The Schlieffen Plan (German language: Schlieffen-Plan, pronounced [ʃliːfən plaːn]) was the German General Staff's early 20th-century overall strategic plan for victory in a possible future war in which the German Empire might find itself fighting on two fronts: France to the west and Russia to the east. The First World War later became such a war, with both a Western and an Eastern Front.
The plan took advantage of Russia's slowness and expected differences in the three countries' speed in preparing for war. In short, it was the German plan to avoid a two-front war by concentrating troops in the West and quickly defeating the French and then, if necessary, rushing those troops by rail to the East to face the Russians before they had time to mobilize fully. The Schlieffen Plan was created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen and modified by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger after Schlieffen's retirement; it was Moltke who actually implemented the plan at the outset of World War I. In modified form, it was executed to near victory in the first month of the war. However, the modifications to the original plan, a French counterattack on the outskirts of Paris (the Battle of the Marne) and surprisingly speedy Russian offensives ended the German offensive and resulted in years of trench warfare. The plan has been the subject of intense debate among historians and military scholars ever since. Schlieffen's last words were "remember to keep the right flank strong," which was significant in that Moltke strengthened the left flank in his modification.
The Schlieffen Plan
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, most of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, with a population that was culturally both French and German, were annexed by the new German Empire. The revanchist French vowed to regain these territories, which France had possessed for nearly 200 years. Due to alliances orchestrated by the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, France was initially isolated, but after Kaiser Wilhelm II took the throne in 1888 and gradually estranged Germany from Russia and Britain, the prospect of fighting a future war on two fronts simultaneously caused increasing unease among German leaders.
France, having been defeated in a matter of weeks in 1870, was not considered as dangerous in the long run as the Russians, who were expected to be difficult to defeat if the Tsar were allowed the necessary time to mobilize his huge country to the fullest extent. After Britain and France concluded the Entente Cordiale in 1904, Wilhelm asked Count Schlieffen to devise a plan which would allow Germany to fight a war on two fronts, and in December 1905 Schlieffen began circulating it.
The plan assumed that given its vast size, inadequate rail system and inefficient bureaucracy, Russia would need six weeks to fully mobilize. In that time, Schlieffen believed he could win a two-front war by first quickly defeating France in the west – the plan scheduled 39 days for the fall of Paris and 42 for the capitulation of France – before the "Russian Steamroller" would be able to mobilize and descend upon East Prussia. The plan depended on Germany's ability to quickly mobilize troops and invade France before the French could fully mobilize their troops and defend their territory, and then to turn on the Russians before they were ready.
Schlieffen's solution reversed that of his great predecessor, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, whose experiences in the Franco-Prussian War with modern warfare and concerns regarding the increasing lethality of weaponry, made him doubt that a swift success could be achieved. Moltke had accordingly favoured limited operations against France and a major effort against Russia. Schlieffen, on the other hand, would seek an immediate all-out victory against France.
The plan envisaged a rapid German mobilization, disregard for the neutrality of Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands and an overwhelming sweep of the powerful German right wing southwest through Belgium and Northern France, "letting the last man on the right, brush the Channel with his sleeve," in the words of Schlieffen, while maintaining only a defensive posture on the central and left wings, in Lorraine, the Vosges, and the Moselle.
Paris was not to be taken (in 1870, the Siege of Paris had lasted for months) but was to be passed by the right wing to the west of the city. The intent of the plan was not to conquer cities or industry to weaken the French war efforts. Rather, Schlieffen aimed to trap the French Army in a giant pincer movement and cut off the northeastern part of the country. The French Army would thus be hemmed in around Paris and forced into a decisive envelopment battle.
However, a seed of disaster lurked in the conception of the plan: both Schlieffen and Moltke were seduced by the possibility of rolling up most of the French forces with two large wheeling movements, with the right wing coming from the north and west of France and the left wing coming from the east. The inspiration was the destruction of the Roman Army by Hannibal's forces at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, which was the object of meticulous study by Schlieffen. In essence, his plan was a large-scale strategic readdressing of Hannibal's tactics, capitalizing on the recent breakthroughs in communications and transport. Hans Delbrück's seminal study of the battle had a profound influence on subsequent German military theorists, in particular on Schlieffen. Through his writings, Schlieffen taught that the "Cannae model" would continue to be applicable in maneuver warfare throughout the 20th century:
"A battle of annihilation can be carried out today according to the same plan devised by Hannibal in long forgotten times. The enemy front is not the goal of the principal attack. The mass of the troops and the reserves should not be concentrated against the enemy front; the essential is that the flanks be crushed. The wings should not be sought at the advanced points of the front but rather along the entire depth and extension of the enemy formation. The annihilation is completed through an attack against the enemy's rear... To bring about a decisive and annihilating victory requires an attack against the front and against one or both flanks..."
