Von Moltke Essay On Strategy

Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, ed. Daniel J. Hughes

Author background: Helmuth Karl Bernhard Grafvon Moltke (October 26, 1800 – April 24, 1891), was a German Generalfeldmarschall. The chief of staff of the Prussian army for thirty years, he is widely regarded as one of the great strategists of the latter half of the 1800s, and the creator of a new, more modern method, of directing armies in the field. He is often referred to as Moltke the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, who commanded the German army at the outbreak of World War I. Moltke is often viewed as the person who operationalized Clausewitz’s theories.

Thesis: Moltke's main thesis was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options since only the beginning of a military operation was plannable. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes.


· Chapter 1: Nature of War

o Peace is a dream and war is a part of God’s world order
o Man’s best characteristics emerge in war (courage, self-denial, devotion to duty, and selflessness)
o War is subordinate to the requirements of national policy, but war should be conducted separate from politics; the time for politics is before and after war, not during
o The strategic offensive combines well with the tactical defensive (i.e., encircle the enemy and force him to fight his way out)

· Chapter 2: Headquarters, Operations, Technology

o Too many advisors can slow commander decision-making
o Local commanders should have freedom to act in line with commander’s intent
o Mobile forces better protect a country than fixed fortifications
o Full use should be made of technology, but improvements in communication can threaten local commander freedom of action

· Chapter 3: The Battle

o Moltke emphasizes the destruction of enemy forces as the objective of strategy (like Clausewitz)
o Two key principles of Moltke’s strategy (echoed by Tukachevsky)
§ Subordinate commander initiative (e.g., march toward the sound of canon fire)
§ Cooperation among the three basic arms (infantry, cavalry, and artillery)

· Chapter 4: 1869 Instructions for Large Unit Commanders

o Single-most important official document guiding German military thought through WWI
o “Victory alone breaks the will of the enemy and forces him to submit to our will. Neither the possession of a tract of land nor the conquest of a fortified position will suffice. On the contrary, only the destruction (Zerstörung) of the enemy’s fighting power will, as a rule, be decisive. This [destruction of the enemy’s fighting power] is therefore the foremost object of operations (Operationsobjekt).”

· Chapter 5: Various Teachings on War

o Moltke suggests that units should march separately and unite only on the battlefield in order to maximize the chance to encircle the enemy. Risk was deemed worth the gain.
o Moltke emphasizes the importance of flexibility to counter chance in war

Implications for Strategy

  • No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy; the enemy always gets a vote so be prepared
  • Field commanders should be encouraged to exercise initiative

Sugar's Tips on Von Moltke the Elder

The Goodness

War and Peace

However, whoever knows war will agree that it cannot be restrained by theoretical chains. 23 It’ll often be constrained by Moral, political, economic, and materiel considerations, but I don’t think anyone has ever stopped fighting to have a theoretical debate. Maybe it’ll happen at the next SAASS roll call….

Every law requires an authority who watches and regulates its execution; but this power is lacking in the observance of international agreements. 23 Guess I am becoming a realist.

No paragraph learned by heart will convince the soldier that he must see a lawful enemy in the organized populace which resorts to force of arms on its own initiative and from which his life is not secure for a moment, day or night. 23 Put another way, “Making war upon insurgents is messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.” TE Lawrence

One hopes that with advancing civilization war will be less frequent, but no state can entirely dispense with it…As long as different nations lead separate existences, there will be disputes that can be settled only by the force of arms. 24-25 Realism defined.

There can be no thought of freedom if there is no power to hold it. 25 If “Freedom is not free”, and “Might makes right”, this is definitely true.

I have more confidence in the judgment and power of governments than in the Areopagus of delegates selected by the peoples and international brotherhood or what has been proposed in this direction, which is suited only to create Babylonian confusion. 25 Yup, think Moltke is definitely a realist.

The money market also has today gained an influence that can call on the armed forces into the field for its interests. 26 Good observation, but when was this not true?

The frontiers of a large state cannot be constructed according to scientific principles. 28 Durand line, anyone?

We must never forget that the savings of a long series of years of peace can be lost in a single year of war. 28 Much like a quote from MacArthur about how nothing is more expensive than having the second best military.

The credit of a state rests above all on its security. 29 Thomas Friedman, the globalization “Earth is Flat” guy, would agree

The best pledge for peace is to be armed for war. 31 This sounds suspiciously like “To secure peace is to prepare for war" from Mettalica’s “Don’t Tread on Me”, and was also the slogan of an Italian city state that Machiavelli references, which was originally lifted from Vegetius, namely Si vis pacem, para bellum. Apparently there will be free drinks for you at the next Roll Call if you can remember it – or anything close to it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Si_vis_pacem,_para_bellum

Arms are quickly distributed but not so quickly taken back. 33 Also very true with beers.

The task is to make a solider out of the recruit; that is, a man who not only practices the parade step or mounts guard, but who is expected to act independently…34 This is the “training vs. education” debate, and Moltke argues for the importance of both.

Military service is a school for the growing generation in regard to order, punctuality, cleanliness, obedience, and loyalty – attributes that underpin subsequent productive work. 34 Is that why we’re going to hell in a handbasket since the “Greatest Generation” retired and handed the reins over to the freakin’ hippies? J

War and Politics

War is the violent action of nations to attain or maintain purposes of state. It is the most extreme means of carrying out that will and, during its duration, abolishes international treaties between the beligerents….Thus, policy cannot be separated from strategy, for politics uses war to obtain its objectives and has a decisive influence on war’s beginning and end. Policy does this in such a manner that it reserves to iself the right to increase its demands during the course of the war to satisfy itself with minor successes 36 It also changes in the other direction to expand objectives after previous successes – the UN forces in the Korean War is a great example of both.

