War in History
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1 John P. Young, A Survey of Historical Developments in War Games (Bethesda, 1959),
2 Edmund Edler von Mayer, Eine Studie über das Kriegsspiel (Wien, 1874); Klemens Wilhelm
Jacob Meckel, Studien über das Kriegsspiel (Berlin, 1873); Klemens Wilhelm Jacob
Meckel, Der verbesserte Kriegsspiel-Apparat (Berlin ); Klemens Wilhelm Jacob
Meckel, Anleitung zum Kriegsspiele. Erster Theil: Direktiven für das Kriegsspiel (Berlin,
1875); Naumann, Regiments-Kriegsspiel: Versuch einer neuen Methode des Detachments-
Kriegsspiels (Berlin, 1877); Neumann, Directiven für das Festungs-Kriegsspiel (Berlin,
1872); Lebrecht Ernst Michael Thilo von Trotha, Anleitung zum Gebrauch des Kriegsspiel-
Apparates zur Darstellung von Gefechtsbildern mit Berücksichtigung der Wirkung der jetzt
gebräuchlichen Waffen (Berlin, 1870); W. von Tschischwitz, Anleitung zum Kriegs-Spiel
A Game of Contexts:
Wargames and the Leadership
Concept of Mission Tactics
Erasmus School of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Professional wargames (Kriegsspiele) had been adopted by the Prussian army at the start
of the nineteenth century. They received a major boost after the Prussian successes dur-
ing the German Wars of Unifications (1864–70) and were subsequently introduced by
the armies of other European powers, the United States and Japan. They continued to
play a vital role in the twentieth century, and all major German campaigns during the
First and Second World Wars were prepared by wargames.1 I provide a descriptive analy-
sis of the main forms of Prussian-German wargames during the key decade between
1870 and 1880.2 I then argue that the success of German wargames can be understood in
Paul Schuurman, Erasmus School of Philosophy, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Burg. Oudlaan 50,
Rotterdam 3000 DR, Netherlands.
855104WIH0010.1177/0968344519855104War in HistorySchuurman
2 War in History 00(0)
(Neisse, 1874, fourth edition). Julius Verdy du Vernois, Beitrag zum Kriegsspiel. Mit einem
Plane (Berlin, 1876). On German professional wargames in the 1870s see Philipp von
Hilgers, Kriegsspiele. Eine Geschichte der Ausnahmezustände und Unberechenbarkeiten
(München, 2006), pp. 92–6; Claus Pias, Computer–Spiel–Welten (München, 2010), pp.
225–8; Peter P. Perla, The Art of Wargaming. A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists
no place, 2011), pp. 41–5; Martin van Creveld, Wargames. From Gladiators to Gigabytes
(Cambridge, 2013), pp. 151–8.
3 To my knowledge there exists no study of the relationship between German professional
wargames, mission tactics, and the context of demographic growth and technological
change; on these topics first of all see Arden Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, and Prussian War
Planning (Houndmills, 2001).
4 See Paul Schuurman ‘Models of War 1770–1830: The Birth of Wargames and the Trade-off
between Realism and Simplicity’, History of European Ideas 43 (2017), pp. 442–55.
the context of the military concept of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik). I will show how
both wargames and mission tactics were driven in their turn by the even wider context of
technological revolution in the fields of firearms and railway transport. I will argue that
these contexts ushered forth professional wargames along an initially tenuous trajectory,
before they became a key instrument in training and planning for war in the hands of the
Great General Staff of the Prussian and hence the German army.3
Prussian-German Wargames 1870–1880
Wargames used for professional purposes were first developed around 1800 in the
German-speaking parts of Europe. In this early period, designers invented and tested
various types of wargames. They grappled with a trade-off between two desirable attrib-
utes: realism on the one hand, and simplicity, and hence playability, on the other hand.
Increased realism often implied increased complexity, resulting in decreased playability.
There was no single and stable answer to this trade-off problem, and wargame designers
rose to this challenge with a host of creative solutions.4 The most successful wargame in
this early age was developed by Georg Leopold von Reiswitz (1764–1828) (see Fig. 1).
King Frederick William III of Prussia sponsored the introduction of this wargame in the
Prussian army in 1812. The basic elements of Reiswitz’s game consisted of a huge game
board with customizable topographical squares; pieces representing infantry, cavalry,
and artillery; and rules for movement and conflict resolution. The game was played by
two opposing teams consisting of several officers under the direction of an umpire
(Vertrauter). Each team of players occupied a separate room. The game started with a
general statement by the umpire to the two opponents, a precise indication of the place,
nature, and number of their available forces, plus the mission they had to complete. Each
turn, the teams handed their written directions to the umpire. This person, usually a sen-
ior officer, was given certain discretionary powers in his application of the rules; for
instance he could forbid unrealistic moves. After each game there was a discussion about
the various decisions made during the game. The most fundamental additions to this
game were introduced in 1824 by Reiswitz’s son Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann (1794–1827).
Rather than use a traditional game board, he used a simple topographical map. He also
5 See Schuurman, ‘Models of War’, pp. 442–55.
6 The exception was Captain (later Colonel) Edmund Edler von Mayer; he served not in
the Prussian but in the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) army. See also Meckel, Studien,
pp. 5–22; Carl Zipser, Anleitung zur Darstellung militärischer Manöver mit Hilfe des
Kriegsspiel-Apparates, bei Zugrundelegung der neuesten taktischen Normen (Josefstadt,
1876, second edition), p. 7; Alfred H. Hausrath, Venture Simulation in War, Business, and
Politics (New York, 1971), p. 20.
7 Meckel, Studien, distinguishes tactical, large, and strategic wargames; see also Meckel, Zum
Kriegsspiele, pp. 7–8; Mayer, Studie, pp. 12–14; Zipser, Anleitung, pp. 8–9. The precise
distinction between these levels is not always clear. My own preferred terms in this context
are either ‘tactical’ or, for higher levels, ‘operational’.
8 See Mayer, Studie, pp. 12–14; Meckel, Studien, pp. 41–5; Meckel, Anleitung, pp. 7–8;
Zipser, Anleitung, pp. 8–9.
introduced the use of dice to simulate chance and uncertainty in the calculation of battle
results with combat result tables. These tables translated different throws of the dice into
specific combat results, depending on factors such as the type and number of combat
troops, firing distance, and terrain type.5
The wargames used by the Prussian army in the decades following the Napoleonic
wars (until around the 1870s) continued to follow the design of the Reiswitz games.
Most wargames considered in this article were designed by Prussian officers with the
aim of training colleagues of different ages and different levels of seniority.6 Professional
wargames were also increasingly used to test specific military plans. While the games by
Reiswitz had been played on a small tactical scale that was deemed fit for junior officers,
at a later stage wargames were staged on larger scales, including the operational level of
entire campaigns. These operational games were played by officers of the Great General
Staff and senior officers of the field army.7 Operational games also included conceptual
mechanisms that modelled provisions, munitions, and reinforcements.8 The target group
of serious wargames in the Napoleonic era still included recreational players, but the
designers of professional wargames used by the Prussian army emphasized the
Figure 1. The wargame of Leopold George von Reiswitz (1812) (Stiftung Preußischer
Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg). Picture by Roman März, Berlin
4 War in History 00(0)
9 Mayer, Studie, p. 3; repeated by Zipser, Anleitung, p. 1; see also [Anonymous] ‘Anleitung
zum Kriegsspiele’, Organ der Militär-wissenschaftliche Vereine 13 (1876), pp. 65–74 (65).
