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Warfare Through the Ages Roman, Greek, Japanese, etc. Topics cover all manner of pre-modern warfare and empire-building and crushing.

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  #1  
Old 30 Mar 12, 22:55
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Question 1870 Franco-Prussian War: Tactics

What I find very interesting about this war is that it takes place just 5 years after the Civil War in the United States.

However, I can't imagine this war behind fought like the Civil War where you have lines of musket infantry firing at each other at 100 paces or less, standing upright under musket fire, and using morale and discipline to withstand the slaughter.

The main reason for that is the primary French weapon of 1870, the Chassepot rifle, has an effective range of 1200 yards! The Chassepot fired a paper cartridge, an old-fashioned idea, but otherwise it was very similar to the rifles of WWI and WWII. It was very accurate and lethal.

How did the French and the Prussians maneuver in the field, how did they captured objectives while under the fire of weapons that could reach out to 1200 yards?

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  #2  
Old 30 Mar 12, 23:13
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Well, for starters (and from what I've read) the Prussian "needle carbines"- breech-loading bolt action systems offered a much faster rate of fire than the old muzzle-loading muskets. That would have given the Prussian infantry a distinct advantage over their enemies.


Quote:
This picture taken from Ian Hogg's The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Ammunition does an excellent job of illustrating the construction of the Dreyse rifle...
Aside from the weaponry, Moltke was a first-class commander and his "mousetrap pocket" that he attempted at Sedan worked stupendously (despite French determination and vigor espoused by MacMahon). Without army organization and without the Emperor, Paris capitulated after a lengthy siege and the Third Republic was proclaimed.
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Old 30 Mar 12, 23:39
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But does the 1870 infantry march in a line formation like Civil War soldiers just 5 years earlier? If the Chassepot reaches out to 1000+ meters, they'll be shot down to the last man.

Yes, I'm aware of the Dreyse gun. By 1870 the Dreyse gun is 25 years old. The French weapon is way ahead of it.

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Old 30 Mar 12, 23:48
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Well, Prussian battle lines more modelled pre-WWI tactics more than ACW lines. Also, it's worth noting that the Prussians were able to complete very quick mass-mobilization in order to produce enormous armies in the field- at Sadowa 255,000, and at Sedan 250,000 + 500 artillery pieces. With such firepower and intensely drilled units (in addition to the telegraph system), the Prussians were able to deliver hammer blows to weak points in the French armies. Of course, all under the instruction of very capable generals- Moltke and (in the case of the Austrian War) Crown Prince Frederick William.

I know I'm sort of missing the link to the Civil War, but I'll do some more digging and see what I can find.

And yes, the Chassepot definitely was more accurate than the Prussian needlers, causing plenty of casualties on the Germans, but a key factor to remember is Prussian discipline, numbers, mass-mobilization, and firepower superiority.
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Old 31 Mar 12, 01:15
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Originally Posted by MonsterZero View Post
What I find very interesting about this war is that it takes place just 5 years after the Civil War in the United States.

However, I can't imagine this war behind fought like the Civil War where you have lines of musket infantry firing at each other at 100 paces or less, standing upright under musket fire, and using morale and discipline to withstand the slaughter.

The main reason for that is the primary French weapon of 1870, the Chassepot rifle, has an effective range of 1200 yards! The Chassepot fired a paper cartridge, an old-fashioned idea, but otherwise it was very similar to the rifles of WWI and WWII. It was very accurate and lethal.

How did the French and the Prussians maneuver in the field, how did they captured objectives while under the fire of weapons that could reach out to 1200 yards?

The Prussians won the war but were often butchered wholesale in the attempt, especially during the fighting around Gravelot St Privat.
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Old 31 Mar 12, 01:40
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Many myths surround the Franco-Prussian War.

The fact is that German commanders made many mistakes during the war, but French commanders made even more.

Prussia was more prepared for a modern war, but even so Prussian/German commanders made many tactical errors.

Some examples...

Crown Prince Friedrich Karl refused to lay any telegraph wire so he wouldn't have to receive any orders and went out of his way to do the direct opposite of any orders he did receive. Then of course there is Steinmetz, whose solution to any tactical problem was to charge.

