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The Plan That Broke the World: The “Schlieffen Plan” and World War I (What Were They Thinking? Book 2) by [O'Neil, William]
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The Plan That Broke the World: The “Schlieffen Plan” and World War I (What Were They Thinking? Book 2) Kindle Edition

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Length: 204 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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"Superb research, analysis, and insights make this work a must read for all those who study history or wish to learn from the critical mistakes of the past. This is the best writing on this subject I have read."--General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Retired)

"A superb read, even for those who think themselves already well-versed in this topic." -- John T. Kuehn, Ph.D., William A. Stofft Professor, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Author of Agents of Innovation.

As July turned to August in 1914, all the Great Powers of Europe mobilized their armies and then went to war with one another. It would take more than 50 months for peace to return, and the better part of a century to heal many of the wounds.

Germany acted only near the end of a chain of actions by other nations, but German troops moved first and set the pattern for the war. They smashed through neutral Belgium before thrusting deeply into France, coming close to knocking France out of the war, and soon were making huge inroads in Russia as well. It was a remarkable performance for an army outnumbered by its foes. Yet four years later the German Empire was swept away, its army a shell, its people starving, its government in chaos.

How did the leaders of Imperial Germany come to make the decisions that committed their nation to an all-or-nothing war based on a highly risky strategy?

This book explores the background of the decisions, what those who made them knew and thought, what they failed to look at and why. It explains the Prussian Great General Staff (Großer Generalstab) and the part it played in planning and preparing for war. It follows the action of August and the first part of September 1914 to show where they went wrong and how other options could have achieved Germany’s aims with far lower risk and cost. These options were realistically available and the book probes why the nation’s leaders failed to consider or rejected them.

The German leaders in 1914 weren’t Hitler. They valued security over conquest and didn’t go to war to expand their empire. They weren't the first to light the fuze that led to war. They thought and acted as leaders very often do. We can understand them in terms of patterns we see all around us, patterns we even see in ourselves. Their decisions had results that were uniquely catastrophic, but the way they were reached was quite ordinary.

The Plan That Broke the World explains it all briefly and crisply, in non-technical terms, drawing on the latest research. There are 35 images, many unique to this book, to illustrate specific aspects of the story. Four charts and thirteen high-quality maps, all but one drawn especially for this book, present complex information in forms that are immediately understandable. There’s no other book like it.

The book Web site is

The Plan That Broke the World is a case study in the What Were They Thinking? series. The series Web site is

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  • Format: Kindle Edition
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  • Language: English
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  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #294,107 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Excellent concise book based on solid military expertise with abundant sources.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program) 4.2 out of 5 stars 45 reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New and Refreshing View of the Schlieffen Plan 12 April 2014
By Marc Romanych - Published on
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I recommend this book to anyone interested in the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1914. The author presents a unique view of pre-war German military decision-making and its impact on how the Schlieffen plan was put into action. Most histories of the Great War gloss over subjects like planning processes, command and control, communications, but William O'Neil treats all these subjects, and more, in a straight-forward and concise manner. He also makes it interesting too!

The author argues that the Schlieffen Plan, such as it was, failed because the German army could not effectively adjust operations as the campaign unfolded. This deficiency resulted from a lack of reconnaissance to gain useful intelligence, communications to exercise command and control, and motorization to rapidly move forces. Thus, once the field armies went into the attack, senior commanders were unable to bring their combat strength to bear on the French army's vulnerabilities.

Because of its easy-reading style and unique focus on campaign planning and decision-making, this book will appeal to generalists and specialists alike.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A cogent and concise dissection of a major blunder in military strategy 7 July 2014
By Drew Keeling - Published on
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In the new historiographical harvest occasioned by the First World War's centenary, Germany's "Schlieffen Plan" remains indispensable to discussions of origins and trajectory. The plan for a massive opening offensive on France through Belgium is generally associated with German blundering, whether because trying to cope with enemies on two fronts by neutralizing one (France) before the other (Russia) could fully engage unduly risked adding a third (Britain), or because the plan was botched in execution, or because its whole raison d'etre resulted from failing to retain after 1890 either Bismarck or his successful policy of keeping France isolated from Russia. Rarely are such comingled factors handled in comprehensive depth, however.

