French and German Armies in 1870 - Dreyse and Chassepot Rifle Overview I GLORY & DEFEAT Week 3

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This week on Glory and Defeat: the French and German armies prepare for battle, and we take a deep dive into the art of early industrialized war in 1870:

welcome to Glory and Defeat, the story of the Franco-Prussian War. Last week, France declared war on Prussia, and the first borders clashes and deaths of the war occurred. But these were just small-scale skirmishes. Now, hundreds of thousands of men, horses, guns, and supply trains are on their way to the combat zone.

On the German side, mobilization is going well. Thanks to precisely timed train schedules, the German armies reach their starting positions less than two weeks after mobilization began. A Russian observer views this Gluluerman efficiency with a bit of sarcasm: "Even the ox destined for slaughter seems to know in advance in which cooking vessel it will end up." (Herre 386) Some men do in fact of heat stroke on the march.

Huge logistics centers supply the gathering German armies with the food, fodder, weapons and others supplies they need. 518,000 men and 2000 guns assemble into three armies: General Steinmetz’s 1st Army around Trier, and Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia’s 2nd Army near Mainz are made up of troops from the North German Confederation. 3rd Army, called the “German Army,” concentrates around Speyer and includes units from Prussia, Bavaria, Württemberg, and Baden – all under the command of Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm.

French mobilization is not going well. Some regular units have to travel from their garrison town to their bases at the other end of the country, or even Algeria, before heading to eastern France. Other units are rushed to the concentration areas before they’ve been brought up to strength and fully kitted out. The result is chaos, as General Alexandre Michel reports when he arrives in Belfort: "Didn’t find my brigade. Didn’t find [the] divisional commander. What shall I do?" (Milza 68)

The French plan is to supply their armies from prepared depots close to the expected combat zone. Minister of War Edmond LeBoeuf has even said: "[The army is so ready] that we don't even have to buy a single gaiter button." (Fontane 94)

But the chickens of the corrupt system of the Second Empire now come home to roost. Incompetent and unscrupulous officials have lined their own pockets instead of filling the depots, and there are serious shortages of food, equipment, and ammunition. French generals send desperate telegrams to Paris but there’s not much that can be done now.
In the midst of this mess, the French Army of the Rhine, totaling some 300,000 men and 3000 guns takes shape: one wing in northern Alsace under Marshal François-Achille Bazaine, and one along the border with Bavarian Palatine, under Marshal Patrice de Mac-Mahon. Both commanders are experienced and decorated veterans of campaigns in Italy and North Africa.

The armies of France and the German states now face each other in tense anticipation of the decisive confrontation. But before the main battles begin, let’s take a look at how war is waged in 1870.

The Franco-Prussian War is a conflict of the industrial age, the age of the first mass military forces, so let’s talk about how these forces are organized. The largest formation is an army, which numbers up to about 150,000 men. These armies are further subdivided to allow commanders to move them and use them more efficiently in battle. An Army consists of up to four corps. Corps are made up of divisions, and divisions are formed from brigades. Armies, corps, divisions and brigades are commanded by generals.
Brigades are then divided into regiments, each commanded by a colonel.
Prussian infantry regiments have 2900 men, and French régiments de ligne have 2500. A regiment has 3 or 4 battalions, each battalion is commanded by a lieutenant-colonel and has 3 or 4 companies under a captain, and each company is divided into platoons under a lieutenant. During the actual fighting, orders are usually given to the men at regimental or battalion level, so they are quite important from a soldier’s point of view.
Below the regiment, subunits might be different amongst the different branches of the service. For example, the infantry have companies, but the cavalry have squadrons and the artillery have batteries. On the German side, there are also infantry regiments of musketeers, grenadiers, and fusiliers but these are just traditional designations. French Marines are an elite ground unit, Chasseurs are light infantrymen, and the Zouaves and Turcos are colonial troops mostly from North Africa. Both sides also have elite guards units.
A major difference is that the German army is made up of conscripts led by professional officers, while the smaller French army is nearly all professional soldiers. Napoleon III had urged the creation of a mobile guard of conscripts since 1868, but the “Loi Niel” hasn’t been passed by parliament. The Germans therefore have a significantly larger pool of trained manpower than the French, now and for the foreseeable future.

