1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Moltke, Helmuth Carl Bernhard
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Moltke, Helmuth Carl Bernhard
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MOLTKE, HELMUTH CARL BERNHARD, Count von (1800-1891), Prussian field marshal, for thirty years chief of the staff of the Prussian army, the greatest strategist of the latter half of the 19th century, and the creator of the modern method of directing armies in the field, was born on the 26th of October 1800, at Parchim in Mecklenburg, of a German family of ancient nobility. His father in 1805 settled in Holstein and became a Danish subject, but about the same time was impoverished by the burning of his country house and the plunder by the French of his town house in Lübeck, where his wife and children were. Young Moltke therefore grew up in straitened circumstances. At the age of nine he was sent as a boarder to Hohenfelde in Holstein, and at the age of eleven 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 second lieutenant in a Danish infantry regiment. But at twenty-one he resolved to enter the Prussian service, in spite of the loss of seniority. He passed the necessary examination with credit, and became second lieutenant in the 8th Infantry Regiment stationed at Frankfort-on-Oder. At twenty-three, after much less than the regulation term of service, he was allowed to enter the general war school, now the war academy, where he studied the full three years and passed in 1826 a brilliant final examination. He then for a year had charge of a cadet school at Frankfort-on-Oder, after which 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 in 1833 on promotion to first lieutenant he was transferred. He was at this time regarded as a brilliant officer by his superiors, and among them by Prince William, then a lieutenant-general, afterwards king and emperor. He 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 it was followed by an essay entitled Holland and Belgium in their Mutual Relations, from their Separation under Philip II. to their Reunion under William I., in which were displayed the author's interest in the political issues of the day, and his extensive historical reading. In 1832 appeared An Account of the Internal Circumstances and Social Conditions of Poland, a second study of a burning question based both on reading and on personal observation of Polish life and character. In 1832 he contracted to translate Gibbon's Decline and Fall into German, for which he was to receive £75, 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, so that the chief reward of his labour was the historical knowledge which he acquired. He had already found opportunities to travel in south Germany and northern Italy, and in 1835 on his promotion as captain he obtained six months' leave to travel in south-eastern Europe. After a short stay in Constantinople he was requested by the sultan to enter the Turkish service, and being duly authorized from Berlin he accepted the offer. He remained two years at Constantinople, learned Turkish and surveyed for the sultan the city of Constantinople, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. He travelled in the sultan's retinue through Bulgaria and Rumelia, and made many other journeys on both sides of the Strait. In 1838 he was sent as adviser to the Turkish general commanding the troops in Armenia, who was to carry on a campaign against Mehemet Ali of Egypt. During the summer he made extensive reconnaissances and surveys, riding several thousand miles in the course of his journeys, navigating the dangerous rapids of the Euphrates, and visiting and mapping many districts where no European traveller had preceded him since Xenophon. In 1839 the army moved south to meet the Egyptians, but upon the approach of the enemy the general became more attentive to the prophecies of the mollahs than to the advice of the Prussian captain. Moltke resigned his post of staff officer and took charge of the artillery, which therefore, in the ensuing battle of Nezib or Nisib, was the last portion of the Turkish army to run away. The Turks were well beaten and their army dispersed to the four winds. Moltke with infinite hardship made his way back to the Black Sea, and thence to Constantinople. His patron Sultan Mahmoud was dead, so he returned to Berlin where he arrived, broken in health, in December 1839. When he left Berlin in 1834 he had already “the courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword.” When he returned it was with a mind expanded by a rare experience, and with a character doubly tempered and annealed. While away, he had been a constant letter-writer to his mother and sisters, and he now revised and published his letters as Letters on Conditions and Events in Turkey in the Years 1835 to 1839. No other book gives so deep an insight into the character of the Turkish Empire, and no other book of travels better deserves to be regarded as a German classic. One of his sisters had married an English widower named Burt, who had settled in Holstein. Her step-daughter, Mary Burt, had read the traveller's letters, and when he came home as a wooer was quickly won. The marriage took place in 1841, when Mary was just turned sixteen. It was a very happy union, though there were no children, and Moltke's love-letters and letters to his wife are among the most valuable materials for his biography. On his return in 1840 Moltke had been appointed to the staff of the 4th army corps, stationed at Berlin; he was promoted major on his wedding day. The fruits of his Eastern travels were by no means exhausted. He published his maps of Constantinople, of the Bosporus and of the Dardanelles, and, jointly with other German travellers, a new map of Asia Minor and a memoir on the geography of that country, as well as a number of periodical essays on various factors in the Eastern Question. In 1845 appeared The Russo-Turkish Campaign in Europe, 1828-29, described in 1845 by Baron von Moltke, Major in the Prussian Staff, a volume which was recognized by competent judges as a masterpiece of military history and criticism. Moltke at this period was much occupied with the development of railways. He was one of the first directors of the Hamburg-Berlin railway, and in 1843 published a review article entitled What Considerations should determine the Choice of the Course of Railways? which reveals a mastery of the technical questions involved in the construction and working of railway lines.
