Prussian Reforms 1806-15


GERHARD von SCHARNHORST (1755-1813) Chief of the Prussian General Staff.


Napoleon’s defeats were important, especially for an understanding of the use of force, but his victories over fifteen years were of much greater significance and were astounding by any measure. Moreover, even when finally defeated, Napoleon’s military vision endured: his enemies ultimately all reformed their armies, and whether knowingly or unknowingly did so within the parameters he had established. And this was necessary, since the armies facing the French had problems with both their officers and the ranks. The Prussians are an excellent example of this, and an important one, since their reforms within the Napoleonic model both refined it and created another innovation: their general staff.

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 Napoleon’s 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 Napoleon’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 already 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. These initial losses led to the creation of a war college, the Kriegsakademie, for the study of military theory and practice, headed by one of the most significant reformers of the Prussian army, General Gerd von Scharnhorst. As an experienced soldier, he was already fascinated by these mostly untrained, lowly conscript soldiers and unknown officers, often too of lowly origin, that fought so well and defeated the professional armies of Europe. He and other Prussian military reformers understood the operational flexibility resulting from the idea of the corps d’armée relatively quickly, but then came to realize this was not enough: there was a bigger issue at stake than military organization. It was Scharnhorst who sensed that in some unclear way it had to do with the new revolutionary state—that it was a political issue—which needed far more insight and comprehension than most officers possessed. To begin to broach this complicated matter Scharnhorst introduced liberal studies to the syllabus of the Kriegsakademie, which was an important step in itself, but one that did little to truly reform the army. This was not surprising, given the immensity of the task: the Prussian army was too big and too heavy, its columns like those of Austria and Russia marching only a few miles a day, their existence tied to thousands of cumbersome supply wagons. The army’s tactics too were outdated: recruits were drilled in rigid and slow automated rhythms, in anticipation of a battlefield in which soldiers would deploy in stiff, inflexible lines before firing volleys against volleys fired from an enemy’s equally stiff, inflexible lines. It was this army—facing Napoleon’s more flexible tactics, mass, rapid movement with willing soldiers of high morale, and a focused strategy of decisive victory—that was vanquished at the battle of Jena in 1806. An impressive display of Napoleonic strategy, the battle is not well known—as is Waterloo, for example—which is ironic since it was the defining experience for a generation of Prussian officers, and especially, as we will see, for one Carl von Clausewitz.

Alarmed by the devastating French victories over Austria and Russia in 1805, Prussia mobilized for war in 1806, somewhat overconfident in its capabilities: both the nation and the army were ill prepared psychologically. Napoleon responded quickly, and his Grande Armée—in this case some 200,000 strong, organized in a number of corps and deployed en carré on a converging axis—began moving in early October. His aim was a decisive victory over King Frederick William of Prussia. From the start the campaign did not go well for the Prussian forces. Marshal Murat and Marshal Bernadotte’s corps soon crossed the river Saale and forced General Tauenzien’s division to fall back on General Prince Hohenlohe’s army. Meanwhile, Marshal Lannes achieved a small but stunning victory at Saalfeld, defeating Prince Louis Ferdinand’s corps, killing its commander and taking 10,000 prisoners. With Prussian morale already plummeting, on 10 October the army under Napoleon’s command found Hohenlohe’s rear guard occupying the Landgrafenberg plateau above the town of Jena. Napoleon decided to deploy Marshal Lannes’ corps and the Imperial Guard on this plateau to hold down the enemy’s centre. Marshal Augereau was sent on the right and Marshal Ney on the left to outflank the Prussians on both sides. Meanwhile, Marshal Davout’s corps were sent marching north towards Apolda to complete the encirclement. Napoleon spent part of the night personally supervising the building of a mountain road, to bring troops and artillery pieces up to the plateau. At dawn, the French army was deployed to form a front a mile and a half long. As the dense fog cleared in mid-morning, Hohenlohe, who had believed he was fighting a flank guard, realized his mistake. From cover, the French soon started pounding his forces, which were concentrated on open ground, as he awaited reinforcements. In the early afternoon, Napoleon ordered the advance, committing his 40,000-strong reserve. Facing a gigantic advancing mass of 90,000 infantry and cavalry supported by artillery, Hohenlohe’s troops fled. Before 4 p.m., the battle was over. Half of the French soldiers had not even fired a shot.

Napoleon was convinced he had achieved the decisive victory over the Prussians. In fact, Frederick William had departed the day before with 70,000 troops, heading towards the Magdeburg fortress. The real clash came when this army encountered Marshal Davout’s isolated corps close to Auerstadt. Twenty-six thousand men strong, it only included some 1,500 cavalrymen and forty-four pieces of artillery. The first encounter with Prussian forces came when 600 of Blücher’s cavalry—the same Blücher of subsequent Waterloo fame—galloped out of the fog. The Prussians then launched four successive cavalry charges, each 2,500 men strong. The French troops, who had formed in battalion squares, withstood the assaults. Division after division of Prussian troops were thus checked, and Davout was forced to commit his only reserve: a single regiment. Napoleon had judged the strength and organization of Davout’s corps correctly. At noon, Frederick William decided to fall back in order to join up with Hohenlohe’s army and resume fighting the next day. To his dismay, instead of an army, he was faced with a mass of fugitives fleeing the battlefield of Jena, which he had no option but to join. He left behind 3,000 prisoners, including Clausewitz, and 10,000 dead. Davout had held at bay a force three times the size of his own—for which Napoleon congratulated him but, imperial legend oblige, he ordered that henceforth the two battles would be remembered only as the battle of Jena.

The Prussians were comprehensively defeated because in his campaign Napoleon had approached them in a way from which they could not deduce his intentions in time to react to them. When the armies were in contact he moved faster than they expected and from directions they did not expect, so that when they did react they did so on the basis of a false understanding of the battlefield. Furthermore, their ponderous centralized procedures for command and the insistence that orders were to be obeyed to the letter meant that those closest to the French, who could see what was actually happening, were neither empowered to act nor sufficiently informed to act appropriately.

The peace settlement came only in 1807 at Tilsit, signed on 25 June between Napoleon and the tsar, ally of the defeated Prussian king, on a specially constructed raft anchored in the exact midstream of the river Niemen in East Prussia. In the settlement Prussia lost half its population and territory and effectively became a French satellite. In addition, the Prussian forces were constrained to no more than 42,000 men, with limits on the numbers allowed in each arm or service. Such diminishment and strictures were a further blow for the army, which was still stunned from its humiliating defeats at Jena and Auerstadt. Nonetheless, it was through implementing these strictures that reform was achieved, to lasting effect: over years a different army came into being, with its new “thinking soldier,” the innovative idea of a general staff, and ultimately the theories of On War. These three linked together produced a doctrinal energy, and the nervous system to carry it, that would enable Prussia and then Germany to evolve through the following hundred years—and create a model of command that came to be emulated by many of the leading militaries in the world. This would establish an understanding of the organization and application of force that dominated the battlefield through two world wars—and possibly to this day. And it began with the painful reforms post-Jena.

General Scharnhorst headed the endeavour, backed up by an impressive coterie of generals who realized the need for total reform: of the army, of its officer class and of its operations. At a structural level, the Prussian reformers created six corps, following the French corps d’armée system. Each contained the three types of forces, artillery, infantry and cavalry, and each was organized in brigades some 6,000 to 7,000 strong. They then turned to the issues of men and arms. In order rapidly to increase the army’s numerical strength without openly flaunting the 1807 treaty, the permitted complement of recruits was drafted and rigorously trained for a few months, then sent back home, ready to be called up in time of need—and the next full complement was then called up and trained likewise. This was another emulation of the French system, in this case conscription of physically able men—though with a distinct difference: this was not universal conscription nor, as will be discussed below, was this the conscription of willing patriots of a citizen state, since such a state did not yet exist in Prussia; rather, it was selective conscription for short-term service. As such the Prussians effectively redefined the purpose of conscription: Napoleon was using his levées to sustain his armies in wartime—the citizen was called up to replace the losses of war. The Prussians used conscription to create an army which was small in peacetime but which was also a machine to train men who returned to civil life as soldiers waiting for war—and who could therefore expand the army in time of need. A final change to the army structure was the suspension of the principle of promotion through age in an attempt to instil meritocracy in the ranks. Ability and professionalism became the defining attributes.

Armaments had been heavily depleted at Jena. Repair workshops were therefore created, the main manufacturer in Berlin was enlarged so as to produce 1,000 muskets per month, a new factory was established in Neisse and weapons were purchased from Austria. In three years more than 150,000 firearms became available. Field artillery pieces also needed to be replaced. The eight Prussian fortresses remaining after Tilsit furnished the material to build new ones and factories were reorganized to produce them. In three years the army had field artillery to support forces of 120,000 men. By 1809 the Prussian army had been completely reorganized and its rules, regulations and structure altered. By 1812 these changes enabled Prussia to field an army officially only 42,000 strong but which expanded within the space of a few months to a fully armed force of nearly 150,000. This new conscript army fought successfully in the final Napoleonic campaigns of 1813–15, and as a consequence its structure remained the model for Prussian and then German armies in the decades that followed.

The new Prussian army was a much more flexible and responsive organization than its predecessor. None the less, it had to be reformed within the Prussian state as it existed: an old-style monarchy. The reformers were therefore faced with a dilemma: how to fight a mass army, the French, driven by a national revolutionary ideology, if not with another mass army driven by another national revolutionary ideology? In order to raise such an army it was necessary to inspire and draw the people under arms—or, as the reformers put it, to elicit the “endless forces not developed and not utilized [that] slumber in the bosom of a nation.” Yet such a step could well lead to the democratization of the state and the destruction of the monarchical system through revolution. The officers in charge of remodelling the army were reformers, not revolutionaries, and wished to avoid such an outcome at all costs. This issue was to dog the Prussian military enterprise until a law universal conscription was finally passed in the 1860s, as both a precursor to and part of the wars of German unification that ultimately produced a large state with a fully developed concept of nationality and nationalism, drawing men to patriotic service. In the interim, and especially in the post-Jena period of reforms, the reformers’ attempted solution was to try to ally the traditional dynastic legitimacy of the Prussian king, which had been the driving force of the previous army, to a new emphasis on “national legitimacy” or national pride. This had initially been created by a binding and collective dislike of France and Napoleon following the humiliating defeats—and was then strengthened by the Prussian victory at Leipzig in 1813. This national pride was an idea that the wider population could support and therefore willingly agree to give military service for. In this way it was possible to introduce conscription, even though it was not yet a citizen state. At the same time it was also possible to preserve the traditional social structure, in which princes and the dukes answerable to the king led the armies in the field (unlike the French, who supplanted those aristocrats they had not already guillotined with more professional soldiers) and the Junkers provided the officer class.


