19th Century Technological Changes in Warfare


During the Battle of Königgrätz, Prussian soldiers were able to overwhelm the Austrians by firing six shots from their high-powered rifles for every shot discharged by the Austrian muzzle-loading rifles.


The Krupp arms manufacturing company’s exhibit of a massive cannon at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.


The great changes in military operations and tactics in the mid-nineteenth century were driven by technology. The French changes of the late eighteenth century had been more political and social: a determination to apply Enlightenment ideals to armed force and a need to equip a mass army of peasants and sans-culottes for war. Starting in the 1850s, the Prussians refined warfare further, as they sought ways to knit railroads, telegraphs, and improved firearms—rifled muskets and artillery—into the modern campaign. Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke (1800–1891) was the maestro.

Moltke understood that Prussia—derided by Voltaire in the eighteenth century as a ‘‘kingdom of border strips’’—had to defeat its peculiar geography before it could defeat anyone else. Railroads and telegraphs would be the essential bridge between Prussia’s eastern heartland—Berlin, Breslau, and Königsberg—and its rich, western industrial districts in the Rhineland and Westphalia. Under Moltke’s prodding, Prussia increased its railways from 3,860 kilometers (2,400 miles) of track in 1850 to 11,580 kilometers (7,200 miles) in 1870. Prussia also militarized the railroads, double-tracking lines, adding large platforms and sidings, and building dual-use carriages that could be rapidly converted from passenger wagons to troop, horse, and artillery carriers. With a dedicated general staff railroad and telegraph section, Prussia was poised to mobilize and strike faster than any other Great Power. When Otto von Bismarck picked a fight with the Austrian Empire in 1866, Moltke swung into action.

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was the first look at the Prussian military revolution, which was as significant operationally and tactically as the Napoleonic revolution. Speeding on trains to the Austrian border, three Prussian armies invaded Habsburg Bohemia before the Austrian army had even completed its mobilization. Moltke grasped that the new mobility of the industrial age degraded the old Napoleonic advantage of ‘‘internal lines,’’ that is, of a well-supplied position between converging enemies. If the enemies converged fast enough, they could throttle the central army before it had properly deployed. ‘‘An army hit in the front and flank finds that its strategic advantage of internal lines has been beaten tactically,’’ Moltke later summarized.

Of course the tactics themselves had to be sound, and Moltke’s were the best. Prussia in 1866 was the first European Great Power to arm its entire infantry establishment with breech-loading rifles. Although the other powers had switched in the course of the 1850s from muskets to rifles, they all preferred muzzle-loaders because of the problem of fire control. Excited troops in the heat of battle tended to shoot wildly. Provided with a breechloader, they might fire off all of their ammunition—typically sixty rounds—in just fifteen minutes. A rifleman with a muzzleloader would need an hour, and would be more easily regulated by his noncommissioned officers, who would have time to cool emotions, call out ranges, and align front and back sights.

Moltke never solved the problem of fire control. No army ever has. Only one out of every 250 rounds fired by a Prussian infantryman in 1866 actually struck an Austrian. But that was not bad by nineteenth-century standards. Union troops in the American Civil War required 1,140 pounds of lead and powder to kill a single Confederate. In every battle of 1866, scrambling Prussian infantry companies defeated lumbering Austrian shock columns. By the end of the war, whole Austrian units dissolved at the approach of the Prussians.

In the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), the French army rearmed with its own breech-loading rifle—the ‘‘Chassepot’’—and discarded the aggressive shock tactics that they had employed since the French Revolution. Instead they emphasized defensive fire from prepared positions. Moltke met this challenge with a second technological leap. Between 1866 and 1870 the Prussians took delivery of new field artillery: rifled, steel, breech-loading six-pound Krupp cannon. The new Prussian field guns outranged France’s obsolete muzzle-loading bronze four-pounders, were more accurate, and had a higher rate of fire. Although they stumbled initially, by the last battles of the war—beginning with the great victory at Sedan (September 1870)—the Prussians had learned the tactical rule that would apply in the Russo-Japanese War and World War I: never send infantry to do a job that artillery can do. Squeezed into a narrow pocket around Sedan, the French army was pulverized by a closing ring of 700 Krupp cannon.

Sedan also enshrined the modern operational ideal: the Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle). An extended version of the Napoleonic manoeuvre sur les derrières, the Kesselschlacht would be handed down from Moltke to Alfred von Schlieffen. Advancing quickly by road or rail, aggressor armies would fix a flat-footed enemy in place and swarm around his flanks, enveloping him, cutting off his lines of retreat, and demolishing him in a cauldron of fire.

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