The Birth of the Modern Army
Surprise Bonus Saturday episode! Basically, as I was writing the episode on the Franco-Prussian War, I found myself going on a pretty long-winded tangent about military tactics and technology during the 19th century. So I decided, rather than create a way too long single episode, I would peel off that tangent into our first supplemental episode. For those of you who are not super interested in the nitty gritty of military doctrine and tech, feel free to skip this episode; I promise that tomorrow’s episode will still be intelligible. But for those of you who are interested in this stuff, or who just want some more detail on how the battles of the Franco-Prussian War will be carried out, then by all means, stick around.
So, very broadly speaking, in 1870 Europe was at the tail end of what is often called the age of “linear warfare.” “Linear,” in this context, refers to how armies of soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder in long, tight lines. Think of movies you’ve seen about the American Revolution or the Napoleonic Wars or the U.S. Civil War, that’s what I mean when I say “linear.” The idea here was that technology and production had progressed to a point to where every single soldier could be equipped with a firearm, which obviously has huge advantages over melee weapons or bows and arrows, the weapons of the Medieval era and the Renaissance. However, the firearms of this period were notoriously unreliable, slow to reload, and inaccurate.
Basically, in order to load a flintlock smoothbore musket, the main infantry weapon of the Napoleonic period, a man needed to pour a pre-measured charge of gunpowder down the barrel of his musket (usually measured before-hand into a paper cartridge), place a round musket ball over a cloth patch, ram the ball and patch all the way down the barrel with a long heavy stick known as a ramrod, then bring the musket up to his shoulder and pour a small amount of gunpowder onto a small metal pan on the right side of the musket. Then the soldier would close the pan, pull back a small spring loaded hammer holding a sharpened piece of flint (hence, “flintlock”), and upon pulling the trigger the hammer would slam forward into the pan, creating a spark that would light the gunpowder on the pan, and then that discharge would send a flame into a small opening into the barrel called a touch-hole, which would ignite the main gunpowder charge and fire the musket ball down range.
Obviously, this is an incredibly cumbersome and slow process, and each step needed to be done correctly or else the musket would not fire. I can actually say from personal experience that it takes a long time and a lot of mental energy to do this correctly, and doing any part of it incorrectly is incredibly frustrating and means you have to figure out what you did wrong and then fix it. You can imagine trying to do this on a practice shooting range, now imagine doing it correctly with people shooting at you and the screams of officers and dying men roaring in your ears. Then, even if you performed every aspect of this procedure correctly, and even if you were an expert marksman, there was no guarantee that you would actually hit your target. The term “smoothbore” with regards to these muskets refers to the fact that the barrel, the long metal tube that the projectile flies out of, was cast to be perfectly smooth, both inside and out. And since the musket ball had to be slightly narrower than the barrel of the musket in order to be rammed down, this meant that when the musket fired the ball inside would bounce around randomly until being flung out the end at an unpredictable angle. A test performed by the Prussian army in 1810 found that about 60% of shots fired from smoothbore muskets would hit a man-sized target at a range of 70 meters, with that percent decreasing to 40% at 140 meters, and just 5% at 210 meters. Meaning that if a commander wanted his volleys to do any real damage to the enemy, he needed to get his men disconcertingly close.
But even this test was done under ideal conditions, without the chaos and confusion of battle and without, you know, the targets shooting back. One study of the Battle of Vitoria in 1813 found that the just about 1 in 800 of shots fired by the British Army actually inflicted casualties upon the enemy. Thus, the only way that armies could utilize the firepower their muskets gave them was to have their men line up shoulder to shoulder in long, deep lines, firing all their muskets at once in mass volleys. Marksmanship was never stressed in training for soldiers in these line formations; rather, training was focused on instilling discipline, stamina, the ability to follow orders, and to not run away in panic at the sight of the enemy. If you want even more information on this, I highly recommend you check out “The Age of Napoleon” podcast, in particular Episode 6: The King’s Army, which discusses in detail life in the armies of the 18th century and into the Napoleonic period.
Now, during the Napoleonic Era their did exist another type of small arm, and this was the rifled musket. This weapon was loaded the same way as the smoothbore, with the key difference that rather than the barrel of the musket being smooth, spiral grooves were cut on the inside of the barrel that would spin the projectile as it was shot downrange. This made the rifled musket far more accurate than a smoothbore, however it came with some disadvantages. First, cutting exacting spiral grooves into the inside of the barrel was far more expensive and time consuming than creating a smooth metal tube. Further, in order to make use of the rifling, which is what these spiraled grooves are called and what gives rise to the word “rifle,” the musket ball had to be precisely sized to be just barely narrower than the barrel. This not only made producing these musket balls more time consuming and expensive, as with the rifle itself, but it also meant that it was far more difficult and thus far slower to ram the ball all the way down the barrel. Because of these drawbacks, during the Napoleonic Era rifles were only given to specialized marksmen who could take full advantage of the enhanced accuracy of the weapon.
