HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE MOST REMARKABLE
EPOCHS IN THE MILITARY ART FROM THE TIME
OF THE GREEKS TO THE PRESENT
1. No one can be said to have thoroughly mastered his art, who has neglected to make himself conversant with its early history; nor, indeed, can any tolerably clear elementary notions, even, be formed of an art, beyond those furnished by the mere technical language, without some historical knowledge of its rise and progress; for this alone can give to the mind those means of comparison, without which everything has to be painfully created anew to reach perfection only after many cycles of misdirected mental toil.
2. To no one of the arts, that have exercised a prominent influence on the well-being of society, are these observations more applicable than to that of arms. To be satisfied of this, there needs only the most cursory glance at the grand military epochs of the ancient and modem world. Looking at the art as it was among the Greeks, under Epaminondas, Philip, and Alexander; and among the Romans, about the time of Julius Caesar, of each of which epochs have full authentic records; comparing it with the phases it assumed in the decline of the Roman Empire and during the Feudal period; and following if, from the introduction of gunpowder down to the brief career of Gustavus Adolphus, its first great restorer in Europe- it seems incredible that anything, short of the most entire ignorance of the past, could have led professional soldiers to abandon the spirit of the organization and tactics of the early Greeks and Romans, so admirably adapted as to call into play the mental and physical energies of man, for the limbering and unwieldy engines that clogged the operations of the Imperial armies of the Empire; or for the almost equally unwieldy iron-clad chivalry of the middle ages whose prestige was forever obscured by the first well-organized infantry brought against it.
3. Coming to a more recent period, did we not remember by what slow and uncertain stages the march of improvement in other arts has proceeded, how much has been seemingly owing to mere chance, rather than to well-directed investigation -how rarely a master has arisen to embody into simple formulas the often complicated processes and obscure doctrines of those who have preceded him, we should have still greater cause of astonishment, that, at a time of more general diffusion of science, art and literature, and particularly of the classical writers of antiquity, no master-mind should have evoked, from the campaigns of a Marius, or a Hannibal, the germ of the comparatively modem science of strategy; nor have gathered, from that almost horn-book of the schoolboy, Caesar’s Commentaries, the spirit of those rapid combinations by which, with a handful of troops, the great Roman captain so uniformly frustrated the powerful and oft-repeated struggles of a warlike and restless people; but, that it should have been left to the great Captain of this to brush aside the mesh-work woven by routine and military pedagoguism; while, by the development of gigantic plans, made and controlled with almost mathematical precision, he fixed immovably those principles which, when acted upon, cannot fail to command success, and which, when overlooked or neglected, lead to defeat, or else, leaving all to chance, make of victory only a successful butchery.
4. However desirable it might be to give to this branch of the military art the consideration to which it is justly entitled, it does not come within the scope of a work like this to do so. The most that can be attempted will be to make a brief recapitulation of the most marked epochs; with a view to draw the attention of the young military student to the importance of this too-frequently neglected branch, and to lead him into a field of research, where the spirit of inquiry will always be gratified, useful additions be made to his previous stock of acquirement, and hints be gleaned which he will find fully to justify the correctness of Napoleon’s decision upon the influence which a study of the campaigns of Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar, must have in the education of a thorough captain.
5. Tactics of the Greeks.-The Greeks, if not the earliest people who reduced the military art to fixed principles, are the first of whose military institutions we have any exact account; and even of theirs, and of the system of their successors in conquest, the Romans, several points still remain obscure.
6. A Grecian army, at the period when the military art was in the greatest perfection among them, was composed of infantry and cavalry. The former was made up of three different orders of soldiers; termed, 1. The Opilitai, or heavily armed, who wore a very complete defensive armor, and bore the sarissa, or Macedonian pike, a formidable weapon either for attack or defense, about 24 feet in length. 2. The Psiloi, or light infantry, who were without defensive armor, and carried the javelin, bow, and sling. 3. The Pellastae, who were intermediate between the other two, carrying a lighter defensive armor, as well as a shorter pike than the oplitai.
