France's WW1 Plan XVII
The Germans had assumed that France would mount a defensive position if attacked and would not be able to mount an offensive campaign. They were wrong. The French Plan XVII called for the French to attack. Attack!
Bismarck and Napoleon III
France’s Defeat in the Franco-Prussian War
France had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles (this one ratified at Frankfurt and not to be confused with the treaty of the same name that ended WW1) even included a parade by German forces down the Champs Elysées in Paris. This sad march took place with nobody watching…how could any French citizen watch this humiliating spectacle?
The Battle of Sedan had gone particularly badly for the French, with 17,000 men killed and more than 20,000 captured, including their leader Napoleon III. So beaten was the French psyche over losing Alsace and Lorraine under the Treaty that ended the war, that there existed a phrase attributed to Leon Gambetta, a member of the provisional government formed after Sedan:
“Y penser toujours, n'en parler jamais” or “Think of it always, never speak of it.”
The French needed a plan if they were going to get Alsace and Lorraine back and defend themselves against possible future threats from the German Empire.
General Foch in 1916
Evolution of the Plan
The first plan for war drafted by the French was Plan XIV in 1898. This one had a definite defensive character, much of that due to the realities of the new French border with Germany. Now that Alsace and Lorraine were in German hands, the German front in any war was already closer to the heart of France than it would have been in the past. France's mountainous regions in the southeast meant that area was not conducive to launch an offensive attack from.
One evolution of the plan included the proposed use of French reservists to bolster the regular forces, and also mirrored the German Schlieffen Plan’s thinking about the easiest route for a decisive German victory being through Belgium. The man who was Commander in Chief (designate) of France’s forces at that time believed that the only way to counter a German offensive through Belgium was to significantly increase the number of men ready to meet them. He was forced out of office for even suggesting the use of the reserves. The corps of Officers in the French Army considered the reservists only fit for rear-duty, not for combat.
There was even some thinking on the part of the French at one point in the Plan's evolution that they should attack Germany through Belgium. The various Prime Minister's who heard this idea quickly shot it down...they would not risk their alliance with Britain by violating Belgium's neutrality.
The real problem was that the French were tired of being in a defensive position. Since the end of the Franco-Prussian war, they had grown in their determination to settle the score and win back Alsace and Lorraine. They believed that the “élan vital” or “vital spirit” of the French forces would compel them forward in battle and lead them to victory. And nobody believed this more passionately than General Ferdinand Foch, who was instrumental in changing the Plan from being a defensive one to an offensive one.
But it would take far more than a will to win to defeat the superior and larger German forces.
Plan XVII showing the Five French Armies stretched from Hirson on the French-Belgian border to Belfort in Alsace
Joseph "Papa" Joffre
Plan XVII is Born
In April 1913, the finishing touches were put on the new Plan XVII by General Joseph Jacques Césaire Joffre, France’s new Commander in Chief, and presented to the War Council. The Plan was adopted right away, and the next few months saw the French forces reorganized into five separate armies based on the troop deployment called for in the Plan.
Joffre and his Deputy Chief believed that the German attack would come through Lorraine, with the far right wing of the German forces brushing only a corner of Belgium. They could not fathom Germany having enough men to sweep through the whole of Belgium – even though the French had been handed an early draft of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan clearly showing this option. Neither did they believe the Germans would use reserves to increase the size of the army, as the Kaiser was known to be against this. And of course, violating Belgium’s neutrality would draw the British into the fight. Would Germany dare risk a war with Britain?
The Plan had its detractors, some of them very vocal. They insisted that the Germans would come through Belgium in an attempt to encircle the French. And French Intelligence units had collected compelling evidence that the Germans were already calling up large numbers of reserves to participate in military exercises. But Joffre and the War Council were not swayed. They would not see France return to forever being on the defensive. They would attack the Germans head on in Lorraine.
All of the conjecture and speculation on both sides was about to be tested.
Schlieffen Plan and Plan XVII (Plan XVII starts at 2:40)
July 28th, 1914 - Austria declares war on Serbia.
August 1st, 1914 - Germany declares war on Russia. Russia defies Germany’s warning to halt mobilization of its troops, replying that the mobilization is only against Austria.
On August 1st, France enters the fray when it orders its army to mobilize to come to the aid of its ally Russia.
August 3rd, 1914 - France declares war on Germany and Germany declares war on France.
Britain delivers an ultimatum to Germany to get out of Belgium by midnight.
August 4th, 1914 – Germany’s invasion of Belgium causes Britain to formally declare war on Germany.
Failure of Plan XVII
The Germans correctly assumed that the French would attack through Alsace and Lorraine, and they were waiting. The French troops were easily outmanned and outgunned by the stronger and larger German forces. The Germans had made extensive use of reservists to increase the size of their fighting army.
The French suffered heavy losses, and within a few weeks, they were right back where they started. The Germans got very close to Paris during this push - only 30 kilometers away! But the Germans were experiencing problems of their own. Getting supplies to an army that was so geographically dispersed was proving to be more than Schlieffen's Plan had anticipated.
Joffre was able to regroup his forces and, with the help of the British who had joined the fight by this time, push the Germans back. Assisted by the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF), the French were finally able to mount a successful offensive attack at the first Battle of Marne. The Race to the Sea had begun.
© 2014 Kaili Bisson