Page:EB1911 - Volume 25.djvu/1014

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.

was a foregone conclusion. If the enemy, in accordance with precedent, fortified a position, a threat to his communications would force him to come out on pain of being surrounded (Pima 1756, Prague 1757). He followed this principle (see Seven Years' War) until the accession, first of France and the South German states, and afterwards of Russia, to the list of his enemies compelled him to give one enemy time to prepare a position whilst he was engaged against another. Before deliberately prepared positions his men were shot down in thousands, as they would have been in the Netherlands, and at length he was compelled, for want of an adequate artillery, to adopt the same procedure as his adversary. Thus the war ultimately came to an end by a process of mutual exhaus- tion. But it had brought out conspicuously the value of highly disciplined soldiery, and a fresh fetter was prepared for those on whom, after Frederick's death, the responsibility of command was to fall, and practically all Europe went back to the warfare by contract of the previous generation.

Meanwhile in France events were at work preparing the instrument Napoleon was destined to wield. Contrary to the prevailing opinion amongst modern historians, it is the fact that at no time in history was the art of war, and of all things appertaining to it, more closely studied than during the last years of the old royal army of France. Gribeauval paved the way for the creation of the artillery destined to win for Napoleon his greatest victories, and authors and generals such as the prince de Ligne (q.v.), the due de Broglie, Guibert (q.v.), Bosroger, du Teil and many others, pointed out clearly the line reform must take if the existing deadlock between attack and defence was to be removed; but none could suggest the first practical steps to apply, because the existing conditions were too closely interwoven and consolidated. In fact reform was impossible until the dissolution of society itself gave its ultimate particles freedom to combine in more suitable formations. Broadly, however, all were agreed that the protracted and inde- cisive operations of former wars were economically disastrous. A crushing and decisive victory was the aim for which all should strive; as a first step towards this object decentralization of command was essential, for freedom of manoeuvre, the only answer to Frederician methods, was impossible without it. This led to the idea of the permanently organized division of all arms; and events had reached this point when the deluge of the French Revolution overwhelmed them, and in face of a coalition of all Europe it became necessary to build up a new army from the very foundations. The steps by which it was sought to provide the men are dealt with in the article Con- scription; it is only necessary to point out here that it was not till 1799 that the laws became sufficiently defined to ensure a regular annual increment of recruits, and it was this regularity of supply, and not the fact that compulsion was needed to enforce it, which rendered expedient the complete revolution in warfare which Napoleon was destined to effect.

Until this reform was complete the revolutionary commanders were compelled to make war as best they could under pressure of the law of self-preservation, with the consequence that the whole army became habituated to the fact that orders in the field had to be obeyed at any sacrifice of life and comfort, and that neither hunger nor want of shoes, even of muskets, could be accepted as an excuse for hesitation to advance and to fight. Threatened on all sides, France was at first compelled to guard every avenue of approach by small separate forces taking their instructions only from a central authority in Paris, and thus the " division," a mobile force of all arms, which the earlier reformers had demanded, came spontaneously into existence to meet the requirements of the moment, and, thrown on its own resources, developed the brain and nervous system, i.e. the staff, necessary to co-ordinate the action of its limbs.

The next step in evolution came from the obvious advantage which must arise if these units, though starting from different bases, operated towards the attainment of a common purpose. The realization of this ideal, the starting-point of modern strategy, was the creation of Carnot, whose ideas, though far in advance both of contemporary opinion and of the technical means of execution then available (especially in the matter of imperfect means of telegraphy), formed a necessary step in the preparation of the machinery Napoleon was to inherit.

These, therefore, were the materials placed at his disposal when he began to practise the art of the leader: (1) a practically inexhaustible supply of men (the law in fact was not passed till two years later, but the idea was sufficiently evident) ; (2) divisional units and commanders, trained to unhesitating obedience to field orders, and accustomed to solve the problems presented to them in their own way, without guidance from superior authority; (3) the idea of co-operation between separate columns for a common purpose; and (4) a tradition that the word "impossible" did not exist for French soldiers.

The equipment of the allies started from very different founda- tions. To them the individual soldier was a valuable possession, representing an investment of capital generally estimated at £200 cash (as great a strain on the exchequer then as £2,000 would be to-day); and not only was he exposed to the risk of death in action, but he might die of disease or exhaustion on the march, and could always desert if he felt discontented. Moreover, the last campaigns of the Seven Years' War seemed altogether to justify methods of evasion and " strong positions." Frederick the Great,- beginning with the most audacious offensive, had ended by copying the caution of his antagonists, and each side had learnt to gauge the fighting value of a single battalion so accurately that to move a force, recognized by both as adequate for its purpose, into a threatening position, sufficed of itself to induce the adversary to accept the situation thus created. Since the value of a fortified position depended largely on the ground, the cult of topography became a mania, and (as Clausewitz puts it) the world lost itself in debating whether " the battalion defended the mountain or the mountain defended the battalion." The care for the comfort of the private soldier was pushed to such a degree that commanders would not report their units fit for action until complete to the last gaiter button and provided in advance with the regulation scale of rations for a fixed number of days. Over-centralization continued; though the expressions " divisions " and " corps " were already known, the idea these words now convey had not yet even come into existence. Though a certain number of units might be assigned to a subordinate commander, they still received all orders, except on the battlefield, from the central authority, and were, moreover, considered interchangeable. There was no personal bond between them and their general. To what lengths this system was pushed, and the consequences which flowed from it, may best be gauged from the fact that in 1805 Mack, when writing his defence for his failure at Ulm (see Napoleonic Campaigns), thought it quite natural to explain the delay in his movements on the day of Elchingen by the fact that when news of the French attack was received he was busy writing out the orders for the following day, which occupied fourteen pages of foolscap and "did not contain one superfluous word." Further, the idea prevailed in middle Europe that war was a matter concerning the contending governments in which the ordinary citizen had no interest whatever. It was true that the result of a war might transfer his allegiance from one crown to another, but this was scarcely more to the people than a change of landlords. Consequently they took little if any interest in the progress of a war, and on the whole were most inclined to help the army which most respected their private property and was willing to pay highest for its accommodation while billeted in their towns and villages. Since the goodwill of inhabitants is always valuable, commanders vied with one another in their efforts to purchase it, and respect for private property and rights reached an unprecedented level. Thus, during the whole of the campaign of the Netherlands in 1793 the Austrians paid hire to the owners of the fields in which they camped; and when on one occasion payment for lodgings hired for the wounded was in arrear, the wretched men were flung out on the streets. Yet another, and in a way more re- markable, illustration of this tendency occurred at the capture