Franco-Prussian War 1870: High Command

Helmuth von Moltke

Planning and organization were other Prussian strengths not conspicuous in the French army. General Helmuth von Moltke’s great general staff in Berlin was a European phenomenon. Comprised of sixty rigorously prepared officers, the best and the brightest of the Prussian Kriegsakademie, the Prussian general staff was famed for the precision and accuracy of its intelligence and war-planning. Moltke also greatly improved the fighting effectiveness of the Prussian army in the years after his appointment as staff chief in 1857. To facilitate mobilization, he discarded the army’s extraterritorial organization, which had scattered Prussia’s 330 infantry battalions across the kingdom as a police force, and put it on a territorial footing instead, with each battalion permanently garrisoned in one of ten corps districts, seventeen after 1866. To facilitate deployments, he diverted military spending from fortresses to railways and steadily brought even private railway companies under military control. In practice, this meant that state and private railways were constructed in militarily useful regions and provided with rolling stock, platforms, and sidings suitable for large troop movements. Moltke was among the first European generals to entrust his entire correspondence to the electric telegraph, cutting notification times and, in two instances, the Danish War of 1864 and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, synchronizing the opening moves from his office in Berlin. In an age when most field commanders felt chained by the telegraph (“there is nothing worse than campaigning with a wire in your back,” an Austrian general had famously complained in 1859), Moltke at once recognized the potential of the telegraph to coordinate vast “encirclement battles” or Kesselschlachten by multiple pincers.

All of these theoretical and technical innovations combined in Prussian war-planning. Whereas the Austrians had struggled to devise a plan of campaign for their war with the Prussians in 1866, Moltke had promptly implemented one drawn up well before the war, rushing his army along three rail lines to envelop the slow-mobilizing Austrians at Koniggratz. In a post-war analysis of the Prussian victory, Austrian Field Marshal Heinrich Hess asserted that Moltke had revolutionized warfare: “Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time . . . and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.” To ready Prussia for a war with France, Moltke dispatched teams of Prussian general staff officers to France in the years after 1860; travelling in mufti, they studied France’s eastern forts, mapped Alsace and Lorraine, calculated the food stocks of every town and district in northeastern France, and made useful contacts. Major Alfred von Waldersee, Moltke’s attache in Paris, cultivated the pretty mistress of Napoleon III’s principal aide-de-camp, who provided the Prussian general staff with much useful information on the French army. Using this material in addition to studies of his own, Moltke was able to prepare a stunningly effective plan of attack against France, finding Napoleon III’s weak spots and pivoting around his strongholds. By 1869, the Prussian war plan was complete: The Prussians would rush along five rail lines in three groups to “seek the enemy main force, find it and attack it.”

The French, alas, had nothing to compare with Prussia’s military organization or general staff. Although Niel’s Military Law of 1868 had ordained a shift to a Prussian-style territorial system to tighten the regular army and give the gardes mobiles some structure to adhere to, the transformation was only beginning in 1870. This left France with an inefficient extraterritorial system in which staffs and regiments were shunted around the country every two or three years. The war ministry deliberately practiced this nonendivisionnement or “non-divisioning” of the army to make it a “school of the nation” that would imbue provincial lads with a sense of patriotism by rotating them around their splendid country, from the Alps to the Atlantic, from the Loire to the Pyrenees, or, in the by no means atypical case of the 92nd Infantry Regiment in 1870, from Poitiers to Sidi-bel-Abbes. This extraterritorial system, whatever its social merits, made wartime mobilizations exceedingly complex. Troops had to be returned to their depots to assemble and equip and corps d’armee ‘ – the skeleton of any modern army – had to be lumped together from staffs and divisions that were presumptive at best. Whereas Prussian corps existed as permanent territorial units that had only to be reinforced with local reservists in wartime, every French attempt to create a formation as large as a corps was an adventure, hence the celebrated complaint of a French brigadier in August 1870: “Suis arrive a Belfort; pas trouve ma brigade; pas trouve general de division; que dois-je faire? Sais pas ou sont mes regiments .” (“I have arrived at Belfort; can’t find my brigade; can’t find my divisional commander; what should I do? I don’t even know where my regiments are.”)

