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Shall We Play a Game? [Part 3 of 10]

[Editor’s Note: The following is Jeffrey Webb’s noteworthy college thesis from 2015, written during his time at the American Military University in Charles Town, West Virginia, to be reprinted here in its entirety, in ten parts, with the author’s permission, for your reading enjoyment. Footnotes have been extracted from this presentation of Jeffrey Webb’s writings, to enhance this casual reading experience, but we’ll gladly share footnotes with anyone who is interested in seeing the sources and such.]


Written by Jeffrey Webb

Chapter 3: Moltke and Kriegspiel – Wargaming Goes to War

General von Mueffling made habit of using war games and staff rides- a form of narrative war game using actual terrain. During a staff ride von Mueffling and his subordinates would travel to a conjectural battlefield, and von Mueffling would ask them to assess the terrain and propose troop positions and movements. During his tenure at Chief of Staff, Moltke enhanced both techniques by being used in tandem. Moltke’s combination of the staff ride and wargame ran similar to his predecessor’s, but with important changes in protocol. Moltke based his scenarios and locations for staff rides on the current political situation, seeking out potential hot spots for study. Upon arrival, Moltke would ask for assessments of the ground, troop positions and possible plans- but he did so from the most junior officer present proceeding upward in seniority. Moltke was well aware that Prussian military men would be conditioned to avoid contradicting their seniors, so he allowed the junior officers the ability to elaborate their ideas and plans before their superiors could do the same. After the question and answer session, the party would retire to a nearby accommodation to play Kriegspiel scenarios with teams consisting of an even seniority split. The synergy between the Moltke-style staff ride and the immediately subsequent Kriegspiel proved to be an effective training tool greater than the sum of its exercises.

Moltke was well aware that part of France’s success under Napoleon had been due to Napoleon’s genius, and the meritocratic nature of Napoleon’s military. With Prussia being staunchly monarchist, Moltke could be assured that a portion of his generals and senior officers would be placed by blood rather than talent. Moltke saw wargaming as the solution to both these problems- constant wargaming gave the opportunity for officers with talent to show their abilities before the muskets started firing. In addition, he could identify the talented commoners and attach them as chiefs of staff to the noblemen whose talent for command might not be as sharp. With the ability to identify and place men of above-average military ability across the Prussian army, Moltke hoped to negate the singular genius advantage that had appeared when Napoleon led France. The Prussians referred to this concept as “collective genius.”

Moltke established the staff corps to assist in putting the collective genius model into place. Each noble officer’s chief of staff would come from the War College, and that college would put the applicants through their paces with a tough curriculum that included an emphasis on wargaming. Moltke even made it a requirement that each applicant to the War College submit with their application a letter from their local commander stating that the applicant had satisfactorily been the senior referee in a command-wide war game. Since each war game could only have a single senior referee, this meant that each applicant from each command equaled one full-command war game being run somewhere in the Prussian army.

The Prussians dealt a resounding defeat to Austria in the Six Weeks War of 1866. The Franco-Prussian War arrived in 1870, and by many accounts was the proof that wargaming was paying off for the Prussian army. General Kraft, who was the Prince of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen (1827-1892) wrote glowingly of the effect of wargaming on the Prussian army. “The ability to quickly arrive at decisions and the cheerful assumption of responsibility which characterized our officers in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was in no small measure due to war games.” From a modern eye, Matt Caffrey agrees with Kraft. “Oddly enough Moltke and Prussia won a series of wars, usually against opponents with larger forces that were technologically equivalent. There was near universal agreement that Prussia’s victories were due to generalship. This advantage in generalship was produced by her War College and her general staff system, and behind the success of both stood wargaming.”

Caffrey goes on to suggest a link between the date when a nation was defeated by Prussia and the date of adoption of wargaming by that nation’s military.  In Caffrey’s estimation, nations beaten by Germany quickly adopted Germany’s use of wargaming to avoid a repeat occurrence.

