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World War I Centennial: Schlieffen Is Dead, but His Plan Lives On

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He’ll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 51st installment in the series. (See all entries here .)

January 4, 1913: Schlieffen Is Dead, but His Plan Lives On

On January 4, 1913, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, the architect of Germany’s plan of attack on France, died in bed of natural causes at the age of 79—thus missing, by just 19 months, the flawed implementation of his flawed plan, and the ensuing failure of the German offensive in the west. Born to the wife of a Prussian general on February 28, 1833, Schlieffen joined the Prussian army in 1854 and served for 51 years, including service in the wars that unified Germany in 1866 and 1870. Considered a brilliant strategist and military theorist, he was appointed chief of the German general staff in 1891, and immediately began work on the Schlieffen Plan, which would be the object of obsessive, single-minded effort for the rest of his life, continuing through his “retirement” in 1905 until his death; his last revisions were completed on December 28, 1912. The Schlieffen Plan was essentially a surprise attack on northern France through Belgium, which would allow the Germans to do an end run around the impregnable line of fortresses built by the French along the Franco-German border after their defeat in 1870 (including Verdun, Toul, Epinal and Belfort). In Schlieffen’s vision, seven armies containing almost 1.5 million troops would be divided into two wings of uneven strength. While the smaller southern (left) wing defended Germany’s border with France, the larger northern (right) wing would advance through Belgium and Luxembourg into France along a broadening front, wheeling southwest towards Paris, with the westernmost army skirting the English Channel and encompassing Chartres. With any luck, the French would concentrate their troops along the Franco-German border and engage the German left wing with an eye to regaining the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1871; as the French were busy with the left wing, the right wing would pivot through northern France to complete a massive encirclement, closing the trap behind them. Schlieffen modeled his strategy on Hannibal’s destruction of the Roman armies at Cannae: “The enemy’s front is not the objective. The essential thing is to crush the enemy’s flanks … and complete the annihilation by attack upon his rear.” The whole thing would be over in six weeks—just enough time for Germany to redeploy its troops to the east to fight France’s main ally, Russia, which would probably take longer to mobilize its forces. The plan obviously disregarded the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg (and the Netherlands, in an early version), raising the possibility of intervention by Britain, which had guaranteed Belgian neutrality in 1839. But Schlieffen dismissed the small British army as a negligible quantity, and was confident that in any event Germany could defeat France before the British arrived. The most important thing was to avoid the nightmare scenario of a war on two fronts, and this meant finishing off France before Russia could mobilize, which in turn meant violating Belgian neutrality. The Schlieffen Plan reflected the scientific rationalization of warfare over the course of the 19th century, with a special focus on rail transportation, which played a central role in getting troops to the combat zone; indeed, strategy was based to a large degree on railway timetables, including how long it took to board troops, move them a certain distance, disembark them, and then send the train back to get another load—with thousands of trains operating simultaneously and hopefully avoiding traffic jams. Once armies were in the field, the speed of attack depended on how many (old-fashioned) roads were available to accommodate marching columns of troops, as well as how wide these roads were, the presence of bottlenecks, and so on. A large part of Schlieffen’s task, pursued obsessively over two decades, was simply mastering these myriad logistical issues. Although Schlieffen was venerated by many German officers, his plan also had its critics. Friedrich von Bernhardi, commander of the XVII Army Corps, criticized it as “mechanistic,” and Sigismund von Schlichting, the retired commander of the XIV Army Corps, called it “formalistic and schematic.” Both criticisms reflected the resentment of field commanders who stood to lose much of their freedom of action in Schlieffen’s excruciatingly detailed plan. Meanwhile, Count Gottlieb von Haeseler, commanding general of the XVI Army Corps, warned that the plan was too ambitious: “You cannot carry away the armed strength of a Great Power like a cat in a sack.” In fact, Schlieffen had his own doubts about the plan. For one thing, he was never actually able to make it work: after all the train scheduling, road analyzing, and related number crunching were done, he still foresaw “considerably weakened” German forces facing “more numerous” French forces, probably occupying strong defensive positions along the Marne River east of Paris. To surmount this final obstacle he figured he needed another eight army corps, around 200,000 men, in the westernmost armies—but there wasn’t any room for these troops on the trains and roads between Germany and France, already filled to capacity in his plan. In his “Great Memorandum” setting forth his plan in 1905, Schlieffen admitted that there was no solution to this dilemma: “Make these preparations how we may, we shall reach the conclusion that we are too weak to continue operations in this direction. We shall find the experience of all earlier conquerors confirmed, that a war of aggression calls for much strength and also consumes much, that this strength dwindles constantly as the defender’s increases, and all this particularly so in a country which bristles with fortresses.” In other words, the German offensive would probably peter out somewhere in the vicinity of Paris—which is exactly what happened in 1914. Incredibly, the German general staff seems to have simply ignored this all-important caveat. To make matters worse, Schlieffen’s successor as chief of the general staff, Helmuth von Moltke (“the Younger”) wasn’t convinced of the need for such an overwhelming concentration of German strength in the right wing, and also feared a French victory over the weak left wing. Whereas Schlieffen’s original plan called for a ratio of 7:3 in the relative strengths of the right wing and left wing, in Moltke’s modified version of the plan the ratio was reduced to 5:3, with 580,000 men in the right wing’s First and Second Armies, and 345,000 in the left wing’s Sixth and Seventh Armies. Thus Schlieffen’s final words to Moltke on his deathbed—“Keep the right wing strong”—were in vain. See all installments of the WWI Centennial series here.
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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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Hulton Archive//Getty Images
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Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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