In 1845 Moltke was appointed personal adjutant to Prince Henry of Prussia, a Roman Catholic who lived at Rome. He thus had the opportunity of a long stay in the Eternal City, with no more than nominal duties to perform. It was a life which he and his wife much enjoyed, and he spent much of his leisure in a survey, of which the result was a splendid map of Rome, published at Berlin in 1852. In 1846 Prince Henry died, and Moltke was then appointed to the staff of the 8th army corps at Coblenz. In 1848, after a brief return to the great general staff at 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 (1850), and colonel (1851). In 1855 he was appointed first adjutant to Prince Frederick William (afterwards crown prince and emperor), whom he accompanied to England on his betrothal and marriage, as well as to Paris and to St Petersburg to the coronation of Alexander II. of Russia. Prince Frederick William was in command of a regiment stationed at Breslau, and there as his adjutant Moltke remained for a year, becoming major-general in 1856. On the 23rd of October 1857, owing to the serious illness of King Frederick William IV., Prince William became prince regent. Six days later the regent selected Moltke for the then vacant post of chief of the general staff of the army. The appointment was made definitive in January 1858. Moltke's posthumously published military works disclose a remarkable activity, beginning in 1857, devoted to the adaptation of strategical and tactical methods to changes in armament and in means of communication, to the training of staff officers in accordance with the methods thus worked out, to the perfection of the arrangements for the mobilization of the army, and to the study of European politics in connexion with the plans for campaigns which might become necessary. In 1859 came the war in Italy, which occasioned the mobilization of the Prussian army, and as a consequence the reorganization of that army, by which its numerical strength was nearly doubled. The reorganization was the work not of Moltke but of the king, and of Roon, minister of war; but Moltke watched the Italian campaign closely, and wrote a history of it, published in 1862, and attributed on the title-page to the historical division of the Prussian staff, which is the clearest account of the campaign and contains the best criticism upon it. In December 1862 Moltke was asked for an opinion upon the military aspect of the quarrel with Denmark then becoming acute. 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, and hoped that by this means its retreat might be intercepted. When the war began in February 1864, Moltke was not sent with the Prussian forces, but kept at Berlin. The plan was mismanaged in the execution, and the Danish army escaped to the fortresses of Düppel and Fredericia, each of which commanded a retreat across a strait on to an island. The allies were now checked; Düppel and Fredericia were besieged by them, Düppel taken by storm, and Fredericia abandoned by the Danes without assault; but the war showed no signs of ending, as the Danish army was safe in the islands of Alsen and Fünen. On the 30th of April Moltke was sent to be chief of the staff to the commander-in-chief of the allied forces, and, so soon as the armistice of May and June was over, persuaded Prince Frederick Charles to attempt to force the passage of the Sundewitt and attack the Danes in the island of Alsen. The landing was effected on the 29th of June, and the Danes then evacuated Alsen. Moltke next proposed a landing in Fünen, but it was unnecessary. The Danes no longer felt safe in their islands, and agreed to the German terms. Moltke's appearance on the scene had quickly transformed the aspect of the war, and his influence with the king had thus acquired a firm basis. Accordingly, when in 1866 the quarrel with Austria came to a head, Moltke's plans were adopted and he was almost invariably supported in their execution. A disciple rather of Clausewitz, whose theory of war was an effort to grasp its conditions, 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 the altered conditions. 