7. The cavalry consisted of two kinds. 1. The Cataphracti, or heavy cavalry, in which both rider and horse were well covered with defensive armor; the former armed with the lance, and a sabre slung from a shoulder-belt. 2. A light cavalry of an irregular character, who were without defensive armor, consisting of archers and lancers, who also carried a sword, javelin, and a small buckler.
8. The elementary tactical combinations, or formations, of the Greeks, were methodical but very simple. An army corps was composed, 1. Of a Tetraphalangarchia, also termed a grand phalanx, consisting of 16,354 oplitai. An Epitagma, of 8192 psiloi; and an epitagma of cavalry of 4096 men. The heavy armed, or infantry of the line, bore to the light infantry and cavalry the ratio of the numbers 2, 4, and 1.
9. The composition of the grand phalanx was as follows: Tetraphalangarchia=4 Phalanxes=16 Chiliarchiae=64 Syndagmata=256 Tetrarchiaae= 1024 Lochoi or files=4096 Enomitiae of 4 men each. It is thus seen that, in the various formations, a division of the whole could be made by the powers of 2 or 4.
10. This body of infantry was thus officered. Each tetrarchia, consisting of 4 files, or 64 men, was commanded by a Tetrarch, who was file leader of the first file.
11. The syntagma of 16 files, which was the army unit, and corresponds to our battalion, was commanded by a Syntagmatarch, who was stationed in front of his command, having an adjutant on his left; a color-bearer immediately in his rear; on the right a herald-at-arms, to repeal the commands; and on the left a trumpeter, to sound the signals. In the rear of the syntagma was stationed an officer who was the second in command.
12. The phalanx was commanded by a general officer bearing the title of Strategos.
13. The formation of the peltastae and psiloi was analogous to that of the oplilai, the number of files being 8, instead of 16 as in the last; and the subdivisions receiving different denominations also.
14. The epitagma of cavalry was divided into two equal parts, each composed alike, termed Telea. One was placed on each wing of the line of battle: The telos was subdivided into 5 divisions; the strength of each subdivision being the half of the one next in order above it. The lowest, termed Ila, of 64 horsemen, corresponding to the modern squadron, was drawn up on a front of 16 with 4 files, and was commanded by an officer with the title of Ilarch.
15. The grand phalanx, in order of battle, was divided into two wings, with an interval of 40 paces between them, and one of 20 between the phalanxes of each wing.
16.The olitai, when formed for exercise or parade, were drawn up in open order; leaving an equal interval between the men of each rank and between the ranks. When ready to charge, each man occupied a square of 3 feet, and the six leading ranks brought their pikes to a level; thus presenting an array in which the pikes of the sixth rank extended 3 feet in advance of the front one. In attacks on entrenchments, or fortified cities, the men of each rank closed shoulder to shoulder, a sufficient interval being left between the ranks to move with celerity; the leading rank kept their shields overlapped to cover their front; the others held them above their heads for shelter against the weapons of the enemy.
17.The peltast corresponded to our elite corps of infantry, selected for enterprises requiring both celerity and a certain firmness.
18.The psiloi performed all the duties usually devolved, in the present day, upon light infantry,, both before and at the opening of an engagement.
19.The position of the cavalry’ in line of battle, was on the wings. The duties of this arm were mainly to charge that of the enemy. The cataphracti, for this purpose, were drawn up on each wing, with a portion of the light cavalry on each of their flanks. The charge was made by the former, and the latter followed up any success gained by them.
20.The marches of the Greeks were usually made by a flank. Sometimes, when the character of the ground permitted, two phalanxes marched side by side, presenting a front of 32 men, and being in readiness to offer a front on both the flanks, if necessary.
21.Among the orders of battles among the ancients, that known as the wedge, or boar’s head, is the most celebrated. In this disposition, the point, or head, is formed of a subdivision of the phalanx of greater or less strength, according to circumstances; this being supported by two, three, and four subdivisions of the same force, one behind another.