In no instance must the military commander allow himself to be swayed in his operations policy by policy considerations only. 36 Easy to agree with the opposite of an absolute statement. He incorrectly jumps upon this rhetorical device to try and prove the opposite condition, but he overreaches (see the “Moltke is wrong” section)

The military and moral consequences of every great engagement are of such a far-reaching kind that they usually create a fully transformed situation, a basis for new measures. 45. This is exactly why policy has to be part of strategy, and while it shouldn’t ask the unreasonable or unachievable, the current political situation should always inform the strategy, which then must adapt itself to the new operational environment lest it plow forward into irrelevant operations at high costs. This also means that often, the results of combat make previous political positions unfeasible – for example, even if the allies had backed off the demands for unconditional surrender had “the Bulge’ gone the Germans way, there was no way the Nazis were ever going to maintain power after their actions in the occupied countries or the Holocaust became known. Better example - after the bloodbaths of Verdun and the Somme, there was no way the European governments could settle for a return to the prewar status quo.

No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s strength. Only the layman sees in the course of a campaign a consistent execution of a preconceived and highly detailed original concept pursued consistently to the end. 45 Ah, the famous quotes. Translated to brospeak: “No plan survives contact with the enemy”, and “The plan is nothing, but planning is everything”.

Certainly the commander in chief will keep his great objective continuously in mind, undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance…everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and consistency. 47 This goes right along with Clausewitz’s idea that it’s the commanders job to remain poised in the midst of change and uncertainty, to keep his eye on the strategic picture when the tactical details are confusing and contradictory, and to use his coup d’oeil to “pierce through the fog” at the key times and places, recognize the salient factors, and adjust the plan appropriately to the new situation.

Strategy is a system of expedients. It is more than a discipline; it is the transfer of knowledge to practical life, the continued development of the original leading thought in accordance with the constantly changing circumstances. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions. 47 Amen, Bruder. Strategy must ultimately be distilled into practical applications and relayed in “brospeak”, which then generates physical actions that shape favorable outcomes in the real world. Anything else is an academic exercise, not strategy.

Defensive, Offensive, and Bayonet Fighting

Thus is the strategic offensive tied to the tactical defense. 48 Good reminder that subsequent defense should be a consideration in any offense, and that tactical events can have strategic consequences.

Defensive and Offensive

I am convinced that improvements in firearms have given the tactical defense a great advantage over the tactical offense. 52 Absolutely true until mobility was improved by airpower and mechanized warfare. Unfortunately, more people concentrated on the “bayonet” quote than this one before WWI, despite the lessons of the Russo Japanese War ten years prior that had largely validated this point.

Strategic Offensive and Defensive

The tactical defense is the stronger, the strategic offensive is the more effective form- the only one that leads to the goal…One may say, in short, that the strategic offensive is the direct way to the objective, the strategic defensive the roundabout way 68 This is a modification of Clausewitz’s concept that the defense was stronger, but the offensive had the positive aim. Clausewitz argued that you could win on the defensive as well, and that warfare was never purely offensive or defensive. Moltke suggests that the relative strengths of offense and defense depend on the level of war, and that offensive was the stronger form of war at the strategic level. This goes along with Clausewitz’s concept that victory ultimately required an offensive action to bring decision and disarm the opponent, but by saying “more effective” instead of “stronger”, he may have unwittingly contributed to the “Cult of the Offensive” that dominated prior to WWI, and arguably still continues to live on in some circles today (just a couple of airpower advocates in that camp).

Thoughts on Command

The composition of an Army’s headquarters is of an importance that is not always sufficiently recognized. There are supreme commanders who need no counsel…but these are stars of the first magnitude not found in every century. 76 The French command and control system, which we have in many ways followed, is focused on supporting the commander. The Prussian general staff worked more for overall excellence – the concept was that since we can’t always get a genius, let’s make sure we have enough guys who are “good enough” when we execute these “march separately, attack together” operations. This was vital to their concept of battle, in which separated units trying to converge on the same are with limited communications had to operate autonomously until communications could be reestablished.

In most cases the commander of an army will not wish to do without advice. This advice may well be the result of the collective deliberations of a smaller or larger number of men, whose education and experience make them competent to judge correctly. 76 Can I get a “hell yeah” from all the ASG grads? This actually has lots of applicability today – who gets to give the commander advice, and how many people is “too many cooks”? In practice, we usually review the big stuff with the whole group, and break into smaller groups to work specific COAs after the big picture guidance. The Army is trying to figure out how this small group that formulates the problem statement – the “design team” will tie in with the rest of the staff, and how they should translate these high fallootin’ Jervis and Allison ideas into Brospeak for Campaign Plans, OPORDs and JAOPS. Give ‘em credit – they’re taking on this monster that we’re still trying to figure out 140 years after Moltke…

But of that number, never more than one opinion must gain prevalence. The military’s hierarchical organization must assist both subordination and thought. Only one authorized person may submit to the commanding general this one opinion. The supreme commander chooses that person not according to rank, but according to the confidence placed in him. Spoken like a true Chief of Staff…

Read pages 76 – 78, and compare it to JOPP, JAEP, MDMP, MCPP, etc. Mmmm….