Prussia had problems with supplies (their supply lines were over-extended).

The artillery was the decisive factor for the Prussians. Their superior artillery saved the day on many occasions.

The German campaign was far from perfect.

Historian Geoffrey Wawro wrote the following about the Battle of Wöerth/Froeschwiller (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_...rth_%281870%29):

Marshal MacMahon had at his disposal the superb 1st French Corps (including three regiments of Zouaves and three regiments of Algerian Tirailleurs) and Froeschwiller was a good defensive position. On a pre-war staff ride, MacMahon had paused to study the position and declared: "One day I would like to greet the Germans here; not even a field mouse would come out alive."

Froeschwiller was an imposing obstacle with clear fields of fire in all directions. It wrung every advantage from the French Chassepot rifle, because Froeschwiller and its neighboring village of Elsasshausen sat at the heart of a semicircular position on the right bank of the Sauer, flanked by Eberbach on the right and Langensoultzbach on the left. The four villages were linked by a lateral road and easily reinforced.

Furthermore, MacMahon was expecting support from the 5th French Corps with 30,000 soldiers. General Pierre de Failly, the commander of the 5th Corps, was too far away to assist MacMahon at Froeschwiller/Wörth. MacMahon was way too optimistic to expect support from de Failly.

Like many 19th century battles, Froeschwiller began as a chance encounter, in this instance, a day earlier than the Prussian Crown Prince and General Blumenthal had intended.

Advance units of the Prussian V Corps literally bumped into the French positions on 6 August. The leading divisions were met by murderous and accurate French rifle, artillery and mitrailleuse fire.

The Crown Prince and Blumenthal had not wanted a battle on the 6th, and worried that impulsive officers at the head of the march columns might blunder into a trap with just a fraction of the Third army. Blumenthal sent frantic messages to the front ordering restraint, but the messages arrived too late to halt the fighting.

The Germans (Prussians and Bavarians) suffered heavy casualties and their attack got nowhere.

The Bavarians, who had not slept or eaten properly for two entire days, advanced through woods that literally fell down under the hurricane of French fire. Trunks and branches snapped and the earth exploded. Johannes Schulz, an enlisted man in the Bavarian 9th infantry regiment, was shot in the leg and lacerated by a shell fragment as he moved forward. He watched his battalion disintegrate as French General Ducrot's men - mostly combat veterans of the Crimea, Italian campaign of 1859 against the Austrian Empire, Mexico and Algeria - mowed down their adversaries with well-aimed shots.

Major Gustav Fleschuez, who joined an attack by Bothmer's 7th Brigade, recalled that it was the invisibility of the French that most unnerved the men. Hundreds of Bavarians fell without even a glimpse of the enemy; only a riot of muzzle flashes flaring along the Froeschwiller ridge.

German units advanced piecemeal and thus suffered very heavy casualties.

For the Germans, even with great numerical advantage, the prematurely launched battle of Froeschwiller was slipping away. Indeed had the French counter-attacked in the early afternoon, they would probably won. As at Spicheren, however, they remained on the defensive, determined to wring every advantage from the Chassepot.

For the Germans, this was fortunate, not least because the army command was still absent, somewhere on the road between Soultz and Wörth (or Woerth).

In the afternoon, the Germans renewed their attacks with fresh divisions and the already battered divisions. Casualties continued to mount at an alarming rate. All attacks were pushed back.

In the afternoon, the Prussians had to repel repeated battalion-strength French counter-attacks. Captain Gebhard von Bismarck of the Prussian 21st Division called these bayonet charges "nightmarish". Already terrified by the volume of fire, the Prussians quailed at the ululations of the Algerian troops, who trilled and sang as they fired low into the floundering Prussians.

With a desperate heave, much of Bismarck's regiment gave ground, floundering back across the Sauer, where many of the panic-stricken troops had to be shot down by their own officers to stem the rout.

However, most of the Prussian artillery was now in place. This was the key factor for the Germans. The Prussian guns opened gaping wounds in the French lines well beyond the range of the French cannon.

