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Von Moltke

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

1800-1891

CENTRAL FIGURE OF THE FRANCO-PRUSSIAN WAR

Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke, one of the ablest military strategists of modern times, was born at Parchim, a little village in Mecklenburg, on October 26, 1800. Baron Fritz von Moltke, his father, belonged to one of the oldest families in the German Empire. His mother was the daughter of Financial Councilor Paschen, a wealthy merchant of Hamburg. As a child, Helmuth lived at Lübeck. In that city the future general first encountered the soldiers of France. After Napoleon had become Emperor, defeated the allied armies of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, Blücher with-drew to Lübeck and 60,000 French troops pursued him. The city was sacked, and in the devastation which followed Baron Moltke's house and property suffered like those of thousands of other residents of the city. It practically ruined Baron Moltke and left him a poor man. With his fortune gone, the question of the education of his children became a serious matter. Helmuth, when eleven years of age, was taken in charge by General Lorenz, who prepared him for the military academy at Copenhagen. In the fall of 1811 Helmuth and his brother became pupils of that institution. Their father was unable to pay their expenses and they were enrolled as free State pupils. The discipline at the school was of the utmost rigor and young Moltke was thus early taught to endure hardships without complaining. In 1866, in writing of this period of his life, he says, "without friends or relatives in a strange city, we passed a joyless childhood. The discipline was severe, even hard and even to-day, when my judgment has become impartial in regard to it, I must say that it was too hard and too severe. We were obliged, however, to accustom ourselves to deprivations of all kinds at an early age. That was the only saving feature of our stay." Moltke remained in the academy seven years. He mastered the Danish language, and the school records, still preserved, show him to have been a good pupil and a diligent student. His final examination was passed with credit in 1818. It was necessary for him to serve as a page in the Court of Denmark for one year after completing his academical course, in order to repay the King for the money expended on his education. Following his service in the court, Moltke, in 1819, was made a lieutenant in the Oldenburg Infantry. At the time he received his first commission he was a tall slender youth, possessed of a great deal of energy and industrious and faithful to his duty. In 1822, he resigned his commission in the army of Denmark and was appointed second lieutenant in the Eighth Prussian Regiment of Infantry. After a year had elapsed, he was sent to the Academy of War in Berlin. He was poor, but employed all of his earnings in obtaining extra lessons in French and English. It was during his course at Berlin that a desire for travel in foreign countries was aroused in Moltke. He graduated and was assigned to the topographical department of the army. From the date when he finished the academy work at Berlin until 1835 von Moltke followed the daily routine of a Prussian soldier. In 1835 he went to Turkey with the intention of remaining abroad a few months. His stay, however, lengthened into four years, as he was requested by the Sultan to enter the Turkish service. Although comparatively young and with the most brilliant period of his career still before him, the soldier was called upon to aid in applying the Prussian system of military organization to Turkey. In writing of his life in the Prussian army, Moltke states that there was nothing to record but dates and dates again. In the Turkish army, however, his career was full of incidents and adventure. He traveled about in Asia Minor and participated in the campaign against Mehemet Ali. His particular knowledge of military science along certain lines was here brought into constant play. The Sultan traveled through Rumelia and Bulgaria and Moltke served as his escort. He prepared an extensive study of the Turkish army, drew plans of Constantinople and the Dardanelles and surveyed both banks of the Bosphorus. His inspection of the armies, construction of bridges, aqueducts and palaces, proved of much value to the Sultan, and the ruler bestowed many marks of honor upon the Prussian soldier. He was fond of sketching and of writing of matters which came under his observation, and amused the women and children in the streets of Constantinople by drawing their likenesses. During all of this time, however, his stay in the Orient was under the orders of his sovereign and he was securing complete and highly valuable information as to the strategic operation and the direction of vast armies which was to stand him in good stead in serving his Fatherland. Finally he returned to Prussia, and the military duties there awaiting him. In 1841 Moltke married Marie Burt, daughter of John Heytinger Burt, an Englishman. Appointed Adjutant of Prince Henry of Prussia in 1845, Moltke accompanied his chief to Rome. He had further opportunities for topographical studies around Rome