Management lessons – why the Schlieffen Plan failed: the What vs the How

“In western Europe the military machine, with its thousands of wheels, costing millions to maintain, cannot stand still for long. One cannot fight a war for one or two years, from position to position, in 12 day long battles until both combatants are completely exhausted and weakened and forced to sue for peace. We must attempt to defeat our enemies quickly and decisively.”

Count von Schlieffen, German strategist, 1905

What was the Schlieffen Plan?

Long before 1914, Germany was preparing for war. In 1905, Count von Schlieffen, the German Chief of Staff completed what became known as the Schlieffen Plan in which planning commenced in 1897, based on the theory that Germany would be at war with France and Russia at the same time.

The aim was not to fight the war on two fronts at the same time, in the West against France and in the East against Russia. The plan was to first defeat France within 6 weeks by invading through neutral Belgium and capturing Paris before Russia could mobilise its army. After the fall of France, German troops could then be diverted to the East and attack Russia.

The Schlieffen Plan failed spectacularly as World War I became a war of attrition, bogged down in trench warfare in eastern France and Belgium, well short of Paris. The Germans believed that neutral Belgium would not resist and that the British through their 1839 treaty with Belgium, allegedly described as a ‘scrap of paper’ by the German High Command would not come to the support of Belgium. Furthermore, the Germans believed that there was no need to fear the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) which the Kaiser called a ‘contemptible little army’.

What are three management lessons from the failure of the Schlieffen Plan?

Lesson 1: inflexible and arrogant leadership leads to failure

Apparently over 80% of the German soldiers were not professional soldiers. The schedules were prepared by a military hierarchy for fit regular soldiers under ideal conditions, not for non-regular soldiers who were not for physically or emotionally fit to march 30 km per day with heavy packs. The German High Command refused to modify the plan when the advance faltered. There was no Plan B

Lesson 2: under estimating and not understanding your opponents and their tactics

The BEF was not expected to support Belgium but they helped delay the plan. This led to atrocities being committed often by the inexperienced and untrained German troops. The bureaucratic minds of the German planners justified these actions as nothing should stop the plan’s operation. These atrocities in turn assisted in portraying the image of the ‘evil Hun’, which mobilised public and political opinion, first in Britain and later in America, indirectly allowing America into the war several years later.

Lesson 3: not understanding and taking into account logistics in your plan

The Schlieffen Plan was partially successful in the first month of the war, as it resulted rapid penetration into France. However, the speed of the initial advance created its own problems, placing a strain on the supply lines as well as placing great strain on the German troops, where the majority were travelling on foot and also having to fight on the way. They became fatigued, sunburnt and developed blisters reducing their fighting capacity. The daily needs of feeding the hundreds of thousands of horses and men, and providing ammunition was a logistical nightmare (logistics in your business). The army moved away from the railheads at 30 kms per day resulting in the supplies being brought to the front by horses. It is estimated that the German army needed 3,900 tonnes of food and fodder each day, clearly a difficult task when overwhelmingly horses were used for transport. Clearly logistics limited the operational success of the plan.

There were other reasons for the failure of the Schlieffen. However, as managers that we can learn from the three management lessons from the failure of the Schlieffen Plan.

In conclusion, the questions you need to ask yourself are:

Post note: The Russian Army mobilised quicker than the Germans had predicted which meant a war on two fronts.