Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

For the German general at the start of the First World War, see Helmuth von Moltke the Younger. For the German resistance figure of the Nazi era, see Helmuth James Graf von Moltke.
Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke
Nickname(s) Moltke the Elder
The Great Silent One (Der große Schweiger)
Born (1800-10-26)26 October 1800
Parchim, Mecklenburg-Schwerin
Died 24 April 1891(1891-04-24) (aged 90)
Berlin, German Empire
Allegiance Denmark–Norway
 Kingdom of Prussia
 German Empire
Service/branch Prussian Army
Imperial German Army
Years of service 1819–88
Rank Field Marshal
Battles/wars Second Schleswig War
Austro-Prussian War
Franco-Prussian War
Battle of Nezib
Awards see below

Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf[1] von Moltke (26 October 1800, Parchim, Mecklenburg-Schwerin – 24 April 1891, Berlin) was a German Field Marshal. The chief of staff of the Prussian Army for thirty years, he is regarded as 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.

Early life

Moltke was born in Parchim, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, son of the Danish Generalleutnant Friedrich Philipp Victor von Moltke (1768–1845). In 1805, his father settled in Holstein, but about the same time was left impoverished when the French burned his country house and plundered his town house in Lübeck, where his wife and children were during the Fourth Coalition. Young Moltke therefore grew up under difficult circumstances. At nine he was sent as a boarder to Hohenfelde in Holstein, and at age eleven went to the cadet school at Copenhagen, being destined for the Danish army and court. In 1818 he became a page to the king of Denmark and a second lieutenant in a Danish infantry regiment.

At twenty-one Moltke resolved to enter the Prussian service, in spite of the loss of seniority. In 1822 he became a second lieutenant in the 8th Infantry Regiment stationed at Frankfurt (Oder). At twenty-three, he was allowed to enter the general war school (later called the Prussian Military Academy), where he studied the full three years and passed in 1826.

As a young officer

For a year Moltke had charge of a cadet school at Frankfurt an der Oder, then he was for three years employed on the military survey in Silesia and Posen. In 1832 he was seconded for service on the general staff at Berlin, to which he was transferred in 1833 on promotion to first lieutenant. He was at this time regarded as a brilliant officer by his superiors, including Prince William, then a lieutenant-general.

Max Boot says of Moltke in his War Made New:

Moltke loved music, poetry, art, archaeology, and theater. He knew seven languages (German, Danish, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish). He was a prolific artist who filled sketchbooks with landscapes and portraits, as well as a popular author...his account of travels in Turkey, released after his return to Berlin in 1840 and illustrated with his own drawings, turned him into a literary celebrity, a role that he embraced by donning a Turkish fez and giving public lectures...For all his catholicity of interests, Moltke was no closet liberal. He was a nationalist to the core who was appalled by the liberal revolutions that swept Europe on 1848. He placed his faith in the king and the forces of the old regime.

Moltke was well received at court and in the best society of Berlin. His tastes inclined him to literature, to historical study and to travel. In 1827 he had published a short romance, The Two Friends. In 1831 he wrote an essay entitled Holland and Belgium in their Mutual Relations, from their Separation under Philip II to their Reunion under William I. A year later he wrote An Account of the Internal Circumstances and Social Conditions of Poland, a study based both on reading and on personal observation of Polish life and character.

In 1832 he contracted to translate Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire into German, for which he was to receive 75 marks, his object being to earn the money to buy a horse. In eighteen months he had finished nine volumes out of twelve, but the publisher failed to produce the book and Moltke never received more than 25 marks.

