Moltke and the Origins of the
Michael D. Krause
Is the operational level of war a discrete, integral dimension of military doctrine? Certainly Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, the famous Prussian officer who retired in 1888 after serving thirty years as chief of the general staff, considered it to be. Among the testimonials to his lifetime of dedicated service to his nation, many revere Moltke as the architect of German unification. He made possible the defeat of the Danes in 1864, the Austrians in 1866, and the French in 1870–1871, when Prussian- German armies achieved rapid and final victories over their enemies. Place names such as Königgrätz and Sedan have been immortalized as exemplars of set-piece battles, and German leaders of Moltke’s day credited him with designing and executing the campaigns that won those battles.
To astute students of military history, Moltke’s name signifies far more than a list of nineteenth-century battles. He recognized that in the years to come wars would be conducted differently from the way they were in his lifetime: as short, quick, and decisive conflicts. Instead, he predicted correctly that future wars would be lengthy and total. Still others have observed his contributions to the application of emerging technologies to the conduct of operations. He evaluated the increased lethality and range of rifle and artillery fires and realized the necessity of changing basic military doctrine accordingly. He perceived that offense would give way to the preponderance of defense on the tactical level; in his view enemy attacks of the future were destined to be shattered by a wall of German tactical firepower. Moltke also foresaw that mobility on the strategic level could be multiplied by employing railroads. He planned to utilize this mode of transport to speed German armies to the battlefield and thereby to concentrate overwhelming force at the right time and in the right place to ensure victory. Finally, by applying the telegraph to warfare, Moltke was able to direct large armies in the field from great distances, thereby enhancing strategic flexibility through what he would refer to as operational direction.
One hundred years ago, as today, there were controversies over the preponderance of attack versus defense or, in other words, over the emphasis on maneuver versus attrition. By contemporary standards Moltke
was an avid supporter of maneuver, particularly as a means of unhinging one’s adversaries, both psychologically and physically. At the same time he confronted the problem of defending a nation that was centrally located. Given its geo-strategic position on the European Continent, Germany could be attacked simultaneously from various approaches and by a combination of forces. Over Moltke’s lifetime he evolved a series of offense-defense war plans that focused on the destruction of enemy forces. He also became a proponent of the doctrine of deterrence, maintaining the means and will to wage war as an effective way of persuading one’s enemies not to attack. Like contemporary military planners, Moltke faced issues involving both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of technological change. Doctrine, in his view, had to provide the balance between the realities of the battlefield and the requirements for modernization; force structure was finite and dependent on human and materiel resources. Moreover, war — as well as campaign planning and execution — had to take into account political and economic factors. Theoretical differences over short war versus long war, defense versus offense, attrition versus maneuver, and attack versus defense were all debated in military circles in Moltke’s day just as they are in our own. Most important, Moltke as a leader and a perennial student of military history reconciled these debates, an achievement that led to his success in war.
Traditionally, the Germans are credited with delineating three levels of warfare: the strategic and tactical levels (as represented by the conduct of war and battle, respectively) and the operational level that Moltke conceptualized and situated between the conduct of war and battle. One way of considering the operational level and analyzing how it came into being is to seek answers to the following series of questions. What makes the operational level unique? Did Moltke recognize it as a distinct level? Is there a difference in applying the principles of war at the strategic and tactical levels as opposed to the operational level? Is this uniqueness, and hence its discovery, due to differences in the use of terrain, the employment of reserves, and the application of technology? How do functions such as intelligence, deception, maneuver, operational fires, and logistics relate to the operational level? Does the nature of command as applied to the operational level differ significantly from its role vis-à-vis the strategic and tactical level? The answers to each of these questions can be elucidated within the context of the career and writings of Field Marshal Moltke. By examining the origins of the operational level of war it can be demonstrated that there is something inherently different about this aspect of military doctrine. Moltke was the first to recognize this difference and introduced the term “operational direction” into the vocabulary of modern warfare.
The Education of a Field Marshal
Born in 1800 in the midst of an era dominated by the Napoleonic wars, Moltke served in the Danish Army before joining the Prussian Army. In 1826 he graduated from the newly established Prussian Allgemeine Kriegsschule (later renamed Kriegsakademie) after a brilliant showing in his examinations. Although he was a student during the tenure of Carl von Clausewitz, when Moltke listed the three professors who exercised the greatest influence over him, Clausewitz was not among them. Evidence that Clausewitz observed the future field marshal, however, is recorded on his report card — the officer efficiency report of his day — where the entry “exemplary” reflected the evaluation of his performance by Kriegsakademie Director Clausewitz. Later commentators on German military history have asserted that a causal link exists between Clausewitz’s writings, since he did not teach at the Kriegsakademie, and Moltke’s praxis. Yet it is only after Moltke’s victories that one finds reference to Clausewitz in his writings. While at the Kriegsakademie, Moltke witnessed a debate over its curriculum and purpose, a controversy that centered on whether the institution’s function should be training or education. For Clausewitz training was more important than education, a point on which others disagreed. During the time that Moltke matriculated at the Kriegsakademie, roughly 60 percent of the three-year curriculum was devoted to education and the balance comprised training.
Moltke’s formal education reinforced the value he placed on the study of military history, which he avidly pursued in order to learn the concepts that guided earlier commanders. He was also a serious campaign analyst, and his first published work was a campaign history of the Russo-Turkish war of 1828–1829.2 After leaving the Kriegsakademie, Moltke was detailed to the general staff on Germany’s eastern frontier, where he spent much of his time surveying and mapping. His appreciation of terrain grew enormously when he was posted as an adviser to the Turkish Army, a position that began as a sojourn and developed into a four-year adventure. Initially hired to map the defenses of Constantinople, Moltke journeyed to the far-flung borders of the Ottoman Empire, traveling through present-day Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt. The descriptions of these regions, which are found in his letters and travel writings, provide a vivid picture of the total environment that he encountered: the interaction of people, topography, productivity, and resources. He also saw action while serving as adviser to the Turkish commander during his campaign against Mehemet Ali of Egypt, who had revolted against the Sultan. Moltke recommended placing Turkish forces in a strong position, but his advice was ignored; the Turkish general was more attentive to the musings of the mullahs than the advice of a Prussian captain. As a result Moltke resigned as adviser and asked to be appointed commander of the
Turkish artillery, but the request came too late in light of the Sultan’s defeat at Nezib. Moltke shared in this defeat, but in the process learned the importance of terrain, training, planning, concentration of effort, and the massing of artillery firepower.
In December 1839, after four years abroad and tempered by the experience of defeat in action, Moltke returned home in broken health. When he left Berlin in 1834 he was said to already display the “courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, and sword.” On his return he also possessed a mind that had been expanded through a variety of new, demanding experiences in foreign climes. In recognition of his achievements in the service of the Sultan, Moltke was awarded Prussia’s highest military decoration, the Pour le Mérite. Posted once again to general staff duty, he served in Berlin and subsequently became aide to the crown prince, an assignment that afforded him an opportunity to gain considerable influence in higher military circles. As during other periods in his career, Moltke remained an autodidact, educating himself through continuous study and application of his readings to his professional situation.
