Moltke

Introduction.

 As with the other two articles appearing on this site dealing with Caesar and Napoleon, I have put together what I have at hand so that those who have contacted me about the military career of Helmuth von Moltke can use it as a springboard for deeper research. I have also given a short list of works published in German for the more serious student of Moltke’s contribution to combined arms warfare.

Biographical Sketch of Helmuth von Moltke 1800-1891.

 Field Marshal von MoltkeField Marshal Helmuth Carl Bernard Graf von Moltke was born in Mecklenburg in 1800. He first served in the Danish army, transferring to the Prussian army in 1822. His attention to detail and his logical thought process made him ideal material for the Prussian General Staff, and in 1826 he was assigned to its topographical section.

 He served in Turkey from 1835 until 1839 as military adviser to the Sultan and upon his return to Prussia he soon acquired important connections with the Prussian King, William I and the Crown Prince, Frederick William. It was during this time that he made his reputation as being one of the ablest officers on the General Staff, eventually attaining the position of its chief in 1857. By patient and steady work Moltke soon established a new form of military leadership that was original and functional. His campaigns against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-1) are among the finest in the history of warfare. By a combination of the study of general principles, military history and logical planning, coupled with an organized command structure that allowed field commanders to act on their own initiative within the set directives, Moltke sought to lift the restraints that stifled the fighting spirit and allow for more spontaneity. His distinctive contribution to the art of war was the ability to control the movement of large armies, and to be able to adapt to changing situations as they developed. These factors make Moltke one of the great commanders of History.

Bibliographical Essay of Helmuth von Moltke.

Helmuth Von Moltke
Helmuth Von Moltke

The first thing that one can say when attempting to put together a bibliographical essay on Moltke is the fact that he is in sad need of an update in material. Almost nothing concerning him directly has been published with any new slant or probing analysis for some years, and although it may be said that we already know what there is to know about his military theories, it would still be of great help if a new work appeared in English that gave the none German speaking student a chance to study the complete writings, rather than just the selected works of this great commander.

With the above being said I will start with, ‘Moltke on the Art of War’, selected writings edited by Daniel J.Hughes (paperback edition, Presido Press USA 1995).

This book contains some of the necessary primary source material written by Moltke himself and gives the student of military history a good basis from which to appreciate the way in which he approached the problems of command from a position of sound logic and a comprehensive study of history and the technology of his day.

Hughes, as far as it is possible to tell without being able to read the original German manuscripts, has selected the most relevant writings of Moltke in order to show his thought process as it developed over the period of time during which he was the Chief of the Prussian General Staff.

Although we have a fine insight into the thinking and planning of Moltke’s campaigns Hughes does however warn the reader that, ‘The Prussian General Staff edited and published Moltke’s official writings in a series of volumes released between 1892 and 1912. Since Moltke had left no definitive collection of this writings, the military history section of the General Staff assembled his works from a variety of sources…Moltke himself, who resisted the writing of any such collections of his teachings or theories, might have assembled such volumes quite differently.’1 There is also the problem of the authenticity of some of the text, which has been challenged for its accuracy in relation to Moltke’s views towards politics and military strategy during war.2 With this being said however, I feel that one can obtain a very good understanding of the various aspects of Moltke’s intellectual capacity by reading the various documents and essays as they stand, in particular the ones on, ‘The Nature of War,’ in which he accepts the Clausewizen idea of flexibility in military planning but tried to separate the spheres of political thinking from that of warfare. Here Moltke believed that policy should not influence military operations. I do not agree with Moltke in this respect, and feel that a steadying hand should be on the rudder of political and military affairs at all time; however, given the age that he had been born into it is small wonder that he tried to separate the political from the military, leaving the Generals free to run a campaign to its logical conclusion—to defeat the enemy and win a decisive peace.

