On Trusting Experts…and Which Experts to Trust

August 1, 1914. As Europe moved inexorably toward catastrophe, Kaiser Wilhelm II was getting cold feet at the prospect of a two-front war. When a telegram arrived suggesting that the war might be contained to a Germany-vs-Russia conflict, the Kaiser jumped at the opportunity.

The telegram was from Prince Lichnowsky, the German ambassador in London, reporting on a conversation with the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey. As Lichnowsky interpreted Grey’s remarks, England would stay neutral–and also guarantee France’s neutrality–if Germany would confine herself to attacking Russia and would promise not to attack France. (Which was a misinterpretation–but more on that later.)

Immediately, the Kaiser called in General von Moltke, the Chief of Staff, and gave him his new marching orders: turn around the troops destined for the attack in the west, and redirect them to the eastern front. Barbara Tuchman writes of Moltke’s reaction.

Aghast at the thought of his marvelous mobilization wrenched into reverse, Moltke refused point-blank. For ten years, first as assistant to Schlieffen, then as his successor, Moltke’s job had been planning for this day, The Day, Der Tag, for which all Germany’s energies were gathered, on which the march to final mastery of Europe would begin. It weighed upon him with an oppressive, almost unbearable responsibility…Now, on the climactic night of August 1, Moltke was in no mood for any more of the Kaiser’s meddling with serious military matters, or with medling of any kind of the fixed arrangements. To turn around the deployment of a million men from west to east at the very moment of departure would have taken a more iron nerve than Moltke disposed of. He saw a vision of the deployment crumbling apart in confusion, supplies here, soldiers there, ammunation lost in the midle, companies without officers, divisions without staffs, and those 11,000 trains, each exquisitely scheduled to click over specified tacks at specified intervals of ten minutes, tangled in a grotesque ruin of the most perfectly planned military movement in history.

“Your majesty,” Moltke said to him now, “it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised…Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labor to complete…and once settled, it cannot be altered.”

“Your uncle would have given me a different answer,” the Kaiser said to him bitterly.

It was not until after the war that General von Staab–Chief of the Railway Division and the man who would have actually been responsible for the logistics of the redirection–learned about this interchange between Moltke and the Kaiser. Incensed by the implied insult to the capabilities of his bureau, he wrote a book, including pages of detailed charts and graphs, proving that it could have been done.

So, what happened here? The Kaiser trusted his military expert, von Moltke–but the real expert in railway operations (and this was substantially a railway question)–disagreed. At the time of decision-making, von Staab’s personal opinion was never even solicited.

Clearly, what the Kaiser should have said when faced with Moltke’s opposition was “Tell von Staab to get his ass in here, and let’s talk about it.” (Or however a German Emperor would have phrased that thought.) Indeed, there was particular reason to do this, given that the Kaiser evidently had some serious concerns about Moltke–as evidenced by his passive-aggressive “your uncle would have given me a different answer” comment.


An executive, of course, must have confidence in his immediate subordinates, and trust them to have gotten the necessary information from their subordinates. Otherwise, it would be impossible to run anything. To continually demand information directly from people several layers down, using direct reports only as messenger boys rather than as evaluators and decision-makers, is destructive to any organization. But it is also bad to have an organizational culture in which any bypassing of the hierarchy–as in bringing von Staab directly into the conversation–is automatically viewed as undercutting someone’s authority (which is probably how Moltke would have viewed it.)

If you are an executive, then sooner or later you’re going to have to make decisions regarding matters about which you are not an expert, and indeed about which you may know very little. Make sure your decision-making process captures the knowledge of your von Staabs as well as your Moltkes. Be especially wary when dealing with plans that have been a long time in the making: their developers are unlikely to be very enthusiastic about changing them, however good the arguments for doing so.

Now, a few notes and caveats. Prince Lichnowsky, in his desire to avoid a catastrophic war, had apparently misinterpreted Edward Grey’s comments–what the foreign secretary had actually said was that he could guarantee British neutrality and also guarantee Germany against attack by France if Germany would promise to attack neither France nor Russia.  And was von Staab’s after-the-fact analysis really correct? It’s one thing to develop hypothetical train schedules in the peace and quiet of one’s study; it’s something else entirely to develop real train schedules in a compressed time window during a crisis. (But, presumably, in his analysis he attempted to consider the inevitable frictions involved in crisis-mode replanning.)