Schlieffen later developed his own operational doctrine in a series of articles, many of which were later translated and published in a work entitled "Cannae".
Politically, one of the major drawbacks of the Schlieffen Plan was that it called for the invasion of neutral states in order to transport German troops to France. In particular, the invasion of Belgium made British intervention a near-certainty, thus eliminating any chance of localizing the conflict. Schlieffen took the prospect of British intervention into account, but believed any British aid would come too late to be a factor. As it turned out, at least formally, it was the decision to invade Belgium which led to Great Britain declaring war on Germany. In the United States, the manner in which Belgium was invaded had much to do with turning popular sentiment against Germany, and facilitated the American entrance into war against Germany in April 1917.
As noted previously, Russian mobilization would supposedly be extremely slow, due to its poor railway system. Following the speedy defeat of France, the German General Staff would switch German concentrations to the Eastern Front. His goal was to defeat France in six weeks, the time it took for Russia to mobilize its army, and turn back to the Eastern Front before Russia could react. Kaiser Wilhelm II is quoted as having said "Paris for lunch, dinner at St. Petersburg."
Modifications to the Plan, 1906
Following the retirement of Schlieffen in 1906, Helmuth von Moltke became the German chief of staff. He disagreed with at least some of the Schlieffen Plan, thinking it to be too risky. The Plan, however, having been devised in 1905, was now too much a part of German military thinking to be abandoned completely, so all Moltke could do was modify it.
- Moltke decided to pull significant numbers of troops away from the main force entering France from the north, in order to fortify the forces in Alsace-Lorraine, and the forces at the Russian border.
- The other significant change he made was not to enter through the Netherlands, instead sending troops through Belgium and Luxembourg only.
These changes have been the subject of much debate. L.C.F Turner in 1970 described von Moltke's changes as "a substantial modification in the Schlieffen Plan and one which probably doomed the German campaign in the west before it was ever launched." Turner claims that by weakening the main German offensive, they did not have a real chance of defeating the French army quickly enough; hence they became stranded in a two-front-war. He also says that not going through the Netherlands not only created a bottleneck at the German-Belgian border, but also that not having the Dutch railways at their disposal created a huge supply problem, a problem which outweighed the benefits they gained by still having access to the Dutch ports.
However, in 1977, Martin van Creveld, analyzing the role of logistics in the plan, felt that the effects of Moltke's alteration to avoid invading Dutch neutrality were more apparent than real, since two corps of troops which had been allocated to contain the 90,000-strong Dutch Army could instead be used for the invasion of France. Further, van Creveld points out that while Schlieffen had assigned five corps for the investment of Antwerp, Moltke made do with only two. "Though it is therefore quite true that Moltke's right wing was not as strong as Schlieffen had planned to make it, this loss was more than compensated for by the economies effected in [Moltke's] version of the plan." Early in the war, according to the directives of Plan XVII, the French mobilized and hurled their forces towards the German border in an ill-fated attempt to recapture Alsace-Lorraine. This played exactly into Schlieffen's conception of a trap through double envelopment, which called for a loose defense of the border, and actually for retreats by which the French forces would have been lured further away from the main thrust of the German advance. However, Moltke's weakening of the German right, the defense of Alsace-Lorraine, and the transfer of three army corps and one cavalry division from the western front to help contain the Russian advance into East Prussia, all contributed to the failure of the German army to break through the Allied forces at the Marne. Without that breakthrough, the plan was destroyed.
Activation and subsequent failure
Though debate continues about the merits of the Schlieffen Plan and even on whether the Schlieffen Plan was ever truly executed, a number of causes contributed to the failure of the German invasion:
Although the Belgian army was only a tenth of the size of the German army, it still delayed the Germans for nearly a month by defending fortresses and cities. The Germans used their "Big Bertha" artillery to destroy Belgian forts in Liège, Namur, and Antwerp, but the Belgians still fought back, creating a constant threat to German supply lines in the north. In addition, the German attack on neutral Belgium and reports and propaganda about German atrocities there turned public opinion in many neutral countries against Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm II. Still, despite stiff Belgian resistance, the timetable for the Schlieffen Plan was going according to schedule before it was halted in France.
