The forty years from 1830 to 1870 saw a greater change in the means of warfare, both on land and sea, than during the whole previous span of modem history—or of all previous history. Most of the change was concentrated, at least in the sense of being demonstrated, within the last decade of the period. The technical, tactical, and strategical developments during the wars of this decade foreshadowed the operational trend, and social form, of warfare in the next century. Some of the new trends also exemplified the remarkable influence of two great military thinkers of the nineteenth century, Jomini and Clausewitz, whose main works appeared in the ’thirties.
For many centuries the strength of armies was reckoned in number of men, with merely a distinction between cavalrymen and infantrymen—‘horse’ and ‘foot’, as the two branches, or arms, were customarily described. Subject to that distinction, of respective mobility, it was the most suitable way of computing their material strength before the advent of firearms, and it remained a reasonable form of reckoning so long as firearms were effective only at very short range, while still so inaccurate and slow-loading that the opponent had a good chance, especially if mounted, of coming to close quarters without being shot down. Even so, the volley-fire of infantry armed with the flint-lock musket became sufficiently effective with good training to put a strong curb on cavalry charges, and in the Napoleonic wars the cavalry arm was palpably a diminishing force. At the same time, field artillery played an increasingly important part in Napoleon’s later battles, through improved tactical employment in concentrated numbers, so that it became more necessary in a reckoning of strength to count ‘guns’ as well as ‘horse and foot’. But after Napoleon’s fall, artillery suffered a relapse while the cavalry did not recover its power—although there was no proportionate decline in its prestige—so that the infantry became, increasingly, the preponderant arm in power as well as in numbers.
It was still reasonable in 1830 to reckon the strength of armies in number of men. But it was no longer a reasonable or safe way of computation by 1870 owing to the immense, and uneven, qualitative development of infantry firearms, and to a lesser extent of artillery. During the next forty years the artillery weapon made faster progress than the infantryman’s individual weapon, but the development of the machinegun, a portable automatic firing weapon, fully maintained the power of ‘small arms’. It thus became an absurdity to reckon quantitatively by the number of men, infantry or cavalry. Yet even in the first great war of the twentieth century it was still customary to measure the comparative strength of armies in X-thousand ‘rifles’ and Y-thousand ‘sabres’—so persistent is the grip of traditional habits of thought.
In 1830 the standard infantry firearm was still the flint-lock musket with a smooth bore, loaded from the muzzle end, a ramrod being used to push the round leaden bullet and its cartridge down the barrel. The process of loading was so cumbrous that the rate of fire was rarely more than two rounds a minute, and often less. Only a very good shot could hit a man at more than fifty yards’ distance, and the effectiveness of the musket beyond such short range depended on volleys by a close-ranked line of soldiers. Although muskets with a rifled bore had come to be adopted to some extent for the skirmishing light troops, their spiral grooves and tendency to become fouled made loading even slower—the process taking nearly two minutes—while their accuracy was only a little better than the smooth-bore musket’s. It is doubtful whether the infantryman’s firearm of the early nineteenth century was superior to the medieval-archer’s long-bow which had an effective range of 200-300 yards with more accuracy, and could shoot at about four times as fast a rate as the smooth-bore musket.
The first important development in the nineteenth-century firearm was the percussion musket, using a fulminate priming-powder, which developed from the experiments of a Scottish minister, the Rev. Alexander Forsyth, at the start of the century. His invention aroused some brief interest in government circles and he was invited to pursue his experiments in London, at the Tower. But the conservatively minded Board of Ordnance soon achieved his dismissal, thus quenching the chance of providing the British army with a firearm superior to the flint-lock during the ‘Great War’ against Napoleon. Shortly after the war the work of other private experimenters made the percussion system more practicable by the use of a copper cap for the detonator. But it was not until 1834 that the military authorities were moved to try it, and not until 1840 that the British army was re-equipped with percussion muskets. After much public pressure the government made a meagre award of £1000 to Forsyth—the payment arriving just after he died! The principal value of the percussion-lock was in achieving an immense reduction in the number of misfires, especially in wet weather.
The next important developments were in the rifled musket. Unless the bullet fitted the bore tightly it lost power and accuracy—through windage, and wastage of the propulsive gases—but if it fitted tightly loading was very slow. The solution was sought in devising a bullet which, while small enough to slide down the barrel easily, could be made to expand into the grooving when fired and thus fill the bore completely. Various methods of producing the expansive effect were evolved. The earliest to be put into use was worked out in 1826 by a French officer, Delvigne, and attracted wide attention when a battalion of Chasseurs d'Afrique was armed with his rifle in the Algerian campaign of 1838. In England, Captain Norton had conceived a more promising method in 1823, and this was improved in design by Mr Greener in 1835. It was rejected by the British military authorities, but aroused more interest in France, where in 1847 Captain Minie produced a further improvement of this design that was accepted by the French army. This was adopted in 1851 by the British army—which paid Minie £20,000 for it, and gave Greener a belated reward of £1000 for ‘the first public suggestion of the principle of expansion’. Minie’s bullet was initially conoidal but later made cylindro-conoidal. This pointed and elongated bullet had a hollow base with an iron cup inserted—which, when the charge was fired, was forced into the cavity in the bullet, thus expanding the base to fit the grooves of the rifle.
The shape of the bullet, in combination with its expansion to fit the grooved bore, produced a great increase of accuracy and of effective range. At 400 yards’ range it scored more than 50 per cent in hits, of rounds fired on a target, compared with less than 5 per cent by the percussion musket, which had been adopted only ten years earlier. Even at ranges up to 800 yards, marksmen achieved about 40 per cent in hits. The Minie rifle was first used in war during the 1852 campaign in South Africa against the Kaffirs, and it was then found effective in dispersing small bodies of Kaffirs at ranges up to 1300 yards. But the reliability of the Minie did not match its performance—owing particularly to the weakness of the bullet and the deepness of the grooves—and an improved pattern was produced by the small-arms factory at Enfield. This new ‘Enfield’ rifle was used in the Crimean War along with the Minie, and then superseded it, becoming the final advance in the muzzle-loading firearm.
For another big advance had already been made abroad with the development of a breech-loading rifle, the ‘needle-gun’ produced by Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse in 1836 and adopted by the Prussian army in 1841. This rifle had a bolt-action of door-bolt kind, as with the rifles in general use a century later. On pulling the trigger, a striker that had a long and sharp needle-like point was driven, by a spiral spring, through the base of the paper cartridge containing the gunpowder to strike a percussion disc at the forward end and thus ignite the charge. It had a number of defects—the needle was apt to break or bend, and there was a large escape of gas at the breech, which tended to diminish the propulsive power and to cause rust in the rifle’s action. But although its effective range was shorter than the later types of muzzle-loading rifle, its rate of fire was about three times as fast—seven shots a minute instead of two.
Above all, it enabled the men to load and fire while lying flat on the ground, thus being a much smaller target for the enemy. The value of the new Prussian weapon was demonstrated in the conflicts with Denmark in 1848 and 1864, and still more against the Austrians in 1866 (cf. p. 325).
The military authorities of most countries tended, as usual, to dwell on the particular defects of the ‘needle-gun’ rather than on the general advantages of breech-loading, and conservatism was reinforced by economy. But they were stirred to a greater interest in the potentialities of this system. Between 1857 and 1861 four types of breech-loading carbine (a short rifle feasible for use by mounted troops) were experimentally introduced in the British army for cavalry. The four years’ duration of the American Civil War provided increasing proof of the advantage of this system, and an increasing proportion of the troops were equipped with breech-loading weapons (cf. ch. XXIV, p. 631). A stronger spur was applied to European armies by the battle successes of the Prussians. In 1866 the French army adopted a breech-loading rifle developed by Antoine Alphonse Chassepot, which was first used in battle at Mentana the next year, where it caused havoc among Garibaldi’s troops. In the war of 1870 the Chassepot rifle proved much superior to the German needle-gun, although the technical advantage which the French army had thus achieved was offset by its faults in strategy, tactics and organisation (cf. p. 325). Meanwhile the British army adopted in 1864 a breech-loading rifle designed by an American, Jacob Snider, which was used with striking effect in the Abyssinian campaign of 1868. It was replaced three years later by the Martini-Henry rifle—Martini being another American, who designed the firing action. But although the value of the further advance to a repeating, magazine-feeding rifle was strikingly demonstrated in the later stages of the American Civil War (see ch. XXIV, p. 631), there was a long interval before the European armies adopted rifles of this type— the German in 1884, the French in 1885, the Austrian in 1886, and the British in 1888.