This new book offers an atypical and highly readable focus directly on the Schlieffen Plan itself. The author's upfront disclaimer, that he is not a professional historian and has not relied upon new archival research, is important, valid, and welcome, but should not obscure that this crisp and cogent study also develops valuable historical insights. The thoughtful and logically flowing text is neatly augmented by clear, well-positioned maps, judiciously-chosen photographs, and sparse yet adequate end notes.

My previous understanding of the Schlieffen Plan was shaped by reading, decades ago, Barbara Tuchman's "Guns of August" (now more than half as old as the war's outbreak itself) which implies that failures in execution were important: Schieffen's dying word advice, a year before the war's outbreak, "make the right [flank] strong," was undermined by Germany shifting some of its forces from the right to the center/middle flank and to the eastern front, and by von Kluck's First Army "turning" before Paris instead of proceeding further west to "envelope" the French capital from the side or rear. This new work builds on convincing elements of more recent studies, such as that of Terence Zuber, to argue not only that, even with more skillful execution, the Schlieffen Plan was impractical and imprudent (the downside risks of failure were disproportionate to the upside potential of success, and the odds of success were small anyway), but also that it really wasn't even a plan at all, but more of a "thought experiment," used by German strategists even more reliant upon doctrine, training, and wishful thinking.

In place of professional historical training, the author promises to deploy "other qualifications of value," and this book does not disappoint. The ability to explain military strategy in clear layman's terms is repeatedly brought to bear, as in "have you ever walked fifteen miles...[per day, carrying] fifty blazing heat...for four weeks?" Or, in estimating that "to deploy for battle" promptly, the main thrust of Germany's invading army needed transit corridors double the width actually available.

Author William O'Neil persuasively indicates that not optimally exploiting existing transport and communication technologies essential to the "war of movement" envisaged by its planners contributed to the failure of Germany's initial attack. There was sufficient stationary thunder, but not enough Blitzkrieg. This limitation was compounded by a lack of sufficient troops to defeat France fast enough to thereafter shift large numbers to shore up the (initially) lightly-manned eastern front against Russia. To the extent that Schieffen's thought experiment might have been an argument for a larger German army, it had failed even before the war began. At any rate in place of the theoretical "Schlieffen bear-hug" envelopment, the actual German assault was more like a "billy goat...doing a lot of damage but never delivering an annihilating blow and ultimately exhausting itself."

Going beyond straight historical analysis, the book counterfactually and plausibly suggests that investing in trucks rather than dreadnought warships might have given Germany's rightwing attack on France a decisive edge, and more radically, that an altogether different strategy, consistent with dynamic Bismarckian flexibility, and based on a mobile "active defense," would have had better chances. Instead Germany, and its Austro-Hungarian ally, pursued the "glittering payoffs" of neutralizing their opponents for a long time, but in so doing undertook "extraordinary risks." The German war planners "strained at gnats of principle and swallowed camels of aggression."

O'Neil's argument points to a fatally rigid path dependency in early twentieth century German military thinking. Prussian strategies (active reserves, mass education, mass conscription, skill training, flexible and rapidly deployed defense through attack, etc.) that worked so brilliantly in Bismarck's mid-19th century wars of unification were misapplied in 1914 on a catastrophic scale that "broke the world." Only at the final stage of proceeding from his logical and well-formulated argument to such conclusions does O'Neil seriously part from historical analyses, to make (plausible but tentative) psychological observations about the general limitations of human risk-taking on a massive and modern scale. The book series promised along such lines seems likely to offer further value to historians, however, and I will be looking forward to seeing future volumes come forth.