Railroads 107 & telegraphs 113– very tactical, but very important recognition at the time

Strategy (again)

Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions. Strategy is the application of sound human sense to the conduct of war; its teachings go little beyond the first requirements of common sense. Imagine Moltke speaking from beyond the grave directly to us – “Keep it down to earth - Don’t be a SAASShole! “ It’s value lies entirely in concrete application. The main point is correctly to estimate at each moment the changing situation and then do the simplest and most natural things with firmness and caution. Thus war becomes an art – an art, of course, which is served by many sciences (that explains our 120 books) 124

He’s getting better – he keeps the tie to practicality, but adds the concept of a learning organization (“improvement of leading thought) and continuous operational assessment (“estimate at each moment”), and also taking a multidisciplinary approach to your mission analysis (art and sciences). Dropped the political stuff, though…

In war, as in art, we find no universal forms; in neither can a rule take the place of talent. General theories, and the resulting rules and systems, therefore cannot possibly have practical value in strategy. 124 Take that, Jomini….Design dudes, I’m watching you…124

Instructions for large unit commanders

No calculation of space and time guarantees victory in this realm of chance, mistakes, and disappointments. Uncertainty and the danger of failure accompany every step toward the goal, which will no be attained if fate is completely unfavorable. In war, everything is uncertain; nothing is without danger, and only with difficulty will one attain great results by another route. 175. - You’r e sounding a little negative guys. I get the chance, fog, and friction, but why so gloomy and absolute? Hey wait a minute, I see the good side to this “uncontrollable war” thing. If bad things inevitably happen, there’s less stuff you can say that the CG or the staff screwed up! I knew that there was a reason I liked Clausewitz more than Jomini…

Great nugget in here for you C2 guys (and future C2 guys):

Even in peacetime, the command structures of the Army, which are already organized in peacetime and which continue in war with only partial expansion, serve to bring fulfillment to the will of the highest commander. 176 This is the foundational concept for both the standing joint task force headquarters and the Component Numbered Air Force with its AOC. Instead of having to take staff weenies out of letterd HQ staffs, you keep a scalable HQ running at all times, doing the same basic battle rhythm but with extended timelines for the main events. When the balloon goes up, you’ve got the core in place, trained, and ready to hit the ground running as your “auggies” plug and play as needed to expand the capacity of the HQ. This way you’re executing strategy from the word “go”, instead of trying to figure out where your seat is, waiting hours to get a network login, trying to figure out who your joint staff and sister service players are, etc.

Where Moltke is just plain wrong or has become irrelevant (My opinion, which will get you a Mocha from McDonalds on Mondays. Tell ‘em Sugar sent you. )

His technique – Moltke cherry picks often valid historical examples to illustrate his point that politicians often ask for the military to do things that don’t make sense tactically or strategically, but then makes the mistake of trying to use this to validate a maxim that political interference in military affairs is always bad. He doesn’t spend much time on the times when policy overruling the military brought Prussia more success than fighting – this mix of decisiveness and restraint is the reason Bismarck is often pointed to by historians as one of the best examples of someone who successfully balanced the political and military aspects of warfare…

I believe that all governments are today endeavoring to maintain peace. 25 Maybe the “haves” are…but some unhappy with the status quo actually stand to benefit from war, while others (i.e. arms dealers nations, nations getting “anti—terror funds from the US ) benefit from keeping war part of the current status quo.

Modern wars call whole people to arms. 26 Not necessarily. Is the US at arms? Great Britain? Know this is meant for the MCO context, but apply the same questions to 1991 and 2003.

But in its actions, strategy is independent of policy, mainly to prevent that policy from demanding things which are against the nature of war, and out of ignorance of the instruments from committing errors of their us 36 The last part is good – Clausewitz also talks of the importance of having military advice in the “cabinet” to make sure leaders don’t ask the military to do something it can’t or shouldn’t do. But the overreach here is the implication that strategy and policy are independent – Clausewitz is 180 out from this at the highest levels of strategy, realizing that the D and M are integral parts of a comprehensive grand strategy. This is exactly what we’re still trying to get our arms around with our efforts to increase interagency planning and cooperation, as well as the recent restructuring of the Obama National Security Council under General (Ret) Jones.

Military considerations are decisive for the course of the war. Political considerations are decisive only so far as they do not demand something impossible in a military sense. 36 He’s trying to pile on Clausewitz’s argument that tactical victories are necessary for strategic success, which is ultimately guaranteed by a forced decision. He’s actually got it backwards – while the tactical victories are often key enablers to setting the stage for conflict termination, when deciding the course of the war (not the battle), political concessions or acceptance of the new political status quo are the only things that end a war (ask the North Vietnamese, the Iraqis, or anyone who has served in USFK for the last 60 years).

In no instance must the military commander allow himself to be swayed in his operations policy by policy considerations only. He should rather keep military successes in view. What policy can do with his victories or defeats is exclusively the business of policy. 36 Moltke starts by arguing against an absolute statement, which most will agree with, but he then tries to make another absolute statement the truth opposite of that. It’s a false argument – just because you shouldn’t focus solely on political factors doesn’t mean that you should focus exclusively on military ones, you should reject it as a false absolute just like the previous statement. The last part in red is the main problem with German strategy in both World Wars – they kept to this (with some notable exceptions that were squashed), but continued to fight on for operational and tactical successes when they were pointless at the strategic level, a problem which only could have been alleviated by adopting a different political policy (like making a deal with the Allies, which their exercises in genocide had made almost impossible by that point)

A mistake in the original assembly of the army can scarcely be rectified in the entire course of the campaign. 45 While this is true the narrower your time window is, the truth of this statement depends on how long the campaign is, how much production and transportation capability you have, and how much mobility/adaptability you have with the forces that are there. Over the course of the Pacific campaign, the fact that we started with only a few carriers did not mean that we could not bump those numbers up to near 50 by the end of the war. In North Africa, the mistakes of Kasserine Pass were rectified, and Rommel was chased out of Africa in ’43 with most of the same forces that went in, just operating with different, more effective tactics and practices (including the abandonment of “Penny packeted” airpower).