A significant accompaniment of the development in infantry firearms was the increasing limitation of cavalry action. In the Crimean War the cavalry were still able to carry out their traditional role, although at heavy cost. In the American Civil War they were soon reduced to fighting dismounted in battle, and thus to the intermediate mobile role of mounted infantry. The lesson was ignored by European armies, but soon repeated and reinforced by the experience of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Even with the now obsolete needle-gun, a single volley by the German infantry shattered the charge of the French cavalry at Sedan. Yet tradition and sentiment had such a dominating influence, swamping a sense of reality, that European armies maintained a large mass of cavalry for more than half a century, and during the 1914-18 war their leaders continued to indulge in vain dreams of repeating the decisive cavalry charges and pursuits of earlier times.
Progress in artillery was not so fast as with the infantry firearm, but during the Crimean War a number of smooth-bore guns were converted into rifled guns, with striking effect in the siege of Sebastopol. Their advantage in range and precision was so marked as to give a strong impetus to the development of guns that should be not only rifled but breech-loading. By 1870 rifled guns were in general use, but the muzzle-loading type was still preferred in most armies. The British tried a breech-loading type in the China campaign of 1860, and it received good reports from the users, but the prejudice against the innovation was so strong that it was rejected in favour of an improved muzzle-loader—which was retained until 1886. Yet in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the German artillery was equipped with breech-loading guns while the French were still muzzle-loaders. In analysis of the battles it is clear that this difference of equipment, coupled with superior artillery tactics, gave the Germans a decisive tactical advantage, which outweighed the superiority of the French Chassepot rifle over the German infantry’s needle-gun.
The German artillery broke up French infantry attacks at distances of more than a mile—a range too long for the French to use their Chassepot rifles effectively. The Germans, when attacking, were at first so eager to close with the enemy that they would not wait until their own artillery had prepared the way. Thus, particularly in the great battle of Gravelotte-Saint Privat, they forfeited the potentially decisive advantage provided by their superiority, in quality and quantity, of artillery. On the left wing at Saint Privat the Prussian Guard withered under the unshaken fire of the French riflemen, losing a third of its strength, while part of the right wing near Gravelotte was thrown into disorder and fled in panic—although the irresolute and incompetent conduct of the French commander, Marshal Bazaine, eventually retrieved the day for the Germans. But the German infantry learned patience with experience, and the effect of the strategic manoeuvre which trapped Marshal MacMahon’s army at Sedan was sealed by an enveloping ring of 600 guns, which shattered all breakout attacks by the French, and forced the surrender of an army of 80,000 at a cost to the victor of barely one-tenth of that number.
A more revolutionary type of weapon which made its appearance in the ’sixties was the machine-gun, a weapon producing a stream of shots in rapid succession or simultaneously by a mechanical arrangement of the lock. Attempts to develop such a weapon had been made during previous centuries, usually on a multi-barrelled design. But the first to prove significantly effective was the Gatling gun, which profited from recent developments in breech-loading, and appeared during the American Civil War. Invented by Richard Gatling of Chicago, it was a form of revolving rifle with six or ten barrels—set around an axis and firing in turn when brought into position by the revolving mechanism, so that an almost continuous stream of bullets could be maintained by turning the crank-handle quickly. It was intended as a reinforcement to the fire of the infantry, and at similar ranges.
Meanwhile the French artillery were looking for a weapon that would produce the shower effect of the old case-shot at ranges greater than had been possible with this kind of ammunition—so that it could be fired from positions out of reach of the enemy’s rifle fire. Working with this aim—in Napoleon III’s private arsenal at the Chateau de Meudon—Commandant Reffye developed from a Belgian design a canon a balles, or mitrailleuse, intended for use at ranges from 1500 to 2700 yards. Outwardly it resembled an ordinary field gun, with a wheeled carriage, limber, and four-horse team to draw it. But the gun-barrel was a casing for twenty-five rifle-barrels, with a screw-attached compound breech containing the firing mechanism, and chambers holding twenty-five cartridges apiece. With this a rate of five rounds—125 shots—a minute could be attained. The mitrailleuse was adopted by the French army in 1867, and a large number were produced during the next few years. But secrecy was considered of such paramount importance that the men intended to handle the new weapon were given no information or practice before the outbreak of war in 1870, and when used in action most of the crews had not even seen it fired. A worse result of such fatally mistaken secrecy was that the commanders under whom the new weapons were placed distributed them piecemeal for close-quarter action with the forward troops, instead of massing them and firing from positions well back, as intended.
Secrecy had succeeded only in producing an inefficient handling of the new weapon. It did not prevent, but fostered, the spread of rumour that the French had something of this kind up their sleeve. Thus the Germans were quick to spot it, and quashed the threat by turning a concentration of artillery fire on to each of the scattered mitrailleuses that appeared in exposed positions, knocking them out one by one. This nullification of the French mitrailleuse not only deflated the high hopes which it had raised, but led soldiers everywhere to jump to the conclusion that the fault lay in the weapon itself rather than in the way it had been used. Even when much improved types of machine-gun were developed—automatic firing, small enough to be portable, and easily concealable—the general run of military opinion persisted in regarding machine-guns as of little value, and was ready to dismiss the claims made for them by scornful reference to the failure of the mitrailleuse in 1870. Nearly half a century later, none of the armies that went to war in 1914 had more than two such weapons per thousand men. Yet that handful soon dominated the battlefields, and produced a prolonged state of deadlock.
This brief excursion into the next half-century, and projection of its lines of progress, may help to make clearer the significance of the 1830-70 period as the start of a new era in warfare. Moreover, the great development of fire-power during this period was matched, and even exceeded, in results by that which took place in other technical means.
Foremost of these was the railway and its military use as an aid to strategical movement. In Europe its effect was exerted during this period mainly in assisting the offensive, as was demonstrated in the way it enabled the Prussians to achieve an opening advantage, by quick enveloping deployment, over the Austrians in 1866. But in North America its effect on the course of the Civil War was mainly in impeding the offensive —through fostering an encumbering accumulation of numbers at the forward end of the railway line, and thereby making commanders acutely sensitive to any threatened interruption of the flow of supplies to railheads.
The military bearing of this new means of transportation was first appreciated in Prussia. It had been pointed out by several men of vision there as early as 1833—before any railway had been built in that country. The most influential prophet was Friedrich List, the economic theorist. Bom in Wurttemberg, he became an enthusiast for railways during his political exile in the United States, and after his return to Germany in 1832 he devoted much of his time to a press campaign for the development of railways. He argued that a railway network would aid both the political unification of Germany and its defensive strength—enabling it to profit by its central position, hitherto a source of danger, for rapid switching of forces to counter invasion on either side. That idea, defensively inspired, was fulfilled in the subsequent construction of German railways, and given an offensive turn in operational application by Moltke thirty years later.
Moltke had taken a keen interest in railways at an early stage of his career. In 1839, on returning from his advisory mission with the Turkish army, he invested his savings in the new Hamburg-Berlin railway—of which he became a director. The thoroughness with which he studied the technical side is shown in an essay he wrote in 1843 on the principles of laying out and working a railway, while his grasp of the strategic possibilities is indicated in a letter of the following year, to one of his brothers, in which he significantly remarked: ‘While the French Chambers are still engaged in discussing the matter, we have laid down three hundred miles of railway, and are working at two hundred more.’ In 1846—the year of List’s death—the first large-scale movement of troops on record was carried out, as a test exercise, by a Prussian army corps. In 1857 Moltke was appointed Chief of the General Staff, and immediately applied a spur to the military use of railways. He argued, as List had done, that a strategic railway network was required to meet Prussia’s two-front risks, and would be the best means towards an effective solution of the problem arising from her precarious situation. Hence he pressed the claims of strategy to have a deciding voice in civil plans for railway construction. From that time onwards, such plans were usually referred to him, and he gave close attention to all points of detail likely to be of military significance.
