Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
GENERALOBERST HELMUTH VON MOLTKE: ERINNERUNGEN, BRIEFE, DOKUMENTE. EDITED BY COUNTESS VON MOLTKE. Stuttgart: Der Kommende Tag, 1922.
OVER ROERMUND. BY CAPTAIN VAN VOORST TOT VOORST. The Hague: de Swart & Zoon, 1923.
DEFENSE DE LIEGE, NAMUR ET ANVERS EN 1914. BY COLONEL ROBERT NORMAND. Paris: L. Fournier, 1923.
DU HAUT DE LA TOUR DE BABEL. BY LT. GENERAL DE SELLIERS DE MORANVILLE. Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1925.
COUNT VON WALDERSEE, who became Chief of the German General Staff in 1888, records that in the course of that year he was asked by Bismarck,
"whether it would be desirable for us to march through Belgium, committing thereby a breach of neutrality. I explained that my advice would be against doing this, whereas it seemed very much to be desired that France should operate through Belgium. The best thing for us, I maintained, would be that we were at war with France and Russia simultaneously. With Austria and Italy as allies the chances would be very good for us, whereas in a war with France alone Russia might be in a position to dictate to us the terms of peace."
Bismarck's reply to this politico-military speculation is not recorded, but Waldersee at least had good grounds for his confidence in regard to Belgium. His predecessor, the elder Moltke, had examined this hypothesis of a French advance through northern Belgium, and found in it no cause for concern. Such a move would bring up short in any case against the lower Rhine, and he arranged a maneuver to meet it -- taking it in the flank by a counter-attack northward through Luxemburg. Reassured in this quarter, Moltke had reversed his earlier war plan, and arranged in case of war against France and Russia together to take the offensive against the latter. In the course of this same conversation with Bismarck the prospects of this plan were touched on, and Waldersee notes: "We agreed that in the event of war we must take the offensive into Poland, but not beyond Poland."
Even this limited objective of "into Poland" was found unsatisfactory by Schlieffen, who succeeded Waldersee as Chief of Staff a few years later. During the "roadless seasons" of spring and autumn the mud of Poland would make it impossible to undertake an offensive, and if war chanced to come under one of these unfavorable constellations, the rapid campaign Moltke had counted on would be out of the question. There remained always the danger that Russia might execute the classic retirement far into her own territory, and destroy all possibility of a prompt decision on the eastern front. Last of all, Schlieffen had no confidence in Austrian statesmen or soldiers, and was more and more reluctant to rely on any plans depending on their coöperation. These and various other dangers and uncertainties led Schlieffen presently to abandon the campaign in the east; and in 1894 he turned back to the western front for his military decision. But whereas Moltke had left a strong force to guard his defensive frontier, Schlieffen put all his eggs into one basket: nearly his whole army was to concentrate against France, and the eastern front would stand or fall on the result of the western battle. The Austrians he left to shift for themselves. He gave their army no part in his western campaign; he refused to confide the details of his plans to the Austrian staff; and from this time until 1909 the military relations between the two allies seem to have been correct but distant.
The French fortified frontier, which had caused Moltke to turn east fifteen years earlier, was still a formidable obstacle to a rapid military decision. But by passing to the north or south of it Schlieffen saw that he could not only turn the French flank but above all force the issue to the prompt and decisive battle which was essential. "To pass by Switzerland," General von Kuhl explains, "was forbidden both by the difficult terrain and by the Swiss Army." On the side of Belgium no such obstacle offered; and across Luxemburg and southern Belgium Schlieffen borrowed a right of way for his enveloping operation. "We were forced to it by necessity," observes von Kuhl with a due sense of historical anticipation. It was a necessity at least for the maneuver of envelopment which was the basis of Schlieffen's conception, -- and for this same reason the violation of Belgian territory continued a fundamental condition of all German plans of campaign in the west from this time forward.
