Warfare After Waterloo-European Peace I


It ultimately took the other European powers no fewer than seven coalitions and almost 25 years of virtually uninterrupted warfare to contain and defeat the threat posed by, first, Revolutionary and, then, Napoleonic France. Conflict on this scale had immense ramifications, only a few illustrations of which must suffice here. In France alone, it claimed the lives of around 38 per cent of the male generation born between 1790 and 1795; this is some 14 per cent higher than the mortality rate among the generation of 1891-95, the foremost victims of the carnage of the First World War. There were few families that had not had at least one male member killed or wounded, many of the latter being horribly maimed, if not by the weapon that had struck them, then by the crude, radical surgery – notably amputation – that was habitually resorted to as the only way of saving the lives of the badly injured. In looking for partners, many women were obliged to redefine their notions of male beauty.

Britain’s maritime, commercial and industrial power had reached new heights, very largely because of the protection against invasion that her insular nature had afforded her. By contrast, many of Europe’s largest towns and cities, including Saragossa, Hamburg and Moscow, had been ravaged, while innumerable smaller settlements had been expunged completely. Indeed, enormous tracts of countryside, such as the Elbe valley, the focus of the final struggle for Germany, had been devastated, either by actual fighting or by the mere presence of armies of unprecedented size. Creating these had required commensurable efforts on the part of the belligerents and had led to appreciable political upheaval. This included the demise of several polities and dynasties and the fatal weakening of others. Feudal and other reforms had, however, benefited the aristocracy more often than not, while Europe’s growing bourgeoisie aspired to join the ruling classes rather than overthrow them. As always, war had brought out the best and worst in people. Scores of thousands of human beings had been transformed by their experiences on and around the battlefields, while millions more had been touched by the wider impact of a conflict that was more total than anything that had gone before: trade patterns, labour markets, investment, commerce, industry and agriculture had all been affected, though neither uniformly nor always adversely. Many people had lost everything – their homes, property, livelihoods, family. Yet, if law, order and normal life had collapsed in many areas, elsewhere it had survived almost unscathed; poverty and its symptoms, such as prostitution, were more evident in many places, whereas others enjoyed unparalleled prosperity; while the war-weariness, defeatism, bitterness, disillusionment and despair of some was juxtaposed with the triumphalism, optimism and addiction to `la gloire’ evinced by others.

The more decisive a conflict is, the longer the ensuing peace is likely to prove. However, much also depends upon the quality of that peace. Endorsed in 1814, the First Treaty of Paris granted France far more lenient terms than she had any right to expect, but the immense problems created or exacerbated by the war swiftly overwhelmed the restored Bourbons who had inherited them. Scarcely liked to begin with, Louis XVIII could neither satisfy his subjects’ aspirations at home nor reconcile their perception of France’s position in the new European order with the realities of her situation. For too many people, it was just too tempting to conclude that she had been humiliated and subjected to an unjust peace, which had included the imposition of a maladroit, anachronistic regime.

Napoleon attempted to exploit this discontent by making one last bid for power. Having escaped from exile on Elba, in March 1815 he marched on Paris at the head of his bodyguard. It proved an essentially bloodless revolution. Troops sent against `le petit caporal’ rallied to his cause, and the Bourbons fled. The Allied powers, however, convinced that they could never secure an enduring peace with the `Corsican Ogre’, promptly formed the Seventh Coalition and prepared to invade France. Napoleon, proclaimed emperor once more, responded with a pre-emptive blow against the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies in the Low Countries, but, after some initial success, was given a dose of his own strategic medicine and heavily defeated at Waterloo.

