WWI, contrary to popular belief, was not just a war about sitting tight in a trench while being shelled silly, all whilst the officers have no idea how to deal with any of the modern weaponry. Strategy adapted throughout the war. Traditional marching orders and the previous methods of looking at combat were discarded as the trenches grew deeper and the Race to the Sea ended without a flanking position. What came out of this? How did tactics and Strategic Planning differ? To answer those questions one has to look at how war was thought about before the Great War. Particularly how the various nations thought they were going to conduct WWI. This answer both how the fighting stagnated and why the powers of Europe found themselves
The most famous military plan for the war was the one construed by the Germans. Namely one Staff-General, Count Alfred Von Schlieffen. He devised a plan of how German ought to deal with its continual nemesis France after the 1894 treaty that allied them to Russia. This forces Germany to consider the realities of a two front war with two of the more powerful nations in Europe, both of whom have numerical superiority, and drastically higher conscription rates (this was Bismarck’s nightmare). This left Schlieffen to deduce that the only war to win this conflict is to defeat the faster mobilizing France first. No by a frontal assault on the fortified regions abbutting Alsace and Lorraine. (Both of which would be targets for France to reacquire after the disastrous Franco-Prussian war.) But by maneuvering roughly 90% of the German army through Belgium taking the key rail-line of Liege and striking into the less fortified and less prepared French-Belgian border. While the remaining divisions in Alsace and Lorraine were to lure the French army into attacking by retreating across the Rhine into more defensible positions, forcing the French, in their glory-lust to take Alsace Lorraine and be too far extended to move back to defend Paris, a wing of the divisions from Belgium would then encircle the French army and France would be again humiliated by the numerically inferior German army. Leaving only the question of crossing the Marne and dealing with a skeleton crew manning ‘Fortress Paris’ (Verdun to Fort Douaumont). After this the German army would have to reel back to the Eastern Front to take up a ridged defense against the vast Russian army.
When this was conceived in 1905-6 this was a brilliant plan, one that likely would have resulted in a repeat of the Franco-Prussian War. But there was one glaring problem with it. The plan did not count on Britain sending expeditionary forces to defend Belgium’s neutrality, nor did it account for Belgium arming itself better. These changes in the state of Europe as well as Helmuth Von Moltke the Younger’s Schlieffen’s replacement (not to be confused with his uncle, one of the heroes of the Franco-Prussian War), the decision to not retreat across the Rhine and to not let any piece of German territory fall into enemy hands. Thus the Schlieffen Plan failed to deliver German victory. The assault stalled at the Marne, after taking three weeks just to take Liege (well behind schedule), and the French army could recover, move and adapt to their defenses. This gave Russia the time it needed to mobilize its large army across the vastness of the Russian Empire. Germany was only saved on the Eastern Front by the crafty planning
Other nations had issues choosing the correct plan for the conflict. Austria had three plans for a conflict in the Balkans available, one for dealing with Serbia as an isolated threat, one for focusing on a mobilized Russian Army, and one for dealing with a small Russian force and the Serbians at once. Franz Conrad Von Hotzendorf, who was not informed quickly that Austria was at war with both Russia and Serbia, due in part to the ineptitude of the Austro-Hungarian government and in part to his own failures. And thereby the Austro-Hungarian forces were in disarray when the war started. Which proved catastrophic when one considers that all of these plans were based in the ‘Cult of the Offensive’ which meant they called on massive amounts of men to be called up, put in place and be readied to attack BEFORE war was to be declared, thus given them, the Offender the advantage. Austria wasted their advantage of planning and preparedness to blunder through much of the early war. This lead to Austrian forces struggling to deal with the smaller nation of Serbia in a timely manner and they too were ill-prepared for when Russia actually got their army to the border.
Other nations strategies were slightly more complicated and hidden with a great deal of secrecy. Italy was on the surface part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary (thanks to Otto Von Bismarck). When war would eventually break out in 1914 Italy considered Austria-Hungary the aggressor, not a defender, and thereby used their stance that was allowed if Austria-Hungary were to declare war on Russia. They declared their neutrality. This annoyed the Central Powers quite significantly, since Austria-Hungary considered themselves defending their integrity, and the Germans would have liked support in their efforts in France. Italy however had in secret promised France that they would not enter a war with them, but would instead enter the war against their traditional enemies the Austrians, whom they had to get Venice off of earlier and with whom they still had numerous territorial disputes. This occurred due to the apparent weakness of the Austrian forces, as noticed by Italian General Luigi Cadorna. The Italian forces plans for if a war were to happen with the Austrians previous to 1915 were that of a static defense with precise and definite counter offenses, not an offensive doctrine. The realities of the war and Italian over zealousness saw this front being relatively unsuccessful, largely due to the constraints of the rough Alpine terrain and Austria finally winning in Serbia, freeing up more men for this and the Eastern Front.
France’s prewar planning resulted in plan XVII which called for selective and rapid deployment of the French army. So as to not be humiliated by the quickly deploying Germans. It also called for a massive system of fortresses and dug in positions to be erected throughout the French frontier regions to slow any assault on Paris. It also relied on the forces of their ally Russia, to mobilize by the time these positions had to be manned. Thereby the German build up would have to defend Prussia and the forces assaulting the positions would drastically lessen. However the plan also called for an offensive, since its origins in plan XI. This offensive was to be a push into Alsace Lorraine as well as a counter offensive in the Frontiers along the Belgian Border. The French attempts to take Alsace-Lorraine would prove to be disastrous resulting in tens of thousands of casualties for little if any gain. Also the French advances past their fortifications in the north led to a seriously lack of fielded manpower in the region resulting in a string of German Victories until the Battle of the Marne. Plan XVII was a disaster, saved only by the fact that the execution of the Schlieffen plan was flawed, and the entrance of additional British forces.
British strategy entering WWI involved establishing naval dominance over the increasing navy of potential rival, Germany. The British navy however outspent the German navy by a factor of two to one, and could not have been caught up with. The successful British-led blockade of the Central Powers would go on to be a feat of logistics and force several neutral nations to join one side or the other. In addition to naval blockade the British Army was sent as an expeditionary force to bolster France and Belgium, to some success, stalling the Germans enough that the Schlieffen Plan in all its rigorous scheduling faltered. In addition to this British Command was split into two camps and two strategies. One was the Westerners, those that attributed success in the Western Front and focused on it to win the war. The other was the Easterners who sought to make a new front in the East against the ‘poor man of Europe’ the Ottomans, thinking that they would be easier targets. This lead to the Dardanelles and the disaster at Gallipoli. This after the disastrous misadventures in the Baltic lead to a growing sense that military planners were throwing away British manpower. Then came the Mesopotamian front and the Arab revolt. Where the Easterners saw some success. One of which used little British manpower. There was also contemporaneously a front opened in Greece, to some questionable legality given that Britain only entered the war to secure the independence and neutrality of Belgium. That being said the forces in Greece and Mesopotamia offered fronts with less high casualty rates that the massacre that was the Western Front.
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