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Thread: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

  1. #1
    Abdülmecid I's Avatar ¡Ay Carmela!
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    Default French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    In general, historians have detected several reasons for the dismal performance of the Imperial Army during the war against Prussia in 1870. France's more rural and less industrialised society, limited railroad network, disorganised draft system, preference to a small, professional army, inferior artillery compared to the Krupp cannons, refusal to employ light cavalry as a reconnaissance force and, last, but not least, the incompetence of the high command. Several of these weaknesses were structural and very difficult to surpass, while others were somewhat coincidental, but what always troubled me the most is the sloppiness of the French officer corps. In what concerns the lower ranks, lack of literacy and the failures of an obligatory education were certainly important factors, but that still doesn't explain the mediocrity or outright incompetence of quite a few Marshals and divisional commanders.



    Bazaine's refusal to decisively confront the Germans and his ignominious capitulation in Metz is just the tip of the iceberg and could probably be examined, as an attempt to maintain his forces unscathed, in order to use them for political purposes (i.e. the restoration of the Bonaparte dynasty, with him as the guarantor of the reestablished regime). In the initial engagements, the French commanders displayed a very passive attitude, never gaining the initiative and continuously retreating. Mac-Mahon proved to be insufficient, the Count of Palikao conceived a terrible plan to relieve an army, whose marshal apparently enjoyed being besieged, Trochu consistently failed to even come close at breaking the siege of Paris, Bourbaki succeeded in losing his entire army, while even Paladines achieved the victory at Coulmiers, thanks to his huge numerical superiority, and he was easily defeated, once that advantage disappeared. Finally, Bazaine, besides his surrender is also reprimanded for failing to issue any meaningful order in Gravelotte and its aftermath.

    Even before the war, the elite of the officer corps displayed an exemplary lack of foresight. The reforms proposed by Marshal Niel were torpedoed not only by the right and left-wing opposition (for ideological and financial reasons), but by the army officers as well. In a sign of suicidal conservatism, they argued that there was no serious need for modernisation and mass-conscription was unnecessary, since the French had managed to defeat the Russians and the Austrians in Crimea and Lombardy respectively. Meanwhile, not only the accomplishments of the First Republic's and Empire's wars were a testament to the contrary, but the Hapsburgs were casually destroyed by the Prussians exactly one year before Niel's reforms. The irony is that once the crème de la crème of the Imperial Army was captured in Sedan and Metz, the performance of the French somewhat increased, under the guidance of colonial governors and even navy admirals, like Faidherbe, Chanzy and Jauréguiberry.



    So, I wonder what were the causes of such a dismal quality in the French officer corps. Most historians blame the conquest of Algeria, as it encouraged the promotion and adoption of military virtues favouring personal bravery and unit command, at the expense of actual tactics on a strategic and operational level. This argument definitely sounds convincing, but I'm not sure if it can satisfyingly explain the totality of the phenomenon. I would perhaps add the fragile legitimacy of Napoleon's III grab of power. Unlike the House of Hohenzollern, for instance, there was a constant fear that he would be overthrown by the Republican, Orleanist or (not very probably) Legitimist opposition. As a result, the authorities applied even less meritocratic criteria in the formation of the high command, compared to even more authoritarian monarchies, because loyalty was a more important priority than actual skill. Not sure, however, if my hypothesis stands to serious scrutiny, so any counter-arguments or additional ideas about the roots of the French generals' incompetence are more than welcome.

  2. #2
    Lord Oda Nobunaga's Avatar 大信皇帝
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    Default Re: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    It goes back to the French Revolution. Officers were promoted on their merits obtained during field command, but they had no structure for training an officer corps. This was also an observation which Napoléon made (the real one I mean, not the adopted Louis pretender). Prussia on the other hand was using the methods developed from Clausewitz, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. For this reason although Moltke had to rely on some rather hot headed field commanders, he could more than make up for it with his excellent staff officers and coordination of his armies in the field. The French on the other hand had no such advantages and had to rely on sub-par planners and some very élan minded field commanders. Which no doubt would have performed well in the Napoleonic Wars but lacked the abilities to command entire armies in the field. This was also a problem which Napoléon experienced, although his own contributions mitigated that issue. The French in 1870 had no such leadership that was comparable to Napoléon or Helmuth von Moltke. But that is only one part of the problem, there are so many others that I'm not sure where to begin.
    Last edited by Lord Oda Nobunaga; April 30, 2020 at 02:57 PM.

