An exercise in armchair generalship (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 18)

Last Thursday, I have the class the following assignment:

As we discussed in class, this week’s assignment is to put yourself into Moltke’s shoes and come up with an alternative strategy—whether in the initial invasion of France or in managing the offensive once Joffre ordered the Allied retreat—and *then* analyze whether your alternative might’ve made much difference in the outcome of the invasion of France.

and the results were, I must say, a blast to analyze, which we did in class today. The point of the exercise was to hone skills at thinking strategically—weighing options and alternatives against the other side’s likely responses, evaluating relative costs, risks, and benefits, etc.—all in the service of preparing us for thinking about the onset of attrition when we discuss the First Battle of Ypres next week.

Recognizing (a) the imperative of defeating France quickly before committing to a long war against Russia and (b) the near impossibility in the war’s early years of turning local successes into anything more than temporary gains, it became apparent that, whatever the shortcomings of Moltke’s revision of the Schlieffen Plan and its implementation, Germany really didn’t have much more than a lot of bad options. Fighting an opponent who’s wily and able to fight back, of course, has a lot to do with that, which made the exercise in analyzing these alternatives challenging and, again, quite a lot of fun.

For your viewing pleasure, here are the alternatives the class proposed:

  1. For Moltke, be decisive. Period. And stop the waffling.
  2. Invade France directly, leaving Belgium out of the picture (and perhaps the British out of the early part of the war).
  3. Move the headquarters, initially at Koblenz and only later in Luxembourg, closer to the front.
  4. Don’t retreat in the face of the impending Allied counterattack on the Marne. Just roll the dice again and keep moving forward.
  5. Don’t bother diverting troops from the right wing to besiege Antwerp.
  6. After the Allied retreat, hold on the right, then make main focus the middle of the French lines and try to punch through.
  7. Honor Schlieffen’s original plan, swinging wider and going through the Netherlands, too.
  8. Rather than retreat, order First Army farther west to smash French Sixth before it can form.
  9. Send High Seas Fleet down the coast towards the Low Countries, diverting the Royal Navy and making the Brits more hesitant to commit the BEF.
  10. Go for Paris through the BEF, while First Army holds French Sixth.
  11. Draw the French into Alsace-Lorraine with a strategic retreat to fortified cities, then send the right wing into France once Joffre overextends.

I won’t go into the costs, risks, and benefits of each alternative. Suffice it to say that discussion was lively, and I feel like the strategic way of thinking and explaining politics is starting to sink in. This, of course, means that we get to spend more and more time on productive thought experiments like this as the course goes on—that is, as the Western Front stabilizes and I run out of “new” things to talk about…

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