Category: Professional Development

The Battle of Waterloo: The French Operational Commander, the Prussian Staff System, and Auftragstaktik

In 1815 there were two competing staff systems, the French and the Prussian. Until 1813, everyone used the French system. After their embarrassingly quick defeat in 1806, Prussian generals Gerhard: Von Blucher and Von Scharnhorst, reformed the army and in particular their staff processes. The Prussian General Staff system is roughly the same one we theoretically use today. In short, a commander has a staff of junior officers usually two ranks lower than himself, but sometimes three, who keeps the commander informed of the war fighting functions: operations, logistics, communications, intelligence, information ops etc. And this staff is supervised by an executive officer, chief of staff, 2iC etc who is the senior staff cat, but is still two ranks lower than the commander. Think of it as a wagon wheel: operations is the hub, the other staff sections are the spokes, the 2iC is the rim which keeps everything together, and the commander is the axle that keeps the cart upright and moving in the right direction. (And that’s as far as that analogy goes)

The relative seniority of the commander over the staff was deliberate: it allowed the specialists and star performers to rise to the top and be noticed (the epitome of this were August Gneisenau, Blucher’s Chief of Staff, and everyone’s favorite dead Prussian, Carl Von Clausewitz, the III Corps CoS at Waterloo). More importantly, the system prevented the staff officers that were the same rank as the commander from issuing orders, which was a feature of the French system.

The French system recognized that the largest force multiplier was a commander’s presence on the battlefield. The French system ensured the right decision maker was at the right place at the right time to make the right decision. In the French system, the overall commander, usually Napoleon, came up with the plan, the chief of staff translated it into orders, and an operational commander was assigned to execute it at the operational and tactical level. This freed up the overall commander to concentrate on strategery, influence the operational area through the use of the reserve, and be at the decisive point. (Stop me if this sounds familiar… cough IJC/ISAF… cough) This was very effective when combined with the French corps system: when each corps had a marshal of the same rank as the operational commander, this system provided an amazing amount of flexibility and allowed the subordinate commanders the ease to exercise initiative. In an era where a commander could only influence troops he could physically see and hear, or gallop to, and had trusted subordinates who understood intent, like Napoleon’s marshals, this worked out fine, brilliantly even.

In Prussian terms, the French operational commander was both a commander and operations staff officer (An equivalent today would be FSCOORD/DIVARTY Cdr, a command/staff concept that works for supporting troops, not so much for maneuver troops). The Operational Commander was the connection between the staff, and through the staff to the overall commander, and then the commanders in the field. The big benefit of this was that if a decision had to be made the Operational Commander could make it and he didn’t have to bother the staff or overall commander about it, unlike the Prussian system. He just had to keep them informed, not look for a decision and then wait for an order. This system was in place at the division, corps, and army level. But for this to work, the Napoleons of the world had/have to be hands off, which was increasingly hard to do as the battlefields became larger and subordinates not as talented or trusted. Finally, there are also at least three decision makers at any level: the overall commander, the chief of staff, and the operational commander. This is no problem if orders are clear and everyone understands the plan, and most importantly the intent.

In our Waterloo example, the French system made Ney, Soult, and Napoleon all primary decision makers. This became a problem when Ney attempted to seize key terrain – Quatre Bras, while Napoleon and Soult were at the decisive point – the destruction of Blucher’s Army at Ligny. They eventually “competed” for D’Erlon’s Corps whom were marching between them responding to contradictory orders from four different sources (including Grouchy who was just parroting Napoleon’s orders). Unfortunately for Napoleon, this inherent flaw in the French system was a feature, not a bug. When it worked, and it did most of time during the Napoleonic Wars, the French system worked brilliantly. But when it didn’t, which was rare for the French, it failed catastrophically.

