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

The battle of Königgrätz on 3 July was the needle-gun’s apogee.

Dreyse needle gun, model 1862.

The general staff started down the technocratic road by reconfiguring one of its principal departments to deal with mobilization, and creating a railroad section. Planning thenceforth depended on machines. Mobilization orders went out by telegraph, reducing notification time from five days to one. Formations were to remain intact: each train would carry a battalion, squadron, or battery from initial loading point to final destination. Loading and unloading boxcars became part of the army’s training schedule. As early as the summer of 1859, V Prussian Corps completed a practice mobilization in twenty-nine days – no small feat given its location in Posen, an eastern province that lacked a developed communications network. Prussian railroads passed their first major administrative test in 1864, against Denmark, when they successfully moved most of an expeditionary force to Schleswig-Holstein, supplied it there, and brought it home after victory.

The challenges of 1866 were more complicated. Prussia fought the Seven Weeks’ War in widely separated theaters, Bohemia and central Germany. Austria began its mobilization and concentration weeks before Prussia. French intervention was a significant possibility. But Prussia held the trump cards: five railroad lines leading to the main theater of war. Moltke and his subordinates used those lines to move the bulk of the army to Bohemia in less than a month and to supply three separate maneuver armies as they moved forward to concentrate on the battlefield at Königgrätz on 3 July.

Events in 1870 followed a similar pattern. As late as 1867 the army of the new North German Confederation required over a month to concentrate in the West for a projected war with France. By 1870 a constantly updated movement plan had cut that time to twenty days. When implemented at the outbreak of war it functioned so smoothly that Albrecht von Roon, the minister of war, jovially complained he had too little to do! Swift and well-organized strategic concentration gave Prussia’s forces a decisive initial edge over a French army that in its own way was at least as modern as its enemy.

The Prussian army’s adaptation to the railroad is an example of what has become known as the “Boyd cycle” – the ability to analyze, decide, and act faster than an opponent. Moltke succeeded twice in presenting Prussia’s adversaries with innovations to which they could not adapt in time to prevent Prussia from setting the rules of the conflict. The Austrians had expected to win their wars on the battlefield, and had correspondingly limited strategic research and development. They had spent on fortresses money not wasted on pensions and sinecures for a bloated officer corps and an inefficient military administration. France had more rolling stock and more double-tracked lines than the North German Confederation. Its trains were faster and its loading facilities larger. Extensive government involvement in railroad construction had ensured a much higher degree of concern for strategic considerations than in Prussia. What was absent was a concept for the effective use of these advantages.

The French had been committed since the 1820s to making war from a standing start, and prefigured the German and Japanese armed forces of the Second World War in regarding logistics and administration as the concern of bureaucrats rather than warriors. France and Austria were the defining military powers of mid-century Europe, and their inability to anticipate or counter Prussia’s unique approach to railroad warfare suggests the nature and magnitude of the Prussian RMA.

THE PRUSSIAN SYNTHESIS: MOLTKE AND ROON

By 1860 the technological components of an RMA were clearly present in the Prussian army. The railroad could move troops and supplies exponentially faster and in exponentially greater mass than any land transportation system in human history. The breech-loading rapid-firing, medium-ranged needle-gun had far more in common with the modern assault rifle than with the smoothbores it replaced or the Minies that were its contemporaries. But as yet these innovations remained within a traditional framework. Prussia’s revolution in military affairs moved to its second stage only when Moltke began developing new strategic and operational concepts and Roon began changing the army’s institutional structures in order to maximize the potential of the new hardware.

Two factors influenced Moltke’s perspective on strategic planning. He recognized Prussia’s need for short, decisive conflicts. That was hardly an original insight: it dated back at least to Frederick the Great. Carl von Clausewitz had argued as early as the 1820s that limited war was not a degenerate cousin of the Kantian ideal of “absolute war” illustrated in the wars of the Revolution and Empire. It was rather a valid form in its own right: violence that expressed rather than replaced diplomacy.