Service on the general staff required Moltke to have two horses. In order to buy these mounts he sought an outside source of income and took on the formidable task of translating Edward Gibbon’s monumental twelve-volume classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He also wrote a novel and a number of travel works as well as reflections on his Turkish service and a campaign analysis of the defeat he had experienced. Both his travelogues and letters became best sellers and yielded enough money for him to obtain the proper mounts.3 The publication of Moltke’s letters and the images he captured in his writings were sufficiently romantic to win the heart of a young woman who, although unknown to this promising officer, had fallen in love with him. Eventually, however, they met, became engaged, and were married. As a couple, Maria Moltke and the future field marshal complemented each other very well, but heartbreakingly she died in 1868 before her husband’s operational genius was fully recognized and rewarded.
Moltke was a talented artist who drew many of the sights he saw as he traveled and chronicled his varied experiences in word pictures. His books are rich in sketches and other illustrations, which accurately complement the corresponding passages found in his narratives. Moltke’s ability as a surveyor and mapmaker also were impressive, and these were skills that he continued to rely on throughout his life. By traveling he grew to appreciate different regional cultures and national traditions, which he then studied with increasing interest. He was keenly aware of major political events and followed developments abroad such as the Polish Revolution, the Dutch and Belgian problems, and the Turkish-Russian war. Moltke also possessed an understanding of the growing role of technology in society. He studied and analyzed railroads, for instance, writing in such
a way as to demonstrate a technical mastery of the details of the subject; moreover, he applied his literary gifts to descriptions of the advent of steam and rail power.4 In our age such an accomplishment would be somewhat analogous to combining technical knowledge of rocketry and a vision of its future role in opening up the frontiers of space.
While Moltke’s career presented few opportunities for command, he served at regimental level in Silesia as aide to the crown prince. In 1842 he returned to Berlin and the general staff, where his advancement was relatively slow; it was only due to his association with the prince that he eventually was marked for promotion to general officer. By remaining a student of military affairs throughout much of his life, Moltke evolved a methodology that began by understanding a given problem, examining alternative solutions, and thinking through possible courses of action. This fostered a mental discipline that served him throughout his career and particularly in the conduct of operations. It allowed him to sift and weigh each course of action to arrive at an appropriate solution. In turn, he studied the modus operandi of opposing commanders and estimated what he would do in their places. Simply stated, Moltke learned to think through a problem. This required thorough study and concentration on problem solving in order for him to arrive at a decision. Then his gift of expression would come to the fore and enable him to convey his decision to those responsible for accomplishing the objective.
Furthermore, Moltke’s writings demonstrate his practical method of application. Contained in them are the analysis of the problem with assumptions, the evaluation of forces — or correlation of power — and the direct, continuous review of various courses of action. What is more, each of Moltke’s campaign staff rides followed this same deliberate, methodological approach.5 At the same time as Moltke was developing a methodology and applying it to operational directions in his native Prussia, military writers in the United States — like Arthur Wagner, Emory Upton, and Eben Swift — sought methods of campaign analysis and military problem-solving. Swift evolved the five-paragraph field order that is still used today and proposed a process of making estimates that was similar to Moltke’s own.
Moltke was a man of character: humble, taciturn, literate, and unassuming. He had vision, followed practical methods, displayed professional qualities grounded in an inner strength that generates the key to success in war: constancy of character. As he studied, wrote, and applied what he learned to his professional career, Moltke balanced a thorough knowledge of the past and a mastery of his own situation to achieve the outcome he desired.
Chief of the General Staff
In 1845 Moltke was named personal adjutant to Prince Henry of Prussia. While he was traveling with the prince in Italy, he surveyed Rome, which resulted in a map that was later published. In 1846 Prince Henry died and Moltke was posted to the staff of the Eighth Army Corps at Koblenz with headquarters at Magdeburg. He remained in this assignment for seven years and received two promotions, to lieutenant colonel in 1850 and to colonel in the following year. In 1855 he was appointed as first adjutant to Prince Frederick-Wilhelm (later regent and emperor) whom he accompanied on visits to England, France, and Russia. Prince Frederick-Wilhelm commanded a regiment at Breslau, and it was there that Moltke served for a year before being promoted to major general in 1856. In October 1857 King Frederick-Wilhelm IV became gravely ill and Prince Frederick-Wilhelm became regent. Within a few days, the prince regent selected Moltke for the post of chief of the general staff of the Prussian Army, an appointment that was confirmed in the New Year.
As chief of the general staff Moltke began his greatest period of activity. At fifty-seven years of age, he adopted strategic, operational, and tactical methods for a number of areas such as changes in armament, communication, and mobility; training and education of commanders and staff officers; preparation of campaign plans; and mobilization plans. In 1859 the Austrian-French-Italian war required mobilizing the Prussian Army, which revealed serious deficiencies. The subsequent reorganization of the army by the king and War Minister von Roon enabled them to nearly double its strength. Moltke followed the events of the Italian campaign closely and later published a history of this conflict.6 As early as December 1862 Moltke had been consulted on the political turmoil over Denmark, which was becoming acute. His approach to the situation focused on the war’s objective (Kriegsobjekt) — the defeat of Denmark — and the operational objective, namely the destruction of the Danish Army. Moltke’s written note to the War Minister and his subsequent operational campaign concept tied this political (war’s) objective to the operational objective.7 The principal difficulty that Prussia faced was defeating Denmark as quickly as possible. Moltke thought there would be difficulty in bringing war to a decisive conclusion since Danish forces could retire to offshore islands and, by controlling sea approaches, thereby avoid attack. His plan outlined a turning movement of the Danish Army before the Eider and Schleswig, which was keyed to intercept the retreating army. When the war began in February 1864 Moltke was not dispatched with the field armies but instead remained in Berlin. In his absence and as events unfolded, the plan was not properly executed and the Danes managed to escape to their fortresses of Düppel and Fredericia, each of which commanded a line of communication to an island.
Although Düppel was taken by storm and Fredericia abandoned by the Danes, the Prussian and Austrian armies were checked because the Danish Army retired farther to the islands of Alsen and Fünen just as Moltke had feared they might.