By the 1860s, however, a revolution in military technology was forcing all countries to rethink how they deployed their armies. There were numerous aspects to this revolution, but I want to focus on the industrial and technological innovations relevant to the Franco-Prussian War, and ultimately into the First World War. So first, we have the general progression of the industrial revolution in Europe and around the rest of the world. As we briefly discussed in the last few episodes, mass industrial production had only just barely started to take off in Europe; most people were either peasants or, if they did work in towns or cities, were employed by small shops with little division of labor. By 1870, however, mass industrialization had grown leaps and bounds. In Episode 7 we will especially see this with regards to the production and utilization of railroads, but in terms of the production of weapons, this meant that it was possible to produce a quantity of arms of sophistication and complexity that was heretofore unprecedented. It was no longer impossible for a modern state to equip every soldier in the army with a rifle.
Yet it was not just that each soldier could now be outfitted with a rifle, but that these rifles were far more advanced than anything seen in the Napoleonic Wars. As we discussed before, in those days every infantryman was armed with a flintlock musket, either smoothbore or rifled. Yet by 1870 numerous advances in weapons technology provided soldiers with far more accurate and far more deadly weapons. The first was the invention of the percussion cap, a small metal cylinder that contained a chemical mixture that, when struck, would produce a spark sufficient to ignite a main gunpowder charge. This system was, if not waterproof, then at least much more water resistant than the old flintlock system and was in general far quicker and more reliable.
Second was the invention of what we call in English the Minnie ball, named after a French Army officer named Claude Étienne Minié. This was a projectile for rifles that, instead of being a simple round ball, was conical in shape and had a hollow base. This meant that the projectile was far more aerodynamic, but just as important was the fact that the hollow base of the bullet would expand when the rifle was fired, tightly gripping the rifling, meaning that when fired the conical bullet would fly straight out of the barrel spinning rapidly. To understand why this was such a huge change, imagine trying to hit a target first by whacking a baseball with a baseball bat at the target, and then by hurling an American football with a perfect spiral. Yeah, it’s possible to hit a target by whacking the baseball, but the American football is far more accurate, especially when spiraling.
The last and most radical technological change was in the development of the breechloader. At the beginning of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, while most armies were armed mostly or exclusively with rifles, these were usually rifled muskets. That is, you still had to pour the powder and ram the projectile down the barrel in order to load it. But by 1870 more and more armies were experimenting with breechloading designs; that is, firearms that could be loaded by opening up the back end (or, breech) of the rifle, pushing a paper or metallic cartridge into the breech, and closing it in order to load. This is not only far faster and easier to accomplish, but it also allows a soldier to load his weapon while lying down, rather than standing up, which is obviously far safer on a battlefield.
In 1870, both the French and Prussian armies were armed with breechloading rifles. The Prussians were armed with the Dreyse “needle” rifle, so-called because they fired by means of an internal needle puncturing the paper cartridge that held both powder and projectile. This rifle was actually introduced way back in the 1840s, and at the time was vastly superior to any rifle used by any military in the world. The French, meanwhile, were armed with the newer Chassepot rifle, named after its inventor, which while utilizing the same breechloading system was far more advanced than its Prussian counterpart. Utilizing a more powerful cartridge with a much sturdier and more finely machined bullet, the Chassepot was accurate at up to 1,000 yards and could be fired, in the hands of a well-trained soldier, eight to fifteen times per minute. The older Dreyse rifle, on the other hand, had an effective range of only 400-600 yards, and could be fired only four or five times per minute.
The French also had a brand-new weapon, which while it would not see great service in the Franco-Prussian War, would prove to be perhaps the most important weapon system of the First World War. This was the mitrailleuse, roughly translated into English as “machine gun.” Now, technically, the French mitrailleuses of 1870 were not “machine guns” in the modern sense of the word, but they had the same effect: basically this was a large metal container holding two or three dozen barrels each loaded with a single cartridge. This weapon could then fire each individual barrel in rapid succession, firing at a rate of about 100-200 rounds per minute, which was a quantum leap in terms of rate of fire for the era. However the French were not particularly successful in their deployment of this weapon. In any case, we will see how the Prussian led German coalition was able to dominate the French despite their less advanced infantry weapons in a bit.