The first important operational use of railways was in the Italian war of 1859—when Austria attacked Piedmont, which was supported by a strong French force under Napoleon III (see p. 323). Although Prussia abstained from intervening, Moltke took the opportunity of testing the plans for the rapid transportation and concentration of the Prussian forces. The benefit of the important improvements then made was seen when the Prussians invaded Austria in 1866, and again in the invasion of France in 1870. These two wars brought out the tremendous advantage of a well-developed railway network for the quick concentration and deployment of armies. They changed all previous conceptions and calculations of the basic factors in strategy—force, space, and time. In 1866 the Prussians started their mobilisation later than the Austrians, but were able to use five lines of railway to bring up their forces from the various parts of Prussia, while the Austrians had only one line running forward from Vienna, and did not use that effectively. Moltke succeeded in deploying the Prussian armies on the frontiers of Bohemia and Saxony, and pushing through the Bohemian mountain passes, before the Austrians had completed their concentration in Moravia and begun to advance into Bohemia. Thus the Prussians managed to reach a good strategical position, despite the risks entailed by their delayed mobilisation and wide-flung initial deployment.
The Prussian success in 1866, reinforced by victory over France in 1870, made so deep an impression on the military world that speed of assembly and deployment at the outset came to be regarded as the main key to victory. Thus strategic planning became geared to the time-table—above all, the railway time-table. That trend produced a habit of thought which was to have a fatal effect in precipitating war in 1914, and nullifying the hope of negotiating a settlement of the crisis. It also obscured the paralysing effect on strategy liable to arise from dependence on anything so fixed as a railway line, and so inelastic in transport capacity. The wars of 1866 and 1870 in Europe both ended so quickly, and so successfully for the attacker, as to obscure the inherent drawbacks of such dependence on an inflexible means of strategic movement. The drawbacks were strikingly exposed in the far more prolonged civil war in America, but the lessons received much less attention in European military circles and schools.
A similar recoil-effect occurred with the application of the electric telegraph to military purposes as a means of intercommunication. That effect was manifested very early—in the Crimean War, the first war in which it was used. Its advantages were quickly appreciated by governments, and their military advisers, as a means of keeping in touch with the commanders in the field. But in the view of the commanders themselves the disadvantages bulked larger—the British commander complaining that the new means of long-distance communication ‘upset everything’, and the French commander that he was ‘at the paralysing end of an electric cable’. In the American Civil War the paralysing tendency became even more predominant. Nevertheless, this means of quick longdistance communication was of great value, when wisely used, in coordinating the action of the armies that were operating in different theatres, so widely spread. In the war of 1866 the telegraph enabled Moltke to direct most of the movements of the Prussian armies from his office in Berlin, and he did not move up to the front until almost the eve of the decisive battle, of Koniggratz—while on reaching the front he found it harder to keep informed of the situation than at his desk in Berlin. His long-range control had worked well on the whole because he wisely confined it to broad strategic directions and left the executants a large measure of freedom. When General Headquarters moved up close to the front it was dependent, as in the past, on messages carried by mounted liaison officers.
That condition still prevailed in 1870, for although seven field telegraph detachments had been mobilised nothing was done during the crucial frontier battles to lay a linking wire between Moltke’s position and the army headquarters, two of which were quite close. The omission appears to have been due partly to a fear that such a wire might be tapped by the enemy, but even more to a desire that the initiative of army commanders should not be weakened by the feeling that they were tied to a wire. For Prussian military doctrine gave more emphasis than any other to the cultivation and uncurbed use of initiative by subordinate commanders.
The possibility of combining such initiative with harmonious co-operation towards the common goal was largely due to the Prussian system of staff organisation and training. In the struggle against Napoleon the military reformers Schamhorst and Gneisenau, developing the earlier ideas of Massenbach, had created the nucleus of a ‘General Staff’ with functions wider and responsibility greater than those of former staff assistants to a commander—who were usually little more than gallopers to carry his orders, or clerks to deal with administrative detail. In the Prussian system the General Staff was to be the collective brain of the army. It was to formulate tactical doctrine, prepare operational plans in peace as well as in war, and provide expert advisers for the field commands, both high and low. Such staff officers would share responsibility with the actual commanders, besides relieving them of the detailed planning. They would apostolically interpret the concepts of the General Staff to the commander, and the commander’s decisions to his subordinate executants. Where he was not present, they could use their own discretion and give orders in his name which overrode those issued in circumstances that had changed. Such intelligent variation of orders, to the point of nominal disobedience, depended on the development of a common doctrine and habit of thought in dealing with problems. The spread of such a common doctrine was helped by the practice of sending General-Staff officers back to regimental duty at intervals.
The Prussian staff system was consolidated, and its military educational basis developed, during the half-century following Waterloo. In 1821 the General Staff was detached from the War Ministry and made a separate advisory organ, but still subordinate to the Ministry. That measure temporarily diminished its influence, although potentially giving it more independence. Its power did not grow until the later stages of the war of 1864 against Denmark, and then fortuitously—when hitches in the campaign led to the Chief of the General Staff, Moltke, being sent to act as chief of staff to the commander of the field army. The successful results produced a change in the fighting leaders’ view that the General Staff was merely a superfluous group of ‘backroom boys’. At the start of the war of 1866 it was given direct control of the field armies, and Moltke replaced the War Minister as the prime military adviser to the king. The paramount position of the General Staff was confirmed by the victorious war of 1870 against France. This led other armies to reorganise and develop their staff organisation and training on similar lines.
Thus the conduct of warfare became more orchestral than in the past, when the issue was often decided by the individual ability of the respective field commanders, and their art counted for more than corporate technique. The intellectual discipline and common habit of thought developed by the General Staff system produced a higher level of functional efficiency, but also tended to a uniformity and conventionality of thought that hindered the recognition of changing conditions and the adoption of new ideas.
Another, and worse, sequel of the paramount position gained by the General Staff was to foster the military concept, a product of the specialist’s narrow view, that military victory was an end in itself, to which political considerations and aims should be secondary and subordinate, at least until the enemy was crushed. That concept and claim came to the fore as soon as Moltke gained control of the Prussian Army’s operations. It produced clashes with Bismarck, when he sought to limit the military aims and bring about an early peace in 1866, and again in 1870. Subsequently the increasing influence of the General Staff powerfully contributed to the tendency for military considerations to dictate policy which had such fateful consequences two generations later.
The recruiting and organisation of armies during this period showed no such revolutionary change as occurred in the technical means of fire, movement, and communication. But there was an increasing systematisation, especially in the application of conscription, which had such an important and far-reaching influence not only in the military field but also in social and political ways that it amounted to a revolution—or at least completed that which had spasmodically started with the wars of the French Revolution.
It might have been no more than a spasm but for Prussian military policy and theory, together with the effect of Prussia’s dramatic military successes half a century after Waterloo. In France, conscription was cast off with Napoleon, since it had become the people’s greatest grievance under his rule. Through it they had been bled white, and its abolition was one of the main points in the new constitution. In other continental countries the conscript system nominally continued in force, and even in France was soon revived, but with such extensive modification and permission for substitution that it became in practice little more than a supplement to standing armies mainly composed of men who voluntarily undertook a long-service engagement. In France, for example, there were only 120,000 conscripts in 1866 among the army’s total establishment of 400,000.
But in Prussia the system was maintained as the real basis of the army, and short-service conscripts continued to be the largest component. The Prussian people were the more easily persuaded to accept its continuance since it was associated in their minds—unlike those of the French people —with liberation from Napoleon’s tyranny.
The Prussian Army Law of 1814 laid down the rule of compulsory service for all men between the ages of seventeen and fifty, and although the rule was not fully applied in practice the principle was thus constitutionally consolidated. In 1860 the growing possibility of war with Neo-Napoleonic France led to its extension in practice. The annual intake was increased from 40,000 to 63,000—for three years’ active duty and four years’ reserve service. That raised the effective strength of the army and its immediate reserves from 200,000 to 440,000. The change met great opposition, and led to a prolonged struggle between the king, guided by Bismarck, and parliament (see ch. XIX, pp. 509-20). The people in general became reconciled to the new law only after the victories of 1866 and 1870 —which also swung the other continental countries into line with the Prussian system.
