The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators

Khalid Elhassan - February 25, 2022

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The German General Staff, originally the Prussian General Staff and officially Great General Staff , was a full-time body at the head of the Prussian Army and later, the German Army. Imgur

4. Adapting to the Massive Increase in Numbers and Scope of Modern Warfare

Helmuth von Moltke is often known as Moltke the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, who led Germany’s army at the start of World War I. The elder Moltke made the commander’s staff a professional and permanent body. He created an infrastructure to handle basic matters such as logistics and supply, transport, intelligence, and coordination. The commander, relieved of such chores, was thus freed to concentrate on strategy and tactics. Moltke’s Great General Staff concept was copied by armies the world over, all of which eventually established their own general staff.

Moltke was one of the first to realize that the days when a commander could exercise complete control over an army, such as in the Napoleonic Wars, were over. By the second half of the nineteenth-century armies had simply gotten too big. Their fields of battle and theaters of operations had also grown massive, to such an extent that an army commander could no longer see all his forces from a command post atop a hill. In this new environment, senior commanders had to explain their intent to subordinates, then grant them autonomy and trust them to use their own initiative to realize the commander’s intent.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Prussian soldiers march to the front during the Franco-Prussian War. Reddit

3. The Most Efficient Military Machine of its Day

Rather than give his subordinates detailed orders, Helmuth von Moltke gave them clearly defined goals, the forces needed to accomplish them, and a time frame in which to fulfill their tasks. How to accomplish the goal was largely left to the subordinate’s discretion. That required major changes in officer training to encourage initiative and independent thought. It is ironic, in a way, because German soldiers are often thought of as robotic automatons. Since Moltke’s day, however, few if any armies have allowed their soldiers as much discretion, or trusted them to use their own initiative, as much as Germany’s.

Moltke’s innovations made the Prussian army the world’s most efficient military machine. It demonstrated that in a series of swift and successful wars en route to the unification of Germany under Prussia’s leadership. First, it defeated the Danes in 1864. Next, it crushed the Austrians in 1866, in accordance was plans drawn by Moltke. Then Prussia took on France, whose army was reputedly the world’s best. Moltke drew the plans for the Franco-Prussian War, 1870 – 1871, and led the army in the execution of his design. The result was a stunning Prussian victory, capped by the creation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirror in Versailles.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao and Chinese communist guerrillas in the 1930s. BBC

2. The Chinese Commander Who Revolutionized Guerrilla and Insurgency War

Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976), the communist revolutionary who founded the People’s Republic of China, was one of the most original military minds of the twentieth century. He literally wrote the book on the modern theory of insurgency, On Guerrilla Warfare. In it, he described a revolutionary methodology to defeat Japanese invaders, based on strategies and tactics honed during Mao’s struggle against China’s Nationalist government. Mao developed a Theory of People’s War that divided popular insurgencies into three stages. Stage One sets out to win popular support with the distribution of propaganda, and attacks against the organs of an unpopular government. Stage Two sees an escalation, with attacks directed against the government’s military forces and vital institutions.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Chinese communist guerrillas of the 8th Route Army. Imgur

In Stage Three, things are further ratcheted up with a turn to conventional warfare. This is when the revolutionary general and his forces make a bid to capture the cities, overthrow the government, and seize control of the country. It was a flexible doctrine, and shifts between stages can go in either direction, depending on circumstances. Also, the stages need not be uniform throughout the entire country but could vary based on local conditions. Mao’s insurgents fought both the Japanese and the Nationalist Chinese, and ultimately prevailed. They used small groups of combatants in raids and ambushes to defeat bigger and less mobile armies. The discomfited the Japanese, and eventually secured the communists’ victory in China.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao addresses a group of his followers in 1944. Flickr

1. A Guerrilla Warfare Model Followed by Insurgents to This Day

Mao Zedong summarized his revolutionary guerilla methodology as: “When the enemy advances, we retreat. When the enemy rests, we harass. When the enemy tires, we attack. When the enemy retreats we advance“. His methods became a model followed by numerous insurgencies around the world, as they fought against colonialism and oppressive native regimes. To win hearts and minds, Mao’s insurgents treated the peasants with a respect that stood in stark contrast with the contempt meted them by their rulers. Be those rulers Japanese invaders or Chinese landed gentry and government officials. Revolutionaries also tied the peasants’ economic interests to the success of the revolution, via a redistribution of land, and the abolition of feudal-type dues.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao Zedong in his younger days. Wikimedia

At a visceral level, as Maoists and their emulators discovered, the peasants and the disadvantaged craved simple respect. They craved it even more than the economic benefits promised by revolution. They also harbored significant resentment against the upper classes who had exploited and looked down upon them for so long. Such stored resentments are a powerful resource that Mao urged revolutionaries to tap. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the communists went on to win control of China in 1949, and Mao’s insurgency model was later utilized to great effect throughout the Developing World. The Viet Minh in particular successfully adapted Maoist methods to local conditions and used them to defeat Vietnam’s French colonial masters. They then waged a protracted war to unify a divided Vietnam and succeeded despite massive American support for and direct intervention on behalf of the government of South Vietnam.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Biography – Philip of Macedon

Bucholz, Arden – Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871 (2001)

Chandler, David G. – The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier (1966)

Davis, Burke – Sherman’s March (2016)

De Groot, Gerard J. – The Bomb: A Life (2004)

Duffy, Christopher – Frederick the Great: A Military Life (1985)

Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt – The Military Life of Gustavus Adolphus, Father of Modern War (1969)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Gonzalo de Cordoba, Spanish Military Commander

Encyclopedia Britannica – Maurice, Stadholder of the Netherlands

Foote, Shelby – The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox (1974)

Hanson, Victor Davis – The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny (2001)

History of Macedonia – Philip II of Macedonia

History Net – Frederick the Great: The First Modern Military Celebrity

Forster, Stig, Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 10, 1987, Issue 2 – Facing “People’s War”: Moltke the Elder and Germany’s Military Options After 1871

History Collection – 12 Generals You Won’t Believe Switched Sides and Defected to the Enemy

Lamb, Harold – Hannibal: One Man Against Rome (1958)

Livius – Hannibal Barca

Marxists Internet Archive – On Guerrilla Warfare

Nimwegen, Olaf van – The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions, 1588 – 1688 (2010)

Purcell, Mary – The Great Captain: Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba (1962)

Searching in History – Military Innovation: Gustavus Adolphus

Sherman, William T. – Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (2019 Wentworth Press Edition)

Short, Philip – Mao: A Life (2001)

Thompson, James Matthew – Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall (1952)

Thrillist – The Most Badass Generals in US History

World History Encyclopedia – Epaminondas

Worthington, Ian – Philip II of Macedonia (2008)