At the end of April Moltke took to the field as the chief of staff of the combined Prussian-Austrian forces commanded by Prince Frederick Karl. He planned to force a passage over the Sundewith and then attack the island of Alsen. After landing successfully, the Danes evacuated Alsen. Moltke next planned to land at Fünen, but it proved unnecessary because the Danes no longer felt secure on these islands and sued for peace. His appearance on the scene had rapidly transformed a siege war into one of maneuver, an outcome that cemented his relationship with the king: Moltke’s personal influence was in ascendancy.8 This campaign was important because Moltke foresaw the difficulty of attaining the political objective — the defeat of Denmark — without attaining the destruction of the Danish Army, which was his operational objective. Hence the concept of operations centered on the quick, flexible movement of Prussian forces to attain that end. He understood that the strategy for attaining the political objective would be controlled by the king. But as chief of the general staff, Moltke was capable of influencing the operational objective, a prerogative he exercised at his own discretion. Moreover, by introducing the terms operational concept and operational goal, Moltke started to distinguish the campaign from its purpose; he also began to delineate the strategic and operational levels.
Moltke’s Strategic Vision
Moltke studied the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon intensely, both as a student at the Kriegsakademie and then as a devotee of military history. Their methods of conducting campaigns taught him how Frederick had capitalized on the advantage of massed flank attack; the oblique order had been one of Frederick’s genuine innovations. From the French at Ulm and Bautzen, Moltke learned how Napoleon’s operational conduct consisted of envelopment of the flanks. At Jena, Napoleon the defeated the Prussian Army by conducting a flanking attack while holding the center. Napoleon’s concentration of mass and the ability to march his corps separately and concentrate before going into battle was a way of thinking not lost on the future field marshal of Prussia. Moltke also studied the combined campaigns of the allied forces at Leipzig and Waterloo. Moreover, drawing on his own military experience, Moltke remembered how the Turks were defeated because his advice regarding central position and the threat to the flanks had been ignored.
Strategy is studied through the experiences of the past, but while Moltke was not a disciple of Jomini, neither was he a follower of Clause-
witz. However, he had read On War after it appeared in limited circulation in 1832. Certainly, in Moltke’s view, the destruction of enemy forces meant destruction of an opponent’s center of gravity; more will be said on his strategic and operational thinking in due course. Moltke inferred that strategy was the practical art of adopting means to ends; as such, he developed and applied the methods of Frederick and Napoleon to the changing conditions that he faced. As the first to realize the strength of the defensive in light of modern weaponry, he believed an enveloping attack was stronger than a frontal one. Moltke also worked out a method of marching separately and concentrating upon the battlefield. He reasoned that only one army corps could move on a single road each day; if two or three corps were on the road at the same time it would mean that the second and third corps could not be made use of if the battle was to the front. Indeed, Moltke observed that concentrating several corps to a battle was “a calamity.” Multiple corps could not be fed for more than a day or two, and they would have a perilous time marching or moving. To Moltke, a large force must be broken up into manageable parts or armies; the commander should be authorized to regulate its movements and actions subject to instructions received from the commander-in-chief regarding the direction and purpose of the operations.
The campaign of 1866 illustrates Moltke’s strategic vision. The political objective was to exclude Austria from Germany. Shortly after taking office as chief of the general staff, he wrote that “the war between Austria and Prussia will draw all of Europe into the battle.”9 His basic concept of operation never changed insofar as the military objective was concerned: to defeat the Austrian Army. In plan after plan from 1860 to 1866, Moltke analyzed the strategic situation, evaluated the terrain, correlated forces, and then formulated a series of deployments.10 Central to Moltke’s force evaluation was splitting the Austrian effort so as to tie down their forces in northern Italy by employing the Italian Army. Moltke conferred with Bismarck on this issue a number of times. Only when a political-military alliance was made with Italy would the Prussian Army be able to engage the Austrians. If this precondition was met, then Moltke could risk denuding western Prussian territory in order to concentrate against Austria. The question was where to concentrate: Moltke worked on a number of options, all of which assumed not only an alliance with Italy but also resolute decisions on mobilization. Yet King Wilhelm of Prussia did not want to provoke Austria and bring about a German civil war that could have an uncertain outcome. Hence, while Moltke’s plans recognized the political and military objective, the real need was for rapid mobilization and the execution of a concentrated effort to ensure a short war. Moreover, Moltke had to work under constraints; for instance, relations between Prussia and its Rhine provinces had to be preserved, particularly since it was assumed that Bavaria and Saxony were allied with Austria.
While the crisis approached, during the spring of 1866, Moltke pressured for an early decision. His calculations showed the manpower stream to be advantageous between the eighteenth and forty-second day of mobilization. In a memorandum to the king, Moltke warned “that the chance of success or failure in the war rests on timely decisions being made here [Berlin] rather than Vienna. We do have the advantage of being able to use five rail lines to concentrate our Army on the Saxon-Bohemian border by the 25th day of mobilization.”11 Moreover, Moltke argued for a concentration of effort. There were two main groups of enemy forces: the Austro-Saxon armies of 270,000 men and the north and south German armies of 120,000. Although the Prussians were short 67,000 men, Moltke was determined to be superior to the Austro-Saxons when the decisive moment arrived. He allocated 278,000 men against the main threat and 48,000 to the western threat. While the king resisted such a division of Prussian forces, Moltke prevailed and under his continual prodding the small force in the west managed to knock out Hanover and Hesse in less than a fortnight.12 The use of the railways saved time, since five routes from the provinces of Prussia led to positions on the Zeitz-Halle-Görlitz-Schweidnitz line. By making use of each of these railways at the same time Moltke had several army corps moved from their garrisons to points on this line. When the move was completed the corps were formed into three armies: the Elbe Army near Torgau, the First Army of Prince Frederick Charles at the western end of Silesia, and the Second Army of Crown Prince Frederick located between Landeshut and Waldenburg.
After it was assembled the First Army marched eastward to Görlitz. The small Saxon army at Dresden now had the Elbe Army and the First Army on its right flank. The outnumbered Saxons, placed in an untenable position, fell back into Bohemia as soon as the fighting began. In Bohemia, they were joined by an Austrian corps, which formed an advance guard far to the front of the main Austrian Army now concentrated near Olmütz. The Elbe Army then marched toward Dresden, and moved to the right of the First Army. Prince Frederick Charles now commanded both armies. (See Map 2.)
This gave Moltke two armies about 100 miles apart. The problem was how to bring them together so as to catch the Austrians between them. If, as seemed likely, the Austrians moved upon Breslau, the First and Elbe armies could continue their eastward march to cooperate with the Second. But on June 15 Moltke came into possession of detailed intelligence on the Austrian order of battle in positions that were spread out at Wilden-Schwerdt, Olmütz, and Brunn. He calculated that they would be unable to concentrate their forces at Josephstadt in less than thirteen days. Accordingly, he determined to bring his own two armies together by directing them toward Gitschin. Moltke calculated that the Second Army
was likely to encounter portions of the Austrian army. The crown prince had over 100,000 men, and it was unlikely that the Austrians would be able to gather a stronger force to confront him in time. The order to advance to Gitschin was issued on 22 June and resulted in the great victory at Königgrätz.