Service with the Ottoman Empire

In 1835 on his promotion as captain, Moltke obtained six months leave to travel in south-Eastern Europe. After a short stay in Constantinople he was requested by the Sultan Mahmud II to help modernize the Ottoman Empire army, and being duly authorized from Berlin he accepted the offer. He remained two years at Constantinople, learned Turkish and surveyed the city of Constantinople, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. He travelled through Wallachia, Bulgaria and Rumelia, and made many other journeys on both sides of the Strait.

von Moltke (left) advises Ottoman commander Hafiz Pasha at Nezib

In 1838 Moltke was sent as adviser to the Ottoman general commanding the troops in Anatolia, who was to carry on a campaign against Muhammad Ali of Egypt (for details see Ali's rebellion.) During the summer Moltke made extensive reconnaissances and surveys, riding several thousand miles in the course of his journey. He navigated the rapids of the Euphrates and visited and mapped many parts of the Ottoman Empire. In 1839 the army moved south to fight the Egyptians, but upon the approach of the enemy the general refused to listen to Moltke's advice. Moltke resigned his post of staff officer and took charge of the artillery. In the Battle of Nezib (modern-day Nisibis) on 24 June 1839, the Ottoman army was beaten. With great difficulty Moltke made his way back to the Black Sea, and thence to Constantinople. His patron, Sultan Mahmud II, was dead, so he returned to Berlin where he arrived, broken in health, in December 1839.

Once home Moltke published some of the letters he had written as Letters on Conditions and Events in Turkey in the Years 1835 to 1839. This book was well received at the time. Early the next year he married a young English woman, Maria Bertha Helena Burt, the daughter of John Heyliger Burt esq of St. Croix in the Danish West Indies, who married his sister Augusta. It was a happy union, though there were no children.

In 1840 Moltke had been appointed to the staff of the 4th Army Corps, stationed at Berlin and he published his maps of Constantinople, and, jointly with other German travellers, a new map of Asia Minor and a memoir on the geography of that country. He became fascinated by railroads and he was one of the first directors of the Hamburg-Berlin railway. In 1843 published an article What Considerations should determine the Choice of the Course of Railways?.

In 1845 Moltke published The Russo-Turkish Campaign in Europe, 1828-1829; this book was also well received in military circles. Also in that year he served in Rome as personal adjutant to Prince Henry of Prussia, which allowed him to create another map of the Eternal City (published in 1852). In 1848, after a brief return to the General Staff in Berlin, he became Chief of the Staff of the 4th Army Corps, of which the headquarters were then at Magdeburg, where he remained seven years, during which he rose to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel.

In 1855 Moltke served as personal aide to Prince Frederick (later Emperor Frederick III). He accompanied the prince to England (for his marriage), as well as to Paris and to Saint Petersburg for the coronation of Alexander II of Russia.

Chief of the Prussian General Staff and Great General Staff

In 1857 Moltke was given the position Chief of the Prussian General Staff, a position he held for the next 30 years (though after the establishment of the German Empire, the Prussian General Staff's title was changed to "Great General Staff", as it would have overall direction of the various German armies during war[2]). As soon as he gained the position he went to work making changes to the strategic and tactical methods of the Prussian army; changes in armament and in means of communication; changes in the training of staff officers (such as instituting staff rides); and changes to the method for the mobilization of the army. He also instituted a formal study of European politics in connection with the plans for campaigns which might become necessary. In short, he rapidly put into place the features of a modern general staff.

In 1859 the Austro-Sardinian War in Italy caused the mobilization of the Prussian army, though it did not fight. After the mobilization, the army was reorganized and its strength was nearly doubled. The reorganization was the work not of Moltke but of the Prince Regent, William, and the Minister of War, Albrecht von Roon. Moltke watched the Italian campaign closely and wrote a history of it (published in 1862). This history was attributed on the title-page to the historical division of the Prussian staff (yet another first in military affairs).

In December 1862 Moltke was asked for an opinion upon the military aspect of the quarrel with Denmark. He thought the difficulty would be to bring the war to an end, as the Danish army would, if possible, retire to the islands, where, as the Danes had the command of the sea, it could not be attacked. He sketched a plan for turning the flank of the Danish army before the attack upon its position in front of Schleswig. He suggested that by this means its retreat might be cut off.