These massive armies that take to the battlefield in 1870 are also armed with the latest technical advances in weaponry, thanks to industrialization.

Arms manufacturers like Schneider-Creusot and the Krupp works have equipped the French and German armies with mass-produced weapons of unprecedented killing power, especially needle guns and artillery. It is the infantry will do the bulk of the fighting and dying in this war, and they are particularly exposed to danger when fighting in the open or in urban areas. Their breech-loading needle guns have moved tactics away from the lines of the 18th century. The guns can be loaded lying down or kneeling rather than standing up, which allows troops to make better use of natural features or buildings. The Prussian Dreyse rifle had helped win the war against Austria in 1866, but in 1870 the French Chassepot outclasses it in range and accuracy.

In addition to rifles, bayonets are also an important weapon for close combat, which places incredible strain on the men involved, as one French soldier will report: "I was like I’d gone mad – I was foaming at the mouth. Oh, how many a poor man and father of a family I might have run through!" (Arand 134)
The field artillery though is the “king of the battlefield.” Modern field guns are the incarnation of the brutality of industrial weapons, as a single shell might kill or maim dozens of soldiers. One witness will soon describe their effect to Prussian Julius Pflugk-Harttung:
"The most ghastly injuries are caused by shells: half or completely torn off heads, open skulls showing the bare brain (...). If a shell hits the chest and abdomen and stops there, it sometimes tears everything out so that one can see the spine openly from the front." (Pflugk-Harttung 44)

Artillery tactics and movement on the battlefield will be critical in the coming battles, and here the Germans have the advantage. The Prussians have the excellent C/67 breech-loading cast steel gun from Krupp, while the French are still using bronze muzzle-loaders. The bronze deformed quickly when in use, and French cannon do not shoot as far or as accurately as their enemies.
One weapon the French have that the Germans don’t is the mitrailleuse, an early machine gun. Its 25 barrels-within-a-barrel are mounted on a wheeled frame and operated by a rotary crank that allows rapid fire. But, since it couldn’t easily swing from side-to-side, its effect is limited. Psychologically, it will unnerve the Germans, who will soon report their fear upon hearing the distinctive rattling of the firing crank.

The cavalry, whether cuirassiers, dragoons, hussars, lanciers, or ulans, no longer plays the decisive role it once did. Horsemen can’t charge infantry armed with modern needle guns, but they are still useful in pursuit, rearguard actions, reconnaissance, or escorting prisoners. To be a cavalryman though, still carries much prestige.

In 1870 uniforms are colorful rather than camouflage, and designed as much for looks as functionality. The colors help soldiers to distinguish friend from foe in the fog of war, but the red French trousers will be a problem. German riflemen can better target them, and the French will suffer a disproportionate number of abdominal wounds. French colonial uniforms are also political statements to highlight their empire, like the Turcos turbans, which were impractical in European conditions. The famous German pickelhaube is already an anachronism in 1870, even though it will last until 1916.

These then, are the armies and weapons of France and the German alliance that are now ready to launch into modern war. On July 28, Emperor Napoleon III boards a train for the fortified city of Metz in Lorraine to take command. He declares that French civilization will triumph and brings along his 14-year-old-son Lulu to witness the coming victory. Meanwhile German commander-in-chief and Prussian King Wilhelm I is also on a train. He’s heading to the French-Bavarian border along with his son Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. This week, the French and German armies have reached the combat zone along with their imperial and royal commanders-in-chief. Next week, they fight.


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  • Milza, Pierre: L’année terrible. La guerre franco-prussienne. Septembre 1870 – mars 1871. Paris 2009
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  • Fontane, Theodor: Der Krieg gegen Frankreich. Bd. 1. Berlin 1873
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  • Pflugk-Harttung, Julius: Krieg und Sieg 1870-1871. Bd. 2 Berlin 1896
1870 Glory & Defeat

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