Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

The Rise and Fall of Armies

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, September 10, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

When Louis Napoleon founded the Empire “which was peace,” on the votes of the peasants and on the bayonets of their sons, the soldiers of the army, that army did not occupy a particularly prominent rank in Europe, except, perhaps, by tradition. There had been peace since 1815 — peace interrupted, for some armies, by the events of 1848 and 1849. The Austrians had gone through a successful campaign in Italy and a disastrous one in Hungary; neither Russia in Hungary nor Prussia in South Germany had gathered any laurels worth speaking of; Russia had her permanent war in the Caucasus and France in Algeria. But none of the great armies had met another on the field of battle since 1815. Louis Philippe had left the French army in a condition of anything but efficiency; the Algerian troops, and especially the pet corps founded more or less for African warfare — Chasseurs-à-Pied, Zouaves, Turcos, Chasseurs d'Afrique — were indeed the objects of much attention; but the mass of the infantry, the cavalry, and the Matériel in France were much neglected. The Republic did not improve the state of the army. But the Empire came which was peace, and — “si vis pacem, para bellum” — to it the army at once became the chief object of attention. At that time France possessed a great many comparatively young officers who had served, in high positions, in Africa at the time when there was still some serious fighting there. She possessed, in the Algerian special corps, troops who undoubtedly were superior to any others in Europe. She had, in the numerous substitutes, a greater number of professional soldiers who had seen service, real veterans, than any other continental Power. The one thing necessary was to elevate as much as possible the mass of the troops to the level of the special corps. This was done to a great extent. The “pas gymnastique” (the “double” of the English), hitherto practised by the special corps only, was extended to the whole infantry, and thus a rapidity of manoeuvring was obtained previously unknown to armies. The cavalry was mounted, as far as possible, with better horses; the Matériel of the whole army was looked to and completed; and, finally, the Crimean war was commenced. The organization of the French army showed to great advantage beside that of the English; the numerical proportions of the Allied armies naturally gave the principal part of the glory — whatever there was of it — to the French; the character of the war, circling entirely round one grand siege, brought out to the best advantage the peculiarly mathematical genius of the French as applied by their engineers; and altogether the Crimean war again elevated the French army to the rank of the first army in Europe.

Then came the period of the rifle and the rifled gun. The incomparable superiority of the fire of the rifled over the smooth-bore musket led to the abolition, or in some cases to the general rifling, of the latter. Prussia had her old muskets converted into rifles in less than one year; England gradually gave the Enfield, Austria an excellent small-bore rifle (Lorentz), to the whole infantry. France alone retained the old smooth-bore musket, the rifle being confined, as before, to the special corps alone. But while the mass of her artillery retained the short twelve-pounder, a pet invention of the Emperor, but of inferior efficiency to the old artillery on account of the reduced charge — a number of rifled four-pounder batteries — were equipped and held in readiness for a war. Their construction was faulty, being the first rifled guns made since the fifteenth century; but their efficiency was much superior to that of any smooth-bore field gun in existence.

Under these circumstances the Italian war broke out. The Austrian army had rather easy-going ways; extraordinary efforts had seldom been its forte; in fact, it was respectable, and nothing more. Its commanders counted some of the best and a great many of the worst generals of the age. Court influence brought the mass of the latter into high command. The blunders of the Austrian generals, the greater ambition of the French soldiers, gave the French army a rather hard-fought victory. Magenta brought no trophies at all; Solferino only a few; and politics dropped the curtain before the real difficulty of the war, the contest for the Quadrilateral, could come off.

After this campaign the French was the model army of Europe. If after the Crimean war the French Chasseur-a-Pied had already become the beau idéal of a foot soldier, this admiration was now extended to the whole of the French army. Its institutions were studied; its camps became instructing schools for officers of all nations. The invincibility of the French became almost a European article of faith. In the meantime France rifled all her old muskets, and armed all her artillery with rifled cannon.