A Prussian Brigadier General and his staff, 1870
A Prussian Brigadier General and his staff, 1870

 Arden Bucholz book, ‘Moltke, Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning’ (paperback edition, Berg Press, Oxford 1993) leads us nicely on to how Moltke’s theories and planning were put into action, and explains the changes that occurred in Prussian leadership when he took over as Chief of the Great General Staff in 1857. One can see how Moltke’s theories began to take effect when we read that in 1858 he focused on transportation and instigated the first large-scale railroad exercise in peacetime.3

Bucholz takes us on a stage further from the basic principles of Moltke’s writings as expounded in Hughes, and in his book explains how these were put into practice in the years leading up to Prussia’s great victories of 1864,1866 and 1870. The figures supplied for the campaign against Denmark in 1864, when Prussia fielded an army of only 65,000 men are truly enlightening when one considers the massive armies that Moltke had to deal with in later conflicts, and I herewith give an example of how much thought and preparation went into planning transportation and supply in this comparatively small campaign. ‘Those called up reported to separate divisions only reformed into corps upon arrival in the campaign area. For example, the 13th Division- 517 officers, 15,058 men, 4583 horses, and 379 wagons- was carried in 2,282 railcars divided into forty-two trains of about fifty cars each’.4 These figures alone show how much Moltke had studied the technology of railroads, and saw their potential for rapid troop movement and supply.

Bucholz deals with the wars against Austria and France from the perspective of Prussian advancement in the skills of mobilization and shows, albeit too briefly, how Moltke was constantly working to redefine and upgrade his plans to cover every possible eventuality.

Prussian siege artillery outside Strasbourg
Prussian siege artillery outside Strasbourg

Chapter 2 of Bucholz’s work deals with the restructuring that Moltke undertook within the GGS after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, and gives the reader a clear picture of how he set his mind to the ‘force structure’ of the German army and to the state of military preparedness in time of peace and in time of war. Supply was always a priority for Moltke and he gave as much thought to feed and fodder as he did to how it could be requisitioned and distributed.5

Bucholz goes on to examine the way in which the German army became more and more paranoid, especially after Moltke’s death in 1891, about a war on two fronts. From this paranoia grew the assumption that they should strike the first blow and the disastrous effects of this planning which brought about the horrors in the First World War.

To understand where Moltke was coming from one should read Gordon A. Craig’s book, ‘The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945.’(Paperback edition, Oxford University Press, 1964)

Here we get the full picture of the rise of Prussian militarism, and the role of the army and the state. The seeds of expansion were sown by Frederick the Great but it was the disasters of Jena and Auerstadt in 1807, at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte that caused a drastic restructuring and rethinking within the Prussian military.

There can be little doubt that without the groundwork of the Prussian reformers,Scharnhorst and Geneisenau, together with the theories set down by Clausewitz in his work, ‘OnWar’, that Moltke would not have had the tools at hand to construct the finely honed military machine which he eventually developed, ‘The transformation of the General Staff into the agency charged with jurisdiction over all questions of command and the recognition of its chief as the highest advisor of the king in matters of warfare was the achievement of Helmuth von Moltke.’6

Craig also shows that Moltke was lucky to have the right men in the right places when he became Chief of Staff. It was Otto von Bismarck who pushed through Roon’s Military reform of 1861 in the teeth of the Prussian Parliament, which had refused to enact the necessary budget, and thus enabled Moltke to expand and remould the army to his own specifications.7

Craig’s book should be approached from the perspective of understanding the various changes that took place within the Prussian army over the centuries, particularly within the higher echelons of the General Staff and its relationship with the state and monarchy. For a more detailed account of how the army was affected by Moltke’s innovations and planning one should consult Craig’s work, ‘The Battle of Koniggratz’ (Weindenfeld and Nicolson, London 1965).

This first rate account of the campaign against Austria in 1866 explains how Moltke looked upon military strategy and how he managed to put his ideas into practice in the face of some stiff opposition from traditionalists who believed in the old system of concentrating armies before they went into action, ‘They also failed to appreciate that, in Moltke’s view, the dispositions made by rail were not the end of the army’s deployment, but the beginning.’8 It was timing that was important in Moltke’s planning and, as Craig informs us it was the,’ awareness of the necessity of speed in the interest of that kind of co-ordination that would secure the single armies against disaster in the first difficult days of the advance.’9

Craig’s book not only gives the student a very clear insight into the changes brought about by Moltke’s restructuring within the higher levels of the Prussian army, but also explains how the various army units were formed and a comprehensive evaluation of the superiority of Prussian tactics and weaponry used.

