Monday, 5 December 2016

Moltke and His Generals – A Study in Leadership - Quintin Barry

This review has been submitted to the Canadian
Army Journal.

Title: Moltke and His Generals – A Study in Leadership
Author: Quintin Barry
ISBN: 978-1-910294-41-3
Publisher: Helion and Company
Year: 2015
Pages: 304
Photos/ Maps: 20/9

Helmut von Moltke was one of the most influential military commanders of the 19th century. During his tenure as first Chief of the Prussian General Staff followed by Chief the Great General Staff, Moltke oversaw the strategic success of the Prussian/German forces in three major conflicts: Denmark (1864), Austro-Prussian (1866) and Franco-Prussian (1870-1871). His vision and drive created a military command structure that was unparalleled in the European theatre in the form of the Great General Staff. He was supported by a senior strategic and operational staff that was developed through this system and therefore had a common understanding of expectations.

Barry’s work undertakes a study in detail of the personality and influence that Moltke and his senior officers had on the period. His analysis is balanced, critical and insightful. His observations on the challenges of personality upon the effective execution of the mission is instructive, emphasizing that despite a common training regime and mission, allowance for and encouragement of independent action must be grounded in solid discipline and command maturity.

The author dedicates a chapter to each of the major commanders reporting into Moltke. It is very instructive that not all are seen as effective; indeed his analysis is critical of many of them as the impact of personality and hubris made themselves felt. It is revealing however, just how effective was the Prussian/German command structure in minimizing the short comings of individual commanders via the strengths of the Chief of Staff appointed to that commander. The Prussian system, refined and enhanced by Moltke, deliberately assigned ‘teams’ of Commanders and Chiefs of Staff that offset the other’s weaknesses. Strength was thus a product of the whole as opposed to the individual.

Additionally, Barry reviews the development of the ‘Commanders Intent’ as a foundation of the German command system. During a period of difficult and unreliable communications, this provided Army and Unit commanders with the parameters within which they could exercise individual initiative in order to achieve Moltke’s stated aim. Barry looks at what are the training and developmental requirements needed to effectively develop the trust and understanding in order to ensure the effectiveness of this command style.

This work is an excellent analysis of the personality and impact that Moltke’s initiatives brought to the German General staff. Beyond that, it discusses at length the methodologies needed to build and lead the command environment created by this decentralized style. Moltke’s confidence in his subordinates and his innate ability to understand when to not intervene are traits modern commanders should be striving to emulate. This book is both an insightful and worthwhile read; interesting while avoiding the pitfalls of an excessive ‘academic’ style. The production quality of the book is high with Helion’s standard attention to detail. As well, Barry provides the reader with an extensive bibliography on Moltke himself as well as the three major conflicts that he acted as overall commander of.

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