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Some 12 years ago it was estimated that well over 300,000 works existed on this period and since then several thousand more have appeared. Therefore, it might be reasonably argued that there is little room for another volume. Nonetheless, this vast outpouring of literature has usually dealt with major leaders, specific battles or campaigns, and with certain branches of the service. Moreover, at least in English, the literature tends to concentrate primarily on the French or British armies. There appears to be a lack of works combining a description of the major changes and trends in the art of war, especially at the cutting edge of events, with a discussion of the French military establishment and the armies of the major opponents, British as well as continental. And while this book is only a brief survey, I do believe that it may serve as a contribution towards filling this gap in our historical knowledge of military institutions and fighting men.
|Publisher:||Indiana University Press|
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The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon
By Gunther E. Rothenberg
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1978 Gunther E. Rothenberg
All rights reserved.
Armies and Warfare during the Last Years of the Ancien Régime
On 20 September 1792 the combined armies of the French Generals Dumoureiz and Kellermann faced a Prussian army commanded by the Duke of Brunswick near Valmy in north-eastern France. After exchanging heavy artillery fire for several hours, the Prussian infantry formed up for the assault. Only too aware of the Prussian reputation, even the bravest French soldier must have felt some apprehension. But, despite the explosion of an ammunition cart, they held their ground. Faced with an unexpectedly resolute enemy, Brunswick halted the advance before it had come into musket range. 'We are not going to fight here,' he decided. The cannonade continued for a few more hours, then heavy rain and early darkness ended the engagement. Ten days later Brunswick negotiated a peaceful retreat and led his army back across the frontier into winter quarters.
Although the cannonade at Valmy had cost but a few hundred casualties, it was a watershed in the history of war. A 'people's army' had defeated the old order. Two patterns of warfare, the one limited and now becoming obsolete, and the other, potentially unlimited, had collided for the first time. That night the young Goethe, who had accompanied the Prussians, commented: 'From this place and day commenced a new epoch in the world's history.' He was right. 'The wars of kings,' Marshal Foch wrote, 'were at an end; the wars of the peoples were beginning.' And a noted soldier-historian put it in even clearer perspective, from the 'military point of view it was the end of a world'.
The nature of eighteenth-century limited war
During the century before Valmy the wars of the kings had evolved into formal affairs, pursued with limited means for limited objectives. Monarchs decided on war and peace by calculating gains and costs in terms of their interests; the people neither were consulted nor normally expected to contribute much to the fighting which was left to small professional armies. And in the absence of any national or ideological content it was not in anyone's interest to seek the total destruction of the enemy. Costly pitched battles were avoided when possible ; manoeuvre not combat were the principal operations of war. The most accomplished strategy, so General Lloyd, author of a History of the Late War in Germany (1776–90), advised, was to 'initiate military operations with mathematical precision and to keep on waging war without ever being under the necessity to strike a blow'. Campaigns aimed to place the opponent in an untenable position after which the enemy, accepting the rules of the contest, capitulated on terms. To surrender a fortress or an army in the field was not considered dishonourable ; no general ever thought of fighting to the last man. In this framework the Duke of Brunswick, a nephew of Frederick the Great of Prussia, who had conducted an almost bloodless but successful manoeuvering campaign in 1787 in Holland was considered a great strategist and his refusal to fight at Valmy was quite reasonable. He retained the confidence of Prussia's king, commanded the Prussian armies during the campaigns against France until 1795, and in 1806, having aged but changed very little, presided over the destruction of these armies at Jena and Auerstâdt.
The limited and formal nature of warfare in the eighteenth century was the result of political, social, economic, and military constraints. No longer raised for one campaign only and then disbanded, most regiments now were permanently embodied, a standing force serving absolute monarchs. Although small by comparison with later mass armies, such an establishment placed considerable strain on the royal treasury and the general economy. More and more resources had to be devoted to maintain a respectable military posture. Prussia, an exceptional case to be sure, spent approximately 90 percent of its revenue for military purposes in 1752, while in 1784 France expended two-thirds of its budget on the army alone.
The armies were regular forces, but not national armies in the modern sense. Their officer corps were composed primarily of aristocrats, natives as well as foreigners, and transfer from one service to another was common. Everywhere the highest positions were reserved for members of the ruling house and the great families ; in the lower ranks connections and birth counted for less. Most officers came from the lesser nobility, but a few bourgeois could be found in many regiments and especially in the technical corps, the artillery and the engineers.
Whatever their origins, officers were a world apart from the rank-and-file. Among the population generally service in the ranks was considered neither honourable nor desirable, views reflected in the works of the major literary figures of the age. In Voltaire's Candide and in Smollet's Roderick Random, for example, the picture of military life is dismal. Although most Continental states had some form of conscription on the books, economic considerations precluded the enlistment of productive and tax-producing elements, so that in practice the soldiery was composed of the socially and economically least valuable, labourers, poor peasants, vagabonds, criminals, and foreigners. Even then it was difficult to find enough soldiers and as difficult to retain them.