War with Denmark

When the Second Schleswig War began in February 1864, Moltke was not sent with the Prussian forces, but kept at Berlin. His war plan was mismanaged and the Danish army escaped to the fortresses of Dybbøl and Fredericia, each of which commanded a retreat across a strait to an island. Dybbøl and Fredericia were besieged, Dybbøl taken by storm, and Fredericia abandoned by the Danes without assault – but the war showed no signs of ending. The Danish army was safe on the islands of Als and Funen.

On April 30, 1864, Moltke was sent to be chief of the staff for the allied (German) forces. After a two-month armistice, the German army attacked the Danes in the island of Als (June 29). The Danes evacuated Als and shortly thereafter agreed to the German peace terms. Moltke's appearance on the scene had transformed the war, and his influence with the king had acquired a firm basis. Accordingly, when in 1866 the quarrel with Austria came to a head, Moltke's plans were adopted and executed.

Moltke's theory of war

Statue in Parchim, Moltke's birthplace.
First page of von Moltke's Instructions for Large Unit Commanders, 1869

A disciple of Carl von Clausewitz, whose theory of war was more an effort to grasp its essential nature, rather than of Jomini, who expounded a system of rules, Moltke regarded strategy as a practical art of adapting means to ends, and had developed the methods of Napoleon in accordance with altered conditions of his age. He had been the first to realize the great defensive power of modern firearms, and had inferred from it that an enveloping attack had become more formidable than the attempt to pierce an enemy's front.

Moltke had pondered the tactics of Napoleon at the Battle of Bautzen, when the emperor brought up Ney's corps, coming from a distance, against the flank of the allies, rather than to unite it with his own force before the battle; he had also drawn this conclusion from the combined action of the allies at the Battle of Waterloo. Additionally, Moltke realized that the increase in firepower reduced the risk a defender ran in splitting his forces, while the increase in the size of armies made outflanking maneuvers more practical.

At the same time Moltke had worked out the conditions of the march and supply of an army. Only one army corps could be moved along one road in the same day; to put two or three corps on the same road meant that the rear corps could not be made use of in a battle at the front. Several corps stationed close together in a small area could not be fed for more than a day or two. Accordingly, he believed that the essence of strategy in his day lay in arrangements for the separation of the corps for marching and their concentration in time for battle. In order to make a large army manageable, it must be broken up into separate armies or groups of corps, each group under a commander authorized to regulate its movements and action subject to the instructions of the commander-in-chief as regards the direction and purpose of its operations.

Moltke also realized that the expansion in the size of armies since the 1820s made it essentially impossible to exercise detailed control over the entire force as Napoleon or Wellington had done in battle. Subordinates would have to use initiative and independent judgment for the forces to be effective in battle. Therefore, overall campaign and battle plans should encourage and take advantage of the decentralization that would be necessary in any case. In this new concept, commanders of distant detachments were required to exercise initiative in their decision making and von Moltke emphasized the benefits of developing officers who could do this within the limits of the senior commander’s intent.

He accomplished this by means of directives stating his intentions, rather than detailed orders, and he was willing to accept deviations from a directive provided that it was within the general framework of the mission. Von Moltke held this view firmly and it later became a fundamental of all German military theory, especially for the field manual Truppenführung.

Moltke's main thesis was that military strategy had to be understood as a system of options since it was only possible to plan the beginning of a military operation. As a result, he considered the main task of military leaders to consist in the extensive preparation of all possible outcomes. His thesis can be summed up by two statements, one famous and one less so, translated into English as "No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength" (or "no plan survives contact with the enemy")[3] and "Strategy is a system of expedients".[3]

Austro-Prussian War

Further information: Austro-Prussian War
Bismarck, Roon, Moltke, three leaders of Prussia in the 1860s

Moltke planned and led the successful military operations during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

In the strategy for the war the main points are as follows. First Moltke demonstrated a concentration of effort. There were two enemy groups opposing the Prussians, the Austro-Saxon armies, 270,000; and their allied North and South German armies, some 120,000 strong. The Prussian forces were smaller by some 60,000, but Moltke was determined to be superior at the decisive point. The army placed against Austria was 278,000 men, leaving just 48,000 men remaining to defend against Austria's German allies. Those 48,000 under Falckenstein managed to capture the Hanoverian army in less than two weeks, and then to attack and drive away the South German forces.