and the Campagna, and did not fail to take advantage of them. Prince Henry died, and after a sojourn of less than a year in Italy, Moltke returned to Prussia. He prepared the "Contorni di Roma," which are regarded as authoritive. His next assignment took him to Coblenz, when he was again placed on the general staff. His advancement was rapid, and in 1855 he was made Adjutant to the Crown Prince. He traveled through England, Scotland, Russia, and France. It was not until he had reached the age of fifty-seven years that Moltke's really active service for Prussia began. In 1857, King Frederick William IV, who afterward abdicated, turned the throne and the affairs of state over to his brother, Prince William. General von Manteuffel was summoned to a position in the Cabinet and Moltke succeeded him as chief of the general staff. Three years later, as a result of events that had transpired in the meantime, it devolved upon Moltke to make the necessary preparations for a war with France. Much difficulty had been experienced in the unification of Germany on account of the jealousy between Prussia and Austria, each nation insisting that it should be the nucleus about which an Empire was to be formed. When, in 1849, there was a revolt in Hungary, Prussia had attempted to unite Germany, leaving out Austria. Prussia was joined by a number of States. Austria made a similar attempt and was also aided by a powerful alliance of States. Disputes over territory arose and civil war was with difficulty averted. A temporary confederation was again finally established. In 1859 Austria made war against Sardinia and attempted to draw Prussia into the struggle, but without success. In 1861, upon the death of King Frederick William IV, Prince William took the title of William I, and Otto von Bismarck became his Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. The confederate relations of Austria and Prussia were unsatisfactory, but the jealousy was kept in abeyance through a dispute with Denmark over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. Before a French war could be under-taken, therefore, it became necessary to dispose of the issue with Denmark. Moltke directed the movements in the campaigns and to him is conceded the credit of the favorable results for Germany. Prussia and Austria joined forces against the common enemy. The united armies crossed the Eider in February, 1864, and drove the Danes back from Danewerk. The fortress of Düppel was taken, and after continued defeat and loss, Denmark consented to relinquish her claims upon the Duchies of Schleswig, Holstein, and Lauenburg in favor of Austria and Prussia. After the close of this war, Austria and Prussia became involved in a dispute over the spoils the three Duchies named. Each insisted that the other should not have possession of the disputed territory. Although this affair was finally adjusted in an amicable manner, other difficulties arose which sustained the jealousy and friction between the two countries. In June, 1866, Italy joined with Prussia in declaring war against Austria, and the "Six Weeks' War" was commenced. Prussia's allies were defeated at Custozza. An important engagement took place at Königgrätz between the Prussians and Austrians, in which the latter were badly defeated. General Benedek, in command of the Austrian army, having lost 40,000 in previous battles, had retreated to Königgrätz on June 30th. The movement of the Austrian army had been concealed from Moltke and King William for some time. Then two Prussian armies were dispatched by different routes, and the attack was made on July 3d. The Austrians could not withstand the fire from the Prussian needle guns, and after fighting almost all day they were finally compelled to retreat. Throughout this engagement Moltke had been in the saddle for fourteen hours, having, during that time, been without food, except for a piece of sausage which had been given to him by a soldier. Thus Moltke demonstrated that he was, even though sixty-six years of age, capable of enduring hardship as well as the most active of his men. Austria's might had been broken, and Bismarck saw the opportunity of establishing greater Prussian power. In July, 187o, Napoleon III of France declared war against Germany, and Moltke was again placed in the position of director of the military movements. It had probably been Napoleon's hope that the Germans of the south, if they did not become active allies of the French, would at least remain neutral during the conflict. But the States, north and south, once more united against a common enemy, and 1,000,000 men were soon in the field under the King of Prussia. The French crossed the frontier announcing that they would dictate peace at Berlin. The first battle of importance after this invasion commenced took place August 4, 1870, at Weissenburg. The French were defeated, and the next combat was fought at Wörth, on French territory. The French army was under command of Marshal MacMahon, and again suffered defeat. Moltke says the German loss in this battle, which took place August 6th, was 489 officers and 10,000 men. The Germans captured 200 French officers and 9,000 prisoners. The total loss of the French, according to Moltke, was so great and the