Matt Domsalla

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Moltke on the Art of War Precis

Moltke on The Art of War is a compilation of Moltke’s writings rather than an integrated treatise. He believed war was unavoidable. He rejected the Clausewitzian notion of the subordination of warfare to the requirements of national policy. Moltke believed that local commanders should be granted the freedom to act as their situations demanded. He stressed that mobile field forces offer more protection than immobile fortifications. The basis of operations and the determining feature of military strategy is the destruction of the main enemy army.

Data: Moltke, Helmuth, Graf Von. Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, Translated by Daniel Hughes (New York: Ballantine, 1993)

Author: Moltke was born in Mecklenburg and was therefore not Prussian by birth. Moltke initially served in the Danish army but then applied for a commission in the Prussian army. In 1823, he passed the entrance examination to the War College, which was under Clausewitz’s direction. With the exception of five years as a lieutenant in the Danish and Prussian armies, Moltke never served with the troops. He had never commanded a company or any larger unit when, at the age of 65, he took virtual command of the Prussian armies in the war against Austria. Moltke was conscious of the natural interrelationships of generalship and statesmanship, and took a lively personal interest in politics. He abstained from active participation in political affairs, however, and rarely questioned the powers that be. In 1855, he became aide-de-camp to Prince Frederic William. “This is all very well, but who is General Moltke?”

Context: The superiority of the Prussian army in the 1860s was made possible only by its organization, by its peacetime training, and by the theoretical study of war that had been brought to perfection in the half-century before Koniggratz and Sedan. The Prussian army of the nineteenth century was created by four men: Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau.

Moltke took advantage of the railroad age and improved roads that stemmed from the industrial revolution to accelerate mobilization. The railroads offered new strategic opportunities. The fundamentals of all strategy – time and space – appeared in a new light. A country that had a highly developed system of rail communications gained important and possibly decisive advantages in warfare.


Evidence: Historical examples.

Central Proposition: Battle was both the means of winning wars and the dominant consideration in conducting the war.

No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.


Other Major Propositions: Mobilization and initial concentration of the army was calculable since it could be prepared a long time before the outbreak. Beyond this stage, war becomes a combination of daring and calculation. “The commander is compelled during the whole campaign to reach decision on the basis of situations that cannot be predicted.”

Moltke denied that strategy was a science and that general principles could be established from which plans of operations could be logically derived. Each situation called for a definition in terms of its own circumstances, and for a solution in which training and knowledge were combined with vision and courage. In Moltke’s opinion, this was the chief lesson to be derived from history.

“[Strategy] is the application of knowledge to practical life, the development of an original idea in accordance with continually changing circumstance. It is the art of action under the pressure of the most difficult conditions.”

Organization of command is important.

Moltke refrained from issuing any but the most essential orders.


· Internal Consistency and Comprehensiveness –defined, categorized, explain, connect, complete?

· External Validity –

Comparison and Synthesis: Moltke envisaged operations in which the concentration of the army would take place on the battlefield itself, thus discarding the Napoleonic principle that the army should be concentrated will before the start of a battle.

Importance: “Great successes in war are not achieved, however, without great risks.”

Moltke’s strategy in 1866 showed that the much-vaunted inner line of operations were merely of relative significance. Inner lines of operations are only valid if you retain enough space to advance against one enemy, gaining time to beat and to pursue him, and then turn against the other, if the second merely watches. If both attack, then the strategic advantage of the inner line of operations turns into the tactical disadvantage of encirclement during the battle.

Personal Significance:

The Nature of War

· “Eternal peace is a dream, and not even a pleasant one.” (22)

· “Success is to be expected from the religious and moral education of the individual.” (23)

· “We see now that humanity’s conduct of war has not kept up with the general improvement in morals.” (23)

· “The credit of a state rests above all on its security.” (29)

· “War is the violent action of nations to attain or maintain purposes of state. It is the most extreme means of carrying out that will and, during its duration, abolishes international treaties between the belligerents.” (35 – 36)

· “Strategy can direct its endeavors only toward the highest goal attainable with the means at hand. Strategy thus works best in the hands of politics and only for the latter’s purposes. But, in its actions, strategy is independent of policy as much as possible. Policy must not be allowed to interfere in operations.” (36)

· “Policy uses war for the attainment of its goals; it works decisively at the beginning and the end of war, so that indeed policy reserves for itself the right to increase its demands or to be satisfied with a lesser success.” (44)

· “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength.” (45)

· “Strategy affords tactics the means for fighting and the probability of winning by the direction of armies and their meeting at the place of combat…. Strategy appropriate the success of every engagement and builds upon it.” (47)

· “Strategy is a system of expedients. It is more than a discipline; it is the transfer of knowledge to practical life, the continued development of the original leading thought in accordance with the constantly changing circumstances. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions.” (47)

· “Only thing is certain: if one desires to attack, one should do so with decisiveness.” (52)

· “If we gain the conviction that we are strong enough for the offensive, we should resort to it under all circumstances.” (68)

· “The tactical defense is the stronger, the strategic offensive the more effective form – and the only one that leads to the goal.” (68)

· “The strategic offensive is the direct way to the objective; the strategic defensive the roundabout way.” (69)

Headquarters, Operations, Technology

· “ But the most unfortunate of all supreme commanders is the one who is under close supervision, who had to give an account of his plans and intentions every hour of every day” (77)

· “It is always extremely dangerous to issue positive orders from a distance.” (77)

· “Direct orders from royal headquarters restricted the freedom of decision of the commanders only when the king’s views were not carried out, or when reports of enemy activities made direct intervention unavoidable.” (87)

· “One must distinguish between the object of the war and the object of the attack. The former is not the army, but the land mass and the capital of the enemy, and within them the resources and the political power of the state. It comprises what we desire to hold or that for which we will subsequently trade. The object of an operation is the hostile army insofar as it defends the object of the war.” (93)

· “How actual operations develop becomes more uncertain the further we pursue their course. The most probable eventualities can be foreseen, however, because they depend on well-known and permanent conditions.” (100)

· “The telegraph substantially assists the high command in making estimates of the military situation.” (113)

· “Strategy is a system of expedients; it is more than a mere scholarly discipline. It is the translation of knowledge to practical life, the improvement of the original leading thought in accordance with continually changing situations. It is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions.” (124)

· “Thus war becomes an art – an art, of course, which is served by many sciences.” (124)

· “Strategy furnished tactics with the means for battle and assures probability of victory by directing the movements of the armies and bringing them together on the battlefield. On the other hand, strategy reaps the fruits of success of each battle and makes new arrangements based thereon.” (125)

· “The strategic object governs the premeditated decision to engage in battle.” (125)

· “Everything available must be thrown into battle in all circumstances, for one can never have too much strength or too many chances for victory.” (129)

1869 Instructions for Large Unit Commanders

· “But in this fog of uncertainty at least one thing must be certain: one’s own decision.” (173)

· “In war, everything is uncertain; nothing is without danger, and only with difficulty will one attain great results by another route.” (175)

· “Victory in combat is the most important factor in war.” (175)

· “The modern conduct of war is marked by the striving for a great and rapid decision.” (176)

· “There are many situations in which the officer must act according to his own judgment… As a rule, however, his work is the most profitable for the whole when he carries out the will of his superior.” (177)

· “Discipline is the foundation pillar of the army; its strict maintenance benefits everything.” (178)

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