The Prusso-German Revolution in Military Affairs, 1840–1871 Part I

The term “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) became decidedly fashionable in the course of the 1990s. It lies at the heart of debates within the Pentagon over future strategy and has gained increasing prominence in Washington’s byzantine budgetary and procurement struggles. Yet few works throw light on the concept’s past, help situate it or the phenomena it claims to describe within a sophisticated historical framework, or offer much guidance in understanding the potential magnitude and direction of future changes in warfare.

From colonial times Americans have sought force multipliers against an unforgiving physical environment. The man who masters the machine, Hank Morgan rather than John Henry, is a dominant archetype. The Western hero combines moral force and technical proficiency: righteousness sustained by a six-gun in expert hands. The heady visions of supremacy through technology found throughout U.S. policy and military–professional literature through the 1990s and beyond derive both their substance and their persuasiveness from this underlying cultural predisposition.

American analysts have in consequence defined revolutions in military affairs as technological-organizational asymmetries between combatants, usually embracing three distinct but interrelated areas. The first and most obvious is straight-line improvement in the capacity to destroy targets. Second is an “information edge” generated through exponential and synergistic increases in the ability to collect, process, and distribute information. The third decisive aspect of the American-style RMA is the provision of doctrines, skills, and force structures necessary to optimize the potential of new materiel. The fate of French armor in 1940 and of the Arab air forces in 1967 demonstrates the uselessness of hardware without appropriate concepts for its use and competent personnel effectively organized to implement those concepts.

The Prussian army from the 1840s onward provides an almost classic model of technological innovation that acted as catalyst for radical changes in tactics, operations, military organization, and state policy. Those changes in turn allowed Prussia between 1866 and 1871 to alter the very structure of the European state system. The “Prussian RMA” thus fits neatly – at first glance – into the American conceptual framework. But it also entails a stern warning: within twenty-five years all other European great powers except Britain had adopted its chief technological and organizational features and had nullified any asymmetric German advantage. Above all, the other powers also had a strategic answer to the “semi-hegemonial” great power that German violence had created in their midst: defensive alliances to blunt the offensive power of the swift “German sword.” The collision in 1914 between the conceptual, technological, and organizational traditions founded in the Prussian RMA and the resistance of Germany’s belatedly but similarly equipped neighbors produced a cataclysm: a four-and-a-half-year Weltkrieg – on the pattern of the U.S. Civil War – that ended in German defeat.


Revolutions in military affairs are most likely to occur in peacetime through the efforts of armed forces that perceive themselves as laggards under the existing rules of the game. It was not accidental that in the early 1980s the Soviets began addressing their future prospects in an arms race driven by technologies they could not match without denying the essence of their regime.4 Prussia in the decades after 1815 faced a similar riddle. But it involved personnel rather than materiel.

The staggering successes of the French revolutionary armies make the decision by Europe’s generals and politicians after 1815 to “reprofessionalize” their armed forces appear anomalous. The common explanation for Britain’s continuing pattern of long-service enlistment and the use by France, Russia, and Austria of troops conscripted for periods from five to twenty-five years is political. Rulers ostensibly prized soldiers so recruited for their dynastic and regimental loyalties, their relative lack of susceptibility to radical ideas, and their willingness to shoot down adherents of those ideas when duly ordered.

That interpretation is only partially valid. The French military system that had called the tune for Europe from 1793 to 1815 had depended heavily on mass. It had also shown a disconcerting tendency to outgrow its nervous system. Even under the emperor’s hand, the conscript masses of Borodino or Leipzig had proved significantly less effective than the relatively lean striking forces of Lodi, Marengo, and Austerlitz. In the post-Waterloo era, a wide range of military figures who included some of Napoleon’s own marshals advocated a return to smaller forces susceptible to precise control: quality rather than quantity. The increasingly demanding tasks of nineteenth-century warfare on a battlefield ever more swept by fire demanded men who had served long enough to become thoroughly proficient.

