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WW1 what if ?



  • So in Aug 1914 Germany mobilized for an attack on France through Belgium(the ill fated “Schefflin plan”),while keeping a small army in the east to defend against Russia.What if Germany had decided to attack east and defend its short western border instead?If no invasion of Belgium,would UK and later USA join war at all?Remember the spark for the war was  a  Serbia Austria-Hungary conflict.
      I think Germany could’ve handed Russia a significant defeat and taken a lot of territory before winter 1914.As for the west I think Germany could’ve held back the French.As it went, Frances opening attacks on Alsace-Lorraine were repelled by Germanys reserve army while its main force was busting through Belgium.
    I’d like to hear others thoughts on this.


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    It’s an interesting question, but one for which no single answer is possible because the hypothetical scenario being discussed doesn’t involve changing an isolated and limited detail in the timeline.  Rather, it involves Germany tossing out its fundamental strategy for the war – a strategy that had been developed over a couple of decades, and around which its entire mobilization and deployment plans revolved – and, basically, doing the opposite of what it actually did.  That’s already a huge variable being altered.  When you next factor in the extremely complicated interlocking factors (both political and military) that were at play on the European scene at the time, you end up in a situation where any number of scenarios become possible for what might have happened in the summer/fall of 1914.  As for projecting whether or when the US might have entered the conflict, that’s even more imponderable, given how late it actually happened historically and how convoluted a path its entry into the war ended up being.

    All that being said, I think that a number of general observations can be made about an important factor that wouldn’t have been affected one way or the other: geography.  Historically, the Western Front and the Eastern Front in WWI assumed very different characters for reasons that have a lot to do with space and terrain.  The conscripted armies of 1914 were enormous in size, i.e. in the millions when you include the reservists who could be called up for wartime duty, and their basic individual and small-unit weapons were the full-powered (roughly .30 caliber) magazine-fed bolt-action rifle and the belt-fed machine gun.  These weapons were long-ranged and accurate, and had impressive rates of fire; I think that a well-trained rifleman could deliver fifteen aimed shots a minute, while a machine gun could fire hundreds of rounds in the same amount of time.  As a result, the amount of “frontage” that a single soldier (let alone a machine-gun crew) could hold was considerable, especially when firing from the protection of an entrenched position.  (Even as far back as the American Civil War, in which most soldiers were armed with comparatively slow-loading rifled muskets, a general remarked that if you put a man in a hole and give him a rifle he’ll be able to beat back several times his own number of attackers even if he’s not a good soldier.)

    The point of all this is that the generals of 1914 had failed to make a crucial calculation: taking the amount of frontage that entrenched infantrymen could hold,  multiplying it by the millions of soldiers who were available in the conscripted armies of the time, and cramming both of those factors into the cramped geography and easy terrain of Western Europe (specifically, in the area between the North Sea and the Swiss Alps).  This wasn’t a problem in the early stages of the war, when both sides were fighting a war of maneuver…but as soon as one side suffered serious enough reverses to get the idea of entrenching itself for its own protection, then the game was up.  The two sides frantically tried to outflank each other’s lengthening trench lines (roughly the same thing happened at Petersburg during the American Civil War) until they “ran out of continent” and they ended up deadlocked for years in a situation in which weapons had gotten ahead of tactics, i.e. in which defense had proved to be stronger than offense in frontal assaults against an entrenched front.  My guess is that this would have happened eventually in Western Europe even if Germany had initially made Russia its priority.

    As for the Eastern Front, a static front didn’t develop there historically because the spaces involved were much larger and the opposing armies never ended up in the kind of traffic jam that happened in the west in 1914.  I’m not sure if Russia’s huge geography was one of the motivating factors behind the Schlieffen Plan in the first place, but I can well believe it; the Wehrmacht in 1941 found it challenging too, and it was a lot more mobile than the Kaiser’s armies.  Note, incidentally, in reference to one of the points in Ampdrive’s question, that Germany did inflict a major defeat on Russia early in the war, the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914, despite the fact that the bulk of its forces were on the Western Front at the time.  And note that Russia nonetheless kept fighting, because the loss of nearly 200,000 men in just five days – more than the US lost in the entire war – was something that Russia could absorb without collapsing.  I would assume that Russia’s huge population was another consideration that led to the formulation of the Schlieffen Plan in the first place.  Germany didn’t want to fight a two-front war, and for some reason it had concluded that a war in Russia could not be won quickly, which meant in turn that Germany concluded that it would be best served by trying for a quick knock-out blow in the west.