Railways were another organizational tool neglected by the French general staff. Whereas Moltke’s staff had a railroad section that synchronized troop movements and maintained the German railways in wartime, the French entered the war of 1870 with a skein of public and private rail companies, all of which burdened the others with mountains of paperwork every time a load of men or material was transferred from one line to another. Marshal Niel did assemble a commission in July 1869 to militarize the French railroads and rush the critical line from Verdun to Metz to completion, but died a month later. His successor, General Edmond Leboeuf, dissolved the commission and left the Verdun-Metz line unfinished under pressure from the Ministry of Public Works. Niel’s efforts to infuse the French army with Moltke’s studiousness also failed. In Prussia, every garrison contained a military society that met to hear lectures and discuss military innovations; in 1868-69 Niel organized conferences regimentaires ‘ to perform the same function; the seminars fizzled, most French officers sharing Marshal Bazaine’s view that “solid footing and a good eye” (bon pied, bon oeil ) were the only important attributes for an officer.

It was significant that what half-hearted initiatives there were in France did not emanate from the general staff, which, in contrast to Moltke’s Generalstab, was a seniority-ridden backwater. Although entrance to the French ecole d’application or staff college was as brutally competitive as any graduate school in France, officers could rest on their oars once placed in the general staff’s immutable pecking order. Top graduates took the best jobs in Paris and slouched through them for life, delegating most of their functions to civilian bureaucrats in the war ministry; less fortunate officers whiled away the years in provincial garrisons or overseas, laughingly dismissed as “casanieres” (“convalescents”) by their more vigorous regimental colleagues, who rotated past them every two or three years. With the brilliant example of Prussia before him, Niel tried mightily to correct the problem, insisting that staff promotions be “at the choice of the emperor” (au choix) rather than by seniority. Though he did finally secure the right to promote au choix, he was foiled by the emperor’s unerring ability to promote the wrong sort of people and the dogged resistance of the French regiments, which deplored what one officer called Niel’s “expansionist tendencies” and frequently refused to accept graduates of the staff college on the grounds that they were “outsiders” unversed in regimental traditions.

Amid this sniping and confusion, French planning, mapping, and wargaming were utterly neglected. Indeed when France went to war with Austria in 1859 to “free Italy from the Alps to the Adriatic, the etat-major found itself with no maps of any part of that vast theater. When General Louis Jarras was assigned to the general staff in 1867 at the height of the Luxembourg crisis, he discovered that the staff’s only maps of Germany were on an all but useless 1:320,000 scale, four times the scale of Prussian maps of France. Jarras’s crude fix – he cut the maps into sections, photographed them, and blew them up to yield a larger scale – was stopped by Niel himself, who decided that it would be cheaper simply to provide French officers with an allowance to purchase road maps in bookshops. When Marshal Achille Bazaine took command of the French III Corps at Nancy, hard by the German border, in 1868, he asked to see maps of his new district and was told that none existed. His requests to Paris for maps were never answered.

In 1869, the French army’s own newspaper criticized this lack of even basic competency and the tendency toward “paper-pushing” and “bureaucratic servility” in the French general staff. Much of the problem stemmed from a lack of strong leadership. Moltke’s powerful position did not even exist in the French army, rather the general staff was a subordinate unit of the war ministry. Niel was an intelligent, reform-minded minister, but overwhelmed by his administrative responsibilities. In 1869, Napoleon III did briefly consider converting Niel into a Prussian-style general staff chief, but then Niel died on the operating table after a bungled gallstone surgery. By 1870, France still had no general staff chief, rather the emperor – the nominal commander-in-chief – communicated with the army through his chief adjutant, General Barthelemy Lebrun (whose mistress provided the Prussian embassy with much useful military intelligence), and his war minister, first Marshal Niel, then General Edmond Leboeuf. At least as worrisome as the lack of a general staff chief was the lack of war plans. At the climax of the French-instigated July crisis in 1870, the chief of the depot de guerre in Paris asked the new French war minister – General Leboeuf – which topographical maps would be needed for the coming campaign. To this, Leboeuf replied, “As the emperor still has no plan of campaign, choose whichever regions you judge suitable.” In the event, no war plan was ever devised, vastly compounding the confusion of the French mobilization.

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