One technological area where the Prussians did clearly dominate was in artillery. The main Prussian artillery pieces in 1870 were the six pounder and twenty-four pounder Krupp cannons (six and twenty-four pounder here refers to the weight of the projectile not, obviously, the weight of the cannon). These were steel cannons that were breechloading just like the rifles of both armies; that is, they were loaded from the back by means of unlocking the back of the cannon, loading in the shell, and then locking the breech back into position. The French, however, still used the cannons they had developed in the 1850s: bronze in construction, firing shot of only four to twelve pounds, and loaded from the muzzle just like an old musket, and still smoothbore. This meant that French cannons were not as strong and more likely to break (due to their bronze rather than steel construction), were less powerful, much slower to load, and they had a much reduced range compared to their Prussian counterparts. Just as important as the cannon’s construction was its deployment; the French largely maintained the old system of massing their artillery behind their lines to shell the enemy from a fixed position, whereas Prussian artillery would be moved around the battlefield as needed, giving Prussian commanders much more flexibility.
This flexibility was actually a key part of Prussia’s military dominance in this period. At the time, there was in military circles in Europe a debate between adherents of so-called “fire tactics” and “shock tactics.” “Fire tactics” were championed by those military theorists who emphasized the hugely increased firepower, both in terms of accuracy and rate of fire, of new infantry weapons, and thus advised commanders to set up static lines to hose the enemy down with as much gunfire as possible. “Shock tactics,” meanwhile, were defined by utilizing the bayonet charge as the primary offensive tactic of the army. While this seems kind of insane by modern standards, using massive bayonet charges in an era where firearms were becoming much more accurate and much faster to reload, there was some logic behind this idea. Basically, those who liked shock tactics, for example the Austrians in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, noted that because gunfire was so much deadlier than it had been in the past, staying in a static line to shoot at the other side would only waste precious ammunition and lives. So instead, the idea was to close in with the enemy as quickly as possible to negate the casualties a long firefight would cause and to drive the enemy out of their static positions.
The French, armed with their state-of-the-art Chassepot rifles, which could fire faster and more accurately than any other rifle in Europe, decided to go with a fire tactics model. They figured that they could simply whittle down all opposition with superior firepower. This decision seemed to prove wise after the Austrian shock tactics ran into walls of Prussian gunfire during the war of 1866, which proved to the French that aggressive moves on the enemy were doomed to failure, and that they could destroy anything that came their way with superior firepower.
However, this was perhaps a misunderstanding of what had made the Prussians so dominant against the Austrians in 1866. You see, the Prussians did not really use either “fire tactics” or “shock tactics,” but rather a blend of the two mixed with their own innovations. This was called, in German, “Auftragstaktik,” or “mission tactics.” Rather than having large units of thousands of men move across the battlefield in rigid formation, the Prussians started to experiment with smaller units as their main units of deployment. Rather than launching attacks with several thousand men strong brigades or divisions, the company, a unit of around 250 soldiers, would be the primary unit of attack and defense. Commanders of these smaller units were given much more freedom and autonomy to move around the battlefield and exploit opportunities as they saw fit, which not only made Prussian attacks far quicker, but also meant that if one of these attacks failed, it would only result in a few hundred men hundred men being driven back rather than thousands. In short, Prussian small-unit tactics were far more flexible and far more effective than what the French used. While huge cumbersome lines of French troops would struggle to get into formation, they would be swarmed with dozens of smaller units alternately hosing them with gunfire and throwing them back with bayonet charges.
I also want to briefly discuss the role of cavalry on the battlefield, as this was perhaps the area in which all sides during the First World War suffered in the most. During the Napoleonic Wars, there were essentially two types of cavalry with two specific functions for the army. First was light cavalry, who would serve as scouts and raiding and foraging parties for the army, and second was heavy cavalry, who would charge and ride down enemy infantry at the end of a battle to finish them off. Yet by this time, the late 1860s and early 1870s, these tactics were made totally obsolete by the improvements in rifle and artillery technology. Even a wavering unit of infantry could quickly fire into a charging cavalry unit devastating its ranks, while the range and power of artillery was such that they could blast huge holes into cavalry formations at great distances, far too great for the cavalry to charge enemy artillery before being ripped to pieces. General Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of staff of the Prussian Army whom we will meet in episode 7, called the cavalry, “a thoroughly useless drag on the army.” So, the Prussians changed their cavalry tactics from the mass charge into basically converting all of their cavalry into light cavalry. Their job was to scout for the army and skirmish on foot with light rifles, known as carbines, but to fall back as soon as they encountered any significant number of enemy soldiers. The French, on the other hand, still mostly adhered to the thoroughly outdated idea of the cavalry charge as the great weapon that would rout all opposition. Many French cavalrymen, to say nothing of their poor horses, would pay dearly for this mistake.
