With the launch of the first codes in the Perrys Franco-Prussian War (more correctly the Franco-German War) range it is a foregone conclusion that I will soon be collecting them and I am starting to think about how I want to play games in this period. This is is a favourite period of mine and one where large collections exist within the group stretching back to the mid-1980s. But no matter what enhancements we make to the rules, we never play games in a way that actually reflect the way armies fought in this conflict. In truth I am probably the cause of this because I wrote the original rules that we played way back in the ‘80s that was based on limited research and on the historical bias perpetuated by German soldiers and historians that was subsequently adopted by hundreds of writers that followed.
|A heroic group of German infantry|
Since the 1980s I have read extensively on this conflict and have even have a completed manuscript, that one day I will get around to publishing, on the battles of Wissembourg, Spicheren and Froeschwiller. The vision I now have of the way that the armies fought is now very different to the way I viewed it 35 years ago.
|An equally heroic group of French officers, gathered around a mitrailleuse|
In the 40 years that followed the war more than 3,000 books were published on the conflict. A large number of mainly German texts were translated into English and became the basis for the study of war prior to 1914. For more than a century the common view of the French defeat in 1870 has been that the Germans were simply better. They were better led, better prepared and possessed better technologies. Indeed many 19th and early 20th century studies of the Franco-German War looked at the conflict with such a decidedly German bias that a reader could be excused for believing that the German campaign in 1870-71 was a perfectly planned and executed operation. Nothing could be further from the truth. While German war planning was superb by the standards of the day, on five distinct occasions between the 6th and 16th of August 1870 , specifically at Spicheren, Froeschwiller, Borny, Mars-la-Tour and Saint-Privat, the German field commanders, either through sheer bullheadedness or blatant insubordination, blundered into situations that they neither understood nor controlled. In all these cases had the French commanders been up to the task they should have turned those blunders into stunning French victories and hurled the Germans back across the Rhine.
For the past 150 years writers have pointed to numerous other factors of the French defeat that range from blatantly untrue statement that there was a technology gap in favour of the Germans, to the more realistic views about the a lack of French war planning, the difference in tactical doctrines or the poor state of French supply and administration service. While all of these are valid contributing factors, the root cause of the French failure in 1870 was the lack of quality leadership in senior positions. This failing flowed directly from the habit of the French Emperor, Napoleon III, to appoint Imperial favourites instead of talented professionals to senior positions. The result of this flawed policy was that in moments of true crisis when the crucial decisions needed to be made, no one capable of making them was available. The resultant paralysis through incompetence in the French high command allowed the less than perfect Germans to escape destruction on numerous occasions.
Of the contributing factors mentioned it is the technology gap that has been the centre of attention for most commentators since the conclusion of the war. The assumption, promoted by many writers, has been that the Germans enjoyed a significant technological advantage over the French by using steel breech loading artillery while the French persisted with their outdated bronze muzzle loading weapons. Time and time again writers referred to the rapid firing Krupp gun yet there is little hard evidence that the breech loading guns had any substantive advantage in rate of fire over the French muzzle loading weapons. I did read one article that claimed that the gun had a rate of fire of 10 rounds per minute. That is an extraordinary rate of one round every six seconds when you consider that there was very little difference in the process required to load and fire a breech loader over a muzzle loader. Like the French gun the Krupp used black powder as its propellant contained in a fabric charge bag and this required the barrel to be swabbed between rounds to prevent any smoldering powder residue trapped in the rifling or breech block from prematurely igniting the next round. The gun lacked a firing pin and was fired by a friction primer. It did not possess a recoil system that meant it had to be re-layed and re-sighted after each round fired. The use of black powder also created large volumes of white smoke that temporarily obscured that target causing difficulties in re-sighting the gun. That same smoke hindered the observation of the fall of shot. Much more likely is that a well trained crew could loose off four rounds an minute - five in a pinch. A muzzle loader could expect to fire three rounds a minute at best. German gunners, by one account, were trained to focus on accuracy and not rate of fire. This is borne out by studying the ammunition consumption at the Battle at Gravelotte (arguably some the most intense fighting of the war) where the heaviest expenditure of ammunition by any one battery was by the 2nd Light Battery, Hessian Artillery Regiment at 960 rounds in more than seven continuous hours of action, which gives an average of less than one round per gun per minute.
