Gray Tide In The East (2nd Edition) by Andrew J. Heller

EXTRACT FOR
Gray Tide In The East (2nd Edition)

(Andrew J. Heller)


Chapter One: Berlin, August 1, 1914

General Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke marched down the corridors of the Hohenzollern royal palace, looking neither to the left nor to the right. A Colonel followed, carrying his briefcase. One look at the General’s face, with its deeply furrowed brow, its mouth that turned downward in a thin line and droopy gray mustache, would be sufficient for any reasonably impartial observer to conclude that here was a man who took a serious view of life. Nor would this same observer be surprised to learn that General von Moltke was known to his subordinates on the German Imperial General Staff (behind his back, naturally) as der traurige Julius, which might be rendered into English as “Gloomy Gus”. In truth, the Chief of the General Staff was a pessimist by nature, and the day’s events had done nothing to brighten his outlook.
Moltke had only this morning issued the orders that would set the Imperial war machine into motion, sending the right wing of the German Army sweeping across the fields of Belgium and on into northern France, beginning the march of three-quarters of a million men that would land a knockout punch on the left flank of the unsuspecting French Army.
In a few hours, elements of the 16th Division of the Fourth Army were scheduled to cross the border of Luxembourg to serve as the hinge for the main movement of the First, Second and Third Armies farther to the north. These three armies would deliver the key blow to the flank and rear of the French Army, a maneuver that would, if all went as planned, win the war in six weeks, in a single titanic battle of annihilation.
The movements of the Imperial Army had been calculated on a precise schedule, but suddenly a wrench had been thrown into the gears at the worst possible moment, by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Emperor had halted the invasion, completely bypassing the Table of Organization and disregarding the General Staff by sending an order directly to the commander of the 16th Division, ordering him to stop until he received an order to proceed from the Kaiser himself. He had then summoned Moltke to the palace, no doubt to explain this new brainstorm, the latest and worst timed instance of Imperial meddling in military affairs.
The operational plan for the invasion of Belgium had not originated with Moltke. He had inherited it from his predecessor, Count Alfred von Schlieffen. Schlieffen developed his plan in 1905, after the Russo-Japanese War had exposed some of the glaring deficiencies in the corrupt and ineffectual Czarist military establishment. Schleiffen’s approach was designed to take advantage of the Russian weaknesses revealed during the fighting against the Japanese in Siberia, particularly their slow rate of mobilization and poor logistics.
By 1905, the opposing military alliance systems of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy against the Dual Entente of France and Russia had been in place for a decade. Ever since, all of these Great Powers had steadily built their armies and navies in preparation for a future great war, although no one knew when the next war would come, nor why.
Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that the German General Staff had assumed that whenever the war finally did start, it would be fought on two fronts: against France in the West, and Russia in the East, foes who presented very different strengths and weaknesses.
Modern, industrialized France was a reasonably compact nation, with an extensive railroad system, a good road network and an efficient military organization. She could be counted on to mobilize her army quickly - as quickly as Germany, in fact.
Russia, on the other hand, was an enormous, sprawling country, with fewer miles of railway than her ally (and far fewer in proportion to the area served), primitive roads, and a notoriously corrupt and incompetent military establishment. The Russian Army, moreover, had been thoroughly humiliated by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. For these reasons, German war planners calculated that the Russians would be at least eight weeks behind both Germany and France in mobilizing their forces after the war broke out.
The military geography of the East and West provided another stark contrast. Germany’s border with France stretched from the thickly forested and nearly roadless Ardennes in the north, through the rugged Vosges Mountains down to the Swiss border. This terrain was unsuitable for the rapid movement of large armies, and the border was protected by a series of fortresses on the French side from Verdun to Belfort, fortifications built for the express purpose of meeting and repelling a German invasion. In this country, defenders would have all the advantages and attackers none. Progress there would be measured in meters rather than kilometers and the meters would be purchased with blood. Schlieffen, like his predecessors, concluded that attacking here would be folly, and he refused to consider it.
In the East, however, the rolling farm country of Russian Poland and the Ukraine offered plenty of scope for maneuvering great masses of men, and even more for utilizing Germany’s greatest military asset: its Krupp artillery, the finest in the world. Moreover, with such a vast country to attack, it would be relatively easy for the invaders to find weak points to break through the Russian lines, as they could not be strong everywhere, especially if they were as slow to mobilize their forces as expected.
Therefore, the obvious thing to do was to take advantage of Russia’s presumed inability to mobilize quickly, by sending the bulk of the mobile striking forces East, to knock the Czar’s huge but disorganized armies (the so-called “Russian steamroller”) out of the war before they could become effective, or at least dislocate her mobilization. Indeed, this had been the basis for the German war plans as prepared by the Imperial General Staff before 1905, when Schlieffen was appointed.
The new Chief rejected this approach. Russia might be slow, its army inefficient and its General Staff incompetent, but there were two factors that weighed against the possibility of a quick decision in the East.
One was the sheer size of the opponent. There were just too many kilometers of Russia, endless kilometers over which an invading army’s supplies had to be hauled by mule-drawn wagons on abysmal roads (where there were any roads at all), or over the inadequate rail network. As invaders had discovered over the centuries, campaigning in Russia was all too likely to become a logistical nightmare.
The second factor was the presence of the Russian General who had defeated some of the greatest military geniuses in European history, including Charles XII of Sweden and Bonaparte: General Winter. Schlieffen had not forgotten the fate of Napoleon’s Grande Armeé, which lost two-thirds of its men during the retreat from Russia in the terrible winter of 1812. Although all generals hoped to emulate Napoleon, Schlieffen had no desire to follow the great Corsican’s footsteps in that respect.
All things considered, it was clear to Schlieffen that France was the more dangerous foe and, paradoxically, the one who could be defeated more quickly. Since France was a comparatively small country, its armies would be concentrated in a relatively small area. They were sure to be in the north and east at the outset, in position to be enveloped and destroyed in a short, sharp campaign.
Schlieffen therefore proposed that the German Army put its muscle into an overpowering mobile striking force on the right wing, in the north, then launch it along the natural invasion route that had been used by invading armies marching to and from France for centuries: through the Low Countries, specifically Belgium. The weight of this invasion would pivot on Luxembourg and stretch across Belgium to the sea, so that the right wing would overlap the French left before it wheeled inward towards Paris. Schlieffen directed, “Let the last man on the right brush his sleeve in The Channel.”
He expected the French to commit the bulk of their forces to attack in Alsace and Lorraine along the Franco-German border, where they would become entangled in the mountains and be unable to extricate themselves in time to meet the blow from the north that would land on their rear and crush them.
As a bonus, the great turning movement of the right wing would also result in the capture of Paris, or at least in isolating the city from the rest of the country. Since practically all the major lines of communication in France, including the railways, ran through the French capital, even if her field armies somehow escaped destruction from the initial blow, France would be virtually paralyzed by this alone. Schlieffen predicted that the campaign to be over in six weeks, with the French Army either compelled to surrender en masse or to be so badly mangled as no longer constitute a threat. After that, the bulk of the German divisions could be shipped back east to deal with the Russians who, he calculated, would still not be ready.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen was obsessed by his plan. It dominated his thoughts even on his deathbed, in 1913. His last words reputedly were, “Only make the right wing strong.” By the time Moltke was appointed Chief of the General Staff following Schlieffen’s retirement in 1906, his predecessor’s plan had become the military equivalent of the Gospel: sacred writ. It was no longer a plan; it was The Plan. Moltke approved of The Plan, as both brilliant and, like many other brilliant ideas, simple in conception. He tinkered with the details as the German Army expanded between 1905 and 1914, adding more men to the right wing and also adding strength to the left, but he did not alter the basic pattern.
Moltke assured anyone who asked that The Plan was perfect, but he somehow could not rid himself of certain nagging doubts. It troubled him that the invasion route would go through Belgium, whose neutrality Germany had guaranteed in the Treaty of London in 1839. Moltke was not concerned about the small Belgian Army, which he dismissed as a military nonentity, but he was worried about Great Britain.
Britain, like France, Russia, Austria and Prussia (replaced by Germany in 1871), had guaranteed Belgium’s perpetual neutrality against any and all invaders. If Germany invaded Belgium, the English were likely to enter the war on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance. Schlieffen had of course been aware of this when he formulated The Plan, but he discounted the ability of the small British Army, expected to be no more than two divisions at the outset, to have any substantial effect on the decisive opening campaign. Schlieffen calculated that by the time the British were able to raise an army big enough to affect the outcome of the war, the French would be beaten and the war in the West would be over.