Between 1894 and 1900 the enveloping operation (crossing the Meuse north of Verdun) was combined with a thrust through the French front further south; by these twin offensives Schlieffen expected to gather in the main mass of the French army, -- achieving on a gigantic scale a classic Cannae. Re-working constantly his plan, he shifted the balance of force more and more to the northern wing and borrowed an ever wider stretch of Belgian territory for his purpose. Ce n'est que le premier pas qui coute: -- having once stepped over the line, there was all Belgium at his disposal for elbow room. The attack in Lorraine gradually dwindled to a minor rôle; and the Cannae project gave place to a single enveloping operation.
This evolution was presently brought to a head by an unexpected development. The Russo-Japanese war and the paralyzing of Russian military power that followed, suddenly freed Germany from the traditional anxiety over the "Russian millions," -- and for some time to come there would be not only no danger but no possibility of a war against Germany on the two fronts. The three Army Corps earmarked heretofore for the defense of East Prussia were shifted westward, and the whole army was to be concentrated against France. Moreover there was now no need to turn back east in a hurry, and no necessity for taking any risk in the west for the sake of an immediate and a complete victory over the French. With this fundamental change in the underlying military problem, the compelling motive of the violation of Belgian territory had vanished. The recent development of the Entente Cordiale which brought England now to the side of France offered a very definite additional reason against it.
But Schlieffen was of the Continental terra-firma school which so aroused Tirpitz' fury: the British army was a trifle, and the British fleet would not at any rate interfere with his carefully planned maneuver. In these years of bending every effort toward the one aim of annihilation by envelopment, Schlieffen and the generation of Staff officers he formed had fallen -- Pygmalion like -- into a helpless passion for their professional handiwork. With Russia out of the way, the move through Belgium, originally worked out as the solution of a military dilemma, now became an irresistible temptation -- an opportunity for an unparallelled tour-de-force of pure strategy. Instead of returning to the lawful Franco-German frontier, Schlieffen pressed to the extreme point in the other direction and reached out across not only Belgium but Holland.
Late in 1905 he produced the professional masterpiece of his famous "final plan," in which he threw practically the whole strength of the German army into the enveloping operation. With only one weak army left to screen the Lorraine frontier, no less than seven of his eight armies were to assemble between Metz and the Dutch frontier, and rapidly push forward their advance to a line reaching from Verdun clear to Dunkirk. This 200 mile marching wing was then to wheel down irresistibly across northern France, roll up the flank of the French Army, and drive it back in rout even to the Swiss frontier. This moving of a whole battle line to one flank suggests a theory of envelopment afflicted with elephantiasis; but Ludendorff notes that after detailed study the operation inspired Schlieffen with perfect confidence: "The forces devoted to it had been made so powerful that victory could be assured them, a priori."
This final plan was disclosed to the outside world after 1918 as the formula which would have won the war at the outset except that the younger Moltke failed to follow it. By thus off-loading the blame upon him, the plan was made to serve as a hypothetical consolation to the German public and as a professional alibi for the General Staff. It is noteworthy that all these spokesmen of the Staff, (von Kuhl, Foerster, Ludendorff and others) have seen fit to withhold the text of the actual document, -- and also to leave out from their accounts any allusion to the crossing of Holland.[i] For a corresponding reason, Moltke took pains to put it in -- when he sat down to write his apologia. In this long confession of helplessness there emerged one strong point to his credit:
"The concentration (Aufmarsch) planned by my predecessor was worked out in such a way that the right flank of the German Army would extend beyond Roermond . . . and march through southern Holland. We would thus have to violate not only Belgian but also Dutch territory . . . I was and still am of the opinion that the campaign in the west would have gone to wreck if we had not kept clear of Holland."
To this extent at least Moltke's famous watering down of the plan saved his country from a most certain factor of disaster; and in his vigorous justification of his course in re-casting his line of march westward, he makes clear Schlieffen's motives for reaching into Holland.
