No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Carl von Clausewitz? Dwight D. Eisenhower? Mike Tyson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Anybody who is attempting to accomplish a major project must be flexible. Planning is important, but adaptability is essential. Here are two versions of a pertinent adage from the domain of warfare and competition:

  • No plan survives contact with the enemy.
  • No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

This saying has been attributed to Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1871 Helmuth von Moltke wrote an essay about military strategy that included a lengthy statement that was essentially equivalent to the concise adage. Here is an excerpt in German followed by an English translation. Boldface added to by QI:[ref] 1900, Moltkes Militärische Werke: II. Die Thätigkeit als Chef des Generalstabes der Armee im Frieden. (Moltke’s Military Works: II. Activity as Chief of the Army General Staff in Peacetime) Zweiter Theil (Second Part), Aufsatz vom Jahre 1871 Ueber Strategie (Article from 1871 on strategy), Start Page 287, Quote Page 291, Publisher: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus. Nur der Laie glaubt in dem Verlauf eines Feldzuges die konsequente Durchführung eines im voraus gefaßten in allen Einzelheiten überlegten und bis ans Ende festgehaltenen, ursprünglichen Gedankens zu erblicken.

No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces. Only the layman believes that in the course of a campaign he sees the consistent implementation of an original thought that has been considered in advance in every detail and retained to the end.

Over time Moltke’s statement was condensed to yield the currently popular adages.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1900 “The Edinburgh Review” mentioned two different sayings credited to Moltke:[ref] 1900 October, The Edinburgh Review, Volume 192, Number 394, The War in South Africa, Start Page 272, Quote Page 282, Longmans, Green, and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

‘It is almost impossible,’ wrote Von Moltke, ‘to remedy during a campaign an error in the primary concentration of the troops,’ adding that ‘no plan of operations can with any certainty reach beyond the first encounter with the enemy.’

In 1903 “The Royal Commission on the War in South Africa” included a version of the passage from Moltke:[ref] 1903, Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Royal Commission on the War in South Africa, Volume 2, Date: March 26, 1903, Quote Page 514, Column 2, Printed for His Majesty’s Stationery Office by Wyman and Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

May I give you a quotation which Lord Wolseley gave us from Von Moltke. Von Moltke says in the official account of the Franco-German war, page 50, volume 1: “No plan of operations can with any safety include more than the first collision with the enemy’s main body. It is only the laity who believe that they can trace throughout the course of a campaign the prosecution of the original plan arranged beforehand in all its details, and observed to the very close.”

In 1911 the London military periodical “The United Service Magazine” printed another version of the passage with an attribution to Moltke:[ref] 1911 July, The United Service Magazine, Volume 43, Number 992, Thoughts On Waterloo by “Denkmal”, Start Page 402, Quote Page 408 and 409, William Clowes & Sons, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

“No plan of operations can be at all relied upon beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force. Only the civilian believes that he can see in the course of a campaign the consequence of an original plan formed beforehand.”

In 1919 “A Complete History of the World War” by W. D. Eaton and Harry C. Read presented a shortened version of the saying:[ref] 1919 Copyright, A Complete History of the World War by W. D. Eaton and Sergeant Major Harry C. Read, Volume 3 of 5, Chapter 20: The Hindenburg Drive of 1918, Quote Page 288, (Publisher not specified in text; printer name from WorldCat), Printed by C. Thomas Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Moltke said well, when he gave utterance to his well-known remark on plans of campaign, that no plan can go farther than the first battle; what can be done afterwards depends on the result of the collision.

In 1940 the periodical “Military Review” presented this translation of Moltke:[ref] 1940 March, Military Review: Quarterly Review of Military Literature, Volume 20, Number 76, (Filler item), Quote Page 36, Published by Command and General Staff School, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

No war plan extends beyond the first military engagement with the hostile main forces. Only the layman believes that the course of the campaign has followed a predetermined course, which has been planned in detail far in advance, and has been clung to tenaciously to the bitter end.
—MOLTKE (the elder).

In 1961 “The Desert Generals” by Correlli Barnett contained a concise instance ascribed to Moltke:[ref] 1961 (1960 Copyright), The Desert Generals by Correlli Barnett, Part 4: The Image of a General – General Sir Neil Ritchie, Start Page 115, Quote Page 138, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

. . .Rommel took Moltke’s view that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. If his plan got him into battle, it was enough. After that, Rommel would fight by ear and eye and tactical sense, like a duellist.

In 1966 “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations” edited by Robert Debs Heinl also printed the concise instance:[ref] 1966, “Dictionary of Military and Naval Quotations” edited by Robert Debs Heinl, Category: Plans, Quote Page 239, Column 2, United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

No plan survives contact with the enemy.
Attributed to Helmuth von Moltke (“The Elder”), 1800-1891

In 1969 “Airborne Carpet: Operation Market Garden” by Anthony Farrar-Hockley attributed a version of the saying to military theorist Carl von Clausewitz:[ref] 1969, Airborne Carpet: Operation Market Garden by Anthony Farrar-Hockley, Chapter: Crises and tensions, Quote Page 17, Ballantine Books, New York.(Verified with scans) [/ref]

But as Clausewitz tells us, no plan survives the first contact of war.

In August 1987 the Associated Press news service published a piece containing the following thematically related quotation from professional boxer Mike Tyson: “Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time”. A separate article about this saying is available here.

In 2004 a columnist in “The Gazette” of Montreal, Canada tentatively linked an instance to Dwight D. Eisenhower:[ref] 2004 March 31, The Gazette, Liberals dance around election promises by Don MacPherson, Quote Page A23, Column 1, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Was it Eisenhower, or some earlier general, who first observed a battle plan never survives contact with the enemy? And it’s rare the platform on which a government is elected survives contact with reality in the form of public finances.

QI has a separate article about the following thematically similar quotation attributed to Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”.

In conclusion, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder deserves credit for the words he wrote in German in 1871. Several different translations into English of Moltke’s remark about planning have appeared. Over time his remark has been simplified and shortened to yield the popular modern instances.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration from the U.S. Library of Congress depicting a plan of the 1863 Gettysburg battle ground. Created by Charles Wellington Reed in 1864. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Jay Lund whose message led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Lund mentioned the Moltke quotation and pointed out the similarity to another quotation that had previously been examined on this website: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”.)

Update History: On October 28, 2021 a crosslink to the Mike Tyson quotation was added.

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