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    Default Re: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    I think a lot of the reason for the poor performance of the French Army in the 1870 War was due to the French not having fought a major war against a peer level country for a number of years, at a time when warfare was undergoing tremoduous advancements. The advancement in weapons in thr 20 years from the Crimea to the Franco-Prussian War was revolutionary. They went from muzzle loading rifles wirh separate balls and primer patches to breech loadig rifles using self contained cartridges. Cannons during the Crimean War were mostly similar to cannons that could be found in the Napoleonic Wars, while cannon technology had advanced dramatically. As a result, French military leaders might have underestimated the impact of the advancement in technology. French experience with how trains could affect warfare was rather limited - I don't think trains played any role in the Second War of Italian Independence, and its use was rather limited even in the Crimean War.


    And in recent wars before the Franco-Prussian War, the French were largely successful, in Crimea and the Piedmont as was pointed out. That gave the French leadership a false sense of superiority. The French military leadsrship likely ranked rhe Prussians with the Austrians, that they defeated just a decade before, and underestimated them. When actual fighting showed the French military leaders that they were wrong, I don't think the French leaders knew what to do, and they were unable to adapt to the new style of warfare. The poor performance of rhd French military leaders may hVs been due to a kind of shock.

  4. #4
    Abdülmecid I's Avatar ¡Ay Carmela!
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    Default Re: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    To be frank, the only major European war that had happened since Solferino was the conflict between Austria and Prussia. Meanwhile, France had participated in various overseas adventures in Mexico, China and Vietnam. Anyway, the fact that Prussia crushed its enemy relatively easily should have warned the French command about their capabilities, given the difficultly achived victories against the same opponent in Lombardy. By the way, I forgot to also mention that the introduction of one of the few advantages France enjoyed over Prussia, the much superior Chassepot rifle, was actually resisted by a significant portion of the officer corps, which viewed the efficiency of the new weapons as controversial.
    Quote Originally Posted by Lord Oda Nobunaga View Post
    It goes back to the French Revolution. Officers were promoted on their merits obtained during field command, but they had no structure for training an officer corps. This was also an observation which Napoléon made (the real one I mean, not the adopted Louis pretender). Prussia on the other hand was using the methods developed from Clausewitz, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. For this reason although Moltke had to rely on some rather hot headed field commanders, he could more than make up for it with his excellent staff officers and coordination of his armies in the field. The French on the other hand had no such advantages and had to rely on sub-par planners and some very élan minded field commanders. Which no doubt would have performed well in the Napoleonic Wars but lacked the abilities to command entire armies in the field. This was also a problem which Napoléon experienced, although his own contributions mitigated that issue. The French in 1870 had no such leadership that was comparable to Napoléon or Helmuth von Moltke. But that is only one part of the problem, there are so many others that I'm not sure where to begin.
    Well, Napoleon III certainly lacked the military and political skills of his uncle, but the irony is that he was still more clairvoyant than his generals or the political opposition. He was essentially the only proponent of Marshal Niel's moderate reforms, which is why they eventually failed to be approved by the legislative body. The Emperor was one of the few that realised the potential threat posed by Prussia and its German satellites, while conservatives and Republicans persistently believed in the miraculous contribution of untrained conscripts (like in 1793-1794) and the professional soldiers (British style) respectively. Still, I would really like to learn more about the structural issues of the French military schools and the other factors that also played a major role.

  5. #5

    Default Re: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a527978.pdf


    This has some interesting detail on that, if you have not already looked through it that is.
    “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” Benjamin Franklin

  6. #6

    Default Re: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    Quote Originally Posted by Abdülmecid I View Post
    To be frank, the only major European war that had happened since Solferino was the conflict between Austria and Prussia.

    There was the Second Schleswig War between the German Confederacy and Denmark, although that might not be considered a major war. But the point is that Prussia had experience in fighting with a enemy of comparable organization and power after major military technogical innovations (breech loading rifles, for example) that the French did not have against major foes. It gave the Prussians experience that the French lacked. The fighting in Europe was considerably different than the colonial fighting Francr was used to. The fighting the Prussians did gave them opportunities to expose potential flaws the French lacked.

