Testimony of the Witnesses - “ . . .
Cannot Fnd My Brigade . . . .”
This is an excerpt from a telegram sent by a
French brigade commander to military headquarters in Paris in the
summer of 1870. The full text reads, “Arrived at Belfort . Cannot find my brigade. Cannot find my divisional commander. Do not know where my regiments are. What shall I do?”
During the mid-nineteenth century France reputedly had the premier army in the world. After all, it was the army of Napoleon, who, despite his utter defeat in 1814-1815, still held seemed the greatest soldier that had ever lived, and it had added new laurels to its banners through victories in North Africa in the 1840s, the Crimea in 1854-1856, and northern Italy in 1859.
And the French Army was good. It probably
had the best kit of any army in the world, and almost certainly the
finest rifle, the new chassepot, not to mention an
excellent proto-machine gun, the mitraileuse . French troops were hardened regulars, men of long service in numerous wars, led by seasoned officers, many of whom had risen from private to marshal. But the French Army was also flawed.
While the chassepot was a fine rifle, French tactics had not evolved to make maximum use of it. And though the mitraileuse was a fair effective weapon, it was kept so secret than few of the troops could work it, and little thought had been given to its employment. The French artillery was outdated, despite the efforts of Emperor Napoleon III, himself a gunner, to obtain more modern equipment. Worse, although the army had extensive experience, it was largely in colonial affairs, which had introduced procedures and tactics highly unsuited to a more conventional clash. There was not real general staff, no permanent higher organization in peacetime, and hardly any mobilization plans.
As if this were not bad enough, there were
hardly 350,000 troops in the army, reservists included, since the
Second Empire had essentially abolished mass conscription in favor
of a highly selective system that allowed all but the poorest means
of escape. Moreover, in order to break down local loyalties, French
troops were never stationed in the region from which they were
recruited, and the stations of regiments were changed regularly. So
a regiment stationed, say, in Toulon, might have its
reserve depot in Bordeaux, and orders to mobilize at
Belfort, such as in the case of the unfortunate chef de
brigade noted above.
The successes of the French Army in Africa,
the Crimea, and Italy, had been due to the fact that their enemies
were even less well prepared. Thus, the defects in the French Army
would work themselves out through “Le syteme D,” expressed
by one officer during the 1859 Lombardy War as “On
s’organisera en route – We’ll get organized on the way.”
Unfortunately, by 1870 the French were facing an enemy who wasn’t less well prepared. The Prussians had been working on improving their army since the late 1850s, creating a genuine general staff, with prepared mobilization and war plans, establishing a permanent peacetime organization into brigades, divisions, and corps based on mass territorial conscription with a life-time military service obligation, so that the could, with their minor German allies, put a million men into the field, armed with an older, but serviceable rifle and superb new artillery.
So the French, having rested on their laurels, lost.