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Reader's Companion to Military History

General Staff

No organized army has ever taken the field without a body of assistants to the commander. From ancient times to the eighteenth century, their primary responsibilities lay in administration. Staff officers coordinated supply arrangements and legal systems, assisted in deploying troops for battle, and carried messages once the fighting started. Staffs were small, functioning as military households as much as formal organizations. Special training was not a prerequisite for appointment. Commanders like Frederick the Great preferred to rely on their own reason and intuition rather than turn to subordinates for counsel on anything but matters of detail.

The General Staff in a modern sense first took shape in the Napoleonic Wars. The French Revolution, with its improvised mass armies and rapidly promoted generals, put a premium on men who could bring order out of well-intentioned chaos. One of them, Louis Berthier, was assigned to the Army of Italy in 1795. When Napoleon took command, he saw the value of Berthier's emphasis on organization and centralization. In its ultimate elaboration of Berthier's system, Napoleon's headquarters combined the functions of a personal household, an imperial administration, and a military planning staff. The planning staff, under Berthier's direct control, was responsible for troop movements, supply, and personnel matters. By 1812 at the latest, the limitations of this model were clear. Depending essentially on a single directing mind, its efficiency diminished as the scale of warfare increased.

Prussia took a different track. Initially its General Staff officers were technicians, expected to give advice only when asked. In the "pre-reform" period prior to 1806, however, it was reorganized, and its functions were expanded to include administering intelligence, making contingency plans, and studying the theory and practice of war. A policy of rotating officers between staff and line assignments was adopted as well. After 1806 a war academy provided a steady supply of trained middle-ranking officers. Arguably even more important was the creation of permanent staffs for the divisions and army corps organized under the Defense Law of 1814.

This linking of the General Staff in Berlin with the staffs of the fighting formations greatly facilitated the process of creating a nervous system for an army of citizen conscripts. Prussia, and later Germany, could count on a substantial body of officers with a common intellectual experience who also did regular turns of troop duty. This encouraged formation commanders to view their chiefs of staff as colleagues rather than subordinates or rivals.

The Prussian-German General Staff's essential mission was preparing for war. Mapmaking, gathering intelligence, preparing mobilization plans, coordinating railway schedules—these routine tasks were the material from which careers were made. The eventual result was tunnel vision: a focus on tactical and operational concerns to the eclipse, then the virtual exclusion, of strategic and grand-strategy issues. By the beginning of World War I, the General Staff had become the nodal point of German policy making. This, however, was a role for which it was in no way prepared.

Despite its successes in 1866 and 1870-1871 (see Seven Weeks' War and Franco-Prussian War), the German model's political implications meant it found few imitators. Both Britain and the powers of the Continent significantly restricted their General Staffs' functions to military affairs and kept their duties subdivided. Navy and air force staffs followed a similar pattern, in good part because of the higher levels of technical demands made by their respective services.

Tsarist, then Soviet, Russia came closest among the twentieth century's great powers to imitating the German model, but the Red Army was kept throughout its existence firmly under the supervision of the political authorities. Under Adolf Hitler the German General Staff was similarly and systematically limited in its functions. The Federal Republic of Germany eschewed any equivalent organization when creating the Bundeswehr. The United States has also continued to resist the concept of a supreme General Staff, favoring instead a committee system in which the service chiefs of the army, navy, air force, and marine corps serve on an equal basis. Often criticized as cumbersome and tending to the lowest common denominator in decision making, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with some modifications in the aftermath of Vietnam, demonstrated a high level of efficiency during the Gulf War. For all the praise heaped on the German system, in short, the Napoleonic model of a General Staff, with limited military functions and under strict political control, appears to have had a longer and more successful life.

Martin van Creveld, Command in War (1985).

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