The essential point was to swing forward this overwhelming right wing quickly, and an advance across northern Belgium would have to meet a dangerous obstacle at the outset. All the main roads leading directly into this area from Germany were gathered into a narrow bottle neck at Liege; and all the network of railways on the German side of the frontier converged into the one main line from Aix la Chapelle westward. It would be a
problem in any case to crowd so great a mass of troops through this narrow corridor; and roads, railway and bridges were covered by the fire of the Liége fortifications. If the Belgians resisted, the fortress would have to be reduced by the slow and methodical operations of siege-warfare, and this itself could not be begun until large German forces were mobilized and brought up into position -- a matter requiring almost a fortnight. Before this the Belgians would have time to mobilize in turn and organize the defence of the fortress; and before the gateway was broken open, the French would have time to shift their forces to the northern flank and take up a position across the Belgian plain where Schlieffen's superior numbers would not have room to maneuver.
To avoid this impasse and accommodate this traffic during the rush hour, Schlieffen turned to the various river crossings in the Maastricht Appendix, just to the north -- in Dutch territory, but unguarded by fortresses. With tempting directness the railway bridges at Maastricht and Roermond connected up the main railways coming down from northern Germany with lines straight to Brussels and Antwerp. These routes lay directly west of the Ruhr, the source of the army's munition supply; they would provide admirable lines of communication while the main line at Liege was blocked or damaged; and later on would ease the heavy burden that line would have to carry. The elder Moltke long ago had taken note of these unusual facilities, and in 1859 had employed this route in a plan of campaign against France. Present circumstances made the seizure of the Maastricht Appendix a "military necessity" essential to the maneuver of super-envelopment; and by this brusque international railway merger, after the first rush Schlieffen could route his troop trains straight through to Brussels, Antwerp and all points westward -- without breaking the journey.
At the end of 1905 Schlieffen retired, bequeathing to his successor, the younger Moltke, this inheritance of victory assured a priori. A Staff officer of the Netherlands army, Captain van Voorst, explains that for a certain period Moltke continued the plan in force; and in 1906 maps were issued to the formations of the First Army giving the routes to be followed across Holland. But the new railway sidings and other preparations on the German side of the border could not pass unnoticed, and the Hollanders drew the necessary conclusions. Very formally they announced their intention of defending their territory against all comers; their army was increased and reorganized so that it could take the field effectively in open warfare; the railway bridges over the Meuse were provided with "great double steel doors, with loopholes for files and machine guns;" while mine-chambers were prepared in the piers of the Meuse bridges. Cet animal est très méchant; quand on l'attaque, il se défend; and in Captain van Voorst's view, the indications of this trait on the part of his countrymen caused Moltke to change his plans -- about the year 1909. We know, too, that by then the recovery of the Russian army forced Moltke to return to the normal prospect of a war on two fronts, and assign the eastern Army Corps to their former mission of guarding East Prussia. With the Russians again to deal with, there would be the more danger in picking this extra quarrel in the west.
Moltke's own account passes over this first phase and goes at once into his reasons for sparing Holland.
"Count Schlieffen was of the view that Holland would confine herself to a protest, and for the rest would allow the violation of her territory to proceed unhindered. I had the most serious doubts as to this conception: I did not believe that Holland would put up quietly with this act of violence, and on the contrary thought that a hostile Holland would divert such strong forces from our right wing that the combat strength necessary for the offensive in the west must be lost. The preliminary advance through Belgium, in my view, could be carried through only on the presumption of a strictly neutral Holland. . .
I had taken into account the difficulties that must arise even without setting foot on Dutch soil. . . One needs only to consider what our situation would have been, had we had to deal with a hostile Holland whose coasts stood open to an English landing: -- what the undertaking against Antwerp would have become with the Scheldt no longer neutral: -- how many troops would have been required to cover this rear flank so close to our lines of communication westward. If, on the other hand, we spared Holland, England, after declaring war on us for the alleged sake of protecting small neutral nations, could not possibly violate the neutrality of Holland on her own part. . .
Furthermore, it was clear to me that Holland must be kept open under all circumstances as an air-pipe for our economic life."