The Austrians marched faster than Moltke expected. The Austrian commander Benedek centered his attention on the First Army and allocated only four corps against the crown prince. Even these were not under common command and were beaten, as were the Saxon and Austrian advance corps opposing Frederick Charles. On 1 July Benedek collected his already-shaken forces in defensive position before Königgrätz. Moltke’s two armies were now within marching distance of one another and the enemy. On 3 July they were brought into action, the First against the Austrian front and the Second against the Austrian right flank. The Austrian Army was completely defeated and the campaign decided, although an advance against Vienna was planned — but not needed — to bring about the peace terms that Prussia and Italy wanted. The night before the climactic battle, Moltke sent orders to the crown prince to attack the right Austrian flank the following morning. From a hilltop overlooking the frontal attack of the First Army, the Prussian high command anxiously awaited the crown prince’s attack. The king exclaimed: “Moltke, Moltke, we will lose this battle.” But Moltke calmly took a cigar from an equally nervous Bismarck and replied: “Your Majesty will not only win this battle but the entire campaign.”
Not satisfied with the results of the battle, Moltke tried to have the Elbe Army brought up the river above Königgrätz in order to prevent an Austrian retreat, but its commander failed to accomplish this. He also tried to prevent the First Army from pushing its attack, hoping in that way to keep the Austrians in their positions until the crown prince’s Second Army could cut off the avenues of retreat. But Moltke could not restrain the impetuosity of Prince Frederick Charles and the king. Also during the march on Vienna and Bismarck’s negotiations, Moltke was confident of defeating the Austrians as well as being able to deploy against France should Napoleon III enter the conflict.
A startled Europe acclaimed Moltke’s conduct of operations as brilliant. Concentration was achieved at the decisive point and the right time to annihilate the mass of enemy forces. Although Moltke termed Königgrätz his most “elegant victory,” he knew the outcome had been close. In planning the operation Moltke’s calculations were aided by an intimate knowledge of terrain, order of battle intelligence, and estimates of the mind of the enemy commander. He was surprised by the appointment of Benedek, since the Austrian commander was well known and respected for his abilities in northern Italy. Moltke commented on the Austrian order of battle next to Benedek’s name that he was “no commander-in-chief,
nor strategist; will want assistance in running an army.”13 On 30 June Benedek wrote to his wife about “this desperate situation [in which] in a few hours a great battle will be joined. I may never see you again. Better I should meet a bullet.” Benedek felt that he had been beaten before the battle began, while Moltke, by contrast, made unhesitating, confident decisions with the full backing of the king.
Among the many conclusions that Moltke drew from the campaign were that the infantry, artillery, and cavalry had not worked well together on the tactical level. He thought the cavalry had not satisfactorily performed its screening, security, and reconnaissance functions. Henceforth, each division and corps was to employ its cavalry in those functions rather than holding them back to carry out saber-wielding charges. The artillery had not been concentrated enough, had changed its position too frequently, and had lacked mass; in addition, it had kept its trains to the rear of the column and therefore usually ran out of ammunition during the culmination of the battle. While Moltke thought the infantry had fought well, he believed that they should be more flexibly handled. As far as operational conduct was concerned, Moltke thought commanders at higher levels did not know how to work with the combat arms. Accordingly, he commissioned a thorough study of the 1866 campaign, the results of which were astounding for a victorious campaign.
In July 1868 Moltke gave the king a highly sensitive memorandum on the results of the 1866 campaign. Moltke explained that he did not wish to criticize the specific units, but rather in an analytical way to learn from and improve their performance. He then spoke his mind: The cavalry must perform security and reconnaissance; the artillery must be concentrated; the infantry must not rely only on superior weaponry; order of battle must be standardized; and combined actions must be improved. Also, since he believed that cavalry was crucial for operational conduct, it must develop the situation. The artillery must be massed to provide fire support. The engineers in a war of maneuver must be used early and not left in the rear of the march column. Above all, commanders must be able to integrate the combined activities of the combat arms.14 The final part of this remarkable memorandum contains a critique of division and corps actions. The king’s marginal notes indicate his support of Moltke’s observations. In June 1869, under cover of a letter, the king returned the document, which led to the publication of a new regulation for the conduct of operations. Moltke was responsible for writing a large portion of this regulation, which opens with a rhetorical flourish, to wit:
Moltke argued that maneuvers of large units were valuable, but they must not be confused with the reality of war. He called for standardization of the order of battle for corps and divisions; he also stipulated what army commanders must do to make forces ready for war. He emphasized the need for cavalry at every level to perform security, screening, and reconnaissance. He included a cavalry division in the order of battle for a corps and indicated that it should be so placed in a march column as to be able to perform its functions. The same was advocated with regard to the location of artillery and engineers. Next Moltke dwelt on command relationships and the issuance of orders during the conduct of operations. “The demands on the operational commanders are such that he must conserve his energy to see the overall picture clearly and not get too immersed in detail.” Moltke was aware of the need for vision and encouraged the operational commander to husband his intellectual and physical energies. He recommended that:
Here Moltke’s view of operational direction clearly emerged as well as his concept of the conduct of operations. Security and reconnaissance, functions of cavalry, became all important to Moltke, so as to protect the main body and to gather information on the enemy’s main concentrations. Obviously, he was indicating his assessment of what had gone wrong in 1866 and also was questioning the validity of the historical function of the cavalry, the charge.18 The regulation recognized the value of infantry firepower and the advantage of the Prussian needle gun, a subject on which he had previously written.19 He envisioned a flexible working relationship among infantry, rangers, cavalry, and artillery.20 On balance, this new regulation was an unequivocal statement on the need for infantry, cavalry, and artillery to collaborate on the battlefield: combined arms functioning together. In particular, Moltke believed artillery should be massed to fire in concentration.21 According to Moltke, “the purpose of war is to accomplish the needs of policy through the use of combat.” This was a fair restatement of Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war was the continuation of politics by other means. Moltke continued: “Battle is the way to break the enemy’s will.” Although Moltke wrote about pursuit, he wanted battle to be used to achieve a distinct objective. “Only the destruction of the main forces of the enemy can lead to the realization of the main aims.” Therefore it must be recognized that both the purpose and the art of command differ when applied to large and small forces; what is right for one is not right for the other. Space and time have different meanings on the level of larger units as opposed to that of smaller units. For example, mobility, the personal intervention of commanders, and the meaning of terrain are different. Moltke thought it better to continue to emphasize the maintenance of initiative and momentum. There was a reaffirmation of the principle of marching to the sound of the guns.22
To recapitulate, it is rare for a victorious army to conduct a review of its action and attempt to improve upon the previous campaign. With considerable risk, Moltke took on this task so that the next campaign and war might be conducted more effectively. This regulation — and
what it revealed about Moltke’s thoughts — was truly remarkable: He began to distinguish levels, indicated that all arms must work together, called for higher direction in the conduct of a campaign, and dared to learn from a victorious campaign. Everything considered, it was significant because it overcame the tendency to succumb to the “victor’s disease.”