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. He had pondered the tactics of Napoleon at Bautzen, when the emperor preferred to bring 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 a moral from the combined action of the allies at Waterloo. At the same time he 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 inferred that the essence of strategy 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. In the strategy of 1866 the conspicuous points are: (1) The concentration of effort. There were two groups of enemies, the Austro-Saxon armies, 270,000; and the north and south German armies, 120,000. The Prussian forces were 64,000 short of the adverse total, but Moltke determined to be superior at the decisive point against the Austro-Saxons; he therefore told off 278,000 men for that portion of the struggle, and employed only 48,000 men in Germany proper. His brilliant direction enabled the 48,000 to capture the Hanoverian army in less than a fortnight, and then to attack and drive asunder the south German forces. (2) In dealing with Austro-Saxony the difficulty was to have the Prussian army first ready — no easy matter, as the king would not mobilize until after the Austrians. Moltke's railway knowledge helped him to save time. Five lines of railway led from the various Prussian provinces to a series of points on the southern frontier on the curved line Zeitz-Halle-Görlitz-Schweidnitz. By employing all these railways at once, Moltke had the several army corps moved simultaneously from their peace quarters to points on this curved line. When this first move was finished the corps then marched along the curve to collect into three groups, one near Torgau (Elbe army), another at the west end of Silesia (first army, Prince Frederick Charles), the third between Landshut and Waldenburg (second army, crown prince). The first army when formed marched eastwards towards Görlitz. The small Saxon army at Dresden now had the Elbe army in its front and the first army on its right flank, and as it was outnumbered by either of them, its position was untenable, and so soon as hostilities began fell back into Bohemia, where it was joined by an Austrian corps, with which it formed an advance guard far in front of the Austrian main army concentrated near Olmütz. The Elbe army advanced to Dresden, left a garrison there, and moved to the right of Prince Frederick Charles, under whose command it now came. (3) Moltke now had two 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. If, as was thought likely, the Austrians moved upon Breslau, the first and Elbe armies could continue their eastward march to. co-operate with the second. But on the 15th of June Moltke learned that on the 11th of June the Austrian army had been spread out over the country between Wildenschwerdt, Olmütz and Brünn. He inferred that it could not be concentrated at Josefstadt in less than thirteen days. Accordingly 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 than that within reach of him. The order to advance upon Gitschin was issued on the 22nd of June, and led to one of the greatest victories on record. The Austrians marched faster than Moltke expected, and might have opposed the crown prince with four or five corps; but Benedek's attention was centred on Prince Frederick Charles, and he interposed against the crown prince's advance four corps not under a common command, so that they were beaten in detail, as were also the Saxons and the Austrian corps with them, by Prince Frederick Charles. On the 1st of July Benedek collected his already shaken forces in a defensive position in front of Königgrätz. Moltke's two armies were now within a march of one another and of the enemy. On the 3rd of 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, though an advance towards Vienna was needed to bring about the peace upon Prussia's terms. Moltke was not quite satisfied with the battle of Königgrätz. He had tried to have the Elbe army brought up to the Elbe above Königgrätz so as to prevent the Austrian retreat, but its general 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 position until retreat should be cut off by the crown prince, but he could not restrain the impetuosity of Prince Frederick Charles and of the king. During the negotiations Bismarck, who dared not risk the active intervention of France, opposed the king's wish to annex Saxony and perhaps other territory beyond what was actually taken. Moltke would not have hesitated; he was confident of beating both French and Austrians if the French should intervene, and he submitted to Bismarck his plans in case of need for the opening moves against both French and Austrians.
After the peace, the Prussian Diet voted Moltke the sum of £30,000, with which he bought the estate of Creisau, near Schweidnitz, in Silesia. In 1867 was published The Campaign of 1866 in Germany, a history produced under Moltke's personal supervision, and remarkable for its combination of accuracy with reticence. On the 24th of December 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 Creisau.
