The Army of Napoleon III Part II


Officer, Regiment of Zouaves, Imperial Guard, 1870 (P.Lourcelle). Napoleon III’s Imperial Guard included, from March 1855, one regiment of Zouaves, raised by drafts from the 3 line Zouave regiments. The new regiment served with distinction in the remainder of the Crimean War, in the Italian War of 1859; and, in the Franco-Prussian War, fought bravely at Rezonville/Mars-la-Tour (16 Aug. 1870), but was later encircled in Metz with the rest of the Guard.


Eagle-bearer of the 2nd Grenadiers of the French Imperial Guard – 1870.

There was a lively debate within the army as to how infantry tactics should be adapted to the challenges of the modern battlefield, on which troops could fire from the prone position or from behind cover and inflict more casualties at a greater distance than ever before. Far from being blind to the significance of the new fire-arms, many French officers realized that the tactics that had brought them victory in Italy – swarms of skirmishers preceding rapid attacks by formed columns – would be vulnerable to breech-loaders. Many were to err on the side of caution, taking refuge in ‘fine positions’ with clear fields of fire that would allow them to mow down the attacking enemy. In the novel conditions of 1870 the strategy and tactics of the French infantry, famed for the fury of its bayonet charges, were to appear hesitant and defensive. The Germans, for their part, gave great emphasis to teaching fire discipline and accuracy, and believed with justification that these attributes would go far towards offsetting the technical inferiority of their rifle.

French firepower and overconfidence were further boosted by a newly developed weapon initially funded by Napoleon III personally – the mitrailleuse. It had the appearance of a bronze cannon, but its barrel incorporated twenty-five steel tubes firing as many bullets from a pre-loaded magazine at the turn of a handle. Its crews were trained in such great secrecy that on mobilization they were unwittingly posted to other duties. Despite the inexperience of improvised crews and its limited traverse, the mitrailleuse had the potential to inflict severe damage on enemy infantry, and French troops were cheered by the sound of the ‘coffee-grinders’ as they dubbed them. However, it proved to be extremely vulnerable to German artillery.

It was in artillery that the French were most conspicuously outclassed by the Germans, who had more and better guns, used them to greater effect and supplied them with more ammunition than was normally available to French batteries. On 1 August 1870 the French had 780 field guns and 144 mitrailleuses present with their optimistically named Army of the Rhine, while the Germans counted 1,206 field guns with their three armies. The French had retained the bronze muzzle-loading rifled cannon that had been developed under the emperor’s auspices in the 1850s and had brought them victory in Italy. But the Germans had moved on to breech-loading steel guns with a much longer range. The artillerist Le Bœuf thought the evidence of German gunnery performance at Sadowa inconclusive, and protracted tests on a French breech-loader had not yet been concluded. When, with the wisdom of hindsight, his critics denounced his failure to update the French artillery, he protested that the cost of rearming the infantry with the Chassepot (113 million francs) and of producing the mitrailleuse made it extremely unlikely that the Legislature would have granted additional credits to modernize the artillery. In truth, though, he had not foreseen the need.

The Germans had in fact made great advances since Sadowa, which would only become manifest on the battlefield. Their cannon had been fitted with Krupp’s superior breech-block, and gunners had practised hard at rapid, aimed fire delivered by running batteries forward to support their infantry. The effect of accurate, concentrated German fire was maximized by the effect of percussion fuses that detonated on impact, whereas the French had opted for a time-fuse system which was intended to simplify the gunners’ task but in practice sacrificed flexibility and effectiveness. French artillery practice had also lost sight of the need to achieve an overwhelming concentration of guns early in the battle: an art which the Germans had mastered. If German infantry tactics in the early battles were often inept and costly, they were saved from defeat by the devastating power of their artillery.

German planning and organization were also far better geared to achieving rapid and efficient mobilization than the French, giving them a decisive advantage. The French military attaché in Berlin warned in 1868 that ‘the Prussian general staff is the best in Europe; ours cannot be compared to it’. French peacetime military organization was designed to meet internal security needs rather than the demands of mobilization for war. French troops deliberately were not based in their home districts and were periodically rotated to garrisons around the country so that they should not identify themselves too closely with any local community. Their regimental depot, through which supplies and new recruits had to pass, might be at the other end of the country, and those depots in turn depended for their supplies on a highly centralized warehouse system. Generals commanding territorial divisions would command different troops in wartime, and be served by staff officers who might be complete strangers assigned to them by the War Ministry.

In Germany, on the other hand, troops served in the region where they had been raised under the general and staff who would command them in war, and had a well-rehearsed drill for mobilization by rail. German mobilization observed the principle of less haste, more speed. Regiments reported to their local depots where reservists were mustered and everyone was equipped. The fully assembled regiment then embarked on trains that moved at carefully regulated intervals to the concentration area for their unit, with refreshments provided at fixed points en route.

The French by contrast tried to pre-empt their enemies by rushing regiments to the front, leaving their depots to forward batches of reservists and equipment when ready. French troops had not practised railway embarkation, which too often was delayed because officers failed to supervise their men properly, leaving them to be plied with drink by patriotic crowds ‘more enthusiastic than well-advised’, adding to widespread problems of indiscipline. No central authority at the War Ministry was responsible for planning and co-ordinating railway transportation, as was done in Germany by Moltke’s general staff. Le Bœuf had not implemented the report of the railway commission appointed by Niel before his death in 1869. In July 1870 orders came from several different departments at the War Ministry, and despite sterling efforts by the private railway companies in moving men to the eastern frontier French mobilization proved chaotic.