22. Tactics of the Romans. Up to the time of Marius, by whom the germ of the decadence of the military art among the Romans was sown, a Consular Army consisted of two Legions; and of two Wings composed of social troops. The legion was composed of infantry of the line, light infantry, and cavalry. The infantry of the line was divided into three classes. 1. The Hastati. 2. Principes. 3. Triarii. These classes wore a very complete defensive armor; they were all armed with the short straight Spanish sword; the Pilum, a kind of javelin, about 7 feet in length, used equally to hurl at a distance and in hand-to-hand engagements was added to it for the two first ; and the triarii carried the pike.
23. The light infantry, termed Velites, used only the casque, and a buckler of stout leather, and bore the Spanish sword and a short javelin, termed the Hasta, only half the length of the pilum, and used as a missile.
24. The cavalry wore the helmet and cuirass, and carried a buckler; their arms were a long sabre, the Grecian lance, and a quiver with arrows.
25. The legion was officered by six Tribunes; sixty Centurions, with an equal number of officers who served as file-closers for the infantry; and twenty Decurions of cavalry; besides these there were the officers of the velites, who fought out of the ranks.
26.Until about the period of the Civil Wars, the legion was commanded by the tribunes in succession; the tour of duty for each being two months; afterwards the rule was adopted of placing the legion in command of an officer styled Legatus. Whilst the tribunes exercised the command, those, who were not on this duty, served on all occasions of detachment service generally.
27. Each class of the infantry of the line was subdivided into ten portions, each termed a Manipulus. The velites were attached to these by equal portions. The cavalry were divided into ten troops, termed Turma. To each manipulus there were assigned two centurions, and two file-closers; and to each turma two decurions. The velites, although forming a part of the manipuli, had centurions assigned to them, to lead them in battle.
28. The normal order of battle of the Romans, prior to the time of Marius, was in three lines: the hastati in the first the principes in the second; the triarii in the third and the cavalry on the wings.
29. The manipulus, which was the unit of force, was drawn up in 12 files, with a depth of 10 ranks, in the lines of hastati and principes; in the line of triarii there were only 6 files. The right and left files of the manipulus were led by a centurion, and closed by an officer file-closer.
30. The manipuli of the three lines were disposed in quincunx order; the manipulus of one line opposite to the interval between the manipuli in the one in front, this being the same as the manipulus front. The intervals between the lines were the same as the depth of each line. An interval of about 3 feet was left between the ranks and the files of the manipulus.
31. The same order of battle was followed for the social troops on the wings. The two legions occupied the centre; but what interval was left between them, or between the centre and wings, or how far the cavalry was posted from the infantry, is not well ascertained.
32. The velites, before engaging were posted usually between the intervals of the triarii, and, in part, between those of the turma.
33. In both the legionary and allied cavalry the turma were formed in 8 files and 4 ranks. An interval the same as its front, was left between each turma. Of the two officers commanding a turma, one was placed on the right, the other on the left of the front rank. Each wing of cavalry was commanded by an officer styled Prefectus. In some instances the cavalry was placed as a reserve, in rear of the triarii, and charged when necessary, through the intervals of the manipuli.
34. In their engagements, the velites performed precisely the same part as that of the light troops which form the advanced-guards and advanced-posts of the present day. Watching and occupying the enemy before the main body is brought into play; then retiring and taking position to harass him farther, as opportunity may serve.
35. The main body, from its organization, and formation, was admirably adapted to meet any emergency; presenting, if necessary, by advancing the manipuli of the principes into the intervals of the hastati, an unbroken impenetrable front; or, by throwing the manipuli of the different lines behind each other, leaving an unobstructed passage to the front, or rear.