On the other hand, strategy appropriates the success of every engagement and builds upon it. The demands of strategy grow silent in the face of tactical victory and adapt themselves to the newly created situation. 47 Really? Or is it that the demands of policy often adapt when tactical victory or defeat changes the situation? Moltke’s claim might look true which you get to what you perceive as the enemy’s COG sooner than you thought (i.e. driving the Taliban out of Kabul), but the demands of strategy (eliminating Al Qaeda as a threat) were not satisfied with this tactical success, nor were the demands put upon strategy by policy reduced in the long term. Thinking that the strategic demands of that policy had been reduced encouraged us to conduct an economy of force operation in Afghanistan, which gave the enemy time to regroup. Thinking that the buildup of early tactical successes had gotten the job done (strategy growing silent), without addressing the core strategic issues of how Al Qaeda operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has come back to bite us in a big way.

The advance with the bayonet is the means finally to overcome the enemy. No army can do without the bayonet. The confidence of the man in his bayonet cannot be sufficiently fostered, but its employment must first be made possible by the course of the battle and must be prepared by the effects of fire. 49 Hundreds of thousands of WWI soldiers probably wished that their leaders had continued to read on to the next sentence. “The leader should always remember that even the most brilliant bravery fails against an insurmountable obstacle.”

A turning movement falls out of the scope of tactics and into the realm of strategic operations…A flanking attack on the enemy is a turning movement in the sphere of tactics. The former works morally and directly, the other materially and directly. 57 “Turning” your opponent means making him move out of his position and redeploying, done either by force or by guile, but it’s a conscious decision of the enemy to reposition their forces. Moltke says that if you can get him to do this before your directly engaged with him, this is a “strategic” movement due to forcing the issue through psychology, where a flanking attack is using brute force is tactical because you’re physically pushing him out of position. We would probably call the first one maneuver, and the second attack, and usually categorize them in the operational and tactical levels of war respectively. However, you can produce strategic effects with maneuver as well – that’s the whole reason we still have B-52s in Guam today.

The Nazi’s favorite Von Moltke quotes:

War is part of God’s world order. 22 This is how you can be a God Fearing Nazi.

War develops man’s noblest virtues, which otherwise would slumber and die out…22 Again, “the Tree of Liberty”…

The soldier endures hardships and privations, fatigue and danger. He not only can but must take from the resources of the land what is necessary for his existence. 24 This explains a lot about what happened to the German soldiers on the Eastern Front in WWII.

Only a strong government can carry out beneficial reforms and assure peace. 27 Bet this passage had Hitler licking his lips…

Germany’s principle strength rests in the homogeneity of its population 27 I can see where this is going…

…we have become a nation only through sacrifice and work. 28 “Blut and Ehre” - Hitler was willing to burn Germany to the ground himself because he thought losing meant that the German nation wasn’t living up to this idea

…the main question is of training and stabilization of moral qualities, the military upbringing of youth to manhood. That cannot be drilled into the recruits; it must be acquired through long years of service. Hitlerjugend

Not the schoolteacher, but the educator, the military class, has won our battles, has educated the nation in regard to corporal vigor and mental freshness, love of fatherland, and manliness. We therefore cannot do without the army for the domestic purposes of educating the nation. SS

The Nazis’ least favorite Von Moltke quotes

Germany has shown that it is a peace loving nation, one that does not need war to achieve glory and which does not want war to make conquests. I really do not know what we would do with a piece of land wrested from Russia or France. 27 Make “Lebensraum”? Oh, and get slaves and resources, too

Woe to him who applies the torch to Europe, who is the first to throw the match into the powder cask. 29 Oops…

  • Flexibility and mobility are superior to fixed fighting positions


The history of the Prussian General Staff, reviewed in two previousarticles, reflects how the Prussian General Staff (and the military) was connected with the development of Prussia (and even Germany after 1871 and up to 1945). The General Staff even played a crucial role in shaping it. In addition, the Prussian General Staff was the product of brilliant minds and the changes in ways of thinking, of social order and even of warfare, especially during the Napoleonic Wars.

In addition, the way how the Prussian General Staff worked was hinted throughout the review, as the contributions of many brilliant military minds (von Scharnhorst, von Moltke and others), though having general common origins and perspectives, added special traits to it, defining the way it would function. However, a more thoroughly approach is needed, not only to complement the historical review, but also – and mainly – to understand better how the Prussian General Staff worked, what were the main elements shaping it and making it to world, and how it carved Prussia/Germany’s most remarkable military feats.

How the Prussian General Staff worked

The Prussian General Staff began to emerge during the Napoleonic Wars, but it took almost half a century to institutionalize within the Prussian armed forces, becoming very prominent and crucial by the 1860’s, the decade in which the rise of Prussia began to take shape. It is by these years in which the General Staff had a more defined way of functioning, as the culmination of the ideas set up by von Scharnhorst reached their maximum. This, for instance, also shaped the history of the second half of the 19th century – in Europe – and up to 1914, sparking changes in military doctrines and strategies. It started, following Goerlitz (1985) and Schoy (n.d.), as the manifestation of a very needed modernization of the Prussian army during the Napoleonic Wars, by a series of reforms to allow Prussia to cope with France war tactics. And it was basically the tool that allowed Prussia to take advantage of many innovations introduced by the French Revolution (like popularization of war) and the Industrial Revolution, professionalization, flexibility and merit, thus mastering warfare for a century[1]. It must be reminded, again, that the army was an organic part of the Prussian state and its structure, with the army and the same General Staff being important actors, even politically, within the nation, following Goerlitz (1985).