The Defeat of France
Whereas war began suddenly in 1870, the possibility of a conflict with France had been a factor in Moltke’s campaign planning almost continuously since he became chief of the general staff in 1857. A whole series of his plans are preserved and show the optimum arrangement of the Prussian-German forces for opening a campaign against the French. Preparations for the transportation of the army by railway were reviewed annually in order to adjust plans brought about by political conditions and the growth of the army as well as by improvements in the Prussian railway system. The success of 1866 strengthened Moltke’s position so that when in July 1870 the orders for mobilization of the Prussian and south German forces were issued, his plans were adopted. Five days later he was named chief of the general staff of the Army at the headquarters of his majesty the king for the duration of the war. This allowed Moltke to issue orders — with the king’s approval— that had the force of the king’s command authority.
Moltke’s plan was to assemble the entire army south of Mainz, whereby the army could best serve in defense of the whole frontier. Moltke planned for several eventualities. If the French should violate the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg and advance on the line from Paris to Cologne, then the German Army could strike at their flank. The Rhine itself — with the fortresses of Koblenz, Cologne (Köln), and Wesel — would be a serious obstacle in their front. If the French should attempt to invade southern Germany, a German advance up either bank of the Rhine would threaten French communications. Moltke expected that the French would be compelled by the direction of the railways to collect the greater part of their army near Metz, and a smaller portion near Strasburg. The Prussian-German forces were grouped into three armies: the First Army with 60,000 men under Steinmetz on the Moselle below Trier, the Second Army with 131,000 men under Frederick Charles centered at Homburg (with a reserve of 60,000 men behind it), and the Third Army with 100,000 men under Crown Prince Frederick centered at Landau. (See Map 3.) An additional three corps with approximately 100,000 men were kept separate from those three armies in order to constitute a considerable force in southeast Germany to guard against Austria’s acting in concert with France.
128 - 129
Should the French take the initiative before the German armies were prepared, as seemed likely, and advance from Metz in the direction of Mainz, Moltke would merely pull back a few miles closer to Mainz. This planned variant was actually adopted, even though the anticipated French invasion did not take place. Moltke’s operational plan called for the three advancing armies to make a right wheel so the First Army on the right would reach the banks of the Moselle opposite Metz while the Second and Third Armies pushed forward. The Third Army would defeat French forces near Strasburg, and the Second Army would strike at the Moselle near Pont-à-Mousson. If the French Army should be found during this advance in front of the Second Army, it would be attacked in front by the Second Army and in the flank by the First or the Third armies or both. If it should be found on or north of the line from Saarburg to Luneville, it could still be attacked from two sides by the Second and Third Armies working in unison. Moltke used the great right wheel to attack the principal French Army from such a direction as to drive it north and cut its communications with Paris. The fortress of Metz was to be observed, and the main German forces, after defeating the main French army, were to march on Paris.
This plan was carried out in broad outline, but the battle of Wörth was brought on prematurely. It did not lead to the capture of MacMahon’s army, which was the intention, but only to its defeat and hasty retreat to Chalons. Moltke also did not plan the battle of Spichern. He wanted to keep Bazaine’s army on the Saar until he could attack it with the Second Army in front and the First Army on its left flank while the Third Army brought up the rear. However, these unintended victories did not disconcert Moltke. He carried out his advance on Pont-à-Mousson, where he covered the Moselle with the First and Second Armies, then faced north and wheeled round, so that the effect of the battle of Gravelotte was to drive Bazaine into the fortress of Metz and cut him off from Paris.
Nothing shows Moltke’s insights and strength of purpose in a clearer light than his determination not to intervene in the attack on 18 August at a time when many strategists would have thought that an operational victory made a tactical victory unnecessary. King Wilhelm ordered this last local attack at Gravelotte, with heavy loss that Moltke blamed himself for not preventing. During the following night, Moltke decided to leave one army to guard Bazaine and Metz while setting out with the two other armies toward Paris. His southerly army led so that if MacMahon’s army should be found, the main blow might be delivered from the south and MacMahon would be driven to the north.
On 25 August MacMahon’s army was located while it was moving northeast to relieve Bazaine at Metz. When Moltke was satisfied with the accuracy of his intelligence, he ordered the German columns to turn to the north instead of west. MacMahon’s right wing was attacked at Beaumont while he attempted to cross the Meuse, which checked his advance
and forced him to gather his army at Sedan with difficulty. Here, the two German armies were brought up in order to completely surround the French. On 1 September the French Army was attacked and compelled to surrender.
After the capitulation of MacMahon’s army, Moltke resumed the advance on Paris, which was surrounded and invested. (See Map 4.) From then on his strategy and operational conduct is remarkable for its judicious economy of force, for Moltke was wise enough not to attempt more than was practicable with the means at his disposal. The surrenders of Metz and Paris were a matter of time. The problem was to continue to invest Paris while maintaining the ability to ward off the attacks of new French armies levied for the purpose of raising the siege. Metz surrendered in October 1870, and an armistice was reached at the end of January 1871 whereby Paris and its garrison became virtual prisoners. The war was over and a treaty of peace was signed in May of that year.
The siege of Paris had lengthened the war. Chancellor Bismarck was concerned that the delay in ending the conflict would lead the other powers, especially Britain and Austria, to enter the war against Germany. Moreover, Bismarck thought that Moltke suffered from a case of the “slows” that, in a rare show of temper, provoked Moltke to accuse Bismarck of interfering in the conduct of operations where politics should have no business. Moltke raised this issue with King Wilhelm, who sided with the chancellor and argued that the conduct of strategy governed the conduct of operations.23
Toward a Theory of Operational Conduct
In 1871 Moltke wrote a short, theoretical “Essay on Strategy” that contains his much-quoted statement on the concept of strategy and operational conduct:
132 - 133
Herein lies Moltke’s theory of operational conduct. Contained in this short essay is the concept of strategic aim, and the operational direction to accomplish it. Will, education, planning, and constancy: these were the main themes as Moltke saw it.
“Theoretical knowledge will not of itself lead to victory, but it cannot be ignored”; so Moltke quotes the German military theorist Willison. He continues: “From knowledge to doing is just one step, but from knowing to doing is a giant leap. The best lessons for the future are drawn from our own experience; but since this may be meager, we must use the study of the military historical experience of others.”25 Moltke did not write theory and his “Essay on Strategy” is an exception to the rule. The essay was revised in a number of iterations in various publications and, like Moltke’s
other writings on strategy and the conduct of operations, represented one of the vehicles that he used to convey his thoughts on these subjects.