Moltke himself was not so sure. He believed that a modern, industrialized country like France, when fully mobilized for war, could be defeated only after many months, perhaps even years, of war. He was impressed by the ability of Russia to carry on the war against Japan in 1905, even after its fleets had been shattered and its armies operating at the end of a 3,000-mile supply line. And Russia was far from being industrialized to the degree that France was.
Moreover, if The Plan miscarried, not only would Germany have to face the army of another Great Power (for given time, the English would surely raise a mass army, if they entered the war), but would also suffer the effects of the inevitable blockade by the Royal Navy, which could prove decisive, if the war did not end as quickly as predicted by Schlieffen.
Schlieffen’s operational plan had been inspired by the victory of the Carthaginian general Hannibal at Cannae over the Romans, where 80,000 legionnaires had been slaughtered in a single day, when the Carthaginians enveloped both the Roman flanks. Moltke was not always successful in silencing the little voice that reminded him Carthage had lost that war. On his bad days, he could hear the voice of his uncle, the great Field Marshal Moltke, warning, “No plan long survives contact with the enemy.”
But it was time to put all the whisperings of doubt behind him, Moltke told himself. The Plan was The Plan, with railway timetables worked out to the minute, intricate arrangements for movement of the great siege guns, and precise scheduling of the each and every element of the invasion, and it was too late to start having second thoughts. The Army was on its way, and The Plan would play itself out, for better or for worse.
Or it would if the armchair generals could keep their hands off the controls and let professional soldiers like himself run the war. But of course, amateur generals had to meddle, didn’t they? And they most especially had to meddle if the amateur in question was the All-Highest, by the grace of God, Emperor of the Second Reich, Wilhelm II Hohenzollern.
When the Kaiser had, without consulting anyone and completely on his own initiative telegraphed the stop order to General Georg Fuchs, commander of the 16th Division, ordering him not to cross the border until he received authorization from Wilhelm, he threatened to throw the entire war machine into chaos, unless those orders were reversed immediately. Wilhelm had then summoned Moltke to the palace, no doubt to lay out some harebrained scheme of his own design, tossing aside the years of careful planning that had gone into the invasion. .
The Kaiser was a man of many sudden inspirations, most of them ill considered. The General had almost no respect for either the Emperor’s judgment or his military abilities. He smiled sourly when he recalled what Count Alfred von Waldersee, a previous Chief of the General Staff, had told the Kaiser after the latter had commanded the “enemy” army in the annual maneuvers back in 1891. Waldersee had crushed the Emperor’s forces decisively in the war games, and he evidently had wanted to put an end to the Kaiser’s military pretensions for good. During the post-mortem, he had said, “The plan had many traps, and your Majesty fell into every one of them.” Of course, Moltke recalled uneasily, Waldersee had been sacked by the Kaiser soon afterward.
He was ushered into Kaiser Wilhelm’s presence, followed by his aide Colonel Hentsch. In what had been a library, the Kaiser had set up a War Room, containing an enormous table covered by a map of both the Eastern and Western fronts, complete with little flags on stands indicating the positions of various military units. On the wall overlooking the map table was a full-length portrait of Frederick the Great in full battle array, looking sternly down on his descendant.
The General could see immediately that his sovereign was exultant. The Kaiser was clutching a sheet of blue paper. Since the Foreign Office typically used that type of paper for its official correspondence, Moltke guessed the blue sheet related news of some diplomatic development. (The Kaiser fancied himself to be as talented a diplomat as he was a general, and in this at least, Moltke agreed with him).
“Your Majesty sent for me?” he asked the Kaiser.
Wilhelm turned to him waving the piece of paper, his face flushed with triumph. His eyes flashed and his voice had the peculiarly high pitch it took on when the Emperor was excited. “This is a telegram from our Ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowski. He has a promise from the English Foreign Secretary that they will remain neutral and will keep the French out of the war as well, if we do not attack France!” he exclaimed.
Moltke did not respond. The telegram from London, he knew, was nonsense. The war with France had already been declared: it was too late to undeclare it, no matter what the English Foreign Secretary said. The Kaiser, who had never really accepted the necessity for the invasion of Belgium, was suffering from cold feet and was now trying to use the note from Lichnowski as an excuse to overrule his General Staff and set aside The Plan at the last moment.
Wilhelm paced excitedly back and forth as he spoke, still clutching the telegram. “This is our opportunity to escape the trap! If we invade Belgium, we would surely bring the English in against us. It was the fondest dream of my uncle Edward to destroy Germany, and me in particular. He worked his whole reign to ruin us. Even in death he reaches from the grave to strike down the living me!” he declaimed, gesturing dramatically skyward.
The Kaiser was obsessed with his uncle, the late King Edward VII of Great Britain. King Edward had loved France and the French, and his affection was returned: he was by all odds France’s favorite English sovereign. In the course of his many visits to France, both personal and official, Edward had become the face of the new British foreign policy of friendship towards France, which had led to the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 between the two countries, although he had neither directed nor originated the policy.
Wilhelm had believed for years that Edward was the architect of a scheme to encircle and crush Germany in a ring of enemies. In this he was mistaken, as by the end of the Nineteenth Century the British monarchy had almost no actual power over foreign policy or the governing of the country, but this did not prevent the Kaiser from thinking of and referring to his deceased royal uncle as “the Great Encircler”.
The Kaiser continued his tirade. “If we invade Belgium, the onus of the war will fall upon the German people, making us appear to be the aggressors in the eyes of the world, when in fact we are only defending our own existence. This was the Great Encircler’s plan, the trap he set at our feet, and we must not fall into it!” His voice was rising all through this speech, and by the end he was close to shrieking.
Moltke did not respond and his face remained expressionless. In his experience, the best way to handle the Kaiser when, as now, he was in the throes of inspiration, was to let him run down a little before answering. The Kaiser did not seem to notice the Chief of Staff’s lack of enthusiasm. He waved Moltke over to the big map table, and jabbed his finger at the mountainous French border.
“We are expecting the French to attack here, are you not?” the Kaiser asked, pointing his finger and sweeping his arm from Thionville in Lorraine, just south of Luxembourg, down to Mulhouse, a little north of the Swiss border. The majority of the little flag stands bearing the tri-color of France were clustered along that serpentine line, based on Intelligence reports that the bulk of the French Army was stationed along the frontier between Germany and France.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Moltke replied patiently. “So far as we know, the French have most of their strength concentrated between Sedan and the Swiss border. It is possible that their Fourth Army will attempt to attack in the Ardennes as well, in reaction to our entry into Belgium.” The General’s finger brushed the southern corner of Belgium on the map.
“Ha! Let them attack the neutral first,” the Kaiser exulted. “Then see if the English will come to pull their chestnuts from the fire.” He paused. “We have adequate troops in that region to handle a French invasion, I suppose,” he said thoughtfully, looking at the symbols for the units of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies in Alsace and Lorraine.
Moltke sighed. “We have …” he calculated silently, “720,000 men available on that sector of the front, most of them in fortifications. If necessary, we could even shift a corps from the Crown Prince’s army, if there seemed to be any danger of a breakthrough. Intelligence estimates that the maximum number of men the French have available for offensive operations in that region is between 650,000 and 750,000. They will not break through our positions in Alsace, or Lorraine, for that matter. But…”
“Don’t you see what this means, General?” the Kaiser continued. The pitch of his voice began to rise again, and his eyes flashed as he grew more excited. He waved the note from the Foreign Office again. “Don’t you see the opportunity we have? This…” the blue paper crackled as the Kaiser shook it vigorously, “…destroys any excuse the warmongers in England have to attack us. We will stand fast in the West, and send the right wing to the East to smash the Russians! If the French want to attack us, let them bloody their noses in the mountains. Let them invade Belgium, and the world will see who the true warmongers are. Who knows, if the French are foolish enough to violate Belgium, perhaps the English will declare war on them! And if they do not, why then, we will have only the Russian enemy to defeat, as the French are impotent to injure us and, best of all, there will be no excuse for my English cousins to engage in the war!”
Moltke decided that the time had come to deflate his sovereign. “Your Majesty, it cannot be done,” he told the Kaiser. “The deployment of millions of men cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on massive changes to the plan at this late date, you will not have an army ready for battle, but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate planning to complete, and once settled they cannot be altered.”
