The Failure of the Schlieffen Plan, 1914
This lesson was designed by Kirsty Donaldson who teaches in Cambridgeshire. Kirsty has used it successfully with Year 9 but the basic structure can be easily adapted for older students. Each teacher has to decide how much detail and what degree of conceptual complexity his or her students need and can cope with. The activity enables students to walk through and analyse General von Schlieffen’s plan for a German attack in the event of war, then to compare this with the actual events of 1914 and work out why the plan failed.
By the end of the activity students should know and understand:
- The reasons for the Schlieffen plan and how it was intended to work
- The actual course of events in 1914 and why the plan failed
- Why the opposing armies began to engage in trench warfare.
Ideally you will need a hall or playground to successfully walk carry out the activity. The confined spaces of the classroom can lead to confusion and squashed children, especially because Belgium can end up being very small!
1. You will need to set up the background before tackling this activity. Pupils will need to understand:
a) Some of the causes of the Great War, particularly the alliance systems.
b) The danger Germany faced being surrounded by the Triple Entente.
They will also need to have examined a map of Europe prior to the activity, especially if their geographical skills are weak (knowing that Austria and not Australia is not in central Europe, for example!).
2. You will need the names of the principal European countries involved in the outbreak of the Great War written in large lettering on sugar paper. The sugar paper can be colour coded to represent the alliances in 1914. This reinforces the fact that Germany faced war on two fronts. Lay the sugar paper out on the floor roughly to match a map of Europe. It’s best to allow lots of space for Belgium and then use a real map of Europe to show the actual size.
3. Select pupils to represent the different countries involved. For example, eight burly year 9 boys to represent Russia (you can encourage them to tuck their trousers into their socks to represent Russia’s ‘backward’ nature in 1914!) and the shortest person in the class to represent the King of Belgium. Make up a fairly large German army, a small British Expeditionary Force and a good sized French army. If you think they’ll need it, students can wear sticky labels with the names of their countries on to prevent confusion.
4. You will need to identify key places such as Paris, River Marne (if going into that amount of detail) and the French-German border as well. If marking rivers and borders on the floor try using Christmas tinsel or streamers.
1. Begin by discussing the German plan and its objectives – swift defeat of France and Britain in the west followed by turning attentions to Russia in the east, in other words, avoiding the war on two fronts. This can be done either on the board using a map of Europe or actively walked through. It depends on different classes – some find it hard to be sensible throughout the activity if you talk through the plan AND then explain how it when wrong. You can use the following questions to elicit ideas from pupils:
a) to the Germans – you are surrounded by the Triple Entente. Why is this alarming? What do you need to avoid? How might you do this? You can feed in information about expected Russian weakness and slow response to German action to draw out ideas about attacking westwards first. What is the most obvious direction for attack (French-German border)? What happens if this is heavily defended? Why would Belgium be a good route?
b) to the Triple Entente – why are you in such a favourable position? How might this be weakened? You can explain the fact that the BEF was relatively small at this time – why might this be a problem?
2. Now discuss the actual plan. Again, you can walk through this or talk through it on the board first. Describe the plan to attack France using Belgium as the main route to Paris, explain why fewer troops were sent over the border with France. Explain why Schlieffen believed it was possible to think about Russia second. Pose some interesting questions at this stage – why was capturing Paris significant? Can anyone see any flaws in the plan?
3. You can now tackle the reasons for the failure of the plan – i.e. the moving around bit! Put pupils into their positions on your large map of Europe in their various armies. Lay the sugar paper out with suitable space between the countries. Place each army into their respective countries ensuring the King of Belgium is ready to face the German army alone! It can be quite difficult to involve the whole class in this. A suitable alternative can be to explain events with half the class observing and then swap roles so those who observed walk through events again as reinforcement. Another possibility is to pair students up so that one partner takes part in the activity and the other completes notes on behalf of the partnership. The notes could be completing a semi-complete sequence of events or annotating a map with the events they see unfolding in front of them.
4. Time for the first stage - the Germany army attack Belgium but the King of Belgium flooded part of the land. You can get this point across by placing 3 or 4 bottles of water in Belgium Tell them the land is very flat in Belgium – why does this work so effectively? German soldiers can mime slow progress through flooded land (between the bottles) which usually causes some amusement! You can show pictures of the flat land of the region in the follow-up. Now ask pupils to predict what the French and British forces must do now – should the French leave the border? If so, why? At this time, the BEF are still standing in Britain – what should they do?
5. French troops can now leave the border with Germany (leaving one behind to defend!) and advance towards the Belgian border. Meanwhile, send the BEF across the Channel to help defend and repel the German attack.
6. Allow the German army to cross the River Marne and get close to Paris (60km) but then they meet the French and British armies. Describe the Battle of the Marne (if you want to go into the details here) killing off soldiers as you go to demonstrate the devastation of this battle. You could describe the desperate attempts to save Paris using taxis to ship French reservists to the front line (one student giving a piggy-back to another might help the point to stick!). French casualties were approximately 250,000, German losses were similar and the BEF lost around 12,700. For more details try these websites:
7. At this point, turn to your Russian army in the east. How might they benefit from the difficulties Germany is having in the west? Why was Russia’s army already mobilised? Link here to work done on the outbreak of war following events in Sarajevo.
8. Move your Russia soldiers towards the German border. Question the class again - what would Germany have to do now to prevent a Russian invasion? What was dangerous about dividing the forces? Now split the German army to show that the eastern border needed to be defended which helps to highlight Germany’s difficulties on the western front. Suddenly the weakness of the plan is exposed.
9. At this point stop and ask pupils to suggest how Germany could maintain this position and not be forced to retreat back towards Belgium thus losing the advantage and territorial gains. How might the German army prevent the loss of lands already captured? How could they maintain their territorial advantage? Pupils are usually quick to suggest the use of trenches. Pupils can then mime digging of trenches by the German army. What do you think Britain and France now did in response? French and British troops can hastily dig their own trenches to provide protection.
To reinforce all of the above, it can be useful to repeat the activity that covers the failure of the plan but by asking pupils to tell the events for you (especially if they have not physically taken part yet if you have a large class). If students need structure this can be provided by giving them a set of headlines to sequence, either on cards or on the whiteboard.
You will definitely need a map of Europe (either projected or drawn on the board) to follow up the activity. I find it works best if you recap the plan briefly and then talk through the failure of the plan with careful questions.
It is then very useful to ask pupils to explain the plan itself and why it went wrong. Again differentiation would be needed here but key countries, alliances, places and so on would need to be on the board to help pupils to get to the higher order thinking.
The combination of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning has worked successfully again and again to enable pupils to gain a clear understanding of the failure of Schlieffen’s plan and the reason for the beginnings of trench warfare.
- What did students learn about cause and consequence as well as about the specifics of the Schlieffen plan?
- Should you just do this kind of activity once or repeat in different guises in each part of the course? If so, which topics create suitable opportunities?
- What’s the best way of students’ recording or consolidating what they have learned?
- What are the advantages and problems of using this style of activity with A level students?