Works of Frederick Engels 1866

Notes on the War in Germany
No. I

Written: between June 19 and July 5, 1866;
First published: in The Manchester Guardian, No. 6190, June 20, 1866

The following notes are intended to comment impartially, and from a strictly military point of view, upon the current events of the war, and, as far as possible, to point out their probable influence upon impending operations.

The locality where the first decisive blows must be struck is the frontier of Saxony and Bohemia. The war in Italy can scarcely lead to any decisive results so long as the Quadrilateral remains untaken, and to take that will be rather a lengthy operation. There may be a good deal of warlike action in Western Germany, but from the strength of the forces engaged, it will be altogether subordinate in its results to the events on the Bohemian frontier. To this neighbourhood, therefore, we shall, for the present, exclusively direct our attention.

In order to judge of the strength of the contending armies it will suffice, for all practical purposes, if we take into account the infantry only, keeping in mind, however, that the strength of the Austrian cavalry will be to the Prussian as three to two. The artillery will be, in both armies, in about the same proportion as the infantry, say three guns per 1,000 men.

The Prussian infantry consists of 253 battalions of the line, 83 1/2 depot battalions, and 116 battalions of the Landwehr (first levy, containing the men from 27 to 32 years of age). Of these, the depot battalions and Landwehr form the garrisons of the fortresses, and are intended, besides, to act against the smaller German states, while the line is massed in and around Saxony to oppose the Austrian army of the north. Deducting about 15 battalions occupying Schleswig-Holstein, and another 15 battalions--the late garrisons of Rastatt, Mainz, and Frankfurt, now concentrated at Wetzlar--there remain about 220 battalions for the main army. With cavalry and artillery, and such Landwehr as may be drawn from the neighbouring fortresses, this army will contain about 300,000 men, in nine army corps.

The Austrian army of the north counts seven army corps, each of which is considerably stronger than a Prussian one. We know very little at present of their composition and organisation, but there is every reason to believe that they form an army of from 320,000 to 350,000 men. Numerical superiority, therefore, seems assured to the Austrians.

The Prussian army will be under the command-in-chief of the King--that is to say, of a parade soldier of at best very mediocre capacities, and of weak, but often obstinate, character. He will be surrounded, firstly, by the general staff of the army, under General Moltke, an excellent officer; secondly, by his "private military cabinet", composed of personal favourites; and, thirdly, by such other unattached general officers as he may call to his suite. It is impossible to invent a more efficient system for ensuring defeat at the very headquarters of an army. Here is, at the very beginning, the natural jealousy between the staff of the army and the Cabinet of the King, each of which sections will struggle for supreme influence and will concoct and advocate its own pet plan of operations. This alone would render almost impossible all singleness of purpose, all consistent action. But then come the interminable councils of war, which are unavoidable under such circumstances, and which, in nine cases out of ten, end in the adoption of some half measure--the very worst course in war. The orders of to-day, in such cases, generally contradict those of yesterday, and when matters become complicated or threaten to go wrong, no orders at all are given out, and things take their own course. "Ordre, contre-ordre, desordre," as Napoleon used to say. Nobody is responsible, because the irresponsible King takes all responsibility upon himself, and, therefore, nobody does anything until distinctly ordered to do so. The campaign of 1806 was commanded in a similar way by the father of the present King; the defeat of Jena and Auerstadt, and the destruction of the whole Prussian army within three weeks, was the consequence. There is no reason to suppose that the present King is superior in mettle to his father; and if he has found in Count Bismarck a man whose Political direction he can implicitly follow, there is no man of sufficient standing in the army to take exclusive charge, in a similar way, of military matters.

The Austrian army is under the unconditional command of General Benedek, who is an experienced officer and who, at least, knows his mind. The superiority of supreme command is decidedly on the side of the Austrians.

