Q: I would ask Robert Citino to rate the German or Prussian military commanders and give his top 10, from the Age of Frederick to 1945.
A: I think much of what we see as a German “genius for war” actually has its roots in the old Kingdom of Prussia, thus my list measuring greatness runs in roughly reverse chronological order. So, backward march!
10. Heinz Guderian
An important theoretician of armored warfare during the interwar era, Guderian spearheaded the great Panzer drive through the Ardennes in 1940, and his thrust across the central front of the Soviet Union in 1941, sealing off great Kessels (pockets, or cauldrons) at Bialystok, Minsk, and Smolensk, practically defines the art of Bewegungskrieg (the war of movement).
During the 1942 campaign, Mackensen’s III Panzer Corps may well have set a new land-speed record. Leading off at Kharkov in May, he was at the point of First Panzer Army’s drive into the Don bend, into the city of Rostov, and then again for the drive into the Caucasus in August. By the end of the campaign in November, Mackensen’s command was a single mile from the gateway city of Ordzhonikidze on the Georgian military road. He was 1,600 miles from Berlin at the time.
8. Erich von Manstein
Manstein was a genius at mechanized operations. Both as a planner (the 1940 drive through the Ardennes) and operator (signal victories in the Crimea in 1942 and the dramatic restoration of the German defensive front in late 1943), he set a high standard.
7. Georg von Derfflinger
Derfflinger was the first great field marshal in Prussian history. His relationship with the Great Elector Friedrich Wilhelm was a stormy one, made worse by Derfflinger’s insistence that “No one advances ahead of me.” His greatest moment came at age 69 when his dash from Schweinfurt to Magdeburg in 1675 caught the Swedish army napping and led to the great Prussian triumph at Fehrbellin.
6. Friedrich Wilhelm von Seydlitz
A debonair cavalry commander under Frederick the Great, Seydlitz led the cavalry charge into the center of the Austrian positions at Kolin, a bold action that helped save the Prussian army. Leapfrogging numerous older officers, he was given command of the cavalry in the Rossbach campaign. He then led the charge that caught the Franco-Imperial army in march column and routed it in 20 minutes.
5. Friedrich Karl
Known as the Red Prince, Karl was army commander in the Wars of German Unification. The prince touched off the battle of Königgrätz in 1866 by attacking an Austrian army twice the size of his own; he believed willpower could overcome poor odds. Looking back at the fight at Mars-la-Tour in 1870, he mused “You’ve never lost a battle if you don’t have the feeling you’re beaten—and I didn’t have that feeling.”
4. Friedrich Wilhelm, the Great Elector
The Elector created the Prussian Army. He commanded it in its first great victory (over the Poles at Warsaw in 1656); he made his country a player by defeating the feared Swedes at Fehrbellin in 1675; then, in his greatest campaign, he beat them again in East Prussia in the Winter Campaign of 1678–1679 (with his lead elements riding sleighs). He invented the kurtz und vives (short and lively) war—a model for all later Prussian and German commanders.
3. Gebhard von Blücher
The hero of Waterloo was an oddball who wedded innate battlefield aggression to a visceral hatred of the French enemy he faced. He apparently never did learn how to read a map properly, but as one later officer put it, old “Marshal Forward” rarely stopped to ask, “How strong is the enemy?” He preferred a much simpler question: “Where is he?”
2. Helmuth von Moltke (the Elder)
Theoretician and war fighter, Moltke carried out reforms in the Prussian army in the 1850s, equipped troops with the breechloading rifle, and improved Prussia’s railroads. From 1864–1871, he led the army in three successful wars. His understanding of the role of chance in the modern campaign and his willingness to allow his commanders initiative in the field make him relevant today.
1. Frederick the Great
The greatest of them all, Frederick was the most aggressive battlefield commander of the 18th century. His standing order to his cavalry commanders to get their charge in first or face dismissal, his belief that “the Prussian army always attacks,” his repeated willingness to take on armies that vastly outnumbered him: all these added up to a crucial moral advantage over his adversaries. The 1757 campaign, with its back-to-back smashing of the Franco-Imperial Army at Rossbach in November 1757 and the Austrians at Leuthen in December, made him immortal.
Robert M. Citino, professor of European history at the University of North Texas, has written numerous histories, including The German Way of War, Death of the Wehrmacht, and Quest for Decisive Victory.
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