|A Krupp gun and crew|
This is not to say that the German guns were not entirely devoid of technical advantages. Unquestionably the Krupp guns were quality pieces of equipment, being the first reliable steel gun to see action. Very few of these pieces failed in service. The one technical factor that did give the German gunners a genuine advantage was that the breech loading gun allowed the development of a reliable impact fuse. Unlike air burst shells that might burst over or near their target, the German shells burst directly amongst their target every time, causing immediate physical and psychological damage to the target, simultaneously making observing the fall of shot an easier task. The French persisted with timed fuses and then made a poor situation worse when they attempted to make the gunner's task easier by limiting the timing options to two range bands, 1,500-1,700 yards and 2,900-3,100 yards, so that if the enemy was obliging enough to stand still at those distances, all was well and good, but otherwise the shells either exploded short of their target or screamed harmlessly past.
Unquestionably the real advantage in artillery that the Germans enjoyed over their French counterparts was in the number of guns available within the tactical formations and in the operational flexibility that they introduced in the reforms to the artillery arm after it performed poorly in the Austrian War of 1866. On the first count the Germans had twenty-four guns in an infantry division to the French twelve. French Emperor Napoleon III was aware of this deficiency and did make an attempt to compensate for this imbalance, but could not convince the legislature to fund the expansion. Instead he personally funded the secret development of the mitrailleuse, a volley gun often mistakenly referred to as an early machine gun. However, the addition of six of these new, untested weapons to the artillery in each infantry division did little to address basic shortage of field guns. On the second count the Germans had traded the Napoleonic grand batteries for artillery masses. This may at first seem a simple difference in terminology, but in practice the difference was decisive. Grand batteries, or the grouping of a number batteries into a single cohesive unit to saturate an area with gunfire, were a Napoleonic tradition and had been a deciding factor in a number of Napoleon’s victories, but they took a considerable amount of time to assemble and once built were immobile and difficult to control. The artillery masses promoted by the Germans were ad hoc formations created as required from whatever batteries were at hand, often batteries from different corps and divisions, prompted by a need to support an attack or break up by a defensive position. When the immediate task was completed the mass could be broken up and reformed in different combinations as the tactical situation required. This ability to form temporary concentrations could only be brought about by improving the status of the artillery commanders within the army structures and empowering those commanders to make decisions for themselves. The tactical advantage that this truly modern concept provided the German artillery was vast. Time and time again in 1870 the artillery was able to beat a path for their infantry when the advance had stalled.
The mitrailleuse is another technological advance often misunderstood and misjudged by wargamers. Originally developed in Belgium in the mid-1860’s the French made considerable improvements. The weapon was little more than a collection of 25 barrels that fired rim fired metallic cartridges sequentially at the turn of a handle. It had range as great as 2,500 yards and possessed significant hitting power even at extended ranges. With a rate of fire of 125 rounds per minute, a battery of six weapons the firepower equivalent of a full battalion volley. Many commentators, with the advantage of hindsight and comparison to later genuine machine guns, question why it was not used as an infantry support weapon that might have added weight to the firing line. The answer is simple, it was not conceived as an infantry support weapon, but was developed to supplement the artillery and built accordingly. The whole thing weighed 1,500 pounds (the barrel and mechanism alone weighing in at 750 pounds) and as such had to be handled like an artillery piece, complete with a four horse limber. While the weight of the weapon had the advantage of preventing recoil, enabling it to be re-sighted with some ease, it lacked any ability to spread the shot, although it could be swivelled, giving it a very narrow cone of fire and reducing its potential effect as a result. A further limiting factor was that because the weapon had no explosive round it was very difficult to observe the fall of shot and gunners were forced to do so by trying to observe dust thrown up by its impact, no easy task in an environment where line of sight was obscured by powder smoke. Perhaps the greatest negative of all was that the weapon was developed in such secrecy that very few of its operators had the opportunity to practice with it before hostilities started. While there were instances where the weapon was used with some effect, it was on the whole a failed concept.