The Kaiser, derailed by this display of military expertise, had no reply. The enthusiasm seemed to rush out of him like the air from a punctured balloon, and he slowly sank into a convenient chair, gazing across the room at nothing.
The General gestured to Colonel Hentsch, who opened the briefcase and handed Moltke the written order the latter had prepared for the 16th Division to resume its advance into Luxembourg. He held it out to Wilhelm and said, “Your Majesty must sign this order.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Moltke wanted to take them back. The Kaiser, who had appeared to have run down like a clock whose mainspring had unwound, now suddenly sprang back to life. He rose quickly to his feet, and fixed a glare on his presumptuous subordinate. His face was dark red, his lips drawn back in a scowl. He was as furious as Moltke had ever seen him.
“Your… Majesty… must?” he repeated slowly, emphasizing each word, his eyes flashing.
The Chief of the General Staff stuttered, “Your Majesty, I simply meant…”
The Kaiser began in ominously low tones. “You dare to tell me what I ‘must’ do with my army, here in the Palace of the Hohenzollerns?” His voice rose until the last few words were almost bellowed. He paused, and then continued in a tone that suggested rage only barely contained. “I will tell you about ‘must’, General. You must follow the commands of your sovereign. You must produce for my signature a plan that will send my armies to East Prussia against the Russians instead of idiotically violating Belgium, a plan that will provide for all their supplies, ammunition and anything else they will need to fight. Today is Saturday. You must have this plan ready for my signature by midnight Sunday or I will have a new Chief of Staff Monday morning.”
“But Your Majesty…” Moltke began again.
The Kaiser cut him short with a sharp chopping motion of his hand. “Can you guarantee me victory over France in two months if we follow your fabulous plan?” He paused to study Moltke’s face. “Can you guarantee it, General?” he asked again, sharply.
Moltke hesitated. He uneasily recalled a long discussion he had had with the Kaiser two years earlier concerning the next war. Moltke had discoursed at length about his belief that any war between modern Great Powers would be long and difficult, and would exhaust the victors nearly as much as it would the losers. This belief directly contravened the key premise of The Plan, that modern, industrialized France could be defeated quickly in a short, sharp war. There was nothing wrong with Wilhelm’s memory. Wilhelm knew well enough that his Chief of the General Staff was himself far from convinced that France would be knocked out in the six weeks promised by The Plan.
“Your Majesty knows that there are no guarantees in wartime…” Moltke said, trailing off.
The Kaiser waited long enough to see if the General had anything more to add before he continued with growing confidence in his decision. “Now, we have a General Staff that in peacetime constantly makes and revises plans for every possible contingency. There is a plan for a war with Russia only, with France only, with France and England, with the United States, with Austria, with invaders from the Moon, most probably. You have a Director of the Military Railways on your staff, what’s his name, von Stamm…?”
“Staab,” Moltke corrected.
“Yes, that’s the one, von Staab. He does nothing but prepare alternative train schedules for all these contingencies. That is the principal function of the Director of the Military Railways, is it not? I must therefore believe that somewhere in his files and in the files of the General Staff are alternative arrangements for the movements I am now ordering you to make.”
The Sovereign was right about the contingency plans, of course. General Herman von Staab, Chief of the Military Railways, had prepared alternate plans for every conceivable contingency, as had his fellow department heads on the General Staff. Just last week, Moltke had reviewed a plan to seize the mountain passes in Northern Switzerland, in the event the need to invade France south of Mulhouse arose. That was about as likely to happen as… as an invasion from the Moon, but there was a plan for it. There was no doubt that von Staab had a plan in his files with rail schedules and train assignments for the transfer all the men, guns and supplies that had been ticketed for France via Belgium to Prussia that would send them all East instead, exactly as the Kaiser wanted
The mercurial Wilhelm was buoyant and overflowing with self-assurance at having won this debate over military strategy with his general. His tone now shifted from the argumentative to the inspirational. He struck a histrionic pose and began to speak as if addressing a large audience.
“This is the moment of supreme crisis for the German nation, General, the supreme moment of your career! Think what your uncle the great Field Marshal would have done, and act as he would have. Our gallant men at arms, all our people, our very national existence, all depend on you. Go, and do your duty to Kaiser and country!” The Kaiser pointed dramatically. “You are dismissed.”
“It shall be as you command, Your Majesty,” Moltke gritted out through clenched teeth. He snapped to attention, saluted, spun on his heel and marched from the room, with Hentsch following.
They walked unspeaking for a while, the only sound the clack of their boots on the marble floor. Then Hentsch said, “For a minute, I was sure he was going to buy that business about it being too late to make changes. Wilhelm may not be Frederick the Great, but he does understand the function of the General Staff.”
Moltke, whose face had been gradually turning the color of a ripe tomato, suddenly exploded. “Why is it Hentsch, that a civilian, an amateur, a man without the time, inclination or training for strategic thought, believes that he is qualified to set aside a war plan prepared by professionals? If the royal yacht ran into a storm, would he try to seize the wheel away from the ship’s captain?”
“War is far too important to be left to politicians,” Hentsch agreed. He continued, in a philosophical vein, “Still, what is done is done, and we must go on from here.”
As he strode through the halls of the Stadschloss, Moltke’s temper began to cool, and he pondered the simple truth in Hentsch’s words. The decision had been made, whether for good or ill only time would tell, and there was no turning back. He reflected that the Director of the Military Railways was going to arrange the delivery of nearly three-quarters of a million fighting men to the border of Russian Poland in about two weeks, and it would be well to have something for those men to do while they were there, besides picking wild strawberries. He frowned more deeply than ever, and quickened his pace.

Gray Tide In The East (2nd Edition) by Andrew J. Heller

EXTRACT FOR
Gray Tide In The East (2nd Edition)

(Andrew J. Heller)


Chapter One: Berlin, August 1, 1914

General Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke marched down the corridors of the Hohenzollern royal palace, looking neither to the left nor to the right. A Colonel followed, carrying his briefcase. One look at the General’s face, with its deeply furrowed brow, its mouth that turned downward in a thin line and droopy gray mustache, would be sufficient for any reasonably impartial observer to conclude that here was a man who took a serious view of life. Nor would this same observer be surprised to learn that General von Moltke was known to his subordinates on the German Imperial General Staff (behind his back, naturally) as der traurige Julius, which might be rendered into English as “Gloomy Gus”. In truth, the Chief of the General Staff was a pessimist by nature, and the day’s events had done nothing to brighten his outlook.
Moltke had only this morning issued the orders that would set the Imperial war machine into motion, sending the right wing of the German Army sweeping across the fields of Belgium and on into northern France, beginning the march of three-quarters of a million men that would land a knockout punch on the left flank of the unsuspecting French Army.
In a few hours, elements of the 16th Division of the Fourth Army were scheduled to cross the border of Luxembourg to serve as the hinge for the main movement of the First, Second and Third Armies farther to the north. These three armies would deliver the key blow to the flank and rear of the French Army, a maneuver that would, if all went as planned, win the war in six weeks, in a single titanic battle of annihilation.
The movements of the Imperial Army had been calculated on a precise schedule, but suddenly a wrench had been thrown into the gears at the worst possible moment, by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Emperor had halted the invasion, completely bypassing the Table of Organization and disregarding the General Staff by sending an order directly to the commander of the 16th Division, ordering him to stop until he received an order to proceed from the Kaiser himself. He had then summoned Moltke to the palace, no doubt to explain this new brainstorm, the latest and worst timed instance of Imperial meddling in military affairs.
The operational plan for the invasion of Belgium had not originated with Moltke. He had inherited it from his predecessor, Count Alfred von Schlieffen. Schlieffen developed his plan in 1905, after the Russo-Japanese War had exposed some of the glaring deficiencies in the corrupt and ineffectual Czarist military establishment. Schleiffen’s approach was designed to take advantage of the Russian weaknesses revealed during the fighting against the Japanese in Siberia, particularly their slow rate of mobilization and poor logistics.
By 1905, the opposing military alliance systems of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy against the Dual Entente of France and Russia had been in place for a decade. Ever since, all of these Great Powers had steadily built their armies and navies in preparation for a future great war, although no one knew when the next war would come, nor why.
Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that the German General Staff had assumed that whenever the war finally did start, it would be fought on two fronts: against France in the West, and Russia in the East, foes who presented very different strengths and weaknesses.
