Going Over The Top: All Over By Christmas

By David Flin

First things first. While it is commonly accepted that the phrase was in common use at the start of the First World War, there’s actually little evidence of it being used. The phrase first started to gain currency in memoirs of the 1920s, but no significant mention of it before the start of the war.

One phrase that did get used was in a speech by the German Emperor Wilhelm II to his troops, in which he said that they “would be home before the leaves fall.”

However, there was a general view that modern technology enabled mass concentration of forces, and that a swift, decisive blow was possible. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it enables us to see that once the trenches of the Western Front were in place, it was inevitable that an entire generation was going to be shattered.

Was a swift victory ever possible? Let’s look at some of the options.

France. Plan XVII.

The French Army invaded Alsace and Lorraine, and the French Army discovered that pushing flesh and blood against machine guns, artillery, steel and concrete wasn’t conducive to a long life-expectancy for French soldiers. A brief summary of the various battles would be:

French initially advance, as German forces pull back towards defensible positions. French armies attack German positions. French armies get shattered and pull back. German forces counter-attack, and get shattered in turn.

Change the names, and this could be applied to many of the set-piece battles once the trench-line had been formed. However, could Plan XVII have been a success?

Judging from the continual failure of assaults later in the war, it seems unlikely. Granted, French reconnaissance could have been better. There was, for example, uncertainty about the numbers of locations of bridges across rivers. Coordination between the French First and Second Armies was poor. The French attacks could have been better coordinated.

That said, the difference in strengths, and the advantages of the defensive technology in this era meant that the chances of success were low.

Even if we accept that a victory was possible – which is a big ask – there’s the element of planning that is often much neglected, how do you exploit success? The plan involved taking Alsace and the Lorraine, and once that had been completed, one is left looking at the map, and asking: “What next?”

Even if successful, the French armies are going to be exhausted and have taken casualties, élan notwithstanding. The intention hadn’t been to exploit further, but for the move to buy time for Russia to mobilise more fully.

The intention was not to gain a swift total victory, but to gain an advantage, and use that advantage in negotiations to rectify the black stain of the loss of Alsace and Lorraine from 1870.

Germany: Schlieffen Plan

Geography was against Germany. With France and Russia allied, it would face a two-front war. Reasoning that it would take Russia six weeks to mobilise, Germany decided that it had six weeks to knock France out of the war. That meant that it decided to concentrate the bulk of its forces in the west, attack through Belgium, reach Paris and force France to accept peace, and then transfer the troops from the western front to the eastern in order to defeat Russia.

One would have expected that someone would have written the plan outline down somewhere, and raised the question that it seemed a little ambitious, Nonetheless, that was the plan, and history tells us that German forces got to within 30 miles of Paris before being held and then driven back a bit at the Battle of the Marne.

The attack through Belgium has been criticised for being the direct cause of bringing Britain into the war, and stacking the odds against the Triple Alliance in the event of a long war. However, it was the only option to bring the war to a swift end. Switzerland was invasion-proof; the Franco-German border was heavily guarded by France, and any attack there would involve heavy losses; an attack into the Netherlands was discounted to keep Dutch neutrality for as long as possible. It was thought that passage through the flat plains of Flanders would offer the fastest path to victory.

Could the Schlieffen Plan have worked? Could German forces have reached and taken Paris and forced France to seek peace within six weeks?

The odds are heavily against it. The French forces are getting shorter lines of supply; reinforcements and additional forces have less distance to travel and will arrive quicker and less tired. Famously, taxis were used to ferry French reinforcements from Paris to the Marne in the defence. The closer to Paris one gets, the easier for France to reinforce. By contrast, German forces are advancing, and their lines of supply to the front-line forces are both longer, and over battle-devastated land. Their advance has to be rapid, and they are inevitably going to outrun supplies.

It gets worse. Exhaustion in both sides is inevitable, but the German forces have to keep pressing and advancing, while the French forces just need to hold their ground.

It gets worse. Advances and attacks inevitably cause dislocations and problems; troops get separated, units get shattered and lose cohesion, headquarters loses track of exactly where everyone is, and gaps open up.

It gets worse. This was a period where communication to fixed positions was relatively quick and easy. Telephone lines enable defensive positions and staff to communicate quickly, easily, and accurately. Defenders can arrange supporting artillery as quickly as the communication allows. By contrast, advancing troops have no easy way of communicating back. Artillery support can only be against pre-arranged targets, and can do little in direct support.

It gets worse. Artillery takes time to reposition. French forces have the advantage of secure infrastructure over which to bring artillery up in support, while German forces are having to move the guns over battlefields, and generally without infrastructure support.

Could the German forces have taken Paris? Possibly, although it looks to be a desperately long-shot. Perhaps the last word on the viability of the plan should go to Paddy Griffith, a lecturer at Sandhurst. He said: “If the German staff had tried marching the distance they expected their troops to cover in full kit in the time-scale allotted, a different plan would have been developed. They hit the limit of what could be achieved.”

