Tactics of the Revolution
The tactical discussions and self-reflection of the royal army had a profound impact on the tactics used by the armies of the Republic. The generals of the Republic were still discussing the merits of l’ordre mince, thin linear formations, versus l’ordre profonde, deeper columnar formations. In addition, there were both practical and political concerns to consider. The pragmatic concern was that the soldiers of the Republic were not the long-serving regulars who had taken to the drill field at the camp at Vaussieux to experiment with the competing systems. The soldiers of the Republic were a mix of the remnants of that army and new recruits, many of whom had little or no prior service and whose training at the battalion level – so important to effective manoeuvre on the battlefield – was suspect.
On the political level, the revolutionary governments were great advocates of l’arme blanche, the use of cold steel to win victories. It was assumed that such weapons suited the highly motivated citoyens of the Republic. This sentiment was so strong that in the summer of 1792 the Minister of War, Joseph Servan de Gerby (1741-1808), advocated the organization of battalions of pikemen, and nearly half a million pikes were actually produced.
It seems clear that most of the Republic’s generals preferred the system of tactics proposed by Guibert and embodied in the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791, namely the three-rank line of l’ordre mince. But the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 was not an inflexible treatise. It allowed for the use of columns for a variety of tasks, including manoeuvring to position a battalion for a firefight as well as to assault positions such as fortifications and built-up areas such as towns or villages, which might need to be taken at the point of the bayonet. One famous example of a general who intended to follow Guibert’s doctrine and the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 is General Charles Fran~ois Dumouriez (1739-1823).
On 6 November 1792, at the Battle of ]emappes, Dumouriez’s 40,000 troops attacked 13,000 entrenched Austrians. The French advanced in open columns and began deploying into line as they approached the enemy positions. The French centre was roughly handled by the Austrians as its columns attempted to deploy into line under fire, but their left drove the Austrians from their positions. Such tactics may have been beyond the level of training that the French forces possessed at the time, although changing formation under the enemy’s guns is difficult for even well-trained troops, not to mention ill advised. But ]emappes also demonstrated other influences on the tactics of the Revolutionary forces. First is the extensive use of light troops operating in open order. On the French right, the terrain was ill suited to the use of heavy columns.
As a result, the French troops there advanced in skirmish order. This shows the willingness of French commanders to modify the Reglement du 1er Aout 1791 to fit their capabilities, and the use of entire battalions and demi-brigades deployed in open order is a perfect example.
Most of the French treatises pre-dating the Revolution are relatively silent on the use of light troops, focusing instead on the line-versus-column question. Yet revolutionary armies made extensive use of this formation. This can be viewed as an example of tactical flexibility based on the capabilities of the available troops.
Actually, a screen of skirmishers meets the spirit of Guibert’s doctrine in that it is an imperfect linear formation – and one that might be employed by troops who are highly motivated, 18 rather than well trained. Jemappes also demonstrated the advantage to be gained by superior numbers. Dumouriez was able to concentrate more than three times the number of his enemy. In combination, these two elements allowed French forces to keep up near constant pressure on their enemies at the tactical level. Unlike the eighteenth-century model of grand tactics, in which individual units were not considered to matter, this system understood the significance of individual units, in differing formations, often fitting the terrain or circumstances, and fielded in sufficient numbers to provide critical mass at a decisive point on the battlefield.
Another example of the flexibility of Republican forces can be seen in the tactics developed to deal with the uprisings in the west of France. In addition to fighting the standing armies of states such as Austria, Prussia, Russia and Great Britain, the Republic also had to deal with irregular forces raised by various counter-revolutionary factions in areas such as the Vendee and Brittany. The insurgents were initially poorly armed but became better armed as they defeated the first units sent against them – ill-trained units of National Guardsmen and hastily raised units of regulars. Later units were better trained and they were able to defeat the rebels, whether in open battle or in the attack or defence of towns or cities.
However, in what would foreshadow a number of actions against irregulars in places such as Spain and the Tyrol, the army struggled against the ambushes and small actions perpetrated by the insurgents. Despite the fact that the French Army had considerable experience of irregular warfare, gained in regions such as North America, there was no commensurate interest in the study of tactics of ‘the little war’.