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    Germany should have let the UK and French basically bleed to death and go on the defense while inside French territory. The greater fluid style battles of maneuver in the East would have benefited Germany more and saved lives. Serbia would be crushed as the Austrians would not have diverted forces to two fronts, leaving Germany full deployment and responsibility in the east. Russia would have collapsed quicker and they could then turn to Italy. UK meanwhile would have performed countless “Somme” style offensives crippling the manpower and flower of the western armies. Then a Verdun meatgrinder style attack would just finish them off. Ottomans would have benefited and picked out Russian areas and been better able to hold off UK.



  • Germany did in fact a quick knock out blow to France in 1870/71 and many of the German officers in 1914 had experience from that short war, so it is not strange they belived they could do it again.


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    Unfortunately for Germany, the Chief of the General Staff when WWI broke out, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, wasn’t in the same league as his uncle Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who held the same job at the time of the Franco-Prussian War.  He made serious errors in the application of the Schlieffen Plan; these errors weren’t the only reason for its failure, but they contributed to it.



  • The problem with this idea is that Germany in the end did smash Russia in the east quite easily. I seriously doubt Germany would go all in against Russia and just ignore its intended targets in the west. However if Germany gave Russia the 1 2 punch, not going west means UK and France have no excuse to enter the war and thus, no WWI as we know it.


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    @Caesar:

    The problem with this idea is that Germany in the end did smash Russia in the east quite easily. I seriously doubt Germany would go all in against Russia and just ignore its intended targets in the west. However if Germany gave Russia the 1 2 punch, not going west means UK and France have no excuse to enter the war and thus, no WWI as we know it.

    France and Russia had an alliance treaty, and a war by Germany with one of those two powers thus more or less guaranteed a war against both powers.  This was the whole point of the Schlieffen Plan: it assumed that Germany was going to end up in a two-front war, and therefore it tried to offer a way for Germany to convert it to a one-front war by quickly winning on one of the fronts.  WWI started, in principle, as a conflict in the east (Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia, which dragged in Serbia’s ally Russia and A-H’s ally Germany), but it soon became a conflict in the west too.  Historically, that happened when Germany implemented the Schlieffen Plan and invaded Belgium (which drew in Britain, the guarantor of its neutrality) and France…but even if Germany hadn’t done so, a conflict in the west would probably still have broken out because France had its aforementioned alliance with Russia and because France would have found a Russo-German war to be the perfect time to pursue its own ambition to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine.  Whether Britain would have jumped in is debatable, but France was likely to have done so.

    On the grounds of mere duration, I’m not sure that a war lasting from 1914 to 1917 could be described as Germany smashing Russia quite easily.  I haven’t checked the casualty figures for Germany on the eastern front, so it’s possible that they were minor, though I rather doubt it.



  • See the issue with that alliance is that France had the same treaty with Poland made in the 30’s and we all know how honorably France was when Poland screamed for help when the Wehrmacht rolled into Poland. So that is truly debatable, I think as long as Germany didn’t invade Russia (which they had no plans for), France may of just sat it out.


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    @Caesar:

    See the issue with that alliance is that France had the same treaty with Poland made in the 30’s and we all know how honorably France was when Poland screamed for help when the Wehrmacht rolled into Poland. So that is truly debatable, I think as long as Germany didn’t invade Russia (which they had no plans for), France may of just sat it out.

    Possibly, but France’s situation in 1914, set in the context of the earlier Franco-Prussian War, and France’s situation in 1939, set in the context of the earlier First World War, were very different politically and psychologically.  In 1914 France was eager to avenge its earlier defeat and retake Alsace-Lorraine, and it was doing so from the perspective of a country which had fought the kind of conventional war which generals and politicians were still more or less expecting to fight in 1914.  WWI turned out to be anything but conventional.  To give just one example, France lost about 140,000 dead and about 140,000 wounded during the entire Franco-Prussian War, i.e. about a quarter-million troops; by contrast, in WWI, France lost 380,000 men in the Battle of Verdun alone, and suffered six million casualties (1.3 million killed and 4.6 million wounded) during the whole war.  WWI left France severely traumatized and in no mood to fight another war, a state of mind which eventually translated into the construction of the Maginot Line, the government’s policy of appeasement towards Hitler, and its trepid response to the outbreak of war in 1939.