Race to the Sea.

Once the Schlieffen Plan had been halted, there then began the confused engagements known as the Race to the Sea. Each side attempted to attack the rear of the other’s northern wing in order to envelope it.

Because of the greater effectiveness of defensive technology over offensive, each attack ended up stopped in its track, the position settled down, and the next attempt was made a bit further north, resulting in another hasty attack launched upon a hastily-prepared defensive position, more casualties, another stalemate, and so on until the North Sea was reached, and no further flanking movements were possible.

The fighting during some of these battles were incredibly severe. For example, on 10 October, the Germans took part of the town of Foncquevillers, and held it with two elite regiments. Three French territorial regiments retook the town after house-to-house fighting, supported by flat trajectory fire from 75 mm field guns.

Once the North Sea had been reached, there was nowhere else to go, so everyone settled down for a lengthy period of trench warfare.

Could a breakthrough have been achieved? Quite possibly. It was a constant series of each side desperately shoring up defences against the latest thrust, scraping together whatever forces were to hand, and throwing them in hurriedly to shore up the gap. It only needs one major misstep, and the attacking side might force a breach.

Could that have brought the war to an end? That’s much less likely. A French or British breakthrough faces the problem that all they’ve done is disrupted Germany’s attack, and likely forced it back a few miles. That would have left German forces still deep into French territory, in a stalemated position. Just like the historical situation, just in a different place.

Things would have been more serious had Germany made the breakthrough. They were close to Paris. However, any breakthrough would, by necessity, have been hastily prepared, with troops near exhaustion, disrupted supply lines, and the later it happened, the further north it takes place, and the further away from Paris. France is still better able to shift troops, and should be able to contain the breakthrough.

The most likely way of achieving an end to the war before the end of 1914 is for the French Government to panic after a breakthrough, and sue for peace to preserve Paris. This is unlikely, given the mood in France at the time.

The British Plan The British plan was to blockade Germany, and starve it of the resources with which to wage war, while making use of its control of the seas to enable it to deal with outposts. It was a tried and tested strategy, and had served Britain well over the years.

However, while it was a successful strategy, and the blockade was to prove to be effective in reducing Germany’s power, it was not a quick strategy. It was a strategy focused on a timescale of years rather than months, and it had no hope of achieving victory before the close of 1914.

Austria-Hungary: Plans B and R. There is much less discussion of Austria-Hungary’s war plans than those of France or Germany. There’s a good reason for this. The plans were based on the assumption that the war would be limited to Serbia, and no-one else would get involved.

Plan B specified that three of the six armies of Austria-Hungary would invade Serbia, with the other three guarding the Russian border to dissuade Russia from intervening.

Plan R was a modification of Plan B, with two armies being used against Serbia, and four to guard against Russian support for Serbia in the south, and relying on Germany to guard against Russia in the north.

Plan R was the one adopted, with the slight technical problem that Austria-Hungary expected German troops to be guarding against Russia in the north when they were, in fact, marching through Belgium trying to take Paris.

Even if the plans had gone perfectly, they were aimed purely against Serbia, and would have had no effect on ending a general European war at all, never mind before the end of 1914.

Russia: Plans G and 19 Russia’s limitation was that it would take six weeks to mobilise its forces. It developed its plans in line with that, and generally assumed that it would initially be on the defensive.

Plan G assumed that Germany would launch a full-scale attack against Russia, and the plan prepared to fight delaying actions and trade space for time, enabling full mobilisation to take place.

Plan 19 assumed that Germany would throw its weight against France, and that Russian armies would advance in a series of pincer movements taking territory steadily. The objective was to pose a threat to the eastern part of Germany, compelling Germany to withdraw troops from France, and allow France and Russia to act in concert with greater manpower against Germany.

Given the balance of manpower resources, and the inadequacy of Russian transport infrastructure, Plan 19 was probably the best available plan. However, the very ponderous nature meant that it wouldn’t bring a swift end to the war.

Historically, Plan 19 was thrown into disarray after the Russian defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, failing at the first bite. Even if successful, and everything had gone according to the dictates of the plan, it was just the first step on a long road.

All Over by Christmas? Could the war have been concluded by Christmas? From a purely military point of view, it’s highly unlikely. Defensive technologies were just too strong in comparison to offensive; distances were too great; exploitation beyond the breakthrough too difficult; control of an advance once contact had been made was next to non-existent; artillery support beyond a certain range not possible, and repositioning guns too lengthy a process.

The Western Front, 20 November 1914 - Image by the Imperial War Museum

While governments and people were prepared to continue the fight, the fight would go on.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July; there was very little chance of it being over by Christmas.

Although for just over a million troops, it was a different matter. For them, it was indeed all over before Christmas.

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