In 1870 suddenly came the war with France. The probability of such a war had occupied Moltke's attention almost continuously since 1857, and a series of memoirs is preserved in which from time to time he worked out and recorded his ideas as to the best arrangement of the Prussian or German forces for the opening of the campaign. The arrangements for the transport of the army by railway were annually revised 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 great successes of 1866 had strengthened Moltke's position, so that when on the 15th of July 1870 the order for the mobilization of the Prussian and south German forces was issued, his plans were adopted without dispute and five days later he was appointed “Chief of the general staff of the army at the headquarters of his Majesty the King” for the duration of the war. This gave Moltke the right to issue in the king's name, though of course not without his approval, orders which were equivalent to royal commands. Moltke's plan was to assemble the whole army to the south of Mainz, this being the one district in which an army could best secure the defence of the whole frontier. If the French should disregard the neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg, and advance on the line from Paris to Cologne or any other point on the Lower Rhine, the German army would be able to strike at their flank, while the Rhine itself, with the fortresses of Coblenz, Cologne and Wesel, would be a serious obstacle in their front. If the French should attempt to invade south Germany, an advance of the Germans up either bank of the Rhine 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 Strassburg. The German forces were grouped into three armies: the first of 60,000 men, under Steinmetz, on the Moselle below Treves; the second of 131,000 men, under Prince Frederick Charles, round Homburg, with a reserve of 60,000 men behind it; the third under the crown prince of 130,000 men, at Landau. Three army corps amounting to 100,000 men were not reckoned upon in the first instance, as it was desirable to keep a considerable force in north-eastern Germany, in case Austria should make common cause with France. If, as seemed probable, the French should take the initiative before the German armies were ready, and for that purpose should advance from Metz in the direction of Mainz, Moltke would merely put back a few miles nearer to Mainz the points of debarcation from the railway of the troops of the second army. This measure was actually adopted, though the anticipated French invasion did not take place. Moltke's plan of operations 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 Strassburg, and the second to strike 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 flank by the first or the third 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 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 observed, and the main German forces, after defeating the chief French army, to march upon 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 total 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 till he could attack it with the second army in front and the first army on its left flank, while the third army was closing towards its rear. But these unintended or unexpected victories did not disconcert Moltke, who carried out his intended advance to Pont-à-Mousson, there crossed the Moselle with the first and second armies, then faced north and wheeled round, so that the effect of the battle of Gra.velotte 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 the 18th of August, when many strategists would have thought that, the strategical victory having been gained, a tactical victory was unnecessary. He has been blamed for the last local attack at 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 made his next decision. He left one army to invest Bazaine and 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 the 25th of August 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. Here the two German armies were so brought up as completely to surround the French army, which on the 1st of September was attacked and compelled to raise the white flag. After the capitulation of Sedan, Moltke resumed the advance on Paris, which was surrounded and invested. From this time his 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 a question of time, and the problem was, while maintaining the investment, to be able to ward off the attacks of the new French armies levied for the purpose of raising the siege of Paris. Metz surrendered on the 27th of October, and on the 28th of January 1871 an armistice was concluded at Paris by which the garrison became virtually prisoners and the war was ended.
On the 29th of October 1870 Moltke was created graf (count or earl), and on the 16th of June 1871, field marshal. After the war he superintended the preparation of its history, which was published between 1874 and 1881 by the great general staff. In 1888 he resigned his post as chief of the staff. In 1867 Moltke was elected to the North German Diet, and in 1871 to the Reichstag. His speeches, dealing mostly with military questions, were regarded as models of conciseness and relevancy. He died suddenly on the 24th of April 1891, and after a magnificent funeral ceremony at Berlin his remains were laid beside those of his wife in the chapel which he had erected as her tomb at Creisau.
As a strategist Moltke cannot be estimated by comparison with Frederick or Napoleon, because he had not the authority either of a king or of a commander-in-chief . While it is doubtful whether he can be convicted of any strategical errors, it seems beyond doubt that he never had to face a situation which placed any strain on his powers, for in the campaigns of 1866 and 1870 his decisions seemed to be made without the slightest effort, and he was never at a loss.
He had a tall spare figure, and in his latter years his tanned features had received a set expression which was at once hard and grand. He was habitually taciturn and reserved, though a most accomplished linguist, so that it was said of him that he was “silent in seven languages.” The stern school of his early life had given him a rare self-control, so that no indiscreet or unkind expression is known to have ever fallen from him. Long before his name was on the lips of the public he was known in the army and in the staff as the “man of gold,” the ideal character whom every one admired and who had no enemies.
Authorities. — Gesammelte Schriften und Denkwürdigkeiten des General Feldmarschalls Grafen Helmuth von Moltke (8 vols., Berlin, 1892-1893); Moltke's militärische Werke (Berlin, 9 vols., 1892-1900); Feldmarschall Moltke, by Max Jähns (3 vols., Berlin, 1894-1900); Feldmarschall Graf Moltke: Ein militärisches Lebensbild, by W. Bigge, Oberst, &c. (2 vols., Munich, 1901).
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