Against this background, the Prussian reformers also dealt with the vital issues of command and leadership. The changes that had already begun with the establishment of the Kriegsakademie now took on greater urgency and depth. Officers were recruited on talent, trained on substance—academic and intellectual syllabi as well as military—and promoted on merit rather than by class, family background or royal clientism. It was the beginning of Prussian military professionalization. As a result, the new brigades and their sub-structures quickly came to be commanded by young and talented leaders. But these leaders and their men were also all of a new model: thinking soldiers who followed the spirit of a command rather than its letter; who were capable of understanding the unfolding battle and responding. Indeed, one way of viewing the disaster at Jena was precisely that of officers strictly following orders rather than taking necessary initiatives within their framework, and of ranks following rigid drills. The “thinking soldier” was not a concept unique to Prussia, and had been actively pursued by the British. Admiral John Byng of the Royal Navy had been tried and executed for failing this test in 1756; he had preferred to follow the letter of his orders rather than their spirit (as a result, the French fleet escaped his clutches). It was an important milestone. In line with Voltaire’s famous comment, “In this country, it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time, to give courage to others,” Byng’s execution had a galvanizing effect on the British officer corps, since it made plain that rank mattered little if an officer failed to fight. A lot might go wrong during an attack on the enemy, but the only fatal error was not to attack at all. General Moore’s reforms and training of the Light Division in 1799–1801 were similarly intended to encourage the active involvement of the rifleman as a “thinking soldier” on the battlefield. As he put it, the aim was to “train the judgement of the officers, so that, when left to themselves, they may do the right thing. They should have no hesitation in assuming responsibility.” What in time made the Prussian pursuit of the concept of the initiative-taking soldier remarkable was its marriage with another of the post-Jena innovations: the general staff. This body sought to address what had been perceived as a disastrous drawback in the Prussian performance throughout the Napoleonic campaigns, namely the lack of a central structure that could coordinate not only among the various military formations but also between the political and military leaderships. In the above description of the battle of Jena, for example, note how the French forces were commanded by marshals whilst the Prussians were all led by princes and dukes—each with his own force, each answering only directly to the king. The need for coherence and professionalization was overwhelming if the Prussian army was to be victorious in the future.

A staff has always been an integral element of any military formation, since every commander has need of assistants; in the Prussian army, for example, each of the princes and dukes had a staff. Until the Napoleonic Wars staffs tended to be devoted to administration, combining the workings of a large household with formal military issues such as supplies, legal systems, organization of troop formations and the carrying of messages in battle. Staff officers were not specially trained, nor were they usually called upon to counsel the military commander. As in other areas, Napoleon wrought the initial change—largely due to his new corps d’armée. With such a dispersed system it became very necessary to have a central body that could act as a form of nervous system connecting all the corps. His solution was a new but not entirely efficient organization of a general staff. As with conscription, it originated in a haphazard arrangement initiated by the Revolution which he liked and then institutionalized. The new mass armies with their equally new commanders needed men to instil order in these well-meaning but wholly disorganized formations. Louis Berthier, a professional soldier who had served in the old imperial army, was the most significant of these. Assigned to the Army of Italy in 1795, he had remarkable skill for organization and centralization—a fact recognized by Napoleon when he took up command. Berthier became head of Napoleon’s military planning staff, responsible for troop supply, personnel and supplies, but his true brilliance lay in an ability to translate the many orders of the emperor into easily understood messages to subordinates. His staff became the central body that organized, aided and passed on directives to all parts of the Grande Armée. But military planning was only part of the duties of Napoleon’s staff, which also combined the functions of a personal household and an imperial administration. This was its main flaw. With the emperor as the sole source of direction, its efficiency diminished as the scale of warfare and his empire increased.

The Prussian model for a general staff was inherently different from the French, and was aimed at creating a wide yet detailed basis for professional planning and command. As such it was conceived by Scharnhorst as an institution of kindred ethos with the Kriegsakademie, and when it was established in 1808 he naturally assumed the role of its first chief. In this capacity he focused upon integrating the new, well-trained middle-ranking officers of common education that the war college was producing into a central body. The Defence Law of 1814, which created permanent staffs for the divisions and army corps, further enhanced the joint utility of the Kriegsakademie and the general staff: by linking up the central body of direction with the fighting formations, a nervous system manned and run by officers of common training started to evolve. This also helped resolve the problem of how to preserve the authority of the monarchy while conducting war with citizen soldiers: by matching a professional general staff, which reached from the strategic to the tactical level, with those appointed to command by the monarch, the royal authority was paralleled with professional competence. Over time this common ethos would be ever more emphasized, as a measure for creating commanders of identical training, thinking and capabilities, all versed in the details of every plan and contingency. However, the routine tasks of the staff and the basis of most professional careers were mapmaking, gathering intelligence, preparing mobilization plans and coordinating railway schedules. For the main purpose of the general staff was preparing for war, mostly at the tactical level. This purpose was clear to the reformers who founded the general staff, but not necessarily to the broader Prussian military, especially the old guard of senior commanders. Following the premature death of Scharnhorst in 1813, and the end of significant campaigns following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, there was a waning of interest in military reform. As a result, the general staff lapsed in significance within the German military for some decades—and more profound reflection was still left to the Kriegsakademie, and most especially to the body of ideas formulated by one of its chief graduates and subsequent directors, Carl von Clausewitz.

Epaminondas (418?–362 BC) Beotarch of Thebes II



The Battle of Leuctra

The second of Sparta’s two kings, Cleombrotus, already had an army in the field in Phocis, northwest of Boeotia, when relations were severed. Epaminondas rushed to Thebes to raise the army ahead of the Spartan arrival. He was named army commander alongside a council of six boeotarch advisors, while Pelopidas commanded the Sacred Band. Thus, Epaminondas went with a force of 6,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry to face a Spartan army (with allies) of 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. He decided to force a battle at the pass overlooking Coroneia and seized the spot, but Cleombrotus instead marched south to enter Boeotia through Thisbae to Creusis on the Gulf of Corinth, where his forces captured the fortifications and moved inland from the coast toward Thebes. Thus, the Theban army had to rush to get back home and defend its city, but Cleombrotus was in its way at the plain of Leuctra.

Seeing 11,000 enemy soldiers spread out before them was more than a little disheartening to the Thebans. Not only were they outnumbered almost two to one, but the omens had not been hopeful. According to Diodorous, as they had left Thebes an old blind man looking for lost slaves called out for their return and safety. Epaminondas responded with a line from Homer: “One only omen is best, to fight for the land that is ours.” That heartened the men, but soon thereafter a pennant from a spear flew away from its haft and landed on some Spartan graves, as if honoring or protecting them. Epaminondas told the crowd, “Do not be concerned, comrades! Destruction is foretold for the Spartans. Tombs are not decorated except for funerals.” Upon seeing the Spartan army, the boeotarchs with whom Epaminondas commanded demanded a vote on whether to fight or move and look for better ground; Epaminondas barely won the vote, four to three. Still, as his men faced overwhelming odds, Epaminondas thought it wise to introduce some positive omens. He secretly directed some of the newly arrived reinforcements to tell the army that weapons kept in the temple of Herakles had disappeared, meaning the ancient heroes had come to help. Another man told the troops that he had visited the cave sacred to Trophonius, son of Apollo, who had assured their victory if they would institute a festival in honor of Zeus. A turncoat, Leandrias, helped with the propaganda by relating a legend that Leuctra was an ill-chosen location for the Spartans, as it was the site of the deaths by suicide of two Theban maidens raped by Spartans, daughters of Leuctras (or Scedasus, according to Pausanias) for whom the town was named. Their curse was that Sparta would begin its decline on this plain. Epaminondas offered sacrifices and prayers for the girls and called for revenge. All of these tales, true or not, rallied the Theban morale. For those who may not have been convinced, Epaminondas announced that whoever did not want to fight could leave; the contingent from Thespiae did so.

The night before the battle, Pelopidas supposedly had a dream in which he saw the long-dead maidens alive with their father. They told him the Thebans must sacrifice a maiden with chestnut hair. The next morning, as the dream was being discussed, a chestnut-colored colt ran into camp. This was deemed to be the right sacrifice and the ceremony ensued. As a final encouragement to his men, Epaminondas appealed to their patriotism. According to the ancient historian Forintinus, “In order that his soldiers might not only exercise their strength, but also be stirred by their feelings, he announced in an assembly of his men that the Spartans had resolved, in case of victory, to massacre all males, to lead the wives and children of those executed into bondage, and to raze Thebes to the ground.”

Across the plain things were not pleasant, either. In spite of their numerical superiority, as well as the virtually inbred tradition of winning, the Spartans were not entirely confident. At the staff meeting on the morning of the battle, subordinate commanders pushed Cleombrotus for quick action. They reminded him of some of his past failures (in two previous invasions, in 378 and 376, he had failed to bring his armies to battle) and assured him the Spartan council would not look kindly on anything that hinted at incompetence. They also (possibly owing to a religious festival) had been drinking since the morning meal. Also in many minds must have been the memory of what the Sacred Band had accomplished at Tegyra, where the smaller Sacred Band had defeated the Spartan phalanx. That certainly had been a bitter blow. All of this combined to make Cleombrotus aggressive.

Epaminondas gave his men one more pep talk. He took up a live snake and then crushed its head; so too would be the fate of the enemy: kill the Spartan head and the allied body would die. Even so, as Epaminondas began to form his army, he had doubts about the morale of some of his units. Thus, he needed to maximize his advantages and minimize his disadvantages. He ordered his men forward in the standard phalanx formation, but as they deployed he held back the units on the right of the line, whom he thought insufficiently motivated, thus refusing the right flank (deploying in echelon to the right rear). As Diodorus observes, “The weakest he placed on the other wing and instructed them to avoid battle and withdraw gradually during the enemy’s attack.” Epaminondas placed his more trusted troops on the left into a formation fifty ranks deep and eighty files wide. He placed the 300 men of the Sacred Band in the front ranks, then waited to see what the Spartans would do. Cleombrotus deployed his army in the standard phalanx formation, his men in ranks twelve deep. The Spartans held the right end of their line, facing the Sacred Band and the deep phalanx; a force of mercenaries they placed in the center; the far left was held by Sparta’s Peloponnesian allies.

The two armies faced each other for a time. The initial action was on the part of the cavalry. Before the infantry had fully deployed, the Spartan cavalry (after harassing Theban camp followers) rode toward the strong Theban left flank. It was met and soon routed by the Theban cavalry, superior in both numbers and quality. Xenophon writes, “Now when Cleombrotus began to lead his army against the enemy, in the first place, before the troops under him so much as perceived that he was advancing, the horsemen had already joined battle and those of the Lacedaemonians had speedily been worsted; then in their flight they had fallen foul of their own hoplites, and, besides, the companies of the Thebans were now charging upon them.” This is where Epaminondas demonstrated his originality. He was gambling the entire battle on one throw. His most motivated men went into battle first; if they failed, the demoralized right flank would break at the first sign of wavering. He was throwing his best troops at the more numerous Spartans, the best troops in the known world. As soon as Pelopidas and Epaminondas saw the confusion in the Spartan ranks, they began their advance.

As with the debate over the use of the “mass shove,” there is also some argument over just how Epaminondas formed what has come to be called the “Theban wedge.” One scholar has suggested that the Theban left was actually deployed into a point, an inverted V, with the Sacred Band at the apex. The fact that the V was hollow would not be obvious to the enemy, thus giving the impression of greater than actual numbers. All of this depends on the translation of the Greek word embolon, or wedge, and its use by a variety of ancient writers. This theory has been answered by a different study of the word that indicates a comparison to a ram on a Greek trireme, hence the strong point of contact to break an enemy, not necessarily a literal wedge. Thus, if there was a “point” to the wedge it would be at the spot at which the right wing began its refusal.