The consequences were multiple and far-reaching. When armies became bigger in scale, wars tended to become more comprehensive in scope. They imposed greater demands on industry, which became more closely geared to military needs. Armies became less manageable, and this handicap, in conjunction with the greater quantity of trained man-power available in reserve, tended to make wars longer in duration. War became less politically controllable—at all stages, from inception to completion. In the first place, universal conscription tended to precipitate war, as the dramatic calling-up of the nations’ men from their civil jobs produced a state of excitement and disturbance prejudicial to diplomatic efforts to avert a conflict, and also because the machinery of mass mobilisation and deployment was so dependent on keeping rigidly to time-table. That effect was very clearly seen in the outbreak of war in 1914. Moreover, once a war broke out under these conditions, its widened embrace coupled with mass emotion hindered any limitation of aim or action, making a negotiated settlement far more difficult than in wars waged by professional forces under the control of statesmanship. Thus the effects of war became much worse, and more damaging to all concerned, as war became more ‘total’.
Moreover, although conscription had the appearance of being democratic, it provided autocratic rulers, hereditary or revolutionary, with more effective and comprehensive means of imposing their will, not only in war but in peace. Once the rule of compulsory service in arms was re-established for the young men of a nation, it was an all too easy transition for a government to bring the whole population into a state of servitude. Totalitarian tyranny is the natural offspring of total war.
That reflection prompts an examination of the trend of military theory during the incubatory period in the nineteenth century, and of its influence on the development of the quantitative ideas, unlimited aims, and unbridled violence of action which in combination produced the ‘total war’ of the next century.
The nineteenth century saw two outstanding military theorists, Jomini and Clausewitz. Born almost at the same time, nearly ten years before the French Revolution, both began to have an influence as young men, during the Napoleonic wars. But their principal works were published, and their influence thus greatly extended, in the 1830’s. Their thought and writings moulded the minds and doctrines of the next generation of soldiers, who conducted the wars of the ’sixties—and in Clausewitz’s case the influence extended, with increasing effect, to successive generations after 1870.
Jomini, born in 1779, was of Swiss origin. Like many ardent students of war he was of unmilitary parentage. But the outbreak of revolution in Switzerland rescued him from a bank-clerk’s stool in Paris and gave him military opportunity—to command a battalion when aged only twenty-one. The peace of Luneville ended that first opportunity, and brought him back to a civil job, but gave him leisure for reflection on the experience and for military thinking of wider scope. At twenty-five, in 1804, he produced an ambitious text-book, his Traite des grandes operations militaires. It attracted the attention of Marshal Ney, who invited Jomini to accompany him on the campaign of 1805 as a volunteer aide-de-camp. Later that year Napoleon also read the book and was so impressed that he gave Jomini a colonel’s commission in the French army, appointing him to his own staff for the campaign against Prussia the next year. Jomini’s services were rewarded by a barony and promotion to general of brigade. But his rapid advancement and growing influence aroused jealousy, particularly on the part of Napoleon’s chief of staff, Berthier—who, in 1813, blocked Jomini’s further promotion. The emperor of Russia had earlier made a bid for his services, and now renewed it, offering him a lieutenant-general’s commission, which Jomini accepted. After the fall of Napoleon in 1815 Jomini gave offence to his new employers and their allies by his strenuous efforts to save his old patron, Ney, from execution. Jomini then went back to military writing, but was soon recalled to become military tutor to the tsarevitch, and then did much to develop staff education in Russia. On retirement in 1829 he settled in Brussels, where he produced his famous Precis de l'art de la guerre, for two generations the most esteemed of all books on war.
It still remains a remarkably clear definition of the various types of war, and exposition of the differences which should affect the conduct of each type. Jomini was not blinded by the post-Napoleonic worship of unlimited force regardless of the end, and of the dividend. He pointed out that in wars where a profit was sought offensive operations should be proportioned to the end proposed. And he significantly remarked in comment on Napoleon’s later career: ‘One might say that he was sent into this world to teach generals and statesmen what they ought to avoid.’ Jomini praised Napoleon for breaking away from the old point-winning convention, and for perceiving that ‘the first means of doing great things was to strive, above all, to dislocate and ruin the enemy army; certain that states and provinces fall of themselves when they have no longer organised forces to cover them’. But with the Russian and Spanish campaigns stamped on his memory, Jomini emphasised that the pursuit of this object must be governed by the conditions. His own moderate view was that ‘the excessive abuse which Napoleon made of this system does not destroy the real advantage that it offers, so long as one knows how to put a limit on one’s successes, and to set one’s enterprises in harmony with the respective condition of the neighbouring armies and nations’. If European military thought had continued under the influence of Jomini, the nations would hardly have pursued mutual destruction so thoughtlessly in 1914-18.
But the stalemate which developed after the opening moves would still have been probable. For Jomini’s teaching failed to set in correct focus the basic conditions of mobile war, or point out the requirements as clearly as Bourcet and Guibert, the two leading military thinkers of the late eighteenth century, had done in the theory they had developed—and which Napoleon had so brilliantly applied in his earlier campaigns.
Jomini defined ‘the fundamental principle of war’ as comprising:
1. Carrying by strategic combinations the mass of the forces of an army successively on the decisive points of a theatre of war, and as far as possible upon the enemy’s communications without endangering one’s own.
2. Manoeuvring in such a manner as to engage this mass against fractions only of the enemy’s army.
3. Directing equally.. .by tactical manoeuvres the mass of one’s forces upon the decisive point of the battlefield, or upon that part of the enemy line that it is important to overwhelm.
4. Contriving that these masses are not only brought to bear upon the decisive point, but that they are brought into action with energy and as a whole, in such a way as to produce a simultaneous effort.
That simple definition contained a profound truth, but was too simple to convey the truth adequately. Moreover, in Jomini’s elaboration of it he put the emphasis on massed instead of on surprise effect; on geometry instead of on mobility. The error became more perceptible in his concise definition of the principle as ‘the art of putting into action the maximum possible forces at the decisive point’. By the dropping out of that key word, the adverb ‘successively’, the vital idea of fluid concentration is lost from sight, and is replaced by the picture of a concentrated mass— which can be met by a concentrated enemy.
His Precis de I'art de la guerre failed to bring out the fundamental truth that a point only becomes decisive when its condition permits the attacker to gain a decision there. For this to be possible it must be a weak point relatively to the force concentrated against it. The real art of war is to ensure or create that weakness. Distraction in one form or another is the most effective instrument, and mobility is its mainspring.
But Jomini was little concerned either with generating mobility or with immobilising the enemy. He was too interested in the form of operations to see the need of injecting the vital fluid into them. He filled pages in discussing bases of operation, zones of operation, lines of operation, fronts of operation, objective points, strategic points, manoeuvre lines, interior lines, eccentric and concentric operations—all with an abundance of geometric diagrams. He showed the properties, advantages, and disadvantages of each. But he did not give due reflection to the fact that an advantageous line of operation depends for its effect on the enemy being unable to block it—which depends on distraction. Nor did he give due weight to the moral weight of the unexpected.
In justice to Jomini one should point out that his mathematical treatment of war was characteristic of the age, and that he did not press it to such extremes as other writers.
He saw the fallacy of ‘making war trigonometrically’, and pointed out that ‘the nature of the country, the lines of rivers and mountains, the moral state of the armies, the spirit of the people, the capacity and energy of the chiefs, are not measured by angles, diameters, and peripheries’. He gave examples to show that Napoleon had successfully violated such formulae, and remarked ‘the explanation is simple, it is that war is an impassioned drama, and by no means a mathematical operation’.
Yet by his fondness for geometrical terms and diagrams, as well as his inattentiveness to mobility, he unintentionally distorted the outlook of his pupils. In his exposition the mathematical aspect of strategy obscured the psychological basis of war. Despite his own good sense, based on personal experience, he made strategy appear a science of lines and points to pupils who lacked his experience of war.
Worse still, he focused their eyes on a single objective point. His teaching shows no sign that he had recognised the vital significance of Bourcet’s argument that every plan ought to have branches, so that if one line is blocked by the enemy, another may be instantly developed to serve the same purpose. No theory of war could be adequate which overlooked that principle. For war is a two-party affair. Thus, to be practical, any theory must take account of the opposing side’s power to upset your plan. The best guarantee against their interference is to be ready to adapt your plan to circumstances, and to have ready a variant that may fit the new circumstances. To keep this elasticity while still keeping the initiative, the best way is to choose a line originally which offers alternative objectives.