Prussia's Chassepot-slashed infantry attacks had to be rescued by artillery, which ran forward to evict the French from Wörth and prop up General Kirchbach's shattered attacks.

The Germans then launched massive infantry assaults with heavy artillery support. Slowly, the sheer weight of German numbers began to make their presence felt. Though the French were wilting, they still fought bitterly, counter-attacking everywhere and pushing the enemy back on many occasions (with the bayonet). Even Prussian veterans of Königgrätz judged the fire beyond belief.

With great numerical advantage, the Prussian XI Corps's turn around Marshal MacMahon's right flank decided the battle. At this moment, French cavalry was ordered to stall the German advance.

Had all of the French infantry been veterans of Sebastopol and Solferino who were inflicting such dreadful losses on the German infantry, Marshal MacMahon might yet have stood his ground.

With the French right flank turned, the infantry divisions of Raoult and Ducrot were now hit in the flank and rear by accurate Prussian shelling and rifle fire. Many green French recruits panicked and fled. French veterans stood their ground.

Some elite French units, like the Zouave and Algerian Tirailleurs regiments, continued to fight valiantly, including the survivors of the 2nd Algerian Tirailleurs, who earned a record number of Légion d'honneur (France's highest award) for conspicuous valor, multiple wounds, tenacious defense and the heroic rescue of comrades under fire.

Most of MacMahon's 8,000 to 11,000 dead and wounded were struck down by the Prussian artillery. Of the 9,000 (or 12,000) French prisoners, most of them surrendered in the final moments of the battle, when German troops appeared on both flanks and in their rear.

Passages taken from Geoffrey Wawro's The Franco-Prussian War: The German conquest of France in 1870-1871.

--------------------------------------------------

Take a look at historian Michael Howard's final words on the Battle of Froeschwiller:







As I wrote before, it was the Prussian artillery that changed the tide and saved the day for the Germans.

A French officer of MacMahon's right observed after the battle that "1st Corps was beaten more than anything else by the unceasing, unanswerable Prussian artillery."
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Old 31 Mar 12, 01:48
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Quote:
Originally Posted by johnbryan View Post
The Prussians won the war but were often butchered wholesale in the attempt, especially during the fighting around Gravelot St Privat.
Prussian infantry tactics were not that great.

At Gravelotte-Saint Privat, General Prince August of Württemberg ordered the Prussian Guard infantry to advance in close ranks, without artillery support, across a broad plain. The superior French Chassepot rifle outranged the Prussian Dreyse and, to make matters worse for the Germans, the French soldiers were well entrenched.

The Prussian Guard suffered 8,000 casualties out of 18,000 men. Their advance got nowhere.
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Old 31 Mar 12, 23:57
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I think this, along with Zouave's posts, address your question pretty well (it also provides a link to the ACW)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feDfg...feature=relmfu
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Old 01 Apr 12, 16:32
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It's very easy to criticize commanders on both sides, especially the French commanders.

Warfare was changing very rapidly and commanders on both sides were still adapting to the new situation (new breech-loading rifles and cannons).

Prussia had good pre-war plans and an efficient and modern staff system in place.

France didn't have an effective plan to invade Prussia prior to beginning of the war (where to go, how to do it, etc). There were no clear objectives other than "Onto to Berlin!

People love to talk about the quick and efficient Prussian mobilization and modern staff system... and that's ok... that's all true... but...

It was the superior firepower, superior artillery, that won the war for Prussia.

Take the battles of August 1870 for example, especially Wörth/Froeschwiller and Gravelotte. The Germans had great numerical advantage, concentrating superior numbers on both instances, but even so the French were annihilating them. Unfortunately for the French, their artillery was inferior to the brand-new Prussian Krupp guns (with longer range and three times the rate of fire of the French guns). The French had nothing to counter the devastating fire of the Krupp breech-loading guns. The Prussian artillery mowed fearful gaps in the French lines.

Quite frankly, the French would have won all major battles with breech-loading guns in their arsenal.

Napoleon III introduced a bill to modernize the French artillery in 1866 or 1867, but there was not enough money to do it.
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Old 01 Apr 12, 16:36
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Zouave View Post
It's very easy to criticize commanders on both sides, especially the French commanders.