36. From the preceding brief exposition of the phalanx and legionary formations, the respective properties of these two celebrated bodies, on the field of battle, may be readily gathered. The legion was evidently far better adapted to circumstances of locality than the phalanx, which could only move well and effectively on even ground. In the phalanx, the keeping together of the entire body, whether in moving onward to bear down the enemy by its pressure, or in waiting to resist his shock by its inertia-was everything. In the legion, individual activity and the ease with which the minipuli lent themselves to every requisite movement, gave to the entire machine the volition and strength of life. The attack with the pilum, cast on nearing the enemy, was followed up immediately by the onslaught with the terrible short straight sword, equally effective to hew, or thrust with. Each manipulus, equal to any emergency, was prepared by the celerity with which its movements could be made, to improve every partial advantage, and meet the enemy on all sides. Against cavalry alone, was the impenetrable front of the phalanx, bristling with a forest of sarissas, superior to the legion. The open order adopted for the vigorous action of the individual, who to the charge of the horse had only his pilum to oppose, so inferior to the fire of the musket, that dread of modern cavalry, proved fatal to the legion on more than one sanguinary field; till experience taught, that safety might be found in ranks more serried, and by presenting a front of pike-heads, borne by the first four ranks of the hastati.
37. Marius, urged either by policy or the necessities of the times, made a fundamental, and it is thought fatal change, not only in the organization of the legion, but in other parts of the military system of his country. By substituting for that glow of patriotism with which an army drawn wholly from the bosom of the people is ever found to be animated, the mercenary spirit and its consequences, he aimed a vital blow against the only real safeguard of a nation’s honor, a national army. In a despotism, such as Prussia was under Frederick, the controlling power of an energetic will may, for a season, not only ward off the attacks of powerful neighbors, but reap conquests, and struggle with fortitude against great reverses, with an army recruited from the scum of mankind; but so soon as a state with any pretensions to republican institutions, substitutes the mercenary wholly for the national spirit in its armies, its fate is sealed. Like Rome, during the brilliant career of Marius, Pompey, and Caesar, and like Venice, under some of her able condottieri, as the Colonnas and Sforzas, it may, through the singular ability of particular leaders, still present to the world the dazzling prestige that military success, under all aspects, carries with it; but the result is as certain as the ashes that succeed to the flame; anarchy comes in with all its ills, from the rival pretensions of successful partisan leaders, and the spectacle is seen which Rome exhibited at the period referred to; or else the imbecility and utter prostration which Venice presented, almost from the very moment when outwardly she had attained to her loftiest might, down to the pitiable closing scene that wiped her name forever from the book of independent states
38. In the truly great days of Rome, the days of the Scipios, the raising of her legions was done with all the best guards of a constitutional popular election. Six tribunes for each legion, having first been chosen, either by the consuls or by the popular voice, the conscripts to fill its ranks were designated in each tribe by the proper magistrate; these were divided by the tribunes into the following, classes:-I. The youngest and least affluent were selected for the Velites; 2. The next in years and wealth for the Hastati ; 3. The next in the same gradation for the Principes;- and 4. The oldest and most wealthy for Triarii. The cavalry, or knights, formed a privileged class, into which only those were admitted who paid a certain tax. This classification being made, the tribunes named 10 first and 10 second centurions for the infantry; with 10 first and 10 second decurions for the cavalry; and then in concert with the officers thus selected, divided the classes into manipuli and turma, assigning to each its two proper officers; whilst these, in turn, selected the two officers in each maniple who acted as file-closers.
39. Besides the distinction of first and second centurion, these officers took rank according to class. The first centurion of the Triarii, termed Primipilus, was the highest in rank of his grade, and took command of the legion when the tribunes were absent.
40. In the time of the Scipios the legion was composed of 1200 velites, 1200 hastati, 1200 principes, 600 triarii, and 300 knights.
41. Polybius states that the Consular army contained 6000 legionaries of the line, 2400 velites, and 600 knights of Roman troops; and of social, or allied troops, 6700 infantry and 800 horse for the wings; with an additional extraordinary levy of 1700 infantry and 400 cavalry; making a grand total of 18,600 men.