The Prussian troops are subdivided into two "armies"; the first, under Prince Frederick Charles, composed of the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, 7th, and 8th corps; the second, under the Crown Prince, of the 5th and 6th corps. The Guards, forming the general reserve, will probably join the first army. Now this subdivision not only breaks the unity of command, but it also induces, very often, the two armies to move on two different lines of operation, to make combined movements, to lay their mutual point of junction within the reach of the enemy; in other words, it tends to keep them separated whereas they ought, as much as possible, to keep together. The Prussians in 1806, and the Austrians in 1859, under very similar circumstances, followed the same course, and were beaten. As to the two commanders, the Crown Prince is an unknown magnitude as a soldier; and Prince Frederick Charles certainly did not show himself to be a great commander in the Danish war.

The Austrian army has no such subdivision; the commanders of the army corps are placed directly under General Benedek. They, are, therefore, again superior to their opponents as far as the organisation of the army goes.

The Prussian soldiers, especially the men of the reserve and such Landwehr men as had to be taken to fill up vacancies in the line (and there are many) go to war against their will; the Austrians, on the contrary, have long wished for a war with Prussia, and await with impatience the order to move. They have, therefore, also the advantage in the morale of the troops.

Prussia has had no great war for fifty years; her army is, on the whole, a peace army, with the pedantry and martinetism inherent to all peace armies. No doubt a great deal has been done latterly, especially since 1859, to get rid of this; but the habits of forty years are not so easily eradicated, and a great number of incapable and pedantic men must still be found, particularly in the most important places--those of the field officers. Now the Austrians have been fundamentally cured of this complaint by the war of 1859, and have turned their dearly-bought experience to the very best use. No doubt, in organisation of detail, in adaptation for, and experience in, warfare, the Austrians again are superior to the Prussians.

With the exception of the Russians the Prussians are the only troops whose normal formation for fighting is the deep close column. Imagine the eight companies of an English battalion in a quarter-distance column, but two companies instead of one farming the front, so that four rows of two companies each form the column, and you have the "Prussian column of attack". A better target for rifled fire-arms than this could not be imagined, and, since rifled cannon can throw a shell into it at 2,000 yards range, such a formation must render it almost impossible to reach the enemy at all. Let one single shell explode in the midst of this mass, and see whether that battalion is fit for anything afterwards on that day.

The Austrians have adopted the loose open column of the French, which is scarcely to be called a column; it is more like two or three lines following each other at 20 or 30 yards distance, and is scarcely, if anything more exposed to losses by artillery than a deployed line. The advantage of tactical formation is, again, on the side of the Austrians.

Against all these advantages the Prussians have but two points to set off. Their commissariat is decidedly better, and the troops will therefore be better fed. The Austrian commissariat, like all Austrian Administration, is one den of bribery and peculation scarcely better than in Russia. Even now we hear of the troops being badly and irregularly fed; in the field and in the fortresses it will be worse still, and the Austrian Administration may happen to be a more dangerous enemy to the fortresses in the Quadrilateral than the Italian artillery.

The second set-off the Prussians have is their superior armament. Although their rifled artillery is decidedly better than that of the Austrians, this will make very little difference in the open field. The range, trajectory, and accuracy of the Prussian and Austrian rifles will be about on a par; but the Prussians have breech-loaders, and can deliver a steady well-aimed fire in the ranks at least four times in a minute. The immense superiority of this arm has been proved in the Danish war, and there is no doubt the Austrians will experience it in a far higher degree. If they, as it is said Benedek has instructed them to do, will not lose much time with firing, but go at the enemy at once with the bayonet, they will have enormous losses. In the Danish war, the loss of the Prussians was never more than one fourth, sometimes only one tenth, of that of the Danes; and, as a military correspondent of The Times a short time ago very correctly pointed out, the Danes were almost everywhere beaten by a minority of troops actually engaged.

Still, in spite of the needle gun, the odds are against the Prussians; and if they refuse to be beaten in the first great battle by the superior leadership, organisation, tactical formation, and morale of the Austrians, and last, not least, by their own commanders, then they must certainly be of a different mettle from that of which a peace army of 50 years' standing may be expected to be.