In any event, the Kaiser allowed himself to be put in a position where he made one of the most critical decisions of his life without the benefit of the deepest available expertise. Decison-makers of all types should learn from his mistake.

Tuchman excerpts are from her book, The Guns of August.

(this post originally published at Photon Courier)

17 thoughts on “On Trusting Experts…and Which Experts to Trust”

  1. I have been reading another book, revisionist if you will, that describes the buildup to the “July Crisis” and is written by a BRitish academic historian. It is called The Sleepwalkers, and blames France more than Germany. We had a discussion over at Althouse blog and I was advised to read Germany’s Aims in the First World War, which tends more towards Tuchman’s Germanophobe view.

    Two big problems. One is Sir Edward Grey, who is blamed by Pat Buchanan’s interesting book, “Unnecessary Wars” which blames Grey and Churchill. It is an interesting argument even if I disagree about Churchill.

    I have a biography of Grey next on my reading pile.

    Two is that the British Ambassador to France, Bertie, when he was in the foreign office during the Boer War, told Kaiser Wilhelm when he was about to send aid to the Boers, that he risked war because Germany had no High Seas Fleet to defend ships carrying aid.

    The Kaiser then decided to build that fleet, which ended an historic alliance between Germany and Britain going back to Napoleon.

    I think the Boer War had more to do with World War I than has ever been acknowledged.

  2. While a completely 180 degree rail plan was a BIG part of the answer, I think it was not the most difficult. The tactical movement, sustaining and employing such a large land force into the underdeveloped eastern european theater was the long pole in that tent. You can’t simply dump units, support and supplies at the rail destinations without a well integrated plan to disperse them and then logically maneuver them in some strategically useful and efficient way. The westward plan on the ground had been walked through in detail as had the rail plan. The rail plan was based on the strategic and tactical maneuver plan. The rail plan that was proposed for turning it all eastward had no such complete and detailed strategic and tactical basis. What exactly was going to go on each of those trains, 10 minutes apart, and where do the units and stuff go when they get there (wherever there turns out to be). It would quickly have devolved into utter chaos. Lack of detailed planning and lack of infrastructure to support the forces heading east.

    If this inprogress reverse had been a fully developed contingency, it could likely have been pulled off with a significant, but acceptable level of confusion and inefficiency.


  3. Death6….but there must have been *some* preexisting plan for deployment to the East, given that Russia had been planned to be an enemy and in fact became one. If the RR objection had not been allowed to control things, then they could have (a) cancelled the deployment to the West, (2) proceeded with the already-planned (but limited in numbers) deployment to the East, and (3) developed and executed plans for redirecting those forces previously planned for the West to the East instead.

    Given the slowness of the Russian mobilization & deployment, it seems this would have had a pretty good chance for success.

  4. In reading this, my first thought was how weak the Kaiser was – to allow a subordinate to dictate what became a catastrophic decision. I read somewhere that 500,000 Germans starved just on the home front due to the British blockade?

    What would have happened if Germany had….done nothing?

    What a waste WW1 was, and how it defined the 20th century (we certainly wouldn’t have had communism or WW2).

  5. Bill,
    That is really a good point. If England could have actually kept France from attacking Germany and Germany had decided it wouldn’t attack France, it might have at least delayed major conflict significantly. These wars resulted in the weakening of the aristocracies and made it a more peaceful Europe ultimately, but the other consequences, as you mention, were horrific. We’ll never know the alternate history, but at least we can see some of the lessons we ought to learn from the one we have.


  6. The rigidity problem faced by the Kaiser in the WWI deployment decision (rigidity, at least, as interpreted to him by Moltke) was interestingly mirrored in the French response to the Rhineland crisis of 1936. According to Andre Beaufre, who was then a young officer on the French general staff, there was only then *one* mobilization plan, and it called for calling up millions of men, requisitioning large numbers of private vehicles, etc. When asked by the political leadership whether it would be possible to conduct a smaller-scale mobilization…which was all that would have been required to repel the German forces at the time…general Gamelin’s response was that NO, the necessary planning could not be done on short notice.

    The politicians were unwilling to disrupt the entire country to the degree required by the existing mobilization plan, so nothing was done at all.