Another nation whose history with wargaming is of particular note at this period is Russia. The future Tsar and future Kaiser, Nicholas II and Wilhelm II as children played a sand table Kriegspiel against one another. The Russian general staff issued a very similar order to Moltke’s decreeing that wargaming should be practiced across the Russian army. Much as with the Prussian army, the concept did not gain immediate acceptance. During a 1906 investigation into the poor performance of Russian forces following the Russo-Japanese War, the commission looking into the defeat concluded that the Japanese had made great use of wargames in their operational planning while the Russians had not. This is not the sole reason cited, but it is an important factor to consider. War games allowed for the practice in maneuver and control of troops where physical exercises with divisions or corps would be impractical at best. The additional practice and theoretical exercises permitted the Prussian and Japanese forces to excel where the lack of that same experience contributed to the defeat of their opponents.

During the period in which Russia was failing to wargame effectively, more developments in Germany continued to refine the practice in German service.  In 1876 Kriegspiel was revised yet again, this time by Colonel Jules von Verdy du Vernois (1832-1910), a military writer known for his concepts of training. His contribution to Kriegspiel might be seen as a step backward— it began a heated debate over how the war game should be played. Verdy argued that the charts, tables and other mathematical requirements of Kriegspiel as written were daunting to players and referees alike, and that the ultimate result of many of the table references had little influence on the reactions of the players in any case. His solution to the problem was taken from the policies of Moltke himself— give the referee the authority to declare the result of combat. When on staff rides, Moltke did not consult charts or dice to determine the result of proposed actions by his officers, he simply evaluated the situation through his own experience and made a declaration of the result. This was how the game ought to be played, argued Verdy, as the current processes involved slowed the game to a crawl and inhibited engagement with the players. Verdy, and like-minded Major Wilhelm von Meckel (1842-1905) argued for “free Kriegspiel” in various degrees, enhancing the authority of the referee.

The argument between realism and playability, between “rigid” and “free” Kriegspiel, preoccupied military planners and caused long-running arguments between proponents of both types of game. Advocates of the more playable approach derided the opposition as clinging to a game so complex as to be uselessly cumbersome. The devotees of the rigid form of the game thought their detractor’s games were not reflective of reality, and more game than simulation. Some writers began to insist on terms like “map maneuvers,” eschewing the word “game” altogether as unworthy of the practical military exercise into which Kriegspiels had evolved.

By the end of the 19th century, the German Kriegspiel had been refined by Verdy and others into three specific types of game. Kleine Kriegspiel, or small wargame, dealt with games with less than a regiment per side. Grosse Kriegspiel – large wargame – handled numbers up to a division on each side, while Strategische Kriegspiel – strategic war game — was designed to reflect operations at the army corps level. The strategic game was first practiced in 1848 with a scenario dealing with a war between Austria and Prussia— a conflict that would actually occur less than two decades later. In the 1880s it became standard for German forces to hold regiment-sized war games once per month in the summer and more frequently during winter months. The larger scale games began to be used to study logistics – supply and transportation issues. These games were run at the division and corps levels, with general staff officers playing strategic games to study the operations of entire armies. Kriegspiel had become a planning tool as well as a training tool.

It was during this time that the concept of the war game began to take hold with the United States. Strategos was published in 1890 by Charles A. L. Totten, a Captain in the 4th US Cavalry. Totten claims not to have known about Kriegspiel when he began his work on his own wargame in 1880, but included many of the German ideas he was exposed to between his manuscript’s genesis and its publication ten years later. Totten’s claim to introduction of wargaming to the US military is often overlooked in favor of Major W.R. Livermore of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Livermore’s 1883 publication used information gleaned in Prussia’s recent wars and the American Civil War where he made an important discovery— the tables being used in German Kriegspiel predicted noticeably lower casualties than historical data would indicate. Livermore adjusted his own tables to match historic records of engagements so as to make his own game mirror reality more closely. Livermore’s hope was to create an American Kriegspiel-equivalent that would serve the US Army as well as the German game served the German military.

Livermore met a staunch opponent to the adoption of American wargaming in his own Chief of Staff— William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman felt wargames did not take the human factor of the soldiers involved into account. “Wargames depict men as if they were blocks of wood, they are not blocks of wood but human beings who are seized by fear and sustained by leadership.” The tables of Kriegspiel accounted for attrition— but not morale. Livermore would have to look elsewhere for acceptance of his ideas. He found acceptance at the hands of his friend William McCarty Little, who helped found the Naval War College.

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