History of the West

Central European History from Antiquity to the 20th Century

Tag: Russo-Japanese War

The Battle of Tannenberg


STAVKA (the Russian High Command) had prepared two plans for the eventuality of war against the Central Powers, Plan G for Germany and A for Austria-Hungary. Although the mobilization of the troops stationed in Russia was somewhat delayed by G and A’s colliding railway schedules, the Russian army eventually appeared in its deployment areas faster than anticipated by the enemy.

STAVKA had established two Army Group commands for her western forces, north respectively south of the BugVistula line. Army Group “Northwest” was in charge of First and Second Armies, earmarked to deploy against Germany while Army Group “Southwest” commanded Third, Fifth and Eight Armies, sharing the task of invading Galicia, the Austrian part of former Poland.

Fourth Army was the Russian version of a “swing option”: much like Joffre had originally intended for Lanrezac‘s Fifth Army in France, Fourth Army could be sent into action either at the Austrian front south of Lublin, or back up, “en echelon”, First and Second Armies on their way into Germany.

The Russian post-1905 modernization program had suffered much due to arthritic Russian bureaucracy; improvements were delayed, never implemented or simply ignored; in some respects the Russian army could not meet international standards.

[First and Second Armies deployed] … nine corps to Prittwitz‘ [the German C-in-C] four, and seven cavalry divisions, including two of the Imperial Guard, to his one. Rennenkampf, commanding First Army, and Samsonov, commanding Second, were moreover both veterans of the Russo-Japanese War, in which each had commanded a division, while Prittwitz had no experience of war at all. [Not true, see link above]

Their formations were very big, [Russian] divisions having sixteen instead of twelve battalions, with large masses of – admittedly often untrained – men to make up losses. Though they were weaker in artillery, particularly heavy artillery, than their German equivalents, it is untrue that they were much less well provided with shells; all armies had grossly underestimated the expenditure that modern battle would demand and, at an allowance of 700 shells per gun, the Russians were not much worse off than the French, fighting at the Marne. Moreover, the Russian munitions industry would respond to the requirements of war with remarkable success.

Nevertheless, Russia’s forces were beset by serious defects. The proportion of cavalry, so much greater than that in any other army, laid a burden of need for fodder on the transport service, itself inferior to the German, which the value given by mounted troops could not justify; forty trains were needed to supply both the four thousand men of a cavalry division and the sixteen thousand of an infantry division.

There were human defects as well. Russian regimental officers were unmonied by definition and often poorly educated; any aspiring young officer whose parents could support the cost went to the staff academy and was lost to regimental duty, without necessarily becoming thereby efficient at staff work. As Tolstoy so memorably depicts in his account of Borodino, the Russian officer corps united two classes which scarcely knew each other, a broad mass of company and battalion commanders that took orders from a narrow upper crust of aristocratic placemen. The qualities of the peasant soldier – brave, loyal and obedient – had traditionally compensated for the mistakes and omissions of his superiors but, face to face with the armies of countries from which illiteracy had disappeared, as in Russia it was far from doing, the Russian infantryman was at an increasing disadvantage. He was easily disheartened by setback, particularly in the face of superior artillery, and would surrender easily and without shame, en masse, if he felt abandoned or betrayed. The trinity of Tsar, Church, and Country still had power to evoke unthinking courage; but defeat, and drink, could rapidly rot devotion to the regiment’s colours and icons. (1)

To this litany a failed artillery policy and communication problems might be added. Russian artillery officers tended to view the main task of heavy guns in defending the chain of fortresses which secured the Russian border perimeter and were very much averse of schlepping big guns over a battlefield. Thus, Russian armies were chiefly equipped with small and medium calibre guns, of lesser firepower and diminished range. As in the naval gun race, lighter guns became the victims of the enemy’s heavier ones; for lack of range unable to return the fire. Radio communications suffered from a lack of trained cipher clerks, which forced the radiomen to transmit many message en clair, especially in the heat of battle.