An approach to strategy focused on control and limitation was particularly congenial to a military system that since the first decade of the century had stressed the importance of education. After 1815 the Prussian War Academy had become the chief point of entry to high command. Between Waterloo and Königgrätz the war ministry and the general staff developed as organizations whose main purpose was the taming of Bellona: organizing the most efficient use of Prussia’s limited resources for the greatest number of contingencies without destabilizing the society that the army existed to serve.

Moltke was convinced that the swift decision Prussia required was most likely in a war’s early stages. It was best achieved by seizing the initiative and forcing opponents to react to Prussian moves. But the battlefield itself offered increasingly limited prospects for decision, particularly given the nature of the Prussian army. The flank attacks and encircling movements that Moltke perceived as the best counters to modern firepower were tactically demanding. Napoleon had repeatedly demonstrated the use of operational maneuver, but an army on the Prussian model was not likely to match the skills of Napoleon’s veterans – or even of their French and Austrian contemporaries. Maneuver must therefore begin before the war started: envelopment was a strategic problem.

Railroads were decisive in the execution of this concept. Prussia lay without natural frontiers in the midst of powerful and potentially hostile neighbors: time was all-important. Railroads could buy time. They could counterbalance geography. They made possible a new approach to concentration by deploying forces simultaneously to widely separated areas outside the projected theater of operations, then moving them forward into enemy territory. Moltke’s offensive approach owed as much to track layout as to strategic principle. Existing commercial lines were ill-suited to counter invasion: no enemy would be obliging enough to direct his advance against Prussia’s major railroad junctions.

Moltke’s planning blended neatly with the views of Otto von Bismarck, who became Prussia’s prime minister in 1862. Historians have frequently and legitimately described Bismarck as Europe’s last cabinet warrior. However willing to use the solvents of liberalism and nationalism, however extreme his rhetoric, Prussia’s minister-president recognized that wars end with negotiation. He insisted on keeping that option always open. Less familiar, and less generally accepted, is Moltke’s adherence to a similar principle. Moltke insisted that military considerations must determine the conduct of war, and clashed frequently and bitterly with Bismarck in 1866 and 1870–71. But he also held the firm belief that after victory, the soldier must yield to the statesman.

Institutionalizing Prussia’s RMA also involved matching soldiers to weapons and tactics. In 1858, before his appointment as war minister, Roon had presented a memorandum calling for a New Model Prussian Army that combined the traditional Prussian virtues: low cost and high fighting power. This apparent squaring of the circle involved converting most existing Landwehr formations into active army units and filling their ranks by increasing the numbers conscripted. The annual call-up would rise from 40,000 conscripts to somewhat over 60,000. This was still fewer than half the men theoretically available, but increasing the conscription rate from 26 to 40 percent would make the draft something less than the random process perceived by those subject to it. Roon set the term of service at three years in the active army beginning at age twenty, with four more as a reservist assigned to bring the line units to field strength upon mobilization. Only after completing those seven years would the troops, by then in their late twenties, pass into a Landwehr whose primary mission was to provide occupation and garrison units.

In 1859 the new soldier-king, Wilhelm I, gave Roon the chance to implement his recommendations. Supporters said that relieving the Landwehr of first-line operational missions it clearly could no longer perform did no more than place the burdens of war where they rightfully belonged: on those who were youngest, fittest, and least encumbered by civilian responsibilities. The army described the third year of active service as necessary to polish the marksmanship, fire discipline, and prompt response to changing conditions that were the essence of the modern soldier – particularly one carrying a breech-loading rifle and expected to fight in small formations and dispersed skirmish lines. Critics shrank from the cost, and also argued that the purpose of the third year of service was merely to indoctrinate the young with militarist and conservative principles. Advocates of the additional year agreed that two years were more than enough to inculcate the fundamentals of drill – Moltke himself said that task required less than two months. But for the army two years was a second-best solution, acceptable only as a final price for ending the struggle with parliament. Reduced training time would cost blood when the cannon next sounded, and Prussia’s soldiers were not mercenaries. They were the sons of the state, and their lives were precious.