Abdicating a second time, he was exiled to the remote island of St Helena, where he was to die six years later. Although his last great adventure had lasted just 100 days, the Allies’ victory could do no more than limit the extent of the upheaval provoked by his coup d’état. At the very least, Napoleon’s gamble had compromised any hope of national reconciliation, and the French were soon in the grip of the `White Terror’. This included attempts to purge the army. Marshals Brune and Ney met their ends at the hands of a royalist mob and a firing squad, respectively, while Grouchy, Soult, Davout and Suchet were all banished or otherwise disgraced. Leading generals who had rallied to the Bonapartist cause also suffered, notably Vandamme, who was exiled, and Drouet d’Erlon, who, proscribed and condemned to death in his absence, fled abroad. Traces of Revolutionary and Imperial influence were eradicated or reduced by other means, too. A Royal decree of August 1815 formally disbanded the army to facilitate its reconstruction. Conscription was suspended and was to remain so until 1818, when Gouvion Saint-Cyr – a Napoleonic marshal who had turned a blind eye to his former master’s return in 1815 and was subsequently rewarded with the post of war minister by the Bourbons – introduced the `Appel’, which required men to register for military service; 40 000 were then selected by ballot, with the customary exemptions being granted to the eligible. Between 1815 and the inauguration of this system, many personnel were demobilized and the remainder reshuffled, while the Napoleonic architecture of corps and divisions was demolished. Even the established regiments did not survive: whereas the infanterie légere all but disappeared, the ligne was reorganized into `legions’, each of which comprised several battalions supported by cavalry and artillery detachments. Besides being relieved of the eagles and tricolours that had been restored to them during the `100 Days’, all units also lost their identifying numbers and were instead given departmental or regional titles. As a final political precaution, moreover, legions were raised in one district and garrisoned in another.

Needless to say, Napoleon’s 1815 coup did nothing to diminish the Allies’ fears and suspicions of France and, although the Second Treaty of Paris duplicated the first in so far that it paved the way for her to rejoin the concert of great powers as an equal partner, it was inevitably more punitive. If only in a bid to prevent any recidivism, the French were saddled with a war indemnity amounting to 700 million Francs as well as an army of occupation. Enormous though this force was, the need for the bulk of the Allies’ military machine seemed to have passed. Much of it was promptly dismantled. Nevertheless, most states preserved some mechanism by means of which they could quickly supplement their martial strength, should that prove necessary. For instance, anxious to preserve Britain’s maritime security and power, and mindful that most of the lengthy period required to build a sailing vessel was needed for the construction of the hull and superstructure, the Royal Navy had warships built without masts and rigging. Their upper decks covered with a protective roof, these vessels were then laid up in river estuaries or harbours. In the event of an emergency, the roof could be removed and the ship completed in a matter of days or weeks.

By contrast, the emphasis in most other European states was on land warfare. This was especially so of Prussia. Her geostrategic position was a vulnerable one and, in 1806, her partial, slow and ineffectual mobilization had contributed to a débacle that had brought her to the very brink of annihilation. In precipitating reform, however, military defeats often prove to be better catalysts than victories. After the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia maintained and refined the conscription laws she had first devised for the Befreiungskrieg. These required all able-bodied men of 20 to serve for three years with the colours and two years with the reserves. For a further 14 years thereafter, they were liable for duty with the Landwehr, a discrete, territorial service. Besides yielding a sizeable standing army, this approach gave Prussia a large pool of trained manpower that she could tap to flesh out embryonic Armeekorps. Raised on a provincial basis, their composition was fixed at one cavalry and two infantry divisions, together with artillery, cavalry and engineering units.

The coming of new forms of transport that promised to speed up the tempo of military operations both facilitated the timely activation and concentration of armed forces and accentuated the importance of such capabilities. Indeed, over the next few decades, the utilization of the steam engine in this regard was a major factor in the erosion of the technological consistency that had prevailed in military affairs since Marlborough’s time. Railways offered comparatively rapid, inexpensive transport and communication. One authority has estimated that they reduced haulage costs per kilometre by between 80 and 85 per cent. They helped create integrated internal markets, accelerated the growth of towns and, like other machines, changed the relationship between humankind and its tools. Even people’s concepts of time were transformed. Once related to the natural and essentially local world – the rising and setting of the sun, the turning of the seasons, the varying speed of travel achievable by horse or on foot – time now became an absolute. Trains could move with a regularity and predictability that the horsedrawn mail coaches could not match. The very notion of timetables demanded the synchronization of time.