10 Constantin von Altrock, Das Kriegsspiel: Eine Anleitung zu seiner Handhabung. Mit
Beispielen und Lösungen (Berlin, 1908), p. 164; Young, Survey, pp. 21–2.
11 Franz von Zychlinski, Geschichte des 24sten Infanterie-Regiments. Zweiter Theil: Von
1816–1838 (Berlin, 1857), pp. 196–9.
12 On post-Napoleonic reaction see Christopher Clark, Iron Kingdom. The Rise and Downfall
of Prussia, 1600–1947 (London, 2007), pp. 399–408; on the 1859–60 army reform see
Manfred Messerschmidt, Handbuch zur deutschen Militärgeschichte 1648–1939. Vol. IV.1
Militärgeschichte im 19. Jahrhundert 1814–1890 (München, 1975), pp. 160–217; against
the idea of a military rupture with the time before 1859–60, however, see Dierk Walter,
Preußische Heeresreformen 1807–1870. Militärische Innovation und der Mythos der
‘Roonschen Reform’ (Paderborn, 2003), pp. 52–3.
13 Ernst Heinrich Dannhauer, review of Julius Verdy du Vernois, Beitrag zum Kriegsspiel
(Berlin, 1876), in Militair-Wochenblatt 61 (1876), pp. 1063–7 (1063); [Anonymous]
Anleitung zur Darstellung militärischer Manöver mit dem Apparat des Kriegs-Spiels
(Berlin, 1846), p. iii; Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 30; see also Stephan Leistenschneider,
Auftragstaktik im preußisch-deutschen Heer 1871–1914 (Hamburg, 2002), p. 40.
seriousness of their games. Their games should not be played for the sake of winning but
for the sake of instruction. Some game designers even concluded that the name ‘game’
was unsuitable to describe a device that was used for the earnest purpose of simulating a
In the first decades after its introduction, the progress of the Reiswitz game was decid-
edly uneven. Funds were made available for the procurement of the game by each
Prussian regiment. We know of the existence of wargame clubs formed by Prussian
officers in Berlin and other garrison towns, suggesting that the serious character of these
games did not necessarily preclude playing for fun. A journal devoted to the game was
published, but was not widely read.10 In his Geschichte des 24sten Infanterie-Regiments,
Captain Franz von Zychlinski informs us that the game, which after all had been intro-
duced by the king himself, was stored as a precious gift by the regiment commander, who
held it in almost equal esteem as the regimental flag. Zychlinksi also tells how one game
ended in a drunken brawl, and how this uproar ended the career of the game in the
Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment.11 The game was reported as no longer available in
1846. It seems that neither the stretch of peace between 1815 and 1864, nor the political
conservatism of the period 1815–48, nor the political reaction after the failed revolution
of 1848 were suitable for the use of a novel military training device. It wasn’t until the
start of the “New Era” (Neue Ära) with King Wilhelm, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck,
and Minister of War Albrecht Theodor Emil von Roon, that we see substantial changes
in foreign and military policy. These changes contributed to the victories in the Wars of
German Unification (1864–70).12
It is only around 1860 that professional wargames gained a firmer foothold – not only
in the Great General Staff, but also in the field army.13 In the 1870s the actual use of
wargames became generally accepted in Germany, and also increasingly amongst other
14 Trotha, review of Julius Verdy du Vernois, Beitrag zum Kriegsspiel (Berlin, 1876), in Militair-
Wochenblatt 6 (1876), pp. 102–7 (102); [Anonymous] ‘Anleitung zum Kriegsspiele’, Organ
der Militär-wissenschaftlichen Vereine 13 (1876), p. 66; Zipser, Anleitung, p. 3.
15 Nauman, Regiments-Kriegsspiel, p. vii; see also Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, p. 10;
Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 85.
16 Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 108.
17 See Wolfram Wette, Militarismus in Deutschland. Geschichte einer kriegerischen Kultur
(Frankfurt am Main, 2011), pp. 48–64.
18 Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 85.
19 Meckel, Studien, pp. 19, 24–5, 27, 47, 59.
nations.14 Wargames fully partook in the flurry of military publications after the wars of
1864–70, and came to be widely praised as useful devices to further military leader-
ship.15 The pattern of stagnation between the defeat of Napoleon and the start of the
1860s, followed by a substantial increase in the 1860s, and a dramatic spike in the 1870s,
is confirmed when we consult the bibliography of wargames in Das Kriegsspiel (1980)
by Constantin von Altrock (1861–1942) – see Table 1. In subsequent decades, wargames
during times of peace could ruin careers of officers almost the way an actual war could.16
The increased output of wargame literature in the 1860s and, especially, the 1870s
was part of a military culture that permeated Germany during and after the string of
spectacular military victories of the Wars of Unification.17 The output of military texts
not only included manuals for wargames themselves, but also showed a growing dissat-
isfaction with the conventional form of the game.18 The deficiencies of the Reiswitz
game type were listed most systematically by First Lieutenant (eventually General)
Klemens Wilhelm Jacob Meckel (1842–1905). He was a veteran from the Franco–
Prussian war and he would serve as an advisor to the Imperial Japanese Army General
Staff between 1885 and 1888. In his Studien über das Kriegsspiel (1873), Meckel
observed that the decisions of the umpire were caught up in a mechanical and artificial
pattern (Schema) of rules.19 The rules did not help the umpire to impart his military views
Table 1. Publications about wargames in German (including reprints) listed in Altrock, Das
Kriegsspiel, pp. 160–90.
Decade Number of publications about wargames
6 War in History 00(0)
20 Meckel, Studien, pp. 24–5.
21 Meckel, Anleitung, p. 59; see also Trotha, Anleitung, p. 15; Altrock, Das Kriegsspiel, p. 164;
Young, Survey, p. 21.
22 Meckel, Studien, p. 6; see also p. 13; Trotha, Anleitung, p. 1.
23 Meckel, Studien, p. 27 (translations of German quotations are my own, unless stated
24 Meckel, Studien, p. 28; see also Naumann, Regiments-Kriegsspiel, pp. vii, 12.
25 Meckel, Studien, p. 34.
to the players, but rather formed an impediment, making the role of the umpire unattrac-
tive. The rules of the game failed to do justice to the particular colour and character of
each combat situation and gave the exercise a needlessly artificial character. The detailed
calculation of losses with combat result tables made the game too slow, without substan-
tially adding to the realism of its outcomes.20 Moreover, games were often directed by
uninterested or incapable umpires. These episodes of uninspired direction only exacer-
bated mindless and mechanical styles of playing, something to which the game was
Meckel not only offered criticism; he (and other officers) tried to present solutions as
well. He started with the observation that in the first decades of the nineteenth century
military textbooks were based on general philosophical principles, presented in an abstract
way. Whereas this earlier military literature had tried to grasp warfare in terms of a theo-
retical science, contemporary literature emphasized its character of a practical art. Meckel
stressed the point that he lived in an era that favoured practical action; and if art consisted
in the autonomous realization of an idea, then warfare in the hands of a capable officer
was deemed an art.22 Hence, if warfare was a practical art, then the wargame umpire was
an artist—or as Meckel described it, ‘an officer with the gift of independent action and
phantasy’.23 The umpire-as-artist is not needlessly impeded by the rules of the game and
uses them in such a way that he can do justice to each particular situation.