The drawbacks of Jomini’s teaching were illustrated in the American Civil War. The most studious general in either army was Halleck, whose mind had been nourished on Jomini. Yet in practice Halleck proved perhaps the most ineffective pedant who ever commanded armies, a general whose paralysing hand produced stalemate wherever he directed. Another pupil was Sherman, and it can be seen that his knowledge of text-book lore at first handicapped him in comparison with Grant, a man of unlettered and unfettered common sense. Sherman’s development was delayed until he had gradually freed his mind from theoretical bonds, and learned from experience to pursue the unexpected instead of the orthodox. Then, his superior intellect enabled him to produce and practise a theory of his own which decided the war, and in which, significantly, his strategic aim was to place the enemy ‘on the horns of a dilemma’ by having alternative objectives. But there was a final irony in the fact that Sherman’s war-winning manoeuvre through Georgia and the Carolinas against Lee’s rear was delayed through Halleck’s influence—an influence exerted upon the side of what is miscalled ‘sound strategy’.
When the next great war came, in Europe, Jomini’s influence had been to a large extent supplanted. Not through profitable attention to the lessons of the American Civil War, which were foolishly ignored, but through the greater growth of another writer’s influence. For the victories of 1866 and 1870 were gained under the direction of Clausewitz’s disciples in the Prussian General Staff, and this striking testimony to the value of his theories quickly made their influence paramount everywhere. His classic work On War (Vom Kriege) shaped military and even political thinking throughout the world in the succeeding generations. By that dual effect Clausewitz had perhaps a greater effect on the world than any of its executive rulers during that time. Unhappily it moulded both military and political thought in a form that in some vital respects was deforming.
His book was by far the most profound study of war that had been published anywhere, apart from the Chinese classic of Sun Tzu about 500 b.c.—which was more lucid and in some respects more profound. That Clausewitz’s great work, so full of valuable thought, had predominantly ill effects was partly, but not wholly due, to the way it was misinterpreted by shallower minds. It was the product of twelve years’ intensive thought; if its author had lived longer he might have reached wiser and clearer conclusions. There are ample indications that, as his thinking progressed, he was being led towards a different view—penetrating deeper. Unhappily, the process was cut short.
Clausewitz was born in 1780, the year after Jomini. He was steeped in war before he had time for education. For he entered the army at the age of twelve, gaining a commission at the siege of Mainz two years later. He used the opportunity to develop his own education, and in 1801 gained admittance to the Berlin Academy for Officers, where he became a favourite pupil of Scharnhorst. In 1809 he became one of Schamhorst’s assistants in the reform of the Prussian army and its training after its defeat by Napoleon. In 1812 he joined the Russian army, thus participating in the campaign which ended in Napoleon’s fateful retreat from Moscow. Early in 1815 he rejoined the Prussian army and was chief of staff to Thielmann’s corps dining the Waterloo campaign. In 1818 he was made director of the Prussian War School, where he remained for twelve years. His work here was mainly administrative, but he devoted his spare time to a fresh and deeper study of military theory, and an effort to think out a philosophy of war. Returning to more active duty in 1830, as chief of staff to the army on the Polish frontier, he fell a victim to cholera the following year. It was only after his death that his writings on war were published, by his widow.
They were found in a number of sealed packets, bearing the significant and prophetic note—‘ Should the work be interrupted by my death then what is found can only be called a mass of conceptions not brought into form... open to endless misconceptions.’ Misinterpretation has been the common fate of most prophets and thinkers in every sphere. It must be admitted, however, that Clausewitz invited misinterpretation more than most. A student of Kant at second hand, he had acquired a philosophical mode of expression, and his theory of war was expounded in a way too abstract for ordinary soldier-minds, essentially concrete, to follow the course of his argument—which often turned back from the direction in which it was apparently leading. Impressed yet befogged, they grasped at his often vivid leading phrases, seeing only their surface meaning and missing the deeper current of his thought.
Clausewitz’s greatest contribution to the theory of war was in emphasising the psychological factors. Raising his voice against the geometrical school of strategy, then fashionable, he showed that the human spirit was infinitely more important than operational lines and angles. He discussed the effect of danger and fatigue, the value of boldness and determination, with deep understanding. Moreover, he appreciated and emphasised the importance of surprise and the moral effect of the unexpected. ‘It lies’, he declared, ‘more or less at the foundation of all undertakings, for without it the preponderance at the decisive point is not properly conceivable.’ That is a phrase which his later disciples would have done better to remember than many which stuck in their minds.
It was his oversights, however, which had the greater effect on the subsequent course of history. He was too continental in outlook to understand the meaning of sea-power. He was too little concerned with the development of weapons—and, on the very threshold of the mechanical age, declared his ‘conviction that superiority in numbers becomes every day more decisive’. Such a dictum gave reinforcement to the instinctive conservatism of soldiers in resisting the possibilities of the new form of superiority which mechanical invention increasingly offered. It also gave a powerful impulse to the universal extension and permanent establishment of the method of conscription—as a simple way of providing the greatest possible numbers. This, by its disregard for psychological suitability, meant that armies became more liable to panic, and sudden collapse.
In his operational teaching there is much valuable guidance, but in some important respects it is misguiding and narrowing. A significant example lies in his dictum—‘there is no more imperative and no simpler law for strategy than to keep the forces concentrated—no portion is to be separated from the main body unless called away by some urgent necessity. On this maxim we stand firm.’ It shows only too clearly that he regarded strength as a matter of solidity, and had missed the essential point of the Napoleonic system. He still thought in terms of physical concentration instead of potential unity. Indeed, there is no sign throughout his book that he had grasped the value of Napoleon’s elastic grouping and wide distribution as a means to distraction of the enemy’s concentration and a prelude to a suddenly concentrated blow against a weakened part of the enemy’s position or forces.
The worst effect of Clausewitz’s views came through his metaphysical exposition of the idea of ‘absolute’ warfare. By taking the logical extreme as the theoretical ideal, he conveyed the impression, to superficial readers, that the road to success was through the unlimited application of force. Thereby a doctrine which defined war as ‘only a continuation of state policy by other means’ led to the contradictory end of making policy the servant of strategy. Moreover, Clausewitz contributed to the subsequent decay of generalship when in an oft-quoted passage he wrote—‘Philanthropists may easily imagine that there is a skilful method of disarming and overcoming the enemy without great bloodshed, and that be extirpated.’ Clausewitz was reacting against the extremely careful and force-conserving leaders of the late eighteenth century whose cautious manoeuvring had been disrupted by Napoleon’s quickness in bringing on a battle. Unfortunately Clausewitz’s corrective arguments would henceforth be cited by countless blunderers to excuse, and even to justify, their futile squandering of life in bull-headed assaults.
An even more disastrous dictum of his was that—‘to introduce into the philosophy of war a principle of moderation would be an absurdity. ... War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.’ That declaration served as a foundation for the self-exhausting absurdity and futility of ‘total’ war in the twentieth century. The principle of force without limit and without calculation of cost is the negation of statesmanship. A state which expends its strength to the point of exhaustion bankrupts its own policy.
That hard truth of experience had been appreciated earlier, in the Age of Reason which followed the devastating Thirty Years War. Clausewitz himself recognised it, for in the development of his argument he emphasised that to pursue the logical extreme entailed that ‘the means would lose all relation to the end, and in most cases the aim at an extreme effort would be wrecked by the opposing weight of forces within itself’. He provided the clue to his own apparent inconsistency when he explained that—‘Reasoning in the abstract, the mind cannot stop short of an extreme... but everything takes a different shape when we pass from abstractions to reality.’ In the course of his writings, drafted over a period of some fourteen years, he brought out many of the limitations that he had come to see as his study extended. But his qualifying passages made less impression than the dramatic phrases in which he defined the logical extreme, and depicted it as the ideal.
It proved fateful for humanity that one of his earliest disciples, Moltke, became the directing mind in Prussia’s victorious campaigns of 1866 and 1870. This brought an immense extension of Clausewitz’s influence. Henceforth his gospel was accepted everywhere as true—and wholly true. All soldiers were quick to swallow it, although few were capable of digesting it.