Between the economic air-pipe, the British fleet, the Dutch army, and Russia, Moltke decided to forego the Appendix operation. The idea of England acquiring a Continental bridgehead continued a serious anxiety; the Dutch warnings were very plain; and Moltke suffered from an uneasy conscience in the whole matter:
"Immediately upon the ordering of mobilization in 1914 I made clear to the envoy of the Netherlands in Berlin, that I would solemnly pledge myself to guarantee a strict respect of Dutch neutrality on the part of Germany. I think the event proved me right."
More so even than Moltke knew. Five days before this solemn pledge, on July 26, the demolition charges were in place and ready under the bridges at Maastricht and Roermond; and special detachments were already on guard there. The Dutch called on no one for help; but by the 3rd of August, notes Captain van Voorst, "the army had been brought up to the full war-strength of 203,000 men and the foremost divisions of the field army were in readiness" -- well toward the frontier. Had Belgium taken up her defence no less in earnest during these years preceding the war, she could have destroyed the military temptation of forcing the Liége gateway.
It was to this alternative that Moltke turned, after abandoning the short-cut through Holland. He explains that by this renunciation the scope of the enveloping movement was notably restricted; and henceforth, pretty clearly, there was no hope of reaching out the flank clear to Dunkirk and making a clean sweep around the Channel coast. Even so, he notes, there remained "unheard-of technical difficulties" in getting the right wing forward. Gathering as before in the Crefeld area, the whole body of the northernmost army would now have to defile through Aix: which meant passing 250,000 men with all their trains and baggage through what von Kluck defines as "a narrow defile formed by a town only 2,000 yards in width." Further south, the roads led not westward but straight north into Liége, so that the army next in line had also to form in narrow column and pick its way over the crossings in or near the city. In all, some 500,000 men would have to be got through a passage about 15 miles wide, chiefly within the perimeter of the Liége fortifications; and Moltke records that "year-long theoretical studies" and staff rides were devoted to working out this problem of troop movements and road capacities.
There remained the obstacle of the fortifications. Under Moltke's plan it became all the more serious, in that all the supplies of the 500,000 would first have to be hurried forward over these roads in trucks; and afterward the railway through Liége must serve as the main line of communications for the whole right wing -- at least three armies. The way would have to be cleared by the time they were ready to march forward; and Moltke agreed with Schlieffen that no such schedule could be achieved by siege operations. Even the ten days necessary for assembling the armies would give warning and allow the Belgians to prepare a thorough destruction of roads, railways and bridges. In this dilemma, Moltke conceived the daring expedient of rushing the place without warning, by a coup de main delivered with a small force at the very outset. This strategical apéritif would precede the beginning of the campaign proper, and solve all the complications at Liege even without waiting for mobilization. It was a highly unorthodox conception for dealing with a modern fortress, but as he observes:
"The very fact that Liége was a modern fortress, and hence without a continuous inner enceinte, made feasible my plan of thrusting through the intervals
between the outer forts, into the city within . . . Bei dem von mir beabsichtigen Handstreich kam alles auf Schnelligkeit des Handels an."
The inquests published since the war by Colonel Normand and the Belgian Chief of Staff make clear that this decision was not an act of recklessness, but rather a tribute to Moltke's professional acumen. A close scrutiny revealed at Liege only the foundations of a modern fortress: having built the forts, years before, the Belgian Government had left its task uncompleted. The twelve forts, around a perimeter of 50 kilometers, had no direct telephone communication between each other; no arsenal of munitions; no narrow-gauge railway; no post of command in a secure place with underground telephone lines to the forts. Buildings crowded in so that the forts had no clear field of fire; their design left them at the mercy of artillery fire within the perimeter; and there was nothing to prevent enemy batteries from marching in. No defences barred the way between the forts, and across these intervals the forts had poor observation and ineffective flanking fire.
"A bold enemy, moving at night or in one of the fogs so frequent along the Meuse, could push through into the city without firing a shot."
More than once, in maneuvers, the Belgian infantry had succeeded, even in daytime; and from this experience the Belgian Command had decided not to try to defend the intervals in earnest, and had left the establishment of fortress troops wholly insufficient for the purpose.