No nineteenth-century French administration did more to stimulate industrialization than l’empire autoritaire. Combining Bonapartist militarism with economic dirigisme, it promoted railroad expansion with capital that was raised from small investors and channelled through the Crédit Mobilier bank. Before 1851, the French railway system essentially comprised several spokes which, radiating from Paris, rather neglected the manufacturing centres. Thereafter, its growth, by network and region alike, boosted employment, agriculture and the iron, steel and coal industries especially, while improving access to emerging markets in North Africa and the Middle East through the gateway of Marseille.

However, Germany and the USA were the principal beneficiaries of rail construction in the period 1850-70. More will be said about the latter country elsewhere, but, between 1855 and 1859, rail construction absorbed all of 19.7 per cent of the former’s total investment. 5 Although, again, laissez faire attitudes prevailed, there was appreciably more control of the development of the network in the German states, particularly in Hanover and Baden, than in France or Britain. From 1842 onwards, the Prussian authorities also sought to foster railroad construction by guaranteeing interest repayments for those entrepreneurs willing to invest in such ventures.

The relative utility of fortresses had been in decline for some time. Whereas, during the 1700s, they had frequently acted as the very foundations of the supply networks within which armies moved, making sieges a common occurrence, the manoeuvre warfare emphasized by Napoleon had relegated them to a secondary role. Apart from in the Iberian and Italian Peninsulas, where large areas of barren, difficult terrain constrained the movement and concentration of armies, not least by limiting their scope for living off the land, fortresses proved of limited value during the Napoleonic Wars except as hinges for mobile forces. In fact, leaving aside the campaigns in Spain, Portugal and Calabria, major sieges were almost unheard of. Danzig had the dubious distinction of enduring two, in 1807 and 1813, while Hamburg, Magdeburg, Torgau and several other strongholds in Germany were also besieged during the course of the Befreiungskrieg. Even many of these cases occurred as much by accident as design, however, and did not involve elaborate siege operations; as the French were rolled back towards the Rhine, the garrisons of these places found themselves cut off from Napoleon’s main army and, encircled by enemy troops, were mostly beaten into submission, not by sapping, bombardment and assault, but by demoralization, starvation and disease.

If the value of fortresses was not what it once had been, the utility of railways was rapidly becoming apparent. Barely had Britain’s Manchester to Liverpool line opened in 1830 than it was used to move a regiment of infantry; in two hours, they covered a distance that they could not have marched in under two days. The Austrians, too, were quick to exploit the strategic flexibility bestowed by trains. In 1851, at a time of tension with Prussia, they employed them to reinforce their Bohemian garrisons at speed; they moved all of 14 500 personnel, 8000 horses, 48 guns and 464 wagons some 300 kilometres in just two days. Similarly, during the Franco-Austrian War eight years later, the French were to transport a total of 604 000 personnel and 129 000 horses within a period of 86 days.

A German ammunition train – Franco-Prussian War.

Where available, trains greatly simplified the movement of armies. Providing they had sufficient coal and water, these machines, like ships, could keep going round the clock; they merely needed an occasional change of crew. Travelling by train at night or in poor weather posed far fewer problems than movement by road did at such times, and, spared gruelling, lengthy marches, units arrived at their destination, not only far faster, but fresher and with fewer losses, too. Railways were also capable of carrying a variety of loads, from troops to guns, foodstuffs and munitions. They enabled forces to be succoured from afar, though the difficulty of distributing supplies from the railhead to units in the field – units that might themselves be on the move – remained and was not always overcome with complete success, as French experience in their struggle with Austria in 1859 attests. Although, for the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, the British and French reduced their need for pack animals and horse-drawn vehicles by constructing a railway between the port of Balaklava and their positions on the Saboun Hills, some ten kilometres away and 400 metres above sea-level, they could not eliminate it. Whilst this line enabled the allies to move matériel – notably ammunition for their heavy artillery, which, in all, devoured over 250 000 rounds – at a rate of up to 200 tonnes per day, then, as now, continuous supply required a continuous transport `loop’.

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