That was the pattern established in the armies of the great powers and defended by most contemporary military theorists. It was in that context that Prussia after 1815 found itself in the position of a short-money player in a table-stakes game. Even before Napoleon crushed the Frederician army at Jena and Auerstädt, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had argued for fundamental changes in the relationship between army and society, an “alliance between government and people” that would allow Prussia to remain a great power. The reformers’ initial aim of creating citizen-soldiers swiftly evolved into the notion that military service was the essence of citizenship itself. The years in uniform, whether in war or peace, became the defining element of a man’s public identity.

The resulting mass army depended heavily on popular enthusiasm; it passed the test of war in 1813–15. But the possessor of such a force risked inheriting Napoleonic France’s position as an objective threat to European order. That position Prussia had neither the will nor the capacity to sustain. After 1815 Prussia was concerned instead with maintaining and aggrandizing itself within the stable continental and regional environment created by the Congress of Vienna and the German Confederation. Its national strategy in these years depended on what would now be called crisis management: modest initiatives employing a mixture of negotiation and compromise, underwritten by the credible threat of controlled force for limited objectives.

Prussia’s economy in any case could not support the kind of army that post-Napoleonic France developed: a force ready for war from a standing start, emphasizing quality, yet large enough to give its possessor great-power status. The Prussian army depended on men recalled from civilian life. It had divided the kingdom into military districts, each responsible for mobilizing a wartime army corps. In its final Biedermeyer form each corps consisted of two divisions, each division of two brigades, and each brigade of two regiments. But only one of the regiments was an active army formation, and its peacetime strength even on paper was little over half its wartime establishment. The Landwehr, a citizen militia improvised in 1813 and placed on an equal footing with line units by the army’s fundamental law, the Wehrgesetz of 1814, provided the remaining regiment.

That structure, similar to if more drastic than the U.S. Army’s post-Vietnam “roundout” system, made it virtually impossible for Prussia to wage anything save general war. Even active regiments required large infusions of reservists in order to take the field. Far more significant for operational purposes, Prussia’s military organization assumed, indeed required, the equal efficiency of the active and Landwehr formations: their missions were identical. But the natural increase in the population after 1815 combined with cuts in the military budget made impossible the financing of a full term of active service for every able-bodied man except at the expense of basic requirements such as barracks, uniforms, and weapons, and the reconstructed network of fortresses deemed vital to Prussia’s security. The army therefore ended up with a system analogous to the Selective Service machinery employed in the United States from Korea through Vietnam. The principle of universal military obligation enshrined in the Wehrgesetz remained a principle; in practice the army frequently reduced its three-year term of service, assigned more and more untrained conscripts to the Landwehr, and left an ever-larger segment of the male population untapped.

The resulting “Landwehr recruits” were often worse than useless. Post-1815 experience showed that the army’s drillmasters could teach a mass of several hundred men the rudiments of company drill in a few weeks if they worked the recruits to exhaustion. The recruits might also receive some sense of group identity and of the meaning of military order. But they were destined to remain ignorant of skirmishing, fieldcraft, marksmanship, and the other essential skills that modern war and the Prussian drill regulations demanded.

The Landwehr’s creators had expected that popular enthusiasm would ensure participation in its drills and exercises. But in the long peace after Waterloo the Landwehr lost its novelty. Socially or martially ambitious young men no longer sought its commissions. No public eager to watch the show and buy drinks afterward for its brave defenders attended its drills. The civic zeal the reformers had postulated as the basis of the Prussian military system proved difficult to sustain within a political system that even in 1813–15 had never abandoned its deep suspicion of public enthusiasm.

By the 1840s Prussia thus had the worst of both worlds. The state’s international position called for a front-loaded army able to deter potential rivals and to undertake swift and decisive operations for clearly defined objectives, yet the institutional legacy of the reform movement was a ponderous blunt instrument ill-suited to policy wars of any sort. Moreover, the reliability and efficiency of that instrument were open to serious doubt.