Much of the harm might have been avoided but for the fatal cholera germ that intervened to deprive him of the chance of reformulating his theory in accord with the evolution of his thought, and taking greater care against the misinterpretation of his original concept of ‘absolute’ war. His death, before he could revise his treatise, left the way open to ‘endless misconceptions’ far in excess of his anticipation—for the general adoption of the theory of unlimited war went far to wreck civilisation. The teaching of Clausewitz, taken without understanding, largely influenced both the causation and the character of the first world war. Thereby it led on, all too logically, to the second world war.
It was not until the ’sixties that the new technical means and less-new concepts began to exert an important influence on the course of wars. But there is a misjudgment in the view later prevailing among military students that the fifty years following Waterloo were a barren period— a view epitomised in the statement of one distinguished military historian that ‘War-weary Europe was practically sterile from a military point of view’. The most fertile phase of nineteenth-century military thought, signalised by the writings of Jomini and Clausewitz, came when Europe was most war-weary. The wars of the period also provide evidence that military art did not decay, nor tactical progress cease, so completely as came to be assumed by writers and historians in the later part of the century.
In the French conquest of Algeria, Bugeaud displayed a dynamic energy and mobility comparable with Napoleon’s, while developing a technique aptly fitted to the differing conditions of irregular warfare. France had, in 1830, sent an expeditionary force to occupy Algiers, but it ran into trouble when trying to establish control of the interior. The massive French columns, cumbrously organised and equipped on European lines, were continually harassed and frequently trapped by nimble native forces under the inspiring and skilful leadership of Abd-el-Kader, the amir of Mascara. But a break in the clouds came in 1836 when Bugeaud, given a subordinate command in western Algeria, carried out swift offensive thrusts with flying columns, lightly equipped and self-contained for supplies—which they carried on horses, mules and camels, instead of in wagons. In 1840 Bugeaud was made Governor-General of Algeria, and applied the new technique more extensively, chasing Abd-el-Kader’s forces from place to place, and disrupting their sources of maintenance, while strengthening French control of the territory gained by building a network of roads. His operations were a conscious application of a theory he had evolved in reflection, particularly from study of Roman practice, and his account of them became a classic treatise on colonial warfare for later generations of French soldiers.
Another notable demonstration of the military art, in a European setting, was provided by the Austrian commander, Field-Marshal Radetzky, in the Italian War of 1848-9—when he shattered the first of the three big efforts to eject the Austrians from Italy. Profiting by the revolution in Vienna and the revolt of the Hungarians, an Italian rising started in Milan (17 March 1848), and quickly spread throughout Lombardy and Venetia. King Charles Albert of Sardinia advanced eastward to its support with the Piedmontese army, while papal and Neapolitan forces moved up, bringing the Italian strength up to nearly 100,000. At that moment the Austrian army, of 70,000, was scattered in many small garrisons, and in Milan Radetzky had barely 10,000 troops. Evacuating Milan, to evade being trapped, he retreated to the historic Quadrilateral of fortified towns (Mantua-Peschiera-Verona-Legnago) between the Mincio and the Adige. Here, while awaiting reinforcements, he succeeded in repelling the attacks of the Piedmontese forces, although Peschiera fell to them. When reinforced, and while keeping the Piedmontese in check, he turned eastward and annihilated the papal and Neapolitan forces established astride his line of communication, near Vicenza. Next, he cleared the Brenta valley. Then he turned back against the Piedmontese, and pierced their front at Custoza by a quick concentration of superior force on one sector. Swiftly following up his victory, Radetzky chased the Piedmontese back into their own territory and reoccupied Milan on 4 August.
The continuance of civil war in Austria and Hungary encouraged the Italian patriots to make a fresh bid for independence in 1849, and in March the Piedmontese army—reorganized and strengthened—advanced afresh on Milan, with some 80,000 men. This time Radetzky had nearly as large a force available. But he again evacuated Milan, and moved south-eastward, giving the appearance of retreating towards Piacenza. Then he suddenly wheeled westward to Pavia, crossed the Ticino on the 20th, and turned the Piedmontese right flank, driving a wedge between their main army and the force intended to cover its flank. Thrown off balance, the Piedmontese fell back over the Ticino, but their attempt to block Radetzky’s northwestward thrust across their rear was nullified by another quick by-passing move on his part—which forced them to fall back northward, to Novara, on the 22nd. Next day, Radetzky again moved north-westward, to block their line of retreat, following a mistaken report that they had already withdrawn westward. In consequence, only his right wing hit the Piedmontese position at Novara—and with only one of his four corps against the whole of the enemy’s main army, the situation looked perilous for some hours. But the danger was diminished by the dislocating and paralysing effect already achieved, and in the afternoon the other corps arrived successively, reinforcing the attack while developing a strong threat to the enemy’s flank, and line of retreat. The effect was decisive and that night Charles Albert abdicated in favour of his son, Victor Emmanuel, who was granted an armistice on lenient terms—this enabled the Austrians to crush the renewed revolt in their Italian provinces and then to release troops for the task of restoring control in the central parts of the empire.
The energy and rapidity that Radetzky had showed in these campaigns was the more remarkable as he was eighty-two years old. But his ardent interest in military art and theory had kept him mentally fresh during many years of frustration in pressing his ideas of army reform, so that he proved capable of exploiting the opportunity that at last came to him in old age.
The more usual performance, and consequence, of elderly commanders was seen five years later, in the Crimean War—one of the most ill-managed campaigns in modern history (see also ch. XVIII, pp. 478-83). Its only enduring interest and value for study of the art of war is in providing abundant examples of ‘how not to do it’—tactically and logistically. The original British commander-in-chief, Lord Raglan, and all save one of his divisional commanders were nearing seventy years of age. So was the Russian commander-in-chief, Menshikov. The French commanders were not so old, and their tactical performance was not so bad; but it was far from brilliant. The generals, on both sides, were mostly of the ‘pipeclay and polish’ school that had become paramount in a long period of peace. The barrack square constituted the bounds of their horizon, and precision in close-order drill was regarded as the standard test of professional efficiency. The British troops had very little training in field exercises, and their commanders no experience in handling large formations. The Russians, with more opportunity, still handled them in parade-ground style, and moved about the battlefield in a densely massed way that took no account of improvement in firearms. Moreover, most of their troops were still armed with smooth-bore muskets.
The administrative organisation was even worse than the tactical handling, and much more damaging—to both sides. The Allied expedition to capture Sebastopol, Russia’s only naval base in the Black Sea, was launched with scanty knowledge of the geographical conditions. It was assumed that the Crimea, being a peninsula, could be easily isolated by using the Allied fleets to dominate the isthmus with their guns—until the belated discovery that the sea on either side of the isthmus was much too shallow for the ships to close within range of it. The British brought sufficient horses to mount their cavalry and draw their artillery, but no transport to carry their food and ammunition supplies. When the landing, in mid-September, failed to bring about the speedy fall of the fortress, the expeditionary force was found lacking in almost all requirements for a prolonged winter campaign. The field hospitals were soon appallingly overcrowded, and before the end of the year less than half the British force was fit for service. The French loss from sickness was even higher than the British, although hidden by a more strictly controlled press. The Russian losses were much heavier still, while drafts sent to the Crimea to fill gaps in the ranks suffered so greatly on the long winter journey that two-thirds of the men died on the way from sickness or hunger.
It was the all-round incompetence in this first important European war since 1815 which led later students to take the too sweeping view that the whole fifty years between Waterloo and Prussia’s success in 1866 was a period of sterility and decay in warfare.
That impression was not redeemed by the second Italian War, of 1859, when Napoleon III with a French army 150,000 strong backed the Piedmontese in a fresh effort to liberate Italy from the Austrians. Yet in some respects the campaign showed notable developments in means and methods. Both sides made use of railways in the mobilisation and assembly of their forces, while the French after deployment in Piedmont used one of the lines there in switching their weight from the right flank to the left for a blow against the Austrian right flank near Magenta—a plan inspired by Jomini, whose advice had been sought by Napoleon III. The French army, too, profiting by the lessons of the Crimean War, had organised large transport echelons to carry reserve supplies of ammunition for each corps, and to maintain supplies from France. They also introduced new rifled cannon, which gave them an advantage over the Austrians, still armed with smooth-bore cannon.