Another important work for an insight into the Prussian/German military machine in action is, ‘The Franco-Prussian War’, by Michale Howard (paperback edition, Routledge Press, London 1988). As with Gordon Craig’s work on the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Howard combines a scholarly study of the technological advancements of the time, together with a comprehensive overview of the difference in both the French and Prussian armies during the interim period between the end of the war of 1866 and the outbreak of hostilities in 1870.

Prussian Krupp 150-mm gun at the siege of Paris
Prussian Krupp 150-mm gun at the siege of Paris

Like Craig, Howard pulls no punches and criticises Moltke on numerous occasions for allowing certain generals under his command too much freedom in their decision making, which could have seriously compromised his whole plan of campaign. I mention only one instance here as an example, ‘On the evening of the 5th August, in defiance of Moltke’s restraining orders, he (General von Steinmetz) ordered his leading corps forward towards Saarbruken…a movement which separated the infantry of the Second Army…from their cavalry divisions scouting ahead in the valley of the Sar. To Moltke he explained that his object was to facilitate the advance of the Second Army by drawing the French on himself and attacking them vigorously. Moltke merely annotated the despatch: “Would have exposed the First Army to Defeat.”10 We see here that Moltke had his share of good luck like most great commanders, what makes him different was that while one or two cogs of his machine became stuck occasionally, for the most part the whole thing ran smoothly, and it is only thanks to his expert planning and timing that it did so.

Howard’s work shows up the glaring difference between an army who still revelled in the glory of Napoleon I and the writings of Baron Jomini, and the new style of mathematically precise warfare as evolved by the thinking of Moltke.

Hajo Holborn’s essay, ‘The Prusso-German School: Moltke and the rise of the General Staff’. published in, ‘Makers of Modern Strategy’ (paperback edition, edited by Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey 1886) covers much of the same ground as the main line titles in this collection, but his condensed version of Moltke’s ideas are clear and to the point, allowing the student to pick-up on the main themes of each topic without having to refer back time after time to other sources. Likewise the essay of Gunther E.Rothenberg, ‘Moltke, Schlieffen, and the Doctrine of Strategic Envelopment’, also published in the same edition of ‘Makers of Modern Strategy’, reploughs the ground already well sown, at least in his dealings with Moltke. There is one small point that I feel Rothenberg is unclear on however; he states that, ‘Not a great theorist, Moltke never produced a single comprehensive system of either war or strategy in his prolific writings; it is necessary to study his ideas through his correspondence, instructions, and memoranda.’11This is surely to miss the whole point. Moltke resisted the writing of any collection of his teachings or theories, as Hughes informed us. This may well have been because Moltke realized that to have compiled any “system” would have nullified his whole outlook on command. It was the flexibility and freedom of commanders to make their own tactical decisions that was important, not any set of rules incorporated in written dogma. Also, as Hughes has told us, it was the Prussian General Staff who edited and published Moltke’s writings, and these may or may not have been compiled by Moltke himself into some form of theoretical analysis.

There is also the need to study Clausewitz’s work; ‘On War’ (paperback edition, Penguin Classics 1982) to appreciate how much Moltke was influenced by his theories. Certainly Moltke was in agreement with him when it came to the relationship between the state and the army, but unlike Clausewitz who approaches war from a philosophical viewpoint, Moltke was more of a down to earth soldier who was concerned with the actual workings and the nuts and bolts of military/political situations as they presented themselves. Unfortunately for Moltke, like other disciples of Clausewitz, his main shortcoming was that he studied grand strategy, and the manoeuvring of large formations a little too much, underestimating the importance of sub-unit tactics. This formed a less desirable part of Moltke’s inheritance, and one whose significance even he failed to notice throughout his first two victorious campaigns. Only the horrific casualties inflicted by the new French rifle in the opening battles of the Franco-Prussian war forced him to appreciate the limitations of shock tactics and modify the doctrine of the Prussian army in mid-campaign. Clausewitz may be forgiven for neglecting sub-unit tactics, but what he, and the other reformers of the Prussian army bequeathed to their successors was a unique Great General Staff, which was to bring a wholly new technique into the conduct of large-scale military manoeuvres.