These writings were closely associated with Moltke’s view of himself as an educator; he saw himself as teacher, mentor, and guide to the entire Prussian-German officer corps. Among his duties was the educational development and training of officers at the Kriegsakademie, where a careful balance between education and training was observed. The curriculum included military history, practical application, and theory. This integrated approach centered on the applicatory technique, learning through doing, but was built on a strong theoretical foundation. Moltke expanded on this technique, not only at the Kriegsakademie, but also throughout the general staff. All officers were tested using the technique of the campaign staff ride. Officers attending the Kriegsakademie were expected to take part in various staff rides, which culminated with Moltke’s personally conducting a campaign staff ride for the members of the graduating class. He would conclude each of these staff rides by offering his own observations, which subsequently were published. Officers were expected to be cross-trained in the various combat arms so that they could plan full maneuvers of corps-size units. (An equivalent approach among the United States officers would require senior service college graduates to plan maneuvers for military units from services other than their own.)
Thus, officers who had been educated and trained at the Kriegsakademie continued to be exposed to Moltke’s educational program. As chief of the general staff, he conducted yearly staff rides for senior officers; each campaign staff ride presented an operational problem either of historical origins or as spelled out in Prussian and German defense requirements. In addition, both historical and current problems were tested in the field to emphasize an overall concept with a special situation. These staff rides did not provide military missions, but rather required working out the missions and their execution. Moltke forged a spirit of initiative, timeliness, and decision-making in the participants. Rarely — perhaps never — would Moltke give an approved solution.
Another pedagogical device that Moltke used was the tactical map problem. This could be conducted either on a tabletop or the terrain, using either historical or current practical problems. The purpose of these problems was to teach and test doctrine with battlefield experience. Moltke drew on historical studies to emphasize the experience he had gained from others. This was not a simple matter of lessons learned, but rather lessons that as yet had not been learned. Moltke believed in the value of a commonsense approach to acquiring experience; he changed the focus of military history at the Kriegsakademie from Frederick and Napoleon to more contemporary issues. He commissioned and personally wrote portions of the histories of the wars of 1859, 1864, 1866, and 1870–1871. In
addition, Moltke required that wars other than those fought by Germany be studied in detail, including the Russo-Turkish war of 1878–1879. He brought the military history section of the general staff alive with special historical studies and other activities that chronicled and analyzed all manner of military campaigns.
Perhaps most importantly, he established campaign planning — or the imagination of future war — as a field of military specialization in its own right. These plans were based on analyses of the experience of others coupled with the requirements of the present to achieve success in future war. Moltke practiced his brand of mentorship in this area and Prusso-German campaign plans contained operational objectives. He would reevaluate each aspect of a campaign plan in order to test his concept. Moltke’s theoretical construct of the why and the how of waging war came from this medium. After Moltke’s death in 1891, the German General Staff codified these practical writings in three volumes entitled War Studies: The Operational Preparations for Battle, The Tactical Preparations for Battle, and The Battle. The first volume, War Studies, contains separate sections on war policy in peace and war, the roles of strategy and policy, the relationship between war’s object and the operational objective, operational planning, high level command, operational basis, flank position, and fortresses, railroads, telegraph, and logistics, as well as examples drawn from recent European military history. The Tactical Preparations for Battle covers order of battle, transmission of orders, security and reconnaissance, marches, concentration, termination, and historical examples. In The Battle — the third and last volume — there is a reworked version of Moltke’s “Essay on Strategy” and also sections devoted to battle and battle characteristics, disengagement, retreat and pursuit, lucky and unlucky commanders, and historical examples.
In all he did, Moltke differentiates between war’s object and the operational objective. In most cases the operational objective is the destruction of the enemy’s army, whereas war’s object may be the occupation of the enemy’s capital or more limited objectives. He cited the illustration of the Danish war, when the siege at Düppel was lifted by assault although Jutland was not immediately invaded and the 1866 war, when the army did not continue its advance because of a political decision. In Moltke’s view, “no operational plan reaches out with certainty beyond the first engagement with the enemy.”
His plans did not neglect things such as weather and included other inadvertent occurrences such as accidents, etc. Moltke described his concept of planning by turning to those campaigns in which he had a hand, most significantly, the 1870 campaign that underwent changes from its outset. The zone of concentrations for the three armies was to have been close to the border, but because the French mobilized quickly, if only
partially, Moltke was compelled to move back toward the Rhine. That meant moving the First Army to Saarlouis-Merzig, the Second Army to Völkling, Saarbrücken, and Saargemund, and the Third Army to Landau and Karlsruhe — with the reserve forces moving to Homburg- Zweibrücken and Kaiserslautern as previously noted. In particular, the concentration of the Second Army had to be pushed back. While many changes had to be made, Moltke maintained the overall goal, namely, the separation of the French Army by pushing them northward and away from Paris, which was the transportation hub as well as the capital of France. The changing circumstances prompted Moltke to offer the following advice: “It is a delusion, when one believes that one can plan an entire campaign and carry out its planned end.… The first battle will determine a new situation through which much of the original plan will become inapplicable.”26
Moltke took advantage of each new situation as he went into battle. His general ideas kept him focused, but flexible. War had a great deal of chance in it. One clear advantage upon which Moltke counted in his operational planning was a German-Prussian superiority of numbers. He calculated in his winter 1868–1869 operational plan that the German forces would face only 250,000 men while, with North German Tenth Corps, his forces would number 330,000; in addition, Moltke comments that by July 1870 another 70,000 men would be added from the South German states for a total of some 400,000.
As a planner, Moltke neither made allowances for a reserve force nor employed a reserve. But in distinguishing between the concept of directing forces from a higher level in the field, he permitted the higher level to hold forces back while also stressing that operational forces must be committed. For example, on the strategic level, Moltke initially held back forces in 1866 in the Western Prussian Rhenish Provinces to deter the French, and subsequently he held back a relatively large number of troops in 1870 in southeastern Germany to deter the Austrians. While these forces were held back, they were intended to be used in the operational conduct of the war. For once the enemy intentions and capabilities were determined and deployment occurred, there were no forces remaining to serve as a reserve. The successful integration of two or three armies was accomplished in such a way that there was never the need to hold back a reserve. Properly analyzing and calculating force requirements in order to achieve concentration in both time and space made a reserve redundant. On the strategic level, Moltke considered the ability to generate forces and to reconstitute them as tantamount to maintaining a reserve; on the operational level, he used all the forces available since he was of the opinion that once they were concentrated “great results must follow.”
Moltke constantly pointed to the unexpected or unplanned, however, advising that:
Accordingly, he taught repeatedly that “strategy is a system of expedients.” There is a difference between war’s object and the operational objective; the latter may be the destruction of the enemy force but, nonetheless, the task of strategy is to determine the operational conduct of the war. In this line of reasoning one comes to grips with the way in which Moltke differentiated the three levels of war.
Moltke’s method of teaching followed from his appreciation of the operational concept. He was convinced that a mistake in the plan of concentration would not be corrected throughout the entire course of a campaign. But with proper planning — carried out through training, organization, adequate transportation, etc. — all elements of a campaign would come together and result in success.