Modern, industrialized France was a reasonably compact nation, with an extensive railroad system, a good road network and an efficient military organization. She could be counted on to mobilize her army quickly - as quickly as Germany, in fact.
Russia, on the other hand, was an enormous, sprawling country, with fewer miles of railway than her ally (and far fewer in proportion to the area served), primitive roads, and a notoriously corrupt and incompetent military establishment. The Russian Army, moreover, had been thoroughly humiliated by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. For these reasons, German war planners calculated that the Russians would be at least eight weeks behind both Germany and France in mobilizing their forces after the war broke out.
The military geography of the East and West provided another stark contrast. Germany’s border with France stretched from the thickly forested and nearly roadless Ardennes in the north, through the rugged Vosges Mountains down to the Swiss border. This terrain was unsuitable for the rapid movement of large armies, and the border was protected by a series of fortresses on the French side from Verdun to Belfort, fortifications built for the express purpose of meeting and repelling a German invasion. In this country, defenders would have all the advantages and attackers none. Progress there would be measured in meters rather than kilometers and the meters would be purchased with blood. Schlieffen, like his predecessors, concluded that attacking here would be folly, and he refused to consider it.
In the East, however, the rolling farm country of Russian Poland and the Ukraine offered plenty of scope for maneuvering great masses of men, and even more for utilizing Germany’s greatest military asset: its Krupp artillery, the finest in the world. Moreover, with such a vast country to attack, it would be relatively easy for the invaders to find weak points to break through the Russian lines, as they could not be strong everywhere, especially if they were as slow to mobilize their forces as expected.
Therefore, the obvious thing to do was to take advantage of Russia’s presumed inability to mobilize quickly, by sending the bulk of the mobile striking forces East, to knock the Czar’s huge but disorganized armies (the so-called “Russian steamroller”) out of the war before they could become effective, or at least dislocate her mobilization. Indeed, this had been the basis for the German war plans as prepared by the Imperial General Staff before 1905, when Schlieffen was appointed.
The new Chief rejected this approach. Russia might be slow, its army inefficient and its General Staff incompetent, but there were two factors that weighed against the possibility of a quick decision in the East.
One was the sheer size of the opponent. There were just too many kilometers of Russia, endless kilometers over which an invading army’s supplies had to be hauled by mule-drawn wagons on abysmal roads (where there were any roads at all), or over the inadequate rail network. As invaders had discovered over the centuries, campaigning in Russia was all too likely to become a logistical nightmare.
The second factor was the presence of the Russian General who had defeated some of the greatest military geniuses in European history, including Charles XII of Sweden and Bonaparte: General Winter. Schlieffen had not forgotten the fate of Napoleon’s Grande Armeé, which lost two-thirds of its men during the retreat from Russia in the terrible winter of 1812. Although all generals hoped to emulate Napoleon, Schlieffen had no desire to follow the great Corsican’s footsteps in that respect.
All things considered, it was clear to Schlieffen that France was the more dangerous foe and, paradoxically, the one who could be defeated more quickly. Since France was a comparatively small country, its armies would be concentrated in a relatively small area. They were sure to be in the north and east at the outset, in position to be enveloped and destroyed in a short, sharp campaign.
Schlieffen therefore proposed that the German Army put its muscle into an overpowering mobile striking force on the right wing, in the north, then launch it along the natural invasion route that had been used by invading armies marching to and from France for centuries: through the Low Countries, specifically Belgium. The weight of this invasion would pivot on Luxembourg and stretch across Belgium to the sea, so that the right wing would overlap the French left before it wheeled inward towards Paris. Schlieffen directed, “Let the last man on the right brush his sleeve in The Channel.”
He expected the French to commit the bulk of their forces to attack in Alsace and Lorraine along the Franco-German border, where they would become entangled in the mountains and be unable to extricate themselves in time to meet the blow from the north that would land on their rear and crush them.
As a bonus, the great turning movement of the right wing would also result in the capture of Paris, or at least in isolating the city from the rest of the country. Since practically all the major lines of communication in France, including the railways, ran through the French capital, even if her field armies somehow escaped destruction from the initial blow, France would be virtually paralyzed by this alone. Schlieffen predicted that the campaign to be over in six weeks, with the French Army either compelled to surrender en masse or to be so badly mangled as no longer constitute a threat. After that, the bulk of the German divisions could be shipped back east to deal with the Russians who, he calculated, would still not be ready.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen was obsessed by his plan. It dominated his thoughts even on his deathbed, in 1913. His last words reputedly were, “Only make the right wing strong.” By the time Moltke was appointed Chief of the General Staff following Schlieffen’s retirement in 1906, his predecessor’s plan had become the military equivalent of the Gospel: sacred writ. It was no longer a plan; it was The Plan. Moltke approved of The Plan, as both brilliant and, like many other brilliant ideas, simple in conception. He tinkered with the details as the German Army expanded between 1905 and 1914, adding more men to the right wing and also adding strength to the left, but he did not alter the basic pattern.
Moltke assured anyone who asked that The Plan was perfect, but he somehow could not rid himself of certain nagging doubts. It troubled him that the invasion route would go through Belgium, whose neutrality Germany had guaranteed in the Treaty of London in 1839. Moltke was not concerned about the small Belgian Army, which he dismissed as a military nonentity, but he was worried about Great Britain.
Britain, like France, Russia, Austria and Prussia (replaced by Germany in 1871), had guaranteed Belgium’s perpetual neutrality against any and all invaders. If Germany invaded Belgium, the English were likely to enter the war on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance. Schlieffen had of course been aware of this when he formulated The Plan, but he discounted the ability of the small British Army, expected to be no more than two divisions at the outset, to have any substantial effect on the decisive opening campaign. Schlieffen calculated that by the time the British were able to raise an army big enough to affect the outcome of the war, the French would be beaten and the war in the West would be over.
Moltke himself was not so sure. He believed that a modern, industrialized country like France, when fully mobilized for war, could be defeated only after many months, perhaps even years, of war. He was impressed by the ability of Russia to carry on the war against Japan in 1905, even after its fleets had been shattered and its armies operating at the end of a 3,000-mile supply line. And Russia was far from being industrialized to the degree that France was.
Moreover, if The Plan miscarried, not only would Germany have to face the army of another Great Power (for given time, the English would surely raise a mass army, if they entered the war), but would also suffer the effects of the inevitable blockade by the Royal Navy, which could prove decisive, if the war did not end as quickly as predicted by Schlieffen.
Schlieffen’s operational plan had been inspired by the victory of the Carthaginian general Hannibal at Cannae over the Romans, where 80,000 legionnaires had been slaughtered in a single day, when the Carthaginians enveloped both the Roman flanks. Moltke was not always successful in silencing the little voice that reminded him Carthage had lost that war. On his bad days, he could hear the voice of his uncle, the great Field Marshal Moltke, warning, “No plan long survives contact with the enemy.”
But it was time to put all the whisperings of doubt behind him, Moltke told himself. The Plan was The Plan, with railway timetables worked out to the minute, intricate arrangements for movement of the great siege guns, and precise scheduling of the each and every element of the invasion, and it was too late to start having second thoughts. The Army was on its way, and The Plan would play itself out, for better or for worse.
Or it would if the armchair generals could keep their hands off the controls and let professional soldiers like himself run the war. But of course, amateur generals had to meddle, didn’t they? And they most especially had to meddle if the amateur in question was the All-Highest, by the grace of God, Emperor of the Second Reich, Wilhelm II Hohenzollern.
When the Kaiser had, without consulting anyone and completely on his own initiative telegraphed the stop order to General Georg Fuchs, commander of the 16th Division, ordering him not to cross the border until he received authorization from Wilhelm, he threatened to throw the entire war machine into chaos, unless those orders were reversed immediately. Wilhelm had then summoned Moltke to the palace, no doubt to lay out some harebrained scheme of his own design, tossing aside the years of careful planning that had gone into the invasion. .
The Kaiser was a man of many sudden inspirations, most of them ill considered. The General had almost no respect for either the Emperor’s judgment or his military abilities. He smiled sourly when he recalled what Count Alfred von Waldersee, a previous Chief of the General Staff, had told the Kaiser after the latter had commanded the “enemy” army in the annual maneuvers back in 1891. Waldersee had crushed the Emperor’s forces decisively in the war games, and he evidently had wanted to put an end to the Kaiser’s military pretensions for good. During the post-mortem, he had said, “The plan had many traps, and your Majesty fell into every one of them.” Of course, Moltke recalled uneasily, Waldersee had been sacked by the Kaiser soon afterward.