42. Marius introduced the Cohort instead of the maniple as the unit of force; forming it of three maniples, and abolishing the ancient modes of classification. The cohort preserved both the number and designation of the officers attached to the maniples. It was commanded by the first centurion, until, under the emperors, it received a superior officer, termed the Prefect of the Cohort. The use was also introduced of making of the first cohort a corps d’elite, to which was intrusted the eagle, the orders of its primiple.
43. The order of battle by cohorts depended upon circumstances; usually five were placed in the first and five in the second line. The number of ranks of the cohort was also variable; depending on the front necessary to be presented to the enemy.
44. With the settled despotism of the emperors arose, as a necessary consequence, in still bolder relief, the mercenary system. The substitution of auxiliary cavalry for the Roman knights, and the introduction of foreigners and of slaves, even among the legionaries, soon left not a vestige of the ancient military constitution of the army; and that train of results was rapidly evolved in which defeat was followed by all its ills but shame, and the once proud legionary became an object of terror to his master alone. Effeminacy led to the abandonment of his defensive armor; and, too craven to meet the foe face to face with his weapons of offense, the legionary sought a disgraceful shelter behind those engines of war which were found as powerless to keep at bay his barbarian opponent, as was the lumbering artillery, chained wheel to wheel, of the Oriental, to arrest the steady tread of the English foot soldier.
45. Feudal Period. To follow down the military art through all the stages of its fall until the use of the feudal system, could not fall to be a most instructive lesson, did the limits of this work permit it. Grand as were the occasional deeds of daring do of the chivalric age, they were seldom more than exhibitions of individual prowess. Art and consummate skill there undoubtedly were in this period, but no approach to science, countries and provinces invaded and ravaged, cities ruined and castles razed, accompanied by wholesale butchery of the frightened peasant, mocked with the appointments and title of soldier, such, without other result, were the deeds of chivalry, and such they must have continued, had not the Swiss pike, that broke the Austrian yoke, opened the way to free Europe from its wretched thraldom, and again to raise the profession of arms to its proper level, in which mind and its achievements have the first rank, and brute force combined with mere mechanical skill a very subordinate one.
46. Rise of Art in Modern Times. After the decisive day of Morgaten, the Swiss name resounded throughout Europe; and in time it became a point with the leading powers to gain these mountaineers to their side in their wars and even to retain a body of them permanently in their pay. The same men who at home were patriot soldiers, were known abroad, in foreign service, as the real mercenaries; deserting, or upholding a cause, as the one or the other party bid highest. The true rank of infantry now began again to be appreciated; and, with the more permanent military establishments soon after set on foot, an organization on juster principles gradually found its way in; and with it some glimmering views of ancient war.
47. Although able leaders from to time appeared, and order, with a rude discipline, was introduced among the hireling bands of which the permanent portions of armies in most European states consisted, after the first essay of regularly paid troops made by Charles VII. of France; still no one arose who seemed to comprehend the spirit of ancient art, until the period of the Revolt in the Netherlands brought forward the Princes of Orange and Nassau, William and his son Maurice, both of whom, but particularly the latter, gave evidence of consummate military talent. The camp of Maurice became the school of Europe, from which came forth many of the most eminent generals of that day.
48. Epoch of Gustavus Adolphus. But the great captain of this age was Gustavus Adolphus; a man who combined the qualities of hero, warrior, statesman and philosopher; one who early saw, what in our day is still disputed, that war is both a science and an art, and that profound and varied learning- an intimate acquaintance with literature as well as science-is indispensable in the formation of the thorough soldier.
49. Since the invention of gunpowder, the military art had, in some respects, retrograded, owing to a misapprehension of the true value of this new agent. The apprehension expressed by the bravest of the old chivalry, that it would be the means of extinguishing noble daring, was soon seen to be not ill-founded, in the disappearance of individual prowess in the cavalry; whilst the cumbrous machines put into the hands of the infantry, and the unwieldy cannon, that but poorly replaced the old engines, rendered all celerity, that secret of success, impossible. At the fight of Kintzig for example, which lasted from mid-day to evening, and which took place after the fork, that served the old musketeer as a rest, had been suppressed, and the cartridge been introduced by Gustavus Adolphus, it is narrated, that the infantry were drawn up in six ranks, and that the fire of musketry was so well sustained that the slowest men even discharged their pieces seven times.