In order to understand how Moltke himself influenced his successors one should read Jehuda L. Wallach’s work, ‘The Dogma of the Battle of Annihilation’ (paperback reprint, American Military University Press 1998). Here one is presented with the dilemma faced by Count Alfred von Schlieffen when he became Chief of the Great General Staff in 1891.

Alfred, Graf von Schlieffen  (1833-1913) who inherited Moltke’s Legacy
Alfred, Graf von Schlieffen
(1833-1913) who inherited Moltke’s Legacy

Like Moltke, Schlieffen was to state that he had no system of his own and, ‘always stressed that action should be in accordance with the circumstances of a particular theatre of war and the available means.’12 However, as Wallach is at pains to point out, Moltke had the advantage of superiority in all his battles, and also the guiding, if not always appreciated hand of Bismarck to act as a steadying force. Schlieffen’s problem was how to deal with an enemy that outnumbered him and a monarch who considered himself the best judge of policy. The Legacy of Moltke therefore, and as strange as it my seem, was to prove catastrophic to future generals who, because they were so overawed by his successes, studied these examples over and over again, almost to the detriment of all other possibilities and military changes.

William McElwee in his work, ‘The Art of War, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, England 1974) has some very interesting observations concerning the way in which Moltke’s campaigns and writings proved counterproductive, not only to the German army itself, but also to all those who considered them to be the bible for all military planning.

McElwee considers that the German General Staff became “spell-bound” by its own victories and its own excellence, until it became too late, with the outbreak of the First World War, to do anything about it.13 Their plans were therefore not geared for the next war, ‘but for the last.’14

Here I agree with McElwee, and as he points out, ‘However promising and exciting its beginnings, it was always an implementation of the Prussian doctrine the might is right. In military terms its final consequence was to bring the armies from the horrors of a Russian winter in the trenches in front of Sebastopol to the squalid, meaningless endurance test in mud of 1914-1918 which all but destroyed a whole generation of the young men on whom the future of civilisation depended. This has to be the ultimate judgement of history on the Age of Moltke.’15

I will leave it to the student of military history to make up his own mind.

The end of German Imperialism. Kaiser Wilhelm II with Gustav Krupp just before the outbreak of the First World War.
The end of German Imperialism. Kaiser Wilhelm II with Gustav Krupp just before the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Graham J.Morris
March 2005

Source material in German

Bald, Detlev. Der deutshe Generalstab, 1859-1939. Hamburg: Sozialwissenshaftliches Institut der Bundeswehr, 1979.
Jähns, Max. Feldmarschall Moltke. 2nd edition. Berlin: Ernst Hoffmann, 1906.
Moltke, Helmuth von. Ernnerungen, Brief, Dokumente. Stuttgart: Der Kommende Tag, 1922.
Moltke, Chef des Generalstabs der Armee. Geschäftsordnung für den GrosSen Generalstab und die Landesaufnahme. Berlin: Reichsdruckerei, 1913.

 

 

 

 

  1. ‘Moltke on the Art of War’, page15-16 []
  2. Ibid, page 16 []
  3. ‘Moltke,Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning’, page 39 []
  4. Ibid, page 44 []
  5. ‘Moltke,Schlieffen and Prussian War Planning’, page 61 []
  6. ‘The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945’,page 193 []
  7. ‘The Politics of the Prussian Army 1640-1945’,page 160-165 []
  8. ‘The Battle of Koniggratz’, page 47 []
  9. Ibid, page 61 []
  10. ‘The Franco-Prussian War’, page 89 []
  11. ‘Makers of Modern Strategy’, page 298 []
  12. ‘The Dogma of the battle of Annihilation’, page 36 []
  13. ‘The Art of War,’ page 308 []
  14. Ibid, page 309 []
  15. ‘The Art of War,’ page 327 []

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