Warfare was changing very rapidly and commanders on both sides were still adapting to the new situation (new breech-loading rifles and cannons).



Prussia had good pre-war plans and an efficient and modern staff system in place.

France didn't have an effective plan to invade Prussia prior to beginning of the war (where to go, how to do it, etc). There were no clear objectives other than "Onto to Berlin!



People love to talk about the quick and efficient Prussian mobilization and modern staff system... and that's ok... that's all true... but...



It was the superior firepower, superior artillery, that won the war for Prussia.



Take the battles of August 1870 for example, especially Wörth/Froeschwiller and Gravelotte. The Germans had great numerical advantage, concentrating superior numbers on both instances, but even so the French were annihilating them. Unfortunately for the French, their artillery was inferior to the brand-new Prussian Krupp guns (with longer range and three times the rate of fire of the French guns). The French had nothing to counter the devastating fire of the Krupp breech-loading guns. The Prussian artillery mowed fearful gaps in the French lines.


Quite frankly, the French would have won all major battles with breech-loading guns in their arsenal.
Agree completely. As it said in the documentary, the French weren't prepared for war (although their weaponry and army organization had been considerably reformed) and individual French generals often lacked the audacity or flexibility to adapt to Prussian attacks or drive home an attack of their own.

Also I read about French reconnaissance issues, leaving them at a severe intelligence disadvantage.

But yeah: artillery, mass mobilization, 2+ years of planing, intense army discipline (to press home an assault in the face of Chassepot annihilation), and capable officers won the war for the Prussians.
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Old 01 Apr 12, 18:41
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Agree completely. As it said in the documentary, the French weren't prepared for war (although their weaponry and army organization had been considerably reformed) and individual French generals often lacked the audacity or flexibility to adapt to Prussian attacks or drive home an attack of their own.

Also I read about French reconnaissance issues, leaving them at a severe intelligence disadvantage.

But yeah: artillery, mass mobilization, 2+ years of planing, intense army discipline (to press home an assault in the face of Chassepot annihilation), and capable officers won the war for the Prussians.
Wellington,

To be fair with the French commanders, they were constrained by the new defensive mentality.

Historian Geoffrey Wawro wrote:

"French tactics after the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 emphasized the defensive. Marshal Adolphe Niel, an engineer by training and a man inclined to the defensive in war, resolved to offset Prussia's enhanced firepower by equipping each of his brigades with 1,000 shovels and axes. Under Niel, French battalions were trained to dig three-foot shelter trenches in 25 minutes or less.

Whereas the Prussians spread their battalions across the battlefield, the French packed theirs into narrow, prepared positions bristling with rifles, mitrailleuses and cannon. According to the new, post-Königgrätz French tactics, the Prussians would be forced to attack the French trenches, where they would be mowed down by the accurate, rolling fire of entire battalions and artillery.

To all appearances, the new French tactics were perfectly rational responses to the military events of 1866. However, they ignored the basic features of Moltke's fire tactics: the widening of the fighting front by scrambling small units and the flanking attack, which would only be facilitated by the narrow, fixed positions selected by French officers.

This willingness to move on the battlefield was a key difference between the French and Prussian armies in 1870."

---------------------------------------------

You talk about "intense army discipline (to press home an assault in the face of Chassepot annihilation), and capable officers won the war for the Prussians", but I have to tell you...

Many Prussian commanders ordered futile frontal infantry attacks, against the directives of Moltke, resulting in unnecessary heavy losses.

German infantry broke and retreated in disorder many more times than I can count (take a look at Wöerth/Froeschwiller and Gravelotte). Their artillery saved them many, many times, and effectively won those battles.
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Old 01 Apr 12, 19:13
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Originally Posted by Zouave View Post
It's very easy to criticize commanders on both sides, especially the French commanders.

Warfare was changing very rapidly and commanders on both sides were still adapting to the new situation (new breech-loading rifles and cannons).

Prussia had good pre-war plans and an efficient and modern staff system in place.

France didn't have an effective plan to invade Prussia prior to beginning of the war (where to go, how to do it, etc). There were no clear objectives other than "Onto to Berlin!
Having said that...