The revolutions of 1848 and subsequent lesser crises evidenced sullen compliance rather than patriotic eagerness among the reservists and Landwehr men summoned to active duty. Discontent tended to be personal rather than principled. Family men in their thirties, forced to abandon farm, shop, or profession for a long-discarded uniform, were likely to feel anything but happy when cheered on their way to glory by bachelors ten years younger who had been omitted from the call-up list. Prussia’s semi-willing warriors hardly seemed the raw material of glorious victory in future conflicts.

One possible solution involved using technology as a force multiplier. The impact of industrialization frequently appalled Prussia’s officer corps, which long remained suspicious of the social, political, and environmental consequences of the factory system and uncertain of the appropriate degree of state involvement in the process of economic development. The vitalist heritage of the French Revolution and of the military reform movement – the emphasis on enthusiasm and willpower as the key to victory – also limited the army’s eagerness to exploit new technologies.

The artillery, a logical focus for innovation, improved by stages. The cast-steel breech-loading rifles that Alfred Krupp developed and the army adopted in 1859 represented an incremental rather than an exponential improvement. Early cast steel was not self-evidently superior to the traditional bronze. Nor, in an era of fixed gun carriages, did breech-loading offer a significant increase in artillery firepower. By the time a cannon was hauled back into firing position after recoil, a reasonably efficient gun crew could have it reloaded from either end. And like all continental armies in the 1850s, the Prussians were uncertain whether the definitive field gun of the future would be a long-ranged rifle or a large-caliber smoothbore best able to fire shell, shrapnel, and canister at short and medium ranges: the Napoleon of Civil War fame. Until after 1866 Prussian field batteries were armed with both types of gun in a fifty-fifty ratio.

The Prussian RMA instead began with the rearmament of the infantry.15 So many stories surround the breech-loading needle-gun that it has been long forgotten that the rifle was designed around its cartridge. The percussion caps that replaced flints in the first quarter of the nineteenth century had a nasty habit of spraying fulminate and metal fragments into the shooter’s face when struck by the musket hammer. A German gunsmith, Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, proposed instead to insert the explosive into the base of the bullet itself and detonate it with a firing pin long enough to drive through cartridge paper and gunpowder.

Dreyse originally used this early approximation of a safety cartridge in a muzzle-loading smoothbore that the Prussian army adopted in small numbers in 1833. These first needle-guns were dangerous to load: premature discharges were inevitable when ramming a paper cartridge onto a firing pin. Powder gases rapidly corroded the firing pin, and replacing a broken pin was difficult. The obvious answer was to develop a breech-loading mechanism. Sporting weapons had been employing such systems for years, but existing designs were too fragile or complex for military use.

What kept Dreyse going was connections. Regimental officers were interested in the potential of his design, and – above all – the Crown Prince, the future King Frederick William IV, and his brother Prince William directly supported Dreyse’s efforts. Without that personal element and the institutional momentum that the adoption of a few hundred of Dreyse’s original muzzle-loaders had created, the needle-gun might well have been no more than a footnote to military history like its American contemporary, the Hall rifle. Instead, Dreyse was able by 1836 to offer a working model of a breech-loader for consideration – a breech-loader with a rifled barrel.

For four years the army tested the rifle for accuracy, reliability, and durability under all possible conditions. One of the needle-gun’s advocates declared that with 60,000 men armed with this weapon, the king of Prussia would be able to determine his frontiers unilaterally. The official testing commission praised the rifle as a gift of providence and recommended that it be kept secret until “a great historical moment.” The 60,000 needleguns ordered on 4 December 1840 were stored in arsenals until enough were available for the whole army or until a major emergency – whichever came first.