He was ushered into Kaiser Wilhelm’s presence, followed by his aide Colonel Hentsch. In what had been a library, the Kaiser had set up a War Room, containing an enormous table covered by a map of both the Eastern and Western fronts, complete with little flags on stands indicating the positions of various military units. On the wall overlooking the map table was a full-length portrait of Frederick the Great in full battle array, looking sternly down on his descendant.
The General could see immediately that his sovereign was exultant. The Kaiser was clutching a sheet of blue paper. Since the Foreign Office typically used that type of paper for its official correspondence, Moltke guessed the blue sheet related news of some diplomatic development. (The Kaiser fancied himself to be as talented a diplomat as he was a general, and in this at least, Moltke agreed with him).
“Your Majesty sent for me?” he asked the Kaiser.
Wilhelm turned to him waving the piece of paper, his face flushed with triumph. His eyes flashed and his voice had the peculiarly high pitch it took on when the Emperor was excited. “This is a telegram from our Ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowski. He has a promise from the English Foreign Secretary that they will remain neutral and will keep the French out of the war as well, if we do not attack France!” he exclaimed.
Moltke did not respond. The telegram from London, he knew, was nonsense. The war with France had already been declared: it was too late to undeclare it, no matter what the English Foreign Secretary said. The Kaiser, who had never really accepted the necessity for the invasion of Belgium, was suffering from cold feet and was now trying to use the note from Lichnowski as an excuse to overrule his General Staff and set aside The Plan at the last moment.
Wilhelm paced excitedly back and forth as he spoke, still clutching the telegram. “This is our opportunity to escape the trap! If we invade Belgium, we would surely bring the English in against us. It was the fondest dream of my uncle Edward to destroy Germany, and me in particular. He worked his whole reign to ruin us. Even in death he reaches from the grave to strike down the living me!” he declaimed, gesturing dramatically skyward.
The Kaiser was obsessed with his uncle, the late King Edward VII of Great Britain. King Edward had loved France and the French, and his affection was returned: he was by all odds France’s favorite English sovereign. In the course of his many visits to France, both personal and official, Edward had become the face of the new British foreign policy of friendship towards France, which had led to the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 between the two countries, although he had neither directed nor originated the policy.
Wilhelm had believed for years that Edward was the architect of a scheme to encircle and crush Germany in a ring of enemies. In this he was mistaken, as by the end of the Nineteenth Century the British monarchy had almost no actual power over foreign policy or the governing of the country, but this did not prevent the Kaiser from thinking of and referring to his deceased royal uncle as “the Great Encircler”.
The Kaiser continued his tirade. “If we invade Belgium, the onus of the war will fall upon the German people, making us appear to be the aggressors in the eyes of the world, when in fact we are only defending our own existence. This was the Great Encircler’s plan, the trap he set at our feet, and we must not fall into it!” His voice was rising all through this speech, and by the end he was close to shrieking.
Moltke did not respond and his face remained expressionless. In his experience, the best way to handle the Kaiser when, as now, he was in the throes of inspiration, was to let him run down a little before answering. The Kaiser did not seem to notice the Chief of Staff’s lack of enthusiasm. He waved Moltke over to the big map table, and jabbed his finger at the mountainous French border.
“We are expecting the French to attack here, are you not?” the Kaiser asked, pointing his finger and sweeping his arm from Thionville in Lorraine, just south of Luxembourg, down to Mulhouse, a little north of the Swiss border. The majority of the little flag stands bearing the tri-color of France were clustered along that serpentine line, based on Intelligence reports that the bulk of the French Army was stationed along the frontier between Germany and France.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Moltke replied patiently. “So far as we know, the French have most of their strength concentrated between Sedan and the Swiss border. It is possible that their Fourth Army will attempt to attack in the Ardennes as well, in reaction to our entry into Belgium.” The General’s finger brushed the southern corner of Belgium on the map.
“Ha! Let them attack the neutral first,” the Kaiser exulted. “Then see if the English will come to pull their chestnuts from the fire.” He paused. “We have adequate troops in that region to handle a French invasion, I suppose,” he said thoughtfully, looking at the symbols for the units of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies in Alsace and Lorraine.
Moltke sighed. “We have …” he calculated silently, “720,000 men available on that sector of the front, most of them in fortifications. If necessary, we could even shift a corps from the Crown Prince’s army, if there seemed to be any danger of a breakthrough. Intelligence estimates that the maximum number of men the French have available for offensive operations in that region is between 650,000 and 750,000. They will not break through our positions in Alsace, or Lorraine, for that matter. But…”
“Don’t you see what this means, General?” the Kaiser continued. The pitch of his voice began to rise again, and his eyes flashed as he grew more excited. He waved the note from the Foreign Office again. “Don’t you see the opportunity we have? This…” the blue paper crackled as the Kaiser shook it vigorously, “…destroys any excuse the warmongers in England have to attack us. We will stand fast in the West, and send the right wing to the East to smash the Russians! If the French want to attack us, let them bloody their noses in the mountains. Let them invade Belgium, and the world will see who the true warmongers are. Who knows, if the French are foolish enough to violate Belgium, perhaps the English will declare war on them! And if they do not, why then, we will have only the Russian enemy to defeat, as the French are impotent to injure us and, best of all, there will be no excuse for my English cousins to engage in the war!”
Moltke decided that the time had come to deflate his sovereign. “Your Majesty, it cannot be done,” he told the Kaiser. “The deployment of millions of men cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on massive changes to the plan at this late date, you will not have an army ready for battle, but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate planning to complete, and once settled they cannot be altered.”
The Kaiser, derailed by this display of military expertise, had no reply. The enthusiasm seemed to rush out of him like the air from a punctured balloon, and he slowly sank into a convenient chair, gazing across the room at nothing.
The General gestured to Colonel Hentsch, who opened the briefcase and handed Moltke the written order the latter had prepared for the 16th Division to resume its advance into Luxembourg. He held it out to Wilhelm and said, “Your Majesty must sign this order.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Moltke wanted to take them back. The Kaiser, who had appeared to have run down like a clock whose mainspring had unwound, now suddenly sprang back to life. He rose quickly to his feet, and fixed a glare on his presumptuous subordinate. His face was dark red, his lips drawn back in a scowl. He was as furious as Moltke had ever seen him.
“Your… Majesty… must?” he repeated slowly, emphasizing each word, his eyes flashing.
The Chief of the General Staff stuttered, “Your Majesty, I simply meant…”
The Kaiser began in ominously low tones. “You dare to tell me what I ‘must’ do with my army, here in the Palace of the Hohenzollerns?” His voice rose until the last few words were almost bellowed. He paused, and then continued in a tone that suggested rage only barely contained. “I will tell you about ‘must’, General. You must follow the commands of your sovereign. You must produce for my signature a plan that will send my armies to East Prussia against the Russians instead of idiotically violating Belgium, a plan that will provide for all their supplies, ammunition and anything else they will need to fight. Today is Saturday. You must have this plan ready for my signature by midnight Sunday or I will have a new Chief of Staff Monday morning.”
“But Your Majesty…” Moltke began again.
The Kaiser cut him short with a sharp chopping motion of his hand. “Can you guarantee me victory over France in two months if we follow your fabulous plan?” He paused to study Moltke’s face. “Can you guarantee it, General?” he asked again, sharply.
Moltke hesitated. He uneasily recalled a long discussion he had had with the Kaiser two years earlier concerning the next war. Moltke had discoursed at length about his belief that any war between modern Great Powers would be long and difficult, and would exhaust the victors nearly as much as it would the losers. This belief directly contravened the key premise of The Plan, that modern, industrialized France could be defeated quickly in a short, sharp war. There was nothing wrong with Wilhelm’s memory. Wilhelm knew well enough that his Chief of the General Staff was himself far from convinced that France would be knocked out in the six weeks promised by The Plan.
“Your Majesty knows that there are no guarantees in wartime…” Moltke said, trailing off.
The Kaiser waited long enough to see if the General had anything more to add before he continued with growing confidence in his decision. “Now, we have a General Staff that in peacetime constantly makes and revises plans for every possible contingency. There is a plan for a war with Russia only, with France only, with France and England, with the United States, with Austria, with invaders from the Moon, most probably. You have a Director of the Military Railways on your staff, what’s his name, von Stamm…?”