But the same campaign which elevated the French army to the first rank in Europe gave rise to efforts which ended in procuring for it, first a rival, then a conqueror. The Prussian army from 1815 to 1850 had undergone the same process of rusting as all other European hosts. But for Prussia this rust of peace became a greater clog in her fighting machinery than anywhere else. The Prussian system at that time united a line and a landwehr regiment in every brigade, so that one half of the field troops had to be formed anew on mobilization. The material for the line and landwehr had become utterly deficient; there was a great deal of petty pilfering among the responsible men. Altogether, when the conflict of 1850 with Austria compelled a mobilization, the whole thing broke down miserably, and Prussia had to pass through the Caudine Forks. The Matériel was immediately replaced at great cost, and the whole organization revised, but in its details only. When the Italian war of 1859 compelled another mobilization, the Matériel was in better order, but not even then complete; and the spirit of the landwehr, excellent for a national war, showed itself completely unmanageable during a military demonstration which might lead to a war with either one or the other of the belligerents. The reorganization of the army was resolved upon.

This reorganization, carried out behind the back of the Parliament, kept the whole of the thirty-two landwehr regiments of infantry under arms, gradually filling up the ranks by an increased levy of recruits, and finally forming them into line regiments, increasing their number from forty to seventy-two. The artillery was increased in the same proportion, the cavalry in a much smaller one. This increase of the army was about proportional to that of the population of Prussia from 1815 to 1860, from 10 1/2 to 18 1/2 millions. In spite of the opposition of the Second Chamber, it remained practically in force. The army was, besides, made more efficient in every respect. It had been the first to supply the whole of the infantry with rifles. Now the needle-gun breech-loader, which had hitherto been supplied to a fraction of the infantry only, was given to all, and a reserve stock prepared. The experiments with rifled artillery, carried on for some years, were brought to a close, and the adopted models gradually replaced the smooth-bores. The excessive parade drill, inherited from stiff old Frederick William III, made room more and more for a better system of training, in which outpost duty and skirmishing were chiefly practised, and the models in both branches were to a great extent the Algerian French. For the detached battalions the company column was adopted as the chief fighting formation. Target-shooting was paid great attention to, and capital results were obtained. The cavalry was likewise much improved. The breed of horses, especially in East Prussia, the great horse-breeding country, had been attended to for years, much Arab blood having been introduced, and the fruits now began to become available. The East Prussian horse, inferior in size and speed to the English trooper, is a far superior war horse, and will stand five times as much campaigning. The professional education of the officers, which had been much neglected for a long time, was again screwed up to the prescribed very high level, and altogether the Prussian army was undergoing a complete change. The Danish war 14 was sufficient to show to any one who would see that this was ‘the case; but people would not see. Then came the thunderclap of 1866, and people could not help seeing. Next, there was an extension of the Prussian system to the North German army, and in its fundamental essentials to the South German armies too; and how easily it can be introduced the result has shown. And then came 1870.

But in 1870 the French army was no longer that of 1859. The peculation, jobbery, and general misuse of public duty for private interest which formed the essential base of the system of the Second Empire, had seized the army. If Haussmann and his crew made millions out of the immense Paris job, if the whole Department of Public Works, if every Government contract, every civil office, was shamelessly and openly turned into a means of robbing the public, was the army alone to remain virtuous — the army to which Louis Napoleon owed everything — the army, commanded by men who were quite as fond of wealth as the more fortunate civilian hangers-on of the Court? And when it came to be known that the Government was in the habit of receiving the money for substitutes without providing these substitutes — a thing necessarily known to every regimental officer; when those other peculations in stores &c., commenced which were to supply the funds secretly paid over to the Emperor by the Ministry of War; when the highest places had to be held by men who were in the secret and could not be dismissed whatever they did or neglected — then the demoralization spread to the regimental officers. We are far from saying that peculation at the public expense became common among them; but contempt for their superiors, neglect of duty, and decay of discipline were the necessary consequences. If the chiefs had commanded respect, would the officers have dared, as was the rule, to drive in coaches on the march? The whole thing had become rotten; the atmosphere of corruption in which the Second Empire lived had at last taken effect upon the main prop of that Empire, the army; in the hour of trial, there was nothing but the glorious traditions of the service and the innate bravery of the soldiers to oppose the enemy, and these are not alone sufficient to keep an army in the foremost rank.