Posts Tagged ‘ military history

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.

Learning the Wrong Lessons

I’m in the last couple chapters of Geoffrey Wawro’s The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871, and right now the Prussians are trying to deal with their catastrophic success at Sedan. Having accidentally shattered Napoleon III’s government along with his armies, the Prussians find themselves trying to negotiate a peace with a shaky provisional government that is held hostage by Parisian extremists.

But the story of the Franco-Prussian War is crucial to understanding what would happen to France in the first half of the 20th century. Back when I was reading Tuchman’s The Guns of August, I found it baffling that the French were so ill-prepared for what the new war would look like. Tuchman places heavy emphasis on the French military’s pseudo-religious devotion to the concept of elan and the offensive a outrance that nearly lost them the war in the first month. But what she doesn’t fully explain is the degree to which this was an understandable, even rational response to the debacle in 1870. And of course, the decisions that led to the French collapse in 1940 were themselves understandable and rational responses to the events of WWI.

According to Wawro, the French army in 1870 was in bad shape. The officer corps was moribund, and both the commissioned and enlisted ranks were packed full of dead wood. But in spite of all the deficiencies of French training and discipline, that’s not really what appeared to cost the French the war. Those problems certainly contributed, but the larger problem that Wawro finds in 1870 is a deadly lack of initiative at almost every level of command.

For instance, the manpower disparity between the French and the Prussians meant that time worked against the French. The French had a large standing army but no real reserves which they could mobilize. What they had at the start would have to win the war. By comparison, the peacetime Prussian army was a skeleton and nervous system onto which the mobilization of the reserve forces would pack muscle and flesh. Once that process completed, it was a force to be reckoned with. But it was vulnerable at the start of a conflict.

So France’s hope in 1870 would be to deliver some brutal blows in Germany before numbers could begin to tell. But that’s not what happened. The French army really had no agreed-upon leadership and no war plan. So they basically milled around the border, delaying any kind of offensive action while the Prussians mobilized. Then, they started looking for a good place from which to defend themselves from the Prussians’ superior numbers. But from that point on, the French would always be at a strategic disadvantage, at constant risk of being encircled and destroyed.

Even then, however, there were opportunities for success. The Prussian armies had to disperse as they advanced, which created chances for the French to isolate and destroy Prussian units. Thanks to a few missteps by Prussian officers, and some smart selections of defensive terrain on the part of French generals, the French had some golden opportunities to crush Prussian detachments. But time and again, the French would turn back a few Prussian attacks, then sit in place while Prussian reinforcements arrived to change the balance.

Finally, on the tactical level, the French had the advantage of a much better rifle, the Chassepot. It had a dominating range advantage over the Prussian rifle, and French infantry enjoyed a great reputation for marksmanship. And indeed, the Chassepot exacted a murderous toll. But rather than switching over to the offensive and counterattacking after Prussian troops had been stopped cold and slaughtered, French units would remain behind cover while the Prussian brought up artillery to blast them out. Had the French just been more aggressive, even locally, they could have set Prussian units to rout and thrown their battle plans into disarray.

But strategically, operationally, and tactically, the French army remained passive while the Prussians destroyed it. So with that background, it’s easier to understand why the French were wedded to the offensive when World War I broke out. They’d spent over thirty years correcting the caution and hesitancy that undid them in 1870, but at the cost of taking a hard look at the likely effects of long range, heavy artillery and the machine gun. To take steps in developing tactics appropriate to a battlefield dominated by big guns and machine guns would be to start encouraging exactly the kind of defensive, static thinking that resulted in defeat in 1870.

By the same token, the French army suffered stupefying casualties due to its failure to to prepare for the attrition warfare of WWI. So they spent 20 years refining their capacity to wage defensive warfare efficiently, led by a general (Petain) who had been traumatized by the sucking wound of Verdun, where a failure to maintain and defend the city’s old strongholds drastically increased casualties. The response, in one form, was the Maginot Line. In another, it was the French belief that tanks would be relegated to a supporting role in warfare, helping troops break through local defenses and preventing the same.

History buffs often talk about the lessons of history and its predictive powers. But if you look at it another way, it misleads as often as it informs. History predicts just about everything that could happen, which is why you can’t really use it to predict anything. The French drew a lot of lessons from each war with the Germans, and dutifully went about trying to prevent a repetition of old mistakes. In doing that, they managed to make new ones.