But the conduct of operations did not match these improvements. While Napoleon showed much energy at the start, the French moves were slow and poorly co-ordinated. The French won the Battle of Magenta, on 4 June, but they did not succeed in exploiting their success, and the Austrians withdrew safely to the Quadrilateral—although their fumbling conduct of operations had allowed their opponents more openings and opportunities than in Radetzky’s day.
The French were tardy in following up the withdrawal, and Napoleon’s attention was distracted by the threatening Prussian mobilisation on the Rhine. Meanwhile the young emperor, Francis Joseph, assumed supreme command of the Austrians—who now took the offensive, on 24 June, just as the French were moving forward to the Mincio. Thus the two armies collided head-on, in a way that neither had expected, and this encounter battle at Solferino became a ‘soldier’s battle’—of hard fighting and confused generalship. In the afternoon the Austrians broke off the battle and retired across the Mincio, but the French had suffered almost as heavily, and were in no condition to press their advantage. Thus Napoleon, with the shadow of Prussian invasion looming in his rear, was glad to make a compromise peace. But the ‘battle honours’ of Magenta and Solferino were more than offset by the way that the military weaknesses of France as well as of Austria had been made clear to watchful eyes in Prussia. Bismarck could now more confidently guide Prussia’s policy towards challenging Austria’s primacy in the German sphere, and then, with a united Germany under her own leadership, tackling France. Moltke and Roon, the War Minister, also profited from long-range observation of the 1859 campaign in preparing Prussia’s forces for the prospective conflicts. Moltke wrote an account of that war; it was the first official staff history published in any army and set a new standard in military scholarship.
The technical and tactical features of the wars of 1866 and 1870 have already been surveyed (pp. 305-11). Strategically, the main feature of the ‘Seven Weeks War’ in 1866 was the extraordinary width of the Prussians’ deployment, their main force of 250,000 troops being extended over a front of 270 miles—in order to cover Silesia as well as Berlin, to make supply easier, and to save time by using all available railways. Such a wide extension meant that the ratio of force to space was very low, and would have been hazardous in face of a mobile and dynamic opponent—all the more since the Austrians, who were equal in numbers, could reckon on direct reinforcement by a Saxon force of 25,000 and indirect aid from Bavaria and other German states—Wurttemberg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Hanover and Hesse-Kassel—whose total forces amounted to a further 150,000 men.
But Moltke, with good reason, felt that he could count on the Austrians being neither mobile nor dynamic, and that their allies could be kept in check by a relatively small detachment from his forces. He also reckoned on the three Prussian armies being able to push through the frontier mountain belt quickly, converging inward, and then concentrating on a shorter front in northern Bohemia. In this calculation he was disappointed, owing to loss of time caused by the king’s unwillingness to appear the aggressor, and during the delay the Austrian army moved forward into Moltke’s intended concentration area, where it deployed on a forty-mile front. Moreover, a mistaken deduction that the Austrians intended to invade Silesia led the Prussian crown prince, on the left wing, to move his army south-eastwards to shield this projecting province—thereby extending the marching front again just as it was closing in.
The Austrian commander-in-chief, Benedek, did not take advantage of the opportunity offered by this expansion, even when the crown prince’s army got into difficulties in its advance through the mountain defiles. Instead, Benedek became paralysed by the extending threat to his own flank and rear. All he did was to concentrate his forces more closely —like a hedgehog rolling itself up into a ball—thus forfeiting the potential counter-offensive advantage of his central position, while making it easier
for the Prussians to envelop him in the static position which he took up on an eight-mile front near Koniggratz. Here Prince Frederick Charles’s army, in the Prussian centre, ran into danger of defeat by attacking prematurely and alone on 3 July, but the risk incurred by such impetuosity was redeemed by Prussian energy, and the arrival of the crown prince’s army on the Austrian flank, in the afternoon, decided the issue of the battle—and of the war.
The brief campaign had been a triumph for Moltke’s strategy, and while the result owed much to effects he had not planned, it was greatly influenced by his flexibility in adapting his plan to circumstances—so that blunders by the executants were redeemed and even converted into advantages. It is evident, however, that the Prussians also owed much to the technical and tactical advantage provided by their breech-loading rifle against opponents who were still armed with a muzzle-loading rifle. The Austrian losses, apart from men taken prisoner, were three times as heavy as the Prussian—25,000 against 9000—even though the Prussian infantry, as the attackers, had to expose themselves far more. Most significantly, in the one battle won by the Austrians, the frontier fight at Trautenau, they lost nearly five times as many men as the Prussian corps they drove off the battlefield.
The strategic pattern of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 was broadly similar to that of 1866, and became more similar as operations developed. Moreover, the outcome was more clearly due to a superiority in strategy and mobility—the product of superior leadership, staffwork, and training. For in this war the weapon-balance was more even, as the German advantage in artillery was offset by the French advantage in small arms. But this time, Moltke’s strategy was backed by a superiority of numbers, since the forces of the other German states were now added to Prussia’s strength. Thanks to skilful staff planning and rail organisation, a total of some 380,000 men (in three armies) were mobilised and transported to the forward zone in eighteen days—compared with five weeks in 1866—while three more corps, with a further 90,000, were brought up as soon as rail transport was available (they were initially kept back as a safeguard against Austrian intervention). The French mobilisation broke down in such confusion that large numbers of reservists were late in arriving at the front and, worse still, many units assembled there were temporarily immobilised by lack of their transport and supplies. Barely 200,000 were assembled at the start of operations, and only a fraction of these were brought into action early, although the total was later brought up to 300,000. By then the situation had turned adversely to the French, whose best chance of success had lain in dislocating the German deployment before it was completed. Loss of time, increased by hesitant leadership, forfeited the qualitative advantage which the French hoped to gain from their higher proportion of professional troops.
As in 1866, Moltke’s strategy did not go ‘according to plan’, yet was turned to decisive advantage through the combination of his flexibility and the executants’ initiative with the inherent value of wide manoeuvre— in outflanking resistance and producing surprise effect. He had intended to fight the decisive battle on the Saar, using the concentrated weight of the three German armies to crush the heavily outnumbered French. This plan went astray: partly owing to an excess of independent initiative—and insubordination—among German subordinate commanders; partly owing to the paralysis their action induced in the French higher command; and partly owing to the fog of war. The French paralysis developed from the news that the German Third Army (under the Prussian crown prince) on the extreme left near the Rhine, had crossed the frontier and driven back a small French detachment near Weissemburg. Pushing on, the four corps of the Third Army enveloped and defeated the flank corps of the French right wing, before the rest of it came into action. In this Battle of Worth, on 6 August, the greatly outnumbered French troops fought with a gallantry that deserved a better fate—and a better higher command.
The German higher command, however, was now groping in the fog of war, and jumped to the conclusion that the French army as a whole was withdrawing westward over the Moselle—which was momentarily Napoleon Ill’s decision, although quickly cancelled under pressure of telegrams from Paris that such a withdrawal would shake the people’s confidence. On the assumption that the French were in general retreat, Moltke allowed the Third Army, instead of wheeling inwards, to continue advancing along a southerly circuit to the Moselle—well outside the focal centre of the next phase of the campaign. That wide flanking advance became a decisive asset in the next phase but one.
Meanwhile the bulk of the German forces, sweeping south of Metz in an imagined pursuit over the Moselle towards the Meuse, collided with the flank of the main French forces—in position just west of Metz. This unexpected collision, and the Germans’ consequent turn northward, produced the two blundering battles of Vionville (16 August) and Gravelotte (18 August), in which the two sides fought facing their own rear. The Germans built up to a three-to-two superiority in numbers, but the issue was tactically a draw and the German losses heavier than the French. Strategically, however, the Germans gained an advantage because the French withdrew within the Metz defences and stayed there. Their commander, Bazaine, had made no attempt to seize the fine opportunity for a counterstroke when the Germans were off balance and dispersed after the unexpected flank collision on the 16th.