    Meanwhile, France had participated in various overseas adventures in Mexico, China and Vietnam.
    Yes, but the fighting in their overseas adventures was considerably different from the fighting they would do in 1870. Victories in those places would liky give the French a false confidence in their military. If you read in Hanny's link on page 97, it talks about how considerablely different the foes they faced in their colonial adventures were from the Pruasian army they would face in 1870. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a527978.pdf

    Also, the French failed in Mexico, and the Ming actually beat the French in some land battles in Vietnam. Neither Mexico nor Vietnam could be consider peer level opponents to the French. Fighting in the Mexican War did not fully prepare the Union or Confederacy for the fighting experienced during the Civil War - the fighting seen and the problems encountered were considerably different in the US Civil War than in the Mexican War just 13 years earlier.

    Anyway, the fact that Prussia crushed its enemy relatively easily should have warned the French command about their capabilities, given the difficultly achived victories against the same opponent in Lombardy. By the way, I forgot to also mention that the introduction of one of the few advantages France enjoyed over Prussia, the much superior Chassepot rifle, was actually resisted by a significant portion of the officer corps, which viewed the efficiency of the new weapons as controversial.
    But since the French beat the Austrians, they were not looking for reasons why they lost, and looking for things they needed to improve. It often takes a defeat before a military realizes that changes are needed. As lonv as they win, militaries often don't examine themselves to see what needs to be improved, and weaknesses often get glossed over.

    It seems a common theme that military were considered about more rapid firing repeating breech loading guns would cause soldiers waste ammo more. US Union generals opposed breech loading repeating rifles like the Spencer too.



    Well, Napoleon III certainly lacked the military and political skills of his uncle, but the irony is that he was still more clairvoyant than his generals or the political opposition. He was essentially the only proponent of Marshal Niel's moderate reforms, which is why they eventually failed to be approved by the legislative body. The Emperor was one of the few that realised the potential threat posed by Prussia and its German satellites, while conservatives and Republicans persistently believed in the miraculous contribution of untrained conscripts (like in 1793-1794) and the professional soldiers (British style) respectively. Still, I would really like to learn more about the structural issues of the French military schools and the other factors that also played a major role.
    Without a major defeat, it can be hard to convince people of the need for change.

    One thing I noticed is that the head French generals seemed rather risk adverse - it seems to me that they didn't take action because they didn't want to be blamed if things went wrong. While perhaps personally brave, they weren't willing to take initiative because they could be held accountable if it didn't work.
    Last edited by Common Soldier; May 02, 2020 at 05:13 AM.

  7. #7

    Default Re: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post


    Yes, but the fighting in their overseas adventures was considerably different from the fighting they would do in 1870. Victories in those places would liky give the French a false confidence in their military. If you read in Hanny's link on page 97, it talks about how considerable different the foes they faced in their colonial adventures were from the Pruasian army they would face in 1870. https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a527978.pdf
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0...t_bibl_vppi_i0 The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War, has two chapters on European technological and tactical developments, the French went for longer ranged minie munitions because of fighting in N Africa, ( they were picked of long range without recourse) in the 1840s/50s the Delvigne rifle musket was able to hit at 500 yards and a new kind of formation trained to use them, manoeuvring at 180 paces a a min, along with new uniforms,the Tirailleurs de Vincennes came into being, the existing Zouvres copied the techniques. As the weapon was rolled out to most units, late 1850s, the back sight was reduced from 600 to 400 yards to save on munition expenditure, and as Gen Bonneau du Martray commented,As no one doubts that the rifle will play a much more important part in success of future battles than hitherto, it is the utmost importance to train good shots. We say, in the first place, that the use of the elevating sight is too slow and too difficult in battle; it will even cause the loss of some of the advantage of breech loading. The determination of distance, and, consequently, the adjustment of the sight, are liable to error, and the time required endangers the loss of the favourable moment for firing…We think, therefore, that in the field we should abolish the use of the backsight. It is not absolutely necessary to hold the rifle at the shoulder to make good practice in firing. So they wanted more volume at medium range, formations not trained to adjust sights for long range fire within the lethal ability of the weapon, but donewell withing its capabilities, and still considered bayonet and elan the principle mode of attack. This was vindicated in combat in 1859 in Italy, but would lead to epic failures later.
    Last edited by Hanny; May 02, 2020 at 04:28 AM.
    “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” Benjamin Franklin