The Prussian system took the personalities out of the system, and placed the responsibility of understanding the immediate situation on the staff, who could then inform their commander, instead of relying on the talent of the commander to intuitively understand everything happening around them. This permitted the primary decision making authority to fall on the commanders at all levels. It allowed commanders to make more informed decisions, but not nearly as fast. The Prussian system is more systems and processes driven than personality driven like the French and sacrifices flexibility for resilience. However, and this is a huge “however”, the Prussians mitigated the relative slowness and rigidity of their staff system compared to the French with a culture of “Auftragstaktik”. Auftragstaktik, roughly translated as “mission tactics” is a culture of trust based on professional competence, situational awareness, and understanding of the commanders’ intent. With Auftragstaktik, subordinate commanders are expected to take initiative and are required to alter their commander’s orders if they are irrelevant to the situation and the accomplishment of the mission warrants it. Auftragstaktik gave the Prussian staff system and its commanders the agility to act upon a situation, without the burden of competing personalities of the same rank, by placing the onus of situation understanding on the lowest level staff and the decision to act on the lowest level commander. Auftragstaktik demands commanders and staffs have “skin in the game”. This responsibility, which good commanders seek out, incentivizes subordinates to support their commander, and more importantly, commanders to support their subordinates. With the lowest level subordinate commander the immediate decision making authority, this also ensured that contradictory orders only happened rarely, as a subordinate commander would only change his own commander’s orders with good reason. At a time when commanders were no longer operating in sight of the armies they commanded, the Prussian system within the context of Auftragstaktik gave them a resilience and agility that the personality driven French armies lacked.

As Rocky pointed out, “It’s not how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and still keep going that matters”. And that’s exactly what happened when the French failed to destroy the Prussian Army at Ligny. The Prussians bounced back from their defeat, while French dithered about on 17 June, thus setting the conditions necessary for the French defeat at Waterloo.

The Man in the Arena

After spending a year hunting in Africa, Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit toured Europe in 1910. On 23 April, they arrived in Paris and the former president was asked to speak to a crowd of about two thousand at the University of Sorbonne. He spoke on history, family, war, human rights, property rights, cynics, and most prominently, the responsibilities of being a citizen. The speech was officially titled “Citizenship in a Republic” but is now more commonly known as “The Man in the Arena” speech because of this passage,

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Other great passages:

“Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution—these are the qualities which mark a masterful people.”

“Indeed, it is a sign of marked political weakness in any commonwealth if the people tend to be carried away by mere oratory, if they tend to value words in and for themselves, as divorced from the deeds for which they are supposed to stand.”

“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not of superiority but of weakness.”

“But with you and with us the case is different. With you here, and with us in my own home, in the long run, success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty, first in the ordinary, every-day affairs of life, and next in those great occasional crises which call for the heroic virtues. The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed. The stream will not permanently rise higher than the main source; and the main source of national power and national greatness is found in the average citizenship of the nation. Therefore it behooves us to do our best to see that the standard of the average citizen is kept high; and the average can not be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”

“Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into a fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of the great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and the valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who “but for the vile guns would have been a soldier.”


Docturnal [däkˈtərnl] Adjective. 1. Unofficial, but easily understood, military phraseology which is never used in official publication, and frowned upon by pretentious doctrinaires. 2. Vain attempt to be doctrinal. 3. Military terms spoken only in the darkest doctrinal corners. 4. Terms and phrases awakened in the doctrinal twilight to rule over the deepest doctrinal night.

Examples: Adhocracy, Blowed Up, Bohica, Blue Falcon, Buttload, Crunchies, Disaster, Downtime, Epic, Eyes On, Flex, Fobbits, Fubar, F*k (a uniquely flexible term), FFG, Ginornous, Goat Rodeo, Forlorn Hope, Halfassery, Herding Cats, Hey Diddle Diddle, Intestinal Fortitude, JoeProof, Ninjas, Pipe Hitters, Pound the Sh*t Out Of, Presence Patrol, Release the Kraken, Rolled Up, Oodles, Service, Sh*tload, Slidology, Snafu, Space Cadet, Sprinkle, Strategery, Swag, Tarfulicious, Thirsty, Throwaway, Turd Burglar, Voluntold, Walkabout, Whack, Whip It Good, Wrecked, Your assembly area is so fat…

