Childhood & Early Life
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was born Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, on October 26, 1800, in Parchim, Holy Roman Empire, into a well-known Prussian aristocratic family. His father was Friedrich Philipp Victor, an ace German Generalleutnant.
He, along with his family, moved to Holstein at the age of 5. Around the same time, the ‘War of the Fourth Coalition’ broke out, and both his country house and town house were attacked by the French. As a result of this, the family became impoverished.
He was inspired by his father from early childhood and dreamed about joining the military like his father. He finished his early education from a cadet school at Copenhagen. He spent two years at the cadet school with the sole aim of joining the army.
For the next several years, he carried on with his education, and kept his focus on joining the Danish army and court. When he turned 18, he became a page to the King of Denmark and later, joined the Danish infantry regiment as a second lieutenant.
He had a great future ahead in the Danish Army but he became interested in joining the Prussian Army when he was about 21 years old. This also meant that he would lose seniority that he had gained in the Danish Army, but he still went ahead with the decision.
In 1822, he became a second lieutenant in the 8th infantry regiment of the Prussian army. He also attended the general war school, which was later renamed the ‘Prussian Military Academy.’ He studied at the academy there for three years and graduated in 1826.
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He was soon recognized as a brilliant young officer and in 1832 assigned to the Prussian General Staff. There were many things that stood him apart from other military generals, especially his love for poetry and music. He pursued them as escapades from the tough military training.
He also had a good command over language and used to write as well. As an ardent history student, he read many books and also translated the famous book ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ into German.
In 1835, he was promoted to captain and right after that, he embarked on a tour of south-eastern Europe. While staying in Constantinople, he was asked by Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II to help his army get better. The Ottoman army was known for its valour but they lacked in adapting modern techniques of warfare which had become a huge concern. For the next two years, he worked with the Ottoman army, which eventually showed in their war with Egypt. Helmuth also fought in the war alongside the Ottomans. Despite their valor, the Ottoman army lost to Egypt and Helmuth escaped to save his life.
After returning back to Berlin, Helmuth wrote a detailed account of his travels and everything that he learned fighting alongside the Ottomans. He was promoted to the position of Chief of Staff of the 4th Army Corps in 1848. He served in the position for the next seven years and then he was promoted to colonel.
He was respected by army-men for his constant endeavor to devise new ways to tackle his enemies. One of the things that he was most fascinated with was the vast railway network. He began researching on how railways could be used in a war situation to their optimum benefit, which gave birth to some non-traditional but effective strategies.
In 1857, he was made Chief of the Prussian General Staff. Although he was an intricate planner, he realised it very well that no plan works effectively when one is face-to-face with the enemy. Hence, he stressed on being more flexible in the battle zone. In order to maximize his chances of winning, he focused on the transportation and mobilization of the troops to have them easily available at key points in the battle.
He began making big changes in the strategies, tactics, and mobilization processes within the army. As an ardent student of history, he also located the potential enemies of Prussia and began devising plans to tackle them effectively in case of a battle.
The time came in 1862, when Prussia was having conflicts with Denmark. Helmuth was asked to be prepared for a war. The war broke out in 1864, and while his war tactics failed to some extent in the beginning, Prussia eventually ended up winning the war. He hence earned the respect of 3King Wilhelm of Prussia.
When the unification of Germany took place in 1866, a war broke out between Prussia and Austria. Using the same war tactics, which were used against Denmark, the Prussian army emerged victorious. The credit went to Helmuth and his effective use of railroads. The fact that the Prussian army was considerably smaller in number also made the victory furthermore important.
Later in 1870, Prussia’s relations with France took a bad turn and the army was mobilized in July. Helmuth served as was named Chief of Staff for the duration the war Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), which gave him the right to issue orders, considered equivalent to royal commands.
Helmuth had prepared for war with France for many years and during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), he made full use of the tactics he had devised over the years. This led to the fall of France and the unification of Germany.
In June 1871, he was promoted to the rank of field marshal and he remained Chief of the General Staff until 1888. He retired from the army in 1888.
Family & Personal Life
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder married Mary Burt in 1840. She was his sister’s step-daughter. Mary passed away in 1868.
He passed away on April 24, 1891.
Helmuth’s namesake, his nephew Helmuth J. von Moltke, fought for Germany in World War I.