Hence the challenge for Meckel was to formulate rules for a wargame as a form of
art that would not restrict a creative umpire with mechanical limitations.24 The crux of
the problem, as he saw it, were the dice and the combat resolution tables. Meckel gives
the following example of a game situation where three infantry platoons (red) attack
two infantry platoons (blue): blue is placed in a favourable defensive position, while
red attacks across an open field without cover. By attacking, red exposes itself to blue’s
gunfire. In a traditional game, even if red has lost one-third of its forces by the time it
reaches the entrenched position of blue, its numerical equality at this point implies that
it still has a good chance of defeating blue. This, Meckel pointed out, is a completely
unrealistic scenario. Red’s morale will suffer long before it has lost one-third of its
men during the attack. So, the traditional game rules were unrealistic. Their mechani-
cal character presented a young officer with ‘a world of illusions’ that were bound to
cause ‘disillusionment and despondency’ as soon as they were confronted with the
reality of battle.25
What made conventional wargames especially unsuitable in Meckel’s view was that a
complete operation from start to finish, such as the attack by red against blue in the above
example, was expressed by one single mechanical calculation. This single calculation
26 Meckel, Studien, pp. 34–6; see also p. 20.
27 Tschischwitz, Anleitung, pp. 1, 25; Trotha, Anleitung, pp. 1, 13; Neumann, Directiven,
pp. 1, 18–21; Mayer, Studie, pp. 43–60. Wilhelm von Tschischwitz (1831–1911) was a
Captain of the Second Infantery Regiment of Upper Silesia when he wrote his Anleitung
zum Kriegsspiel; and Major Neumann was an engineer and professor at the Berlin
28 Young, Survey, p. 21; Dannhauer, review of Verdy, p. 1063.
29 Klaus Schlegel, ‘General der Infanterie Dr. phil. h.c. Julius von Verdy du Vernois’, in Deutsches
Soldatenjahrbuch 1982. Dreissigster deutscher Soldatenkalender (München, 1982), pp. 71–5.
did not take into account highly relevant intermediate steps. To address this problem, in
his Studien Meckel proposed a step-by-step procedure, wherein an active umpire, who
takes stock after each round of combat, considers the physical and moral conditions for
that specific round, and then decides the odds for a favourable throw of the dice by pick-
ing the relevant column in the relevant combat results table. To use another example, in
the case of a deteriorating morale caused by steeply increasing losses during a hazardous
attack, the umpire could decrease the odds for a favourable dice result from ‘medium’ to
‘small’ and subsequently even to ‘smallest’. This would preclude the highly unlikely
situation in which the remnants of three shattered attacking red platoons overcome two
well-entrenched blue platoons. In this way the umpire had the chance to play the game
as a true artist, with a sensitivity for the shifting tides of battle, and with the power to
translate this feeling (Fingerspitzengefühl) to facts.26
Meckel’s idea to increase the realism of wargames through a more sophisticated use
of dice and combat result tables by the umpire can also be found in the works of contem-
porary game designers.27 All these games may have gone some way in overcoming com-
plaints about the overly mechanical and hence unrealistic character of the original
Reiswitz game. But this was not the only complaint raised by Meckel: he also cautioned
that the detailed calculation of losses with combat result tables made the game too slow.
This latter complaint indeed seems to have accompanied the Reiswitz game right from
its inception and was corroborated by descriptions of its fate during the Twenty-Fourth
Infantry Regiment (as mentioned above). However, it is very hard to see how the innova-
tions of Meckel made gameplay faster and easier; and it is very easy to see how the step-
by-step use of combat result tables actually increased the cumbersome and tedious
character of previous wargames.28
The realism–playability trade-off mentioned at the start of the present section
remained a relevant issue as wargames developed. The question this raises is, how could
professional wargaming be made more realistic than Reiswitz’s game (which Meckel
may very well have achieved), without sacrificing simplicity and hence playability
(which Meckel almost certainly failed to do)? A surprisingly simple answer was formu-
lated by Julius von Verdy du Vernois (1832–1910). In 1867 he was appointed head of the
intelligence section of the Great General Staff, in which capacity he served throughout
the Franco–German war. He rose to the rank of Major General and from 1889 to 1890 he
served as Minister of War. He was extremely interested in the education of Germany’s
officer corps, and this is the background for his radical wargame innovations.29
8 War in History 00(0)
30 Verdy, Beitrag, p. vi; see also Dannhauer, review of Verdy, p. 1065; Bucholz, Moltke,
Schlieffen, p. 85; David Ian Hall, ‘Battlefield Tours and Staff Rides: Prussian and German
Traditions’, Connections. The Quarterly Journal of the Partnership for Peace Consortium
of Defence Academics and Security Studies Institutes 1 (2005), pp. 3, 93–101.
31 Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, pp. 34, 103–4.
32 Verdy, Beitrag, p. vi; see also [Anonymous] review of: Julius von Verdy du Vernois, Beitrag
zu den Kavallerie-Uebungsreisen (Berlin, 1876), in Militair-Wochenblatt 41 (1876), pp.
721–9 (722–7); Young, Survey, p. 66; Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 85.
33 Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. ix.
34 Verdy, Beitrag, pp. 3–5.
35 Altrock, Kriegsspiel, p. 33.
36 Verdy, Beitrag, pp. 13–68; Young, Survey, pp. 93–5.
While Meckel had allowed the umpire large measures of discretion in the use of dice
and combat result tables, Verdy stopped the use of dice, tables, and detailed rules entirely.
He modelled this simplification on the staff rides (Übungsreisen) of the German army.30
Staff rides were exercises in which officers in the field conducted imaginary operations
with imaginary troops over actual ground. All orders and messages were written out and
submitted to an umpire. Rides were held on different hierarchical levels by different
service arms. The rides of the Great General Staff simulated operations of entire army
corps.31 Verdy was well acquainted with staff rides and in the introduction to his Beitrag
zum Kriegsspiel (1876) he writes how it had occurred to him that, when actual terrain
was replaced by general staff maps, the simple principles used for staff rides could also
be used for wargames. In staff rides, no use was made of fixed rules, tables, or dice;
rather, the umpire decided the outcome of battles as he saw fit – but he was supposed to
give arguments for his decisions during the subsequent evaluation.32 Verdy presented a
wargame that used this same ‘abridged’ (abgekürzte) method, hoping it would please
‘especially those esteemed comrades who until now may have been daunted by the com-
bat resolution tables and the rules’ of earlier wargames.33
Verdy’s abridged game in many ways remained within the broad format established
by Reiswitz. The game was played by two teams in separate rooms under the direction
of an umpire who had a general map. At the start of each game the umpire formulated a
general situation (General-Idee) for each of the two opponents, followed by a more spe-
cific mission statement (Aufgabe) for each of the participating units in that game.34
Contrary to Reiswitz’s game, however, Verdy’s game was played on real staff maps; and
while previous wargames had used special game pieces, Verdy’s game could be played
with simple matches.35 The umpire used a measuring rod and a ruler to determine move-
ment distances. The two opponents were allowed to push their units forward until the
moment when the umpire decided that they had come within sight of each other, at which
point play proceeded turn by turn, based on the written orders of the commander of each
party. In Verdy’s wargame the umpire had a very active role. Combat results depended
solely on the umpire, who made flexible estimates based on the specific conditions.36
The text of Verdy’s Beitrag does not provide a manual, but rather presents an overview
of a single mock game from start to finish – one based on a scenario invented by Verdy.
