Prussia gained ascendancy over Austria and thus dominion of Germany through the art of war by one of its ablest commanders, Moltke the Elder. With Austria defeated at the decisive battle of Koniggratz (1866), Prussia stood alone for the coveted leadership of Germany; therefore, when France declared war on Prussia (1870) to prevent German unification, ironically this afforded Prussia the opportunity to fulfill its destiny. Napoleon III intended to cut Prussia off from the southern German republics; however, Prussia called the other German republics to arms, not for defense, but for a joint attack against the French vanguard, in French territory. The French seriously underestimated Prussia's capacity to rapidly deploy its seemingly disparate forces into one cohesive whole. How did Prussia accomplish this epic task? At the strategic level Prussia was able to marshal all of its forces under one central command, but at the tactical level the subordinate commanders were permitted the greatest independence possible to take the initiative (Selbstatigkeit).
Moltke states that if one makes a mistake during the initial deployment, one cannot compensate for it later. As the forces evolve, the error propagates concentrically outward like a chain reaction, jeopardizing the outcome of the entire campaign. The French deployment during the Franco-Prussian war suffered from such deficiencies.
According to Moltke, during the decision phase the commander must champion only one perspective to the green table. Once he has arrived at a decision, although it may not be the best, his subordinates should execute it resolutely. The consistent execution of even a mediocre plan will more often lead to victory (in the long-run) than an inconsistent execution of a great plan; hence, Molke's maxim that `strategy grows silent in the face of the need for a tactical victory'. Moltke states that only a layman believes that it is possible to foresee and predict causal events deterministically in war.
Moltke counsels commanders with one force just how vulnerable they are to envelopment when they maneuver their force between two opposing formations with 'interior lines' and `central position'. This appears to be a trivial statement; however, one must realize that `interior lines' was Napoleon's favorite attack maneuver, which he implemented so successfully against numerically superior but divided forces (See The Campaigns of Napoleon by David G. Chandler). Napoleon I succeeded because he adroitly maneuvered his one force directly, halfway between the two opposing forces, which effectively neutralized his opponents from acting in concert and from supporting one another. Then he would march to attack one of the two, but the other opponent had to march twice as far (to support), hence, Napoleon I could concentrate on defeating the first opponent and then countermarch to defeat the second opponent that arrived too late, thus, his single force fought as well as two. During the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III intended to implement a similar maneuver to cut Prussia off from south Germany. First, he hoped to defeat Prussia, alone, which would entice Austria and Italy into forming a triumvirate with him. Then he hoped the triumvirate would attack the south German Confederation.
During the Franco-Prussian war, Prussia was victorious in battle, but as Moltke says, `at what a cost'. It seems to me that Prussia's losses were rather high, primarily because of their reluctance to change plans and to break off any engagement once it began. Then the `peoples army' arose like a phoenix in the midst of the vanquished French field armies, which made the consummation of Moltke's final victory elusive. He could not pursue all the remaining military targets; therefore, he just focused on one-Paris. He surrounded the French capital with the preponderance of his remaining forces (150,000) because it was the only strategic option left open to him.
The commander should position himself with his uncommitted reserves to ensure that they are committed where and when they may be of greatest service; he should not be at the front with units already committed. He should send reserves to those areas where the forward units are already nearly winning, thereby, overcoming these areas of resistance faster, with fewer losses by their timely intervention. Secondly, he should endeavor to bolster tenuous positions or those that are in danger of being lost.
The attack has the advantage of dictating the course of events to the defender who must conform to them. The advantages are greater morale and confidence gained through the knowledge of the time and place of the attack. The best method of attack is to envelope the opponent with two forces. First, one must attack the opponent frontally with one force to pin down as much of their main force as possible. Then the second force must attack the opponent's flank. Moltke believed that both the frontal and flank attacks should be performed simultaneously, however, if I were attacking the flank, I would wait until it has been sufficiently denuded, since the opponent will be drawing forces from it to counter the frontal attack (i.e., feint). The flank attack is usually the center of gravity (Schwerpunkt), but the frontal attack may be the center of gravity as well. There should be a reserve element to cover the force attacking the opponent's flank. An example of precisely this method took place during the battle of Koniginhof (Austria, 1866).
This book is a compendium of essays written by v. Moltke that covers many practical aspects of the art of war with historical examples. Many of these methods are just as valid today as they were in 1860. Moltke writes very lucidly with great candor, which is precisely what one would expect of a Prussian Officer.