Organizing an army, organizing the General Staff

Kennedy (2007) explains that the Prussian General Staff introduced a ‘military revolution’ (which also sparked a strong Prussia/German influence in European affairs). For instance, the Prussian army was implementing a very particular system of short military service, which consisted of three years of mandatory military service and four additional years in the reserve. Also, 7 annual recruitment waves, with 1 for the Landwehr (or national militia), were being implemented[2]. This militia was tasked with performing garrison and rear guard duties. Nevertheless, this system was efficient, as it provided Prussia with enough manpower to wage its campaigns regardless of its relative small population[3]. Needless to say, the General Staff took advantage of this organization and knew how to channel the resources and manpower given by such.

This organization of the Prussian army can be traced back to von Scharnhorst, who wanted to articulate the army into divisions (or brigades) as a mean to maximize the scarce resources Prussia was having back then, with each division/brigade headed by a field commander and having its own general staff. Moreover, the army was to serve as a drafting mechanism for the reserve corps (Goerlitz, 1985).

There was indeed a previous version of the General Staff, dubbed the ‘General Quartermaster’, tasked with recruitment, supplies and organization, and having some mid-rank officers acting as order couriers and others assisting generals in reports and data compilation. However, and unlike the General Staff that would follow, there were no military advisors to the field commanders neither it was a permanent institution, being established right after war sparked. Independence of movement was, however present, being a product of operational needs than the product of the army realising the benefits of such deployments (Goerlitz, 1985).

The General Staff itself, was structured with four sections: The core General Staff itself, comprised by four officers (senior operations, senior supply and administrative, intelligence and training officers); Adjuntant for administrative tasks and personnel issues; Legal, Intendant (medical, supply and veterinary); and Transport, specialized on transport and equipment (Johnston, 2008). This structure, noteworthy to point out, was the product of the evolution of the General Quartermaster until the General Staff itself.

Furthermore, three further divisions were established in 1867, whose taks was to monitor all matters of military interest in both Prussia and abroad. The first division was responsible for  Sweden, Norway, Turkey and Austria. The second division was responsible for what is now Germany, Italy and Switzerland. The thrid division was responsible for France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and America (Millotat, 1992).


The Prussian General Staff took advantage of the recruitment system, and by the hand of Helmuth von Moltke ‘the Elder’, it also maximized the potential the officer corps would have, as he took the most skilled from the war academy and instructed them in the framing of plans and in preparing for potential future conflicts. These plans were to be prepared and reviewed before the spark of war. As it was mentioned in the previous articles, independence of decision and framing operational actions under a mission command (Auftragstaktik) doctrine was one of the main traits of the Prussian General Staff. Officers were instilled to practice management of armies or groups of armies having the possibility of independence of movement and even to have their own initiative, thus acting while having in mind the strategic and operational objectives. This practice was, by the way, established by von Gneisenau, who introduced the method of issuing general directives, and enhanced by von Moltke ‘The Elder’. But independence of movement did not set a restriction on operational interdependence between units. Rather the contrary, the deployment of various units envisaged interdependence for the sake of mutual support an overall success. Similarly, combined arms tactics were stressed, as interdependence between different arms was of tactical importance (Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992)[4].

This tradition would play an important role for the German army after WWI, its survival in the interwar period, and the basis for the effectiveness of the army in the earlier stages of WW2. It was stipulated, under von Seeckt’s command, that field commanders would follow general guidelines while being free of any constrain, allowed to exert personal initiative under the frames of the mission (limits), following Klein (2001). Furthermore, interdependence and combined arms would be the basics of the German armoured warfare doctrine of the 20’s and 30’s[5].

The importance of mission command, or auftragstaktik, for the Prussian General Staff is such that it deserves to be analysed in depth. As it was mentioned before, this principle allowed field commanders to take actions upon their assessment of any operational situation, having always as aim the fulfilment of the main – strategic – objective(s), and being able to not strictly follow commands. This led to a decentralized command and control that was very effective when it came to wage battles and wars, having a considerable contribution in Prussia’s victories on the second half of the 19th century and even at WWII, even becoming a model for the current German army and other armies that desired to implement it (Gunther, 2012)[6].

Furthermore, the auftragstaktik allowed field commanders and officers to transmit and interpret the received orders, taking as a basis their perception of the operational situation they would be facing. This not only provided the abovementioned flexibility and room for personal initiative through decentralized command, but also allowed the army to absorb risk and failure, with the commander accepting responsibility in such a case, and his field commanders capable of understanding (and articulating) the aim and purposed means. This understanding was considered a crucial requirement by von Moltke, as it would provide them with general frameworks along with freedom for materializing the strategic/general aims. Equally important was for commanders to provide brief but sufficient instructions, with orders being equally brief and less prescriptive, so both field commanders and officers could act instead of waiting for orders (Goerlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Kennedy, 2007; Millotat, 1992)[7].

Brief and clears orders (or general directives) were important not only for an agile execution of plans, but also to make easy the relation between the high commanders and the field commanders. According to Gunther (2012), the general orders were to be emitted by the high command with a general nature, so to allow the field commander to add details considering that they were closer and able to understand better the conditions at the battlefields, and even going against the content of the order if their actions were favourable to meet the general objectives. Moreover, for von Moltke, the commanders were to emphasize the purpose – through short, brief and clear orders – but not to define the method of execution, while field commanders and officers could disobey orders if they considered the situation required a different course of action, and those same field commanders to provide timely and accurate reporting to allow the high commanders to understand the situation (Gunther, 2012)[8].