Tactics and doctrine were developed in the course of the conflict. For example, General Louis Lazare Hoche (1768-97) wrote and promulgated his Instructions for those Troops Employed in Fighting the Chouans, the latter term used for the rebels in Brittany. These instructions emphasized the importance of unit cohesion, reconnaissance and force protection against the rebels, who often used numbers to overwhelm small, disorganized units of regular troops. On the tactical level, the instructions emphasized linear tactics to bring the maximum amount of firepower to bear against the rebels. Indeed, Hoche mandated not only that his troops fight in a line but that it be a two-rank line to make use of all of the battalions’ manpower in the combat. Skirmishers were also to be used, but in small numbers and always supported by formed troops, thereby ensuring that they were not lured too far from their lines and cut off.
Finally, the Revolutionary armies made extensive use of artillery, as advocated by Guibert and especially Chevalier du Tell. This was possible thanks to the work of Gribeauval, who had introduced lighter artillery pieces, and the fact that the artillery, of all the combat arms, had probably weathered the strains of the Revolution the best. It had, for example, retained a larger percentage of its officer corps than either the infantry or cavalry.
The revolutionary forces built on earlier improvements and theories and made innovations of its own. One was the reintroduction of battalion guns. Two of these light 4-pounder cannon were attached to each infantry battalion. While these may have impeded the speed of the battalion, they did potentially add to the unit’s firepower. Equally importantly, they reduced the fragility and vulnerability of the battalion, both by boosting morale and by serving to deter pursuit in the even that the unit panicked. The second innovation was the introduction of horse artillery. While very expensive to maintain, both in terms of horseflesh and logistical requirements, the horse batteries provided significant offensive punch.
Initially it was thought that they might stiffen the cavalry, much as battalion guns did for the infantry, but soon these gunners considered themselves to be an elite unit. Their speed, mobility and elan allowed them to provide direct fire support and, in the words of General Foy (1775-1825), a horse artilleryman himself, ‘to get up close and shoot fast’.
The armies of the Revolution were thus able to draw on nearly a century of military self-reflection and intellectual developments. But, they could do so only in a loose fashion since many of the developments were intended for the old royal army. What made the armies of the Republic successful, at least in part, was their ability to be flexible and to modify these developments as the capabilities of their forces allowed.
By the time of the War of the First Coalition the Prussian Army was still by and large identical with the one of Frederick the Great. Recruitment was based on regimental districts and was confined to the lower classes and the peasantry. Additionally, “foreign” (non-Prussian, though usually German) mercenaries were needed to bring the Prussian Army to the astonishing peacetime strength of nearly 230,000 men (out of a population of 8.7 million). Officers were taken almost exclusively from the nobility and gentry (Junker) so that the army replicated and reinforced the social structure of rural Prussia, while the town-dweller stood aside. Far from being a national force that could rely on patriotic feelings for the motivation of its soldiers, the Prussian Army, like many others under the ancien régime, had to enforce discipline mainly by threat of brutal corporal punishment, and desertion was a constant problem. Service was for life; in reality that usually meant twenty years, unless invalided out.
In spite of suggestions primarily of junior officers to implement more progressive concepts, the unreformed army also relied heavily on linear tactics to exploit the massed musketry of its heavy infantry. Innovations like more flexible tactics, light infantry, permanent divisions or corps of mixed arms, and a general staff in the modern sense of the word were known and discussed, but by the 1790s not yet implemented or still in their infancy.
France was fortunate that her enemies were slow in reacting, the more so since her troops were split into a multiplicity of armies, each covering a fraction of one of her several frontiers. This gave her a complicated command structure, further confused by personal animosities and incompetent direction from the centre. It was not until 19 August that 55,000 Prussians, with 16,000 Austrians in distant support, crossed into France at Longwy. Their commander, Ferdinand of Brunswick, a hero of the Seven Years’ War, disapproved of his orders, which were to march on Paris, and advanced with a deliberation which bordered on lethargy. He announced that it was impracticable to advance beyond the Meuse and was only drawn further forward by the unsolicited surrender of the fortress of Verdun.