Initial Deployment

In the event of August 1914, Fourth Army marched south, to the Austrian border, and Army Group Northwest dispatched First and Second Armies to East Prussia. The plan envisioned a two-pronged manoeuvre of enveloping 8th Army. STAVKA directed Rennenkampf to attack north of the lakes and the Angerapp River east of Königsberg and to proceed along the Baltic Sea Coast in westerly direction. Samsonov was ordered to invade from the south-east – from the direction of Warsaw – and to march in north-westerly direction until he would meet Rennenkampf, coming from the other direction, somewhere on the Vistula, perhaps in the vicinity of Marienwerder or Marienburg. The defenders would be surrounded and once the Vistula was gained, the way into West Prussia and Silesia lay open.

The plan had two weaknesses: it was obvious, as a tarantula on the cheesecake, and it depended upon close cooperation and communication of the two armies, conduct neither Rennenkampf nor Samsonov were renowned for. The German General Staff had actually based pre-war games upon the premise of such a two-pronged attack and had established that the correct counter-strategy was to delay one prong while attacking the other. Such a strategy necessitated rapid troop movements between the two sides of the Lakeland, the north-eastern part around Insterburg and Gumbinnen, and the south-western side from Allenstein in the centre of the province to Thorn on the Vistula. A direct railway was built traversing the Lakeland for this exact purpose, running along a line Gumbinnen – Insterburg – Allenstein – Osterode – Deutsch-Eylau – Thorn.

The map below shows the early stage of the East Prussian campaign. The Russians appeared three weeks earlier than anticipated, Rennenkampf’s vanguard crossing the border and reconnoitring in westerly direction on August 15. Two days later, his III, IV and XX Corps marched on Gumbinnen, eighty miles east of Königsberg. They were screened by his 1st Cavalry Division on their southern flank and the Guards Cavalry Corps on the northern one. Their counting on strategic surprise, however, was nullified as early as August 9 on account of the German 2nd Aircraft Observer Battalion and the services of two dirigibles stationed at Königsberg and Posen. They informed Prittwitz of the Russian presence, but what worked for the Germans failed, inexplicably, for the Russians: their cavalry could not find any trace of the enemy, and Rennenkampf’s aerial reconnaissance unit, consisting of a fleet of 244 aircraft, mysteriously failed to spot a single German unit.

Early Deployment and Russian Plan

The most important information for Prittwitz was that Second Army seemed to be late. The German staff began to believe that they might have a shot at Rennenkampf first and Samsonov later.

Geography was to disrupt the smooth onset of the Russian combined offensive in space. Less excusably, timidity and incompetence were to disjoint it in time. In short, the Russians repeated the mistake, so often made before by armies apparently enjoying an incontestable superiority in numbers, the mistake made by the Spartans at Leuctra, by Darius at Gaugamela, by Hooker at Chancellorsville, of exposing themselves to defeat in detail: that is, of allowing a weaker enemy to concentrate at first against one part of the army, then against the other, and so beat both.

The way in which geography worked to favour the Germans’ detailed achievement is the more easily explained. Though eastern East Prussia does indeed offer a relatively level path of advance to an invader from Russia, the chain of lakes that feeds the River Angerapp also poses a significant barrier. There are ways through, particularly at Lötzen, but that place was fortified in 1914.

As a result, a water barrier nearly fifty miles long from north to south confronted the inner wings of First and Second Army, so tending to drive them apart. Strategically, the easier option was to pass north and south of the Angerapp position rather than to force it frontally, and that was what the commander of the North-Western Front, General Yakov Zhilinsky, decided to direct Rennenkampf and Samsonov to do.

He was aware of the opportunity such a separation offered to the Germans and accordingly took care to provide for the protection of his two armies’ flanks. However, the measures taken enlargened the danger, since he allowed Rennenkampf to strengthen his flank on the Baltic coast, which was not at risk, and Samsonov to detach troops to protect his connection with Warsaw, equally not threatened, while arranging for one corps of Second Army [II Corps] to stand immobile in the gap separating it from First. The result of these dispositions was a diversion of effort which left both armies considerably weakened to undertake the main task. Having commenced the deployment with a superiority of nineteen divisions against nine, Rennenkampf and Samsonov actually marched to the attack with only sixteen between them.