As the cavalry began to clear away and Cleombrotus saw the unbalanced formation advancing toward him, he ordered troops to shift to his right to attempt a flanking movement. Seeing this, Pelopidas ordered his Sacred Band into a run and struck the Spartans as they began their redeployment. The rest of the Theban left wing, under Epaminondas, was soon engaged and the battle was on. Harking back to the earlier discussion on othismos and the nature of a massed charge, here is my proposal as to how the initial stage of the battle was conducted. Goldsworthy argues that the narrower the formation, the easier it was to maintain cohesion. Add to that the fact that the massive Theban left flank was led by the Sacred Band. These soldiers were the nearest Theban equivalent of Spartiates, a force of men who did not farm like the normal militia, but spent their time in military training. Their defeat of a much larger Spartan force at Tegyra a few years earlier had to have built up a strong measure of confidence within their ranks. While there is no reference to their marching in step like the Spartans, these professionals must have been able to keep a tighter formation than could a standard phalanx. In Goldsworthy’s opinion, “A deeper, and therefore narrower, phalanx encountered fewer obstacles and could as a result move faster and further, whilst retaining its order.” Add to that the timing of the charge, just as the Spartans were reorganizing from the disrupting cavalry retreat and trying to redeploy to take advantage of the narrower front approaching them. All of these factors should equate into a powerful initial contact that could easily have gained at least temporary momentum for the attackers. Then, the rest of the phalanx arrived for support, whether moral or physical or both. The Spartans must have been at a disadvantage from the outset In spite of all those advantages, it was not enough to immediately sweep the field. The hand-to-hand front-rank fighting was intense. Whether Cleombrotus stood in the front rank or not, he was mortally wounded in combat. Xenophon reports that the Spartans were doing well, or “they would not have been able to take him up and carry him off still living had not those who were fighting in the front of him been holding the advantage at the time. But when Deinon, the polemarch, Sphodrias, one of the king’s tent-companions, and Cleonymus, the son of Sphodiras, had been killed, then the royal bodyguard … [and] the others fell back before the Theban mass, while those who were on the left wing … gave way.”

The massive “ram” of the Theban left flank coupled with the speed of the attack caught the Spartans unprepared. Once their king and a number of his top men began to fall, the Spartan contingent of the battle line retreated to their camp. The mercenary and allied forces saw little or no combat because of the refused Theban flank angled backward from the front line, so they retreated just as quickly when they saw the Spartans withdraw, both from shock at the sight of such an event and fear of that “ram” striking their flank. Once in camp, established behind a ditch, the Spartans reassembled for a stand.

Epaminondas did not push his luck, for he knew he had no need to do so. Piled on the field of battle were 400 dead Spartiates out of a total of 1,000 casualties, the worst loss of Spartan life in their history, far greater than their losses at the stand against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480. Sparta also had not lost a king since that battle. Such a historic defeat was not unappreciated by Sparta’s allies in the ranks. Xenophon writes that the Spartans perceived “that the allies were one and all without heart for fighting, while some of them were not even displeased at what had taken place.”

Epaminondas’s movement to contact was an approach march, since he had a fair idea where the Spartans would be. He lost any element of strategic surprise when Cleombrotus took the long way around to approach Thebes from the west. This also cost Epaminondas the opportunity to choose the battleground. Initially, therefore, he was at a disadvantage both as to his position and his numbers. Certainly the battle itself was no surprise, since the two armies had been facing each other for a time. Epaminondas did achieve tactical surprise, however. He may or may not have known of dissension in the Spartan camp and the pressure being placed on Cleombrotus. Even if he did, he was smart enough not to underestimate his opposition.

Although facing the prime units opposite each other on the field had been done before, Cleombrotus was not ready for it. Epaminondas’s deliberate attack led to a battle that he controlled as much as any commander could in a phalanx battle. The massed Theban left wing was a surprise, but Cleombrotus tried to adapt to it by shifting men to his right flank. It is possible that the Spartan cavalry was deployed as a screen once Cleombrotus saw the Theban formation and was beginning the redeployment of his own phalanx to be in an outflanking position. So the nature of the Theban deployment was unexpected and the assault began, in Xenophon’s words, “before the troops under [Cleombrotus] so much as perceived that he was advancing.” Although the Spartans really could not have expected their cavalry to prevail, they certainly did not expect to see it retreating into their main force. That is where the Theban control of the tempo of the battle became all important. In the midst of the turmoil and troop movement, the Sacred Band’s assault came well before the Spartans were prepared. Epaminondas’s concentration of not just manpower but high-quality troops was key to his plan succeeding. The most audacious part of the plan was the refused flank, for he was chancing everything on one throw of the dice. Even though the echeloned units were the least dependable of his army, their mere presence was enough to freeze the Spartan allies.

Epaminondas neither tactically exploited his victory nor pursued his enemy; there was no need. He had inflicted sufficient casualties to not only damage the numbers of the Spartiates but more importantly to damage their reputation and morale.

Epaminondas followed up the Battle of Leuctra with an invasion of the Peloponnese, where he ran rampant over Spartan-controlled territory and liberated the helots who provided the Spartiates with their agricultural sustenance. Sparta’s slow decline now became precipitate. Not only beaten on the field but also humiliated before the rest of Greece, Sparta tried one last time to save its reputation and lands. The Spartans gathered one last force at Mantinea in 362, and this time it was Thebes that had the larger force. Epaminondas repeated his Leuctra maneuver at the battle with the same results. Unfortunately, he was killed in that battle. He was wounded by a spear; he asked about the progress of the battle as he was dying and learned the enemy was withdrawing. The battle was a tactical draw but a strategic victory for Thebes, since it reinforced the newly liberated peoples of Lacedaemonia and ended Spartan power once and for all.

The battle was a draw mainly because Epaminondas was killed. Until that point the Thebans were sweeping the field, according to Xenophon: “Thus, then, he made his attack, and he was not disappointed of his hope; for by gaining the mastery at the point where he struck, he caused the entire army of his adversaries to flee.” Victor Davis Hanson argues that had the Leuctra tactics been new and able to stand on their own, then Epaminondas’s death would not have mattered. Yet ancient history is full of instances where one side gave up the fight when their leader was killed; would Leuctra have turned out differently if Cleombrotus had not died? It’s impossible to say, but it is a tribute to any leader’s standing that his men lose heart upon hearing of his death. The fact that the Theban wedge “caused the entire army of his adversaries to flee” sounds like a successful tactic. The Thebans around the dying general did declare victory, and that was the news that released a mortally wounded Epaminondas from this life. “I have lived long enough, for I die unconquered,” he is supposed to have said. Other accounts say that before the spear (or javelin) was withdrawn, Epaminondas asked after two of his chief subordinates. When informed that they had been killed, his last command was to make peace. Perhaps had he said “keep fighting” the victory would have been complete.

Epaminondas’s Generalship

The two main principles of war Epaminondas mastered were the twin concepts of mass and economy of force. Epaminondas chose the correct center of gravity for his objective: the Spartan contingent and King Cleombrotus. Although a deeper-than-usual phalanx had been seen in other battles, what made its deployment at Leuctra significant is that it was on the Theban left, directly facing the strength of the Spartan army. Traditionally, the place of honor in the line of battle was the far right, which meant that the best troops of opposing armies did not face each other. Historian of ancient Greece George Cawkwell writes, “Epaminondas’ reversal [of tradition] at Leuctra is the mark of a revolutionary change in the conception of warfare.… [I]n 371 the conflict was centred on, and indeed confined to, the main antagonists.” As Hans Delbrück comments, “All of this is valuable only because it guarantees one’s own left wing the victory over the enemy right.” Taking out the enemy leader as well as the strongest force on the battlefield necessarily demoralized Sparta’s allied units.

Hanson in a 1998 article disputes the revolutionary nature of Epaminondas’s action, primarily by taking most of the accounts by ancient historians to task. While it is certainly true that every tactic Epaminondas employed at Leuctra had been used some time earlier, the question remains: how many other generals had learned any lessons from previous uses, and how many had welded them into a coherent whole? The combination of massed phalanx, strength versus opponent’s strength, and the refused flank together took down the king and caused the vast number of Spartiate casualties. It was the concentration of force at the center of gravity that is key. In his 1999 book The Soul of Battle, Hanson admits that the heavier left wing was “a novel tactical innovation” that “gained enormous penetrating power, as accumulated shields created greater thrust.”

The Theban wedge showed its other advantage in the realm of economy of force. In normal hoplite warfare the entire lines attacked as one, but Epaminondas attacked only with his left flank. There is some debate over whether the refusing of his right flank was intentional. Goldsworthy asserts, “It may be that later accounts of Epaminondas’ echeloned advance at Leuctra described not a deliberate ploy, but the inevitably faster advance of the deep Theban phalanx compared to the rest of the army.”

The echelon attack and the weighted wing were introduced by Epaminondas but copied by many. The almost immediate impact came with the rise of Macedon. In his work on ancient warfare, J. E. Lendon observes that “[Philip II] lived in the house of the Theban general Pammenes, who had a formidable reputation for military cunning. In Thebes, it was said, Philip learned many lessons.” Philip’s primary accomplishment as king of Macedon was to create a professional standing army that used the latest equipment and tactics, depending heavily on cavalry. Alexander would almost certainly not have accomplished his great deeds without the army he inherited from his father, Philip.

Epaminondas’s influence was not only beneficial to Macedon in the immediate future, but was reincarnated two millennia later, as noted by Basil Liddell Hart: “He not only broke away from tactical methods established by the experience of centuries, but in tactics, strategy, and grand strategy alike laid the foundations on which subsequent masters built. Even his structural designs have survived or been revived. For in tactics the ‘oblique order’ which Frederick [the Great] made famous was only a slight elaboration of the method of Epaminondas.”

Hanson also argues against the presence of a deliberately refused flank, taking Xenophon as the only reliable source. Not trusting Diodorus, the only ancient historian to describe the Theban formation so, he argues that if Plutarch and Diodorus mention an oblique attack by the left wing, then the right wing would trail behind, not being an intentional refusal of the flank. He asserts that “there was little tactical reason for these generally inferior troops to attempt such a complicated maneuver,” what he calls “a deliberate withdrawal.” Refusing a flank, however, does not necessitate a withdrawal, especially on offense. While the most famous flank refusal of modern times, Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, did indeed involve a deliberate withdrawal, that was the nature of being on the defense and in immediate danger of being outflanked. All Epaminondas had to do was stagger his less dependable allied forces in echelon. Thus, such a move would answer Hanson’s citation of Pausanias that the Spartan allies did have the opportunity to fight but would not stand their ground. The first phalanx of the echelon could, indeed, have had contact with the enemy.

Some sources refer to these forces not in the main assault as reserves, but I agree with Hanson that they were not deliberately held back for commitment at an important moment, as is the role of reserves. Held back in echelon, yes, but not as a traditional reserve to be committed as circumstances dictate.

The Creation of Large French Armored Units I



A few French army officers had long recognized the possibilities in grouping tanks into division-sized units. On 15 February 1920, for example, General Estienne, at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, discussed the strategic advantages of a large, independent armored force. In July 1927, before the Center of Higher Military Studies, Col. André Doumenc described the tactical advantages of a large armored force. In 1928, Doumenc submitted to the General Staff a project for the organization of an armored division, similar to that which would later be realized by the Germans. While he was a member in 1930 of the tank technical section of the Department of Infantry, Lt. Col. Marie J.P. Keller wrote a special study on the need for a mechanized division that could “rupture” enemy defenses. When Lt. Col. Charles de Gaulle published his book in 1934 on a professional armored corps, his special army included three thousand tanks and six armored divisions. The official effort to create division-sized tank units, however, did not actually begin until the late 1930s, and the French did not form their first armored divisions until January 1940. Although the first light mechanized division was formed officially in 1935, its function, as will be discussed below, clearly differed from that of the later armored divisions.