O'Neil understandably dodges the "war guilt" minefield, as have most other recent historians, but this book also has implications there worth noting briefly. Few commentators now hold Germany either solely responsible or blameless for the Great War's outbreak, but the question of relative severity amongst the multitude of blunders made by all parties (and thereby over-determining the war's causes) still has relevance. This book modestly, yet persuasively, strengthens the case that Germany's errors were not only more significant in scale and import than those of other countries, but also that the "Schlieffen Plan's" flaws were rather more irremediable and predictable than has been generally appreciated.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What You Thought You Knew 31 March 2014
By John D. Shepherd - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Will O'Neil's _The Plan That Broke the World_ is not so much a definitive history as a case-study in decision-making. The decision in this case is that made by Germany to launch an offensive against France in 1914. O'Neil makes the case that war gaming and staff analysis in the years prior to 1914 did not support the decision to attack, and that the oft-cited "Schlieffen Plan" did not constitute a blueprint for war. In this later contention, he introduces the work of Terence Zuber, whose iconoclastic writings - based upon the use of previously unavailable/unrecognized archives - have turned the historiography of 1914 on its head. The basic argument is that the so-called "Schlieffen Plan" was a think-piece produced to stimulate thought about Germany's program of conscription and never was nor was intended to be expanded into a full plan of attack.

O'Neil's focus is almost exclusively on the plan for and execution of operations against France. A bit more analysis of the over-arching strategy of 'France - then Russia' and its origins would have strengthened the work as history. Though it is not necessary if the work is viewed as a case-study in bad decision-making, as O'Neil apparently intends.

It's a worthwhile read, and a great introduction to Zuber (whose work is also available on Amazon).
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good book on the Schlieffen Plan devised by the head of the Great German General Staff prior to World War I 31 July 2014
By C. M Mills - Published on
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World War I claimed at least sixteen millions lives'; it was the bloody and tragic prelude to the even greater horrors of World War Ii. In this short book of less than two hundred pages the author William D. O'Neill provides a thought provoking look at German military plans prior to the Great War.
General Schlieffen was the German war theorist who in 1906 produced a short memo describing a possible scenario for German victory in a war against France. The proposal was for German troops to invade northeastern France by launching massive assaults which cut through the territory of neutral Belgium. Belguim was created in 1839, following the Napoleonic wars, to provide a buffer small nation between France, Germany and Great Britain across the English channel.
O';Neill teaches us that the plan was never put into practice as General von Moltke was unable to mount the necessary troops and provide the proper transportation and logistical support to make it work. Though the Prussian military tradition had produced an efficient and deadly fighting army plans did not go according to Hoyle for the Kaiser's troops. Stalemate rather than swift movement became the sanguinary norm on the Western Front until allied victory in 1918.
The books with strategy and briefly profiles the political and military leaders of the combatant nations. Nevertheless, it is an easy read as the author has the ability to convey complex matters in an easily grasped format. The book is lavishly illustrated containing many well drawn maps. Anyone who is studying the genesis of World War I would do well to buy this succinct and valuable work
which has more information than many other longer and more expensive books on the topic. Recommended.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Anatomy of a Military Operation 4 April 2014
By Retired Reader - Published on
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World War 1 (WW1) and the peace that followed it have produced intended and unintended consequences that continue to be felt even now into the 21st Century. There are a large number of really excellent books both on the war and its consequences and this book falls into that category. It is not a history per se, but a detailed and well thought out analysis of the initial German Offensive on the Western Front, often mistakenly called the “Schlieffen Plan.” Much of O’Neil’s effort has gone into trying to understand the workings of that oft cited, but little understood German (Prussian) General Staff System and how it developed and executed the offensive that was to knock France out the war at its very start. It should also be noted that this book is one in a series that is focused on the arcane art of high level decision making and so also investigates the chain of often unrelated events that led with the inevitability of a Greek Tragedy to WWI. An excellent book by any standard that definitely adds to the growing knowledge of the “war to end all wars.”