“Staab,” Moltke corrected.
“Yes, that’s the one, von Staab. He does nothing but prepare alternative train schedules for all these contingencies. That is the principal function of the Director of the Military Railways, is it not? I must therefore believe that somewhere in his files and in the files of the General Staff are alternative arrangements for the movements I am now ordering you to make.”
The Sovereign was right about the contingency plans, of course. General Herman von Staab, Chief of the Military Railways, had prepared alternate plans for every conceivable contingency, as had his fellow department heads on the General Staff. Just last week, Moltke had reviewed a plan to seize the mountain passes in Northern Switzerland, in the event the need to invade France south of Mulhouse arose. That was about as likely to happen as… as an invasion from the Moon, but there was a plan for it. There was no doubt that von Staab had a plan in his files with rail schedules and train assignments for the transfer all the men, guns and supplies that had been ticketed for France via Belgium to Prussia that would send them all East instead, exactly as the Kaiser wanted
The mercurial Wilhelm was buoyant and overflowing with self-assurance at having won this debate over military strategy with his general. His tone now shifted from the argumentative to the inspirational. He struck a histrionic pose and began to speak as if addressing a large audience.
“This is the moment of supreme crisis for the German nation, General, the supreme moment of your career! Think what your uncle the great Field Marshal would have done, and act as he would have. Our gallant men at arms, all our people, our very national existence, all depend on you. Go, and do your duty to Kaiser and country!” The Kaiser pointed dramatically. “You are dismissed.”
“It shall be as you command, Your Majesty,” Moltke gritted out through clenched teeth. He snapped to attention, saluted, spun on his heel and marched from the room, with Hentsch following.
They walked unspeaking for a while, the only sound the clack of their boots on the marble floor. Then Hentsch said, “For a minute, I was sure he was going to buy that business about it being too late to make changes. Wilhelm may not be Frederick the Great, but he does understand the function of the General Staff.”
Moltke, whose face had been gradually turning the color of a ripe tomato, suddenly exploded. “Why is it Hentsch, that a civilian, an amateur, a man without the time, inclination or training for strategic thought, believes that he is qualified to set aside a war plan prepared by professionals? If the royal yacht ran into a storm, would he try to seize the wheel away from the ship’s captain?”
“War is far too important to be left to politicians,” Hentsch agreed. He continued, in a philosophical vein, “Still, what is done is done, and we must go on from here.”
As he strode through the halls of the Stadschloss, Moltke’s temper began to cool, and he pondered the simple truth in Hentsch’s words. The decision had been made, whether for good or ill only time would tell, and there was no turning back. He reflected that the Director of the Military Railways was going to arrange the delivery of nearly three-quarters of a million fighting men to the border of Russian Poland in about two weeks, and it would be well to have something for those men to do while they were there, besides picking wild strawberries. He frowned more deeply than ever, and quickened his pace.

EXTRACT FOR
Gray Tide In The East (2nd Edition)

(Andrew J. Heller)


Chapter One: Berlin, August 1, 1914

General Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke marched down the corridors of the Hohenzollern royal palace, looking neither to the left nor to the right. A Colonel followed, carrying his briefcase. One look at the General’s face, with its deeply furrowed brow, its mouth that turned downward in a thin line and droopy gray mustache, would be sufficient for any reasonably impartial observer to conclude that here was a man who took a serious view of life. Nor would this same observer be surprised to learn that General von Moltke was known to his subordinates on the German Imperial General Staff (behind his back, naturally) as der traurige Julius, which might be rendered into English as “Gloomy Gus”. In truth, the Chief of the General Staff was a pessimist by nature, and the day’s events had done nothing to brighten his outlook.
Moltke had only this morning issued the orders that would set the Imperial war machine into motion, sending the right wing of the German Army sweeping across the fields of Belgium and on into northern France, beginning the march of three-quarters of a million men that would land a knockout punch on the left flank of the unsuspecting French Army.
In a few hours, elements of the 16th Division of the Fourth Army were scheduled to cross the border of Luxembourg to serve as the hinge for the main movement of the First, Second and Third Armies farther to the north. These three armies would deliver the key blow to the flank and rear of the French Army, a maneuver that would, if all went as planned, win the war in six weeks, in a single titanic battle of annihilation.
The movements of the Imperial Army had been calculated on a precise schedule, but suddenly a wrench had been thrown into the gears at the worst possible moment, by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Emperor had halted the invasion, completely bypassing the Table of Organization and disregarding the General Staff by sending an order directly to the commander of the 16th Division, ordering him to stop until he received an order to proceed from the Kaiser himself. He had then summoned Moltke to the palace, no doubt to explain this new brainstorm, the latest and worst timed instance of Imperial meddling in military affairs.
The operational plan for the invasion of Belgium had not originated with Moltke. He had inherited it from his predecessor, Count Alfred von Schlieffen. Schlieffen developed his plan in 1905, after the Russo-Japanese War had exposed some of the glaring deficiencies in the corrupt and ineffectual Czarist military establishment. Schleiffen’s approach was designed to take advantage of the Russian weaknesses revealed during the fighting against the Japanese in Siberia, particularly their slow rate of mobilization and poor logistics.
By 1905, the opposing military alliance systems of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy against the Dual Entente of France and Russia had been in place for a decade. Ever since, all of these Great Powers had steadily built their armies and navies in preparation for a future great war, although no one knew when the next war would come, nor why.
Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that the German General Staff had assumed that whenever the war finally did start, it would be fought on two fronts: against France in the West, and Russia in the East, foes who presented very different strengths and weaknesses.
Modern, industrialized France was a reasonably compact nation, with an extensive railroad system, a good road network and an efficient military organization. She could be counted on to mobilize her army quickly - as quickly as Germany, in fact.
Russia, on the other hand, was an enormous, sprawling country, with fewer miles of railway than her ally (and far fewer in proportion to the area served), primitive roads, and a notoriously corrupt and incompetent military establishment. The Russian Army, moreover, had been thoroughly humiliated by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. For these reasons, German war planners calculated that the Russians would be at least eight weeks behind both Germany and France in mobilizing their forces after the war broke out.
The military geography of the East and West provided another stark contrast. Germany’s border with France stretched from the thickly forested and nearly roadless Ardennes in the north, through the rugged Vosges Mountains down to the Swiss border. This terrain was unsuitable for the rapid movement of large armies, and the border was protected by a series of fortresses on the French side from Verdun to Belfort, fortifications built for the express purpose of meeting and repelling a German invasion. In this country, defenders would have all the advantages and attackers none. Progress there would be measured in meters rather than kilometers and the meters would be purchased with blood. Schlieffen, like his predecessors, concluded that attacking here would be folly, and he refused to consider it.
In the East, however, the rolling farm country of Russian Poland and the Ukraine offered plenty of scope for maneuvering great masses of men, and even more for utilizing Germany’s greatest military asset: its Krupp artillery, the finest in the world. Moreover, with such a vast country to attack, it would be relatively easy for the invaders to find weak points to break through the Russian lines, as they could not be strong everywhere, especially if they were as slow to mobilize their forces as expected.
Therefore, the obvious thing to do was to take advantage of Russia’s presumed inability to mobilize quickly, by sending the bulk of the mobile striking forces East, to knock the Czar’s huge but disorganized armies (the so-called “Russian steamroller”) out of the war before they could become effective, or at least dislocate her mobilization. Indeed, this had been the basis for the German war plans as prepared by the Imperial General Staff before 1905, when Schlieffen was appointed.
The new Chief rejected this approach. Russia might be slow, its army inefficient and its General Staff incompetent, but there were two factors that weighed against the possibility of a quick decision in the East.
One was the sheer size of the opponent. There were just too many kilometers of Russia, endless kilometers over which an invading army’s supplies had to be hauled by mule-drawn wagons on abysmal roads (where there were any roads at all), or over the inadequate rail network. As invaders had discovered over the centuries, campaigning in Russia was all too likely to become a logistical nightmare.
The second factor was the presence of the Russian General who had defeated some of the greatest military geniuses in European history, including Charles XII of Sweden and Bonaparte: General Winter. Schlieffen had not forgotten the fate of Napoleon’s Grande Armeé, which lost two-thirds of its men during the retreat from Russia in the terrible winter of 1812. Although all generals hoped to emulate Napoleon, Schlieffen had no desire to follow the great Corsican’s footsteps in that respect.