The middle of the nineteenth century also brought about the first significant change in small arms technology since 1700. The invention of an expandable conical bullet allowed the development of a practical rifled infantry arm. The rifled musket was seen at the time as a game changer. Sighted to 1,000 yards and with a presumed battle range of 350 yards tactical theorists believed that the weapon would change the face of battle by halting the infantry advance at distance. The weapon, however, did not live up to the expectations of its promoters and in both the Italian War of 1859 and in the American Civil War that followed it failed to stop the advance.
While the great armies of the world rushed to arm themselves with rifled muskets, the Prussians took another track and in 1849 put into service the Dreyse Needle Gun, the first practical breech loading rifle. At the time breech loading weapons were generally considered sporting weapons and were not held in high regard in military circles. They were expensive to manufacture, their users required reasonable degree of proficiency to use them effectively and many feared that with much greater rates of fire they would burn more ammunition at prohibitive costs. It was also generally believed that in a time when small arms ammunition was made by hand demand would far outstrip supply. Most nations were not willing to take the risk with this unproven technology and remained with the known entity, the muzzle loading weapons. The Austrians went even further, not trusting their largely uneducated masses with the complexities of musketry drill and developed tactics that favoured bayonet attacks in dense masses. Indeed having brought the weapon into service the Prussians themselves were uncertain how to use it. Not until the early 1860s did they begin to build an understanding of how they could best use this weapon breaking away from the traditional massed musketry delivered by troops in close formed line to counter the ineffectiveness and slow rate of fire of the musket. What the Prussians came to realise was that the rapid rate of fire and increased accuracy of the new rifle meant that infantry were no longer required operate in close formation to deliver a volume of fire. Additionally the new rifle removed the requirement for the infantryman to stand up to load, and by firing and loading from a prone position the firer to make the best use of local cover. To employ this weapon most effectively the line had to be thinned out. And there was the tactical challenge - how to control this extended line.
|The three principal rifles of the war (top to bottom the Bavarian Podwils, the Needle Gun and the Chassepôt)|
|The breeches of each of the three weapons|
The solution the Prussians arrived at was to make the company, not the battalion, the basic tactical unit. What this meant in practical terms was that a smaller group of infantry (not too small since Prussian company was 250 men strong - only slightly smaller than the average regiment in the American Civil War) could hold a larger force at bay with accurate and rapid fire, while other smaller groups were free to manoeuvre to seek out and exploit any gap in enemy the line, or to turn a flank. The new tactics were debuted in the Danish War of 1864, but not generally recognised by military observers (nor were they universally supported by the conservative elements of the Prussian military establishment). Two years later, in the Austrian War, the tactics were employed with great effect, but again few observers saw the subtlety of the change to true fire tactics.
|German infantry advancing in the Rotherberg at the Battle of Spicheren|
The French completely misread the tactics of the Austrian War. They could not see past the devastation wrought on the Austrian assault columns by the Needle Gun. They, and most military observers for that matter, drew the conclusion that the Germans won the war by the use of a breech loading rifle, not by the use of small nimble units to out manoeuvre large cumbersome masses. To the French military establishment the change is was technological, not tactical, and their solution was to answer technology with technology. They immediately adopted their own breech loading rifle, the Chassepôt. The French weapon was a significant leap forward over the now outdated Prussian rifle, with a flatter trajectory, a greater rate of fire and much greater range and hitting power. This new weapon, in their reckoning would not only break up the attack at distance, but would virtually end the battle before it began. They then set about developing new tactics to exploit their wonderful new weapon. These tactics were entirely defensive, based around the belief that the infantry in a fixed position would dominate the battlefield. Minister of War Marshal Niel summed up the belief by stating “An army of 20,000 men, equipped with this destructive machine, could shoot, per minute, 280,000 shots, and strike down 56,000 of the enemy, if the fire on the battlefield were as accurate as target practice. With this prodigious weapon, victory and defeat can be decided in a few minutes. A score of file fires will end a battle.” The French tacticians foresaw the army taking strong positions with sweeping fields of fire that the Prussians would be compelled to attack. So confident were they that the defensive was to be their prime focus they failed to develop a method of attack. This remarkably flawed tactical doctrine, that failed to recognise that the Prussians might have other options than to dutifully walk into this wall of fire to their destruction, was to be a major contributing factor in the battlefield defeats that occurred in 1870.