Finally, let’s take a look at the recruitment, deployment, and organization of the armies. Perhaps the most important lesson taught by the Franco-Prussian War was the lesson that none of one’s military innovations or strategies count for a damn if the enemy is able to deploy their army before you do. This will be arguably the most important reason why the First World War broke out in the way that it did.
The armies of both France and Prussia in 1870 were mostly made up of conscripts; that is, young men who were compelled by the state into joining the army. But these systems of conscription worked in very different ways and were based on very different principles. The French conscription system was based on enlisting a relatively small number of men for very long terms of service. Specifically, a new conscript into the French Army was required to serve for at least seven years, and after that time would be given cash bonuses for reenlisting. This incentivized men to make the army not simply a public service but a true profession. This obviously has a lot of upsides: namely that these men would be highly experienced and integrated into the military way of life if and when a war ever broke out. One of the downsides of this is that since the emphasis was on a relatively small number of soldiers serving for a long time, it was difficult to recruit and integrate more men into the army if it became necessary. And in the war of 1870, it would become necessary. Further, the French had no real system of part-time reservists, that is older soldiers who would only be called into uniform in times of war, and only met for training occasionally after finishing their full terms of service. This all added up to a relatively small and relatively old army. In 1870 the French Army was made up of about 400,000 soldiers, more than half of whom had been in the army for more than seven years, with many having served for more than twenty years.
The Prussian system of conscription was radically different, and would prove to be the superior model that virtually everyone would adopt by 1914 (and those that hadn’t adopted it by 1914 would adopt some version of it at some point in the First World War). Rather than reserving military service to a small number of long-time recruits, the Prussians had worked up a system of tiered service in the army that granted them a vastly larger and more effective fighting force. First, the Prussians had adopted universal conscription; that is, every able-bodied Prussian male was drafted into the army at the age of twenty, whereupon they would serve for three years. After this, they would “graduate” (or, I suppose more accurately, step down) into the reservists, a part-time force where they would serve for four years, and finally at around age twenty-seven a Prussian soldier would move into the Landwehr, variously translated as the militia or the National Guard. Based on my rudimentary German, I think it literally translates as “the armed forces of the country,” so I suppose the term “National Guard” is the most appropriate. This was a force that only required men to muster for service in wartime; for the most part, they did not even meet in peace time for retraining. Five years “service” was required for the Landwehr, at which point a Prussian male, at the age of 32, would have completed his compulsory military service, though by age 23 he would have mostly finished his military career unless a war broke out.
All in all, this meant that when Prussia went to war in 1870, while its regular army was only made up of about 300,000 soldiers compared to France’s 400,000, when the reservists and the Landwehr were called up this strength ballooned to a massive 1.2 million. That is to say, the Prussian army, once fully mobilized, would outnumber the French by three to one, and that was before the other German states who would join Prussia in the war were added in.
Further, even though Prussian soldiers spent less time in the regular army than their French counterparts (three years compared to the French seven), this did not necessarily mean that the Prussian Army was qualitatively worse than the French. Because Prussia had adopted universal compulsory education (which France did not adopt until the 1880s), and because Prussian training was considered to be some of the toughest but most effective in the world, Prussian soldiers were almost all literate (which makes it possible to train soldiers in more advanced tactics and in how to use maps and codes), and almost all knew exactly what their duties as soldiers were and how to carry them out. And this extended to the reservists and the Landwehr. The French would mostly dismiss these “second line” soldiers in their calculations for war with Prussia, figuring that these men would not count for much in battle. But this would prove to be a gargantuan miscalculation.
Alright, so now we hopefully have a good idea of what armies looked like towards the end of the 19th century: lots of conscript soldiers armed with breechloading rifles, huge artillery pieces blasting away in the distance, and cavalry units either scouting and raiding enemy outposts or being annihilated by deadly accurate rifle fire. Tomorrow, we will see how these developments would play out in the monumental clash between the French and the Germans in 1870.
Griffith, Paddy. Battle Tactics of the Civil War. U.S.: Yale University Press, 1989.
Nosworthy, Brent The Battle Tactics of Napoleon and his Enemies. London: Constable, 1997.
Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Henderson, Robert. Loading and Firing the British Army Baker Rifle, 1799-1815. Military Heritage Website. http://www.militaryheritage.com/bakerrifle.htm