  • I don’t doubt those claims, I am just doubting if France would hold its end of the treaty it had with Russia if Germany or Austria attacked.


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    @Caesar:

    I don’t doubt those claims, I am just doubting if France would hold its end of the treaty it had with Russia if Germany or Austria attacked.

    I think they would have. In fact, I think they were eager to avenge their defeat in their last war with Germany.

    -Midnight_Reaper



  • Germany did in fact a quick knock out blow to France in 1870/71 and many of the German officers in 1914 had experience from that short war, so it is not strange they belived they could do it again.
    I think Narvik makes an important point.Germany expected a quick war and free passage through Belgium.I recall reading the phrase"home before the leaves fall"
    meaning if things more or less went according to plan,it would all be finished in a couple of months.I imagine the planners at the time would recall Napoleons 1812 invasion of Russia.
    Thanks for all the responses gents


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    I don’t doubt those claims, I am just doubting if France would hold its end of the treaty it had with Russia if Germany or Austria attacked.

    Raymond Poincaré and his predecessors jumped at the chance of getting Russia to sign a treaty…for the sole purpose of forcing Germany into a two front war and making it easier for France which was mobilized for war for at least two years the chance to get back Alsace Lorraine. Poincare was the real warmonger itching for a chance, any chance to reclaim 1870 lost territory.



  • @Imperious:

    I don’t doubt those claims, I am just doubting if France would hold its end of the treaty it had with Russia if Germany or Austria attacked.

    Raymond Poincar� and his predecessors jumped at the chance of getting Russia to sign a treaty…for the sole purpose of forcing Germany into a two front war and making it easier for France which was mobilized for war for at least two years the chance to get back Alsace Lorraine. Poincare was the real warmonger itching for a chance, any chance to reclaim 1870 lost territory.

    And the third Republic jumped chance at allying Poland knowing that Germany would target it first.


  • 2017 2016 2015 Organizer '14 Customizer '13 '12 '11 '10

    And the third Republic jumped chance at allying Poland knowing that Germany would target it first.

    Except of course that this is non sequitur. France did make a treaty with Imperial Russia, while France did not make a treaty with Poland. Second, Poland and France were not both attacked “first” but actually May 1940. Facts. not CNN here



  • @ampdrive:

    So in Aug 1914 Germany mobilized for an attack on France through Belgium(the ill fated “Schefflin plan”),while keeping a small army in the east to defend against Russia.What if Germany had decided to attack east and defend its short western border instead?If no invasion of Belgium,would UK and later USA join war at all?Remember the spark for the war was  a  Serbia Austria-Hungary conflict.
      I think Germany could’ve handed Russia a significant defeat and taken a lot of territory before winter 1914.As for the west I think Germany could’ve held back the French.As it went, Frances opening attacks on Alsace-Lorraine were repelled by Germanys reserve army while its main force was busting through Belgium.
    I’d like to hear others thoughts on this.

    There existed war plans supported by lower ranked officers in the Prussian Army that focused on Russia first. The main argument against this plan was that it accepted that any European modern-day war was a long event.

    The Schefflin Plan, in theory, would end a war in months.



  • imo the most interesting scenerio is…IF UK does NOT go to war…Germany beats France obviously…then Germany dominates the European theater as the economic kingpin…which is basically what they wanted…ironically what eventually occurred…
    this would have eliminated both hitler and stalin from becoming leaders…
    100’s of millions of lives would have been spared…



  • @CWO:

    France and Russia had an alliance treaty, and a war by Germany with one of those two powers thus more or less guaranteed a war against both powers.

    @ABWorsham:

    The Schefflin Plan, in theory, would end a war in months.

    “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

    @Midnight_Reaper:

    @Caesar:

    I don’t doubt those claims, I am just doubting if France would hold its end of the treaty it had with Russia if Germany or Austria attacked.

    I think they would have. In fact, I think they were eager to avenge their defeat in their last war with Germany.

    –-

    To be honest, I wonder if Germany would have considered any escalation in 1914 if they had known that Italy had planned all along to betray their alliance and work with France in the event a wider conflict. Italy had always had it’s eye on Austrian territory.