It was of course unnecessary for Moltke to wait until the publication of Colonel Normand's book in 1923 to discern such salient features of the military landscape. Forthwith he decided to grasp so obvious an opportunity, and arranged to march in along these sheltered roads under the cover of darkness. The working out of these arrangements was shared by Ludendorff, who had then been serving for some years past as a junior officer at General Staff headquarters; he had worked for a year directly under Schlieffen; and in 1908 Moltke appointed him Chief of the Operations Section. Once again, as Moltke explains, a careful series of Staff studies was undertaken:
"I had the most accurate reconnaissances made of the environs of Liége, and searched out all the roads on which columns could push forward without coming under observation from the forts. Five such roads were found. Officers for leading the columns forward by night were made thoroughly familiar with the ground and carefully trained in their task. For this, in spite of the general prejudice against such a thing, I assigned five brigades to march forward, still on their peace footing."
The German frontier was fifteen or twenty miles away, and it was necessary to get up "before field-works could be thrown up across the intervals between the forts." Brigades stationed near-by in peace time were accordingly designated, and held ready to move without waiting to receive their war-time complement. (In 1914, August 2nd was made the first day of mobilization, and early next morning these "peace-brigades" had crossed the frontier.) Moltke could feel confident that every detail was thoroughly prepared, and counted even on forestalling the destruction of the Liége railway. He nourished to the last some faint hope that the Belgians might decide to yield and let him pass, but his plan involved no speculation on this point, one way or another: they were to be given the chance, but the advance on Liége was to proceed as arranged, irrespective of their decision. There remained nevertheless an underlying mood of risk and anxiety, and Moltke concludes with a plaintive reflection:
"It was perfectly clear to me that if the affair miscarried, the whole military world would throw in my face the reproach that I had attempted an impossibility; -- and that by this hazardous enterprise of an infantry attack against a modern fortress I had revealed my complete incapacity. . .
In this undertaking, I staked all upon a single card. . . Ich habe mit diesem Unternehmen alles auf eine Karte gesetzt. . ."
The single card, moreover, would have to be played without warning: success at Liége would require rapidity of diplomatic no less than political action. In fact, for all its undoubted military advantages the whole plan of assembling an unexpectedly strong right wing far outside of the French flank involved far-reaching diplomatic complications. If, after mobilizing, these northern armies were to stand marking time pending an actual outbreak of war, their strength could promptly be reported across the frontier and the French could alter their deployment of forces accordingly. There would remain even so a momentary breathing space, since in all countries it would require some ten days for the armies to mobilize, carry out the train movements to the frontier, and complete their organization. During this interval, even an extreme crisis might conceivably be turned back from war to peace: -- there was at least nothing in the technical military arrangements to prevent it. Mobilization must involve counter-mobilization as a measure of safety, but in itself did not elsewhere compel war. The German plan of operations comprised no attaque brusquée against Russia and none along the Franco-German frontier; and, as it happened, neither the French, Russian nor Austrian plans involved or even made possible a serious "hostile act" during this ten day period.
The coup de main at Liége must sweep away even this slender margin of safety. In a prolonged crisis, the Belgians might take certain legitimate military precautions: and only a little barbed wire and a few machine guns in the proper place could wreck all hopes of the march by night on which so much depended. The thing in fact required a flying start and at a certain point the mechanism might become automatically self starting. Even in an accidental crisis a situation might arise when, under peril of certain military failure at Liege, it would become fatal to delay ordering mobilization.
Thus it was that upon every other frontier the Continental powers -- Germany included -- could resort to mobilization as an extreme military precaution or as a means of diplomatic pressure: could if necessary take up arms and then mark time along the border without ruining the campaigns planned. But in this one northwestern sector there could be no breathing space: a mere ordering of mobilization must here be followed by an immediate act of war. However uncertain or reluctant the Imperial Government or even the General Staff might be when the time came, at a certain point of tension they must lose all freedom of action, all control over the situation; and the delicately adjusted military mechanism once set in motion must go through to the bitter end its appointed series of revolutions.