Sometimes abject poverty drove men to soldiering and usually the ranks were filled by coercion and deception. Many rulers maintained recruiting agents in foreign countries, and foreign nationals also were enlisted in complete units, often considered elite troops. The most famous, of course, were the Swiss regiments serving France, Holland, and Venice under special contracts, but Irish and Walloon regiments could be found in many armies.
Everywhere governments skimped on the upkeep of their army. Pay was low, quarters wretched, and often soldiers had to look for odd jobs to fill their stomachs. In poor countries like Prussia this was, in fact, a deliberate part of the system, but the practice also was common in England and France, and in other states. British soldiers habitually hired themselves out for menial part-time jobs, while French soldiers hoped for garrison duty at Brest, where 'everyone could find a job', and prayed to be delivered from the 'plague and famine of service at Bergue and Graveline'.
Compounding the misery of a soldier's life was a most ferocious and brutal discipline. Floggings, beatings, and other physical punishments were imposed for trivial offences and the death penalty was prescribed for a wide range of crimes, especially as a deterrent to desertion which in the eighteenth century was common in all armies and reached appalling proportions in wartime. Yet, the need for trained manpower sometimes forced commanders to mitigate these regulations and strenuous efforts were made to entice deserters back into the ranks. Fear of desertion, together with the restricted supply of manpower, imposed real restraints on the conduct of war. The most striking consequence was the reduction in fighting.
The universal adoption of flintlock muskets and bayonets had made fire tactics supreme and pitched battles, fought by infantry shoulder to shoulder trading volleys at distances suited to duelling pistols, could be very costly. At Torgau (1760) the Prussians lost 30 percent of their effectives, while at Zorndorf (1758) the Russians suffered losses of over 50 percent. Such casualties in killed, wounded and missing, could not be replaced easily. To execute the intricate evolutions, to load and volley in cadence, and to perform all this under fire, required an iron discipline that, in the opinion of contemporary commanders, took years to instil. A steady battalion, it was believed, should have no more than a third of its men raw. Therefore, generals avoided accepting battle except under the most favourable conditions, combat often was broken off prematurely, and even the victor seldom dared to launch a pursuit in depth for fear of losing control over his troops.
Similar considerations affected marches and encampments, both rigidly regulated to minimize opportunities for desertion. Field armies moved slowly, encumbered by a huge train of pack horses, wagons, and other conveyances. Tentage took up most of the transport. Even the Prussian army, perhaps the most controlled and frugal of all, allotted 60 pack horses per regiment for tentage. Every company commander was entitled to a carriage and two saddle horses, while staff and general officers took along five to ten times as much. Tents, of course, were not just luxuries. They provided shelter for men and equipment and were considered a necessity to keep powder supplies dry.
But there were other impediments. Most officers, especially French and Austrian, liked to display their wealth in the field. Foot-men, cooks, servants, hairdressers and other domestics often accompanied field armies together with actors, actresses, mistresses and, occasionally, wives. Camps were like small cities. Sutler's wagons, carriages for the ladies, tents selling all manner of goods and services surrounded the orderly military lines. There were squad tents for the men, wall tents for the officers, and elaborate marquees for senior commanders. To prevent surprise and desertions, camps were well guarded. Usually there were outposts and pickets, camp and quarter guards, and on occasion encampments were protected by small field fortifications. To strike camp and march required time, and usually the marching day was limited to five hours or so.
Fear of desertion and the desire to spare civilian society the ravages of war, demanded that foraging be forbidden or at least sharply restricted. Armies had to be supplied by huge wagon trains which in turn depended on magazines, usually well established in advance of a campaign. To supply 50,000 men 15 miles from their base required some 100 wagons daily and five to seven days marching distance from the nearest magazine, between 50 to 80 miles, was considered the maximum practical operational range. Bad weather, of course, limited the range of wagons even further, and it also hampered the movement of the still heavy field artillery. Therefore, armies normally retired into winter quarters and re-emerged in the spring.
The lines of communications and their magazines thus assumed a paramount strategic importance. To safeguard these, fortifications sprouted up all over Europe, attacked, besieged, defended, and surrendered according to precise rules and customs. Fortresses became primary strategic targets, but they further slowed down the conduct of operations.
Battle tactics of limited war
Field armies, rarely exceeding 50,000 men, were very similar throughout Europe. They did not exist in peacetime but were formed at the opening of hostilities from existent regiments, their component battalions or squadrons providing the basic tactical units. There was little variance in organization or armament, and therefore also in tactics. Although cavalry still was numerous, up to a fourth of the total, its role diminished as infantry and artillery fire became more deadly. Massive volleys rather than the collision of mounted men decided battles. Even so, the flintlock musket remained a highly inaccurate and rather unreliable weapon and there was a common saying that to kill a man required expenditure of an amount of lead equal to his weight. This might appear exaggerated, but it was true. Ammunition expenditure was enormous; Guibert, the famous French theorist, estimated that in an average battle half a million rounds were expended.
