The Schlieffen Plan, the Western, and Eastern Front

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Schlieffen Plan and the Western Front

The German military had long since assumed that it would one day have to fight a war against France and Russia, and it had worked out a war plan, known as the Schlieffen Plan after the officer who designed it. The Schlieffen Plan called for an immediate march on France through Belgium, which stood between their borders. The German army would then march south, capture the capital city of Paris, and thus sew up a quick victory on the Western Front before the Russians had time to muster an attack on Germany from the east.

However, the army did not proceed according to the Schlieffen Plan. Due to disagreements among the commanding officers, the army turned aside before reaching Paris, and met the French army on the Marne River. When the French unexpectedly won the Battle of the Marne, the Germans changed their plans; the Western Front would now become a setting for trench warfare. By this time, Britain had declared war on Germany as well.

Both sides dug hundreds of miles of trenches stretching roughly along the north-south axis of Europe, from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland. The trenches served the infantry on both sides as both home and fort through- out four years of fighting. The trenches were dreadful places, especially on the British-French side. The Allies had assumed the war would be over quickly and had dug the trenches hastily. They were always muddy, often knee-deep in rain water, crawling with lice and rats, sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. Soldiers had no way to keep themselves, their sleeping places, their rations, or their precious personal possessions clean or dry. The German trenches were somewhat more bearable; the German army had taken a much more methodical approach to trench-building, laying down board floors and installing electricity.

German and French trenches were only a few miles apart, with the zone between them labeled “no-man’s-land.” When the order came for attack, soldiers would leap out of the trenches and rush at the enemy trenches with their guns firing.

No-man’s-land had no cover; it was open and barren ground. For centuries, European soldiers had been fighting battles in which the armies clashed on open ground, with the stronger side usually winning a decisive victory in short order. The types of weapons used meant that most combat was up close and hand-to-hand; eighteenth- and nineteenth-century muskets and rifles had little accuracy over a long distance, and of course swords and sabers were only meant for hand-to-hand combat.

Modern weapons were entirely different. Machine guns, grenades, and other new weapons developed during the Industrial Revolution were most effective from a distance. They were best suited to an ambush-style combat, with soldiers firing on the enemy from the protection of trees, buildings, or, in this case, trenches. Since the attacking soldiers were charging forward across open ground, the defenders in the trenches could fire on them from a position of relative safety. Through four years of trench warfare, neither the Germans nor the French seemed to grasp this lesson; the generals continued to send their men forth from the trenches to be slaughtered by enemy fire. Millions of soldiers died on both sides, and neither side ever advanced its lines more than a few miles into enemy territory. The Western Front was a stalemate throughout most of the war.

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