  7. I have the book ‘Germany’s Aims in the First World War’. It is somewhat one-sided. Everyone makes strategic mistakes, and no one has a crystal ball. The key is to minimize the blowback. Be good at the things you can control and resilient against the things you can’t. Easier said then done I know. Culture, training, moral purpose, social cohesion are all critical for delegating and dealing with things out of our control.

    However, since we’re talking about Germany, according to the book Moltke did severely miscalculate which led him to become wildly overconfident:

    This concentration on the west made Germany’s plans entirely dependent on the Austro-Hungarian army, which would have to hold the first Russian thrust until the German army had won its anticipated victory in the west and could turn east. On May 12, 1914, when the allies were holding their last staff talks, Conrad asked Moltke how long it would be after the outbreak of the anticipated war on two fronts against France and Russia before Germany would be able to send strong forces against Russia-in other words, how long the Austro-Hungarian armies would have to meet Russia’s main forces unaided. Moltke’s reply was: ‘We hope to be finished with France in six weeks after the commencement of operations, or at least to have got so far that we can transfer our main forces to the east.

    The Germans knew a continent-wide war was going to happen and had worked out the sequence and mobilizations. This they could control, and they advanced deep into France on Moltke’s timetable.

    What they couldn’t control was the enemy’s response. The book also mentions (half-heartedly) Sir Edward Grey with his diplomatic initiatives was giving Germany a false impression that Britain would not put up a fight. The British had already convinced themselves of Germany’s expansionist aims and were mostly interested in maneuvering them into an advantageous position.

  8. These wars resulted in the weakening of the aristocracies and made it a more peaceful Europe ultimately,

    I’ll differ. What made Europe more peaceful was the American decision to occupy Europe. When we pull out, they’ll be at each-others’ throats within two decades.

    If you are an executive, then sooner or later you’re going to have to make decisions regarding matters about which you are not an expert, and indeed about which you may know very little.

    An excellent summation of the case Midwest Ice Cream Company. If only the Kaiser had attended Harvard Business School.

  9. “Tell von Staab to get his ass in here, and let’s talk about it.” (Or however a German Emperor would have phrased that thought.)

    No need for a phrase. I’m sure there’s a single German word (almost as long as the sentence) that captures that.

    It’s been a while since I’re read Tuchman, but it is interesting that von Staab, a railway man, would have said it was possible, especially since Russian tracks had a different gauge than Europe. I really need to get caught up on all the books that came out from 2014 forward on the start of WWI.

  10. Dwight…”Russian tracks had a different gauge than Europe”

    Yes, the paranoia of whichever Czar made that decision turned out to be justified. The gauge break was certainly a major problem for the Germans in WWII.

  11. Like as not, Wilhelm had no idea at all who von Staab was, or what he did. The ruling classes of Europe were not renowned then, or now, for knowing which end of a boot you pour piss out of…

  12. That wasn’t the only time the Kaiser let his “experts” tell him what to do.

    The “July Crisis” began with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. Everyone expected Austria to come down hard on Serbia. However, Austria had decided to destroy Serbia, by war. In those days a nation had to issue an ultimatum first, and declare war only if it was declined.

    A month after the assassination, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia which was impossible to comply with: it required Serbia to do things forbidden by its constitution. This was intentional; see above. And it was done with the full knowledge and encouragement of Germany, sometimes described as “the blank check”.

    The German leaders knew that if Austria invaded Serbia, Russia would attack Austria, thus giving Germany cause to attack Russia – and France, Russia’s ally. But in the month before, they pretended nothing much was going to happen; several important ministers and generals even went on vacation. The Kaiser (who was not entirely party to this plot) was at sea on his yacht.

    He came back the same day that Serbia responded to the ultimatum, offering every bit of compliance they legally could. The Kaiser hailed the Serbian response as “magnificent” and “removes every cause for war.” He was carefully reminded that Germany wanted war, and soon was completely on side with the ministers’ plans for war – until he tried to buck Moltke over Germany’s strategic direction.

  13. especially since Russian tracks had a different gauge than Europe

    Yes, my understand ing is that it was a factor.

    However, the Germans did defeat the Russians and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was the model for Versailles. A fact conveniently forgotten by Germany.