Throughout the debates and discussions on forming large tank units, the military hierarchy believed it could not form the first armored divisions until sufficient medium tanks were available to equip an entire division. Since France had only a small number of medium tanks for almost the entire interwar period, the High Command saw no compelling reason to create large armored units, even though production of the B-model tank remained painfully slow. By January 1936, the army had only seven B-1 tanks, and this number slowly increased to seventeen in March 1936, thirty in February 1937, and thirty-five in September 1937. Following the decision to produce an improved version of the B-1, production of the B-1 tank ceased and that of the B-1 bis began. In May 1937, the French army had four B-1 bis tanks, and this slowly increased to seventeen in September 1937, thirty-five in January 1938, forty-seven in July 1938, and seventy-one in January 1939. The first model of the B-1 ter, another improved version of the B-1, arrived in April 1938, but only a few models were ever manufactured. By the beginning of 1939, there were only 107 B-model and fifty D-2 tanks. In comparison, France had 790 R-35, one hundred H-35, and eighty-nine F.C.M.-36 tanks. Beyond a doubt, the High Command could have formed—if it had wanted—armored divisions with the infantry tanks. The army’s leaders, however, were reluctant to strip tanks from the infantry, whose needs remained most important in their eyes, to form an unproved and untested armored division.

Despite the sincere desire of the tank enthusiasts for a larger number of the B-model tank, its extreme complexity made it unsuited for mass production and resulted in its being produced very slowly. During the period between March 1936 and March 1937, for example, the French produced 13 B-1 medium tanks and 422 R-35 light tanks. Among other problems, the steering system for the B-1 was very exacting and delicate. Since the 75mm cannon was mounted in the hull, it could only be traversed by turning the entire tank. This required a very sophisticated steering mechanism. Also, the demand for better protection against antitank weapons led to a decision to increase the thickness of the armor plating in the B-1. In contrast to the 1921 plan for the medium tank to weigh a maximum of thirteen tons and the armor plating to be 25mm thick, the B-1 bis had armor plating of 60mm and weighed thirty-three tons. When the Consultative Council on Armaments agreed in January 1935 to increase the armor plating of the new model of the B-1 to 60mm, it added the stipulation that the increase in armor plating should not decrease the mobility of the tank. In fact, weight increases reduced the cruising radius from more than nine hours, to about five hours and fifteen minutes. The decrease in cruising range and agility was the practical result of the proponents of protection winning the debate against those of mobility. Throughout its development, constant modifications and slow production plagued attempts to field more B-model tanks.

The French High Command recognized the production difficulties with the B-model tank. In October 1930, the inspector general of tanks conducted studies on establishing specifications of a new tank that would use much of the technical experience from the B-1. If produced, this tank would have been designated the B-2. In 1932, two other prototypes, designated the B-3 and the B-B, were discussed. Even though the minister of war ordered prototypes of the B-2, B-3, and B-B tanks, none were ever produced. In late 1935 or early 1936, the inspector general of tanks began a study on a new thirty-five-ton tank, whose specifications resembled those of the B-2. In the same period, the Department of Infantry ordered a prototype of a new twenty-ton tank, which in no case would go beyond a total weight of thirty-five tons. The same request proposed that the new tank be called the G-1. The suggestion for a massive forty-five-ton tank also reappeared during this period, but was squashed when the director of infantry branded it as being “without real utility.”

Unfortunately for France, the army had begun in the early 1930s to reconsider the B-1 tank during the period when discussions at the conference on disarmament at Geneva indicated a possible limitation of twenty-five tons on the weight of tanks. This delayed the anticipated studies, since the improved B-model tanks might have weighed as much as thirty-five tons. Then, reductions in the 1934 budget slowed the development of a new medium tank. Finally, the massive resurrection of the light-tank program undoubtedly came at the expense of the medium tank. While the precise effect of these factors cannot be determined, the High Command’s reassessment of the tank program from 1932 to 1934 and its redirection thereafter adversely affected the long-term development of the French tank and undoubtedly had a greater effect than the disarmament talks or the budgetary restrictions. Instead of producing a better medium tank, it produced hundreds of infantry support tanks. Had the High Commission aggressively pursued the development of a new tank in the early to mid-1930s, a better tank than the B-1 might have been produced, but by the middle of 1938, it was too late to begin development and production of a new medium tank. The crises of 1938 underlined the need to have large amounts of modern equipment as soon as possible, and France’s previous experience indicated that the development process might take several years. Her insistence on having sufficient medium tanks before she formed her first armored division, however, gave her little choice but to await production of sufficient B-model tanks. She refused to untie herself from the anchor of the “perfect” weapon.

The center of the discussion on forming and organizing large armored forces was the Superior Council of War, which was very deliberate in its consideration of armored divisions. General Gamelin stated in an April 1936 meeting, “The problem of constituting…large [tank] units has been studied in France since 1932; the development of the antitank weapon has caused the renouncing of this conception.” While the 1932 field tests had seriously delayed the creation of large tank units, subsequent tests had also not furnished evidence to support the creation of such units. Gamelin repeated other important findings from those tests when he explained that a tank attack could succeed against a soundly constructed defensive system only if it were supported by a “strong” artillery, which would be used against enemy antitank weapons. He added that the German armored divisions seemed incapable of completing a rupture of strong defenses, and seemed most appropriate to attack weakly held defenses or to conduct an exploitation. Throughout the discussion, members of the council seemed to view large tank units as large groups of mass maneuver tanks, which performed essentially the same function as the mass maneuver tanks but at a higher organizational level. While the council did recommend in April 1936 forming France’s second light mechanized division, which was a mechanized cavalry division, none of its members argued for a more energetic program of testing or forming an armored division. As far as they were concerned, the ad hoc combination of battalions of mass-maneuver tanks was sufficient.

In late 1936, France slowly began to accelerate the creation of large armored units as she began to improve and modernize her force. The government had already reestablished two years’ service in the army in March 1935, and had also slightly increased defense expenditures in 1935, but the real rearmament of France began in late 1936, following the remilitarization of the Rhineland in March, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July, and the German extension in August of military service to two years. With an increasingly threatening international environment, the government increased the defense budget from 11.48 billion francs in 1934 to 12.657 in 1935, 14.848 in 1936, 21.235 in 1937, 28.976 in 1938, and 93.687 in 1939. Although these increases lagged behind those of Germany, which was spending more than double these amounts in terms of percentage of the gross national product, France began what she believed to be a massive rearmament and modernization program. After all, Germany had to reconstitute her equipment almost completely, while France had a large quantity of equipment on hand in which massive sums had already been invested. As part of the armament program of September 1936, France proposed to create, among other things, fifty battalions of light tanks and twelve battalions of “heavy” tanks, evidently B-model tanks. The latter twelve battalions would equip two armored divisions of six battalions each.

The High Command also began more energetically in 1936 to investigate the possibility of large armored formations. In October, Gamelin “invited” the members of the council to study the question of forming an armored division. In November 1936, Daladier, the minister of national defense, ordered the study of the possible future employment of armored divisions. But the High Command made no move to create such a division immediately. At the Riom trial, Daladier insisted that the military hierarchy could have formed an armored division in 1936 if “they” had wanted. His comment illustrated his belief that such decisions were clearly in the realm of a technical, military question and beyond the proper authority of the civilian minister of war. The military leaders, however, would not rush into an unproved concept, and they would not create an armored division until there were sufficient B-model tanks in France’s inventory.

On 15 December 1937, the Superior Council discussed in detail the organization of an armored division. Gamelin began the discussion by explaining that the type B and D tanks were tanks for a mass maneuver and referred to these tanks as “heavy” tanks. While he accepted the need to organize armored brigades in peacetime, he noted the difficult question of whether it was necessary to organize the brigades into divisions. Gamelin argued that it was easier to split up a division into brigades than it was to form a division from brigades, a fact that supported the need to form an armored division. He concluded by noting that a large tank unit could be used in a “powerful” counterattack, but that it could also play an important role in the exploitation of a breakthrough, as well as in a flanking maneuver. General Dufieux offered a word of caution. He explained that France would not have enough B-1 tanks to form six tank battalions until the beginning of 1939. He believed it was dangerous to group all the heavy tanks in one division. Gamelin insisted, nonetheless, that the existing “heavy” tanks be organized into a brigade so that special studies on the employment of the armored division could be conducted. The final decision of the council was to constitute a special group under the inspector general of tanks to study the proper composition of the armored division.

In February 1938, the minister of national defense ordered the constitution of the special study group recommended by the Superior Council of War. General Martin, the inspector general of tanks, was placed in charge of the study. His selection as director of the study group ensured that the ideas he initially expounded after the 1933 Coëtquidan maneuvers and reiterated in his January 1936 presentation at the Center of Higher Military Studies would remain an integral part of French doctrine. Tragically, when France needed a man of great vision and imagination, she received instead an officer who was content to apply the ideas and methods of the past. The study included the creation of a large armored unit in 1938 for the first time in France. The unit was supposed to include one battalion of B-1 tanks, one battalion of B-1 bis tanks, one battalion of D-2 tanks, and two battalions of infantry. It would also include one battalion of 75mm and one battalion of 105mm artillery. Extensive field tests were scheduled for March 1938 and October 1938, but they were interrupted first by the annexation of Austria by Germany and then by the Munich crisis. Such tests could not be conducted in a time of international tension. Thus the major results from the special study remained almost purely theoretical. No armored division came from the study group’s effort.

General Martin cannot be accused of completely lacking any perception of the future possibilities of armored warfare, since his final report did contain a proposed organization for an armored division. He suggested it include two “demi-brigades,” which were units smaller than the normal brigade and which included no regiments. The division consisted of four tank and two infantry battalions, half of which would be assigned to each demi-brigade. Two 105mm artillery battalions, with the shorter-range howitzer, provided organic fire support. The special study group also wrote a draft edition of a manual on the employment of armored divisions, but the provisional manual followed the directions of Gamelin by limiting its focus to the “general case of operations conducted against an enemy imperfectly installed on terrain and disposing of reduced means.” The study group produced five copies of the draft notice in October 1938 and sent copies to Gamelin and Georges. The concepts in the draft were highly reminiscent of those employed with the tanks for mass maneuver. If the several crises in 1938 had not interrupted the planned tests, more progressive concepts might have emerged. With the unimaginative Martin as the study-group leader, however, such a development was not likely.

With the international situation becoming more threatening in 1938, the Superior Council of War discussed the capabilities of the tank more intensely in December 1938. After beginning the discussion by noting how the partial mobilization of September 1938 prevented annual maneuvers and field trials, Gamelin said that numerous studies had been made and the potential of the tank was clear. He then referred to armored divisions as “rare and precious” units, and stated that one armored division had to be created in 1939, with three ultimately being created. Gen. L. A. Colson noted, however, that due to matériel limitations, the first two armored divisions could not be formed before the beginning of 1941. In the midst of the discussions, Gamelin explained his perception of how the large armored units should be employed. He said their best use was in an action “on the decisive point in the battle,” and explained that an armored division could achieve a “result which could not be attained in the past.” While Gamelin obviously accepted the possibility of large tank units playing a crucial role in future battles, he nevertheless believed it was “impossible to constitute in actual fact in times of peace, this large unit with all the means for which it may have need in all the phases and forms of its action.” In peacetime, the armored divisions should have only “strictly indispensable elements,” and, according to Gamelin, any other solution was “premature.” Except for Gen. Pierre Héring, the other members of the council agreed. Héring insisted that the armored division should be organized in a fashion where it could operate in a more autonomous manner; this required additional artillery, communications, supply, air defense, and maintenance support.

While the differences in organization might seem nothing more than a debate over resources, they revolved around entirely different notions of how an armored division should be employed and of how a future war might be fought. From Héring’s viewpoint, greater combat and support capability could enable a tank division to operate in an independent and much more fruitful fashion. He insisted the armored division should not be “obliged to advance in successive jumps according to the classic process of slow attacks based on the movement of infantry and artillery.” From Gamelin and the other council members’ viewpoint, the armored divisions operated in the same manner as other tanks for a mass maneuver. While a division was much larger than the other mass-maneuver organizations, which were battalions or ad hoc groups of battalions, their concept envisaged it being employed in a step-by-step and carefully controlled fashion within the methodical battle. Though Gamelin proved himself a stronger proponent for armored forces than some of the other members of the council, he failed to recognize the capability of the armored division to restore maneuver to the battlefield. He still considered the tank units to be most valuable for their ability to add considerable firepower to an attacking force and for their potential for crushing any opponent in their path, and he believed a tank division provided more firepower and mass than any other organization.