So the key things I want to address in the way I want to play Franco-Prussian War games are:
- The deficiencies in the French artillery as a result of the changing of the fuse settings - this can be easily resolved by saying that within two specific range bands the basic die score to hit is 3+, whereas outside of those bands the score is 5+.
- Artillery organisational differences - well they are pretty much resolved by using historical structures
- Concentration of fire and the ability of the German to form artillery masses - a big wargame bugbear for me is that batteries from different commands and different parts of the battlefield can coordinate fire on a single target so maybe the first step here is to say that in normal circumstances all artillery must engage different targets (unless no other target is available). Then put a command layer over that and say that French artillery can concentrate fire of multiple batteries on a single target as long as they are within command radius of their immediate leader (and their radius is say 150mm), whereas the German artillery can concentrate fire of multiple batteries on a single target as long as they were within the command radius of an artillery leader of any command (with the same radius). Allowing any artillery commander to exert his authority combined with the fact that German artillery field organisation contained four batteries whereas the French had two gives the Germans the organisational and tactical advantage the should have. This does not address my other artillery bugbear in that multiple batteries are able to select their target whereas in reality the fire would be spread over and area...but that is something to try to solve another time.
- The Mitrailleuse - since it proved to be an effective, but not a devastating weapon in practice I think this can be simply used as French artillery, with two variations; first, it has a reduced range (the actual maximum range was around 2,500 yards, whereas French field pieces were ranged 3,500-4,000 yards); and second the weapon does not suffer from the fusing limitations so it always hits on a 3+
- The infantry - this is a significantly bigger problem to resolve because the key to German infantry tactics was the ability of battalions divide, divide again and divide yet again down to platoon or even smaller units as the tactical circumstance required. The question is how to represent this in a wargame. My immediate thought is that since my German battalions will consist of four stands, the simplest thing to do would be to just make each stand a separate company. Companies can combine into a single battalion where all the stands are in base to base contact and act and fight as large units, into half battalions of two stands in base to base contact and act and fight as small units, or as separate companies acting and fighting as tiny units. Troops that are in good order could break into smaller groups without penalty, but reforming them would require them to spend some time reforming – maybe an equivalent to a rally move. I need to think also about how the incorporation of badly damaged companies into a reformed unit would affect the status of the reformed unit.
Over top of this there needs to be a command layer and my thoughts here are that units will be said to be under command if: a complete battalion or half battalion is within the command radius of its brigadier. Individual companies would need to be within a radius of their battalion commander. All of these units and sub-units would be capable of operating independently outside a command radius, but with perhaps with a little less efficiency.
The French battalions were not as flexible as the Germans. They did quite frequently break battalions into half battalions and sometimes individual companies, but the effectiveness of these smaller formations does not appear to be as great as their German counterparts. In part this was because a French company was half the size of a German company, but more so because the quality of leadership of junior officers and NCOs was not as well developed in the French army as it was as in the German army. To cover this lack of efficiency, I would say that if a French battalion breaks into smaller groups all of its separate components will be considered tiny units and assumed to be operating outside of a command radius. I intend to organise my French battalions from three stands, with each stand representing two companies.
That is my mind dump on how I want to develop rule adaptions for Franco-German War games...watch this space for how it plays out.