The mock game started as follows. On 1 August of an unspecified year, after an imaginary
37 Verdy, Beitrag, p. 23.
38 Verdy, Beitrag, p. viii.
39 Trotha, review of Verdy, p. 102.
40 Meckel, Anleitung, p. 6.
41 Meckel, Anleitung, p. 6, and [Anonymous] ‘Anleitung zum Kriegsspiele’, p. 66.
42 Meckel, Zum Kriegspiele, ‘Vorwort’, pp. i–ii. See also Meckel, Studien, pp. 38–9; and
Dannhauer, review of Verdy, pp. 1063, 1067.
43 Young, A Survey, pp. 23–6.
East Division has been pushed back by a stronger West Division from Markranstäd to
Leipzig, the outposts of the opponents face each other along the Elster river. On the even-
ing of that day Zwenkau is occupied by a detachment of the West Division. The situation
then zooms in from the level of two complete enemy divisions to the more detailed level
of two enemy detachments. The East Detachment of the East Division receives informa-
tion from its division headquarters about the occupation of Zwenkau by a West Division
on 2 August 5 a.m. The mission of this East Detachment is to protect the division’s left
flank near Connewitz and to explore Zwenkau and its environments. For this mission the
East Detachment is allocated two battalions of infantry, two squadrons of cavalry and one
battery of artillery. The West Division plans to attack Leipzig on 2 August 9 a.m. from the
direction of Lindenau; one of its detachments, called the West Detachment (the one facing
the East Detachment of the East Division) receives the order to support this attack by
advancing east of the Floßgraben canal and along the right bank of the Pleiße river. The
West Detachment is allocated three infantry divisions and four squadrons of lancers for its
mission. With this information the game starts. The leaders of the different elements of
each detachment are played by different members of the participating teams of imaginary
officers. Each step of each opponent and each decision of the umpire is minutely described;
and each event description is followed by an analysis, often in counterfactual mode: com-
mander X did this, but rather should have done that.37
Although Verdy’s wargame was novel in its ruthless simplicity, he emphasized the
continuity between his wargame and previous wargames. Hence, the wargame club to
which he belonged had followed similar procedural changes to the game nearly 20 years
earlier.38 In his review Thilo von Trotha also remarked that Verdy’s game ‘in essence
matches the practice that had established itself in the older wargame’.39 In a similar vein
Meckel remarked that the Reiswitzian game type had been played in spite of rather than
thanks to its specific rules.40 Hence he was not surprised to note that already in the previ-
ous decades, players had indeed started to bend the otherwise inflexible rules to their
liking, or – to use Meckel’s characteristically astute description – players had started
‘emancipating themselves from the rules’.41 Moreover, in the preface to his Kriegspiel
(1875), he explained that he had developed his own game at the explicit behest of Verdy.42
The old Reiswitz game type and the new Meckel game type made use of explicit
rules, combat result tables, and dice, and would become known as ‘rigid wargame’
(strenges Kriegsspiel), while the alternative type established by Verdy would become
known as ‘free wargame’ (freies Kriegsspiel).43 Authors pointed out that the free war-
game could only be played with very good umpires, whose role was much more vital
10 War in History 00(0)
44 Meckel, Zum Kriegsspiel, p. 36; Naumann, Regiments-Kriegsspiel, p. vii; see also Verdy,
Beitrag, p. vi.
45 Altrock, Kriegsspiel, pp. 166–71. Verdy was not the first to publish a free wargame; this
honour belongs to [Anonymous] Elementar-Begriffe vom Kriege, durch Beispiele erläutert,
mit einer Anleitung zu praktischen Uebungen für Militz-Offiziere in Form eines technischen
Kriegsspieles (Zürich, 1840).
46 Young, Survey, pp. 65–6, 104.
47 Farrand Sayre, Map Maneuvres and Tactical Rides (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, s.d.), p. 15.
48 Hausrath, Venture Simulation, pp. 23–5; Schlegel, ‘Verdy’, p. 74.
49 See also Mayer, Studie, pp. 14–16; Hausrath, Venture Simulation, p. 9.
than the role of umpires in rigid wargames; so while the free wargame might be suitable
for the officers of Great General Staff, regimental officers might be better served by a
rigid wargame.44 Although the rigid wargame thus continued to be played, Verdy’s war-
game gave its players and its arbiters exactly the kind of non-mechanical exercise in the
practical art of warfare that the times seemed to demand, and it became a huge success.45
Most subsequent German wargames were of the free (Verdy) type.46 Free wargames were
also implemented by the armies of other nations. The American Brigadier General
Farrand Sayre (1861–1952) strongly believed that his compatriots should opt for the free
rather than the rigid wargame, observing that ‘Rigid Kriegsspiel has been found by the
Germans, who have given it thorough trial, to be too great a strain upon the patience; and
we have less patience than the Germans.’47 Both the German and the Russian general
staffs would end up using a free wargame to test encounters similar to the one that actu-
ally took place in East Prussia in the initial weeks of the First World War in 1914, and
although the two staffs drew similar conclusions, the German victory at the battle of
Tannenberg (under Verdy’s pupil Paul von Hindenburg) has been ascribed, amongst
other things, to the fact that the German army based its preparations on these wargame
lessons, while the Russian army failed to do the same.48
Wargames and Mission Tactics
The free wargames of Verdy and their rigid predecessors served as practical case studies:
they allowed senior officers to propose a mission and left the competing teams the free-
dom and opportunity to choose the means to accomplish this mission.49 Viewed from this
perspective of freedom of means to reach fixed ends, the most relevant context for
Prussian wargames is formed by the Prussian military leadership concept of mission
tactics (Auftragstaktik). For a good introduction to this concept we can again turn to the
work of Verdy. He published a multi-volume Studien über Truppenführung (‘Studies on
Troop Leadership’) in 1873–74, shortly before he published his wargame (the Beitrag)
in 1876. If war is an art that consists in the autonomous realization of an idea (see Meckel
in the previous section), then officers should be able to swiftly and flexibly translate the
intentions of their superiors into successful action under capricious circumstances, for
example changes due to interaction with the enemy, as well as topographical, meteoro-
logical, and logistical considerations. Accomplishing the mission in accordance with the
50 Verdy, Studien, pp. 5–6. For modern literature on the history of mission tactics see first
of all Stephan Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik im preußisch-deutschen Heer 1871–1914
(Hamburg, 2002); see also Jochen Wittmann, Auftragstaktik – Just a Command Technique
or the Core Pillar of Mastering the Military Operational Art? (Norderstedt, 2012).
51 Verdy, Studien, pp. 7, 14.
52 Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, p. 90.
53 Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, p. 42; see also Jochen Wittmann, Auftragstaktik, p. 39.
54 Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, pp. 83–4.
55 Dirk W. Oetting, Auftragstaktik. Geschichte und Gegenwart einer Führungskonzeption
(Bonn, 1993), pp. 108–9.
56 Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, pp. 21, 43–55; see also Oetting, Auftragstaktik, p. 90.
57 [Anonymous] Exerzir-Reglement für die Infanterie (Berlin, 1888).
