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Military Reform in Germany[273]

Frederick Engels

The Italian war of 1859, even more than the Crimean war[274], established the fact that the French military organization was the best in Europe. Of all European armies, excepting the French, the Austrian army certainly ranked highest; and yet, in the short campaign of 1859, though its soldiers covered themselves with glory, the army, as a whole, could not win a single battle. With all due allowance for bad generalship, want of unity of command, and for the incompetent meddling of the Emperor, still the unanimous impression of the Austrian regimental officers and of the men was, that part of their want of success was due to an organization less adapted for real war than that of their opponents. And if the Austrian army—thoroughly reorganized as it had been only a few years before—was found to be deficient, what was to be expected from other armies whose organization was of even a more ancient date?

That the French were superior in this particular, was a fact not to be wondered at. No nation with any military aptitude can carry on petty warfare for twenty-five years on so colossal a scale as that of Algeria[275], without thereby developing to a high pitch the capabilities of its troops. While England and Russia had waged their wars in India and the Caucasus principally with troops set apart for this service, the greater part of the French army had passed through the Algerine school. France really had made the most of this school, which had been expensive in men and money, but very effective and fruitful in valuable military experience. After this, the Crimean war, another school on a larger scale, served to enhance the confidence of the soldier by showing him that what he had learned in his campaigns against nomadic tribes and irregulars, was quite as useful and applicable in a contest with regular troops.

That with such opportunities, a nation endowed with peculiar genius for the military profession, should have brought its warlike organization to a perfection exceeding anything attained by its neighbors—a fact proved beyond dispute at Magenta and Solferino[276]—nevertheless excited wonder, especially in Germany. The military pedants of that country had been so secure in their presumed superiority over the volatile, unsteady, undisciplined, immoral French, that the blow stunned them. On the other hand, the younger and more intelligent portions of the Austrian and other German armies, always opposed to martinetism, now at once began to speak out. The Austrian officers, fresh from Magenta, were the first to say, what is perfectly true, that the French carry no knapsacks in battle; that they have no stocks, no stiff collars, no tight coats or trousers; they are dressed in loose trousers, and a loose great coat with collar turned down, and neck and chest quite free; their head covered with a light cap, and they carry their cartridges in their trousers pockets. Where the men of the Austrians arrive fatigued, and out of breath, the French come up fresh and singing, and ready for any physical effort. Thus reported the letters of the Austrian officers fresh from the battle-field, and Prussian, Bavarian, and other officers soon chimed in. The awful fact was there. Soldiers had actually dared to face the enemy without all the cumbersome paraphernalia which compose almost all the glorious pomp and circumstance of war, and which taken together are equivalent to a strait-jacket; and in spite of the absence of this strait-jacket they had been victorious on every field. This fact was so very serious that even the German Governments could not close their eyes to it.

Thus military reform became the watchword of the day in Germany, to the great dismay of old fogies in general. The most revolutionary theories in matters military were not only pro-pounded with impunity, but even taken into consideration by governments. The first point was of course that of the equipment of the soldier, which had formed the most conspicuous difference between the two armies on the battle-field, and the discussion of this project was as interminable as the varieties of taste. An immense deal of ingenuity was expended on military tailoring. Caps, helmets, shakos, hats, coats, blouses, capotes, collars, cuffs, trousers, gaiters, and boots were discussed with vivacity and loquacity as if on such things alone had depended the fate of the day at Solferino. The Austrians were the most extravagant in their military fashions. From an almost exact copy of the French model (barring the color) they passed through Al the intermediate stages, up to the blouse and slouched, wide-awake hat. Imagine the stiff, conservative, staid, Imperial Royal Austrian soldier in the coquettish dress of the French chasseur, or, still worse, in the blouse and felt hat of the revolutionary German free corps of 1848. A greater satire could not be passed on the Austrian military system than that either of these extremes should have been taken seriously into consideration. As usual, the debate has been exhausted rather than settled; military old fogyism has recovered part of the lost ground, and in Austria, at least, the alterations in the uniform will, upon the whole, be trifling; while in the other German armies scarcely any change appears probable, except that the Prussian helmet, that pet invention of the romantic Frederick William IV, seems doomed to descend to the grave even before its inventor.