The Auftragstaktik did not worked at its fullest, and many situations almost neutralized it or evidenced how risky it was for operational outcome. Following Gunther (2012), during the Franco-Prussian War, von Moltke was almost unable to stop independent actions by field commanders that threatened his plans for synchronization and mobilization. But that disadvantage also had a positive side, as those commanders seized the initiative – often without awaiting orders – upon their detection of French intentions and weak points and exploiting them, also able of giving feedback. Their action even forced the French to change their plans, dislodge their organization or making mistakes that played in favour of Prussia and leaving the initiative to Prussia. Moreover, this principle enabled the field commanders to detect and solve problems on the march (Gunther, 2012)[9].

Planning (for) the next encounters

The framing of plans was not relegated to crisis or pre-war times. In fact, and during peacetime, the General Staff would be tasked with studying new ways to organize war, devising offensive and defensive plans, counteroffensive and mobilization plans as well. War was to be defined quickly and decisively, with previous and careful analysis of problems, taking also risks while balancing initiative and caution (Cau, 2011; Goerlitz, 1985; Gunther, 2012; Kennedy, 2007). This nature also responded to von Moltke’s transformation of the General Staff, which became less academic and more a command instrument, placing emphasis in mobility, speed and precision. The following century witnessed the General Staff applying the same principles even after a defeat, similarly to the earlier days back in the Napoleonic Wars. War games and map exercises were implemented during the command of von Seeckt, testing the junior officers and generals (Klein, 2001).

Meritocracy through education while learning from the past

Yet for most of the times, if not during the entire existence of the General Staff, education was one of the main characteristics and the reason it produced officers of high quality, as von Scharnhorst considered that the lecturer was also a crucial part in the process. In fact, the study of military history and past campaigns was one of the educational focusing of the military academies under the General Staff’s supervision, as well as studies on operational issues. Even since the earlier days of the General Staff, von Scharnhorst highlighted the importance of theoretical and applied disciplines, as well as of educating military leaders from an early age, thus making cadets to attend courses in order to promote them on educational and skills basis[10]. Reflections on military affairs were encouraged, making use of historical examples, as von Scharnhorst considered war to be a complex discipline requiring high training, study and training. Reading, furthermore, would enrich officers by knowing from other’s experiences and insights, with education balancing field exercises, theory and personal studies. Production and publication of the best papers analysing strategic, tactic and military affairs was a way to grasp and apply such experiences. Examinations were always a constant, even for re-joining civil life (Dimarco, 2009; Guderian, 2006; Herwig, 1998; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.).

This emphasizing on learning from the past became important in the last decades of the General Staff. This period (1919 to 1945) could be labelled as the period in which all of the characteristics and features of the General Staff, as well as the innovations introduced by it, reached their maximum level and allowed the Third Reich to achieve impressive victories at the early days of WWII. This was due to von Seeckt’s examination of the innovations introduced in 1918, innovations that were carefully studied as well as the experiences acquired during the Great War, setting the basis for the armoured and mobile warfare doctrines and tactics that would give way to the famous Panzer Divisionen and the Blitzkrieg. Noteworthy to remark that these new doctrines and tactics took advantage of decentralized authority and analysis and exploitation of the adversary’s weaknesses, not to mention that both were cornerstones of those new tactics and doctrines (Murray & Millet, 2005; Jackson, 2012).

Indeed, tanks were to operate as an independent unit, discarding the ideas of tanks to be used as mere support for the infantry, as the analysis and studies on interwar French and British experiences on the matter evidenced as the best doctrine to pick. And evidencing the spirit of the Prussian General Staff, problems and their solutions were detected and implemented on the march, with exercises implemented to test the developed theories and even testing secretly built tanks in Sweden. Such exercises and tests were also useful to spot issues and set a definitive configuration of design, weight and armament, as well as to validate the Panzerkrieg doctrines developed by the interwar-period General Staff (Guderian, 2005; Jackson, 2012).

The General Staff thus aimed at training the best officers or to put them into top positions so to improve the leadership quality, where the main aspects of such selection process are talent and merit or skills as previously mentioned. The idea behind the General Staff was to set up a system where those with skills, merits and qualifications would gain important positions and function within the army, interestingly with a ‘middle-class’ composition instead of sole nobility. Moreover, the officers and staff assistants were – and still are – required to be aware of world affairs and the different factors – from political to economic – affecting military affairs, following Dimarco (2009), Millotat (1992) and Schoy (n.d.).

This selection of the best contributed in bringing back the German army to its feet following the 1918 defeat, thanks to Hans von Seeckt. In fact, the best ones were selected for this purpose, where again war heroes and most notably the nobility were taken as reasons for not selecting officers to comprise the new general staffs, as general staffs (at unit level) were allowed to persist by the allies (Chant, 1999; Murray & Millet, 2005).

Education was to be complemented with good analytical and critical skills. Following Schoy (n.d.), von Scharnhorst considered that any dogmas and rigid ideas should be scrapped, allowing the students to have independent and critical thinking alongside a receptive mind, capable of responding to the circumstances and unexpected factors and events during a battle. This, as mentioned before, was the core fundament of freedom of action under a mission command that would characterize the General Staff and the Prussia/German army. In relation to this, von Scharnhorst always aimed at compensating deficiencies at high level of command, with the establishment of unit-level general staffs and education, education that would produce selected officers able to run the army, and able to take decisions in the absence of the commander or to advise him on operational decisions. The commander, thanks to the advice of his officers, was capable of taking any independent decision. These advices were required to be based on qualified reasoning and thought, and not on mere wishful thinking (Dimarco, 2009; Gunther, 2012; Millotat, 1992; Schoy, n.d.).