58 See Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, p. 101.
59 Leistenschneider, Auftrakstaktik, p. 54.
aims of the commander is more important than using correct rules and fixed procedures –
assuming that the rules for successful warfare can be assessed in the first place.50 Given
the constant friction of the inherent dynamics of armed conflict it is never clear ‘whether
one has to take hold to the rules or their exception’.51 And although warfare indeed seems
to be subject to certain rules, the whole point of the military art consists in the ability to
weigh the importance of different rules according to different circumstances. Commanders
should order what mission has to be accomplished, not how exactly this should be
accomplished.52 In his recent Auftragtragstaktik im preußisch-deutschen Heer
1871–1914 Stephan Leistenschneider explains that mission tactics allowed and even
anticipated that officers would disobey orders – given the appropriate circumstances.53
At the same time they were supposed to realize the intentions of their superiors
(Gefechtszweck) with the strictest discipline (mit strengsten Gehorsam).54
The general concept of mission tactics was developed in the course of the nineteenth
century and was not strictly limited to the tactical levels, but also embraced higher opera-
tional levels.55 This concept was already applied before it became part of an official
doctrine; and it became part of a doctrine a few years before the term itself was coined.
Leistenschneider observes that mission tactics were applied on an improvised basis in
the Wars of Unification and especially during the Franco–German War of 1870–71 (more
on this below), while the concept was developed more systematically in the years after
the Wars of Unification.56 In 1888 a new Exerzir-Reglement was introduced that embraced
and incorporated the principles of mission tactics.57 The term Auftragstaktik (as opposed
to the older concept) was most likely coined in 1892 by Albrecht von Bugoslawski
(1834–1905), who used the term in a derogatory sense in contrast to the traditional
Normaltaktik that he himself preferred.58
Analysis by the German army of the initial use of mission tactics in the Franco–
German War led to mixed conclusions. On the one hand it was appreciated that an
increased autonomy of commanders at all levels of the chain of command could be very
useful. On the other hand it transpired that this autonomy could have potentially danger-
ous and chaotic disintegrative side-effects.59 When the later Chief of the Great General
12 War in History 00(0)
60 Quoted in Leistenschneider, Auftrakstaktik, p. 51.
61 Exerzir-Reglement, pp. 108–9; see also Leistenschneider, Auftrakstaktik, p. 21.
62 Verdy, Studien, p. 15
63 Leistenschneider, Auftrakstaktik, pp. 94–5.
64 Rudolf Karl Fritz von Caemmerer, Die Entwickelung der strategischen Wissenschaft im 19.
Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1904), p. 185; see also Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 53.
65 Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 80.
66 Verdy, Studien, p. 1.
67 Meckel, Studien, p. 7.
Staff Albert von Schlieffen looked back at the military events of 1870 he was shocked by
‘the unauthorized action and indiscriminate behaviour of lower commanders’.60 These
observations found their way into the Exerzir-Reglement of 1888, which not only con-
tained the principles of mission tactics, but also stressed the need to counterbalance
pernicious side-effects.61 Mission tactics could only work when its centrifugal tenden-
cies were countered by a thorough military education that installed a set of cooperative
core values.62 German commanders at all levels (both the tactical and the operational)
needed to share what Leistenschneider calls ‘a certain homogeneity of thinking’.63 So the
slightly paradoxical upshot is that the more important the autonomous accomplishment
of missions by individual officers became, the more important it became to engrain them
with a shared mindset.64
The mental unity required for a successful application of mission tactics was installed
by a shared didactic experience of joint problem-solving. Officers were trained to reach
decisions independently, communicate these decisions clearly to others, and lead their
soldiers in the realization of the intentions of their superiors and in cooperation with their
fellow officers.65 Both Verdy’s Studien über Truppen-Führung of 1873–74 and his
Beitrag zum Kriegsspiel of 1876 were didactic contributions to the challenges posed by
mission tactics. The Studien über Truppenführung started with a portrayal of a mock
campaign (though, it was clearly inspired by the Austro–German War of 1866) at the
level of an entire Prussian army corps, and was followed by the detailed mission of an
infantry division. This portrayal thus prefigured the General-Idee and the Aufgabe (‘mis-
sion’) that was discussed in Verdy’s wargame (see above). Officers were asked to stop
reading after he had formulated a specific problem; to think of solutions themselves; and
then to continue reading and check their solution with Verdy’s own solution. An obvious
drawback of this method, as Verdy remarked himself, was that the reader could access
the solution before he had worked it out by himself.66 In fact, this limitation of one-sided
case studies in the Studien of 1873–74 may have stimulated Verdy to create his interac-
tive wargame in the Kriegsspiel of 1876, which obviously did not have the same prob-
lem. In this way, there is a clear and natural continuity between Verdy’s Truppenführung,
understood as a static exercise, and his Beitrag zum Kriegsspiel, understood as a dynamic
exercise in mission tactics.67
Wargame designers pointed out that wargames, by their interactive character, modelled
the unpredictable character of war, the absence of standard solutions, and the need for
officers to use their own judgement; this made wargames eminently suitable as training
68 Meckel, Anleitung, pp. 5–22; Mayer, Studie, pp. 14–15; Naumann, Regiments-Kriegsspiel,
p. vii. The link between wargames and mission tacticts was not only made by the game
designers themselves, but has also been noted by other authors, e.g. Altrock, Kriegsspiel,
pp. 8–11; Bucholz, Moltke and the German Wars, p. 59; Gerhard Groß, Mythos und
Wirklichkeit. Geschichte des operativen Denkens im deutschen Heer von Moltke d.Ä. bis
Heusinger (Paderborn, 2012), pp. 40–1.
69 Verdy, Studien, p. 14.
70 Meckel, Anleitung, pp. 6, 47, 59.
71 Meckel, Anleitung, pp. 6, 47, 59; see also Zipser, Anleitung, p. 1; and Young, Survey, p. 76.
72 On Moltke and the Great General Staff see Groß, Mythos und Wirklichkeit, pp. 29–60; on
Moltke and games and mission tactics see also Eberhard Kessel, Moltke (Stuttgart, 1957),
pp. 428–30, 449; Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, pp. 1–108; Bucholz, Moltke and the German
Wars, 1864–1871 (Houndmills, 2001), pp. 33–6, 156–9.
73 Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, pp. 54–62.
74 Caemmerer, Entwickelung, p. 134.
75 Caemmerer, Entwickelung, p. 207; Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, pp. 30, 32–8.
76 [Theodor Troschke], ‘Zum Kriegsspiel’, Militär-Wochenblatt 35 (1869), pp. 276–7 (276).
tools for mission tactics.68 As Verdy observes, wargames helped players to transform mere
knowledge about the need for autonomous action into capability for performing such
action.69 And while this point was made about professional wargames in general (on both
the tactical and the operational level), it seemed to favour free wargames in particular.
Free autonomous judgement was better served by free rules than by rigid rules, and it is
evident that in Germany the future belonged to free wargames.70 Already in 1875 Meckel
expected that an increase in officers that are able to lead a wargame would lead to a
reduced need for detailed rules – even although he produced a rigid and not a free war-
The use of professional wargames in the context of mission tactics became insti-
tutionalized in the Prussian and later German Great General Staff under Helmut von
Moltke (1800–91), who was its Chief between 1857 and 1888. In his memorandum of
1868 on the conclusions drawn from the war against Austria (Memoire über die bei der
Bearbeitung des Feldzuges 1866 hervorgetretenen Erfahrungen) and in his famous
Verordnungen für die höheren Truppenführer (‘Instructions for Large Unit Commanders’)
of 1869, he had already formulated the main concepts of mission tactics.72 These works
did not amount to a coherent military doctrine let alone a textbook, and they were written
for a restricted circle. Nevertheless, Moltke used the Great General Staff (amongst other
things) as a didactic platform to steep an entire generation of German officers in mission
tactics.73 In conscious opposition to Napoleon, Moltke tried to educate a class of autono-
mous leaders rather than mere executors of his orders.74 Wargames, together with
manoeuvres, staff rides, lectures, the study of topography, and military history, played an
essential role in the curriculum provided to officers of the Great General Staff. Moreover,
staff officers disseminated the concept of mission tactics when they rotated to field regi-
ments, where similar media were used increasingly to educate field officers.75 Moltke
himself had played Reiswitz’s wargame in 1828, when he was still a lieutenant.76 In
14 War in History 00(0)
77 Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 30.
