Evolution of Battle Tactics: How did battles change from the Napoleonic Wars to World War II?
The Napoleonic Wars greatest innovation, something which would paint warfare forever after, is the concept of a citizen army — to replace the highly trained, specialized mercenary armies employed by crowns around Europe. These mercenary armies would generally be foreign and highly paid, which makes them very efficient at quelling local revolutionary tendencies. With the French Revolution, the combination of the ideas of the Enlightenment and Democracy came the idea that if this is a nation of the people then the army must also be of the people. When basically all of Europe went to war with Revolutionary France to subdue them and restore the monarchy, hundreds of thousands of men would willingly sign up and fight the invaders as a united force. They were not nearly as trained and in fact had egregious casualty ratios but their sheer numbers and force would wreck the balance of power. These Prussian and Austrian and etc. Generals pleaded with their monarch’s for armies of equal size to compete lest they be conquered entirely.
How these battles would actually be fought is too diverse to cover and would be its own major post on its own, so I’ll focus on Napoleon. Napoleon’s strategy and tactics were that of complete annihilation whether on the attack or defense — his goal was to obliterate the enemy forces under any circumstance. Absolute victory or bust. So let’s talk about an average Napoleonic battle. Napoleon’s army would be in this marching formation which allowed for ridiculous flexibility. The cavalry screen allowed much early warning and the dual army allowed him to further spread his power rather than putting his ‘eggs in one basket.’ So he detects an enemy, his cavalry returns to the communications staff and the army would begin forming.
Light infantry would approach the enemy first and begin harassing the enemy lines. They would operate in teams of two covering each other and operate with 100 in a roughly 100-200 meter region. They tended to have more camouflaged uniform (but not much). They were also the highly intelligent and generally more trained members of the group, many times even hunters and rangers before their military tenure. The Voltigeur also were designated by something that many people would not immediately think, height. Height was actually critical in designation of Napoleon’s armies — you were likely pushed into skirmisher roles if you were 4’11 to 5’1. Small and maneuverable and exceedingly accurate makes a deadly combination.
Their job was, like I said, harassment — generally of the enemies weakest links to try and further weaken them. They also had to contest with enemy skirmishers which lead to warfare that could look pretty similar to a modern soldier — small ‘squads’ with rifles operating with cover against each other. They were especially useful in urban environments to climb into and through buildings and small places to become a nuisance to the enemy.
After that the light artillery near the front would open up as the light infantry began to withdrawal. They would also target weak points in the enemy line as the first wave of infantry began to form…not into lines as you may imagine, but columns! The Napoleonic Wars, especially in the early days, was as I said a citizen army and these men never held a gun in their life and had no dream of joining the military years prior. They were not military men and it would be too time consuming and even irresponsible to try and train them in complex military tactics and maneuvers. Why bother with finesse when you have brute force?
These infantry would be organized in tight columns with ridiculous depth that rivaled Greek phalanxes centuries prior — dozens of men deep was not uncommon. A center line would unleash an initial volley and then the two sides, in their column formation, would charge with all their force into the enemy line with bayonets. Many times the threat of hundreds of men charging you with that kind of depth would be enough to cause a break in the enemy lines and a total rout which your cavalry would promptly clean up. However if it wouldn’t, you would crash into their weak point and your men would pour out and that much shock and force and men pushed into one small area immediately following artillery and a barrage of muskets would cause a route. This would have so much ridiculous success and would contribute to France winning wars against, again, basically the entirety of Europe at once consistently.
As the different Coalition Wars (ie: Napoleonic Wars) drew on, Napoleon would get more experienced troops and would fight a more finesse based style. He would utilize Grenadiers — tall men with huge bearskin caps for intimidation and as elite shock troops. He would love using his inexperienced line infantry and light infantry to hold the enemy in place while his elite troops swung around and crashed into the enemy’s flank and “rolled them up”.
The Franco-Prussian War taught a story to Europe that many would not want to hear, but would harken in an age of new warfare. As opposed to the ACW just five years prior which used muzzle loaded percussion muskets, the French and German forces would both be using breech loaded bolt action rifles using cartridges. The French had the Chassepot and the Germans had their infamous “Needle Gun” — both with an effective range over a thousand meters. I’ll quote from Michael Howard:
The German infantry did not, indeed, acquit themselves particularly well. The company columns in which they advanced into action disintegrated under fire into a ragged skirmishing line which quickly went to [the] ground, and which officers and N.C.O.s urged forward in vain. In the woods and close country which lay before the French positions the temptation to ‘get lost’ was sometimes overwhelming. Only close order could give the infantry confidence, and close order in the face of breech-loading rifles was suicidal. The answer to the problem, as the Germans discovered during hte course of the campaign, was for the infantry, so long as its armament was inferior to that of the enemy, to hold back and leave matters to the guns; and the German field artillery proved quite capable of settling matter sitself. Its range and rate of fire gave it, at the beginning of both battles, such an ascendancy that the French gunners — including the dreaded *mitrailleuses–were silenced in a matter of minutes.*
The Franco-Prussian War was a “half and half” war even more than the American Civil War. The Germans would have rapid mobilization — over 250,000 men — and would have staggering casualty rates. They would simply not be capable of assaulting positions without unacceptable casualties because of the deadliness of French riflemen and them not having the tactical flexibility to deal with it.
The Generals had no idea what to do other than to just sit back and try and flatten the target area with their artillery and send in their infantry to mop up — something we’ll see tried again in a few years with much less success. However it worked then and, unfortunately, both sides didn’t get a real picture of the futility of their tactics because of how much of a fluke the war was. The French would be duped by the genius Von Moltke the Elder into being completely surrounded at Sedan and surrendering along with their monarch Napoleon III. Paris would declare herself the Third Republic but would still surrender just a few months later after a prolonged siege. There was a significant amount of casualties (the Prussians suffered 68% casualties at Mars-la-Tour for instance) as holes began to form in ‘Napoleonic Tactics’ but the war did not drag on long enough and there were not enough battles for any of serious influence to notice. Most of those who did notice were lying somewhere face down in a field somewhere, and they didn’t have much of an influence on military doctrine unfortunately.