1-192 Lecture at the Army War College, September 19, 1922

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: September 19, 1922

Lecture at the Army War College

September 19, 1922 [Washington, D.C.]


The Development of the General Staff1

In studying the staff organization of the different armies it is important to observe to what extent the character of government in each country has been a factor in determining the status of the general staff. Its relationship to the government and to the army has also, in a measure, depended on whether it was the result of slow growth or sprang into full being by legislative enactment or executive order. . . .







The foregoing constitutes rather a trite statement regarding the highest echelons of the General Staffs mentioned, with which probably all of you were intimately familiar. It therefore appears appropriate to conclude this discussion by considering the difficulties experienced by our General Staff officers in France and in the War Department, and drawing the most obvious conclusions from this evidence.


The bulk of our General Staff officers with the field forces in France were suddenly thrown into the great St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne operations for their first battle experience. Many had not previous practical experience, and most had had but three months’ instruction at Langres. Under the circumstances they rose to their great responsibilities in an admirable manner, but their lack of adequate training and experience, together with their sudden immersion in a tremendous and prolonged conflict, developed weaknesses which intimately affected the troops, and therefore seem worthy of comment.

A certain, and not inconsiderable, number of officers became depressed or seriously irritated by the frequent necessity of carrying through plans which did not fully meet their approval. This state of mind directly and adversely affected the efficiency of their work, to the manifest disadvantage of the troops. In some instances this condition had a marked effect on the operations of the units concerned. The half-hearted and pessimistic feelings of the General Staff officer was reflected throughout the command.

Another phase was the disorganizing and disheartening effect on some staff officers of frequent changes in orders. Just as they would complete the preparation of the necessary plans and orders for carrying into effect instructions from some higher command, a change of plan would be announced, and this procedure might be repeated several times. I know from personal experience of instructions being changed five times, each occasion demanding a material readjustment of orders already issued. Many officers broke under the strain of these conditions, losing confidence in those above them and developing a highly irritable and nervous mental state. They then ceased to operate efficiently.

Other General Staff officers exhibited that lack of intimate personal knowledge of the marching, billeting and fighting of the troops which makes it impossible to prepare orders and instructions without causing complications, unnecessary hardships and unfavorable battle conditions for the combat organizations. Failure to recognize the time element required for the study and preparation of orders and their transmission through the successive echelons down to the corporals squad, was the most serious failing of many of our hastily trained General Staff officers. They frequently themselves absorbed all the available time in the preparation of orders, which could not and did not reach the troops in time for execution. Under the circumstances the latter did the best they could. Too frequently the regimental, battalion and company officers had to exhaust and dangerously expose themselves in striving to communicate delayed instructions to the troops. Poorly coordinated and partially understood operations would result. In the records of the Historical Branch, what may appear to be a model order is often the worst example, having required so much time in preparation that its directions never reached the fighting battalions.

These failings and deficiencies were inevitable, and I doubt if any group of officers similarly placed and without the resourceful and independent characteristics of the American, could have approximated the splendid service our men rendered.

From all this it would seem, however, that to be an efficient General Staff officer with combat forces, a man must possess, in addition to specific General Staff training, certain personal characteristics, and an intimate knowledge of the troops he serves.

He must be able, enthusiastically, loyally and energetically, to carry through orders and instructions which do not meet his approval fifty percent of the time.

He must understand that in large operations frequent changes in orders is the normal and unavoidable condition, and must be accepted with equanimity.

He must ever be conscious of the vital time factor and must govern his work accordingly.

And he must know by actual experience (not mere observation) how the troops live, march and fight.


In serving on the War Department General Staff as now organized, three considerations seem of especial importance to the individual,—the method for exercising the supervisory and coordinating functions, the necessity for perfect cooperation, and the extreme importance of maintaining a sympathetic understanding with the other elements of the Army.

Many difficulties which have developed in the past, undoubtedly arose from the method of exercising the coordinating and supervisory functions, which in Mr. Root’s original conception, were intended to be reserved to the Chief of Staff alone. Here we differ from the Great German General Staff, which did not concern itself with routine business and therefore, did not, as it were, tread on the toes of the several branches and services of the army. It planned campaigns, determined the correct tactical organization and indoctrinated the army—the last probably being the most important.

The weakness in our new system, if any, lies in the possibility of the personnel of the first four sections becoming engrossed in their coordinating and supervisory functions, at the expense of war plans and tactical doctrines. The Fifth Section, or War Plans Division,2 has not the possibility of this weakness, and the calls it must make on the other divisions should constitute a powerful urge towards the maintenance by them of effective war plans.

It is but an example of one of the most common reactions of human nature that the personnel of the permanent services, long established in the War Department, should consciously or unconsciously appear resentful of the powerful coordinating control vested in the comparatively new General Staff, whose officers arrive in Washington without intimate knowledge of the traditions of the War Department, so recently the epitome of bureaucratic administration.

The success of the War Department General Staff, however, is believed to depend primarily on the diligent efforts of its membership to promote a spirit of cooperation and, most important of all, to develop and maintain a sympathetic attitude of understanding with the services and line of the Army.

The General Staff officer of a division is judged, and judges himself, by what the division accomplishes. Daily he is impressed by the necessity of complete cooperation within the division and a sympathetic understanding between the staff and the troops. He knows that whatever his powers may be, they are not sufficient to overcome the evil effects of a critical and resentful attitude on the part of the staff and troops. He is aware of the vital importance of maintaining a spirit of good will and generous understanding among the officers of the command. He realizes the battle cannot be won without an harmonious, united effort.

Unfortunately, when the same officer takes a desk in the War Department, he is removed from this intimate relation with the organization he serves, that is, the Army as a whole. Burdened with the daily routine, he may easily lose sight of the ultimate mission. Soon out of close personal touch with the services and troops, and without the immediate tests of campaign to measure the quality of the machine, he is apt to give too little consideration to the personal factor. In a position where, indirectly, he can wield great power without the possibility of having the results of his decisions weighed tomorrow, he at times, and unconsciously, proceeds in an impersonal, arbitrary manner.

There can be no question but that if the staff of a division is out of harmony with the services and troops, it is a failure—and the same should hold true for the War Department General Staff. The conditions in the latter are such that it is dangerously easy for the officer personnel to lose touch with the services and troops, and to misunderstand the latter’s point of view. Therefore, it would appear that the most important function of the General Staff is to promote a spirit of harmony, cooperation and understanding throughout the Army. If it does not accomplish this, nine-tenths of its value is lost.

Document Copy Text Source: George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, Speeches, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington Virginia.

Document Format: Typed draft.

1. Marshall had delivered a version of this lecture at the War College on September 3, 1921. In that earlier presentation he said: "In this discussion, little has been presented which has not been drawn from well-known sources. Numerous details regarding the German war staff were secured by Major Harry L. Hodges. Much has been a direct quotation from Von Schellendorff, and, in particular, from a memorandum prepared in the War College Division prior to the World War, which was largely the creation of Colonel John McA. Palmer."

The portion of the lecture printed here represents the one-quarter Marshall contributed from his own experiences. For his 1922 lecture, he cut several paragraphs of historical and detailed explanatory material from the 1921 version and added the section entitled "War Department General Staff."

2. Marshall had previously noted that the War Department General Staff was subdivided into five sections: Personnel (G-1), Intelligence (G-2), Operations (G-3), Supply (G-4), and War Plans Division.

Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 1, “The Soldierly Spirit,” December 1880-June 1939 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. 214-217.

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