1. Education
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.

Franco-Prussian War: Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

By

Franco-Prussian War: Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

Count Helmuth von Moltke

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Early Life of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder:

Born October 26, 1800, in Parchim, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Helmuth von Moltke was the son of an aristocratic German family. Moving to Holstein at age five, Moltke's family became impoverished during the War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807) when their properties were burned and plundered by French troops. Sent away to Hohenfelde as a boarder at age nine, Moltke entered the cadet school at Copenhagen two years later with the goal of entering the Danish army. Over the next seven years he received his military education and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1818.

An Officer in Ascent:

After service with a Danish infantry regiment, Moltke returned to Germany and entered Prussian service. Posted to command a cadet school in Frankfurt an der Oder, he did so for a year before spending three conducting a military survey of Silesia and Posen. Recognized as a brilliant young officer, Moltke was assigned to the Prussian General Staff in 1832. Arriving in Berlin, he stood out from his Prussian contemporaries in that he possessed a love of the arts and music.

A prolific writer and student of history, Moltke authored several works of fiction and in 1832, embarked on a German translation of Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Promoted to captain in 1835, he took six months leave to travel through southeastern Europe. While in Constantinople, he was asked by Sultan Mahmud II to aid in modernizing the Ottoman army. Receiving permission from Berlin, he spent two years in this role before accompanying the army on campaign against Muhammad Ali of Egypt. Taking part in the 1839 Battle of Nizib, Moltke was forced to escape after Ali's victory.

Returning to Berlin, he published an account of his travels and in 1840, married his sister's English stepdaughter, Mary Burt. Assigned to the staff of the 4th Army Corps in Berlin, Moltke became fascinated with railroads and began an extensive study of their use. Continuing to write on historical and military topics, he returned to the General Staff before being named Chief of Staff for the 4th Army Corps in 1848. Remaining in this role for seven years, he advanced to the rank of colonel. Transferred in 1855, Moltke became the personal aide to Prince Frederick (later Emperor Frederick III).

Leader of the General Staff:

In recognition of his military skills, Moltke was promoted to Chief of the General Staff in 1857. A disciple of Clausewitz, Moltke believed that strategy was essentially the quest of seeking the military means to a desired end. Though a detailed planner, he understood and frequently stated that "no battle plan survives contact with the enemy." As a result, he sought to maximize his chances of success by remaining flexible and ensuring that the transportation and logistical networks were in place to allow him to bring decisive force to the key points on the battlefield.

Taking office, Moltke immediately began making sweeping changes in the army's approach to tactics, strategy, and mobilization. In addition, work began to improve communications, training, and armaments. As a historian, he also implemented a study of European politics to identify Prussia's future enemies and to begin developing war plans for campaigns against them. In 1859, he mobilized the army for the Austro-Sardinian War. Though Prussia did not enter the conflict, the mobilization was used by Prince Wilhelm as a learning exercise and the army was expanded and reorganized around the lessons obtained.

In 1862, with Prussia and Denmark arguing over the ownership of Schleswig-Holstein, Moltke was asked for a plan in case of war. Concerned that the Danes would be difficult to defeat if allowed to retreat to their island strongholds, he devised a plan which called for Prussian troops to flank them in order to prevent a withdrawal. When hostilities commenced in February 1864, his plan was bungled and the Danes escaped. Dispatched to the front on April 30, Moltke succeeded in bringing the war to a successful conclusion. The victory solidified his influence with King Wilhelm.

As the king and his prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, began attempts to unite Germany, it was Moltke who conceived the plans and directed the army to victory. Having gained considerable clout for his success against Denmark, Moltke's plans were followed precisely when war with Austria began in 1866. Though outnumbered by Austria and its allies, the Prussian Army was able to make near-perfect use of railroads to ensure that maximum force was delivered at the key moment. In a lightning seven-week war, Moltke's troops were able conduct a brilliant campaign which culminated with a stunning victory at Königgrätz.

His reputation further enhanced, Moltke oversaw the writing of a history of the conflict which was published in 1867. In 1870, tensions with France dictated the mobilization of the army on July 5. As the preeminent Prussian general, Moltke was named Chief of Staff of the Army for the duration of the conflict. This position essentially allowed him to issue orders in the name of the king. Having spent years planning for war with France, Moltke assembled his forces south of Mainz. Dividing his men into three armies, he sought to drive into France with the goal defeating the French army and marching on Paris.

For the advance, several plans were developed for use depending upon where the main French army was found. In all circumstances, the ultimate goal was for his troops to wheel right to drive the French north and cut them off from Paris. Attacking, the Prussian and German troops met with great success and followed the basic outline of his plans. The campaign came to stunning climax with the victory at Sedan on September 1, which saw Emperor Napoleon III and most of his army captured. Pressing on, Moltke's forces invested Paris which surrendered after a five-month siege. The fall of the capital effectively ended the war and led to the unification of Germany.

Later Career

Having been made a Graf (count) in October 1870, Moltke was permanently promoted to field marshal in June 1871, in reward for his services. Entering the Reichstag (German Parliament) in 1871, he remained Chief of Staff until 1888. Stepping down, he was replaced by Graf Alfred von Waldersee. Remaining in the Reichstag, he died at Berlin on April 24, 1891. As his nephew, Helmuth J. von Moltke led German forces during the opening months of World War I, he is often referred to as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Military History
  4. Biographies
  5. Army
  6. 1800s Army Biographies
  7. Helmuth von Moltke - Franco-Prussian War Field Marshal

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.