In dealing with the Austrian and Saxon army, the difficulty was to have the Prussian army ready first. This was not easy, as the king would not mobilize until after the Austrians. Moltke's railway knowledge helped him to save time. Five railway lines led from the various Prussian provinces to a series of points on the southern frontier. By employing all these railways at once, Moltke had all his army corps moved simultaneously from their peace quarters to the frontier.

After marching into Saxony, the Saxon army retreated into Bohemia. Moltke had two Prussian armies about 100 miles apart. The problem was how to bring them together so as to catch the Austrian army between them like the French at Waterloo between Wellington and Blücher. He determined to bring his own two armies together by directing each of them to advance towards Gitschin. He foresaw that the march of the crown prince would probably bring him into collision with a portion of the Austrian army; but the Crown prince had 100,000 men, and it was not likely that the Austrians could have a stronger force.

King Wilhelm I on a black horse with his suite, Bismarck, Moltke, Roon, and others, watching the Battle of Königgrätz

The Austrians, under Ludwig von Benedek, marched faster than Moltke expected, and might have opposed Prince Frederick Charles (the Red Prince) with four or five corps; but Benedek's attention was centered on Crown Prince Frederick, and his four corps, not under a common command, were beaten in detail. On July 1, Benedek collected his shaken forces into a defensive position in front of Königgrätz. Moltke's two armies were now within a short march of one another and of the enemy. On July 3, they were brought into action, the first army against the Austrian forces and the second against the Austrian right flank. The Austrian army was completely defeated and the campaign and war were won.

Moltke was not quite satisfied with the Battle of Königgrätz. He tried to have the Prussian Army of the Elbe brought up above Königgrätz, so as to prevent the Austrian retreat, but its commanding officer failed to get there in time. He also tried to prevent the Prussian First Army from pushing its attack too hard, hoping in that way to keep the Austrians in their position until their retreat should be cut off by the Crown Prince's army, but this also did not happen.

During the negotiations, Otto von Bismarck opposed the king's wish to annex the Kingdom of Saxony and other territory beyond what was actually taken; he feared the active intervention of France. Moltke, however, was confident of beating both French and Austrians if the French should intervene, and he submitted to Bismarck his plans in case a war against both France and Austria proved necessary.

After the peace, the Prussian government voted Moltke the sum of 30,000 marks, with which he bought the estate of Kreisau, near Schweidnitz (now Świdnica) in Silesia.

In 1867 The Campaign of 1866 in Germany was published. This history was produced under Moltke's personal supervision and was regarded as quite accurate at the time. On December 24, 1868, Moltke's wife died at Berlin. Her remains were buried in a small chapel erected by Moltke as a mausoleum in the park at Kreisau.

Franco-Prussian War

Further information: Franco-Prussian War
Statue (Leipzig 1888-1946). The statue was torn down after the communists took power.

Moltke again planned and led the Prussian armies in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), which paved the way for the creation of the Prussian-led German Empire in 1871. The aspects of such a war had occupied Moltke's attention almost continuously since 1857; documents published after his death show the many times he considered such a war and the best arrangement of the Prussian or German forces for such a campaign. The arrangements for the transport of the army by railway were revised annually in order to suit the changes in his plans brought about by political conditions and by the growth of the army, as well as by the improvement of the Prussian system of railways.

The successes of 1866 had strengthened Moltke's position, so that when on July 5, 1870, the order for the mobilization of the Prussian and South German forces was issued, his plans were adopted without dispute. Five days later he was appointed Chief of Staff of the Army for the duration of the war. This gave Moltke the right to issue orders which were equivalent to royal commands.

