Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, fully Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Molke

Helmuth von
Moltke the Elder, fully Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Molke

German Field Marshall, Chief of Staff for Prussian Army

Author Quotes

If in war, from the beginning of the operations, everything is uncertain except such will and energy as the commander carries in himself, there cannot possibly be practical value for strategy in general principles, rules derived from them and systems built up upon the rules? Strategy is a system of expedients. It is more than science; it is the translation of science into practical life, the development of an original leading thought in accordance with the ever-changing circumstances.

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.

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon's saying: "I have never had a plan of operations."

There are only four types of officer. First, there are the lazy, stupid ones. Leave them alone, they do no harm? Second, there are the hard- working, intelligent ones. They make excellent staff officers, ensuring that every detail is properly considered. Third, there are the hard- working, stupid ones. These people are a menace and must be fired at once. They create irrelevant work for everybody. Finally, there are the intelligent, lazy ones. They are suited for the highest office.

Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

War is a matter of expedients.

You have in American history one of the great captains of all times. It might be said of him, as it was of William the Silent, that he seldom won a battle but he never lost a campaign.

You have kindly sent me the handbook published by the Institute for International Law and would like my acknowledgment of the same.

First, I find the humanitarian striving to lessen the sufferings that come with war completely worthy. Eternal peace is a dream --and not even a beautiful one. War is part of God's world-order. Within it unfold the noblest virtues of men, courage and renunciation, loyalty to duty and readiness for sacrifice--at the hazzard of one's life. Without war the world would sink into a swamp of materialism. Further, I wholly agree with the principle stated in the preface that the gradual progress in morality must also be reflected in the waging of war. But I go farther and believe that [waging war] in and of itself--not a codification of the law of war--may attain this goal.

Every law requires an authority to oversee and administer its execution, and just this force is lacking for the observation of international agreements. What third state would take up arms because one or both of two warring powers had violated the law of war [loi de guerre]? An earthly judge is lacking. In this matter success is to be expected only from the religious and moral education, the sense of honor and respect for law, of individual leaders who make the law and act according to it, so far as this is generally possible to do in the abnormal conditions of war. Indisputably, humanity in the waging of war has in fact followed the general mitigation of morals. Only compare the savagery of the Thirty Years' War with the battles of the modern era.

In our day, an important step toward the attainment of the desired goal has been the introduction of universal military service, which has enlisted the educated classes in the army. Certainly, the raw and violence-prone elements have remained, but they no longer, as formerly, constitute the general complement.

Two further and effective means lie in the hands of the governments to avoid the worst excesses: military discipline, established and managed in peacetime; and the carefully administered provisioning of troops in the field. Without this precaution, discipline can be maintained in only limited fashion. The soldier who suffers sorrow and deprivations, exertion and danger, can do so only in proportion to the resources of the nation (en proportion avec les ressources du pays); he must take all that is necessary for his existence. We cannot expect him to be superhuman.

The greatest good deed in war is the speedy ending of the war, and every means to that end, so long as it is not reprehensible, must remain open. In no way can I declare myself in agreement with the Declaration of St. Petersburg that the sole justifiable measure in war is "the weakening of the enemy's military power." No, all the sources of support for the hostile government must be considered, its finances, railroads, foodstuffs, even its prestige.

With this sort of energy, and yet with greater moderation than ever before, the recent war in France was waged. The campaign was decided after two months, and only after a revolutionary government continued the struggle for four more months, to the ruination of its own country, did the battle take on an embittered character.

I gladly acknowledge that, better than in previous attempts, the manual recognizes the necessities of war in clear and concise sentences. However, even though governments recognize the rules [in the manual], that does not ensure their execution. It is a long-time usage of war that a parliamentarian should not be shot. Nevertheless, we have seen it violated several times in the last campaign.

No paragraph learned by rote will convince soldiers who are in fear of their lives every moment of the day and night that an unorganized civilian who picks up a weapon of his own free will is to be viewed as anything but a regulation enemy.

Individual demands of the manual may not be feasible, e.g., establishment of the identity of the fallen after a great battle. Consideration should be given to the insertion of modifying phrases such as, "circumstance permitting," "if possible," or "if necessary." Without such elasticity, the bitter seriousness of reality will burst the bonds laid upon [soldiers].

In war, where everything tends to be comprehended individually, only those paragraphs directed essentially at the leaders will, I believe, be effective. Among these are the what the manual wants to establish with regard to the wounded, the sick, doctors, and medical supplies. Universal recognition of even these principles, as well as those concerning treatment of prisoners, would already represent substantial progress toward the goal which the Institute for International Law strives toward with such praiseworthy steadfastness.

Most respectfully,

Count Moltke

No plan of battle ever survives contact with the enemy.

Remember, gentlemen, an order that can be understood will be misunderstood.

Eternal peace is a dream, and not even a beautiful one. War is a part of God’s world order. In it are developed the noblest virtues of man: courage and abnegation, dutifulness and self-sacrifice. Without war the world would sink into materialism.

Author Picture
First Name
Helmuth von
Last Name
Moltke the Elder, fully Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Molke
Birth Date
Death Date

German Field Marshall, Chief of Staff for Prussian Army