The Creation of Large French Armored Units II



Despite the shortage of medium tanks, the military hierarchy had no intention to form the first armored division with tanks other than medium tanks. At the Riom trial, Col. Jean Perré stated that Gamelin anticipated formation of the first armored division in October 1940. Only then would sufficient “heavy” tanks be available. Due to matériel limitations and in accordance with the recommendations of General Martin’s study group, however, the new division would contain only four tank battalions, rather than the six originally included in the 1936 rearmament program. By continuing to link the formation of the first armored division to the presence of sufficient B-model tanks for equipping the entire division, the High Command delayed the formation of the first armored division at a time the French army badly needed such units for experimentation and training. Only the German demonstration in Poland of the use of armored divisions finally overcame the reluctance of the High Command to form an armored division without the perfectly designed and heavily armored medium tanks, which were now being called “heavy” tanks. The rapid collapse of Poland provided a sense of urgency to the creation of armored divisions that had not previously existed.

When the first two armored divisions were formed in January 1940, each had a demi-brigade of light tanks, another of heavy tanks, and a final one of motorized infantry consisting of only one or two battalions. Each demi-brigade of tanks had two battalions. One demi-brigade had in each battalion forty-five H-39 tanks, an improved version of the H-35 tank with greater speed and a more powerful 37mm cannon. The other two battalions had thirty-three B-model tanks, giving each division a total of 156 tanks. Meanwhile, France continued to wait for more B-model tanks; the High Command would not divert infantry-support tanks to the formation of additional armored divisions, and production of the B-model tanks remained agonizingly slow. Additionally, the hastily formed divisions suffered from a lack of equipment, such as tank retrievers, road transporters, and antitank guns.

The Provisional Notice on the Use of Units of the Armored Division, which had been written by General Martin and his study group, was published in February 1939. The ideas contained within the manual were a direct extension of the ideas appearing in the 1932 and 1933 field tests and developed or modified in subsequent years. The manual concentrated on the employment of the armored division to assist the maneuver of a larger unit, which was obviously an infantry unit. It also discussed the actual employment of the division as if it were simply a much larger grouping of mass-maneuver tanks. The French still intended to employ the large tank units to increase the offensive power and assist the maneuver of the infantry, which remained the decisive arm.

The manual also included a concept for successive objectives, but the bounds were increased to three to four kilometers because of the great size of the division. The tanks would be “habitually” organized into two echelons with two or three battalions in the first echelon and one or two battalions in the second echelon. While the first echelon fought its way to the next objective, the second echelon protected its flanks or reduced centers of enemy resistance bypassed by the first echelon.

The manual did make a number of improvements in the employment of the artillery. For example, the manual noted that the tanks would not necessarily halt their attack to permit the displacement of the artillery. The manual also noted that the commander centralized the artillery when it was necessary, but had to decentralize the artillery to ensure a rapid exploitation. To give greater flexibility to artillery coverage, the manual proposed having ground observers in armored vehicles following the attacking tanks. If possible, the observer placed himself on the crest of a hill overlooking the attack and directed the supporting artillery fire from there until the attacking tanks reached the next crest. If the terrain were woody or visibility limited, the observer followed the tanks closely. But with the limited artillery (two battalions) in the proposed tank division, most fire support came from the corps or army being assisted by the tank division. Thus, while there were some improvements in the division artillery’s responsiveness, most fire support remained centralized and actually outside the control of the division commander.

In short, the 1939 manual on the employment of the tank division made that large unit perform within the constraints of the methodical battle. The successive objectives, the tight control, the employment of echelons or waves of tanks, and the dependence on artillery support provided by other units ensured that the division operated in essentially the same fashion as a battalion of mass maneuver tanks. If there were a difference, it was mainly in scale. The frontage and firepower of the division were much greater, and the anticipated depth of the attack was deeper. Similarly, the division’s major purpose was to assist the maneuver of an infantry corps or army, rather than of a regiment or division, but General Martin and his study did not foresee the creation of a mobile battlefield. Where a new doctrine was possible, the French were content to make incremental changes in the methods which had slowly evolved through the 1930s.

In contrast with the careful employment envisaged for the armored division, the French army considered the light mechanized division of the cavalry eminently suited for more mobile operations. Although the organization of the division changed during the 1930s, by May-June 1940 the first and second light mechanized divisions had a reconnaissance regiment equipped with forty-five Panhard armored cars and a brigade consisting of a regiment of truck-borne infantrymen and a squadron of sixty light reconnaissance tanks. They also had a combat brigade consisting of two regiments with each regiment having eighty-seven SOMUA S-35 or eighty-seven H-35 or H-39 tanks. Though earlier concepts were not as forward thinking, the light mechanized divisions by 1939–1940 were designed to fulfill the traditional roles of cavalry units on the battlefield and also to be able to accomplish, with appropriate reinforcement, missions usually assigned to infantry or armored divisions. Ironically, the wartime doctrine for the employment of the mechanized cavalry units, except for the emphasis on cavalry-type operations, closely resembled the eventual doctrine of most Western powers for the employment of mechanized units during the battles of World War II. The important problem becomes one of determining why the doctrine for the employment of the light mechanized division was so much farther advanced than the doctrine for the employment of the armored division by 1939–1940.

Efforts for the mechanization and motorization of the cavalry began in the late 1920s—often to the disgust of the cavalrymen, who remained attached to their horses—but they did not accelerate rapidly until after 1930. When a new regulation on the cavalry appeared in 1930, it emphasized the evolving nature of cavalry tactics but reflected very little that was fundamentally new. Following organizational and weaponry changes, the manual explained, the cavalry was particularly suited for “rapid engagement on extended fronts,” for “abrupt and violent” action by fire, and for the conduct of the exploitation. The cavalry division could also be employed on security or reconnaissance missions, and as a “highly mobile reserve of fire.” While the division could be employed in the offensive, it was best suited for employment in weakly defended intervals, on exposed flanks, or against unprepared defenders. The regulation emphasized that an attack by a cavalry division was different from that by an infantry division, for a cavalry division attack was based on “the exploitation of the effect of surprise,” while an infantry attack was based on a “succession of efforts.” Defensive combat, however, was like that of the infantry division; it was based on the “establishment of barrages of continuous fire.” As for the effect of firepower, the regulation strongly emphasized that fire and movement were “intimately bound together.” There was no inordinate emphasis placed on firepower, since the cavalry had depended on mobility as one of its distinct characteristics for centuries.

Although the 1930 regulations concentrated on the horse cavalry, it also mentioned the employment of tracked vehicles, trucks, and motorcycles. It did not anticipate, however, the appearance of large, mechanized cavalry units. Nonetheless, the 1930 regulations provided a foundation on which future mechanized doctrine and units could be built. Through its emphasis on mobility, the rapid use of firepower, surprise, and immediate exploitation, the cavalry doctrine provided a natural framework for mechanization efforts. This contrasts sharply with infantry and artillery doctrine, which emphasized mobility and flexibility much less.

While General Weygand was chief of the General Staff, from January 1930 until February 1931, and vice-president of the Superior Council of War, from February 1931 until January 1935, the French army made major advances in the mechanization of its cavalry formations. Weygand’s role in the modernization of French cavalry was of crucial importance. In 1933, he followed the suggestion of Gen. J.A.L.R. Flavigny, the director of the Department of Cavalry, to create the light mechanized division, and in June 1934 he began studies on the development of a cavalry tank. This tank was eventually to be the SOMUA S-35 tank, probably the best tank on the battlefield in May–June 1940 because of its great mobility, superior weapons, and excellent armor protection. The new tank weighed 19.5 tons, had a maximum speed of forty-five kilometers per hour, had a maximum armor plating thickness of 55mm, and was armed with a 47mm cannon and a machine gun. Unlike the B-model tank, it never suffered complex development problems. In 1935, the cavalry ordered a hundred of the S-35s before the tank completed required army testing. In contrast to the delayed formation of large units of B-model tanks, the cavalry formed the light mechanized division before the arrival of the first S-35 tanks. The eagerness of the cavalry enthusiasts to form large mechanized units differed sharply from that of the infantry officers who were charged with developing tank units.

With the appearance of the light mechanized division and the possibility of stronger tanks, a new cavalry regulation, entitled Provisional Notice on the Employment of Mechanized and Motorized Units of the Cavalry, appeared in 1935. The new regulation did not replace the 1930 regulation, but it closely defined the missions of the light mechanized division, including the conduct of security and reconnaissance operations, the exploitation of a breach of enemy lines, and the sealing of a breach in friendly lines by occupying a defensive position or by counterattacking. Although the division could be employed in the offensive, it was most suited, according to the regulation, for movements to contact and for operations after a front had been ruptured by other units. When the regulations described how an attack should be conducted with the light mechanized division, it emphasized that such an attack should be closely supported by the artillery and infantry and should not be conducted against an enemy in a strongly held position. In 1935, General Flavigny, commander of the first light mechanized division, explained that the division was best suited for offensive operations on an enemy’s flank or in the exploitation of a breakthrough.

Even though the mechanized cavalry divisions could be used in an offensive or defensive manner, French doctrine in the mid-1930s still placed a greater stress on traditional cavalry missions of reconnaissance and security. At the War College, in 1935–1936, an instructor noted that the mechanized division could accomplish the same sort of missions for a large motorized unit that a nonmechanized cavalry unit could accomplish for the “normal” large units. The doctrine for employing the light mechanized division thus did not differ greatly from the doctrine for employing other cavalry divisions. The major difference was the recognition that the capacity of the mechanized unit for movement over long distances was greater than that for the horse-cavalry units. The 1936 instructions on the tactical employment of large units succinctly summarized the capabilities of the light mechanized division:

Equipped for the distant search of intelligence, capable of assuring its own security, it is able to fulfill, with necessary reinforcements, all the missions assigned to large units of cavalry; it is able in particular to assure the reconnaissance and the security indispensable to large motorized units.

In the late 1930s, the French continued to study the proper employment of the light mechanized division, and by 1939 they placed greater emphasis than before on the offensive capability of the division. The change was not an immediate one. In 1938, several lectures on the new division were presented at the War College and the Center of Higher Military Studies. The major theme of these lectures was the capability of the mechanized cavalry division to perform traditional cavalry missions. One lecturer especially emphasized the much greater mobility of the mechanized division over the horse-equipped division. While the lecturers did not foresee the division conducting a static, position defense, they did emphasize the offensive capability of the mechanized unit. They qualified this assertion, however, by adding that the division should be employed before the enemy strongly reinforced his defenses. In 1938, General Flavigny emphasized the offensive capability of the light mechanized division. He pointed out that the division was equipped with the SOMUA S-35 tank, which was better than the D-model tank, and that it was also equipped with the H-35, the equal of the R-35 tank. The presence of these two tanks enabled the division to conduct frontal attacks, as well as attacks on an enemy’s flanks. Flavigny emphasized that such missions should be given to the mechanized cavalry divisions only in “exceptional” circumstances. Since many of the subordinate units with the division were not suited for the offensive, the best mission for the mechanized division was one in which all elements could participate—obviously the traditional cavalry missions of reconnaissance, security, and exploitation.

