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Field-Marshal Count Von Moltke
Suddenly, but quietly and painlessly, on the evening of April 24, 1891, passed away one of the most remarkable men of the present century. Hellmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke was born, October 26, 1800, at Parshim, in Mecklenburg, where his father, previously a captain in the Prussian army, had retired, impoverished in circumstances, to an estate which he inherited. When little Hellmuth was three years old, his father, Baron Moltke, settled at the free town of Lubeck, the once famous head of the Hanseatic League. Here, in 1806, on the retreat from the disastrous battle of Jena, Marshal Bluecher, who like Von Moltke was of Mecklenburg origin, sought refuge with his shattered troops; and little Moltke was a witness of the sack and plunder of the town by the troops of Napoleon, his father's house being one of those that suffered most severely. It is said that the incidents of this event made a lasting impression upon the mind of the boy. At the age of nine, with his elder brother Fritz, young Hellmuth was placed under the care of Pastor Knickbein, at Hohenfelde, near Horst, a scholarly man of a kindly and genial disposition, for whom he always retained a deep regard. His sense of indebtedness appears in the inscription which he wrote on the title-page when forwarding to him a copy of his first work, his "Letters from Turkey;" "To my dear teacher and fatherly friend to whom I owe so much, I send this, my first work, as a slight testimony of respect."
Moltke at Versailles, 1870.
Consolidating and extending his knowledge of military science and of foreign peoples, as in the case of his visits to the East, Russia, Rome, and elsewhere, Moltke rose steadily in his profession. In 1845, he became aide-de-camp to the invalid Prince Henry of Prussia, uncle of the king; and subsequently, after holding commands of increasing importance, he was made first aide-de-camp to the Crown Prince Frederick. Ultimately, in 1859, he was appointed permanent chief of the staff. His later military career, and brilliant successes against the Danes, Austrians, and the French, and the various honors accorded him, are so well known and have been so often and so recently narrated, that any further reference to them in this present sketch is unnecessary, the purpose of our notice being to briefly indicate some of the leading points of the great field-marshal's character. One fact is memorable, that he had passed the age when men frequently retire from the public service before the time of his greater achievements. His splendid career began to the eye of the world at sixty-five.
The guiding principle of his life is well illustrated by the ancient motto of his family, Caute et candide (warily and gently), and by his own favorite maxim, Erst waegen, dann wagen (first weigh, then venture). He was slow, cautious, and careful in laying his plans, but having formed his design, he was bold, daring even to the verge of apparent recklessness in its execution. The same calm, immovable spirit characterized him even in moments when most ordinary mortals--he was a man sui generis--might, with some show of reason, be perturbed or excited. Even in the most critical period of the Franco-German war his unruffled quietness remained the same, sterner perhaps in look, more silent than ever. Though the warrior king, amidst the carnage of the battle-field might feel depressed; though Bismarck, man of "iron and blood," might be anxious at the progress of events, Moltke, seated on his great black horse, calmly surveyed, telescope in hand, the movements of the troops, or later, resting quietly in his room at Versailles, awaited the result undismayed. When war was declared, a friend met him with the remark: "You must indeed be overworked at present." "No," replied the General, "the work was done beforehand; all orders are gone out; I really have nothing to do."
Married in 1842, shortly after his return home from the East, to Miss Burt, an English lady, he lived with her in the bonds of a rare union of happiness, concord, and mutual sympathy. On the occasion of her death, which took place Christmas Eve, 1868, he withdrew still more from public life, and found in quiet, studious, and laborious life some slight relief for his grief. Very touching was his devotion to the memory of his wife. Upon his estate at Kreisau he built a little mausoleum, situated on a beautiful eminence, embowered in foliage. This little chapel, constructed of red brick and sandstone, was lined inside with black and white marble, and in front of the altar was placed the simple oak coffin in which the remains of his wife reposed, covered at all seasons of the year with wreaths. Sculptured in the apse was a finely carved figure of our Lord in an attitude of blessing, copied from Thorwaldsen. Above were inscribed the words of St. Paul, "Love is the fulfilment of the Law." When at his country-seat the aged warrior visited the tomb morning and evening. Now at her side slumbers the veteran, awaiting with her the signal of the resurrection.