78 Trotha, Anleitung, p. v; Young, Survey, p. 22; Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 30.
79 Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, p. 29; see also Walter, Preußische Heeresreformen, pp.
80 Max Lehmann, Scharnhorst, 2 vols (Leipzig, 1887), I:83–4.
81 David Ian Hall, ‘The Modern Model of the Battlefield Tour and Staff Ride: Post-1815
Prussian and German Traditions’, The Quarterly Journal 3 (2002), pp. 96–7.
82 Instruction quoted in Lehmann, Scharnhorst, p. 154; see also Heinz Stübing, Scharnhorst.
Die Reform des preußischen Heeres (Göttingen, 1988), pp. 65–91.
1837, when stationed in Constantinople, he taught the game to the Ottoman commander
Chosref Pasha.77 And when he was Chief of Staff to the Fourth Prussian Corps, his
Magdeburg Club ranked first in 1844 – although the club of the Prussian Guard Artillery
was also a force to be reckoned with.78
So far, we have seen how significant wargames were for mission tactics and how both
were embraced by the Great General Staff under Moltke. Let us now zoom out to a wider
context that is equally relevant for both wargames and mission tactics.
Wargames and Mission Tactics: Incubation,
Rifles, and Railways
Prussia’s crushing defeat during the twin battles of Jena–Auerstedt in 1806 caused its
extensive territorial losses, brought the remainder of the kingdom in the French sphere of
influence, and energized a reform movement that sought to regenerate the Prussian state
(often against the suspicions of Napoleon or the vacillations of the Prussian King Frederic
William III himself). The Prussian reform movement had a political, educational, social,
and economic agenda, but in many ways these aspects were instrumental for a goal that
was ultimately military: a victory that would end French domination.79 Perhaps the most
important military reformer was Gerhard von Scharnhorst (1755–1813).80 In 1807 he
became head of the Military Reorganization Commission that undertook the difficult
task of reforming an ossified Prussian army into an organization that was able to with-
stand the torrent of Napoleonic warfare.81 In this role he was instrumental in the creation
of a permanent Great General Staff. Also, following Napoleonic custom, he oversaw the
division of the amorphous Prussian army in distinct army corps, which in turn were
divided into separate divisions, thus creating independent units that could be used for
missions under autonomous direction. At the tactical level Scharnhorst inspired a
Vorläufige Instruction für die Uebung der Truppen (1808) (‘Preliminary Instruction for
the Exercise of Troops’) that created the formation of special skirmishers, who were sup-
posed to act with more flexibility than other parts of the Prussian infantry. According to
the Instruction, skirmishers should be trained in order to fulfil their missions, but how
they were trained should be left to the discretion of their officers.82 Finally, Scharnhorst
was the founding father of the Akademie für junge Offiziere der Infanterie und Kavallerie
(1801) (‘Academy for young infantry and cavalry officers’), the direct precursor of the
Kriegsakademie (1810), with a curriculum that stressed critical thinking rather than
83 Lehmann, Scharnhorst, pp. 217–19.
84 See Hajo Holborn, ‘The Prusso-German School: Moltke and the Rise of the General Staff’,
in Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy. Military Thought from Machiavelli to the
Nuclear Age (Princeton, 1986), pp. 281–95 (283). The game in question was not necessarily
the one by the older Reiswitz; in a letter of 8 September 1801 to Knesebeck (Gerhard von
Scharnhorst, Private und dienstliche Schriften. Vol. 3: Lehrer, Artillerist, Wegbreiter, ed.
Johannes Kunisch (Köln, 2002), pp. 59–60), Scharnhorst recommended Georg Venturini
(1772–1802), who designed a professional wargame in 1798 that was reprinted in 1804
– see also Schuurman, ‘Models of War’, pp. 450–1.
85 Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, pp. 36–7.
86 Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to the Cold War (Oxford,
2001), p. 151.
87 Carl von Clausewitz, ‘Bemerkungen über die reine und angewandte Strategie des Herrn von
Bülow oder Kritik der darin enthaltenen Ansichten 1805’, in Verstreute kleine Schriften, ed.
W. Hahlweg (Osnabrück, 1979), pp. 65–88.
88 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, 1984), II:2,
procedural knowledge. In this way, Scharnhorst’s measures provided the organizational
and institutional space for what at this stage was merely a proto-concept of mission tac-
tics.83 We have no proof that at this early stage he articulated views about the use of
wargames for this proto-concept – even although Scharnhorst himself may have intro-
duced wargames in his lessons on tactics and strategy.84 Moreover, before wargames and
mission tactics could really be integrated, Napoleon was defeated (1815), and the enthu-
siasm for reform in Prussia plummeted. In the post-Napoleonic decades we see many
wargames meeting a fate that is typical for devices that are introduced with official spon-
sorship, but without much subsequent understanding of their use: they ended up in a
cupboard. Similarly, in this period we see the introduction of a training and exercise
regulation (Exerzier-Reglement) for the infantry in 1847 that was 100 pages longer than
the regulation adopted during the crisis of Napoleonic domination. This regulation
focused on mindless drills rather than real combat training, and hence it was a well-reg-
ulated step backwards viewed from the desiderata of mission tactics.85
While Scharnhorst primarily contributed to an early institutional environment, his
pupil Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) provided an early conceptual basis for the even-
tual success of mission tactics.86 In 1805 the young Clausewitz wrote a devastating
review of the work of Adam Heinrich Dietrich von Bülow (1757–1807) and his optimis-
tic views about the possibilities of a science of war that took into account only physical,
mechanical, and geometrical factors.87 The obsolete Schematismus of eighteenth-century
Prussian doctrine was decisively shattered in 1806 on the fields of Jena and Auerstedt;
and Clausewitz – who was taken prisoner during that campaign – set out to develop a
new military philosophy. In On War he explained that military theory should have a
practical character that teaches officers to think critically about how to connect specific
means with specific ends. This practical theory was meant ‘to educate the mind of the
future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accom-
pany him to the battlefield’.88 Young officers should become familiar with this way of
16 War in History 00(0)
89 Jon Tetsuro Sumida, Decoding Clausewitz. A New Approach to On War (Lawrence, Kansas,
2008), p. 100. See also Caemmerer, Entwickelung, pp. 58–61, 204–6; and Paul Schuurman,
‘What-If at Waterloo. Carl von Clausewitz’s Use of Historical Counterfactuals in his History
of the Campaign of 1815’, Journal of Strategic Studies 40 (2017), pp. 1016–38 (1030).
90 For Clausewitz’s influence on Moltke see Caemmerer, Entwickelung, p. 68; and Hew
Strachan, Clausewitz’s On War (New York, 2007), pp. 10–14.
91 Werner Hahlweg, ‘Das Clausewitzbild einst und jetzt’, in Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege
(Bonn, 1972), p. 55.
92 Carl von Clausewitz, ‘Niederschriften des Werkes “Vom Kriege”, 1. Ältere Fassung.
Entwürfe’, in Schriften–Aufsätze–Studien–Briefe. Dokumente aus dem Clausewitz-,
Scharnhorst- und Gneisenau- Nachlaß sowie aus öffentlichen und privaten Sammlungen,
ed. (Göttingen, 1990), Werner Hahlweg, II:2, 655.