All things considered, it was clear to Schlieffen that France was the more dangerous foe and, paradoxically, the one who could be defeated more quickly. Since France was a comparatively small country, its armies would be concentrated in a relatively small area. They were sure to be in the north and east at the outset, in position to be enveloped and destroyed in a short, sharp campaign.
Schlieffen therefore proposed that the German Army put its muscle into an overpowering mobile striking force on the right wing, in the north, then launch it along the natural invasion route that had been used by invading armies marching to and from France for centuries: through the Low Countries, specifically Belgium. The weight of this invasion would pivot on Luxembourg and stretch across Belgium to the sea, so that the right wing would overlap the French left before it wheeled inward towards Paris. Schlieffen directed, “Let the last man on the right brush his sleeve in The Channel.”
He expected the French to commit the bulk of their forces to attack in Alsace and Lorraine along the Franco-German border, where they would become entangled in the mountains and be unable to extricate themselves in time to meet the blow from the north that would land on their rear and crush them.
As a bonus, the great turning movement of the right wing would also result in the capture of Paris, or at least in isolating the city from the rest of the country. Since practically all the major lines of communication in France, including the railways, ran through the French capital, even if her field armies somehow escaped destruction from the initial blow, France would be virtually paralyzed by this alone. Schlieffen predicted that the campaign to be over in six weeks, with the French Army either compelled to surrender en masse or to be so badly mangled as no longer constitute a threat. After that, the bulk of the German divisions could be shipped back east to deal with the Russians who, he calculated, would still not be ready.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen was obsessed by his plan. It dominated his thoughts even on his deathbed, in 1913. His last words reputedly were, “Only make the right wing strong.” By the time Moltke was appointed Chief of the General Staff following Schlieffen’s retirement in 1906, his predecessor’s plan had become the military equivalent of the Gospel: sacred writ. It was no longer a plan; it was The Plan. Moltke approved of The Plan, as both brilliant and, like many other brilliant ideas, simple in conception. He tinkered with the details as the German Army expanded between 1905 and 1914, adding more men to the right wing and also adding strength to the left, but he did not alter the basic pattern.
Moltke assured anyone who asked that The Plan was perfect, but he somehow could not rid himself of certain nagging doubts. It troubled him that the invasion route would go through Belgium, whose neutrality Germany had guaranteed in the Treaty of London in 1839. Moltke was not concerned about the small Belgian Army, which he dismissed as a military nonentity, but he was worried about Great Britain.
Britain, like France, Russia, Austria and Prussia (replaced by Germany in 1871), had guaranteed Belgium’s perpetual neutrality against any and all invaders. If Germany invaded Belgium, the English were likely to enter the war on the side of the Franco-Russian alliance. Schlieffen had of course been aware of this when he formulated The Plan, but he discounted the ability of the small British Army, expected to be no more than two divisions at the outset, to have any substantial effect on the decisive opening campaign. Schlieffen calculated that by the time the British were able to raise an army big enough to affect the outcome of the war, the French would be beaten and the war in the West would be over.
Moltke himself was not so sure. He believed that a modern, industrialized country like France, when fully mobilized for war, could be defeated only after many months, perhaps even years, of war. He was impressed by the ability of Russia to carry on the war against Japan in 1905, even after its fleets had been shattered and its armies operating at the end of a 3,000-mile supply line. And Russia was far from being industrialized to the degree that France was.
Moreover, if The Plan miscarried, not only would Germany have to face the army of another Great Power (for given time, the English would surely raise a mass army, if they entered the war), but would also suffer the effects of the inevitable blockade by the Royal Navy, which could prove decisive, if the war did not end as quickly as predicted by Schlieffen.
Schlieffen’s operational plan had been inspired by the victory of the Carthaginian general Hannibal at Cannae over the Romans, where 80,000 legionnaires had been slaughtered in a single day, when the Carthaginians enveloped both the Roman flanks. Moltke was not always successful in silencing the little voice that reminded him Carthage had lost that war. On his bad days, he could hear the voice of his uncle, the great Field Marshal Moltke, warning, “No plan long survives contact with the enemy.”
But it was time to put all the whisperings of doubt behind him, Moltke told himself. The Plan was The Plan, with railway timetables worked out to the minute, intricate arrangements for movement of the great siege guns, and precise scheduling of the each and every element of the invasion, and it was too late to start having second thoughts. The Army was on its way, and The Plan would play itself out, for better or for worse.
Or it would if the armchair generals could keep their hands off the controls and let professional soldiers like himself run the war. But of course, amateur generals had to meddle, didn’t they? And they most especially had to meddle if the amateur in question was the All-Highest, by the grace of God, Emperor of the Second Reich, Wilhelm II Hohenzollern.
When the Kaiser had, without consulting anyone and completely on his own initiative telegraphed the stop order to General Georg Fuchs, commander of the 16th Division, ordering him not to cross the border until he received authorization from Wilhelm, he threatened to throw the entire war machine into chaos, unless those orders were reversed immediately. Wilhelm had then summoned Moltke to the palace, no doubt to lay out some harebrained scheme of his own design, tossing aside the years of careful planning that had gone into the invasion. .
The Kaiser was a man of many sudden inspirations, most of them ill considered. The General had almost no respect for either the Emperor’s judgment or his military abilities. He smiled sourly when he recalled what Count Alfred von Waldersee, a previous Chief of the General Staff, had told the Kaiser after the latter had commanded the “enemy” army in the annual maneuvers back in 1891. Waldersee had crushed the Emperor’s forces decisively in the war games, and he evidently had wanted to put an end to the Kaiser’s military pretensions for good. During the post-mortem, he had said, “The plan had many traps, and your Majesty fell into every one of them.” Of course, Moltke recalled uneasily, Waldersee had been sacked by the Kaiser soon afterward.
He was ushered into Kaiser Wilhelm’s presence, followed by his aide Colonel Hentsch. In what had been a library, the Kaiser had set up a War Room, containing an enormous table covered by a map of both the Eastern and Western fronts, complete with little flags on stands indicating the positions of various military units. On the wall overlooking the map table was a full-length portrait of Frederick the Great in full battle array, looking sternly down on his descendant.
The General could see immediately that his sovereign was exultant. The Kaiser was clutching a sheet of blue paper. Since the Foreign Office typically used that type of paper for its official correspondence, Moltke guessed the blue sheet related news of some diplomatic development. (The Kaiser fancied himself to be as talented a diplomat as he was a general, and in this at least, Moltke agreed with him).
“Your Majesty sent for me?” he asked the Kaiser.
Wilhelm turned to him waving the piece of paper, his face flushed with triumph. His eyes flashed and his voice had the peculiarly high pitch it took on when the Emperor was excited. “This is a telegram from our Ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowski. He has a promise from the English Foreign Secretary that they will remain neutral and will keep the French out of the war as well, if we do not attack France!” he exclaimed.
Moltke did not respond. The telegram from London, he knew, was nonsense. The war with France had already been declared: it was too late to undeclare it, no matter what the English Foreign Secretary said. The Kaiser, who had never really accepted the necessity for the invasion of Belgium, was suffering from cold feet and was now trying to use the note from Lichnowski as an excuse to overrule his General Staff and set aside The Plan at the last moment.
Wilhelm paced excitedly back and forth as he spoke, still clutching the telegram. “This is our opportunity to escape the trap! If we invade Belgium, we would surely bring the English in against us. It was the fondest dream of my uncle Edward to destroy Germany, and me in particular. He worked his whole reign to ruin us. Even in death he reaches from the grave to strike down the living me!” he declaimed, gesturing dramatically skyward.
The Kaiser was obsessed with his uncle, the late King Edward VII of Great Britain. King Edward had loved France and the French, and his affection was returned: he was by all odds France’s favorite English sovereign. In the course of his many visits to France, both personal and official, Edward had become the face of the new British foreign policy of friendship towards France, which had led to the signing of the Entente Cordiale in 1904 between the two countries, although he had neither directed nor originated the policy.
Wilhelm had believed for years that Edward was the architect of a scheme to encircle and crush Germany in a ring of enemies. In this he was mistaken, as by the end of the Nineteenth Century the British monarchy had almost no actual power over foreign policy or the governing of the country, but this did not prevent the Kaiser from thinking of and referring to his deceased royal uncle as “the Great Encircler”.
The Kaiser continued his tirade. “If we invade Belgium, the onus of the war will fall upon the German people, making us appear to be the aggressors in the eyes of the world, when in fact we are only defending our own existence. This was the Great Encircler’s plan, the trap he set at our feet, and we must not fall into it!” His voice was rising all through this speech, and by the end he was close to shrieking.
