On Project management, WWI, Impossible scenarios and Impeccable Timing

May 27, 2014

As a big fan of history, specially military history, I’d like to begin this article with a story. You’ll see why in the end, but in the meantime, bear with me.

When Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke and heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo on a 28 of June of 1914, Germany was put between a rock and a hard place.
For one, from a strategic point of view, its generals knew that, after the assassination of its leader, the Austrian-Hungarian empire was bound to declare war on Serbia (eventually), and if it did, it would force the Russians (which at the time were allies with the Serbians) to declare war on the Austrian-Hungarian empire; If that occurred, Germany, as one of Austria-Hungary’s most important allies, would be forced to enter war with the Russians as well, and if this happened, the french, which were also allied with the Russians, would also be forced to declare war on Germany.

Comment: It’s not like the French need much of an excuse to attack the germans, or vice-versa, but that’s a story for another day. But if you’re interested in learning more, Google why the French call Germany “Allemagne” and why France is called… well, “France”. Long story short, the Alemanni and the Franks were two germanic tribes that hated each other.

But we went way off topic, so let’s resume the story.

While we talk about this, we also need to keep in mind that in the geopolitical map of 1914 that meant that Germany had enemies on both its west and east limits. They were paranoid about being attacked because they literally had no way out of the conflict; Otto Von Bismarck, arguably one of the most effective diplomats of the 20th century, had died 16 years ago (in 1898) and Germany’s leader at the time, Kaiser William II was… “incompetent” to put it mildly. While good chap Otto might have been able to talk and negotiate his way out of this conflict, William II lacked the abilities and talents of his predecessor.
German generals knew this, so they started thinking in alternative plans and, against all odds, found out that in reality, they were in a unique position to go “all in”. While you may find it strange that I reference a phrase most commonly used in a poker game, if you’ve been following the story so far you’ll notice that, from a different vantage point, there’s “no way out” for Germany–They’re being forced to fold and leave Austria-Hungary to resolve its dispute with Serbia (and Russia, and France) on its own. In such scenario, they would probably lose and get ‘conquered’, or its leader would be replaced with a French or Russian puppet, and if that were the case, instead of 2, Germany would now have 3 enemies on its doorstep: Russia on the right, France on the left and Austria-Hungary on the South. And then… it was just a matter of time until they were next on the list.

Under such grim context, Germany’s options were… let’s just say… limited.

However, this strategic situation wasn’t entirely unexpected by the germans. Considering the fact that the german empire was relatively new (it was officially founded in 1871, or to put it in perspective, it had only existed for 43 years in 1914–not even a generation ago), the German General Staff had devised a plan to fight a war in what the military refers to as “two fronts” (that is, one of the leftFranceand Russia on the right). Originally, the plan had been created by Alfred von Schlieffen, and later on was modified by Moltke the Younger (Chief of the German General Staff) to update it to the current circumstances of the day.

This plan was called “The Schlieffen Plan”.

Also, we also need to consider that, at the time, Germany’s growth was phenomenal. It had great music, brilliant scientists, marvellous artists, a GDP that was one of the biggest in Europe, and one of the most powerful armies in the world. Best of all, it had managed to do this in just 41 years!

Even though their military strength was utterly impressive, they knew that they would never win a pincer strategy by the French and the Russians. But they knew that they could win a one-on-one fight with either armies.

In essence, what the Schlieffen Plan dictated was that, if they could beat either armies fast enough, they’d have enough time to turn around and fight the other side one-on-one. They also estimated that, due to Russia’s vast land size, it’d take them around 950 hours to rally all the troops and take them to Germany. That meant that Germany had only a “window of opportunity” of just a bit more than a month to beat the french and get back to the east of Germany to fight the Russians.

The Schlieffen plan