Worse, critically worse, the two armies arrived at their start lines five days apart in time. First Army crossed the East Prussian frontier on 15 August, a very creditable achievement given that the French and Germans were then still completing their concentration in the west, but Second not until 20 August. As the two were separated in space by fifty miles of Lakeland, three days in marching time, neither would be able to come rapidly to the other’s assistance if it ran into trouble which, unbeknownst either to Rennenkampf or Samsonov, was the way they were heading. (2)

The aviators’ intelligence initially paid off for Prittwitz. When Rennenkampf began offensive operations on August 17, Prittwitz knew that Samsonov was late and thus could momentarily afford to keep most of 8th Army in the north-east. A Russian probe which showed up at the small town of Stallupoenen, ten miles east of Gumbinnen, was quickly checked, but when Prittwitz ordered a counter-attack of General Herrmann von François‘ I Corps on August 20, the Russians had already prepared an entrenched position near Gumbinnen. I Corps was, as was the whole 8th Army, composed of East Prussian men defending their homeland, and their aggressiveness in assaulting a fortified Russian position cost them dearly.

By mid-afternoon, I Corps had come to a halt. Its neighbouring corps, XVII, commanded by the famous Life Guard Hussar, von Mackensen, who was encouraged by early reports of its success, was meanwhile attacking north-eastwards into the Russians’ flank.

It did so without reconnaissance which would have revealed that, on its front as on that of von François, the Russians were entrenched. From their positions they poured a devastating fire into the advancing German infantry who, when also bombarded in error by their own artillery, broke and ran to the rear. By late afternoon the situation on the front of XVII Corps was even worse than that on the front of I Corps and the Battle of Gumbinnen was threatening to turn from a tactical reverse to a strategic catastrophe.

To the right of XVII Corps, I Reserve, under von Bülow, counter-attacked to protect Mackensen’s flank against a Russian advance. At Eight Army headquarters, however, even the news of that success could not stay the onset of panic. There Prittwitz was yielding to the belief that East Prussia must be abandoned and the whole of his army retreat beyond the Vistula. (3)

The big red arrow on the map above shows the intended retirement to the west, beyond the Vistula, that Prittwitz thought unavoidable. The bold blue arrows in squares DE 3-4 symbolize Rennenkampf’s III, IV and XX Corps, moving westward, into the direction of the fortified zone of Königsberg. At its southern flank, First Army is protected by 1st Cavalry Division and in the north by the Guard Cavalry Corps. Squares BCD 1-2 show Second Army, composed of I, XXIII, XV, XIII and VI Corps, plus 15th, 6th and 4th Cavalry Divisions. Samsonov’s II Corps is located in the geographical middle of the Lakeland, square DE 2, in the act of being transferred to Rennenkampf on August 21. It is on the way north-west, to join First Army at Angerburg.

At OHL [Supreme Command] Moltke balked at the very thought of withdrawing 8th Army behind the Vistula. But for the margins of the operational plan being too narrow, Moltke had no troops available for an immediate reinforcement. To make the situation worse, the men of 8th Army had their roots and families in East Prussia; an order to retreat might cause a revolt. Moltke decided that a new broom was needed on the Eastern front. Two brooms, actually.

Moltke decided first that a director of operations of the first quality must be sent instantly to the east to take charge. He chose Ludendorff, who had twice so brilliantly resolved crises in Belgium. He next determined to dispose of Prittwitz altogether, judging his declared intention to retire behind the Vistula, even if subsequently reconsidered, to be evidence of broken will.

In his place he promoted Paul von Beneckendorff and Hindenburg, a retired officer noted for his steadiness of character if not brilliance of mind. As a lieutenant in the 3rd Foot Guards, Hindenburg had been wounded at Königgrätz in 1866 and fought in the Franco-Prussian War. He claimed kinsmen among the Teutonic Knights who had won East Prussia from the heathen in the northern crusades, had served on the Great General Staff and eventually commanded a corps.