demoralization so complete as to make the troops unmanageable. On August 14th the battle of Colombey-Nouilly was fought. It resulted in, a victory for the German arms, although they lost 5,000 men in the engagement, while the French lost but 3,600. The greatest cavalry combat of the war was fought near Mars-La-Tour, August 6th, and each of the contending forces lost 16,000 men. The right wing of the French army was now compelled to abandon all offensive movements. Moltke brought his strategic ability into play in the plans for the subsequent campaign. August 18th the French were again defeated near Gravelotte. St. Privat was taken with 2,000 prisoners, and Amanvillers was burned. The German loss in these engagements amounted to 20,584 men and the French loss 13,000 men in killed, wounded, and prisoners. On August 30th two large divisions of the con-tending forces met at Beaumont and the French suffered a severe defeat, having 1,800 killed and losing 3,000 in prisoners, as well as almost all of their baggage, treasure, and ammunition. Two days later the memorable battle of Sedan was fought. The French made a gallant but vain resistance, and after a bitter struggle, hemmed in on every hand by the victorious Germans, Napoleon delivered his sword to King William. General von Wimpffen arranged the surrender of the French army with General Moltke. The German military director insisted upon the disarmament and detention of the entire French army, and on the morning of Sept. 2d capitulation was signed upon these terms. This victory cost the German armies 8,500 men and 460 officers. The French lost 17,000 men killed, 21,000 taken prisoners during the action, and 83,000 surrendered. Moltke says of Sedan: "The trophies taken at Sedan consisted of three standards, 419 field pieces, and 139 guns, 66,000 stands of arms, over 1,000 baggage wagons, and 6,000 horses fit for service. With the surrender of this army, imperialism in France was extinct." After Sedan two of the German armies marched upon the French capital, which was invested September 19th. Six army corps were drawn up in front of the city on a line of eleven miles. The French proposed an armistice, but rejected the conditions made by the Germans. The third German army had occupied the country to the south and southeast, and other forces were stationed on the north and north-east. The French were repeatedly beaten in attempts to break through this line of investments. A new French army was organized, with the purpose of relieving Paris, but at this juncture a fresh disaster befell the French. Metz, in possession of Marshal Bazaine, was surrounded by German forces and compelled to surrender on October 27th. During the siege of seventy-two days, Moltke says, "the Germans had lost 240 officers and 5,500 men in killed and wounded. Six thousand French officers and 167,000 men were taken prisoners, besides 20,000 sick who could not be at once removed, making about 200,000 in all. Fifty-six Imperial eagles, 622 field, and 2,876 fortress guns, 72 mitrailleuses, and 260,000 small arms fell into the hands of the Germans." Early in January of the following year the French made the final attempt to break through the German lines and escape from Paris. They were driven back with heavy loss, and finally, on January 28th the capital surrendered. On May 10, 1871, the final treaty of peace was signed by representatives of France and Germany. By this Treaty of Frankfort, France was compelled to give up to the Germans the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and to pay an indemnity of 5,000,-000,000 francs. Moltke returned to Prussia and to United Germany. While he had been directing the movements of armies against the French, the unification of the various States had been accomplished. In November, 187o, treaties had been made with the South German States. In December the German sovereigns had proposed that the President of the Confederation should be given the title of the German Emperor. King William had accordingly been solemnly proclaimed Emperor of Germany, January 18, 1871. The war which the German States waged in common had done much to make coalition possible. Moltke was received by his Emperor and by his countrymen with may marks of distinguished gratitude and honor. He became the leading military official in the Empire. His closing years were of more or less active service for his country. He purchased the estate of Creisau and took great pleasure in beautifying the parks about his castle and in the companionship of the members of his own family. He took considerable exercise even after he had passed the number of years usually allotted to men. His reserved nature led him to indulge in such pastimes as whist in preference to society. He was a lover of children and spent much of his time with his great-nephews and great-nieces. On the ninetieth anniversary of his birth the German Nation celebrated the event. April 24, 1891, he breathed his last at Berlin. Several important additions to historical literature came from Moltke's pen, among them being the "Letters from Turkey," and the "Campaign in Turkey," the "Italian Campaign of 1859," and the "History of the Franco-Prussian War."

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