German underestimation of the British-Belgian alliance
Britain and Belgium had an alliance due to the London Treaty of 1839. Germany hoped that Britain, which was wary of making alliances due to its wish to remain neutral, would not honour the treaty and would not rush to the aid of Belgium. To Germany's dismay, Britain kept to the terms of the treaty and responded to German aggression against Belgium by declaring war on Germany. When Edward Goschen, the British ambassador to Germany, informed German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg that the two countries were now at war, Bethmann-Hollweg famously replied, "The Britons will go to war for a mere scrap of paper?" They not only underestimated the Alliance between Britain and Belgium, but felt that Britain had an extremely weak force. They felt that they could easily overpower the British, and thought that even if they were to strike, the British would only manage to get across their fleet in small numbers, and they thought that by this time, they would have got the French sea ports (Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne), so the British would not be allowed to get across in large numbers, and they would be slaughtered by the Germans if this were to happen.
The effectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force
The BEF was small, numbering only 75,000 at the start of the war, but it was a highly trained, professional force, unlike continental conscript armies. Among the benefits were that the BEF were able to produce a much higher rate of small arms fire than the French or Germans. This higher rate of fire effectively served as a force multiplier. The French mobilized millions of recruits, and their goal was to use this number to defeat the Germans quickly in Alsace. To this end, the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre placed the small but highly trained BEF on the left flank, where he believed there would not be any fighting. Due to the rapid German advance through Belgium, the British were almost annihilated several times, but they managed to delay the Germans long enough for French and British reinforcements to arrive. While the BEF was forced into retreat throughout the month of August, it provided enough resistance against the German First Army under Alexander von Kluck to help induce the German general to break off the Schlieffen Plan. Instead, von Kluck turned south-east towards Compiègne, showing his flank to the Garrison of Paris under Gallieni, making possible the "Miracle of the Marne".
The speed of Russian mobilization
The Russians moved faster than expected and mobilized in less than six weeks, gaining ground in East Prussia more quickly than the Germans had planned for. While the Russian advance may not have posed much of a real threat at the time, had they kept gaining ground at that pace, they would get dangerously close to Berlin. This caused the Germans to pull even more men from their main force, in order to reinforce the Eastern Front. This proved counterproductive, since the forces pulled from the Western Front were still in transit during the Battle of Tannenberg, in which the Germans would emerge victorious, while the battles on the Western front were being lost for Germany.
The French railway system
Because of the delays caused by the British and Belgians, the French had more time to mobilize its troops and send them to northeastern France. The Germans greatly underestimated how well they would be able to do this, especially with the extra time they were granted by the slowing of the German forces. The French sent some of their troops by train, some through taxis, and marched the rest of them. By the time the Germans got into France, the French were there waiting for them.
Van Creveld asserts that:
...Schlieffen does not appear to have devoted much attention to logistics when he evolved his great Plan. He well understood the difficulties likely to be encountered, but made no systematic effort to solve them. Had he done so, he might well have reached the conclusion that the operation was impracticable. ... Moltke did much to improve the logistic side of the Plan. Under his direction, the problem was seriously studied for the first time and officers trained in the 'technics' of warfare ... He did, it is true, make a number of changes in the Plan. From an exclusively logistic point of view, some of these were beneficial, but most were harmful. Nevertheless, taking his period of office as a whole, he probably did more to improve the Plan than to damage its prospects.
He concludes that, overall, the logistical shortcomings of the Plan did not contribute to the German defeat at the First Battle of the Marne. However,
Had the battle gone in Germany's favour ... there is every reason to believe that the advance would have petered out. The prime factors would have been the inability of the railheads to keep up with the advance, the lack of fodder, and sheer exhaustion. In this sense, but no other, it is true to say that the Schlieffen Plan was logistically impracticable.
In van Creveld's view the design of the Plan was not characterized by the kind of thoroughness and detailed planning that is usually thought to be the hallmark of the German General Staff, but by "an ostrich-like refusal on Schlieffen's part to face even those problems which, after forty years of peace, could be foreseen." Although Moltke did improve the Plan somewhat in this respect, it was not methodical advanced planning which enabled the German advance to succeed, but "furious improvisation"
That the Army achieved as much as it did, at a time when the standing orders could only be said to have caused no actual harm, is remarkable indeed. Critics of the advance would do well to keep this in mind.