He had left the army in 1911, aged sixty-four, but applied for reappointment at the war’s outbreak. When the call from Moltke came, he had been out of service so long that he was obliged to report for duty in the old blue uniform that had preceded the issue of field-grey. He and Ludendorff, unalike as they were, the one a backwoods worthy, the other a bourgeois technocrat, were to unite from the start in what Hindenburg himself called “a happy marriage.” Their qualities, natural authority in Hindenburg, ruthless intellect in Ludendorff, complemented each other’s perfectly and were to make them one of the most effective military partnerships in history. (4)

On August 23, Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived at Rastenburg whither the HQ of 8th Army had been moved, and summoned the staff for a conference the very next day. The discussion began with an analysis of the situation by General Scholtz, commander of XX Corps which was, at the moment, the sole German unit opposing the slowly advancing Samsonov in the south. Strategically, the newcomers in command were much aided by a resolution Prittwitz had enacted
just before he was relieved of duty. During his years at the Staff Academy, Prittwitz had participated in the aforementioned war games and hence was familiar with the East Prussian counter-strategy, which called to defeat the Russians “in detail”. Prittwitz had decided that, after the tie at Gumbinnen, as he saw it, Rennenkampf could be counted as checked, and that First Army would typically need a few days to regroup and redeploy. If he acted fast, he might beat Samsonov in the south before Rennenkampf, in the east, resumed the offensive. Ably assisted by his Chief of Staff, Colonel Max Hoffmann, he ordered von François’s I Corps from Königsberg whither it had retired, and von Mackensen’s XVII Corps, at the moment south-west of Gumbinnen, to entrain southward to meet Samsonov.

These movements are indicated on the map below by the thin dashed lines and bold red arrows, showing the early stages of the German movements. I Corps retired to Königsberg in order to board the coastal railway line while XVII and I Reserve traversed first westward, then south-west, into the direction of Allenstein. Scholtz’s II Corps was already in the vicinity, around the small towns of Hohenstein and Tannenberg.

Thus, Hindenburg and Ludendorff did not have to design a new plan, whose development might have cost precious time but were able to adopt Prittwitz’s strategy, which they pursued at best speed. To their aid came a few monumental errors in the Russian dispositions, chiefly by Rennenkampf. When First Army’s forward reconnaissance units, after the four days of the Battle of Gumbinnen, reported that the presence of German troops facing them was thinning out, Rennenkampf assumed that 8th Army had retreated to the fortified zone of Königsberg. Such a move might be reasonable, at some level, since it would compel First Army to a lengthy siege, which might give the Germans time enough to send reinforcements from the Western Front. Thus, Rennenkampf stopped the pursuit of I and XVII Corps, consolidated his territorial gains, and initiated preparations for the upcoming siege.

He reported his decision to STAVKA and asked for assistance with the investment of Königsberg, for which his troops, lacking heavy artillery, were ill prepared. But since the delay meant that he was, for the time being, incapable of keeping touch with the rest of the German army, he proposed to Zhilinsky to send Samsonov in the direction of the Vistula, i.e. north-west. Once First Army had reduced Königsberg, the planned envelopment of 8th Army could be reactivated. Army Group Northwest followed Rennenkampf’s suggestion and Samsonov was ordered to proceed in north-western direction, to the Vistula, but away from First Army.

Rennenkampf’s proposition was risky in itself – what if the siege failed? But what transpired in the event was worse. On the morning of August 25, First Army’s radio traffic with STAVKA and Army Group Northwest, which included the siege plan, was intercepted and deciphered by Ludendorff’s radio monitors. Moreover, the messages yielded the priceless information that First Army would halt and thus be unable to support Second Army in case it headed into trouble.

Rennenkampf’s decision to halt allowed Hindenburg and Ludendorff to concentrate against Second Army. They could afford to leave Königsberg essentially unprotected except for its entrenched garrison and a weak screen of 1st Cavalry Division [see map above, the red dots, C 3-4, west of Rennenkampf]. Now the railways came into play. The existence of two lines allowed 8th Army to route parts of XVII and I Reserve Corps southward, via the Insterburg-Allenstein line traversing East Prussia, and to convey I Corps by the coastal railway to Elbing, and then route them via Marienburg and Deutsch-Eylau to Seeben, into a position opposite the left flank of Samsonov’s I Corps which stood between Soldau and Usdau. Ludendorff even ordered the small Vistula garrison from Thorn to meet François’s I Corps near Lautenburg [Map above, square B 1]. By August 26, XVII Corps stood at Bischofstein [Map above, C 3], and I Reserve between Allenstein and Seeburg [Map above, C 2-3], opposing Samsonov’s northernmost unit, VI Corps at Bartelsdorf. The main body of Second Army still stood south of Allenstein [XIII, XV and XXIII Corps, Map above, BC 1-2].