  8. #8

    Default Re: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    Quote Originally Posted by Hanny View Post
    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0...t_bibl_vppi_i0 The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War, has two chapters on European technological and tactical developments, the French went for longer ranged minie munitions because of fighting in N Africa, ( they were picked of long range without recourse) in the 1840s/50s the Delvigne rifle musket was able to hit at 500 yards and a new kind of formation trained to use them, manoeuvring at 180 paces a a min, along with new uniforms,the Tirailleurs de Vincennes came into being, the existing Zouvres copied the techniques. As the weapon was rolled out to most units, late 1850s, the back sight was reduced from 600 to 400 yards to save on munition expenditure, and as Gen Bonneau du Martray commented,As no one doubts that the rifle will play a much more important part in success of future battles than hitherto, it is the utmost importance to train good shots. We say, in the first place, that the use of the elevating sight is too slow and too difficult in battle; it will even cause the loss of some of the advantage of breech loading. The determination of distance, and, consequently, the adjustment of the sight, are liable to error, and the time required endangers the loss of the favourable moment for firing…We think, therefore, that in the field we should abolish the use of the backsight. It is not absolutely necessary to hold the rifle at the shoulder to make good practice in firing. So they wanted more volume at medium range, formations not trained to adjust sights for long range fire within the lethal ability of the weapon, but donewell withing its capabilities, and still considered bayonet and elan the principle mode of attack. This was vindicated in combat in 1859 in Italy, but would lead to epic failures later.
    And the French Chassepot rifle was the one area where the Grench had an advantage, so its colonial experience did produce some benefit. But simply having better rifles did not make up for defiencies in other areas, and as even your own link said, the French opponents in these overseas wars were much different from what they would face with the Prussians. As I said, I think the success in these overseas wars gave the French false confidence on how they would do against the Prussians. Thr French wouldn't be facing poor equipped and disorganized opponents when they fought the Prussians as they largely had with their overseas foes.

  9. #9

    Default Re: French Command in the Franco-Prussian War

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    And the French Chassepot rifle was the one area where the Grench had an advantage, so its colonial experience did produce some benefit. But simply having better rifles did not make up for defiencies in other areas, and as even your own link said, the French opponents in these overseas wars were much different from what they would face with the Prussians. As I said, I think the success in these overseas wars gave the French false confidence on how they would do against the Prussians. Thr French wouldn't be facing poor equipped and disorganized opponents when they fought the Prussians as they largely had with their overseas foes.
    You were correct, i was just expanding on it.

    What i was also going after was how technology in munitions and fire arms had outpaced the ability to logistical support the theoretical use in combat to its maximum advantage. Neither side had strategic issues with munition supply, Prussia used what it had on its back or in a a wagon, so no one was using them to full potential. A Bttn with rapid firing shoulder arms could not be supported by muscle powered logistical means, if it was firing at the top end of its fire rate and at the range it could be effective at, so they went for less volume and less distance than the technology gave them, because the technology to sustain such fire expenditure did not exist until then combustion engine came along. The french kinda solved it by issuing each man to carry on him 105 rnds, while Prussian had 70. Prussian lack of munitions at mars la Tour was inability to get it to where it was being consumed. The enemy was not technology, or even how best to use it, but the War Dept/Min of Finance, who control the purse strings of warfare as they have political constraints/ideas as well.

    Example Rosebud campaign, Crook turns back from reaching Custer, after firing of most ( over half) of the munitions he had on hand ( 1000 inf firing c100 rnds per man expended to cause under a 100 casualties in around 3 hours) his Army had in one engagement with the Sioux.

    Quote Originally Posted by Common Soldier View Post
    It seems a common theme that military were considered about more rapid firing repeating breech loading guns would cause soldiers waste ammo more. US Union generals opposed breech loading repeating rifles like the Spencer too.
    I believe the generals in the field wanted them by 64/5 as by then they had proved their use, but in 61 it was Ripley in charge of the US ordinance department, who in charge of what ordinances to equip the army with decided that proven, ( springfield etc) single shot weapons was the way forward, ( not as yet proven breach loading hery/spencer etc) and munition rate of fire was also high on his list of why not to go with them, US had powder shortages in 61 even with single shot weapons, and had to rely on imports for the volume of shoulder weapons it required as domestic manufacture could not meet demand.. Again because of the impracticability of keeping them supplied. In the WBTS a single breach loading Regiment had a wagon for munition resupply, and single shot Brigade of 5 regiments rated 3. Supply from manufacture was also a problem Wilder lightning Brigade fired of all its munitions, all the munitions held at Corps and Army level in one battle and it took 3 months to get supplies back to re arm the Brigade, ( Forrest burnt the first lot sent ) who reverted to single shot weapons till it arrived.
    Last edited by Hanny; May 02, 2020 at 06:54 AM.
    “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” Benjamin Franklin

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