The Past as Battlefield: The Power of Historiography

“The future is certain, it is the past that is always changing.” – Popular Soviet joke

The Past as Battlefield: The Power of Historiography

Historiography is not an exchange in the marketplace but a fight on the battlefield. It has a particular point of view on the past and punishes opponents; it is power politics masked as tolerant neutrality. The Left—like those behind the 1619 Project—understand the stakes and are fighting to maintain their legitimacy. It is time the Right did the same and entered the historiographical fray to shape the story.

Studying the Middle Ages: Historical Food for Thought in the Present Day

Studying the Middle Ages: Historical Food for Thought in the Present Day

Abstract: Why study the Middle Ages? The answers this question yields concern more than simply medievalists: they generate reflections regarding the usefulness of science or intellectual engagement in any given society. Answering the question includes critical reflection on periodization in general and, in particular, on the public’s understanding of what is termed (for better or worse) ‘the Middle Ages’.

The relevance of studying the period has been justified in many ways. It allows, for example, a comparison of social dynamics and the gathering of insights into the role of religion. Equally, it enables investigation of modes of rule and the organization of communities. Ultimately, it enables us to better understand modernity itself. Yet while many arguments concern a better understanding of the contemporary world, they do not necessarily justify the necessity of incorporating medieval comparisons.

The current consensus (at least in French medieval studies) is to study the Middle Ages as a society in its own right. There is an additional understanding that the specific problems raised by this period should be placed in a broader chronological and spatial context. These critical reflections invite deeper considerations, which are, in turn, useful in developing our sense of democracy, our understanding of society, and in the development of a historical science that is conscious of the current tendencies to ‘re-politicize’ history. This chapter argues that this leads to invaluable insights into the workings of any discipline concerned with the perception of time and change.

Understanding the Roots of the War on History

Understanding the Roots of the War on History

…no narrative can exist other than the claim that powerful groups oppress less powerful groups, which supports the moral, legal, and political implications that history’s victims deserve restitution. Progressive history strikes at the very root of the early American republican historical narrative by rejecting the notion of American exceptionalism. Rather than acknowledge and celebrate the Founding Fathers and other early heroes, progressive historians denigrate them and work to remove them from the public discourse…

Why Should Physicists Study History?

Why should physicists study history?

Just as physics is not a list of facts about the world, history is not a list of names and dates. It is a way of thinking that can be powerful and illuminating.

Some things about physics aren’t well covered in a physics education. Those are the messy, rough edges that make everything difficult: dealing with people, singly or in groups; misunderstandings; rivals and even allies who won’t fall in line. Physicists often do not see such issues as contributing to science itself. But social interactions really do influence what scientists produce. Often physicists learn that lesson the hard way. Instead, they could equip themselves for the actual collaborative world, not the idealized solitary one that has never existed.

History can help. An entire academic discipline—history of science—studies the rough edges. We historians of science see ourselves as illustrating the power of stories. How a community tells its history changes the way it thinks about itself. A historical perspective on science can help physicists understand what is going on when they practice their craft, and it provides numerous tools that are useful for physicists themselves.


Research is done by people. And people have likes and dislikes, egos and prejudices. Physicists, like everyone else, get attached to their favorite ideas and hang on to them perhaps long after they should let them go…

Why Should Anyone Study History?

Why Should Anyone Study History?

Although I’m not likely to make history a career, I strive to learn as much as I can from those remarkable people who came before us. To see lost worlds through their eyes. They have many stories to tell, and lessons to teach. But we first have to be listening! A firm grasp of historical events is an important skill that even non-historians should cultivate.

Age of Amnesia

Age of Amnesia

Like the Medieval scholars, today’s intellectuals are narrowing the field of inquiry. The “frantic energy to know more and more about less and less,” identified by Russian sociologist Pitirim Sorokin a half century ago, has made academic life increasingly irrelevant to most people.