The tactical situation on the map above depicts the advantage the Germans earned by the flexibility of their troop movements, which, in addition, almost completely evaded Russian detection. There were hardly any German troops left in the north-east, vis-a-vis Rennenkampf – except for the very light screen of 1st Cavalry – and the Russian II Corps, now detached to First Army’s southern flank, lingers in a completely uncontested area. Except for her cavalry, First Army remained almost stationary; by August 26 it had moved barely ten miles west – cautiously – through empty land. Second Army was still moving north-west but was spreading all over the Lakeland, from Zielun, 15th Cavalry in the south-west, to Sensburg, 4th Cavalry, in the north-east. This was when Hindenburg …

… was passed the transcript of a complete Russian First Army order for an advance to the siege of Königsberg which revealed that it would halt some distance from the city on 26 August, well short of any position from which it could come to Second Army’s assistance in the battle he planned to unleash.

Furnished with this assurance, he met von François, whose corps was just beginning to arrive at Samsonov’s flank, in confident mood. Distance was working for him, the distance separating Samsonov and Rennenkampf’s armies, and so now too was time, the self-imposed delay in Rennenkampf’s advance which, had it been pressed, would have put the First Army well behind the Lakeland zone in positions from which it could have marched south to Samsonov’s assistance. (5)

Hindenburg and Ludendorff’s plan were successive attacks into Second Army’s right flank, that is, to attack from Allenstein in south-western direction. François’s I Corps was to begin the offensive on August 25.

Then François, whose stubborn aggressiveness could take a wilfully uncooperative form, interrupted the smooth unrolling of a plan that should have brought his I Corps, XVII and XX successively into action against Samsonov’s flanks. Claiming that he was awaiting the arrival of his artillery by train, he was slow off the mark to attack on 25 August, and slow again the next day.

Ludendorff arrived to energize the offensive, with characteristic effect, but François’s hesitation had meanwhile had a desirable if unintended result. Unopposed in force to his front, Samsonov had thrust his centre forward, towards the Vistula against which he hoped to pin the Germans, thus exposing lengthening flanks both to François, now to his south, and to Mackensen and Scholtz, who were marching XVII and XX Corps down from the north. On 27 August François rediscovered his bite, and pushed his men on. Samsonov, disregarding the danger to his rear, pressed on as well. On 28 August his leading troops savaged a miscellaneous collection of German troops they found in their path and broke through almost to open country, with the Vistula beyond.

Ludendorff, seized by a fit of his nerves his stolid appearance belied, ordered François to detach a division to the broken units’ assistance. François, creatively uncooperative on this occasion, did not obey but drove every battalion he had eastward at best speed. With the weight of Samsonov’s army moving westward by different routes, there was little to oppose them. On the morning of 29 August, his leading infantry reached Willenberg, just inside East Prussia from Russian territory, and met German troops coming the other way [see map below]. They belonged to Mackensen’s XVII Corps, veterans of the fighting south of the Masurian Lakes, who had been attacking southward since the previous day. Contact between the claws of the two pincers – the units were the 151st Ermland Infantry of I Corps and the 5th Blucher Hussars of XVII – announced that Samsonov was surrounded. (6)

The map above portrays the situation on August 30. I Corps had begun its move at Seeben and marched east via Niedenburg, to Willenburg. Since Samsonov was marching in the opposite direction, north-west, none of his units encountered I Corps, and Second Army remained oblivious of the Germans’ presence in their rear. After I and XVII Corps had met at Willenburg, Scholtz’s XX Corps closed the trap on the western side. Except for VI Corps which escaped by retiring in south-eastern direction over the Russian border, the whole of Second Army was caught in a huge pocket east of the towns of Hohenstein and Tannenberg.