German troops were exhausted by the time they engaged French forces; many horses (towing artillery pieces) sickened, having eaten green corn.
German supply lines stretched 80 mi (130 km) at the Marne; the front line of the German Army had already broken into retreat before the rear had even arrived.
Moltke's changes to the plan
Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke made several changes to the Schlieffen Plan. One of his changes was that he weakened the right wing of the German army, which was invading France by way of Belgium, in order to strengthen the left-wing, which was defending Alsace-Lorraine against the French invasion. Moltke balked at the weakness of the Alsatian "hinge" region, fearing that the massive strength of the right-wing's hammer would allow the French to breakthrough the relatively sparsely manned left-wing "anvil". This had been part of Schlieffen's design: his plan called for the invading French forces to be enveloped. Schlieffen had been willing to sacrifice some German territory in the short run to decisively destroy the French Army but Moltke refused to run the same risk and shifted some divisions from the right flank to the left flank in Alsace-Lorraine. This proved problematic, because the German units who were supposed to fall back and lure the French away from Paris and the German right flank, were now driving the French before them. Rather than diverting the French forces from the action, this placed the French units much closer to the German 1st and 2nd armies threatening Paris.
Repulsed by the left-wing of Moltke's forces near Sarrebourg, the French retreated to the hills around the city of Nancy (near the German border.) Rather than sweeping around them and enveloping the French armies and Paris itself from the east, Moltke opted to directly attack their reinforced positions around Nancy which ended in an unmitigated failure.
Before the war, Moltke also moved 180,000 men to eastern Germany to defend against the Russian invasion of East Prussia. Shortly before the Battle of the Marne, he moved 80,000 more men to the east against the advice of General Ludendorff. Ludendorff would be vindicated as two days before the reinforcements arrived the Germans had decisively defeated the Russians at Tannenberg, nearly destroying the Russian Second Army in its entirety in the process. Ultimately Moltke reassigned some 250,000 men (an entire army's worth) from the right-wing assault before finally abandoning the Schlieffen Plan altogether. Moltke also had ideological opposition to the proposed passage of the invading armies through the neutral Netherlands, deciding instead to send his armies only through Belgium and Luxembourg.
Decision to break off the plan
General von Kluck made the decision at the front to wheel south-easterly instead of continuing on past Paris in accordance with Schlieffen's plan. German generals were taught to think for themselves, and in fact his decision to wheel inwards made orthodox military sense. However, it deprived Germany of the chance to force a decisive envelopment battle around Paris. It also turned the right flank of von Kluck's army toward Paris, leaving it in an unprotected position when it was attacked by the newly created French Sixth Army under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury. The result was a French victory at the First Battle of the Marne, which decisively ended the German advance.
Aftermath of the plan's failure
The failures of the German army in the West resulted in defeat at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, a stalemate, trench warfare, and a two-front war for Germany. After Germany's defeat at the Marne, there began a series of flanking maneuvres by both the Germans, and the British and French Allies heading northwards in one last attempt to end the war quickly. However, by December, the two armies had built an elaborate series of trench fortifications stretching essentially from the English Channel to the Swiss border which would remain nearly static for four years. Schlieffen's great gamble would, ironically, result in the one outcome he had feared: A long, drawn-out war of attrition against a numerically stronger enemy.
What eventually occurred was a "reverse Schlieffen", in that Russia was defeated prior to the Western Allies. The Russian army, aided by the Romanian and Serbian armies and considered by the German command as more dangerous than the Western Allies, was defeated with relative ease. Meanwhile the Western Allies had a larger manpower base from which to feed the war of attrition taking place. Even though Germany sent many divisions to fight in Italy and the Franco-Benelux theater following the collapse of Russia and the Eastern Front in 1917/18, the Western Allies still defeated the Central Powers' forces. In the 1918 summer campaign, Italy obtained a long sought decisive victory over Austria-Hungary, and Austria withdrew from the war exposing Germany's southern flank. The defeat of Bulgaria also exposed Germany (and Austria) to an Allied advance up the Danube. Finally the entrance of the United States on the side of the Allies in 1917, and the arrival of substantial U.S. troops, coupled with the failure of the final German offensives in the West in early 1918, allowed the Allies to push the Germans out of France and into Belgium, towards the German border. Once the long-held static positions were lost, Germany accepted the Allies' armistice terms.
