Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German General Staff
Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German General Staff

From the graduates of the Kriegsakademie were chosen the officer students that were to become members of this new and, for a time, unique Prussian institution, the Grosse Generalstab, the Great General Staff. It was set up as a separate department of the Ministry of War and dedicated itself solely to the study of strategies, tactics and supplies deemed necessary to develop plans for likely military scenarios. Its members, who initially numbered a dozen or so men and never exceeded one hundred, were the best and the brightest – as much as possible, for the influence of the old military families could not entirely be neutralized. The General Staff, however, did not exert military command; it made plans, devised strategies, and “shadowed” the line officers: every corps had a staff officer assigned who could supervise the execution of the given plan or effect necessary changes.

The staff’s daily bread was physics, mechanics, mathematics and statistics, but some room was given to the human factors, too – an early exercise in what would one day be called “psychology”. There had, of course, been half- hearted predecessors to the Kriegsakademie; essentially schools for military clerks, in which prospective artillery officers were taught elementary geometry and future quartermasters Accounting 101. Not only had these been mostly shabby affairs, they lacked reputation, which in turn reflected negatively on their graduates’ promotion opportunities and able officer candidates avoided these career traps.

The spirit of the modern scientific approach evidenced itself early in the characteristic bifurcation of the studies: one part of the curriculum was detailed geographically – horizontally, so to say – the students were to evaluate scenarios or devise plans for attacking France or defending East Prussia; the other track ran vertically, as to ways and means: intelligence, logistics and supplies, ammunition, hospitals, food etc., and every candidate had to show proficiency in both inventories.

The curriculum was modelled after the university syllabus of the time: first the classics, then modern works, first menial tasks then intellectual analysis – per aspera ad astra. Twice a year the whole academy went on “staff rides” – on outings to old battlefields strategies were evaluated on the very ground where they had worked or failed; new concepts, deployments and strategies were devised and solutions approximated. Studies were written incorporating the results and became mandatory test material. Models were built of the locations and strategies tested by simulation; in the next summer the results of these indoor games were translated to the manoeuvre areas and evaluated – in short, “War Games” were born and developed. Some of the conventions created in these games have endured into modern times and the age of computer wars – the enemy is red, one’s own forces blue.

The names of four officers are indissolubly bound to the history of the Prussian, later the German Great General Staff, before 1914: the aforementioned Carl von Clausewitz, Helmuth Graf (Count) von Moltke [the “Elder”, ¶], Chief of Staff and author of the plans that succeeded in 1864, 1866 and 1870/71, Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, Chief of Staff around the turn of the century and author of the famous but elusive plan named for him, and Helmuth von Moltke [the “Younger”, not a count, ¶], nephew of the Count and Chief of Staff until his dismissal after the lost Battle of the Marne in September 1914.

[Our header depicts a scene from the Battle of Gravelotte, the attack of Infantry Battalion 9 from Lauenburg]

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)