Situation August 30, 1914
Victoryy aaccounced

The bag amounted to approximately 50,000 Russian casualties and 92,000 prisoners, compared with losses of about 30,000 killed, wounded or missed on the German side. These numbers made the Battle of Tannenberg, as it was named according to Hindenburg’s wishes, a most particular event compared to the battles on the Western front which frequently caused wholesale destruction but so far had rarely yielded significant numbers of prisoners. For the moment, the danger to East Prussia and Silesia was averted, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff hailed as the saviours of the nation.

Russische Gefangene und Beute
The Generals of 8th Army

Rennenkampf, however, proved a tougher customer than Samsonov. When the Germans, now reinforced by the arrival of IX and the Guard Reserve Corps from France, attempted to repeat the encircling manoeuvre against First Army, Rennenkampf managed to evade the German pincers adroitly in what was called the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes. On 13 September he was safely back in Russian territory, regrouped, and, reinforced by a new Russian army, the Tenth, conducted a counteroffensive which succeeded in re-establishing a Russian line near the Angerapp River, which was held until February 1915.

[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361, pp. 140-41, 142-44, 145, 145-46, 148, 148-49

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19)

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Development of the Modern Prussian Army

Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg 1745
Attack of the Prussian Infantry at the Battle of Hohenfriedberg 1745

After the protracted period of peace that had followed the Congress of Berlin 1878, the first decades of the new century brought armed conflict back to the headlines – viz. the Russo-Japanese War in 1905/06 and the Balkan Wars of 1912/13. Coincidentally, the introduction of the new British battleship “Dreadnought” started a new round of a feverish naval race in 1906, for her innovative design made all elder ships of the line obsolete – the battleship counters of all nations had been reset to zero. On land, three changes led to the mothballing of most of Napoleon’s and Wellington’s war craft: 1. the invention of the General Staff, 2. the numerical expansion of the armies by conscription, and 3. industrial and technological development. The latter occurred chiefly in gun technology, which in turn invented the breech-loading rifle, the machine gun, and armour-penetrating shell fuses. Railways meanwhile had revolutionized the mobility of troops and the electric telegraph brought almost instantaneous communication to the battlefield.

Major Battles
Major Battles

The brisk pace of population growth due to improved agriculture enabled the maintenance of larger standing armies complete with cheaper, mass-produced weaponry; where formerly thousands had fought, tens of thousands, perhaps more, would now engage in battle. John Keegan (The First World War,Vintage Books 2000, ISBN 0-375-40052-4361) summarizes the changes from the days of yore:

International, which chiefly meant European, policy was indeed, in the opening years of the twentieth century, guided not by a search for a secure means of averting conflict but by the age-old quest for security in military superiority. That means, as the Tsar had so eloquently warned at the Hague in 1899, translated into the creation of ever larger armies and navies, the acquisition of more and heavier guns and the building of stronger and wider belts of frontier fortification.

Fortification, however, was intellectually out of fashion with Europe’s advanced military thinkers, who were persuaded by the success of heavy artillery in recent attacks on masonry and concrete – as at Port Arthur, during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905/06 – that guns had achieved a decisive advantage.

Power had transferred, it was believed, from static defence to the mobile offensive as represented particularly by large masses of infantry manoeuvring, with the support of mobile field guns, at speed across the battlefield. There was still thought to be a role for cavalry, in which European armies abounded: the German army, in the years before 1914, added thirteen regiments of mounted riflemen (Jäger zu Pferde) to its order of battle, while the French, Austrians and Russians also expanded their horse arm.

It was on numbers of infantrymen, equipped with the new magazine-rifle, trained in close-order tactics and taught, above all, to accept that casualties would be heavy until a decision was gained, that, nevertheless, the generals counted upon to achieve victory.

The significance of improved fortification – the entrenchments and earthworks thrown up at speed which, defended by riflemen, had caused such loss to the attacker on the Tugela and Modeer rivers during the Boer War, in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War and at the lines of Chatalja during the Second Balkan War – had been noted, but discounted. Given enough well-led and well-motivated infantry, the European military theorists believed, no line of trenches could be held against them.

