Military Tactics

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french revolutionary wars period
technological changes
modern, early-twentieth-century war

Until the French Revolution, the distinction between military strategy and tactics was so obvious that even feckless salon generals—an abundant species before the revolution—could grasp it. Strategy, as the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz put it in 1830, was "the use of battles to attain the object of war." Tactics referred to "the use of armed forces in battles." This distinction began to blur as armies expanded after 1789. Flush with draftees from conscription, such as the French levée en masse, and new national guard levies, such as the Austrian Landwehr, all the European powers found themselves deploying not one but many armies comprised of multiple divisions or corps. This created an intermediate level of warfare, between strategy and tactics, which was generally called "operations."

Given that tactics and operations have always been interrelated, this entry discusses the development of both concepts in the years between the French Revolution in 1789 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

french revolutionary wars period

The revolutionary military tactics unleashed by the Jacobins in the French Revolutionary Wars had their roots in the old regime. Already in the 1770s several French military philosophes had wrestled with the demands of modern war. Impatient with the inconclusive methods of the age of Frederick the Great (r. 1740–1786), when small, poorly supplied professional armies maneuvered in vast spaces and habitually refused battle, a number of uniformed French reformers (Pierre de Bourcet, Jean de Gribeauval, and Jacques de Guibert) pressed for the introduction of all-arms "divisions"—12,000-man units that would include infantry, cavalry, and artillery and move faster and hit harder; additional artillery with standardized calibers in mobile six- and eight-gun batteries; and a modern general staff that would coordinate the operations of a multipart army and drive it forward to live off the land and, according to Guibert, hit "pitilessly, drowning the enemy in flame and steel."

In a series of campaigns from 1796 to 1800, the young French generals formalized the changes begun in the 1770s. The French embraced the division of 12,000 men with thirty-eight guns. The French line infantry—filled with conscripted peasant louts—increasingly resorted to bayonet charges by "shock columns" shielded up to the point of attack by dispersed companies of tirailleurs (sharpshooters). In theory, the celerity of the shock columns compensated for their clotted vulnerability to volley fire from lines of waiting gunners and musketeers. In practice, the early French shock columns—which would be vastly improved under Napoleon—merely released what one Austrian onlooker called "un mer de sang" (a sea of blood). At Jemappes (1792) and Wattignies (1793), the French infantry suffered 30 percent casualties, which were sustainable only because France alone had universal conscription, and manpower was therefore plentiful and cheap.

French operations on multiple fronts in all weather worked chiefly because the French systematized what they called supply à la maraude (marauding). The army often marched without heavy impediments such as tents and field kitchens, preferring to requisition food, drink, fuel, and shelter from enemy populations. Paradoxically, heavy requisitioning eroded the fighting effectiveness of the French army. Dependent on scrounging and pillage, French units literally dissolved in Spain, Russia, and Germany in their mad scramble for food and drink. That became a characteristic of the French Grand Army that the Allies learned to exploit.

General Napoleon Bonaparte refined the French military reforms. He folded two or three divisions into a corps. Napoleon increased the ratio of French guns to infantry faster than his enemies, from 2 per 1,000 at Austerlitz in 1805, to 3 per 1,000 at Bordino in 1812, to 3.5 per 1,000 at Leipzig in 1813. Shock tactics under Napoleon were fused with linear tactics in a package called l'ordre mixte: a smooth, devastating tactical transition from firing lines to bayonet charges. Bonaparte attached a brigade of cavalry to every corps and insisted on active scouting and pursuit: "No rest! Pursue the enemy with your sword in his back." Napoleonic operations strove for the manoeuvre sur les derrières (the enveloping attack), in which the French would fix the enemy in place before swinging detached units into his flanks. Clausewitz's On War, largely completed by 1830 but not published until 1833, owed its emphasis on annihilating battle to Napoleon and his brusque methods.

technological changes

The next great changes in military operations and tactics in the mid-nineteenth century were driven by technology. The French changes of the late eighteenth century had been more political and social: a determination to apply Enlightenment ideals to armed force and a need to equip a mass army of peasants and sans-culottes for war. Starting in the 1850s, the Prussians refined warfare further, as they sought ways to knit railroads, telegraphs, and improved firearms—rifled muskets and artillery—into the modern campaign. Prussian General Helmuth von Moltke (1800–1891) was the maestro.

Moltke understood that Prussia—derided by Voltaire in the eighteenth century as a "kingdom of border strips"—had to defeat its peculiar geography before it could defeat anyone else. Railroads and telegraphs would be the essential bridge between Prussia's eastern heartland—Berlin, Breslau, and Königsberg—and its rich, western industrial districts in the Rhineland and Westphalia. Under Moltke's prodding, Prussia increased its railways from 3,860 kilometers (2,400 miles) of track in 1850 to 11,580 kilometers (7,200 miles) in 1870. Prussia also militarized the railroads, double-tracking lines, adding large platforms and sidings, and building dual-use carriages that could be rapidly converted from passenger wagons to troop, horse, and artillery carriers. With a dedicated general staff railroad and telegraph section, Prussia was poised to mobilize and strike faster than any other Great Power. When Otto von Bismarck picked a fight with the Austrian Empire in 1866, Moltke swung into action.

The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was the first look at the Prussian military revolution, which was as significant operationally and tactically as the Napoleonic revolution. Speeding on trains to the Austrian border, three Prussian armies invaded Habsburg Bohemia before the Austrian army had even completed its mobilization. Moltke grasped that the new mobility of the industrial age degraded the old Napoleonic advantage of "internal lines," that is, of a well-supplied position between converging enemies. If the enemies converged fast enough, they could throttle the central army before it had properly deployed. "An army hit in the front and flank finds that its strategic advantage of internal lines has been beaten tactically," Moltke later summarized.