Contemporaries and historians so universally dismissed that position as window-dressing for the underlying goal of inculcating “corpse-obedience” (Kadavergehorsam) in conscripts that it is worth emphasizing the relative absence of such an argument from the professional literature on Roon’s proposed reforms. Negative evidence is always questionable, but it is reasonable to speculate on whether the possible social implications of the longer term of active service represented a kind of afterthought, a secondary consideration intended to appeal to conservative circles by no means universally pleased with reforms that included among their consequences an officer corps that would have to expand beyond the limits of the aristocracy’s capacity to provide lieutenants – and to a king whose intransigence on the three-year issue had increased with time.

As for the officer corps, the reformers argued that amateurs could no longer command on the modern battlefield. Particularly at company level, where most Landwehr officers were concentrated, skill in minor tactics, an eye for terrain, and the ability to act on one’s own initiative were required complements to courage and enthusiasm. With the best will in the world, no one could acquire those qualities on weekends. They demanded full-time commitment and what later generations came to call professionalism.

The intense debate over the proposal triggered the lengthy constitutional crisis that brought Bismarck to power, and has tended to obscure the fact that the Prussian parliament scarcely challenged the reforms themselves. The Jacobin notion of a necessary link between citizenship and military service influenced the Liberals of varying stripes who dominated the Prussian lower house. They also shared in a German nationalism that had long singled out Prussia to play the decisive role in the unification of Germany, a mission for which it required a powerful army. The status of the Landtehr and the three-year term of active service, which dominated political debate and the newspapers, were mere stalking-horses. The ultimate issue was who was to be master: whether crown or parliament would control the force emerging from the reorganization that began in 1860 and continued even after parliament refused funding. The Liberals, confident that they would prevail, were correspondingly willing to give the soldiers room to knot the noose for their own eventual hanging.

Roon’s reforms neither triggered revolution in Prussia nor upset Europe’s balance of power. The army’s peacetime establishment increased by over 65,000 officers and men to a total of 211,000. Its war strength, however, grew more modestly, from 335,000 to 368,000 – hardly enough to trip alarms elsewhere on the continent. In fact the expansion initially seemed likely to make an unsatisfactory situation worse. In the maneuvers of 1861, for example, senior officers continued to employ mass formations in frontal attacks while conspicuously ignoring terrain features and maneuver tactics. Despite a “rocket” from no less a personage than the Crown Prince, the same officers were making the same mistakes two years later.

But at regimental level the army was beginning to learn how to use its rifles and respond to enemy firepower. The expeditionary force sent to Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 departed in a cloud of rhetoric about bayonet charges and hand-to-hand combat. In practice, Prussian officers from commanding general Prince Frederick Charles downward observed the employment of shock tactics by their Austrian allies and concluded that they were a recipe for disaster – or at least for unacceptable casualties. The Prussians preferred to give the Danes a chance to come to them. And time and again the needle-gun, even in the hands of confused or disorganized troops, turned Danish charges into target practice.

Tactical weaknesses remained. The combination of company columns and skirmish lines was difficult to control in the attack – so difficult that some officers continued to advocate battalion-sized close-order formations. The thrust of opinion within the army, however, accepted the argument that training and discipline could compensate for the dispersal that rifled weapons made necessary. The army had in fact little choice. Prussia’s Liberals had by no means given up the struggle for control of the state. Instead they were waiting for Bismarck, Roon and Moltke to create the kind of disaster that would force the government to abandon its authoritarian stand or risk destruction. Prussia’s military professionals had staked their position in Prussian society and their state’s international position on their ability to develop a conscript army able to win a modern war without bleeding Prussia white.