Of his bearing in the time of his bereavement, the following incident was related by the late Mr. George Bancroft, the distinguished historian, at that period United States Minister at Berlin. Mr. Bancroft was one of the favored few who were accustomed to accompany Von Moltke in his daily rides in the Thiergarten or to the Grunewald. Seeing the general on horseback, "my first impulse," said Mr. Bancroft, "was to trot into another lane. On second thoughts, however, I turned my horse alongside his, remembering that it was for him to talk or be silent. To my surprise, he forthwith began a lively conversation, describing the happiness with which Miss Burt had blessed her husband, and expatiating upon her manifold virtues as one crushed by an overwhelming, irreparable loss. Then of a sudden he grew silent, as if a new current of thought had carried him sheer away. 'Do you know,' he said, when his lips were again opened, 'it has just been brought home to me that, after all, perhaps it was better that this happened now than at another time? You see, I am convinced that a French invasion is impending; it will burst upon us sooner or later, whatever the plea may eventually be. Now think if the fortune of war was to be adverse to our arms! Why, her grief over the country's adversities must have cut her life short. No, no; that would have been worse!'"
Von Moltke was a passionate lover of children, and is said to have been quite the slave to the caprices of his little grandnephew, the son of Major Hellmuth von Moltke, the aide-de-camp of the count, whom the emperor, as a special mark of his royal favor, immediately after the funeral of his chief, made one of his own aides-de-camp.
As far as Count von Moltke's religious views could be ascertained, they were of a simple type, and characterized by a strict adherence to the path of duty and virtue. Daily was he accustomed to read his Bible, one of ancient date, its well-marked pages indicating how frequently its owner was in the habit of consulting its inspired pages. An extract from a letter the aged field-marshal wrote on the eve of his eightieth birthday is peculiarly interesting. "I stand," said he, "close upon the end of my life; but how different from that here will be the measure in a future world according to which our earthly actions will be judged! Not the brilliancy of success, but the purity of our endeavors and faithful perseverance in duty, even when the result was scarcely visible, will decide as to the value of a man's life. What a wonderful displacement of high and low will be witnessed at that great review! We do not even know ourselves what we have to ascribe to ourselves, to others, or to a higher will. It will be well not to set too great a value on externals." In a passage in one of his books, referring to our Lord's life here upon earth, he remarks: "His life was humble. He was the descendant of a people in bondage, and He had not a place where to lay His head. To the fishermen He talked in parables about God; He healed the sick, and died the death of an evil-doer. And yet there has never been anything on this earth that could be purer, more elevated, and also--even seen from the worldly point of view--more successful than His conduct, His teaching, and His death."
The old soldier's habits of life were, like those of the majority of really great men, extremely simple and singularly free from ostentation of any kind. Very characteristic of the late field-marshal are the following data of his life, written by himself on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. An Austrian Association for the Promotion of Popular Knowledge addressed a number of interrogatories to various European celebrities of great age, which were to explain the circumstances and conditions under which an exceptionally long life might be attained. The answers received were collected in a book and subsequently published.
Field-Marshal von Moltke answered the questions submitted to him in his own peculiarly laconic manner, as follows:
Q. In which year of your life and on which date did you begin to learn, and for how many hours a day?--A. 1808, in my eighth year, with four; after 1810, with ten hours a day.
Q. Was your health in your youth delicate or robust?--A. Tough nature.
Q. Did you grow up in the country or in town?--A. Up to my tenth year in the country.
Q. How many hours did you spend in the open air? Regularly?--A. Irregularly, and but few hours.
Q. Did you cultivate hardening games and other exercises?--A. Not methodically.
Q. How many hours did you sleep in childhood?--A. Ten hours.
Q. Special remarks?--A. Joyless youth, scanty nourishment, absence from the paternal home.
Q. Where did you complete your studies--in town or in the country?--A. In town.
Q. How many hours a day do you devote to mental work?--A. Very different.
Q. Do you attribute to any particular habit of your life a favorable influence upon your health?--A. Moderation in all habits of life. In all weathers exercise in the open air. No day altogether at home.
