Victory Is a Poor Advisor

Throughout the Franco-Prussian War, you can see cracks appearing in the German military that will break open in World War I, with disastrous results. For one thing, Prussian officers were never quite as good as they believed themselves to be. At their best, Prussian officers were bold yet prudent leaders who trusted their own judgment and operated in a system that gave them the freedom to exercise it.

But virtue easily curdles into vice. At the operational level, the Franco-Prussian War offers several striking examples of Prussian officers exceeding or disregarding their orders at the expense of the larger war effort. Some maneuvers early in the war were completely ruined by army and corps commanders following their own instincts without considering the larger plan. They could fixate on maintaining contact with the enemy, even when contact was to be avoided. Time and again, German officers bit off more than they could chew, saved only by the overwhelming superiority of their artillery and the passivity of the French commanders.

Flash-forward to 1914, and the same problems crop up again. Where the Schlieffen plan absolutely required a soft German defense in the center, the German commander there (Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria) went on the counterattack after the disastrous French attacks at the outset of the war. With a firmer commander in charge, like Moltke the Elder, someone might have protected the Schlieffen plan from this kind of rashness. But in 1914, Moltke’s less-capable nephew was running the show, and he deferred to the judgment of his local commanders. So he allowed reinforcements to be siphoned into a costly sideshow on the left flank, one that ended up shortening Allied lines and helping them concentrate closer to Paris.

Or there is the fate of the German right wing, where von Kluck decided to go for a shallow encirclement of the Allied armies, rather than the deeper encirclement envisioned by the Schlieffen Plan. It was an understandable decision, but it was something that should have come from above. Yet again, the commander on site changed the agenda for the larger army, and this time he cost the right wing its cohesion at the crucial moment.

Perhaps most dangerous of all is the desire for warriors to interpret victory as the result of moral virtues. Wawro paints a portrait of French and German strategists who looked at the battles of 1870 (and Prussia’s 1866 war with Austria) and saw the results of offensive spirit and boldness. In the French case, it’s somewhat more understandable. What did the Germans have that the French didn’t? Commanders who seized the initiative, marching to the sound of guns and feeling out enemy positions until a weak point could be discovered. But they’d also had better, longer-range artillery.

Dash and courage had been uselesss in the face of long-range rifle fire from prepared positions. Almost every major battle of the Franco-Prussian war follows the same three-act structure: German troops assail French positions and are cut down in droves, the French hold position while German reinforcements and artillery support arrives, and finally the French positions crack under the weight of firepower and lack of reinforcements.

But without that artillery support? German numbers had been useless, and so had the training and skill of their men. But in the wake of the war, German strategists under-played the role artillery had played in the victory and exaggerated the contributions of doctrine and courage.

War exercises the fascination of the trial by combat, an equalizer where the best warriors would triumph. But as often as not, its not martial prowess that makes the difference. The Prussians survived their own mistakes because better guns were able to massacre Frenchmen from safe ranges. But who wants to give victory to the engineers who designed a better tool for killing? Where is the glory in a gunner sitting behind friendly lines, winning a war by slamming shells into a breech? Meanwhile, the valorous are cut down from hundreds of yards away, and the stout-hearted massacred in their trenches by an enemy they can’t hit back.

But that’s war, especially in the modern age.  It’s dangerous to believe it’s something more than that. But winners always want to read deeper into their victories, to see a triumph of will in a triumph of brute strength.

Wawro quotes a caution from Vienna’s Neue Freie Presse to a victorious German nation, which reminded them that, “nations tend to slip on the blood they have shed. Victory is a poor advisor.” But Germany’s right-wing elements never did listen to another. They saw German greatness reflected in the military victories of 1877 and 1870, and didn’t realize how much those victories owed to circumstances. The confidence of 1870 grew into the arrogance of 1914-18 and finally the madness of 1941, as Germany was taught and re-taught that 1871 had been an ending as much as a beginning.

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