This led Moltke to conclude by repeating Napoleon’s axiom, “I never plan beyond the first battle.”29
By calculating the will of the commander Moltke began to tie together the object, the strategy for the attainment of this object through operations, and the tactical conduct of battle. He adhered to the follow-
ing concept of operational conduct: an objective on the political level with the strategy to achieve this objective. Yet the operational objective must be to destroy enemy forces and thereby break the will of the enemy through battle. One must not only prepare forces for battle, but also prepare plans of operation which explore the hypotheses of enemy action. Skill and art are requisites for the commander, force calculations must be made, hypotheses have to be reexamined, and then vision and constancy in that vision must be maintained while executing the objective.
Moltke continued to educate officers on the conduct of operations through the war college, military history, campaign staff rides, and security problems. The chief of the general staff thereby schooled the German general staff to think through the problem of attaining the end of strategy through the conduct of operations. He used this operational conduct as a level for achieving the strategic goal.
“March separately and concentrate on the battlefield” was Moltke’s dictum. What did he mean? Napoleon marched separately, then concentrated before battle; Frederick marched massed. Moltke viewed concentration of force as planned to accomplish a set objective. If it held no purpose, it was “a calamity.” Size, time, space, and mass entered into the equation. The size of the force increased greatly during Moltke’s tenure. The time to mobilize and deploy the force decreased through preparedness, use of railways, etc. Massing had to be purposeful and to result in battle; moreover, it had to be done in such a way that the preponderance of force arrived at the right time and in the right place to produce victory in battle. Bringing the force from afar, and in a timely way, with enough mass to hold and overcome the opponent so as to defeat him in battle was therefore the essence of operational conduct. Moltke did not make too much of his dictum as a contribution to the art of operational conduct. By contrast, his contemporaries thought that it was a new secret for operational success and anointed Moltke as the most modern Napoleon. Contemporary observers argued that Moltke improved upon Napoleon’s methods, but Moltke’s methods simply recognized that there were different levels of war. The concentration of force must lead to battle and have the operational aim of destruction of the enemy force to support strategy.
Recognizing the defensive as the stronger form of warfare, Moltke held that firepower had made tactical attack costly; it was better to let the enemy attack first and after they are shattered to counterattack. On the strategic level, mobility was so increased that Clausewitz’s evaluation of the strength of the defensive had been reconfirmed. Hence Moltke’s evaluation of operational conduct as forcing the offensive, in other words, both tactical and strategic forms of warfare were stronger in the defensive. His statement on marching separately and uniting on the battlefield focused attention on the seam between the two stronger forms of war. Operational
conduct would unhinge this strength and create a new situation; this was what constituted the uniqueness of the operational level.
Moltke believed in the value of flanking positions. In view of the strength of the defensive, a frontal attack was too costly. Hence he continued the practice of finding flanking positions. His campaign plans, staff rides, and historic examples attempted to create situations in which the flanks were open, particularly when the size of the force was such that a continuous line confronted an attacker. Moltke recognized that operational conduct was to attack with advantage of time through space to create open flanks. Moltke combined the capability of railways to enable his forces to concentrate faster than those of the enemy did and hence use of this form of transportation made the initial calculation of operational conduct possible.
The phrase “march separately and concentrate on the battlefield” thus signified the concept of time, mass, and space, as well as the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Moltke also stated:
The Concept of Operational Direction
While the king commanded the Prussian Army, Moltke issued directives. During the 1870 war, Moltke was authorized to issue orders in the name of the king. Moltke’s concept of operational direction was recognition of, and became the substance of, the operational level of war. Directive authority demanded a different approach to the conduct of operations; it was inherent in the organizational nature of the general staff. After the defeat at Jena, the general staff was formed to guard against royal and princely incompetence. The war planner advised the commander in execution of the plan of operation. Spencer Wilkinson, the British military critic, described the German general staff as the “brain of an Army.”31 The general staff at levels down through division knew the intent of the operation and, through a system of rotational assignments at unit level and with the main staff in Berlin, were guaranteed to have knowledge of the concept of operations. Thus Moltke educated and trained an entire generation of officers.
The size of Moltke’s staff astonished Phil Sheridan, the American general and Civil War commander, who in 1870 met Moltke overlooking Gravelotte as he provided direction to his forces. In particular, General Sheridan was struck by Moltke’s grasp of the situation and ability to brief
him in fluent English as well as by the small number of officers located in his headquarters. Moltke had no more than fifteen officers with him to conduct the campaign against the French, and there were no more than eighty-five assigned to the entire general staff including those who served at army corps levels. For his part, Sheridan went on to observe Sedan and the beginning of the siege of Paris; in both instances, the size of Moltke’s staff remained constant, with the chief of the general staff assisted most of the time by only two or three officers.32 It was this limited size of the general staff that enabled its officers to effectively carry out their tasks. General staff members were able to gain insights directly from their contact with Moltke and then accurately convey his intentions to army and corps levels. Therefore, relationships developed between the general staff and individual commanders, which were neither formal nor highly structured; members of the general staff were not looked upon as authoritarian figures or demigods as they were to be depicted in later periods in German history. The combined efforts of a small, multifaceted staff whose members were capable of performing interchangeable duties and a common perception of the overarching concept of operational direction were hallmarks of Moltke’s method.
Operational direction is a methodology of command used to carry out the strategic objective. It holds to the aim of breaking the will of the enemy commander through the destruction of his army. Its keynote is flexible direction. Moltke’s concept of operational direction may be illustrated by an analogy of horse and rider. “Loose reins” are used when general direction is sought; when dressage or exact turns and maneuvers are demanded, then “tight reins” are used. After a period of working together, horse and rider will feel each other so that signals from rider to horse and vice versa are understood and acted upon. Again “loose reins” and “tight reins” are used, but now both horse and rider understand the intent of what is needed. Moltke used this concept in operational direction.
During the 1866 campaign neither First nor Second Army commanders understood the concept of operations. Moltke used a tight-rein concept to maneuver both armies, then had trouble restraining the First Army from attacking while prodding the Second Army to move quicker. In 1870 both commanders knew Moltke’s intent and acted accordingly. In 1866 General Steinmetz received loose-rein instructions from Moltke; but in 1870 not even a tight rein kept Steinmetz from bolting. Moltke, with the king’s permission, fired Steinmetz.
Communications obviously contributed to Moltke’s style of executing operational direction. Moltke warned against the imposition of “a telegraph wire in the back of an operational commander.” Moltke used a short, crisp, telegraphic style to issue directions. The most important of them were usually amplified through written messages delivered in the form of dispatches. In the 1870 campaign the Prussian command
authorities were the king, chancellor, war minister, and Moltke himself, all located in Mainz. From there they were in a good position to observe and direct the unfolding campaign. As a rule Moltke relied on the loose-reins approach: operational direction with intent and guiding position throughout the campaign.