Q. How long did you sleep at a mature age?--A. From eight to nine hours on an average.
Q. What alterations have you made at an advanced age in your mode of life?--A. None.
Q. How long did you work daily in your fiftieth, sixtieth, seventieth, eightieth years?--A. Quite as circumstances required it; often, therefore, very long.
Q. What were your recreations?--A. Riding on horseback up to my eighty-sixth year.
Q. How many hours do you spend in the open air?--A. Now, in summer on my estate, half the day.
Q. How long do you sleep at present?--A. Always eight hours still.
Q. What are your habits with regard to eating, etc.?--A. I eat very little, and take concentrated food.
Q. To what circumstances do you particularly attribute your stalwart old age (which may God long preserve!)?--A. To God's grace and temperate habits.
An interesting anecdote is related, apropos of his dislike to display, on the occasion of the opening of new barracks at Frankfort-on-the-Oder, to which, as the oldest and most distinguished officer of the regiment in which he first served, he was invited. His acceptance of the invitation was accompanied by the stipulation that no ceremony should be made; but the officers, desiring to do honor to their illustrious guest, had provided the best carriage that the town afforded to meet him at the station. On his arrival, the field-marshal thanked the officer in waiting, took a common cab, and with his nephew, who was with him as aide-de-camp, drove off to the barracks, to the astonishment of the honest burghers.
His favorite recreations were chess, in which he excelled; music, especially that of the school of Schubert and Mozart--he entertained very decided opinions about the "music of the future"--and whist, which he rarely missed playing after dinner, even when at the seat of war. The count was an authority on the culture of roses, and at Kreisau, where he spent most of his time after his retirement from more active service, he possessed one of the finest and most unique collections of roses in Germany, a fact which lends an additional grace to the tribute of respect paid to the field-marshal's memory, when, the day after his death, the empress visited the head-quarters of the General Staff and placed a magnificent wreath of his favorite flower upon the bed of the departed hero.
Had not his reputation as a military strategist overshadowed his other gifts, the count would have gained distinction in the world of letters. In the twenties, while engaged in the Topographical Department, he wrote a pamphlet, published at Berlin, entitled "Holland and Belgium," by H. von Moltke, in which he calls the attention of Europe to the Belgian Revolution; this was followed, in 1845, by a critical military work of great merit, "The Russo-Turkish Campaign of 1828-29 in European Turkey," which created a deep impression in military circles, and proved of considerable service in the Russo-Turkish campaign of 1877-78. Moltke's pithy and laconic style was founded on the model of his chief, General von Mueffling, his instructor in practical and theoretical tactics, in which the members of the German General Staff are required to excel. He was a graphic writer and shrewd observer of men and things, as his charming letters from Russia, France, Turkey, and other places show. Especially sagacious were his observations on the Turks, made to his sister, married to Mr. John Burt, an Englishman settled at Holstein, in which he affirms that the kingdom is rotten, that Turkey had fallen under a ban, and that ban the Koran, which teaches so warped a doctrine that its laws and decrees must of necessity oppose all social progress. His views on Russia, as indicated in his letters written in the form of a diary to his wife on the occasion of his visit in 1856, when accompanying Prince Frederick William at the coronation of the Czar Alexander II. at Moscow, show the same keen powers of observation. He considered that Russia had a great future before her, but this could only be realized when her officials became more honest. "Honesty among Russian officials," he thinks, "can only be brought about by many years of iron severity." Of the difficulty of governing the French nation, he wrote, when visiting the court of Napoleon III.: "It would be as impossible to allow the liberty of the press in France as to admit discussion of the orders given by generals to their armies when in the field." We have not the advantage of knowing his views on England and the English on the three occasions, in 1856, 1858, and 1861, when he visited the country in company with the crown prince to be present at his betrothal and marriage to the princess royal, and again at the funeral of the prince consort. How highly his opinion as an authority was esteemed as early as 1867, is seen by an incident which occurred during the Universal Exhibition, when Count Moltke, in company with King William of Prussia and Count Bismarck, dined with Napoleon III. at St. Cloud. Subsequently, the emperor and Moltke engaged in an animated conversation apart from the rest. At this moment Marshal Randon, Minister of War, walked across the room, and the emperor, noticing him, raised his voice, saying, "Come here, marshal. General Moltke says that with the needle-gun he would be strong enough to fight even the French army." Marshal Randon drew near, and, turning toward Moltke, said, in a tone loud enough to be heard by all in the room, "Pardon me, general; but, in spite of the high opinion I have of your judgment, I cannot share your belief. I venture to affirm, that even with the needle-gun, the French army would not suffer the fate of the Austrian army;" and the conversation continued without the bystanders being able to follow it. But after the departure of the King of Prussia and his suite, Napoleon III., struck by these words, energetically busied himself in overhauling the equipment of the French army. He examined various models of guns that were submitted to him, and among these the Martini rifle, which he found excellent, but which was after all rejected for the Chassepot. The making of this gun was pushed forward so actively that the French army was provided with it by 1870.