The railways were carrying not only formed regiments to the front, but reservists from all across France who had to report to the chief town of their Département, then be formed into detachments to be forwarded to the regimental depots and thence – if and when the right orders came from Paris – to join their units at the front. This led to some epic journeys as reservists criss-crossed the country. Some living in northern France and assigned to 2nd Zouaves had to travel by rail to Marseille then embark by sea to report to the regimental depot at Oran in Algeria, returning from there to Marseille to join their regiment in Alsace on the eastern frontier, a round trip of 2,000 kilometres. The French attempt to combine mobilization and concentration (which in Germany were distinct stages), the inadequacy of transport planning and the confusion of orders led to reservists arriving at the front from their depots in dribs and drabs. The recall of the reserves on 14 July should have produced 173,507 men, yet by 6 August, when the first major battles were fought, only about half of these had reached their regiments at the front. Many of these reservists were sullen at being recalled to military service and were untrained in the use of the Chassepot, having to be instructed hastily on the eve of battle or even during it.

To the difficulties of assembling the regular army were added those of simultaneously mobilizing the Garde Mobile, for which equipment and officers had to be improvised. This task was a distraction rather than a support to the army command in the first weeks of war, and some units of the Garde Mobile, particularly those from Paris, proved so ungovernable and hostile to the imperial regime that they had to be dispersed.

If bottlenecks in the supply of men were a grave handicap, those of equipment and supplies proved crippling to rapid movement. The army’s main base in Lorraine was the fortress city of Metz, where the station became clogged with trains. For lack of sufficient labour, horses, carts and an effective unloading schedule, thousands of tons of material remained stranded in unmarked freight wagons in the marshalling yards, lost to the units for which they were intended. The War Ministry was bombarded with telegrams from desperate generals pleading for the delivery to their units of urgently needed items, from tents to cooking pots, bacon, biscuit or maps. The time needed to untangle these problems was a major impediment to the army’s ability to take the offensive.

Napoleon III had envisaged a thrust across the Rhine, through South Germany and on to Berlin, in the hope that he would soon be joined by the Austrians, Italians and Danes. To the manifold problems caused by inadequate preparation he added further confusion by deciding in the days before the outbreak of hostilities to reorganize the order of battle. Instead of two armies on the eastern frontier, commanded by Marshal Bazaine at Metz and Marshal MacMahon at Strasbourg, with a reserve force under Marshal Canrobert at Châlons, he decided to command the entire army personally. Whether he wished to garner the prestige of a victory personally, to influence potential allies or feared to be outshone by his marshals, his intervention necessitated a frantic last-minute redrawing of plans at the War Ministry.

On 28 July Napoleon left his palace of Saint-Cloud for the front by special train, accompanied by the 14-year-old Prince Imperial. Pallid and ill, the emperor could hardly ride a horse without excruciating pain. On reaching Metz he was dismayed at how unready the army was, and was shortly informed that the supply situation meant that a campaign into Germany was not immediately feasible. In the French army there was an expectation that a dynamic strategy would be supplied by Napoleonic inspiration, but from this invalid and prematurely old ruler, by turns hesitant, interfering and fatalistic, came no spark of leadership or even a coherent campaign plan. Despite his habitual wearing of a general’s uniform, his close interest in military affairs and personal involvement in matters of armament and uniforms, he was not a professional soldier like King Wilhelm of Prussia. His record as commander-in-chief, whether by proxy in the Crimea and Mexico, or personally in Italy, hardly suggested that his uncle’s military genius was hereditary.

The Germans were apprehensive of a sudden French dash into the Rhineland. If they were not preparing such a stroke, why had they rushed to declare war? German intelligence gathering and analysis by the general staff was more professionally organized than on the French side, yet still they could not be sure of Napoleon’s intentions. Already German cavalry units were patrolling into France on reconnaissance, cutting telegraph lines as they went, notably in Count Zeppelin’s bold raid into Alsace on 24–25 July. French cavalry reconnaissance on the other hand was unenterprising. Napoleon used his infantry like an extended border patrol, spread out to guard the frontiers of Lorraine and Alsace, divided by the massive wooded ridges of the Vosges. For a few days he did little more than shift his lumbering infantry divisions about in response to rumours of German movements.

Marches were slow, partly through poor staff work and partly because the French infantryman was laden with 30 kilograms of equipment, including 90 rounds of ammunition, his pack, water canteen, mess-tin, cooking pot, blanket, tent-pole and half a shelter tent. All this camping gear, which had to be left under guard during battle, was necessary because of the French system of making bivouac every night in a defensible position. This concentration of large units in a giant camp-site made sense in thinly inhabited regions with a warm climate, particularly Algeria. However, it had the disadvantage of limiting the distance that could be marched in a day because of the need to break camp, form the long column in marching order in the morning and to halt early enough in the evening to allow the rearmost unit to reach camp before dark. The Germans differed by following the methods of the first Napoleon, billeting their men in villages strung along their route, where they could take shelter from cold and damp without the need to pitch or strike tents. One French general, Trochu, was incredulous on hearing that large German units were regularly covering distances that far exceeded French capabilities.

Thus in the first days of August the French army, deficient in numbers, ill-administered, over-extended, ponderous and incapable of mounting its own major offensive, groped towards contact with the enemy. Notwithstanding so many comparative disadvantages, one sharp critic of its pre-war failings believed that it ‘still retained enough of its former qualities to conquer; to the extent that, despite the number and skill of its adversaries, it would have been victorious had it only been properly commanded’.


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