Moltke's plan was to assemble the whole army south of Mainz, this being one district in which a single army could secure the defence of the whole frontier. If the French disregarded the neutrality of Belgium and Luxembourg, and advanced towards Cologne (or any other point on the Lower Rhine), the German army would be able to strike at their flank. At the same time the Rhine itself, with the fortresses of Koblenz, Cologne and Wesel, would be a serious obstacle in their path. If the French should attempt to invade south Germany, an advance by the Germans up the Rhine river would threaten their communications. Moltke expected that the French would be compelled by the direction of their railways to collect the greater part of their army near Metz, and a smaller portion near Strasbourg.

The German forces were grouped into three armies: the first of 60,000 men under Steinmetz, on the Moselle below Trier; the second of 130,000 men, under Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia, around Homburg (with a reserve of 60,000 men behind them); the third under the Crown Prince Frederick of 130,000 men, at Landau. Three army corps were held back in north-Eastern Germany, in case Austria-Hungary should make common cause with France.

Moltke's plan was that the three armies, while advancing, should make a right wheel, so that the first army on the right would reach the bank of the Moselle opposite Metz, while the second and third armies should push forward, the third army to defeat the French force near Strasbourg, and the second to strike the Moselle near Pont-à-Mousson. If the French army should be found in front of the second army, it would be attacked in front by the second army and in flank by the first or the third (or both). If it should be found on or north of the line from Saarburg to Lunéville, it could still be attacked from two sides by the second and third armies in co-operation. The intention of the great right wheel was to attack the principal French army in such a direction as to drive it north and cut its communications with Paris. The fortress of Metz was to be only monitored, and the main German forces, after defeating the chief French army, would then march against Paris.

This plan was carried out in its broad outlines. The Battle of Wörth was brought on prematurely, and therefore led, not to the capture of MacMahon's army, which was intended, but only to its defeat and hasty retreat as far as Châlons. The Battle of Spicheren was not intended by Moltke, who wished 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. But these unexpected victories did not disconcert Moltke, who carried out his intended advance to Pont-Mousson, crossed 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 insight and strength of purpose in a clearer light than his determination to attack on 18 August, at the Battle of Gravelotte, when other strategists would have thought that, the strategic victory having been gained, a tactical victory was unnecessary. He has been blamed for the last attack of Gravelotte, in which there was a fruitless heavy loss; but it is now known that this attack was ordered by the king, and Moltke blamed himself for not having used his influence to prevent it.

During the night following the battle Moltke left one army to invest Bazaine at Metz, and set out with the two others to march towards Paris, the more southerly one leading, so that when MacMahon's army should be found the main blow might be delivered from the south and MacMahon driven to the north. On August 25 it was found that MacMahon was moving north-east for the relief of Bazaine. The moment Moltke was satisfied of the accuracy of his information, he ordered the German columns to turn their faces north instead of west. MacMahon's right wing was attacked at Beaumont while attempting to cross the Meuse, his advance necessarily abandoned, and his army with difficulty collected at Sedan.

At the Battle of Sedan, the two German armies surrounded the French army, which on September 1 was attacked from multiple sides and compelled to surrender. Moltke then resumed the advance on Paris, which was also surrounded.

From this time Moltke's strategy is remarkable for its judicious economy of force, for he was wise enough never to attempt more than was practicable with the means at his disposal. The surrender of Metz and of Paris was just a question of time, and the problem was, while maintaining the sieges, to be able to ward off the attacks of the new French armies levied for the purpose of raising the Siege of Paris. The Siege of Metz ended with its surrender on October 27.

On January 28, 1871, an armistice was concluded at Versailles by which the garrison became virtually prisoners and the war was ended.

Final years

The Moltke palace at Kreisau, now Krzyżowa, in 2005
Uniformed bust r. of Helmuth Graf von Moltke the Elder wearing the 1870 Grand Cross of the Iron Cross. Bronze Medal by August Schabel, Munich.