On 20 September, Ferdinand found himself opposed by a French force drawn up near Valmy. There were nearly 60,000 of them, partly regulars from the Armée du Rhin under Kellermann, partly volunteers from the Armée du Nord under Dumouriez. The regulars put up an impressive front and they were superbly supported by their gunners. When the Prussian army had suffered 184 casualties from artillery fire, Ferdinand declared the French position impregnable and set out to evacuate France. He was not pursued and took even longer in retreating to Longwy than he had spent in advancing from that place.
On paper the Prussian army had a strength of more than a quarter of a million men. Not all of these could be found in practice and after deducting some garrisons, the field force available amounted to 175,000, to which could be added 20,000 Saxons, that country having been overawed into concluding an alliance with her large northern neighbour. If ten years of ignominious neutrality had hurt the pride of her officer corps, it had not persuaded them to modernize their army to cope with the new conditions of war. As befitted the heir to the victorious traditions of Frederick the Great it was magnificently fitted to fight the wars of the mid-eighteenth century.
No other army kept its ranks so straight, manoeuvred in so precise (or so slow) a fashion and fired such impressive (or such inaccurate) volleys. Learning from its experience in the War of Bavarian Succession, it had equipped itself with so elaborate a supply train that it regarded a day’s march as being exceptionally satisfactory if 20 kilometres could be covered, a fifth less than any other major army. True to the eighteenth-century tradition it was largely composed of mercenaries at least 80,000 of its men were not Prussian nationals. Its commanders too were men of the Seven Years’ War. The nominal head was Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, nephew to Frederick the Great, who had seen action at Valmy. His chief subordinates, Prince Frederick of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen and General von Ruchel. The King’s chief military adviser, von Mollendorf, was 70, while Frederick William himself, who presided at the Councils of War, was only 36 but had all the indecision of a dotard.
Like many of the armies that faced the French, the Prussian army was composed of men thrown into the service and held in check by the fear induced through the power of fierce discipline, symbolized by the frequent use of the lash. The French conscript army also used fierce discipline—but it was not based on coercion by terror. Most of the other recruits to the Prussian army were foreigners, as the home population was deemed more useful tilling the land, working and paying the taxes that would enable the princes to raise such armies. In 1742, Frederick the Great decided that as a general rule, two-thirds of infantry battalions should be composed of foreigners, the remaining third being Prussians. As a result, most battalions were filled with deserters from foreign armies, prisoners of war, criminals and vagabonds, recruited through cunning, violence and the lure of gold. Only savage discipline could hold this heterogeneous mass of soldiers together, without which they would promptly desert. Indeed, desertion was the main concern of military leaders: Frederick II began his General Principles on the Conduct of War, written between 1748 and 1756, with fourteen rules to avoid desertion; tactical and strategic considerations often had to be subordinated to the need to prevent it. As a result, troops were formed in tight lines, scouting patrols were rarely used, and chasing a defeated enemy army was extremely difficult. Marching, let alone attacking by night, or establishing camps close to forests had to be avoided. Soldiers were ordered to watch over their comrades for potential deserters, in times of peace as at war. Even civilians faced heavy penalties for failing to detain deserters and hand them in to the army.
Consider these troops in contrast to French conscripts: troops provided constantly by law, troops willing to fight, troops who could therefore be trusted in any kind of march or manoeuvre. The difference was immeasurable—it extended to the officer class too. As opposed to France’s new professionals, the Prussians were still largely led by men defined by class rather than capability. Some were foreigners but most were aristocrats drawn from the ranks of the Prussian Junkers. In his writings, Frederick II repeatedly stated that commoners should not receive a commission since their minds tend to be turned towards profit rather than honour. But even families of noble blood were often reluctant to send their sons to the army: although a military career could in time prove to be both glorious and profitable, the academic level of most military schools was hardly superior to primary education. As a result, the average Prussian officer was rarely well educated—a situation which impacted upon the level of Prussian command.
The inadequacies of the Prussian army had been exposed in the period 1792–95 when, as part of the first coalition, it encountered the then pre-Napoleonic French revolutionary army of mostly untrained volunteers and lost.