The Outbreak of World War I (1962)
In 1839, Belgium became a separate, independent nation, and was "off-limits" to any incursion. The signatories of this agreement were Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
However, by the early-1900s, Count Alfred von Schlieffen believed that guaranteed Belgian neutrality was only a mere suggestion. Kaiser Wilhelm II, and virtually all in the German government structure thought the agreement was null-and-void, since Britain had initiated the whole process (Britain had indeed wanted to make the very easily traversed Belgium off-limits to all . . . to Britain, Belgium was like Puerto Rico to the U.S.). To Schlieffen, the key to defeating France was to go through Belgium. Germany longed to wrap up unfinished business with France, in that France had not been truly crushed as a result of the Franco-Prussian War that ended in 1870.
By 1892, the major alliances were basically set, which meant that if Germany went to war, it would be a war on two fronts. To Schlieffen, then, it was imperative to swiftly defeat France, and to him the best pathway to do so was to go through Belgium. He finalized his plan by 1906, budgeting 7/8ths of the German military to defeat France (in 6 weeks), and keeping 1/8th of the army in Eastern Prussia to deal w/ Russia, since he believed that Russia would take much longer to mobilize (in that, he was mostly correct).
Time was the most important thing, and cutting through Belgium would not only hasten Germany's advance to Paris, but it would also allow Germany to hit the French army hard on its flank. Schlieffen's true goal was to achieve a double-envelopment on the enemy, like Hannibal had done centuries earlier at Cannae. It was safe to say that by the early-1900s, Germany suffered from accumulated egoism; it deemed itself beyond-awesome.
Schlieffen (pictured) assumed that Belgium would roll-over when invaded; at most, they would only mildly protest. An added bonus of "skirting" the English Channel through Belgium, would be that Germany could dispatch any British forces as they quickly advanced towards France. Schlieffen died in 1913, and his successor,
General Helmuth von Moltke, wasn't as strong a tactician. Moltke didn't believe in putting as much strength in the German Right Wing that would go through Belgium; he "borrowed" from the Right Wing in order to reinforce the German Center and Left. Nonetheless, Moltke thought that France would fall in just 39 days after German Mobilization (M-39). Moltke also assumed that Russia wouldn't be ready for war until 1916, due to their overall lack of a railroad systems network (in that, he would be mostly incorrect).
Two events in 1914 sharpened Germany's military readiness to a fine point. In April, England began naval negotiations with Russia, and in June, Germany completed the Kiel Canal, which connected the North Sea to the Baltic (through Schleswig-Holstein in northernmost Germany) for the Germany navy.
The overall French strategy towards the German Right Wing was to exploit the German Center and Left. The strategy was born from the Treaty of Versailles in 1871, where France had lost territory and national pride to Germany, as well paying reparations. The strategy was to break through the German Center and Left, and sprint to Berlin in order to get payback for the humiliation experienced in 1871 at the hands of Germany (among France's goals was to take back Alsace-Lorraine). Despite the crippling Dreyfus Affair, the desire for payback burned most brilliantly in the French army.
What gnawed at Kaiser Wilhelm II was that Paris was still the center of Europe, not Berlin. Germany was still envious of France, a nation they thought they had conquered and crushed in 1871. Feeling superior in every way to France, Germany wanted to finish off France for good; meanwhile, France became extremely weary of forever needing to be "on guard" against Germany. What France needed was a weapon that was so powerful that it would guarantee victory over Germany . . . a weapon so powerful that it would lead them through the German Center and Left, and take them to Berlin . . . that weapon was "Spirit". French willpower, "Spirit", would be manifest in the huge offensive that was planned to break through the German Center/Left, and as an added bonus, that path would also be the shortest and easiest route to Berlin. In charge of this overall strategy was General Ferdinand Foch (in effect, at that point-in-time, he was France's Schlieffen); Foch believed in flexibility, not absolute rigid planning. Foch warned that "Spirit" alone was ineffective; he emphasized that military tactics and analysis was essential for a French triumph over Germany. Foch's overall strategy became the impetus for France's "Plan 17" (pictured), a massive offensive that would end the war with Germany before the German Right Wing could do any real damage in France.
Britain's alliance with France became a necessity in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. Russia's incompetence and weakness unhinged Europe's equilibrium in that if Britain was to fight a war, it would do so without a strong ally. Britain's military strategists assumed that Germany would attack France by going through Belgium. They also believed that Germany could be stopped if the British arrived in Belgium at the proper time and in the proper strength. In the meantime, the shifting coalitions in the British government made overtures to France for an alliance: the basic idea was that France would bear the brunt of the forces on land, while Britain would do so in terms of seapower.