The limitations of the musket determined battle tactics. To compensate for the extremely low accuracy of the individual shot, mass fire was required and to achieve this battalions were formed in elongated lines, three deep, firing volleys on command. To form and manoeuvre such an order of battle, as much as 20 battalions wide, required the utmost precision in evolutions. Alignments had to be straight, distances correct, and commands perfectly timed. The drill of the parade ground actually was used on the battlefield and officers had to be competent professionals, while the troops had to be prompt and accurate in executing orders, march in step, usually a stately 75 paces a minute, load and fire in cadence. Bayonets were carried fixed at all times, but shock action clearly was secondary to fire.
Artillery added its weight to the volume of fire. By the middle of the eighteenth century it had become militarized and shed the last remants of its ancient guild status. Generally, armies were well supplied with field pieces, firing 6-, 8-, or 12-pound projectiles, though they still lacked organic transport. Guns and their ammunition supply were dragged to the battlefield by hired civilian drivers. Moreover, until the Seven Years' War (1756-63), pieces remained very heavy and were usually placed in a position from which they rarely moved during action. The effectiveness of artillery support, therefore, depended on the siting of guns previous to battle and, if this was well chosen, they sometimes could exert considerable influence. Smaller pieces, 3- or 4-pounders, 'battalion' or 'regimental' guns, were issued to the infantry and manhandled during the advance, but their effectiveness was limited due to the low weight of their shot. Overall, artillery was undergoing a rapid evolution from the middle of the century on, becoming lighter and more manoeuverable, and equipped with better aiming devices.
In battle, armies deployed in two parallel lines of battalions, the second some 150 to 200 paces behind the first. The cavalry was stationed at the wings and its primary mission was to counter the enemy's horse. On occasion, especially if the opposing infantry was not yet deployed, such as at Rossbach (1757) horse was launched against foot with excellent results. Also, if cavalry drove its opponents off the field and was able to rally, a feat often achieved by Prussia's well-drilled horse under General Seydlitz, it could be hurled against the enemy's unprotected flank or rear. These missions were the duties of heavy battle cavalry, cuirassiers and dragoons, while light cavalry were used to screen the army on the march and during deployment. Pursuit and scouting duties also fell to the light horse.
Battles of this type required suitable open and level ground. Hills, ridges, swamps, and woods would break up the formations. Weather also was important. Cannon could not be moved across muddy ground; cavalry was slowed to a walk, even infantry was hampered in its evolutions. Heavy rains, moreover, prevented the discharge of artillery and muskets. Finally, the deployment of an army took time.
The warfare of Frederick the Great
To break completely with the patterns of limited war would require a political and social upheaval, but after 1740 Frederick II of Prussia, better known as Frederick the Great, brought the eighteenth century system to its highest potential. And in many ways his realistic, calculating, and even brutal approach was a departure from contemporary practice. It is perhaps revealing that Napoleon regarded him as one of his main preceptors.
Until the advent of Frederick, France had been considered the leading military power, but now Prussia surpassed her and gained an influence in military affairs out of all proportion to its size and wealth. A remarkable series of rulers laid the foundations for Frederick's achievements. On his accession there existed a well trained and disciplined army, 80,000 strong, a very large force for a country with a population of but two and a half million and no extensive natural resources. When he died in 1786 the army was 200,000 strong, while the population had doubled. To maintain such a military establishment required the concentration of all available resources. Little was spent in Prussia on the luxuries that bankrupted France and Austria; frugality, hard work, and an honest, if sometimes heavyhanded, administration were the hallmarks of the Prussian state. France in 1740 had an army of 160,000 though its population was ten times that of Prussia and its revenues eight times larger, while in the same year Maria Theresa's Habsburg Empire could not muster an army adequate to meet Frederick's attack.
The Prussian army drew its strength from peculiar Prussian institutions and practices. Its officer corps was without rival. Conscripted from the poor landed nobility, the Junker, the Corps displayed unmatched dedication, diligence, and professionalism. The Prussian officer entered the army as a boy, was commissioned in his teens, and often remained in the service for the rest of his life. His regiment became his universe and though poorly paid, he was rewarded by membership in the first estate of the Prussian realm. The King, the first soldier of the state, habitually wore the uniform and took a personal, if on occasion capricious interest in each and every member of the corps. Only very few men of non-noble origins were admitted, the King believed that they lacked the requisite sense of honour, and he dismissed them as soon as they were no longer needed. The performance of the army was further improved by the non-commissioned officers, sergeants and corporals, privileged men of unusually high competence.
Excerpted from The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon by Gunther E. Rothenberg. Copyright © 1978 Gunther E. Rothenberg. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Line Drawings, 7,
1 Armies and Warfare during the Last Years of the Ancien Régime, 11,
2 The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: from Valmy to Waterloo, 31,
3 The Soldier's Trade, 61,
4 The French Revolutionary Armies and their New Art of War, 95,
5 Napoleon's Armies,
6 Opponents of the French, 165,
7 Staff Problems, Fortifications and Medical Services, 208,
8 Epilogue, 241,
Appendix I : Selected battles 1792–1815, 247,
Appendix II : Selected sieges, assaults, blockades 1792–1815, 254,
Select Bibliography, 256,