The year 1866 was both test and turning point for the Second Era of Reform. Against an Austrian army committed to massed bayonet charges in close order, senior officers such as Frederick Charles suggested that officers dismount and troops lie down, meet the Austrians with five or six well-aimed volleys, then counterattack anything still standing. From the first days of the decisive campaign in Bohemia these apparently simple suggestions paved the way to victory. At Podol on 26 June a single Prussian company fired 5,700 rounds, an average of twenty-two per man, in thirty-three minutes during an encounter battle that cost the Austrians 1,000 of the 3,000 men they sent into action. Prussian casualties amounted to 130. The next day at Nachod the Prussian V Corps engaged the Austrian VI Corps in another contest of “target against marksman.” For a loss of less than 1,200 V Corps inflicted over 5,600 casualties, including many who surrendered rather than risk trying to withdraw under the Prussian rifles. On 28 June another Austrian corps lost 5,500 men in futile attacks against inferior Prussian forces around the village of Skalitz. And when Prussian infantry attacked or counterattacked, the poorly trained Austrians consistently fired too high or too slowly to stop the skirmish lines and company columns that came forward like clouds of hornets.

Ludwig von Benedek, commanding the Austrian Northern Army, was so shocked by casualties as high as 50 percent in some regiments that he issued an order forbidding infantry attacks without artillery preparation. Prussian riflery repeatedly turned back the vaunted Austrian columns with ease. Prussian troops took hundreds of prisoners shocked into incoherence by the hail of bullets from the needle-gun. Tales of victory spread from regiment to regiment. Morale soared.

The battle of Königgrätz on 3 July was the needle-gun’s apogee. In the center a series of Austrian attacks into Prussian-occupied woods created a smoke-shrouded inferno with no flanks or rear, a contest of ramrods and bayonets against rifle bolts. Prussian units dissolved into groups of men commanded by anyone who set an example. But the conscripts, both active soldiers and reservists, trusted their officers and their rifles. From first to last, the Austrians committed forty-nine battalions to the fight in this sector. The needle-gun, in the hands of desperate men, destroyed or disorganized twenty-eight of them. Austrian officers managed to rally thirteen more, but the survivors were so badly shaken that they were virtually useless. A single Prussian division, twelve battalions strong, had done most of the damage.

The Austrians had focused their attention so firmly on their center that they failed to detect an even greater threat from the north until far too late. About 2:30 P.M. elements of the Prussian Second Army struck the Habsburg flank with an impetus little if at all inferior to that of Stonewall Jackson’s corps at Chancellorsville. But mass was less important than surprise; Prussian companies took advantage of standing grain, broken ground, and smoke-thickened mist to mow the Austrians down in windrows. Prussian rifle fire rendered Austrian artillery positions untenable within minutes. Prussian companies did not bother to form square before opening fire to smash Austrian cavalry charges. The Austrians once more mounted counterattack after desperate counterattack. But the Prussians held their ground and worked their rifle bolts until the surviving Austrians finally abandoned the field.

CULMINATION AND RESPONSE: 1870–71 AND BEYOND

In the immediate aftermath of Königgrätz, journalists and observers on both sides proclaimed the needle-gun as the key to Prussian victory. Ironically the Prussian army was quick to disagree – at least for public consumption. The victorious army of 1866 was at once a major symbol of Prussia’s military virtues and a major integrating element of the new North German Confederation. A good way to reconcile to Prussian methods and discipline the territories annexed to Prussia after the war and the states of the new North German Confederation was to stress the worth of their populations as soldiers. The government’s presentation of the victorious army of 1866 as the rightful heir to the “people’s uprising” of 1813–15 against Napoleon, recruited from citizens in uniform doing their patriotic duty, eased the Prussian parliament’s acceptance of Bismarck’s offer to end the constitutional crisis.

Prussia’s men rather than their weapons thus received the credit for victory. Military considerations also influenced a post-1866 shift in focus away from hardware. Moltke’s emphasis on concentrating in the face of the enemy – “march divided, fight united” – required an army consisting of units that were essentially equal in quality. It was impossible to be certain beforehand which troops would face the greatest strain or play the decisive role; even Napoleon had not always used his Guard to best advantage. Moreover, the army of the post-1866 North German Confederation possessed a first-line war strength of over 550,000, plus another 400,000 garrison troops, reservists and Landwehr. Instead of the nine corps of the Prussian army of 1866, it had thirteen plus an independent division. That expansion was far larger than the original increase of 1860, and demanded a corresponding emphasis on common doctrine and training methods at all levels from general staff to rifle company.