Among the other great industrial enterprises of Europe in the first years of the twentieth century, therefore, the industry of creating soldiers flourished. Since the triumph of Prussia’s army of conscripts and reservists over the Austrians in 1866 and the French in 1870, all leading European states (Britain, sea-girt and guarded by the world’s largest navy was the exception) had accepted the necessity of submitting their young men to military training in early manhood and of requiring them, once trained, to remain at the state’s disposition, as reservists, into late maturity.

The result of this requirement was to produce enormous armies of serving and potential soldiers. In the German army, model for all others, a conscript spent the first two years of full adulthood in uniform, effectively imprisoned by sergeants too close at hand. During the first five years after his discharge from duty he was obliged to return to the reserve unit of his regiment for annual training. Then, until the age of thirty- nine, he was enrolled in a unit of the secondary reserve, or Landwehr; thereafter, until the age of forty-five, in the third-line reserve, the Landsturm. The effect was to maintain inside European civil society a second, submerged and normally invisible military society, millions strong, of men who had shouldered a rifle, marched in step, born the lash of a sergeant’s tongue and learnt to obey orders.

The days when kings rode to war on horseback leading their vassals were gone – modern war became an industrialized mass product. The sheer number of combatants grew by factors of ten or more.

The extent of Europe’s militarization in the nineteenth century is difficult to convey by any means that catch its psychological and technological dimensions as well as its scale. Scale itself is elusive enough. Something of its magnitude may be transmitted by contrasting the sight Friedrich Engels had of the military organization of the independent North-German city states in which he served his commercial apprenticeship in the 1830s  with the force which the same German military districts supplied to the Kaiser of the unified German Reich on the eve of the First World War.

Engel’s testimony is significant. A father of Marxist theory, he never diverged from the view that the revolution would triumph only if the proletariat succeeded in defeating the armed forces of the state. As a young revolutionary he pinned his hopes of that victory on the proletariat winning the battle of the barricades; as an old and increasingly dispirited ideologue, he sought to persuade himself that the  proletariat, by then the captive of Europe’s conscription laws, would liberate itself by subverting the state’s armies from within.

His passage from the hopes of youth to the doubts of old age can best be charted by following the transformation of the Hanseatic towns’ troops during his lifetime.

In August 1840 he rode for three hours from his office in to watch the combined manoeuvres of the armies of Bremen, Hamburg, Lübeck free city and the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg. Together they formed a force of a regiment – say, to err on the side of generosity, 3000 – men strong. In the year of his death in 1895 the same cities provided most of the 17th and part of the 19th Divisions of the German army, together with a cavalry and artillery regiment – at least a fourfold increase. That accounts for only first-line troops, conscripts enrolled and under arms. Behind the active 17th and 19th Divisions stood the 17th and 19th Reserve Divisions, to which the Hanseatic cities would contribute an equal number of reservists – trained former conscripts – on mobilisation. And behind the Reserve Divisions stood the Landwehr of older ex-conscripts who in 1914 would provide half of another division again. Taken together, these units represent a tenfold increase in strength between 1840 and 1895, far outstripping contemporary population growth.

In addition, these numbers must be seen under the proviso that Germany conscripted barely 55% of each annual class – chiefly farm boys untainted by socialism or big-city liberalism – while her smaller population and lower birth rate obliged France to conscript almost 90% of her youth. It was the policies described above by John Keegan that made the million- men armies of 1914 to 1918 possible, which in turn necessitated the development of completely new supply systems and mass-production of weapons and ammunitions. More than thirty-five million men were to fight in the Great War, about ten million of which were killed by the latest creations of the vultures of war, Schneider-Creusot, Skoda, Krupp or Enfield, the fertile European steel industry.

A metamorphosis of even more decisive character occurred in the “science” of war. The century of scientific progress and industrialization took the execution of war to a new, more effective level and the visions of ancient generals were replaced by exact computations. In the early nineteenth century, Prussia invented the “General Staff”, a concept subsequently adopted by all states. The idea facilitated enormous improvements in the age-old endeavour of the formulation and execution of war plans, as introduced here by John Keegan:

Armies make plans. Alexander the Great had a plan for the invasion of the Persian Empire, which was to bring the army of the Emperor Darius to battle and to kill or make him prisoner. Hannibal had a plan for the Second Punic War: to evade Rome’s naval control of the Mediterranean by transferring the Carthagian army via the short sea route to Spain, crossing the Alps – everybody remembers the story of the elephants –  and confronting the legions in their homeland.