Of course the tactics themselves had to be sound, and Moltke's were the best. Prussia in 1866 was the first European Great Power to arm its entire infantry establishment with breech-loading rifles. Although the other powers had switched in the course of the 1850s from muskets to rifles, they all preferred muzzle-loaders because of the problem of fire control. Excited troops in the heat of battle tended to shoot wildly. Provided with a breechloader, they might fire off all of their ammunition—typically sixty rounds—in just fifteen minutes. A rifleman with a muzzle-loader would need an hour, and would be more easily regulated by his noncommissioned officers, who would have time to cool emotions, call out ranges, and align front and back sights.

Moltke never solved the problem of fire control. No army ever has. Only one out of every 250 rounds fired by a Prussian infantryman in 1866 actually struck an Austrian. But that was not bad by nineteenth-century standards. Union troops in the American Civil War required 1,140 pounds of lead and powder to kill a single Confederate. In every battle of 1866, scrambling Prussian infantry companies defeated lumbering Austrian shock columns. By the end of the war, whole Austrian units dissolved at the approach of the Prussians.

In the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), the French army rearmed with its own breech-loading rifle—the "Chassepot"—and discarded the aggressive shock tactics that they had employed since the French Revolution. Instead they emphasized defensive fire from prepared positions. Moltke met this challenge with a second technological leap. Between 1866 and 1870 the Prussians took delivery of new field artillery: rifled, steel, breech-loading six-pound Krupp cannon. The new Prussian field guns outranged France's obsolete muzzle-loading bronze four-pounders, were more accurate, and had a higher rate of fire. Although they stumbled initially, by the last battles of the war—beginning with the great victory at Sedan (September 1870)—the Prussians had learned the tactical rule that would apply in the Russo-Japanese War and World War I: never send infantry to do a job that artillery can do. Squeezed into a narrow pocket around Sedan, the French army was pulverized by a closing ring of 700 Krupp cannon.

Sedan also enshrined the modern operational ideal: the Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle). An extended version of the Napoleonic manoeuvre sur les derrières, the Kesselschlacht would be handed down from Moltke to Alfred von Schlieffen. Advancing quickly by road or rail, aggressor armies would fix a flat-footed enemy in place and swarm around his flanks, enveloping him, cutting off his lines of retreat, and demolishing him in a cauldron of fire.

modern, early-twentieth-century war

The Russo-Japanese, or Manchurian, War (1904–1905) should have put European armies on their guard. It was the first clash of Great Powers armed with the latest military technologies, which represented a geometric increase in killing power over the arms of the early 1870s. The new technologies of the new century had been demonstrated on a small scale in the Boer War (1899–1902). Boer troops armed with magazine rifles, quick-firing cannon, and automatic weapons had torn the overconfident British to pieces. At the battle of Colenso in 1899, the entrenched Boers had killed or wounded 1,143 British troops against just fifty casualties of their own.

Those results had seemed to confirm the prediction of the Polish banker Jan Bloch, who in 1897 had famously argued that war was no longer possible because of technological advances: "any advance in force along a front swept by the enemy's fire has become impossible." By 1904 a modern brigade of 3,000 men with artillery was capable of spewing more shells and bullets in a single minute than the Duke of Wellington's entire army of 60,000 had fired in the daylong battle of Waterloo in 1815. In the siege of Port Arthur, attacking Japanese troops sustained 60,000 casualties. Artillery was the chief agent of death. Guns and howitzers fired faster, and also struck harder because new chemical bursting charges permitted increased shell weights. Russian and Japanese officers at Mukden noted the first cases of a new affliction called "shell shock."

Why the European armies marched off to impale themselves on these deadly technologies in 1914 is a complex question. There were strategic disputes beyond the scope of this article, but the soldiers were driven chiefly by their own operational requirements. The German army, led by Helmuth von Moltke (1848–1916)—the great Moltke's pallid nephew—provoked the war to implement the Schlieffen Plan. Named for Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen (1833–1913), who had been German general staff chief from 1891 to 1905, the plan proposed to envelop and destroy the French, then turn on the Russians. It aimed to use speed and initiative to encircle slower-moving foes before they had completed their mobilizations. But the younger Moltke failed to reckon with French and Russian advances in doctrine and infrastructure. Both armies had studied the elder Moltke and the German way of war since 1870, and had developed their own strategic railroads and offensive war plans. Thus, the Schlieffen Plan ran into a wall in September 1914 at the Battle of the Marne, where French troops and artillery blunted the German advance and pressed it back. The same fate awaited the Germans in the east. After an initial victory at Tannenberg, the Germans and their Austrian allies were forced into trench warfare. "Schlieffen's notes do not help any further, and so Moltke's wits come to an end," the German war minister scathingly observed.

Only the Germans in 1914 really understood modern war. They endowed their units with light and heavy artillery and sufficient ammunition to fight a multiday battle. Every other army—French, Russian, British, Austrian, and Italian—entered the war with little heavy artillery and suffered crippling shell shortages. The Schlieffen Plan failed chiefly because the largely horse-drawn German army simply could not transport all of the material needed to beat the French and Russians in a sequence of lightning campaigns. The Allied (and Austro-Hungarian) failures were intellectual. They sincerely believed, as French General Joseph Joffre put it in 1913, that "battles are above all moral struggles." Repressing the gory results of the Boer, Russo-Japanese, and Balkan Wars, the generals of 1914 hoped, merely hoped, that things would go better in World War I by doing the same things on a larger scale.

See alsoArmies; Clausewitz, Carl von; Moltke, Helmuth von; Napoleon; Schlieffen Plan.


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Geoffrey Wawro

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Military Tactics

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