  14. One of the greater, and not often discussed, tragedies of all this is that Sclieffen developed his concept of quickly knocking out France (in 6 weeks) before Russia could mobilize, in 1906–right after the Russo-Japanese War and the Russian Revolution of 1905, when Russia was at its relative weakest in many decades. It was a temporary response to a temporary situation by a retiring Chief of Staff. But, Schlieffen was a demi-god to the Prussian officer corps, and Moltke was a weakling, insecure with much to be insecure about, so it became as holy writ and was never seriously questioned even as Russia rapidly recovered and enhanced its military capability (in large part with French loans for construction of a strategic railroad net that precisely WOULD enable faster mobilization and further solidified its treaty with France).

    If Schlieffen had not retired, or had been followed by a strong CoS, it may have been possible to reconsider this as the facts changed, but Wilhelm preferred weak sisters and under Bismarck’s constitution, he alone chose his military and diplomatic subordinates, so that didn’t happen.

    By 1914, not only was the Plan unreasonable in terms of knocking out France before Russia could intervene, the whole premise of a weak and slow Russia was obsolete.

    As an aside, it took a year to knock out France in 1870-71, many months even after Paris fell and France had no allies. In 1914 France would certainly be allied with Russia, and as soon as
    a German soldier set foot in Belgium, with the UK. The whole premise was deeply suspect even in 1906. Actually, “insane” is not too strong a word.

    Moltke was on record as actively wanting war in 1914 (he regretted it didn’t happen in 1911) because he saw that as Russia rearmed and built out its strategic infrastructure, the military situation for Germany would only get worse. But nobody had the vision to say, “Hey, Russian recovery from 1905 makes the whole premise is obsolete, but what this Plan does do is guarantee Britain will come in against us. TIME OUT!!”)

    In the decade or so before 1914, a sane German leadership would have done everything it could to reassure Britain, rather than built a fleet that was strong enough to scare but never would be strong enough to win, assure France and Russia that it had no territorial ambitions in their directions, work out a “hands-off” treaty with Russia as regards Serbia and the Balkans, and then tell Austria-Hungary to settle its own hash internally but not to expect German help for any Balkan interventions unless there was overt and obvious Russian involvement which would be contrary to the new Russo-German treaty. By not scolding A-H after it formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, Germany sent powerful messages to all concerned–Russia, A-H, and Serbia–and the line to 1914 became almost inevitable.

    From the day Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck until today, with the partial exceptions of Adenauer and Kohl who had limited independent scope of action in the Cold War, unified Germany showed consistently disastrous inability to think strategically. Caprivi or Bulow, iirc, said they didn’t renew the Reinsurance Treaty because they didn’t fully understand it. Until 1945 its Army was tactically head and shoulders above the rest, but it was always fighting to overcome a strategic blind alley.

    And that saga of strategic incompetence continues even today, not just with the NATO controversies but as German policies tear apart the EU even as they think they are saving it.

  15. “Moltke was a weakling, insecure with much to be insecure about,”

    Yes, he was never going to be the equal of his uncle.

    The issue of Russia getting stronger obsessed the Germans, at least according to “The Sleepwalkers.”

    The other issues, aside from the French revanchism about 1870, was the sluggish Austrian government.

    They could not get their act together and Conrad had no idea how to respond if Russia intervened during a campaign against Serbia.

    Also, the Germans leaked Austrian plans like a sieve. They were too slow and Germany could not keep secrets.

    The French funded the Russians and the Serbs.

  16. Austria was so slow for at least 4 reasons:

    1. Conrad was incompetent.
    2. It took a long time to bring the Hungarians around.
    3. It was harvest season and immediate mobilization of all the manpower in early or mid-July would have played havoc with the food supply.
    4. And by mid-July, Poincare was meeting with the Tsar in St. Petersburg and the Austrians didn’t want to make their move until that meeting was over and Poincare and the Russians were no longer together, to complicate their ability to coordinate.

    Then, Conrad split his army into 3 parts, facing the Russians in Galicia, the Serbs, and a hunk in the middle to support whichever front needed it but in the end marched and countermarched while both fronts got mauled.

    Look to Geoffrey Wawro’s “A Mad Catastrophe” for rich detail on how the Austrians screwed the pooch in 1914-15.

Comments are closed.