Next came the great knapsack question. That the French went into battle without their knapsacks was a piece of imprudence which could be justified by nothing but their good luck, and the warmth of the season. But should it become a habitual thing with them, the first reverse in cold or rainy weather would punish them severely for it. In fact, the general adoption of this usage would imply nothing less than that in every battle the beaten army should lose not only its artillery, colors, and stores, but the whole of the individual baggage of its infantry also. In consequence, a few rainy bivouacs would completely break up the infantry, reduced as it would be to such clothing as every man might happen to be dressed in. The real question, however, would seem to be, how the individual baggage of the soldier can be reduced to a minimum, and this is a point of importance which might easily be settled in a satisfactory way, if the items composing it were considered merely as to their real utility in a campaign; but the discussion in Germany has not settled it.

Beside the clothes question and the knapsack question, the organization of the various subdivisions of the army is also a matter much disputed. How many men should make a company, how many companies a battalion, how many battalions a regiment, how many regiments a brigade, how many brigades a division, and so forth. This is another point upon which a great deal of bosh may be uttered with the most serious and important face in the world. In every army the system of elementary tactics confines to certain limits the strength and number of companies and battalions; the strength of brigades and divisions find their minimum and maximum by the strength adopted in neighboring armies, so that in case of a conflict the disproportion between the larger tactical units may not be too great. To try to solve such questions not by the actual conditions as given by the facts of the case, but by an attempted recourse to first principles, is mere fudge, worthy perhaps of German philosophers but not suited to practical men. The increase in the number of the Austrian regiments of infantry of the line from 63 to 80, with a reduced number of battalions, will no more insure them "better luck next time" than the widening of their trousers and the turning down of their collars.

But while man-millinery and abstruse speculations on the normal strength and composition of a brigade occupy attention, the great defects and evils of the German military system are unheeded. What, indeed, are we to think of officers who most furiously discuss the cut of a pair of pantaloons, or of a collar, and who submit quietly to have in the German federal[277] army some twenty different calibers of field artillery, and an almost incalculable variety of calibers for small-arms? The introduction of rifled muskets, which offered such a splendid occasion for equalizing the calibers all over Germany, has not only been shamefully neglected, but has made matters worse. It is worth while to look for a moment at this confusion of calibers. Austria, Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Darmstadt, have one caliber—0.53 of an inch. With that practical good sense which the South Germans have shown in many instances, they have carried this most important reform, which establishes unity of caliber for five corps of the federal army. Prussia has two calibers; one the so-called Zündnadelgewehr, or needle-gun[a], about 0.60 of an inch, and the old smooth-bore musket, lately rifled on Minié's principle, about 0.68. The latter, however, is to be superseded by the former as soon as possible. The Ninth Army Corps has three different rifled and two or three different smooth-bore calibers; the Tenth has at least ten, and the reserved division has as many calibers almost as battalions. Now imagine this motley army in an active campaign. How is it possible that the ammunition belonging to each contingent can always be at hand when wanted, and if not, that contingent is helpless and useless? Excepting Austria, the South Germans and Prussia, no contingent can, from this circumstance alone, be of any real use in a lengthened contest. The same is true of the artillery. Instead of fixing at once upon one common caliber at least corresponding to the old six-pounder, which would thus in time become the universal caliber of rifled field guns, the Prussians, the Austrians, the Bavarians are now casting rifled ordnance quite independently of each other, which will only serve to increase the diversity of calibers already existing. An army in which such fundamental defects exist might do better than spend its time in quarreling about collars and inexpressibles, and the normal strength of brigades and battalions.

There can be no military progress in Germany so long as the idea is cherished in high quarters that armies are made for parade and not for battle. Crushed for a while by Austerlitz, Wagram, and Jena[278], and by the popular enthusiasm of 1813-15, this pedantry soon raised its head again, reigned supreme until 1848, and, in Prussia, at least, seems to have attained its culminating point during the last ten years. Had Prussia been involved in the Italian war, Pélissier could scarcely have helped inflicting another Jena upon her army, and the fortresses on the Rhine alone would have saved her. Such is the condition to which an army has been reduced which, in respect of its men, stands second to none in the world. In any future conflict between the French and the Germans, we may reasonably expect to see reproduced the features of Magenta and Solferino.

Written in late January and early February 1860
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune,
No. 5873, February 20, 1860 as a leading article


[a] See Frederick Engels' The History of the Rifle, present edition, Vol. 18.—Ed.

[273] The subject of this and several other articles was suggested to Engels by Marx who wrote in his letter of November 3, 1859: "Couldn't you do me an article on the recent changes in the Prussian army?" (see present edition, Vol. 40). The Prussian military reform is also described in the article "Preparations for War in Prussia" (see this volume, pp. 493-96) and in Engels' "The War Question in Prussia and the German Workers' Party" (present edition, Vol. 20).