When great success was anticipated, Moltke used the tight-reins approach with very specific orders, even if it meant overruling the independence of the army commander. He continually emphasized in these detailed orders adherence to and an understanding of the concept of operations. Moltke orchestrated the movement of three armies in consonance with this concept. In 1870 the border crossings were left to the army commanders, but when large French forces were encountered he would unhesitatingly introduce closer and closer coordination, even down to corps level: this was a very tight rein. For instance, Moltke instituted oral explanations by general staff officers to amplify telegraphic and written orders. This tight rein did not extend to forces engaged in battle. Once the battle was joined Moltke did not give operational directions on the tactical level.
Moltke was well aware of the utility of his method and discussed the commander’s relationship with command authorities at the national level in the following terms:
Fortunately, this is not the kind of relationship that Moltke had with King Wilhelm, Chancellor Bismarck, and War Minister Albrecht von Roon. Moltke then turned to where the nation’s command authorities should be located with respect to the operational commander: “It is always very easy to give positive orders from afar. If the highest political authority is not with the Army, then that authority must give the operational commander a free hand. War cannot be waged from the ‘green table.’ Decisive decisions can only be weighed.”34
Moltke enjoyed a positive relationship with the king, chancellor, and war minister, as previously noted. In the wars of 1866 and 1870, they were together for a greater part of the campaign and Moltke’s operational direction was not encumbered by their presence. One noticeable fracture in this relationship of trust between Wilhelm, Bismarck, Roon, and Moltke occurred over the bombardment in the siege of Paris. (Some modern historians have argued that it was at this point that Moltke “invented” the operational level of war to keep interfering command au-
thorities from meddling in the conduct of operations.) Moltke believed this to be the precondition for operational direction: Trust must exist for operational direction to be effective. Moltke further commented:
Had a relationship of trust not existed among the so-called counselors — who were nineteenth-century equivalents of today’s National Command Authorities — then the operational commander in Moltke’s day could not have been effective. Moltke required the operational commander to be given both independence of action and flexibility. The selection of this commander is highly significant, Moltke noted, since “[he] not only stands in front of political authority, but before his own conscience and that of all his people.… Even so the highest commander is best the King because he places everything at risk and is in overall command.” Moltke went on to observe that:
Moltke pointed to the Danish war, when restrictions were placed on the operational commander. When these restrictions were removed, operational freedom finally yielded results. “Political authority should grant operational freedom of action and only at times point out the risks of a given operation.”37 Thus, operational direction meant separation from political authority and higher levels of military authority; it held that trust, flexibility, and freedom of action were required to achieve the military objective. As understood by Moltke, it also signified the practice of loose and tight reins and an implicit recognition of the three levels of war.
One hundred years ago the face of war changed. Moltke recognized this change and the effect it would have on short war as he had practiced it in his career. The last campaign in which he played a decisive role resulted in the capitulation of France. Yet, even though the French Army
had been defeated at Sedan, the war continued because the French nation refused to admit defeat. New armies continued to be trained to oppose the Prussian invader; the Prussians besieging Paris were themselves attacked. The dispute between Bismarck and Moltke over the conduct of the siege gets to the heart of the matter; and Moltke understood this all too well when he quoted a letter from Clausewitz to Müffling: “It is the task of strategy to prevent policy from requiring of it those tasks which are against the nature of war, that because of not knowing about the working of the [military] instrument, will bring about failure in its utilization.”38
Moltke regarded Bismarck’s insistence on the bombardment of Paris as demanding that the military instrument be employed to do what it could not accomplish. He argued that Bismarck was meddling in operational matters, but the king was of another mind and ordered Moltke to bombard Paris.39 Even with the bombardment, the war continued. Moltke recognized that greater and greater strength would be required and requested raising one hundred new battalions for continuation of the war. Fortunately, the raw French levies were defeated before equally untested German troops were called upon to fight, and an armistice was negotiated whereby France acknowledged defeat.
The field marshal realized that he was seeing a new form of warfare: no longer a cabinet war but the beginning of national, total war. When a young general staff officer, Colmar von der Goltz, published his history of the Franco-Prussian war under the title of The Nation in Arms, Moltke knew his concept of war had been validated. But Goltz was posted to a remote assignment and fate denied him the opportunity to succeed Moltke. But Moltke worked thereafter toward deterring war.40 Strengthening the German Army could deter conflict, especially with France, and his campaign plans illustrated this point. In May 1890, near the end of his life, Moltke issued the following warning:
He recognized the necessity to enter into the seam between strategy and tactics, knowing that strategy inherently had dual purposes: political and military. Tactics were purely military, and operations were designed to
carry out purely military objectives and hence were the exclusive domain of the operational commander.
In recognizing that the seam or threshold between the strategic and the tactical levels was bound up in the conduct of operations, Moltke centered his operational theory on the simple idea of marching separately and uniting on the battlefield. This was an act that demanded orchestration and direction, planning and understanding, trust and flexibility. The more Moltke came to accept the concept of operational direction, the greater was his ability to carry out the strategic aim of campaigns such as those of 1866 and 1870. Subsequent campaign plans and staff rides demonstrated the continual growth of this concept of operational direction. Moltke separated the strategic aim from the attainment of the operational goal; his methodology for achieving the operational goal was to direct military forces toward that goal. He spent a lifetime educating and training both himself and others to realize this goal.
Instinctively, he recognized the profound significance of this third level — the operational level — situated between the strategic and tactical levels. By making this distinction, war on the strategic level was strengthened; Moltke indicated this awareness in his campaign plans. Of the two forms of war, offense and defense, defense was the stronger according to Clausewitz. Moltke accepted the validity of Clausewitz’s statement on the tactical level. The question then became one of how to engage in the offensive: the answer was on the operational level.
Technological advances combined to bolster Moltke’s development of war on the operational level as railroads increased strategic mobility and aided in the conduct of offensive operations. The telegraph helped to direct units coming together on the battlefield. Increased firepower contributed to tactical defense. Moltke’s operational conduct utilized tactical defense in conjunction with operational offense to unhinge the opponent by flank attack. Geography, weather, and luck all became factors in operational planning and direction. Education and training were central to Moltke’s promotion of the operational level. It was Schlieffen who later attempted once again to combine the strategic with the operational. His method sought to combine the strategic goal with the operational, thereby replacing Moltke’s inherently flexible operational direction with precise, detailed planning and control. But that is another chapter in military history, beyond the scope of this examination of Moltke and the origins of the operational level of war.
Decisive battles, short wars, maneuver, the planning and execution of campaigns, and education of the officer corps: these are the elements of Moltke’s contribution to military thought. Does the legacy of Moltke’s career and writings hold within it the origins of the operational level of war, either in theory or practice? Certainly he did not formulate an elaborate theoretical hierarchy of relationships among the strategic, op-
erational, and tactical levels of war. But Moltke implicitly recognized the fact that strategy has political content while operations have a military basis. At the risk of stating the obvious, Moltke practiced the conduct of operations and his practice resulted in the destruction of enemy forces.
Return to Table of Contents