Chief of Staff: The Principal Officers Behind History’s Great Commanders

  • Published

Chief of Staff: The Principal Officers Behind History’s Great Commanders, Volume I: Napoleonic Wars to World War I; Volume II: World War II to Korea and Vietnam by Maj Gen David T. Zabecki, AUS (Ret.). Naval Institute Press, 2008. Vol I: 241 pp.; Vol II, 243 pp.

Maj Gen Zabecki’s Chief of Staff: The Principal Officers behind History’s Great Commanders addresses a previously under analyzed leadership area: the operational-level chief of staff serving under prominent military generals. The author divides the subject matter into two volumes (Napoleonic Wars to World War I and World War II to Korea and Vietnam) in which he analyzes 41 chiefs of staff for 35 commanders. The chiefs of staff covered are from five nations: the Soviet Union, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with Germany having the most chiefs analyzed.

Each volume includes an introduction which explains the development of the operational staff for the five countries’ chiefs of staff addressed. Volume I begins with the initial development of the operational staff, while volume II addresses advancements and changes that had taken place after World War I. These introductions serve the reader with three main purposes: tracing the development of and explaining each nation’s operational staff organizational structure; highlighting the differences between each nations’ staffs; and shedding light on how each nation’s successes or failures in the evolution of the chief of staff position.

For today’s staff officer working in the coalition environment, these three points provide a necessary framework for understanding when working with allies. For example, a German chief of staff is evolved from a well-developed process and professional military education system and is expected to give his opinion to his commander. Even today, a German chief of staff has more authority than other nation’s chiefs of staff. In contrast, an American chief of staff does not have the same historical footing. The history of the American chief of staff is a history of repeated reductions in the military size after each conflict followed by rapid expansion during times of conflict. An example of this was Gen John Pershing and his chief of staff, James Harbord, who worked to develop their concepts for their operational staff during their transit to Europe, only to recognize the need to revamp their staff’s organization structure using the “best ideas the British and French had to offer” (p. 211). Armed with a workable organization, they then faced an acute shortage of qualified officers, owing to the American idea of repeatedly downsizing its military. Understanding where a nation’s staff originated and how it developed can provide a valuable tool to effectively integrate coalition operations with those allies.

As the text explores the varying role each chief played, it is immediately apparent that the role of the chief of staff has varied greatly depending on the needs and personalities of the respective commanders and the abilities and personalities of their chiefs of staff. Several chiefs of staff have been extensions of their commander. Several were near co- or defacto commanders, others were task masters for a staff, while still others worked as handlers to help keep their commander on task. For example: Louis-Alexandre Berthier took Napoleon Bonaparte’s top level broad brush concepts and converted them into detailed executable plans. Interestingly, when given the opportunity to command in battle, Berthier was not successful. In contrast, operating in a role above the traditional chief of staff, Konstantin Schmidt von Knobelsdorf was a near defacto commander when German crown prince Wilhelm of Prussia, 32 years old with only regimental command level experience, was given command German Fifth Army during World War I.

Another benefit of the text is the insight it provides into the leadership of the various great commanders: Napoleon, Pershing, Haig, Abrams, Montgomery, Rommel, Patton, and Eisenhower, to name a few. The text is well researched and sourced. The analysis of each chief of staff ranges from 10 to 16 pages and is easily read. As these are edited text utilizing different authors for each chapter, the flow and level of research for each chapter varies. Several chapters focus on the staff relationship and action of the chief of staff while others focus more on the military campaigns involved. At times, this variation is bothersome, as the focus of the role of the chief of staff is lost.

Finally, all of the officers analyzed in the book are army officers. For officers from other services, it would be interesting to learn about similar relationships in their respective service. Despite this observation, Chief of Staff: The Principal Officers behind History’s Great Commanders are books of merit. In summary, Maj Gen Zabecki has created a solid, well-organized study. Along the way of learning about various chiefs of staff, the reader will also learn new or different aspects about various military campaigns. The insight in the role of the chief of staff and the relationship between commander and chief of staff yields a valuable insight for current and future staff officers. This set will hold a firm spot in my library.

Lt Col Dan Simonsen, USAF (Ret.)

Louisiana Tech University


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."