The commanders of the two major French armies, Marshals MacMahon and Bazaine, adopted (or were forced to adopt) a defensive posture during the first and decisive month of the war.

In many battles, especially at Mars-la-Tour (Rezonville) and Gravelotte-St. Privat, there was a moment that a quick counter-attack could have decided swiftly the battle, but the order never came (in some cases the French soldiers attacked on their own).

Marshal Bazaine was a fighter. He was excellent when commanding a brigade or division during the Crimean War and the Franco-Austrian War (Italian campaign of 1859), but he was a failure as commander of the French Army of the Rhine in 1870. Bazaine became timid and indecisive. Even worse, he lost his fighting spirit. IMO, Bazaine was promoted above his ability.

Before 1870, Bazaine became renowned for his determination to lead from the front, for his impassive bearing under fire and for personal bravery verging on the foolhardy (resulting in him being wounded on numerous occasions and having his horse shot from under him twice).

I have to say... I expected more from Marshal MacMahon. However, the circumstances were not conspiring in his favour (or in France's favour)... Slow and confused mobilization, problems with supplies and the list goes on.

Marshal Canrobert was the most competent French commander in 1870.
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  #13  
Old 01 Apr 12, 19:54
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Originally Posted by Zouave View Post
Wellington,

To be fair with the French commanders, they were constrained by the new defensive mentality.

Historian Geoffrey Wawro wrote:

"French tactics after the Austro-Prussian War in 1866 emphasized the defensive. Marshal Adolphe Niel, an engineer by training and a man inclined to the defensive in war, resolved to offset Prussia's enhanced firepower by equipping each of his brigades with 1,000 shovels and axes. Under Niel, French battalions were trained to dig three-foot shelter trenches in 25 minutes or less.

Whereas the Prussians spread their battalions across the battlefield, the French packed theirs into narrow, prepared positions bristling with rifles, mitrailleuses and cannon. According to the new, post-Königgrätz French tactics, the Prussians would be forced to attack the French trenches, where they would be mowed down by the accurate, rolling fire of entire battalions and artillery.

To all appearances, the new French tactics were perfectly rational responses to the military events of 1866. However, they ignored the basic features of Moltke's fire tactics: the widening of the fighting front by scrambling small units and the flanking attack, which would only be facilitated by the narrow, fixed positions selected by French officers.

This willingness to move on the battlefield was a key difference between the French and Prussian armies in 1870."

---------------------------------------------

You talk about "intense army discipline (to press home an assault in the face of Chassepot annihilation), and capable officers won the war for the Prussians", but I have to tell you...

Many Prussian commanders ordered futile frontal infantry attacks, against the directives of Moltke, resulting in unnecessary heavy losses.

German infantry broke and retreated in disorder many more times than I can count (take a look at Wöerth/Froeschwiller and Gravelotte). Their artillery saved them many, many times, and effectively won those battles.
I see. Yeah I was wondering about the cause of that, thanks for sharing.
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  #14  
Old 01 Apr 12, 23:48
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Originally Posted by MonsterZero View Post
What I find very interesting about this war is that it takes place just 5 years after the Civil War in the United States.

However, I can't imagine this war behind fought like the Civil War where you have lines of musket infantry firing at each other at 100 paces or less, standing upright under musket fire, and using morale and discipline to withstand the slaughter.

The main reason for that is the primary French weapon of 1870, the Chassepot rifle, has an effective range of 1200 yards! The Chassepot fired a paper cartridge, an old-fashioned idea, but otherwise it was very similar to the rifles of WWI and WWII. It was very accurate and lethal.

How did the French and the Prussians maneuver in the field, how did they captured objectives while under the fire of weapons that could reach out to 1200 yards?

I know this doesn't add to the discussion, but that's a fine-looking weapon.
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Old 02 Apr 12, 00:39
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hida Akechi View Post
I know this doesn't add to the discussion, but that's a fine-looking weapon.
The Chassepot in action: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncb7-9IgrpU

Now imagine thousands of French soldiers firing against the Prussians advancing across a broad plain. That was hell on earth.
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