Exercises and manoeuvres as source of learning

Field exercises were also an important characteristic of the Prussian General Staff, namely, war games and manoeuvres. Von Scharnhorst deemed them as important, for they would allow training near combat conditions instead of drills and daily duties, following Schoy (n.d.). In addition to war games and manoeuvres, historical campaigns and operations implemented by potential adversaries were studied. But the far past was not the only subject of study, as mistakes during exercises and war games were studied, which resulted in a readjustment of instruction, organization and weaponry[11]. This allowed the Prussian army – via the Prussian General Staff – to absorb and learn from mistakes, allowing improvements in many ways[12]. Also, technology and transportation infrastructure was important for the Prussian General Staff, with a special department for railroads within the General Staff established, in order to make sure troops and supplies could reach destination fast, reflecting how the General Staff and the Army were both able to take advantage of the technologies bestowed by the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, von Moltke ‘the Elder’, stimulated the introduction of rifled weapons, such as the Dreyse rifle. Similarly, journeys for reconnoitre (Übungsreisen) the terrain and possible operational areas – even abroad – were implemented during training (GlobalSecurity, 2011; Goerlitz, 1985; Herwig, 1998; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001)[13].

As it was stated before, the General Staff not only focused on the past. Following Goerlitz (1985) and Herwig (1998), the General Staff was in fact committed to review the military literature of the times, newspapers, journals and even parliamentary debates. The idea was to scrutinize the novelties in warfare, tactics and strategy – even new military technology – introduced by other nations, and to be analysed and adopted and enhanced, if necessary, preparing for the next war. This was something that would characterize the General Staff from its beginnings, making it to be ahead of its adversaries even after defeat: the armoured warfare principles and tactics are the most prominent example.

This, in fact, was kept in the 20th century, when the General Staff, under the lead of von Seeckt, would place special attention to transport, supply, organization, railways, air defence, engineering and command post exercises. Moreover, übungsreisen under von Seeckt would consist of officers traveling to other countries to be aware of newly introduced tactics and assets (Chant, 1999; Klein, 2001). This evidences how the General Staff was capable of intertwining even in the earlier 20th century, the operational and training aspects with the technological advances, making both spheres to co-relate and work as one.

War gaming

War games is also another aspect of the General Staff that, like Auftragstaktik, deserves special attention, as it became a sort of trademark of the Prussian General Staff and army, and in fact complemented the development of this combat principle, helping in the devising and testing of plans and doctrines. Following Vego (2012), games of this sort were already existing, yet it was in Germany where the modern versions of such games where invented and developed from the 17th to the 19th centuries, used for educating and training commanders and their staffs, as well as for rehearsing and testing plans for potential future operations. The special characteristic of these games and their evolution was that the pieces and the board were representing the units and the features – type of terrain, geographical accidents, etc. – of the area of operations, and the dynamics of the games served also to support the need for having general staff officers to advise the players/commanders in both the board and the real battlefield. Even von Moltke saw the benefits provided by war games for training officers, for the abovementioned testing of plans and as a complement of the Übungsreisen, thus implementing them[14].

Von Schlieffen took the war games development and impact even further, aiming at further testing plans and aptitudes of the officers in training and often reflecting the potential geopolitical and strategic situation the German Empire was facing back then: in other words, operations against Russia, the British Empire and France. Therefore, wargames were based on war plans, with the addition that they were meant to highlight any potential problem that could emerge. Even so, von Schlieffen reminded his officers to maintain initiative, for wargames would not provide predefined solutions (Vego, 2012). However, wargames did not escape to the biases and mistakes of the chiefs of General Staff. Following Vego (2012), despite von Moltke ‘the Young’ attempts to improve war plans upon outcomes of wargames, the lack of simulating the diplomatic and political context acted against this.

Nonetheless, defeat did not mean the end of the General Staff efforts to always look for quality and preparation. Neither it was the end for the wargames. According to Vego (2012), von Seeckt and others that followed him during the interwar period, took advantage of wargames and their potential for training, with an increased value for preparing the future army and officers in the light of heavy restrictions imposed by the Allies. War games also kept their initial purpose, but they were also used for preparing the army officers in mobile warfare, to study past campaigns and to improve the doctrines that were being developed during this period. During WWII, wargames were also used, mainly for studying on-going problems.

Technology matters

The importance technology in general would have for the Prussian General Staff would be a characteristic until 1945. Following Klein (2001), it was von Schlieffen and Von Moltke the ones that introduced this characteristic to the General Staff, as they made any operational and tactical calculus to include technological developments and innovations, even grasping the interdependence between tactic and technological advancements and the convenience of such relation in order to save lifes and achieve victory in the battlefield. Furthermore, this knowledge was applied to the areas of materiel and command as well. This grasping of warfare and technology would play its first fruits during the Franco – Prussian war, with telegraphs used to deliver orders, and artillery used extensively, let alone the introduction of breechloading Dreyse rifles and the utilization of railways through a department for that sole purpose within the General Staff (Bergamino & Palitta, 2015; Gunther, 2012; GlobalSecurity, 2011; Herwig, 1998; Kennedy, 2007; Klein, 2001; Millotat, 1992).

Needless to say, technology played an important role in the adaptations and preparations for the German army after WWI, as innovations in terms of tanks and armoured vehicles introduced by the Allies during this conflict were carefully studied, enhanced and built, resulting in the very famous German Panzers and their revolution in armoured warfare. In addition, German, allied and even neutral enterprises were outreached to develop the newly introduced hardware, and even to build, as it was the case with the tanks and the famous 88 mm AA/anti-tank gun (Chant, 1999; Guderian; 2007).