93 Clausewitz, On War, II:2, 140; II:3, 149; Schuurman, ‘What-If’, p. 1029.
94 Meckel, Studien, pp. 13–14; see also Trotha, Anleitung, pp. 1–2; and Bucholz, Moltke,
Schlieffen, p. 85.
thinking through a close study of military history. Historical case studies should be used
as a form of vicarious learning that allowed the student to relive the decisions of great
generals and that amounted to what Jon Tetsuro Sumida has called a ‘form of psycho-
Since Clausewitz’s idea of a military theory amounted to autonomous and critical
thinking in terms of means to be used for ends to be attained, it is not difficult to see the
relevance of his military thought for the subsequent development of the concept of mis-
sion tactics.90 But here again, as in the case of Scharnhorst, we first observe a period of
static incubation. The end of this period was again formed by the start of the ‘new era’
around 1860. Between the posthumous publication of On War in 1832–34 and the 1860s
Clausewitz was increasingly mentioned but little read.91 More specifically, it is difficult
to detect his influence on wargames published before the 1860s. This is not surprising,
since Clausewitz had little to say about wargames themselves and what he did write –
which can be found in a draft for On War – was actually highly critical. In this manu-
script the objects of his criticism were late eighteenth-century wargames whose chess-like
character constituted the very epitome of a mechanistic way of thinking about warfare.92
Yet, in the works of wargame designers from the 1870s onwards he becomes a clearly
detectable influence. For example, in On War Clausewitz explained that various factors
conspire to make the study of war actually a highly problematic venture: war is driven by
complex psychological forces; these forces tend to interact; military action is hampered
by all kinds of friction; and action has to proceed in a state of twilight due to a constant
lack of information.93 We have already seen how similar observations would later be
used by Meckel and Verdy to underpin the relevance of both wargames and mission tac-
tics (see above). In addition, the idea of warfare as a practical art as formulated by Meckel
(see above) has clearly Clausewitzian overtones. Finally, in some cases we even find
explicit references to Clausewitz, for instance when Meckel explains how wargames can
help officers train their powers of swift and independent decision-making in spite of vari-
ous forms of friction.94
95 Caemmerer, Entwickelung, pp. 135–6; see also Verdy, Studien, p. 11.
96 Walter, Preußische Heeresreform, pp. 130–7, 587–92.
97 Mayer, Studie, p. 72.
98 Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, pp. 54, 73, 79–82.
99 See Walter, Preußische Heeresreform, pp. 18–22; and Clark, Iron Kingdom, pp. 551–2.
100 Meckel, Studien, pp. 29–30.
So, it was only during the Wars of Unification that mission tactics were actually
applied, while the concept was developed more systematically in the subsequent decade;
and it was only from this time onwards that wargames became a widespread training
device. Let us now concentrate on the technological context for this twin development.
This context was of a much more massive and brutal nature than either Scharnhorst’s
institutional work or Clausewitz’s conceptual work. One very important context was
formed by the dramatic increase in firepower in the course of the nineteenth century.
Comparing rifles at the end of the nineteenth century with rifles used during the Napoleon
war, Rudolf Karl Fritz von Caemmerer observed how their reach had increased fivefold,
how their fire frequencies had tripled, and how the rapidity and accuracy of artillery fire
had increased as well.95 Various innovations contributed to this effect, including the
replacement of muzzle-loaded firearms by breach-loaded firearms.96 When German
infantry soldiers attacked in conventional rigid columns in the war of 1870–71, they
were mowed down by the murderous fire of French chassepot rifles; and cavalry charges
against firing infantry did not fare much better.97 The German army was taught the harsh
lesson that its soldiers should disperse in the face of increased firepower, making flexible
use of the possibilities of the terrain under the autonomous initiative of local command-
ers.98 This is how the actual practice of mission tactics, in addition to just its concept,
was brought to life in deadly combat fire; and this is why mission tactics had the impro-
vised character mentioned earlier (see above).
Since the dramatic effect of increased firepower during the German wars stimulated
mission tactics, which in its turn stimulated the use of wargames, it is not surprising that
we see specific efforts to include the effects of firepower in wargames in the 1870s, when
German game designers started to digest the lessons from spectacular victories – victories
that had not only surprised Europe but also the Germans themselves.99 We have already
seen how Meckel advocated a more realistic use of dice and combat tables with his step-
by-step battle resolution approach (see above). When he advocated the use of tables in this
way, he very much tried to model the enormous and often non-linear impact of modern
long-distance fire.100 Was the firing unit placed in a favourable position? Had it recently
rushed to its position or was it amply rested? Was it firing in an open or closed formation?
What was the nature and the distance of the object that was subjected to fire? In addition
to these physical considerations, Meckel also took into account psychological factors.
Was the unit firing under fire itself? Was it surprised by the fire of a swiftly approaching
opponent? Was it suffering from increasing stress during a long exchange of fire?
Meckel tried to assign quantitative values to these factors, and the flood of military
publications in the 1870s provided him with a treasure trove of statistical information
about the performance of the latest firearms during the Germans wars. While these points
18 War in History 00(0)
101 See also Mayer, Studie, p. 17; Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 87.
102 Meckel was not the only game designer who tried to factor in the increased effect of fire-
power. When Edmund Edler von Mayer presented the rules for his new wargame in 1874,
he also stressed the importance of the devastating effect of breach-loaded rifles. See Mayer,
Studie, p. 19; see also p. 3; Naumann, Regiments-Kriegsspiel, pp. 40–1; but compare Mayer,
Studie, p. 26.
had driven his criteria for an improved wargame in his Studien of 1873 (see above), the
Kriegsspiel of 1875 was his attempt to produce a game that actually applied these criteria.
The result was a complex combat resolution table as shown in Figure 2. This table was
designed to assess realistic combat outcomes in various detailed situations.101 The effect
of 2.5 minutes of fire by an infantry platoon is given for different targets at different dis-
tances, for example against cavalry at a distance between 400 and 500 meters. In addition,
before a dice is rolled to assess the losses of the targeted cavalry, a choice must be made
between five columns with different statistical bandwidths for different throws of the dice:
smallest effect, small effect, medium effect, great effect, and greatest effect. In the case
mentioned here, that is fire against cavalry between 400 and 500 meters, the bandwidth
for the smallest effect is 5 hits on a roll of 1, increasing to 20 hits on a roll of 6; while the
greatest effect gives 60 hits on a roll of 1, increasing to 120 hits on a roll of 6.102
Figure 2. A detailed Combat Result Table, taken from Meckel, Zum Kriegsspiele. I. Theil
Direktiven für das Kriegsspiel, appendix 1 (no page number provided) (Berlin, 1875)
103 Verdy, Studien, ‘Vorwort’, pp. i–ii.
104 See also Mayer, Studie, p. 7.
105 T.N. Dupuy, A Genius for War. The German Army and General Staff, 1807–1945 (Fairfax,
Virginia, 1984), p. 51.
106 Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 54.