Moltke did not respond and his face remained expressionless. In his experience, the best way to handle the Kaiser when, as now, he was in the throes of inspiration, was to let him run down a little before answering. The Kaiser did not seem to notice the Chief of Staff’s lack of enthusiasm. He waved Moltke over to the big map table, and jabbed his finger at the mountainous French border.
“We are expecting the French to attack here, are you not?” the Kaiser asked, pointing his finger and sweeping his arm from Thionville in Lorraine, just south of Luxembourg, down to Mulhouse, a little north of the Swiss border. The majority of the little flag stands bearing the tri-color of France were clustered along that serpentine line, based on Intelligence reports that the bulk of the French Army was stationed along the frontier between Germany and France.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Moltke replied patiently. “So far as we know, the French have most of their strength concentrated between Sedan and the Swiss border. It is possible that their Fourth Army will attempt to attack in the Ardennes as well, in reaction to our entry into Belgium.” The General’s finger brushed the southern corner of Belgium on the map.
“Ha! Let them attack the neutral first,” the Kaiser exulted. “Then see if the English will come to pull their chestnuts from the fire.” He paused. “We have adequate troops in that region to handle a French invasion, I suppose,” he said thoughtfully, looking at the symbols for the units of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies in Alsace and Lorraine.
Moltke sighed. “We have …” he calculated silently, “720,000 men available on that sector of the front, most of them in fortifications. If necessary, we could even shift a corps from the Crown Prince’s army, if there seemed to be any danger of a breakthrough. Intelligence estimates that the maximum number of men the French have available for offensive operations in that region is between 650,000 and 750,000. They will not break through our positions in Alsace, or Lorraine, for that matter. But…”
“Don’t you see what this means, General?” the Kaiser continued. The pitch of his voice began to rise again, and his eyes flashed as he grew more excited. He waved the note from the Foreign Office again. “Don’t you see the opportunity we have? This…” the blue paper crackled as the Kaiser shook it vigorously, “…destroys any excuse the warmongers in England have to attack us. We will stand fast in the West, and send the right wing to the East to smash the Russians! If the French want to attack us, let them bloody their noses in the mountains. Let them invade Belgium, and the world will see who the true warmongers are. Who knows, if the French are foolish enough to violate Belgium, perhaps the English will declare war on them! And if they do not, why then, we will have only the Russian enemy to defeat, as the French are impotent to injure us and, best of all, there will be no excuse for my English cousins to engage in the war!”
Moltke decided that the time had come to deflate his sovereign. “Your Majesty, it cannot be done,” he told the Kaiser. “The deployment of millions of men cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on massive changes to the plan at this late date, you will not have an army ready for battle, but a disorganized mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate planning to complete, and once settled they cannot be altered.”
The Kaiser, derailed by this display of military expertise, had no reply. The enthusiasm seemed to rush out of him like the air from a punctured balloon, and he slowly sank into a convenient chair, gazing across the room at nothing.
The General gestured to Colonel Hentsch, who opened the briefcase and handed Moltke the written order the latter had prepared for the 16th Division to resume its advance into Luxembourg. He held it out to Wilhelm and said, “Your Majesty must sign this order.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Moltke wanted to take them back. The Kaiser, who had appeared to have run down like a clock whose mainspring had unwound, now suddenly sprang back to life. He rose quickly to his feet, and fixed a glare on his presumptuous subordinate. His face was dark red, his lips drawn back in a scowl. He was as furious as Moltke had ever seen him.
“Your… Majesty… must?” he repeated slowly, emphasizing each word, his eyes flashing.
The Chief of the General Staff stuttered, “Your Majesty, I simply meant…”
The Kaiser began in ominously low tones. “You dare to tell me what I ‘must’ do with my army, here in the Palace of the Hohenzollerns?” His voice rose until the last few words were almost bellowed. He paused, and then continued in a tone that suggested rage only barely contained. “I will tell you about ‘must’, General. You must follow the commands of your sovereign. You must produce for my signature a plan that will send my armies to East Prussia against the Russians instead of idiotically violating Belgium, a plan that will provide for all their supplies, ammunition and anything else they will need to fight. Today is Saturday. You must have this plan ready for my signature by midnight Sunday or I will have a new Chief of Staff Monday morning.”
“But Your Majesty…” Moltke began again.
The Kaiser cut him short with a sharp chopping motion of his hand. “Can you guarantee me victory over France in two months if we follow your fabulous plan?” He paused to study Moltke’s face. “Can you guarantee it, General?” he asked again, sharply.
Moltke hesitated. He uneasily recalled a long discussion he had had with the Kaiser two years earlier concerning the next war. Moltke had discoursed at length about his belief that any war between modern Great Powers would be long and difficult, and would exhaust the victors nearly as much as it would the losers. This belief directly contravened the key premise of The Plan, that modern, industrialized France could be defeated quickly in a short, sharp war. There was nothing wrong with Wilhelm’s memory. Wilhelm knew well enough that his Chief of the General Staff was himself far from convinced that France would be knocked out in the six weeks promised by The Plan.
“Your Majesty knows that there are no guarantees in wartime…” Moltke said, trailing off.
The Kaiser waited long enough to see if the General had anything more to add before he continued with growing confidence in his decision. “Now, we have a General Staff that in peacetime constantly makes and revises plans for every possible contingency. There is a plan for a war with Russia only, with France only, with France and England, with the United States, with Austria, with invaders from the Moon, most probably. You have a Director of the Military Railways on your staff, what’s his name, von Stamm…?”
“Staab,” Moltke corrected.
“Yes, that’s the one, von Staab. He does nothing but prepare alternative train schedules for all these contingencies. That is the principal function of the Director of the Military Railways, is it not? I must therefore believe that somewhere in his files and in the files of the General Staff are alternative arrangements for the movements I am now ordering you to make.”
The Sovereign was right about the contingency plans, of course. General Herman von Staab, Chief of the Military Railways, had prepared alternate plans for every conceivable contingency, as had his fellow department heads on the General Staff. Just last week, Moltke had reviewed a plan to seize the mountain passes in Northern Switzerland, in the event the need to invade France south of Mulhouse arose. That was about as likely to happen as… as an invasion from the Moon, but there was a plan for it. There was no doubt that von Staab had a plan in his files with rail schedules and train assignments for the transfer all the men, guns and supplies that had been ticketed for France via Belgium to Prussia that would send them all East instead, exactly as the Kaiser wanted
The mercurial Wilhelm was buoyant and overflowing with self-assurance at having won this debate over military strategy with his general. His tone now shifted from the argumentative to the inspirational. He struck a histrionic pose and began to speak as if addressing a large audience.
“This is the moment of supreme crisis for the German nation, General, the supreme moment of your career! Think what your uncle the great Field Marshal would have done, and act as he would have. Our gallant men at arms, all our people, our very national existence, all depend on you. Go, and do your duty to Kaiser and country!” The Kaiser pointed dramatically. “You are dismissed.”
“It shall be as you command, Your Majesty,” Moltke gritted out through clenched teeth. He snapped to attention, saluted, spun on his heel and marched from the room, with Hentsch following.
They walked unspeaking for a while, the only sound the clack of their boots on the marble floor. Then Hentsch said, “For a minute, I was sure he was going to buy that business about it being too late to make changes. Wilhelm may not be Frederick the Great, but he does understand the function of the General Staff.”
Moltke, whose face had been gradually turning the color of a ripe tomato, suddenly exploded. “Why is it Hentsch, that a civilian, an amateur, a man without the time, inclination or training for strategic thought, believes that he is qualified to set aside a war plan prepared by professionals? If the royal yacht ran into a storm, would he try to seize the wheel away from the ship’s captain?”
“War is far too important to be left to politicians,” Hentsch agreed. He continued, in a philosophical vein, “Still, what is done is done, and we must go on from here.”
As he strode through the halls of the Stadschloss, Moltke’s temper began to cool, and he pondered the simple truth in Hentsch’s words. The decision had been made, whether for good or ill only time would tell, and there was no turning back. He reflected that the Director of the Military Railways was going to arrange the delivery of nearly three-quarters of a million fighting men to the border of Russian Poland in about two weeks, and it would be well to have something for those men to do while they were there, besides picking wild strawberries. He frowned more deeply than ever, and quickened his pace.