Above all, the window created by Prussia’s most obvious technical advantage was beginning to close. Dreyse’s rifle was twenty-five years old, its basic design a decade older. New developments on both sides of the Atlantic eclipsed it. French arsenals were beginning to produce the Chassepot, a paper-cartridge breech-loader more reliable and longer-ranged than its Prussian counterpart, and the American Civil War had given metallic cartridges an extended field test. Prussia had reaped the advantages of being first in the field. Now it suffered the inevitable consequence: obsolescence. The needle-gun’s decisive contribution to victory in 1866 was irrelevant to the future challenges facing the Prussian army; resting on past laurels had proved fatal in 1806. Prussia’s next opponent would obviously hardly be as willing as the Austrians to present mass formations as targets for the breech-loader or to pit bayonet charges against rapid fire.

The campaign of 1866 had also clearly demonstrated the problem of maintaining control of skirmish lines and company columns. Prussian officers were fully aware of the high levels of straggling and shirking that accompanied their looser formations; only Austrian weaknesses in skirmishing and marksmanship had prevented them from taking full advantage. What would be the result against an enemy that regarded the rifle as something more than an inferior pike and was skilled in open-order combat – as were the French?

Between 1866 and 1870 both drill regulations and maneuver practice assumed the use of close-order formations in the attack. At the same time regimental officers put greater emphasis than ever on fire discipline, on controlling skirmish lines, and on indoctrinating men to push forward independently should they lose contact with their units. Terrain exercises absorbed more and more training time at the expense of close-order drill. But proponents of columns and skirmishers, close formations and open order alike believed that morale, training, and discipline were more important than weapons. Prussian fighting spirit and Prussian tactical skill would carry the day even against breech-loaders. In Moltke’s words, “superiority is no longer to be sought in the weapon, but in the hand that wields it.”

These tendencies reflected a fact indicated by the strength figures given earlier and often overlooked in accounts stressing Prussia’s mid-century development of a mass army. Roon and Moltke were primarily concerned with quality, not numbers. Superior strength fell into the “nice to have” category. But in contrast to their successors in 1914, they had no intention of creating large numbers of second-line formations for field use. The North German Confederation expected to wage and win its wars with its active units.

The events of 1870–71 justified that assumption. The French army took the field with a tactical doctrine that almost exactly replicated Prussia’s in 1866: meeting attacks with massed rapid fire, then counterattacking. Time and again in the war’s early weeks Prussian commanders obliged, sending their men forward in head-down frontal assaults. At Wörth a single charge cost more men than the entire army had lost at Königgrätz. At St. Privat the Prussian Guard suffered 30 percent casualties in an advance in columns up an open hillside – the longest mile in the Guard’s history. But Prussian officers learned swiftly. Mass and élan gave way to flexible formations supported with concentrated artillery fire. Prussian casualties dropped significantly. Soon one French field army had surrendered, another was hopelessly besieged, and Napoleon Ill’s empire yielded to revolution – a dire portent for the loser of any future war, and the culmination of an RMA that had began over a third of a century earlier with an experimental musket cartridge.

The Prussian revolution in military affairs proved short-lived. By the mid-1870s “railroads and rifles” were the heart of every major continental army. Prussia’s rivals likewise imitated – without quite replicating – the general staff system. Universal short-term conscription became the dominant form of military service. That process was not mere imitation. It reflected the existence of a common European Mentalität, a common mindset generating similar approaches to common problems: in this case the challenge of maximizing military effectiveness under the new rules that Prussia had established. In the decades that stretched toward 1914, Europe’s armies became increasingly symmetrical – recruited alike, trained alike, commanded alike. Innovations, whether in armament, doctrine, or organization, were incremental rather than fundamental. That pattern persisted through the First World War and into the 1930s. Not until May 1940 did asymmetrical forces again contend for the mastery of Europe. But for a brief period in the 1860s, Prussia changed the face of European war and the balance of power of a continent.

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