107 Caemmerer, Entwickelung, p. 128; see also Walter, Preußische Heeresreformen, pp. 124–8,
108 Kessel, Moltke, pp. 429–30.
Increased firepower was not only considered something that should and could be
modelled in a wargame, it was also used to provide legitimacy for using a professional
wargame in the first place. Verdy noted that, given the destructive force of modern rifles
and artillery, bravery without wits no longer sufficed. Increased firepower brought in its
wake increased demands to the intellect of commanders.103 And this is where his war-
game could play a vital role. In this way, increased firepower stimulated the addition of
the new medium of the wargame as a training device by proxy, in addition to the tradi-
tional medium of books on military history.104
So much about the importance of increased firepower for mission tactics and hence
for wargames. Another context for the adoption of mission tactics in the 1860s was partly
demographical and partly again technological; and here again we see a connection
between mission tactics and wargames – more specifically, we see how wargames pro-
vided solutions for challenges created by mission tactics. In the decades after the
Napoleonic wars the effect of population growth in Prussia meant that more youths were
reaching military age. Accommodating these masses into the conservative structures of
the Prussian army was an operation fraught with political problems and was at the heart
of a constitutional crisis of 1862, but the results of military reform, pushed by demo-
graphic opportunities and international exigencies, were dramatic.105 It has been esti-
mated that in the few years between 1864 and 1871, the annual number of soldiers
mobilized by Prussia increased 1,500 per cent, and that in terms of space used by the
advancing army there was an increase of about 1,000 per cent.106
Moreover, in the 1850s Germany crossed the dividing line between a pre-industrial
and an industrial form of economy. Around 1850 the Prussian state started to actively
sponsor and use railroads for military purposes, which may have quadrupled the speed of
movement. The combined result was a large army that could be transported swiftly over
large distances. In addition, thanks to railroads the nation’s vast sources of manpower,
food, and equipment could be tapped. In the words of Rudolf von Caemmerer, railways
made the country ‘a single magazine with separate storerooms’.107
At the same time, these new possibilities brought new problems. Given the limited
transport capability of any single railroad, the use of this fast mode of transport tended
to favour movement in broad spaces. Hence the individual corps of the army could only
be amassed together for battle in the last stages of their movement; Moltke’s use of the
concept ‘March Divided, Fight United’ was the fruit of these logistical challenges, and
this motto was brilliantly brought into practice against the Austrians during the battle of
Sadowa in 1866.108 In his 1869 Instructions for Higher Commanders Moltke clearly
20 War in History 00(0)
109 Helmuth von Moltke, ‘Aus den Verordnungen für die höheren Truppenführer’, Taktische-
strategische Aufsätze aus den Jahren 1857 bis 1871 (Berlin, 1900, reprint London,
2018), pp. 165–215 (173, 174); see also pp. 179–82; Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 41;
Leistenscheider, Auftragstaktik, p. 79. Moltke allowed large freedom for his corps com-
manders to achieve his aims. This Führen durch Direktiven (‘leadership by directive’)
was also known as Auftragsverfahren (‘misson method’); see Dupy, Genius for War,
pp. 51–2; Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 56; Walter, Preußische Heeresreformen, pp.
546–7. Moltke’s own use of Autragsverfahren on the level of army corps was consistent
with his general support for Auftragstaktik on all levels; see Moltke, ‘Truppenführer’,
p. 180; Leistenschneider, Auftragstaktik, p. 60; cf. Oetting, Auftragstaktik, pp. 103–19.
110 Caemmerer, Entwickelung, p. 133; see also Walter, Preußische Heeresreformen, pp. 128–
111 Caemmerer, Entwickelung, pp. 134, 137; see also Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, p. 83.
connects the motto with an increase of scale; and within a single page he draws a con-
clusion from this increase of scale that implies the use of mission tactics: ‘There are
many situations in which an officer should act in accordance with his insight. It would
be very wrong to wait for orders when none can be given.’109
So, the result of mechanized mass warfare with the help of railways had the same
effect as increased firepower, that is, spatial extension. Spatial extension caused by fire-
power took the form of dispersal on the tactical level of separate combats, while in the
case of railway movement, extension took place on the operational level of entire army
corps – and on this level extension was followed by concentration. On both levels of
extension, the result was roughly the same: a reduced attention for procedures and an
increased latitude for local commanders to chose the means that allowed them to accom-
plish the aims formulated by their superiors. Moreover, just as mission tactics stimulated
by increased firepower on the tactical level demanded integrative devices, so did mecha-
nized warfare on the operational level. Here again, wargames (along with staff rides and
manoeuvres), played a vital integrative role. The need to install a shared mindset through
the use of wargames existed both on the tactical and on the operational levels.
Finally, while the technological invention of railroads amplified the disintegrative ten-
dencies of mission tactics, the invention of the telegraph clearly had an integrative effect. In
1904 Rudolf von Caemmerer would enthusiastically write that the telegraph ‘has completely
removed the dangers of [spatial] separation’.110 Interestingly enough, though, the Great
General Staff did not try to use the telegraph to micro-manage operations. The telegraph was
in no way used to supplant either mission tactics or wargames. Actually, the Great General
Staff took an active interest in integrating the telegraph in its mission tactics. The telegraph
was not only used for swift communication between the Great General Staff and corps com-
manders, but also between corps commanders, who could thus continue to perform in the
autonomous modus operandi demanded by mission tactics; and these cooperative opera-
tions needed more rather than less training by playing professional wargames.111
The first Prussian wargames were born in the aftermath of Prussia’s crushing defeats at the
hands of Napoleon in 1806. In the first decades of the nineteenth century Scharnhorst and
112 Altrock, Kriegsspiel, p. iv (italics added); see also Bucholz, Moltke, Schlieffen, pp. 1–2.
Clausewitz provided the institutional and conceptual space for the eventual development
and introduction of mission tactics; but both wargames and mission tactics first went through
a period of latency. Wargames were introduced by the state, but their actual use stagnated in
post-Napoleonic Prussia. Similarly, the year 1847 saw the instruction of an exercise regula-
tion that did not introduce mission tactics but moved away from that concept. A more com-
plete concept of mission tactics was developed in Moltke’s Great General Staff from the
1860s onwards, while its actual improvised introduction took place under the fire of French
chassepot rifles in the war of 1870–71, which favoured dispersal of troops under fire.
Dispersal favoured mission tactics, which carried disintegrative risks. These risks were
countered by a host of integrative training devices, of which professional wargames were an
essential part. Similarly, on the operational level, the use of railways for the swift deploy-
ment of entire army corps favoured initial dispersal (followed by subsequent concentration).
Dispersal on this level again encouraged mission tactics, which carried the risk of disintegra-
tion. This danger was again countered by wargames. The development of professional war-
games and the proto-concept of mission tactics after Prussia’s defeats in the Napoleonic
wars initially had a precarious character. But once a firm link had been established between
leading by mission tactics and training for leadership by wargames in the 1870s, mission
tactics and wargames jointly spiralled upwards to increased levels of effectiveness.
Constantin von Altrock was right when he boasted in 1908, ‘Happily enough it can be
established that on the fields of military leadership and wargames the German army doubt-
lessly marches ahead.’112 Professional wargames and mission tactics were both hesitant con-
sequences of Prussian defeat during the Napoleonic wars; they were both substantial
consequences of the Prussian victories during the German wars; and they may have been
significant joint contributors to Germans military success during the First and Second World
War – but that is the subject of another study.
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or
Paul Schuurman works as Associate Professor in the history of philosophy at Erasmus University
Rotterdam, The Netherlands; he has published on the logic, metaphysics and epistemology of
Descartes and Locke, and is currently engaged in a research project on war in the history of ideas
between 1650 and 1900, with publications on Pieter de la Court (1618-1685), François Fénelon
(1615-1715), Montesquieu, Clausewitz, Napoleonic wargames, and Herbert Spencer.