Dreyse’s breech-loader combined a rate of fire higher than that of a smoothbore musket with the accuracy of a rifle. Its user could reload and fire lying down – no small advantage for skirmishers. Breech-loading also eliminated the danger of ramming charges on top of one another in case of a misfire, and soldiers no longer had to have a certain number of teeth in a certain position to bite the cartridges. Yet doubts persisted. In the Prussian army, rifles had been long-range, precision weapons used by an elite corps of specialists: the Jäger. Over decades they had developed their own version of what has been called a “gravel-belly” mentality. The Jäger wanted a rifle that could hit small targets at a thousand paces and more. Yet the front-to-back combustion of the needle-gun’s cartridge confined its effective range to seven hundred paces at best. It also produced an irregular trajectory that lowered the range scores of even the best marksmen. For the rest of the Prussian infantry, the extraordinary demands it placed on fire discipline were the primary stumbling-block to the needle-gun’s acceptance. Fear of introducing a weapon because it uses too much ammunition is an easy target for ridicule. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, many combat-arms officers have come to regard logistics as a religious experience: prayer into the radio causes supplies to appear from heaven! But under mid-nineteenth-century conditions it was difficult if not impossible to refill even cartridge boxes in battle. The needle-gun’s ease of operation seemed to invite an automatic reflex of loading and pulling the trigger that could end in terrified flight when an empty cartridge box recalled the shooter to reality.

The revolutions of 1848 forced the army to move from theory to practice: the storming of the Berlin Arsenal on 15 June put a number of Prussia’s carefully guarded secret weapons into rebel hands. The army then issued them to units assigned to counterinsurgency operations, and the needle-gun repeatedly proved its worth both in street fighting and the open field. Its virtues were moral as well as material: even inexperienced troops armed with the new rifle were firmly convinced of its superiority, and by extension of their own. In 1851 the government ordered that Dreyse’s breech-loaders be used to fill all future requirements for infantry small arms.

The limited operations of 1848–49 highlighted the importance of training. Men carrying needle-guns did in fact tend to open fire at excessive ranges and fire off their ammunition almost randomly. The new rifle’s firepower also highlighted a problem already of deep concern to the Prussian army: the conduct of the tactical offensive in the face of modern weapons such as the shell-firing cannon and the Minié rifles sighted to a thousand yards that Europe’s armies began introducing in the 1850s.

The resulting exponential expansion of killing zones and killing power, demonstrated in the Crimea in 1854 and northern Italy in 1859, jolted the Prussian army in a way essentially different from its counterparts. All available evidence indicated that Prussia’s active regiments, to say nothing of the Landwehr, were probably incapable of sophisticated tactical movements, especially in the early stages of a war. Skirmishing against modern rifles might well prove wholly beyond the skills of reservists and especially of Landwehr troops. Avoiding long firefights and coming to close quarters with the enemy as rapidly as possible seemed the wave of the future or at least the most promising option.

Yet the popular lack of enthusiasm for military service mentioned earlier was an unspoken argument against the practical prospects of headlong attacks. Prussians committed to such an operation were likely to be neither well-trained nor well-disciplined. They might indeed charge like hell out of temporary exaltation. But no one could predict the direction and duration of their movement or assume that many of them would live long enough to run away. Nor could the Prussian army base its doctrine and training on defensive tactics. In principle it was clearly preferable to maneuver the enemy into attacking. But in practice, Prussia’s infantry would in the end have to advance against modern firepower. The question was not whether it could advance, but how to do so without crippling losses, and how to convince the troops to attack for a second or third time.

The Prussian army tested skirmish lines organized into small squads under the direct control of a noncommissioned officer. The 250-man company column increasingly replaced the massed battalion during field exercises. The army expected companies to make up in flexibility and firepower what they lacked in mass. But all these innovations highlighted a structural problem. The army’s trainers faced persistent difficulties in implementing the new methods. Fire discipline, unit cohesion, and battlefield control remained deficient. Through the 1850s critics – by no means all of them anonymous reactionaries – wondered whether breech-loading rifles might not be leading Prussia down a blind alley to military disaster. The Prussian army’s annual exercises, never a showpiece, became an embarrassing joke. A French observer declared one performance so bad as to compromise the whole profession of arms.