The Liberals were in charge of the British government when Europe was on the brink of war, and they believed that "good intentions" could keep the peace. The Liberal government agreed to continue talks with France for an alliance, but the British General Staff didn't want the army to be subordinate to the French in Belgium (or in France). These British military minds differed as to the role the British army should play on the Continent: should they go
all-in and protect Antwerp (on the map above, east of London across the Channel) and its vital adjoining coastline, or just let Germany pummel France, and then land in force behind German lines, only 90 miles from Berlin. The collective feeling was that fighting in Belgium and France would be "suicidal idiocy"; the Liberal government kept hoping for the best, while not adequately preparing for the worst.
The last attempt at any kind of "understanding" between Britain and Germany disappeared in 1912 when naval negotiations failed; after this, even the Liberals acknowledged that an impending war was imminent in Europe. Even so, after a treaty of alliance was formalized with France, some British politicians felt that it absolved Britain of any commitment at all if France was attacked, while others interpreted the treaty that Britain was totally committed to aid France. The treaty was entirely reactive, in that Britain wasn't obligated to do a thing unless Germany attacked Belgium . . . Britain started get down to specifics in terms of the strength and tactics of the BEF, but their General Staff had absolutely no idea of the actual might of the German Right Wing.
The Russian "Steamroller" cast a spell on Europe. To the Germans, the spectre of Russians and Slavs to their east haunted them; to Great Britain and France, Russia was a boon in that she kept Germany's head on a swivel, constantly switching from east-to-west. Despite losing far more than winning in terms of military engagements over the previous century, the myth of Russian invincibility endured (e.g. everyone was scared of the Cossacks). A seemingly inexhaustible supply of men and its vastness inspired awe in Europe; if the Russians tapped into their reserve units, they could accurately claim an army of 6.5 million.
France wanted Russia to be ready to engage Germany on the Eastern Front by no later than M-15 (15 days after French Mobilization), but there was no way Russia would be ready in force by then, so it was agreed that Russia would attack with what they had, which was after the "Magic Day" of M-15. The basic strategy was to force Germany, from the onset of war, to fight on two major fronts. Russia was anxious to regain their glory and reputation after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), but their valor was far greater than their sense of reality. Russia fell under the same spell that captivated France, in that "Spirit" will carry the day . . . attack!
A main complicating factor in being able to launch a large offensive was that Russian railroad tracks had a different gauge (width) that German tracks. The idea was to make it tough for Germany to advance their troops in Russia, but it also made it equally difficult for Russia to advance in force in East Prussia. In short, it was impossible for Russia to mobilize enough forces in time for M-15, and to cap it off, the Russian General Staff, as well as Czar Nicholas II
(picture above), were vastly out-of-touch with military reality in terms of what they could do, and what Germany was capable of doing.
While no European nation was truly ready for what was to come, Russia only had 850 shells per gun ready to go by 1914; Germany, Britain, and France had 2000 - 3000 shells per gun. Russia also had a huge shortage of artillery (and shells) relative to the Western European nations. Russia wanted to attack Austria-Hungary when Germany attacked France. The General Staff calculated that four Russian armies would overwhelm the Austro-Hungarian forces, and that two armies would be enough to crush German resistance, and on to Berlin they would advance.
(Pictured: Czar Nicholas II and his hemophilic son, Alexei)
The Problem: Germany had East Prussia (home of the Junkers, the German noble class) very heavily defended. Also, Germany had many railroad lines in East Prussia, so mobilizing on their end to bring more troops to the Eastern Front would not be as problematic, compared to Russia advancing in the same region of Germany. Little did the Russian General Staff realize that Germany's plan was to strike at the first Russian army that came within reach of East Prussia.
by 1914 in that . .
a) Germany wanted to settle accounts with France from a war 40+ years earlier in which they won, but were unable to keep France from quickly recovering. Germany's national pride rested on crushing France once-and-for-all, according to Kaiser Wilhelm II (pictured), and going through Belgium with their massive Right Wing was the recipe for success.
b) France, despite being at a military disadvantage compared to Germany, also wanted to settle accounts from the Franco-Prussian War. France tired of being on the defensive in the decades that followed, and decided that their national "Spirit" would buoy them to victory on a major offensive through the German Center and Left.
c) Great Britain, by far the most hesitant of the four nations in terms of its level of military commitment and zeal, still aligned itself with France, mostly due to Russia's inability to contain Germany. However, Britain would only enter the war to aid France if Germany invaded Belgium.
d) Russia, swept up in the same "Spirit-Fever" that captivated France, ignored all military reality in terms of logistics, and believed that once they got the Russian Colossus moving, they would be in Vienna and Berlin in short order . . . and their tattered reputation as a European power would be restored.