[274] See Note 13↓.
The Crimean War (1853-56), or the Eastern war, was waged by Russia against the allied forces of Britain, France and Turkey for supremacy in the Middle East and ended with the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty (1856). The war is described by Marx and Engels in the articles included in volumes 13-15 of the present edition.

[275] A reference to the colonial war in Algeria, launched by the French Government in 1830. The Algerian people put up a stubborn resistance to the French colonialists; it took them 40 years to turn Algeria into a French colony.

[276] These battles took place during the Austro-Italo-French War between the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont) and France on the one hand, and Austria on the other (see Note 13). In the battle at Magenta (June 4, 1859) the Austrian army was defeated by the French (see Engels' articles "A Chapter of History" and "The Austrian Defeat", present edition, Vol. 16). At Solferino (June 24, 1859) the Austrians were again defeated by the French and Piedmontese forces (see Engels' articles "The Battle at Solferino" and "Historical Justice", present edition, Vol. 16).

[277] The German Confederation (der Deutsche Bund) was an ephemeral union of German states formed by decision of the Congress of Vienna in June 1815 and originally comprising 35 absolutist feudal states and 4 free cities. The Confederation aggravated the political and economic fragmentation of Germany and impeded its development. After the defeat of the 1848-49 revolution, a struggle for hegemony in Germany developed between Prussia and Austria. The latter sought to restore the German Confederation, which had virtually fallen apart during the revolution. Prussia hoped to achieve supremacy by forming a union of German states under its own aegis. In the autumn of 1850 the Austro-Prussian rivalry was intensified by the clash of interests over the Electorate of Hesse-Cassel, where a constitutional conflict had developed between the local Chamber and the Elector as a result of which the Chamber was disbanded and martial law introduced. In this situation Austria and Prussia vied for the right to carry out punitive operations against the Hesse constitutional movement. In early November 1850 Prussian and Austrian troops clashed on the territory of Hesse-Cassel. However, under pressure from Nicholas I, Prussia was forced to yield to Austria and temporarily desist from its plans for establishing hegemony in Germany (see Note 143↓).

[278] The battle of Austerlitz between the Russo-Austrian and the French armies on December 2, 1805, ended in victory for the French commanded by Napoleon I. At the battle of Jena on October 14, 1806, the Prussian troops were defeated by Napoleon's army. This resulted in Prussia's capitulation.

At the battle of Wagram on July 5-6, 1809, Napoleon defeated the Austrian army commanded by Archduke Charles.

[13] This refers to the war between the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piedmont) and France, on the one hand, and Austria, on the other (April 29 to July 8, 1859). It was launched by Napoleon III, who, under the banner of the "liberation of Italy", strove for aggrandizement and sought to strengthen the Bonapartist regime in France with the help of a successful military campaign. The Piedmont ruling circles hoped that French support would enable them to unite Italy, without the participation of the masses, under the aegis of the Savoy dynasty ruling in Piedmont. The war caused an upsurge of the national liberation movement in Italy. The Austrian army suffered a series of defeats. However, Napoleon III, frightened by the scale of the national liberation movement in Italy, abruptly ceased hostilities. On July 11, the French and Austrian emperors concluded a separate preliminary peace in Villafranca (see Note 126↓).

[126] On July 8, 1859 the emperors of France and Austria held a separate meeting—without the King of Piedmont, France's ally in the war against Austria—in Villafranca, at which they reached an agreement on an armistice. The meeting was held on the initiative of Napoleon III, who feared that the protracted war might give a fresh impulse to the revolutionary and national liberation movement in Italy and other European states. On July 11 France and Austria signed a preliminary peace treaty under which Austria was to cede to France its rights to Lombardy and France was to transfer this territory to Piedmont. Venetia was to remain under Austrian supremacy (despite the terms of the Plombières agreement) and the princes of the Central Italian states were to be restored to their thrones. A confederation of Italian states was to be formed under the honorary chairmanship of the Pope.

[143] In October 1850 Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria and Count Frederick William von Brandenburg, the head of the Prussian Government, met in Warsaw. The conference was held on the initiative of Nicholas I in connection with the sharpening struggle between Austria and Prussia for supremacy in Germany. The Russian Tsar, acting as arbiter, used his influence to make Prussia abandon its attempts to form a political confederation of German states under Prussia's aegis. The dispute was settled when the heads of the Austrian and Prussian governments signed an agreement in Olmütz (Olomouc) on November 29, 1850 under which Prussia renounced its claims to supremacy in Germany and yielded on the issues of Schleswig-Holstein and Hesse-Cassel. As a result of the agreement an Austrian army corps was sent to Holstein.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 17 (pp.345-349), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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