Clearly the needle-gun by itself could not serve as the fulcrum of military revolution. A possible alternative involved developing innovations that offered strategic and operational opportunities rather than tactical ones. Railroads had made their first appearance in Prussia in the early 1830s. Their promoters, men like Friedrich Harkort and Ludolf Camphausen, had argued for the military potential of steam transportation. The army’s initial reaction was more positive than often recognized. But planners and commentators nevertheless feared that railroads might facilitate enemy invasion, and warned against neglecting the construction of a paved highway network in favor of a new and untried innovation. The limited carrying capacity of early railroads also sharply restricted their ability to move troops and materiel except in token amounts. As late as 1836, a pamphlet accurately demonstrated that a full-strength Prussian corps on foot could cover in sixteen days a distance that would require twenty by rail. Nor were railroads without potentially serious consequences for state policy. Hermann von Boyen, the reform era hero reappointed as war minister in 1841, believed firmly that the widespread use of railroads might make mobilization plans dangerously rigid and mechanical. The army could find itself wrongly concentrated and the state forced into war through railroad time-tables.

Despite growing military pressure for nationalizing or subsidizing the railroads, or at least for requiring private companies to conform to military requirements in particular cases, commercial factors largely determined Prussia’s routes and track systems. Even the Ostbahn, built after 1848 at government expense to cover the six hundred kilometers from Berlin to the Russian border, served economic and political rather than strategic purposes. Nevertheless the growth of track mileage and the steady improvement of rails and rolling stock on the private lines significantly enhanced the military potential of the railroad. During the revolution of 1848 the railroads allowed the army to deploy swiftly mobile reaction forces of a few battalions to actual or potential trouble spots. In the spring of 1850 Moltke, then chief of staff of the Rhineland-based VIII Corps, used local railroads in field exercises. In May 1850, when steadily worsening relations with Austria led Prussia to order mobilization, the army recalled almost half a million men to the colors in the expectation that the railroads would move them to the frontier.

Prussia had intended a classic exercise in deterrence: a show of force that would convince Austria to modify its position rather than escalate. The result wavered between tragedy and farce. No significant plans for using the railroads existed. Loading and scheduling was haphazard, and frequently separated equipment and the units to which it belonged. Men, animals, and supplies piled up at loading centers and shuttled randomly from station to station. Food, water, and sanitary facilities were all lacking. Prussian chaos contrasted sharply with Austria’s relatively troublefree movement of 25,000 men into Bohemia by rail within less than four weeks – an achievement long-forgotten but legitimately described as “the birth hour of modern military transportation.” In the aftermath of the 1850 fiasco the Prussian general staff began to develop systems for the large-scale transport of men and supplies by rail. But the thrust of expert opinion still perceived the railroad as a defensive tool through which to reinforce threatened sectors and maintain communications between the fortresses deemed vital to Prussia’s security. Railroads only became part of an RMA in 1857, when Helmuth von Moltke became chief of staff.

Along with an increasing number of his contemporaries, Moltke had drawn three conclusions about railroads. Their effective use for military purposes required detailed planning of a scope, and on a scale, unprecedented in Prussian history. The temptation to bring the largest forces to the largest railroad junctions posed logistical risks as well. The horse transport connecting railroad-fed supply dumps with the cartridge boxes, haversacks, and nosebags of units at the front limited the force that could be supplied by a single major road to 30,000 or so men. Nor did an army a hundred thousand strong really march: it inched across country, using every possible dirt track and cowpath to move the food and forage on which it depended. Finally – a point frequently overlooked by contemporary RMA enthusiasts – machinery made its own laws. Appeals to patriotism and threats of punishment alike were futile in the face of broken axles or hotboxes, and tracks leading to operationally undesirable destinations.

These factors in combination made calculation and preparation the keys to the successful use of railroads in war. The Prussian army of the late 1850s was hardly capable of managing its mobilization and concentration through a Teutonic counterpart to France’s national tradition of genial improvisation, the “système D”; Prussia needed every initial advantage that its best brains could secure. The general staff had existed in embryo even before the war of 1806. But no one had a clear idea of its functions or its authority. After Waterloo the army formalized its structure, but its spheres of influence and control remained limited. Mapmaking, war-gaming, and historical research were the everyday stuff of general staff routine; the institution only developed into its modern form in response to railroad technology.


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