GHDI logo

3. Military and War
print version

1. Government and Administration   |   1.A. Confederation or Nation-State?   |   1.B. Authoritarian or Parliamentary/Constitutional Rule?   |   1.C. Emancipation of the Jews   |   2. Parties and Organizations   |   3. Military and War   |   4. Economy and Labor   |   5. Nature and Environment   |   6. Gender, Family, and Generation   |   7. Region, City, Countryside   |   8. Religion   |   9. Literature, Art, Music   |   10. Elite and Popular Culture   |   11. Science and Education

The most prominent military thinker of early nineteenth-century Germany (and one still appreciated today) was the Prussian Major General Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). His treatise On War, which drew on his own experiences in the Napoleonic Wars, as well as his detailed study of military history, was composed during the 1820s, but first published after his death. The book is still cited by military strategists, and most people have heard of its celebrated phrase: "War is the continuation of politics by other means." The selections here, however, emphasize the nature of warfare as it was understood in the early nineteenth century. Clausewitz noted the increasing domination of infantry over the other branches of the armed forces, and he also noted the difficulties in making effective use of it: lengthy marches fatigued and disorganized an army; defensive operations were more likely to be successful than offensive ones. At the same time, he suggested that, since the late seventeenth century, warfare was becoming ever larger in scale and ever more focused on broader objectives and a total victory. Strategy thus called for aggressive operations to bring about total victory, but military tactics suggested such operations would be less likely to succeed.

A resolution of this dilemma would come from Helmuth von Moltke (1800-91), the first chief of the Prussian General Staff. In his memorandum of 1861, Moltke noted that improvements in military technology – particularly the rifling of gun barrels and artillery pieces and the introduction of breech-loading rifles – would greatly increase armies' firepower. Rifles and cannons could be effective at much greater ranges, and infantrymen could use their "needle guns," the breech-loading rifle that had been adopted by the Prussian army, to achieve a much greater rate of fire. In these circumstances, firepower would dominate the battlefield, making impossible frontal attacks, Napoleonic-era style bayonet charges on flat terrain. After withering infantry and artillery fire had weakened the adversary, deep formations, with extensive reserves, would launch decisive flanking and encircling attacks, taking advantage of topographical features in their advance.

How were the troops to get to the battlefield in the first place, avoiding the difficulties of the lengthy marches that Clausewitz had pointed out? Moltke's answer was that they would reach the theater of operations by rail. In his memorandum of April 1866, on the possibility of a war between Prussia and Austria, Moltke noted that although Prussia was well outnumbered by Austria and its allies among the German states, by making effective use of the rails the Prussian army could bring more men to the front in Saxony and Bohemia than the Austrians, which is exactly what happened when war broke out two months later.

Moltke's new tactics would prove so successful because Prussia alone adopted them. The Austrian Empire, Prussia's main diplomatic and military rival among the states of the German Confederation, continued to employ the Napoleonic-era battlefield bayonet charges, to mobilize its troops slowly and cautiously, largely on foot, and to rely more on fortresses than on railroads. Prince Kraft zu Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen (1827-92) had a long military career, ending as a general of the Prussian artillery. In 1854, as a young officer, he was the Prussian military attaché in Vienna. His impressions of the Austrian army, as set down in his posthumously published memoirs, show an incompetently led and poorly trained armed force, incapable of coming to grips with advances in military thinking or technology.

Page 12

first page < previous   |   next > last page