In October 1870, Moltke was made a Graf (Count) as a reward for his services during the Franco-Prussian War and victory at the Battle of Sedan. In June 1871, he was further rewarded by a promotion to the rank of field marshal and a large monetary grant. He served in the Diet of the North German Confederation from 1867–71, and from 1871–91 he was a member of the Reichstag (federal parliament). For "meritorious achievements for the unified, reborn German fatherland" (Verdienste um das zur Einheit wiedergeborene Deutsche Vaterland) he was named an honorary citizen of Hamburg.[4]

Moltke superintended the preparation of the official history of the Franco-Prussian War, which was published between 1874 and 1881 by the German General Staff. After the war, he became a national hero and celebrity. More than 50 monuments to Moltke were erected throughout Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; some were destroyed during or after World War II but many remain.

When Moltke retired in 1888 as Chief of the General Staff, he was succeeded by Alfred Alfred von Waldersee. (His nephew, Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, was chief from 1906 to 1914.) Moltke officially retired from active service on August 9, 1888. His 90th birthday on October 26, 1890 was declared a national holiday. Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke died at his home in Berlin on April 24, 1891 after a short illness.[5] He received a state funeral where his body lay in state surrounded by military honors and thousands paid their respects, including Kaiser Wilhelm II; Bismarck did not attend. Thousands of troops led by the Kaiser, escorted his casket to Berlin's Lehrter Railroad Station, from which it was transported to Silesia.[6]

Moltke's remains were interred in the family mausoleum on the Kreisau estate, which however was plundered after the Second World War, when Kreisau (now Krzyżowa, Świdnica County) was lost to Poland. No trace of his remains is known to exist.[7]

In 1889, Moltke made two audio recordings with Adelbert Theodor Wangemann, a German native who worked with Thomas Edison and had been sent to Europe with Edison's newly invented cylinder phonograph.[8] Moltke recorded excerpts from Shakespeare and Goethe on two cylinders, recordings which were lost until 1957 and were unidentified for decades after. On January 30, 2012, they were among a number of recordings revealed by the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. The two cylinders made by Moltke are the only known voice recordings of anyone born as early as 1800.[8]

Dates of rank

From the corresponding article in the Japanese Wikipedia

Danish Army

Prussian Army

Decorations and awards

Moltke Bridge Berlin - Stone Head of Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke
Comital arms awarded in 1870
German states

See also


  1. Regarding personal names: Graf was a title before 1919, but now is regarded as part of the surname. It is translated as Count. Before the August 1919 abolition of nobility as a legal class, titles preceded the full name when given (Graf Helmuth James von Moltke). Since 1919, these titles, along with any nobiliary prefix (von, zu, etc.), can be used, but are regarded as a dependent part of the surname, and thus come after any given names (Helmuth James Graf von Moltke). Titles and all dependent parts of surnames are ignored in alphabetical sorting. The feminine form is Gräfin.
  2. Arden Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, and Prussian War Planning
  3. 1 2 Originally in Moltke, Helmuth, Graf von, Militarische Werke. vol. 2, part 2., pp. 33-40. Found in Hughes, Daniel J. (ed.) Moltke on the Art of War: selected writings. (1993). Presidio Press: New York, New York. ISBN 0-89141-575-0. p. 45-47
  4. "Stadt Hamburg Ehrenbürger" (in German). Fhh.hamburg.de. Retrieved June 17, 2008.
  5. "Count Von Moltke Dead. Career Of Germany's Famous Field Marshal Ended. Death Came Suddenly Last Evening. Great Sorrow In Berlin. The Life Of A Man To Whom War Brought Greatness". The New York Times. April 25, 1891. Retrieved 2010-12-14. The death of Field Marshal Count von Moltke has just been announced. ...
  6. Otto Friedrich, Blood & Iron: From Bismarck to Hitler the von Moltke Family’s Impact on German History (HarperPerennial, 1995), pp. 10-15.
  7. Friedrich, Blood & Iron, pp. 411-412.
  8. 1 2 Ron Cowen, "Restored Edison Records Revive Giants of 19th-Century Germany" The New York Times (January 30, 2012). Retrieved February 1, 2012


Further reading

External links

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Military offices
Preceded by
Karl von Reyher
Chief of the General Staff
Succeeded by
Count Waldersee
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