he was able to redeem himself in September. At this point he was able to regroup French forces and take the initiative against the Germans at the Battle of the Marne, achieving numerical superiority by placing 27 allied divisions against 13 German divisions. Yet this was after abandoning Plan XVII. Communications played a key role in the offensive war, deterring the strategies and thus eventually leading to stalemate. On both sides the High Commands were located several kilometres behind the fighting.
This resulted in confusion between the soldiers and the High Commands, as by the time information was passed back and forth it was often obsolete. During the Battle of the Marne, Moltke directed the whole campaign from headquarters that were too far behind the fast moving German front lines. By being stationed in Luxembourg, he was not able to obtain a clear picture of the events as he relied too much on the optimistic reports of the armies. This gave the Allied forces more of an opportunity to bring up reserves and shift troops from the Lorraine front to Joffre’s left wing, without being matched by the German troops.
The German army had a complicated chain of command where at no time was a soldier ever free from supervision by a superior officer. At the top of the chain was the Kaiser followed by Moltke. Of course, Generals quickly lost control of the battle once troops went ‘over the top’. Additionally, the field telephone service between the front lines and the rear command was severed immediately once the artillery barrage began, which made it even harder for soldiers to act under their superior’s orders.
The time lag in sending and receiving orders generally allowed the defender to organise a counter attack, and stop the advance. The Allies reciprocated this misfortunate as they also faced similar communication problems. Communications were also strained between Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and Charles Lanzerac, commander of the 5th French Army, as neither trusted the other and their directives to one another contained vague detail and adopted a sarcastic tone.
The importance of communications was realised through the failure of the armies to organise themselves into a cohesive whole, necessary for the offensive strategy they were intent on using, and the defensive strategy they found themselves forced to use. The failure of communications can be associated with the defeat of the armies’ offense, leading to the development of stalemate by the end of 1914. The training and tactics of both the Germans and the Allies were united with one main aim: offense.
The understanding and importance of the offensive strategy was obtained from earlier battles such as the Franco-Prussian War, The Boer War and the Austro-Prussian War that are far more minimal than that of The Great War. The British, French and German generals continued to order traditional style “over-the-top” offensives as trained in the light and local conflicts mentioned above. The reality was that they simply did not understand the new technology at work in this first modern war, and remaining faithful to the horse in choosing it over machine guns.
As historian John Keegan wrote in The First World War: “The armies of 1914 remained Napoleonic in their dependence on the horse”. The armies of the Great Powers lacked the understanding and appreciation of developments in new technology. In underestimating the power of aviation and instead relying on trains, horses and marching, troops, ammunition and supplies were transferred at a much slower pace and the enemy could plug offensive strategies in time, allowing for a virtual standstill between the armies. The naiveti?? f the armies was symbolised by the common rifle that for many armies, including the French, still contained a bayonet on the butt. To expect for the style of warfare to be one-on-one, as in the American Civil War or the Franco-Prussian War, was extremely unknowledgeable when considering the caliber that these armies would later exhibit. The war moved from offensive to that of defensive as seen in the Battle of the Marne where the French and the BEF drove the Germans back across the Marne River. This proved effective until the Germans dug-in.
The French armies pushed against but could not penetrate Germany’s defensive positions, as the Germans, in turn, were unable to penetrate French positions or sweep around the French or British. The Generals were bewildered- at this point in European history defensive warfare was superior, and the best defense was not a good offense as they had believed. Rapid-fire machine guns made “over-the-top” offensives into death sentences for all soldiers involved and the immobility of the front made battles effectively pointless.
By the end of 1914, which saw the development of the stalemate, Lord Horatio Kitchener could see the faults of this traditional trench warfare in saying, “I don’t know what is to be done- this isn’t war”. If Kitchener was able to realise this in 1914, why was this tactic not removed and transformed? Put simply, it was because the German, British and French generals seemed to conclude that the only way to win was to attrit the enemy and to eliminate enough enemy soldiers to reduce manpower shortages to such a state where the opposing army stood at nothing.
This newly adopted defensive strategy led to the emergence of trench warfare, which would characterise the Western Front until 1918. With a designated land area separated by barbed wire and a thin strip of Earth eerily named “no-man’s land”, a stalemate between the Germans and the Allies developed. The size of the armies depicted the mistaken belief that size would lead to victory, yet many historians, such as A. J. P. Taylor, conclude that size impeded the quality and effectiveness of the armies: “The very size which had been designed to bring victory made it impossible for the armies to win or even to move”.
The sheer size of armies forced Generals to abandon tactics of movement that required cover and concealment because they believed that mass armies lacked the ability to make them work. Additionally, the combination of a mass army with the rapid pace required for the effective fulfillment of war plans, and the aftermath of battles, deaths and injuries diminished morale and brought many hundreds of troops to a point where they were eager to dig in.
Furthermore, the size of armies was intensified by the use of horses, which took up more space than food and ammunition. One of the earliest battles that saw massive blows to the size of the armies was the First battle of Ypres, as described by John Terraine in The Great War, “The intentions of both sides were thoroughly aggressive, though tempered by the experience they had undergone”. The battle had extreme significance for the British, with 58,000 officers killed, lowering morale greatly.
Even in such an intense battle, the size of each army managed to still be so mighty that problems attributed to the sheer size of the divisions still remained. In a war which began with such force and veracity, where the Germans believed they would be victorious by Christmas time, many factors emerged that seemed to hinder both sides from achieving what they had set out to do. Like with any war, the devastation from the unnecessary deaths can never be consoled by the victory of one side.
What is perhaps worse is to have no victory at all, but rather an ongoing battle of attrition, eating away at each side until there is no hope and no reason left. The embodiment of this downfall was the stalemate that developed by the end of 1914 until 1918, as a result of the failure of the Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII, communication problems, training and tactics, and the size of armies, on top of the inadequacy of Commanders such as Helmuth von Moltke and Joseph Joffre.
These factors can be attributed to the development of the stalemate on the Western Front by the end of 1914 that led to the horror of trench warfare for thousands of German and Allied troops, including Officer Rudolph Binding from the BEF who wrote, “When one sees the… corpses, and corpses, streams of wounded one after another, then everything becomes senseless… so that one feels that all human beings are doomed in this war”.