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France's WW1 Plan XVII

The Germans had assumed that France would mount a defensive position if attacked and that they would not be able to mount an offensive campaign. They were wrong. The French Plan XVII called for the French to attack—attack!

Napoleon III, in a General's uniform, with Bismarck after the Battle of Sedan.

Napoleon III, in a General's uniform, with Bismarck after the Battle of Sedan.

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 popular phrase, the translation of which is "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.

Y penser toujours, n'en parler jamais.

— Leon Gambetta, a member of the provisional government formed after Sedan.

General Ferdinand Foch in 1916.

General Ferdinand Foch in 1916.

Evolution of Plan XIV

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 for launching an offensive attack.

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 using 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 Ministers 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 determined 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 a defensive 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.

Plan XVII showing the five French armies.

Joseph "Papa" Joffre

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 its army's size, 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 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

WW1 Timeline

  • 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. 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 forces 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 were waiting. The stronger and larger German forces easily outmanned and outgunned the French troops. 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. During this push, the Germans got very close to Paris—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, pushed 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.


Anon. History of the War, Volume I. (1914-1921). The Times.

Source Records of the Great War, Volume I. (1923). Edited by Charles F. Horne and Walter F. Austin. National Alumni.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on August 18, 2014:

Hi Deb, and thanks for reading :-) They weren't the only ones who were power hungry, and they had the army to back up that hunger. There was so much going on behind the scenes, so many long-standing grievances...

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 18, 2014:

German was not only power hungry, but foolish in the belief that they could not be overpowered. It was certainly long overdue.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on August 08, 2014:

Hi Jo and thank you for reading and commenting. Yes, we need to learn from history, that's for sure, or we will repeat it. I did a hub on Britain and the Empire for WW1 as well, with lots more to follow.

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on August 08, 2014:

I don't like wars, in fact, I hate the idea of wars, but I know it's a fact of life. This is an excellent history lesson. We need to understand the past to hopefully, secure the future, but we seem to be making the same old mistakes over and over again as Russia looks poised to invade Ukraine and the sound of rockets reaps through Gazza . Great writing!

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on August 08, 2014:

Hello Thomas. Thank you for reading and for your lovely feedback. I am doing a series on the war, so watch for new hubs on the topic.

Thomas Swan from New Zealand on August 08, 2014:

I always find the history of the world wars interesting, and this was very well written with good use of media.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on August 07, 2014:

Oh, thank you Harald for your wonderful feedback. Agree with you about the old men...and the worst was yet to come. Slaughter on a grand scale.

I have a number of hubs in the works, but I think I will go back to the timeline a bit in my next hub.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 07, 2014:

This is an excellent article, Kaili. You obviously have done your research and your writing is top-notch. Plan XVII, to me, boiled down to unimaginative old men who's strategy boiled down to throwing young men straight at the enemy. Their "fighting spirit" would allow them to shake off foreign bits of metal being violently inserted into their bodies and overrun the enemy to take the war deep into Germany. There's a reason the military didn't execute men for "stupidity in time of war". Even the writer of Plan IX From Outer Space had a better idea.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on August 07, 2014:

Hi Mel and thank you so much. Lots more to come :-)

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 07, 2014:

Once again this was an interesting, captivating, and extremely well written history lesson. I am reviving my knowledge of WWI through these articles. Great hub!

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on August 07, 2014:

Hi billybuc. Thank you so much for the lovely compliment! And from a former history teacher to boot :-)

I wish I could spend all day writing WW1 stuff...such a lot of things to write about.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 07, 2014:

So very well-written. This reminds me of Bruce Catton's series on the Civil War, and that is a high compliment.