The Creation of Large French Armored Units III



When he returned to the Center of Higher Military Studies in 1939, Flavigny placed even greater emphasis on the offensive potential of the light mechanized division. As in the past, however, he stressed that the division should not be used for attacking fortified regions or strongly organized defenses. When he discussed the actual conduct of an attack, he stressed the need for artillery fire to be employed in successive bombardments, separated by approximately fifteen hundred meters, and argued that as many as one hundred armored vehicles could concentrate along a one-kilometer front. Though the successive objectives smacked of the methodical battle, Flavigny accepted a possible concentration of armored vehicles that was significantly greater than the fifty to seventy anticipated by many of his fellow officers. His presentation in 1939 also demonstrated the growing recognition by the cavalry of the greater offensive and defensive capability of the light mechanized division.

A new regulation for the cavalry appeared in 1939 and replaced the 1930 cavalry regulations and the 1935 provisional notice on the employment of motorized and mechanized units of the cavalry. The new regulation was undoubtedly the most forward-thinking regulation on mechanized cavalry or armor operations written by the French army during the interwar period. The regulation stated, “The cavalry finds its employment in all the phases of the battle….” Missions for which the cavalry was particularly appropriate were reconnaissance, security, and exploitation, as well as “intervention in the battle, which requires rapid displacement, through all types of terrain and over large spaces….”

As for the light mechanized divisions, these units, according to the regulation, could conduct an offensive either against an enemy flank or in a frontal attack. Flank attacks were preferred, but if a frontal attack was necessary, it could be conducted against an enemy who had not had the time to prepare his defenses, or against an enemy who did not possess all his defensive weaponry or units. After other elements made a penetration in an organized position, the mechanized division could conduct the final steps of the breakthrough, which would permit its rapid passage to the exploitation. When tanks more powerful than the S-35 (evidently the B-model tanks) reinforced the division, it could participate even more completely in the offensive by “penetrating rapidly and deeply into the enemy disposition.” As for the defense, the light mechanized division could reconstitute a front after an enemy breakthrough by occupation of a subsequent defensive position; it could also counterattack an enemy penetration. The regulation explained, “A light mechanized division is especially suited to fulfill such a mission.” If necessary, it could also occupy a static defense in the same fashion as an infantry division, but such employment was “exceptional” and required major reinforcements. Thus, while the light mechanized division was best suited for the traditional cavalry missions of reconnaissance, security, and exploitation, it could also accomplish missions such as a breakthrough that heretofore had been considered beyond its capability. In every sense, the 1939 regulation anticipated a more mobile and wide-ranging battle than that anticipated by any other regulation. It was also more modern in the sense of recognizing the great potential of mechanized formations.

The 1939 cavalry regulations also recognized the requirement for complex command and control systems on a highly mobile battlefield. This can be seen in its discussion of the artillery. The regulation emphasized the need for the artillery to make rapid displacements and to provide fire support in the rapidly changing situations of cavalry combat. The regulation further noted, “The will to follow the fight closely and in sight, [and] the spirit of initiative of the subordinate leaders, are indispensable for obtaining all the possible output from this arm.” Although the regulation emphasized successive bounds and the progressive displacement of fire, it carefully noted the need to move quickly to prevent the enemy from reestablishing his defensive positions. Given the highly mobile nature of the battle envisaged, close cooperation was considered essential for success on the battlefield. The regulation stressed the need to establish liaison by making frequent contacts between the commanders, moving artillery observers forward, and employing liaison teams. Thus, the organizations and methods of the artillery were adapted to the cavalry’s style of operations, rather than adapting the cavalry’s methods to the artillery’s organization. The speed of the attack depended upon the speed of the mechanized formations, rather than on the speed of the infantry or the rate of displacement of the artillery.

The military hierarchy was greatly pleased with the light mechanized division. A note in November 1939 from the director of the cavalry to the General Staff described the division as an “extremely elaborate” and “ultra-modern” combat unit. In a March 1939 meeting of the Superior Council of War, Gamelin described the mechanized division as having “become armored divisions which have, in addition, flexibility.” In another meeting, in July 1939, he praised the divisions as “a fortunate solution, more fortunate than the Panzer division.”

The concept for employment of the light mechanized division, nevertheless, was clearly different from that of the soon-to-be formed French armored divisions. While the armored division was considered an organization highly suited for the massive employment of tanks within the methodical battle, the light mechanized division was designed to fulfill the traditional cavalry missions, as well as many of the missions that might be assigned an infantry or armored division, within a much more mobile and fluid battle. Hence, the armored division doctrine agreed much more with the overall French doctrine than did the mechanized cavalry doctrine. The French army accepted this difference, because the light mechanized divisions were designed to fight in front of or to the flank of units engaged in a methodical battle, not to be engaged with them. Throughout the evolution of the mechanized cavalry doctrine, this anomalous situation favored its development. Without suffering from the constraints of the philosophy of the methodical battle, the cavalry enthusiasts remained relatively free to obtain the maximum potential from the new organization.

When one compares the evolution of the doctrine of the armored units with that of the mechanized cavalry units, several other reasons appear to explain the more advanced nature of the cavalry doctrine. From the beginning, the traditional missions of the cavalry accorded more completely with the future missions of armored units. Instead of being dominated by the infantry and artillery concepts of firepower, centralization, and the methodical battle, the cavalry emphasized mobility, the rapid use of firepower, surprise, and immediate exploitation. Such concepts enabled the tank to fulfill its potential more completely.

At the same time, the cavalry units were extremely fortunate to have the dynamic influence of General Weygand to further their development. Weygand had long been a supporter of mechanization of the cavalry. When he became chief of the General Staff and then vice-president of the Superior Council of War, he was in a position to assist the cavalry in its efforts to create the light mechanized division. In contrast, the armor enthusiasts never had a supporter of the same power and influence as Weygand, who was vice-president of the Superior Council when the negative reports from the September 1932 tests at Mailly were rendered, and who did little to help the armor enthusiasts escape from the grasp of the infantry.

Even though General Estienne was clearly the “father” of the French tank, he never possessed influence beyond the narrow confines of the tank community. Despite his achievement, his power was limited even there. Throughout most of the interwar period, the inspector general of tanks was subordinate to the inspector general of infantry and never possessed the same degree of power. Similarly, the tank technical section was a sub-element of the Department of Infantry, whose influence it never escaped. Perhaps more importantly, the cavalry escaped the deadening influence of someone like General Martin, who as the inspector general of tanks failed to grasp the potential of the new weapon. In sum, the development of armored doctrine and vehicles clearly occurred under the thumb of the infantry, while that of the cavalry occurred in a much more autonomous and independent fashion. The French developed their armored doctrine within the infantry ideal, rather than developing something completely new and different.

The development of cavalry doctrine for larger unit operations was also favored by a longer period of experimentation. Following the creation of the first light mechanized division in the mid-1930s, doctrine for mechanized cavalry initially did not differ much from that for nonmechanized cavalry. Yet, as the years passed and as the cavalrymen gained more experience, the greater potential of the mechanized cavalry formations slowly became apparent. The cavalrymen reaped tremendous benefits from their willingness to form the light mechanized divisions before every piece of equipment had been produced. In contrast, France attempted relatively few field tests with large tank formations and did not actually form the first armored divisions until four months after the war began. And the High Command steadfastly clung to its demand for sufficient medium tanks to be on hand before the divisions were formed. In comparison to cavalry doctrine, armored doctrine was thus much more theoretical, and armored leaders had much less experience commanding and employing their units. While the tank units received severe criticisms during the several field tests for their inability to overrun a strongly defended enemy position, the cavalry never suffered from these criticisms. The cavalry conducted such a mission only under exceptional circumstances. Such missions were considered for the cavalry only after the light mechanized division had been formed. The technical design of its tanks also favored the cavalry. Having witnessed the tediously slow development of the B-model tank, the cavalry selected a simpler and, in fact, much more capable vehicle that could be mass produced. In that sense, it learned from the mistakes of the tank enthusiasts.

Another factor favoring the development of the cavalry tank concerned the mission of the light mechanized division. From the High Command’s viewpoint, the operation for which the division was particularly suited was providing a strong covering force in an area such as Belgium. If the French army moved into Belgium at the beginning of a war, the light mechanized division could move forward rapidly and conduct a very strong mobile defense against a sudden incursion of enemy armored vehicles. The division could also cover the movement and deployment of the motorized divisions. On the other hand, the armored division was primarily associated with the offense and with assisting the offensive maneuver of larger infantry units. If it were necessary to employ tanks in the defense, units smaller than a division, in the French view, were more appropriate than larger ones. Consequently, the mechanized cavalry divisions coincided more nearly with the perceived needs of France than did the armored divisions and were formed much earlier. Gamelin reflected this belief in the July 1939 meeting of the Superior Council of War when he described the light mechanized division as a more “fortunate” solution than the panzer division.

France’s movement toward mechanization was thus characterized more by its fragmentation and diversity than by its uniformity or clarity of purpose. The French concluded that an all-purpose battle tank could not be created, since the characteristics of the ideal tank could never be combined in one tank. A high-speed, heavily armored, low-cost vehicle was technically impossible to create. A tank to accompany the infantry was developed through infantry channels, a medium tank was developed through the energetic efforts of General Estienne and his disciples, and a cavalry tank was developed, naturally, by the cavalry. Each development channel sought to produce a tank with characteristics designed to maximize its potential utilization with that particular branch, whether to accompany the infantry, act as a main battle tank, or perform in a cavalry role. And each channel produced a variety of test vehicles and prototypes which consumed enormous quantities of precious resources and intellectual energies. None of these channels ever seriously doubted that the tank was an important addition to the battlefield. The significant debate concerned how the tank was to be used on the battlefield, and the differing concepts existing among the several institutions about employment prevented the emergence of a single, dominant idea on the role of armor. For that reason, the debate over the function of the individual tank was an inseparable part of the debate over the formation of large armored units.

The debate over the proper function of the tank also subordinated the technology of the tank to the already existing doctrine. In the normal fashion of the French High Command, each branch decided what it wanted the tank to do and then energetically pursued the construction of a tank designed and equipped to accomplish this end. In the case of the infantry tank, the French designed a tank specifically limited by the doctrinal constraints of the infantry and artillery intensive methodical battle. In the case of the medium tank, the armor enthusiasts became captured by the attractiveness of the “perfect” tank, which, unfortunately, was almost beyond the capability of French industry to produce and definitely beyond its capability to produce in the same mass numbers as the light infantry tank. In the case of the cavalry tank, the French designed a highly mobile and capable tank that doctrinally but not technologically was ill-prepared for anything other than the traditional cavalry mission. Throughout the debate, there was never a willingness to compromise and combine limited and precious resources into a single effort for creating a tank relying on the most modern technology and a highly flexible doctrine. France thus dissipated her efforts, for she had decided early in the 1920s that the “tank to do everything” did not exist.

In fairness, one must admit that concentrating all her efforts in one area might not have changed France’s fortunes. When one seeks change in a bureaucratic system, one does not open closed minds or move projects forward simply by creating a more centralized and disciplined system; creative ideas or forward thinking do not necessarily prosper in such a system. For France, a more highly centralized effort may have resulted in an even greater dominance of the methodical battle ideal and a further dilution of the medium tank and cavalry tank programs. Since only an extremely small portion of the army’s hierarchy recognized the potential of mobile warfare or approached questions of technology and doctrine from that perspective, no real possibility of a completely different approach actually existed. In that sense, the failure was both conceptual and institutional. To suggest otherwise is to give credit where credit is not due.

When the battle of France was fought in May-June 1940, the allocation of French tanks reflected the army’s doctrine. According to the figures given by Lt. Col. Charles de Cossé-Brissac, the French army had twenty-five battalions of accompanying tanks on the northern and northeastern frontiers on 10 May 1940. This was a total of 1,125 tanks. The three light mechanized divisions had a total of 582 tanks, and the five cavalry divisions had a total of 110 tanks. There were also three armored divisions with a total of 624 tanks, with more than half of these being H-39 instead of B-model tanks.

