Notes on the War. Engels 1870-71.

How to Fight the Prussians

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette, September 17, 1870;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

After the Italian war of 1859, when the French military power was at its height, Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia, the same who is now investing Bazaine’s army in Metz, wrote a pamphlet, “How to Fight the French.” At the present day, when the immense military strength of Germany, organized upon the Prussian system, is carrying everything before it, people begin to ask themselves who is in future, and how, to fight the Prussians. And when a war in which Germany, at the beginning, merely defended her own against French chauvinisme appears to be changing gradually, but surely, into a war in the interests of a new German chauvinisme, it is worth while to consider that question.

“Providence always is on the side of the big battalions” was a favourite way of the Napoleon’s to explain how battles were won and lost. It is upon this principle that Prussia has acted. She took care to have the “big battalions.” When, in 1807, Napoleon forbade her to have an army of more than 40,000 men, she dismissed her recruits after six months’ drill, and put fresh men in their places; and in 1813 she was able to bring into the field 250,000 soldiers out of a population of four-and-a-half millions. Afterwards, this same principle of short service with the regiment and long liability for service in the reserve was more fully developed, and, besides, brought into harmony with the necessities of an absolute monarchy. The men were kept from two to three years with the regiments, so as not only to drill them well, but also to break them in completely to habits of unconditional obedience.

Now, here is the weak point in the Prussian system. It has to reconcile two different and finally incompatible objects. On the one hand, it pretends to make every able-bodied man a soldier; to have a standing army for no other object than to be a school in which the citizens learn the use of arms, and a nucleus round which they rally in time of attack from abroad. So far the system is purely defensive. But, on the other hand, this same army is to be the armed support, the mainstay, of a quasi-absolute Government; and for this purpose the school of arms for the citizens has to be changed into a school of absolute obedience to superiors, and of royalist sentiments. This can he done by length of service only. Here the incompatibility comes out. Foreign defensive policy requires the drilling of many men for a short period, so as to have in the reserve large numbers in case of foreign attack; and home policy requires the breaking in of a limited number of men for a longer period, so as to have a trustworthy army in case of internal revolt. The quasi-absolute monarchy chose an intermediate way. It kept the men full three years under arms, and limited the number of recruits according to its financial means. The boasted universal liability to military service does not in reality exist. It is changed into a conscription distinguished from that of other countries merely by being more oppressive. It costs more money, it takes more men, and it extends their liability to be called out to a far longer period than is the case anywhere else. And, at the same time, what originally was a people armed for their own defence now becomes changed into a ready and handy army of attack, into an instrument of Cabinet policy.

In 1861 Prussia had a population of rather more than eighteen millions, and every year 227,000 young men became liable to military service by attaining the age of twenty. Out of these, fully one-half were bodily fit for service — if not there and then, at least a couple of years afterwards. Well, instead of 114,000 recruits, not more than 63,000 were annually placed in the ranks; so that very near one-half of the able-bodied male population were excluded from instruction in the use of arms. Whoever has been in Prussia during a war must have been struck by the enormous number of strong hearty fellows between twenty and thirty-two who remained quietly at home. The state of “suspended animation” which special correspondents have noticed in Prussia during the war exists in their own imagination only.

Since 1866 the number of annual recruits in the North-German Confederation has not exceeded 93,000, on a population of 30,000,000. If the full complement of able-bodied young men — even after the strictest medical scrutiny — were taken, it would amount to at least 170,000. Dynastic necessities on the one side, financial necessities on the other, determined this limitation of the number of recruits. The army remained a handy instrument for absolutist purposes at home, for Cabinet wars abroad; but as to the full strength of the nation for defence, that was not nearly made available.

Still this system maintained an immense superiority over the old-fashioned cadre system of the other great continental armies. As compared to them, Prussia drew twice the number of soldiers from the same number of population. And she has managed to make them good soldiers too, thanks to a system which exhausted her resources, and which would never have been endured by the people had it not been for Louis Napoleon’s constant feelers for the Rhine frontier, and for the aspirations towards German unity of which this army was instinctively felt to be the necessary instrument. The Rhine and the unity of Germany once secure, that army system must become intolerable.

Here we have the answer to the question, How to fight the Prussians. If a nation equally populous, equally intelligent, equally brave, equally civilized were to carry out in reality that which in Prussia is done on paper only, to make a soldier of every able-bodied citizen; if that nation limited the actual time of service in peace and for drill to what is really required for the purpose and no more; if it kept up the organization for the war establishment in the same effective way as Prussia has lately done — then, we say, that nation would possess the same immense advantage over Prussianized Germany that Prussianized Germany has proved herself to possess over France in this present war. According to first-rate Prussian authorities (including General von Roon, the Minister of War) two years’ service is quite sufficient to turn a lout into a good soldier. With the permission of her Majesty’s martinets, we should even be inclined to say that for the mass of the recruits eighteen months — two summers and one winter — would suffice. But the exact length of service is a secondary question. The Prussians, as we have seen, obtained excellent results after six months’ service, and with men who had but just ceased to be serfs. The main point is, that the principle of universal liability to service be really carried out.

And if the war be continued to that bitter end for which the German Philistines are now shouting, the dismemberment of France, we may depend upon it that the French will adopt that principle. They have been so far a warlike but not a military nation. They have hated service in that army of theirs which was established on the cadre system, with long service and few drilled reserves. They will be quite willing to serve in an army with short service and long liability on the reserve, and they will do even more, if that will enable them to wipe out the insult and restore the integrity of France. And then, the “big battalions” will be on the side of France, and the effect they produce will be the same as in this war, unless Germany adopt the same system. But there will be this difference. As the Prussian landwehr system was progress compared with the French cadre system, because it reduced the time of service and increased the number of men capable to defend their country, so will this new system of really universal liability to serve be an advance upon the Prussian system. Armaments for war will become more colossal, but peace — armies will become smaller; the citizens of a country will, every one of them, have to fight out the quarrels of their rulers in person and no longer by substitute; defence will become stronger, and attack will become more difficult; and the very extension of armies will finally turn out to be a reduction of expense and a guarantee of peace.