Smooth chain of command

The independence of movement and the room for the field commander’s own initiative is one of the proofs that the Prussian army was not entirely strict and inflexible, as well as the same General Staff. There is another proof that further evidences such flexibility: from von Gneisenau onwards, the general staff officers of the units were able to communicate directly with the head of the General Staff, even reporting directly to him and bypassing their most immediate commander (the commander of the units, following Klein (2001). Moreover, and according to Millotat (1992), position would weight more than the sole rank, with captains even being above high rank officers. This dynamic would take place not only in wartime, but also during peacetime. Later on, and under Von Moltke ‘the Elder’, the General Staff became very important, as the Chief of General Staff was able to attend important meetings where the Kaiser was present, and where important affairs where discussed, even being able to issue operational orders of his own (Klein, 2011).

The General Staff also connected the commander, his adviser or staff’s capacity to devise and execute plans, make use of forces and deploy them, and to make use of the geographical factors in his favour. All of this under the principle of flexibility as well. For instance, von Moltke considered that the planner – if he was the most skilled one – could effectively command the troops he would be able to mobilize, taking advantage of command and geography. Furthermore, ad hoc thinking was necessary in order to cope with the very unpredictable nature of war, considering how this nature would stretch pre-established plans. For example, it was required for the officers or commander not to base any movement on the assumption the adversary would do a predetermined move, as it would instead take an unexpected step. Therefore, the General Staff required capacity to react to such situations (Herwig, 1998). This, of course, meant that the commander and/or officer were to take unexpected steps of their own, taking advantage of the given uncertainty and flexibility when executing the war plans.

Von Seeckt went further, as he practically rejected an upside-down hierarchy, stressing instead that this structure was to be set aside, as combat was variable in nature with many different factors playing a role in the events’ evolution, as well as the very unpredictable will of the enemy (Murray & Millet, 2005).

In relation to the unpredictable nature of war, the General Staff also worked on grasping the uncertain nature of international politics, the changing circumstances and the identification of potential threats that would be emerging from that sea of chaos, allowing the definition of clear goals as Herwig (1998) explains.

These are what I consider the main characteristics that structured the General Staff, being also the main traits of its functioning on operational terms. However, the Prussian General Staff had other elements that shaped its work, being such of non-operational nature and located more at the philosophical, value and political spectre. Even the social composition of the General Staff – briefly mentioned here – defined its work and even its success. These elements and a brief discussion about themwill be focus of the next part.



[1] It is noteworthy to remind that Prussia was in a state of general stagnation, where reluctance to adapting, arrogance, and insistence on applying outdated tactics was the rule, along with bureaucratization (Schoy, n.d.; and Goerlitz, 1985).

[2] In detail, it was 3 years in the infantry, 4 years in the cavalry, 4 years in the reserve and 5 in the Landwehr, with the recruiting age being set at the age of 20. See: Cau, 2011, p.130.

[3] Education was, for instance, was another cornerstone of the Prussian Army, and indeed one that von Scharnhorst and other Prussian General Staff heads deemed important. But general education was also important, as most recruits were having basic education and higher levels, benefiting the tasks of officers to control, organize and supply the army (Kennedy, 2007).

[4] In fact, and following Klein (2001), von Moltke established the principle of “march separately, strike together”, where and in combination with state of the art weaponry back then, gave Prussia its remarkable victory at Königgrätz and the Franco-Prussian War. This also played into his minimalist approach on planning operations, the independence of command in war, and the mission oriented command (Klein, 2001).

[5] One patent example is Rommel, who in his memoirs states that officers of an armoured division must think and act independently, within the general plan and without waiting orders. See: Rommel, 2006, p.19.

[6] This fact alone does not explain the victories of Prussia and how the General Staff crafted them, as the reader must consider the other elements or characteristics of the General Staff (and the Prussian Army) here reviewed.

[7] Gunther (2012) even suggests that, as most chiefs of staff and primary advisors were not Junkers (noble landowners), their own independent actions were facilitated. On the other hand, detailed orders were deemed valueless as during operations, the situation could change unexpectedly and rapidly.

[8] Likewise, von Moltke considered that the commander was to be a person able to see through the ‘fog of war’ and grasp the real situation, taking quick decisions and executing them with efficiency and constancy, while considering his actions in an everchanging battlefield. See: Gunther, 2012, p.15.

[9] Gunther (2012) even considers that with the current advancements in military technology and communications, Auftragstaktik is still possible as a military principle. This is material for another discussion.

[10] Von Scharnhorst was clearly against promotion of officers on social background, connections or birth, according to Schoy (n.d.) and Millotat (1992).

[11] Experience was defined as important, at the point of being the basis of theory. Hence the equally importance of studying history for the officer’s judgement when it was needed to (Schoy, n.d.).

[12] Even victorious campaigns were subject to hard examination, as it was the case of the Franco-Prussian War, according to Herwig (1998).

[13] Von Scharnhorst in fact stated that “a properly instructed, theoretically and practically trained and practiced general staff is a necessary requirement for every power abroad” (as cited in Klein, 2001). This explains why the Prussian General Staff deemed important education and the implementation of the acquired knowledge via the framing of plans and executing war games and manoeuvres.

[14] See also: Bergamino & Palitta, 2015, p.209.



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Posted inDefence, Military History, Philosophy of the War, Security, Strategy, The Generals, The Warriors, The WeaponsTagged armoured warfare, Auftragstaktik, Helmuth von Moltke, military technology, Prussian General Staff, von Schlieffen, war games

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