In respect of his literary efforts, as of his military achievements, Moltke was singularly modest. Herr G. von Bunsen tells us how, "meeting the general one day at a dinner-party, I expressed my regret at his having neglected to write some letter-press to accompany his well-known map of the environs of Ancient Rome. 'But a companion book for it was written,' he replied; 'or rather,' correcting himself, 'he had begun writing one at Rome, and was prevented from finishing the MS. when the Government ordered him to convey Prince Henry's body to Berlin, and there set him engrossing tasks to do.' Hereupon I ventured to ask him for a loan of this fragment. Of course he believed it to be lost; but, as a matter of course likewise, it was brought to my door by an orderly at an early hour next morning. When returning the MS., I advised the publication of parts of it, which would be found acceptable independently of his being the author; and if my humble advice should be followed, would he accept my humble services as editor? His reply," adds Herr von Bunsen, "has been carefully preserved. Its purport was that he must lay down three conditions: First, I must omit what I pleased; secondly, transpose at my pleasure; and thirdly, alter the text wherever it seemed desirable." "Will any editor in the world," Herr von Bunsen pithily remarks, "hesitate to confirm my belief that no MS. of the last unfledged stripling of an author was ever offered on similar conditions?"
Fitting tributes of respect and admiration were paid to the aged field-marshal on the occasion of his celebrating his ninetieth birthday, on October 26, 1890. Telegrams from all sorts and conditions of men poured in upon him, including, among the princes and sovereigns of Europe, one from Queen Victoria, who held Count von Moltke in high esteem. The 26th falling upon Sunday, the schools throughout the length and breadth of Germany were closed on the previous Saturday to enable the scholars to add their quota to the general rejoicing. In Berlin a torchlight procession of vast extent, composed of 20,000 students, artists, members of trades and guilds, marched with banners and groups of historically dressed personages and impersonifications, from the old gray Schloss down the Linden, through the Brandenburg Gate to the Koenigsplatz, where are situated the buildings of the Grand Staff. Here addresses were presented to Von Moltke.
On the following day, in the Conference Hall of the General Staff, the emperor, surrounded by the military magnates of the Reichsrath, the generals of the twenty army corps specially summoned to be present, the officers of the General Staff, Chancellor von Caprivi, successor to Prince Bismarck, the King of Saxony, the grand dukes and the Duke of Connaught, addressed the marshal in the following terms:
"I thank you in the name of those who have fought together with you, and whose most faithful and devoted servant you have been. I thank you for all you have done for my House and for the greatness of the Fatherland. We greet in you not only a Prussian leader who has won for the army the reputation of being invincible, but one of the founders of the German Empire. The presence of the King of Saxony, who has made a point of personally congratulating you, recalls the time when he and you fought for Germany's greatness. The distinctions conferred upon you by my grandfather leave nothing in which I can personally show my thanks to you.... I call upon all those present to express their feelings of gratitude that Field-Marshal von Moltke has known how not to stand alone in his greatness, but to form a school of leaders of the army for time to come, and for all future generations, by giving cheers for his excellency."
This, the last occasion on which public honors were accorded to the field-marshal during his life, appropriately emphasized the universal esteem in which "Father Moltke," as he was affectionally designated by the army, was held as one of the founders of the German Empire.
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