Although these figures do not include the fourth armored and fourth light mechanized divisions, which were formed after 10 May, almost half the French tanks were employed in an infantry support role. Less than 25 percent were employed in the French armored divisions, two of which were formed in January and one in April 1940. When these inexperienced divisions entered combat, they were inadequately prepared for the mobile warfare the Germans forced upon them. Their late formation and lack of preparation was a direct consequence of the French army’s inability to understand the extra dimension mobile armor added to the battlefield.

Franco-Prussian War 1870-Analysis


The Battle of Bapaume (1871) took place from 2–3 January 1871, during the Franco-Prussian War in and around Biefvillers-lès-Bapaume and Bapaume. The Prussian advance was stopped by Genéral Louis Léon César Faidherbe at the head of the Armée du Nord.


The “Rifle Battalion 9 from Lauenburg” at Gravelotte.

Some three months before the bombardment of Paris began, Strasbourg capitulated after having endured weeks of indiscriminate shelling by German troops bent on coercing the beleaguered garrison into surrender. The city’s capitulation finally took place on the 28 September, but, long before then, a delegation from Switzerland had materialized, seeking to arrange the evacuation of non-combatants. Such humanitarian sentiments conflicted with those of the vociferous German public and press, however, as well as with military imperatives. Whereas the war of 1866 had not been coloured by ethnic animosities, bad blood was bound to play a role in a conflict between peoples and during which the distinctions separating combatants from non-combat- ants ineluctably became nebulous. Whilst, among the soldiers of the opposing armies, a sense of shared hardships and dangers frequently mollified any enmity, there were episodes of shocking brutality, including the massacre at Passavant of a Garde Nationale battalion that had sur- rendered. As is so often the case in war, however, the most implacable hatred was often evinced by those who were farthest from the fighting. Bismarck’s wife, for instance, wanted all the French ‘shot and stabbed to death, down to the little babies.’ Even the pious Moltke found himself sanctioning increasingly brutal reprisals against the francs-tireurs – to whom belligerent status was denied by the Germans and whose account- ability to the French authorities was at best limited – and those French civilians who were either found to be resisting his troops or were perceived to be doing so. Although his objections to the bombardment of Paris were mostly inspired by his military pragmatism, there were those at home and abroad who attacked the policy on moral grounds. ‘There hangs over this whole affair an intrigue contrived by women, archbishops and professors … ’, an exasperated Bismarck grumbled to his wife at the end of October.

Meanwhile the men freeze and fall ill, the war is dragging on, the neutrals waste time discussing it with us, while … France is arming herself with hundreds of thousands of guns from England and America … . All this so that certain people may be praised for saving ‘civilisation’.

Like Lincoln during the American Civil War, Bismarck was fearful that, if the fighting dragged on, foreign intervention of one kind or another would ensue. Certainly, Russia’s repudiation, on 29 October, of the Black Sea clauses of the Treaty of Paris did raise the prospect of an international conference that might seek to impose a settlement on Prussia and France, too. In any case, the former was fast falling victim to her own success as, in the eyes of the world, her victories over the fledgling republic transformed her from an avenger to an oppressor. At the beginning of December, Moltke wrote to Trochu advising him of the defeat of the ‘Army of the Loire’ and the fall of Orléans. Regardless of whether, as Bismarck suspected, this was a surreptitious peace overture, it persuaded the French high command that the relief of the capital was now becoming improbable. It coincided, moreover, with the gory failure of a bid by Paris’s defenders to break out. Thereafter, Trochu agreed to make one more attempt to do so, if only to demonstrate to the radical republicans that their vaunted tactic of a sortie en masse could not succeed against such disciplined, well-equipped adversaries. The Battle of Buzenval, as it is known, certainly made the point for him, ending as it did in another sanguinary check. Expecting this to spark off riots or even a rebellion, the government now relieved the hapless Trochu of command of the garrison and appointed General Joseph Vinoy in his stead. Sure enough, on 22 January 1871, shots were exchanged around the Hôtel de Ville as a few left-wing extremists, including some members of the Garde Nationale, were dispersed by troops loyal to the administration. But the mass rising that had been feared did not occur. With the food stocks all but exhausted and with no prospect of salvation, the whole of Paris’s population had to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that the end was nigh and that the government would have to sue for terms.

The signing of an initial armistice followed on 28 January. By this stage, the Republic’s armies had been as comprehensively defeated as had those of the Empire before them. Though overwhelmed on the strategic plane, at the tactical level the latter especially had fought with some distinction. Indeed, the successes enjoyed in this regard, the most notable being at Mars-la-Tour and Borny, proved cruelly deceptive. ‘It is fire effect, nowadays so powerful, which will determine the issue’, Moltke had predicted on the eve of the war. Yet, from the outset, actual events on the battlefield showed this to be too much of a simplification. Indeed, a pattern emerged at Froeschwiller that was to be repeated several times. Here, the French found themselves confronted by greatly superior numbers of enemy troops who attacked not so much in depth as on a broad front, enveloping their prey. Although the greater reach and rate of fire of Krupp’s ordnance offered significant tactical advantages, the Chassepot was appreciably superior to the Dreyse rifle in both these respects. In fact, the infantry units of the Confederation and its allies were often checked by their French counterparts, eventually advancing to occupy ground that the German artillery had effectively conquered through remote bombardment. French technological failures occasionally contributed to the outcome, too, as did the use of outdated doctrines. The percussion fuses of the German shells evidently proved more reliable than the timing mechanisms used by the French up to the Battle of Coulmiers (November, 1870); the latter devices, if they exploded at all, could only be set to certain ranges.

Whereas this effectively created safe havens for the enemy, at Froeschwiller, MacMahon allowed the German infantry to get too close to his own guns. Clinging to the French Army’s traditional practice, he kept much of his artillery in reserve, intending to commit it at the climactic moment. His timing and coup d’oeil failed him, however, and his gunners were driven back by a hail of rifle-fire. Attempts by both sides to use cavalry for shock-action were similarly flawed. For example, at Froeschwiller, the nine squadrons of General Michel’s cuirassier brigade were virtually wiped out executing charges that were as futile as they were courageous, while, at Sedan, General Margueritte’s squadrons met the same fate. Although the Prussian king himself was moved to remark on the bravery of the latter group of horsemen, it is improbable that they came within a sword’s length of a single enemy soldier, so intense was the fire directed against them. Even the success of Bredow’s charge at Vionville – which, perfectly timed and carefully screened, managed to catch Canrobert’s batteries on the hop, throwing them into chaos at a critical moment – was only gained at the cost of 50 per cent casualties among the attacking cavalry.

Similarly, the premature attack by the Prussian Guard Korps at St Privat bears witness to the destructive effects of modern firepower; 8000 men were killed or wounded, mostly in the space of 20 minutes. A small indication of the extraordinary dedication of France’s better troops is also provided by the losses they endured. One regiment that entered the battle at Froeschwiller 2300-strong emerged with just three officers and 250 men. In the same engagement, the 3rd Zouaves lost 45 out of their 66 officers and 1775 out of 2200 rank and file. That they continued resisting to such extreme lengths suggests that their morale was all that had been claimed on the eve of hostilities. Certainly, the war was not lost for lack of courage. Indeed, the French infantry generally lived up to their reputation for resilience and aggressive spirit, not least at Borny, where their savage, dashing counter-attacks confirmed the Germans’ evaluations of their tactical prowess.

Other traditions of the French Army, however, contributed to its ultimate defeat. Besides the ubiquitous ‘Système D’, practices and equipment developed for the recent campaigns in Mexico and Africa proved ill- suited to large-scale operations undertaken on friendly soil in the heart of Europe. Whereas the Prussian uhlans and hussars roamed almost at will, the French light cavalry, reluctant to venture far without infantry support, proved inept at reconnaissance, screening and the penetration of enemy-held territory; it soon became more of an encumbrance than an asset. Similarly, instead of simply resting by the roadside, French columns insisted on coiling up at the end of each day’s march, with the result that units, groping through the darkness, would continue to trickle into the camps throughout the night. Many soldiers, moreover, slept, not in billets as the Germans usually did, but in flimsy tents intended for use in warmer, drier climes. Freezing temperatures and heavy rain often combined with hunger in undermining morale.

The sudden influx of reservists and raw recruits into units of the standing army also undermined the French forces’ cohesion, just as theorists like Du Picq had feared it might. This problem became particularly acute once the Republic began drafting roughly a million men into the army in the aftermath of Sedan. By the time of the armistice, the first of these, some 578 000 bachelors, had been mobilized. Yet, like the Americans in 1861, the French struggled to furnish such a mass of raw levies with sufficient training and equipment, let alone a leavening of seasoned troops. Technicians, such as engineers and gunners, and officers were in particularly short supply. That the Republic had to turn to Catholic, royalist generals like Vinoy, Claude d’Aurelle de Paladines and Auguste Ducrot, an authoritarian who loathed revolutionaries, to command its armies was not only somewhat ironic, but also exerted a malign influence over civil-military relations; too many radicals eyed these professionals with intense suspicion. Efforts to overcome the dearth of regimental officers also caused difficulties. Former soldiers had to be granted commissions, while units of the Garde Nationale Mobile were permitted to elect their leaders. However, as the latter scheme led to the dislodgement of presiding officers without due regard to the provisions of military law, it proved short-lived. Thereafter, the expedient of doubling the size of companies was resorted to, whereby the demand for officers was halved.

This did nothing to improve the discipline and tactical manoeuvrability of units that were deficient in both. Control, both military and political, over the francs-tireurs who fought, at least nominally, for France was also shaky. Largely foreign volunteers, many of them had their own political agendas. Garibaldi’s cause, for instance, was that of the universal republic envisaged by Mazzini, which made him and his Italian mercenaries as big a threat to French conservatives as they were to Moltke’s armies. As had happened in the Iberian Peninsula 60 years before, guerrilla warfare’s very nature exacerbated the social and political rifts that international conflict had highlighted.

Indeed, both the Germans and French found that for every possibility in modern warfare there was a corresponding problem. The shortages of trained specialists to support and lead them reduced the potential of the Republic’s massive armies, as did the lack of up-to-date armaments with which to equip them. There were insufficient Chassepots to go round, but few of the shoulder arms purchased abroad were as deadly. One consignment of rifled muskets imported from the USA that had been gathering rust in an arsenal since the Civil War was issued to the Breton Gardes Nationales, who, as fate would have it, were then entrusted with the defence of a key sector of the French position at Le Mans; untroubled by their ineffectual fire, it was here that the Germans broke through. The importation of armaments, often of differing designs and calibres, also complicated maintenance and ammunition requirements, while the encirclement of Paris deprived the provincial forces of the services of so much of France’s manufacturing industry.

On the other hand, the prosecution of that selfsame siege presented Moltke with huge practical difficulties, not the least of which was that of keeping the investing units adequately supplied with food and ammunition. Much of this had to be imported from Germany, but there were only two railway lines available, both of which were menaced by neighbouring strongholds that remained in enemy hands. Aggravated by the ravages of war, including the destruction of tunnels and other acts of sabotage, the shortcomings of France’s railway network impeded the Germans’ operations, just as they had hampered those of her own troops. Although they employed captured rolling stock and, much to the detriment of domestic services, brought in some 3500 railway workers and 280 locomotives from Germany, the invaders experienced real difficulties in constructing and preserving a continuous logistical loop, particularly once their armies penetrated deep into France and the bombardment of Paris began. If Gambetta ultimately lost the war through his failure to win the hearts and minds of the French people, there were moments when it seemed as though the Germans, for all their victories, might fall at the last hurdle for want of adequate supplies.