Several historians argue that the plan was unfeasible for its time, due to the recent advances in weaponry and the improved transportation of industrial warfare. Some would say the plan was "too good". B. H. Liddell Hart, for instance, praised the Schlieffen Plan as a conception of Napoleonic boldness, but concluded that:
- The plan would again become possible in the next generation—when air power could paralyze the defending side’s attempt to switch its forces, while the development of mechanized forces greatly accelerated the speed of encircling moves, and extended their range. But Schlieffen’s plan had a very poor chance of success at the time it was conceived.
Contrarily, Captain Douglas Cohn argues that the plan may have worked if Moltke had followed Schlieffen's original plan instead of modifying it. He argues that had Moltke not depleted the right flank on the Western Front, Kluck's 1st German Army would not have been forced away from the sea, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would have been overwhelmed, and the French armies would have been trapped between Paris and France's eastern frontiers. The idea that logistics would have prevented this was disproven by the German supply improvisations that actually occurred.
A different approach to the debate has been taken by other historians, including David Fromkin, author of Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?, David Stevenson, author of Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy, and Terence Zuber, author of Inventing the Schlieffen Plan. They have argued that what is known as the Schlieffen Plan may not have been an actual plan as such, but instead was laid down in one 1905 hypothetical memorandum and a brief 1906 addition.
According to this view, Schlieffen may not have intended his concept to be carried out in the form he laid down, instead, seeing it as perhaps an intellectual exercise. Fromkin has argued that, given what historians have recently[when?] seen in Schlieffen's papers, captured by the U.S. Army along with other German war documents, that the memorandum had never been refined into an operational program. No orders or operational details (such as specific units for each area of the offensive) were appended. Furthermore, Fromkin says that the memorandum acknowledges the fact that for the plan to work the German Army needs more divisions, and there needs to be more parallel roads through Belgium. Fromkin continues by putting much of the genesis of the plan, as finally enacted, on Moltke, who had seen the memorandum and believed it to be a fully operational plan which he then proceeded to expand upon. Fromkin, in fact, has advocated referring to the "Moltke Plan" as opposed to the "Schlieffen Plan", as it may have been more a product of Moltke's misreading of the Schlieffen Memorandum of 1905 and its 1906 codicil.
Zuber's argument is that the Schlieffen memorandum was a "rough draft" of a plan to attack France in a single front war. It can not be regarded as an operational plan, as the memo was never typed up, was stored with Schlieffen's family, and envisioned the use of units not in existence. Further, the supposed plan was never published after the war when it was being touted as the infallible recipe for victory that Moltke ruined. Zuber contends that if Germany faced a war with France and Russia, Shlieffen's real plan was defensive counter-attacks on the French and Russians.
According to the historian A. Palmer, however, closer inspection of documents regarding the German war plan reveal that Moltke's changes were not that great, and that the plan was basically flawed from the start. He claims that the Schlieffen plan does not deserve its high reputation, because it underestimated pretty much everyone—the Russians, French, British, and Belgians. Another view is that both Palmer and Fromkin are correct, since Palmer's opinion that the Schlieffen plan was a poor plan would indicate its origin as one not fully vetted. The Schlieffen plan could have been simply a document that spurred operational thinking and planning, and became the working name for a strategy of bypassing the bulk of the French forces through a flanking maneuver.
The British military historian John Keegan in summarizing the debate over the plan, criticizes it for its lack of realism about the speed with which the right wing of the German army would be able to wheel through Belgium and the Netherlands in order to arrive outside of Paris on schedule. He observes that, regardless of the path taken, there were simply not enough roads for the masses of troops planned to reach Paris in the time required. In other words, the Plan required German forces to arrive on schedule and in sufficient force, but in reality only one or the other could be achieved, not both.
Keegan also points to the Schlieffen Plan as a leading example of the separation between military war planning and political/diplomatic considerations which was one of the original causes of the war. Schlieffen conceived his Plan as the best possible solution to a strategic problem, while ignoring the political reality that violating Belgian neutrality was the thing most likely to invite British intervention and expand the conflict.
The rigidity of the Schlieffen Plan has also been a source of much criticism. The plan called for the defeat of France in precisely 42 days. Armed with an inflexible timetable, argue many scholars, the German General Staff was unable to improvise as the "fog" of war became more apparent. Thus, many scholars believe that the Schlieffen Plan was anti-Clausewitzian in concept.
A factor in evaluating the significance of the Schlieffen plan is the misinformation that was widely disseminated during and after the war. Records were lost and material made up to paint the events in a light more acceptable to those making the decisions at the time.
- Manstein Plan (Second World War plan with some similarities)
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