BOOK REVIEW: Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings

This is the first of a series of book reviews I will put on my blog. Not necessarily because I think anybody cares what I think about a book. The commenters on Amazon certainly don’t. But rather because I think it is helpful for my readers to get an idea of where my knowledge comes from and also because I hope to highlight some great books that are out there that I don’t think a lot of people have read, even history buffs. Most will be good reviews but I do have some books I absolutely think are worthless or despise. I will put those up too. The bottom line though is that these reviews represent my opinion and even if I don’t like a book you might so take all of my reviews with a grain of salt.
Moltke on the Art of War is a selection of the writings of Helmuth Von Moltke the Elder and the way in which the Prussian army should conduct operations. Although he left no explicit body of work laying out a coherent theory of war, as Dr. Hughes makes clear in his introduction, scattered throughout Moltke’s writing are the bits and pieces of his view of war. This information is particularly relevant for students of German military history, Moltke, who successfully led the Prussian army to victory over both Austria and France, placed his stamp on the German army. These writings go far in explaining the thinking behind one of the greatest military minds Germany has ever produced.

The first section is a selection of Moltke’s thoughts on the nature of war. In these essays, he makes clear that he believes war is a part of the natural order and therefore it behooves a nation to be as prepared as possible. It is the duty of the army of a nation to be strong and prepared for war in order that they may deter war by their readiness and quickly defeat the enemy if deterrence fails. He is also a fierce believer in a strong executive embodied for him by the King; he says that only one man can direct the state because government by majority is no more than mob rule. The essence of Moltke’s thoughts on war is that the nation who is most prepared for war will succeed and victory proves the correctness of one’s goal.

In the second chapter Dr. Hughes presents a selection of works that deal with the organization of headquarters, how to conduct operations, and dealing with emerging technologies. It is clear that Moltke, who was a product of the German staff system, felt that it provided a model with many advantages over the systems of other nations. He provides examples of why the German system is superior as well as detailing the best way to harness the efficiencies of the system when conducting active operations. Perhaps most telling is the section on technology, it is clear that Moltke grasped the fundamental changes occurring in warfare because of the advent of new technologies such as the railroad, telegraph, repeating rifle, and modern artillery. He specifically warns about the dangers of trying to command from a distance through the use of the telegraph.

The third chapter concerns a topic that German military theory concentrated on from Clausewitz until the end of World War II, the battle. Moltke agrees with Clausewitz that the central act of warfare is the battle itself, all else is details because it the battle that decides campaigns. Moltke explains that the desire for decisive confrontation is also the desire for a quick end to a war. He believes as Clausewitz does that the best way to make war short is to not just beat your enemy but also destroy his capacity to resist. He shows nothing but contempt for guerilla fighters and blames the French francs tireurs for prolonging the Franco-Prussian War and thereby making their countrymen suffer more, this is the best example he cites of the uselessness of this tactic as the French were forced to surrender anyway. The final point that Moltke continually hammers away at is the duty of commanders at all levels to react to the changing situation in combat and use their own initiative instead of passively waiting for orders.

Chapter four is a reprint of the Prussian Armies’ instructions to large unit commanders of 1869 which were prepared while Moltke was chief of the Great General Staff. They proved their worth when the Prussian army overran France in just seven months the following year. These instructions would remain in force with the German army with slight modification until the end of the Second World War. The instructions pull together all the various threads of Moltke’s thought and present them as a series of practical guides on to how to conduct military operations. Moltke continually stresses the need for higher commanders to issue guidelines instead of orders and to rely on the initiative of subordinates.

The fifth and final chapter is a selection of various writings from Moltke’s tenure as chief of the Great General Staff and his thoughts on various aspects of military operations. The work is as varied as the organization of the army to the proper personnel to conduct reconnaissance.

Moltke on the Art of War is an excellent selection of the writings of one of the greatest generals Germany has ever produced. Dr. Hughes has selected excellent texts that clearly demonstrate that while Moltke never published a coherent theory of war he certainly had one. This book is a must read for any serious student of German military history as Moltke’s thoughts go far to explain German operational methods of the two World Wars.