Some years later Moltke doubled his stakes by casting aside the alternative plans hitherto kept on file for a war against Russia only. Henceforth, whatever crisis might arise, whatever the international alignment facing the Empire, there was available but a single military solution. Even if Petersburg and Moscow suddenly became the military objectives, the road thither led inexorably via Liege and Paris. (It fell to Moltke, in the stormy scene of August 1st at the Palace to drum the fact into the head of the frightened Kaiser.) To cap the climax, Moltke as " responsible military adviser" reiterated to his Government the conviction that the crossing of Belgium would certainly force England into war. To avoid this was a main object of Bethmann Hollweg's policy.
Knowing all this, Bethmann for six years on end maintained the plan in force by his passive but none the less official acquiescence. "In the case of a less unique personality as Chancellor" (to quote Tirpitz' phrase), the issue could have been put squarely up to the Emperor. Bethmann did nothing of the sort, but proceeded ludicrously with his efforts to lead England into an alliance: i.e. to make her a partner in a military enterprise for gaining a German foothold along the Channel. And with the hair-trigger apparatus at Liége always awaiting any chance misstep on his part, he sallied calmly forth, in 1914, into the venture of the "death-blow to Serbia."
With corresponding adroitness, in his effort to bargain for British neutrality Bethmann disclosed to Goschen, on July 29th, the intention of invading Belgium. By one brilliant stroke, he precipitated the British decision against him and let the cat out of the bag in regard to his one military secret: henceforth surprise at Liége could hardly be hoped for. Only the Belgians themselves saved Moltke's plan. As late as midnight of July 31st, General Leman received an order by the Government "forbidding him to construct field-works in the intervals between the forts, en raison des susceptibilités allemandes;" and the Belgian concentration was not even ordered until after Moltke's five Peace-Brigades had set forth across the frontier on their mission. At Berlin such assistance was not to be anticipated: for days on end the tension and turmoil there had been extreme, and Moltke was already a nerve-shattered leader when on August 5th he sat waiting within his office the news of the one card on which he had staked his fortunes. He records what followed:
"On the evening of that day the report came in, that the impression was the undertaking had not succeeded: at least our troops had not pushed through into the city. I had to report the news to the Kaiser. He said to me, 'I thought so. This going against Belgium has brought down on my neck war with England. -- Das habe ich mir gleich gedacht. Mir hat dies Vorgehen gegen Belgien den Krieg mit England auf den Hals gebracht.'"
His Majesty had at last formed an accurate appreciation. But during twenty years -- from 1894 to 1914 -- he had had time to think the matter over.
At the very moment, that evening on August 5th, the report was true. In spite of training and careful preparations, all five of the assaulting columns halted before the fire of Belgian outposts, and four of them did not renew the effort. But with the fifth was Ludendorff, as liaison officer and long-time expert in the Liége operation. No man knew better than he how much depended upon the venture: quite on his own he pushed to the head of his column, set it in motion, and led it through -- inside the line of the fortifications. They were alone and isolated from the world without; but the essential thing had been accomplished: the Belgian field troops vanished from the scene, and daylight revealed the great railway bridge over the Meuse still standing, intact and uninjured. There had been much miscellaneous dynamiting, but the easiest, most obvious, and most essential of all the war measures to be taken by Belgium had passed neglected in the shuffle. Over this bridge, according to plan, passed the supplies for the advancing armies; the railway connections behind their march proved "favorable beyond expectation," and during the Marne the trains pushed forward as far as Noyon. They were to get no further, but Moltke's single card had succeeded; the Belgian Chief of Staff endorses the German contention:
"By the day set for the general advance, the 18th of August, the plans of the German Supreme Command were realized exactly, without the slightest loss of time, in spite of the valiant but fruitless resistance of the Liége forts."
[i] Some rumor of the Holland project having gained currency, Ludendorff, in 1921, issued a categorical denial of it, in a letter to a German military journal. The next year Countess von Moltke published in her volume of memoirs the two papers written by her husband in 1914 and 1915 in which he set forth the thing in detail.