    German plans were to knock out France quickly, before Russia could fully mobilize. With hindsight, however, we know that Russia’s forces are incompetently led, and the Western Front will favor the defensive.

    The only way I see for the Central Powers to win the war is to do so in a way that prevents an extended conflict that will inevitably grind apart Germany’s allies, the Austrian and Ottoman Empires. It doesn’t have to be a fast victory, it just has to be a war that is executed more effectively.

    In the unlikely event I am in control, Germany should avoid war with England at all costs. If done right, even Italy and the Ottomans can sit it out.

    The idea then, is NOT to invade France. Germany was convinced any major conflict needed to be fought on French soil, and were committed to that end, but in a war that favors defense, they should have tried to maximize that advantage.

    Force France to commit politically to the defense of their Russian ally.

    At the beginning it is merely Germany/Austria against Russia/Serbia. If France commits to an offensive, then make limited attempts to gain more defensible ground, but stay out of Belgium, and maintain a defensive posture. Make France bleed for Russia to no gain. Keep potentially both England AND Italy out of the war, ending the issues of blockade and American complaints about German subs. American opinion may well be split in the event that Belgium maintains it’s neutrality. The Ottomans should merely bide their time, keeping the British from mobilizing or accelerating strain on their Empire.

    This places all the political pressure on France.

    Meanwhile, with a defensive posture in the West, Germany can focus on cutting apart Russia, hopefully without Italy distracting the Austrians.

    It’s a lot of “what-ifs” politically, but it keeps the war focused on it’s winnable components. French public opinion falters in proportion to Russian military setbacks until one or the other breaks.

    If Germany can defeat Russia by, say, late 1916, and France has made no gains?? Do the French continue the fight? Or sue for peace??


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    @Aretaku:

    It’s a lot of “what-ifs” politically, but it keeps the war focused on it’s winnable components. French public opinion falters in proportion to Russian military setbacks until one or the other breaks.

    If Germany can defeat Russia by, say, late 1916, and France has made no gains?? Do the French continue the fight? Or sue for peace??

    It’s possible (though unlikely, as I’m going to argue) that the participants in WWI might have tried to end the war before 1918 through some kind of settlement.  And it’s true that faltering public opinion was a factor in the actual war: the various national governments understood that the war was placing an enormous strain on their societies, and were worried that this might ultimately result (as it did, here and there) in strikes, mutinies, revolutions and social collapse.  But that worry was actually one of the reasons why national governments felt compelled to keep fighting to the bitter end.  A minor war with minor casualties can be settled by the usual method of swapping a few territories and paying a few million [insert unit of currency] to the winning side.  A total war – one in which the battlefield casualties are in the millions, and in which much of the civilian population is mobilized to produce the materials needed at the front, and in which the civilian population itself becomes the target of weapons such as blockade and shelling and bombing – demands total goals to justify the scale of the sacrifices being made.  “Total goals” translates into such concepts as the unconditional surrender of the enemy nations, the fall of their political regimes (none of those on the losing side of WWI survived), and the dismemberment of their empires (which happened to Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire).



  • @CWO:

    It’s possible (though unlikely, as I’m going to argue) that the participants in WWI might have tried to end the war before 1918 through some kind of settlement.

    You make some good points, but I would argue they are more relevant to the war that actually happened, and not an alternate scenario like mine or the OP where Russia is the focus of German military efforts.

    In my mind it all hinges on Belgian neutrality and Italian ambition. If either England or Italy enter the war in aid of France, the whole calculus changes.

    But I don’t think France is keen to shed THAT much blood for Alsace-Lorraine if Russia calls it quits and they stand alone against the Central Powers.

    You had wondered before about German casualties on the East Front. Wiki sez it accounted for less than 10% of German war dead and about 25% of the wounded. Most German casualties came from repeated offensive efforts in France. If Germany defends in the West, they actually gain a LOT of strategic flexibility, as they would be using fewer troops defending than they did historically when attacking.



  • Had the Western Front been a conflict along the borders focusing on the fortresses and strongholds I can see the French and possibly English sending a large Expeditionary Force into the East.



  • @ABWorsham:

    Had the Western Front been a conflict along the borders focusing on the fortresses and strongholds I can see the French and possibly English sending a large Expeditionary Force into the East.

    Russia had one in France.


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