French Artillery – Early Napoleonic Era


French artillerie a pied de la Garde & their 12 pounder smoothbore cannon.


French artillery doctrine can be neatly summed up in this passage from Tousard:

In defensive positions, place the large calibers in situations from which you can discover the enemy at a great distance, and from which the most extensive parts of its front are to be seen.

In attack, place these large calibers in the weakest part of your order of battle, consequently the most distant from the enemy; on the same side with the with the false attacks; on such heights which can, in securing them from insult, afford you the means of seconding the flanks of the real attack, and, if possible, batter de revers, the points which are attacked …

You should know the effect which you are to produce; the troops which you have to support; the points of attack, and take your positions so as not to impede your troops, nor occupy such where infantry could be more usefully employed than artillery. Avoid bringing your cannon too near and exposing them too much. Avail yourself of the disposition of the ground to cover your front, and especially your flanks; and, unless you are sure of a decisive effect, never trust your cannon from the protection of the troops.

Your crossfires should embrace the whole of the enemy’s position, and the ground he must march over to attack you. Let your fire be concentrated, that is to say, offer to the enemy only scattered subdivisions to fire at, whereas from your several positions you may batter the same object.

These same objects, in the defensive, are the Debouches, or openings of the enemy; the heads of such of its columns which threaten you; the ground in front of your weakest parts.

In the offensive; the whole front of the enemy’s army on which you should fire, in order to check and perplex him; and the parts which you intend to attack and destroy.

Force the enemy to make use of direct fire, before their crossfires might annoy your attacking troops; and, when forced to cease firing on the points which your troops attack, batter such of the enemy’s as are collateral to them.

Fire on an extent which covers the amplitude with the divergency of your shots.

Make your shot range the greatest dimension of a troop. Consequently, batter a line obliquely, or en echarpe, and a column with direct fire, but never trust your pieces from the protection of your troops.

Place your cannon so as to be beaten neither en echarpe, in flank, nor in the rear, unless you can shelter yourself, or have the certainty of producing the expected effect before you can be entirely disabled, and put hors de combat.

Before adopting a situation, consider the nature of the site, to avoid the miry, stony, and broken ground.

Secure to yourself easy means of advancing or retreating.

Choose positions not too much elevated. The maximum which is the most advantageous, is thirty or forty yards on six hundred, and sixteen on two hundred.

Avoid taking your situation behind your troops; your fire makes them uneasy, and presents two objects instead of one to the enemy’s fire.

Give at least thirty-six yards for each piece of your battery, unless the enemy may batter you en echarpe, under a very favorable angle; for they fire on a front, and not at a single piece.

Prefer positions from which you may batter the enemy for a longer time.

Never fire gun against gun, unless the enemy is under shelter, and his cannon exposed; moreover, unless your troops, being more annoyed by their fire than their troops are with yours, should be rendered incapable of performing their maneuvers.

Embrace with your fire the whole field of battle, or such part of it where the greatest number of their troops are collected, and do not fire on a contracted point.

Accelerate your firing so much the more as you may do it with more justness.

Make use of the grapeshot at shorter distances than such as are prescribed by the tables, if the field of battle is unequal, soft, covered, plunging, or plunged.

Spare your ammunition for a critical moment. Infantry, at quick time, march two hundred yards in three minutes; cavalry, at gallop, in half a minute.

Never abandon your cannon but when the enemy enters the battery. The last discharges are the most destructive: they may perhaps be the means of your preservation, but for certain those of your glory.

While the tumult of the Revolution did not affect the artillery officer corps as much as it had in the infantry and cavalry, 81 percent of the artillery officers on the Army List in 1789 emigrated. This left a burden on the remaining officers, such as Napoleon, and the NCOs, which was eventually filled to some extent. Newly commissioned officers also filled the void: Marmont, for example, expertly served and smoothly emplaced guns to support Desaix and Kellermann at Marengo in 1800, smashing the Austrian pursuit and helping turn defeat into victory.

Tactics employed by the artillery units in the Wars of the Revolution reflected what had been taught in the schools before the wars. Although not always successful, and many times outnumbered in guns and equipment by the Austrians, the French artillerymen learned their trade and supported their infantry brethren on the battlefields of the Republic. The horse artillerymen brought a new variable into the artillery/infantry equation, and Séruzier remarked that “they were renowned for their courage, and no less for their contentious spirit. They pushed esprit de corps far beyond the point of virtue and believed themselves infinitely superior to their comrades in the foot artillery.” Horse artillery were assigned to the cavalry as, according to Kilmaine, “it is the only way to make up for our scarcity of cavalry.” They fought alongside the clouds of light troops that screened attacks, closely supported attacking infantry in line or column, and in the advance guard of the army. They furnished the needed artillery fire with the support that sometimes kept a faltering attack moving. At the Battle of Wattignies in October 1793, a French concentration of five artillery companies, three horse and two foot, totaling thirty guns, paved the way for the decisive infantry assault: the three horse artillery companies accompanied the French infantry, while the two foot companies conducted counterbattery fire against the opposing Austrian artillery. The doctrine taught and written about before the wars was starting to bear fruit.

When the French phased out the divisions of all arms by 1800, artillery was still assigned to infantry and cavalry divisions. Artillery was initially employed to support the skirmishers in attacks, as well as being formed in multiple company batteries along the front of the army to support the infantry’s main and secondary attacks. One of the problems in the Revolutionary campaigns was that the French were many times outnumbered in artillery by the excellent Austrian artillery, and were many times outshot, as at Neerwinden in 1793.

Napoleon’s coming to power in 1799 gradually changed all that. The artillery arm was enlarged, and more guns were manufactured and issued to the gun companies. The Grande Armée of 1805, the best Napoleon ever led, was short of horse transport (which is an indication that Napoleon’s actual intention was to invade England), and the artillery was short of horses when it moved east to face the Austrian invasion of Bavaria. Not all the guns and ancillary equipment could be taken until the horse shortage could be solved. Davout had to leave some of his guns and artillery equipment at Mannheim during the French offensive, to be retrieved later.

After the Austerlitz campaign and subsequent peace treaty, Napoleon reorganized his artillery in a more logical manner. New guns of the Système AN XI, of which the 6-pounder, a new 12-pounder, and a 5.5-inch howitzer were being produced, and now were issued as soon as they were manufactured. What Napoleon wanted to do was issue every infantry division in the Grande Armée with two artillery companies. He also wanted one of them to be a horse artillery company if there were enough to go around. One horse artillery company would be assigned to every light cavalry division, and the heavy cavalry divisions would get two each, and all divisional artillery companies would be equipped with 6-pounders and 5.5-inch howitzers. An army artillery reserve would be formed, where most of the 12-pounders would be held. Additionally, corps artillery reserve companies would be held by the corps commanders. The 4- and 8-pounder Gribeauval guns would either be placed in the arsenals for storage as they were replaced by the new ordnance, or assigned to armies in secondary theaters, such as Italy and Spain.

In December 1814, General Ruty conducted a study that favored the older 8-pounder Gribeauval gun tube over the newer and widely employed 6-pounder of the Système AN XI. His main points were that the older piece was better and more accurate, that there had been no field testing comparing the two pieces, and that the weight saved by using the lighter piece failed to give it a decisive advantage over the older 8-pounder.

Ruty also found that the companies of each gun type were almost identical in size, and that the number of horses needed to haul both guns and their ancillary equipment was also nearly identical. He also came to the conclusion that:

The 8 caliber has, in all respects, an undeniable advantage over the 6-caliber. The use of the former, in preference to the latter, could not be put in doubt if we disregarded all economic considerations in the use of the resources. If, on the other hand, we proposed to coordinate with these last considerations, rather than with the first ones, the determination of the field calibers, the advocates of the old system would appose [sic] to the 6 caliber, the 4 caliber which, for the economy of the resources, obtains more advantages in relation to the 8 caliber. Yet, if the question was considered from only one of these points of view, it would be discussed in an incomplete and wrong way. In order to grasp the real point of view of the question, we must determine, in a more precise manner, the various purposes the cannon can serve in field warfare and then, examine if, for a definite sum of resources, the combination of the 8 and 4 calibers serves better these purposes than the intermediate 6 caliber.

Finally, Ruty stated that:

If the reasoning itself did not suffice to establish the advantages of the 8 caliber or the 6 caliber in the formation of the batteries… it would rely on the memories of the past to convey its undeniable advantages … Twenty years of brilliant success had sanctified it. Nobody can feel more inclined than an artillery officer to grant the personnel a share of merit it has to claim in these successes; yet it is for the same officer to judge to what extent the nature of the weapon has played a part in obtaining these successes. It seems impossible to deny that the material and positive superiority of a caliber more significant than the usually weaker caliber, had a lot to do with the superiority of our horse artillery batteries generally accepted at the time of the war currently being discussed. This opinion was so widespread that the gunners brought themselves reluctantly to renounce a weapon that so many reasons of pride and trust made it precious to them. They seized with eagerness the opportunity to take it back, wherever the 8 caliber was still accepted in the composition of field companies, in competition with the 6 caliber, which has been introduced in our armies only successively.

The addition of the new 6-pounder into the French artillery simplified many issues, such as ammunition resupply and the number of calibers used by the field armies. However, the Système AN XI was not fully implemented, only the 6-pounder and 5.5-inch howitzer being issued in large numbers. Furthermore, as has been noted, the new carriage for the 6-pounder was unsuitable and fell apart after hard campaigning, so the 6-pounder had to be remounted on the older Gribeauval carriages taken from the armories.

On campaign, French artillery was organized by company, the companies being assigned to a separate corps under a corps artillery chief who was usually a general officer. Companies of the same regiment did not necessarily serve together, or even in the same corps, though sometimes it was specified that they should. There was no battalion-level organization in the artillery regiments.

Corps artillery was organized with a corps reserve, and with every infantry division receiving one company of foot artillery. Those companies were also issued with four extra caissons to carry ammunition resupply for the infantry. There were also companies assigned to the army artillery reserve, that mission generally being taken over after 1809 by the larger Guard artillery. A typical artillery order of battle for a corps in the Grande Armée is represented by that of Davout’s III Corps at the Battle of Auerstadt on 14 October 1806.

The total authorized strength of the French artillery arm in 1809 at the height of the Empire was as described in the following extract:

The French imperial corps of artillery, at this time, is composed of eight regiments of foot artillery, and six regiments of horse artillery. The full complement of the first is two thousand five hundred and eighty- two men, including the officers, and the total of the foot artillery is twenty thousand six hundred and fifty-six men. The full complement of a regiment of horse artillery is five hundred and twenty-four men, and the total is three thousand two hundred and twenty-nine men.

Fifteen companies of artificers, ninety-two men including four officers, thirteen hundred eighty. Eight battalions of the train, the great complement of which is four hundred and seventy-seven men, and the total, including the officers, thirty-eight hundred and sixteen.

When the battalions of the train are put on the war establishment, they are increased to the same number of battalions, of six companies, each of ninety-nine men, sixty of whom are conscripts.

There are also two battalions of pontonneers of six hundred and ten men; officers, soldiers and artificers, total twelve hundred and twenty men.

Fourteen companies of veteran cannoneers, fifty men each, seven hundred men, and one hundred and twenty-eight garde-côte companies of one hundred and twenty-one men each, which give a complement of fifteen thousand four hundred and eighty-eight men.

The whole of the French artillery is thus forty-six thousand four hundred and eighty-nine men, including the officers. In this number are not included the sappers and miners, which were formerly attached to the artillery, and which now form part of the corps of engineers, the total of which is five thousand four hundred and forty-five men, exclusive of four hundred and twenty-eight officers, who compose the imperial corps of engineers.