Marshal MacMahon, who had been assembling a freshly improvised army of four corps on the Marne, at Chalons, was now politically pushed into advancing to the aid of Bazaine. It proved a fatal move in face of such mobile and flexibly handled opponents, accustomed to marching fifteen miles a day whereas the French averaged only five or six when moving in large formations. The German Third Army, still marching westwards along an open path, now wheeled north on to the flank and rear of MacMahon’s army, which had already been headed off by part of the German forces moving on from Metz. Trapped against the Belgian frontier, near Sedan, MacMahon’s army was compelled to surrender on 2 September, with 82,000 men. That decided the issue of the war—after five weeks of campaign. With one French field army shut up under guard in Metz and the other in prisoners’ cages, the Germans were left with an open path to Paris.
Even so, the raw levies raised by the Republican government of Defense Nationale, which now replaced Napoleon III, succeeded in prolonging the war for six months, in a way very upsetting to German calculations. But in later years it was the quick run of victory culminating at Sedan which remained in the minds of the military world, rather than the surprisingly protracted sequel. Soldiers everywhere assumed that future great wars would be decided as quickly as in 1866 and 1870—and worked on that assumption. They would have been wiser to have paid more attention to the lengthy last phase, and also to the four years’ Civil War in America. For this foreshadowed the future of war more truly—although Moltke is said to have discounted it as a case of ‘two armed mobs chasing each other around the country, from which nothing could be learned’.
The American Civil War was the first large-scale war of the industrial age, and also the first between modern democracies (see ch. XXIV). The course of operations was greatly influenced by the development of railways, the invention of the magnetic telegraph, and the increasing dependence on large-scale manufacture or import of arms and other supplies. No less important was the multiplied spread of newspapers, which exerted a powerful influence on public opinion, and thus on democratically elected governments. The sum effect was to increase the economic target, and also the moral target, while making both more vulnerable. This in turn increased the incentive to strike at the sources of the opponent’s armed power instead of at its shield—the armed forces.
For a time, the significance of these developments was obscured because the Southern Confederacy—a relatively primitive organism owing to its loose agrarian nature—was far less vulnerable than a highly industrial society. The Confederate will had no fixed seat, and its various focal points were mostly remote—although the Confederate states had established their capital in Richmond, Virginia, the will to war was strongest in South Carolina, which had taken the lead in seceding from the Union. That was far distant from the Union forces, and comfortably sheltered.
The Union armies’ one asset for striking at such distant targets was the wideness of the fronts, which allowed much scope for penetrating manoeuvre, and with it was coupled a potential aid in the new railroad network. But the potentiality of this was reduced by the fixity of its routes, which fostered the normal tendency of operations to run on narrow and straightforward lines. Moreover, the increased ease of supply that railroads provided led commanders to build up increased numbers of troops at the railhead, without pausing to consider the hampering effect on their own power of manoeuvre. Thus the first result of the new means of strategic movement was, paradoxically, to reduce strategic mobility. The railroad fostered the expansion of armies—it could forward and feed many more than could operate effectively. It also tended to inflate their wants and demands, so that they became more closely tied to the railhead, or to a coastal base.
Tactical mobility, too, was increasingly restricted—by the growing development of firepower during the war. The smooth-bore musket, still standard at the outset, was gradually replaced by a muzzle-loading rifle, of greater accuracy, and before the war ended the advent of a breechloader quickened the rate of fire of such troops as were equipped with it. The increasing fire effect produced a recourse to the trench and the breastwork for protection even in field operations, and the combination gave defence a greater advantage over attack than ever before.
The double check on mobility was demonstrated in the repeated frustration of the Union forces in their efforts to overcome the numerically weaker Confederate forces which barred the path to Richmond. When a seaborne flank approach was tried in the spring of 1862, this more promising move succeeded no better, after the landing, than the direct overland approach attempted both previously and subsequently. Moreover, the initially more skilled and more skilfully handled Confederate forces, although brilliantly countering the Union offensives, suffered similar checks in each northward thrust into Union territory. It was by their threats to Washington and the Union forces’ communications that the Confederates achieved most—in the negative way of upsetting their opponents’ advances, and thus relieving the pressure. But their chances of breaking the Union’s will to continue the war faded with the repulse at Gettysburg of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863—although this did not solve President Lincoln’s problem of how to win the war, nor clear the Union forces’ path to Richmond. So long as their main efforts were confined to the narrow bounds of the Virginian theatre, where the offensive was cramped, they courted frustration.
A better prospect was open in the wide western theatre of war, hitherto regarded as a side-show. In April 1862 a naval squadron under Farragut slipped past the forts guarding the mouth of the Mississippi, and thereby produced the bloodless surrender of New Orleans. On 4 July, the day of Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg, a Union army under Grant achieved, after four unsuccessful attempts, the capture of Vicksburg, the keypoint on the middle stretch of the Mississippi. That victory gave the Union control of this great artery, and deprived the Confederacy of reinforcements and supplies from the Trans-Mississippi states.
Grant then turned eastward and drove back the Confederate army blocking the Chattanooga gateway into Georgia—‘the granary of the Confederacy’. After this success, he was called to Washington in the spring of 1864 to take over supreme command of the Union forces. But his renewal of the direct southward advance on Richmond was no more successful than his predecessors’ efforts, and even more costly. Each successive move was checked by Lee. By the end of that summer, mounting losses had brought the Union forces and people to the end of their endurance. War-weariness became so intense and widespread as to produce rapidly growing support for immediate peace and acceptance of the Confederacy’s demand for independence. Lincoln himself lost hope of being re-elected President in the autumn. But in September Sherman, Grant’s successor in the western theatre, captured Atlanta—the capital of Georgia—by a skilful series of manoeuvres. In these, he repeatedly lured the Confederates to attack him, foiled their attacks by a technique of quick field fortification, and from each costly failure to pierce his mobile shield drew the strategic advantage of a fresh vantage point gained, against weakened opposition. His exhilarating, and economically gained, success was the main factor in restoring Lincoln’s position and securing his re-election.
In the course of this advance to Atlanta, and after its capture, Sherman’s main difficulties had come from dependence on a long-stretched line of rail supply, and its liability to interruption by mobile raiding forces. Such raids had hamstrung previous Union offensives. An acute appreciation of the problem led Sherman to try a new and bold solution. The enemy had struck him through his rail communications; he would strike at theirs, while immunising himself. He saw that to regain and secure mobility he must free himself from dependence on a fixed line of supply—which meant that his troops must be self-contained for supplies, carrying the necessary minimum with them and supplementing it by foraging the countryside through which they passed. So after reducing transport to the minimum, he cut loose from his own rail lines of supply and marched eastward through Georgia, destroying the Confederacy’s supply system at the source and cutting the lines which fed its main army, under Lee, in Virginia.
After reaching the sea at Savannah, and there reopening his own communications, by sea, Sherman turned northward—marching through South Carolina towards Lee’s rear, and depriving the Confederacy of its chief remaining ports. In seeing the unchecked progress of this deep strategic thrust the people of the Confederate states lost faith in the optimistic assurances of their leaders and press. Loss of faith led to loss of hope, and then in turn to loss of the will to continue the struggle. By mid-March, when Sherman was driving through North Carolina, Grant was able to tell him that Lee’s army ‘is now demoralised and deserting very fast, both to us and to their homes’—though Grant’s own army was still immobilised in the trench lines round Petersburg and Richmond where it had been brought to a state of stalemate the previous summer. This indirect approach to the opponents’ economic and moral rear was decisive in producing the Confederacy’s collapse, and Lee’s surrender, three weeks later.
Had European soldiers during the next half century studied the American Civil War as closely as they did the 1870 war, they would have better understood the basic conditions of strategic and tactical mobility, and suffered less from wishful thinking, than they did in 1914. (In 1940, the Germans’ military success owed much to a study of Sherman’s campaigns, and the application of methods deduced from it.)
They might have learnt, also, to expect and prepare for a long war, even if hoping for a short war; to reckon with economic and social factors, to broaden military studies accordingly, to facilitate the economic and psychological mobilisation of the nation, and to give more attention to new inventions which might offer a possibility of turning the scales in a protracted war. And they might have seen the danger of seeking immediate military gains without regard to the political disadvantages, and to the long-term interests of their nations. Their eyes might even have been opened to the mutual destructiveness of a long and unlimited war between the nations of Europe, with their closely interwoven fabric, and to the danger that a recklessly conducted ‘European Civil War’ would wreck European civilisation—or, at least, jeopardise its future.