Philipp II had a plan to win a war against England in 1588: sail the Armada up the channel, load the army which was fighting his rebellious Dutch subjects and land it in Kent. Marlborough’s plan to save Holland in 1704 was to draw the French army down the Rhine and fight it when distance from its bases made its defeat possible.

Napoleon made a plan almost every year of his strategic life: in 1798 to open a second front against his European enemies in Egypt, in 1800 to defeat Austria in Italy, in 1806 to blitzkrieg Russia, in 1808 to conquer Spain, in 1812 to knock Russia out of the continuing war.The United States had a plan in 1861, the Anaconda Plan, designed to strangle the rebellious South by blockade of the coasts and seizure of the Mississippi river. Napoleon III even had a plan of sorts for his catastrophic war against Prussia in 1870: to advance into southern Germany and turn the non-Prussian kingdoms against Berlin.

Much of pre-modern war planning was relegated to an ad-hoc basis, devised when an opportunity presented itself or an invasion had to be repelled. Commanders who did thoroughly plan their campaigns ahead thus often turned out fortune’s favourites – Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne are examples. To a degree, success could be planned. Yet the emergence of the French “citizen army” following the revolution of 1789, and the resulting coalition and Napoleonic wars, set in motion not only the “division” of armies – to counter threats on multiple fronts or to effect flanking manoeuvres – but the scientification of planning – the diligent work of future General Staffs that was to allow, in Keegan’s often referenced phrase, the planning of war “in the abstract, plans conceived at leisure, pigeonholed and pulled out when eventuality became reality.” The General Staff was invented in Prussia and revolutioned the execution of modern war. Max Boot (War Made New, Gotham Books 2006, ISBN 1-592-40222-4) introduces the topic as follows:

As with so many military renaissances, Prussia’s rise had its origins in defeat. At the battles of Jena and Auerstaedt in 1806, Napoleon shattered the Prussian army and destroyed any mystique remaining from the days of Frederick the Great. The French army then entered Berlin and turned Prussia into a tributary state. The memory of this humiliation was only partially erased seven years later when Prussia joined Austria, Russia and Sweden to defeat Napoleon at the epic Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813.

To a whole generation of Prussians, Jena had shown the rotten underpinnings of the Old Prussian state. The years after 1806 saw a burst of reforms including the freeing of serfs, the emancipation of Jews, the strengthening of government bureaucracy, and the weakening of trade guilds. The changes were especially significant in the military realm.

The overhaul of the army was lead by two officers, General Gerhard von Scharnhorst and Count August von Gneisenau, who sought to replace Frederick the Great’s force of aristocrats and mercenaries with a French- style nation in arms. They stopped recruiting foreigners and instituted a universal draft that did not allow the rich to buy an exception.

They also created a citizen militia called the Landwehr and a substantial force of reserves. After 1813, the army would conscript forty thousand men annually to serve for three years. Upon leaving active duty they would serve a further two years in the reserves and fourteen years in the Landwehr. By 1850 Berlin had around half a million trained soldiers at its beck and call.

And increasingly these soldiers were not the ignorant peasants of old. Starting in 1809, under the direction of Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia created one of the best systems of public education in the world, offering elementary schooling for all, secondary schools for some, and university education for the elite. …

Special schools were set up to train a corps of non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals who would become the backbone of the Prussian army.

As important as Scharnhorst’s and Gneisenau’s reforms were for the rank and file, they were equally significant for the officer corps. Their goal, in which they were only partially successful, was to break the
stranglehold of the Junker aristocracy (“heartless, wooden, half-educated men”, one reformer called them) on the leadership ranks in the army. They wanted to make merit, not birth, the most important criterion for officer selection, so they put many old warhorses out to pasture and forced every officer seeking promotion to pass an exam.Military academies and staff colleges were set up to train officers, the first one being the Kriegsakademie (War Academy), whose most illustrious early director was Carl von Clausewitz, author of the classic exposition of military philosophy, On War. Under the guidance of Clausewitz and his colleagues, soldiering became a profession, not a pastime for the nobility.

(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/18)

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