50. Besides this improvement in small arms, Gustavus Adolphus was the first to make the classification of artillery into siege and field-pieces, adopting, for the latter the calibres corresponding nearly to those used for the same purposes in the present day. He formed a light regiment of artillery; and assigned to the cavalry some light guns.
51. Important changes were made by him in the cavalry; its armor was modified, the cuirassiers alone preserving a light cuirass, and being armed with a long sword and two pistols.
52. By adopting a new disposition for battle, which he termed the order by brigade, the idea of which was clearly taken from the dispositions in the Roman legions, he broke up the large unwieldy bodies into which troops had hitherto been massed; and thus gave not only greater mobility, but decreased the exposure to the ravages of missiles. In his order of battle, each arm was placed according to its essential properties; so that ease of maneuvering and mutual support necessarily followed; and peculiar advantages of position were readily seized upon. To this end, his forces were drawn up in two or three parallel lines; either behind each other, or in quincunx order; the cannon and musketry combined; the cavalry either in the rear of the infantry to support it, or else upon the wings to act in mass. The cavalry was formed in four ranks.
53. The dispositions made at a halt at night were always the same as those to receive the enemy, should he unexpectedly attack. The order of march was upon several columns, at suitable distances apart.
54. Such, summarily, were the main points in the improvements made by this great Captain, who, on the field of battle, exhibited the same warrior instinct, in perceiving and availing himself of the decisive moment. Betrayed, as every original mind that reposes upon its own powers alone must be into occasional errors, such, for example, as interposing, on some occasions, his cavalry between bodies of infantry, he more thin cancelled them, by being the earliest to perceive the true power of each arm, as shown, in massing his artillery, and by keeping it masked until the effective moment for its action arrived.
55. Epoch of Louis XIV. The wars that preceded the period of the Spanish Succession, and those induced by it, developed the seeds sown by Gustavus Adolphus and the Princes of Nassau. The old chivalry having become a thing that was, there arose that young chivalry, equally distinguished by valor and courtesy, which although sometimes assuming a fantastic hue, has transmitted some of its spirit even to this day, through terrific scenes of popular struggles, and the loosening of every evil passion engendered by such strifes, and converted the battlefield into an arena where glory is the prize contended for; and where, the contest over, the conquered finds in the victor a brother eager to assist him, and to sympathize in his mishap. At the head of this distinguished band we find the Montecuculis, the Turennes, the Condes, the Eugenes, the Marlboroughs, the Catinats, the Luxembourgs, the Vaubans, and a host of others. Still, with the exception of some improvements in the weapons in use, as the changes in the musket, by substituting for the old match-lock the one with the hammer and flint, the addition of the bayonet, and the introduction of the iron rammer, together with a better organization of the artillery, the progress made in the art during this period was in no degree commensurate with the grand scale on which its military operations were conducted. The science of fortification, and its kindred branch, the mode of conducting sieges, form an honorable exception to this general stagnation of the art. Each of these were brought by Vauban to a pitch of perfection that has left but little for his successors to achieve, so long as the present arms and means are alone employed.
56. it was also in this period that the infantry pike was abandoned. This change was first made by Marshall Catinet, in the army he commanded in Italty; and it was gradually adopted throughout the French service by the efforts of Vauban, who demonstrated the superiority of the musket and bayonet to the pike both as a defensive and an offensive weapon. At the same time the distinction between light and heavy infantry became more prominent, partly from the introduction of the hand-grenade, for the handling of which men of the greatest stature and strength were selected, who, from this missile, were termed grenadiers, and partly, from the practice of, at first, placing the improved musket only in the hands of the best marksmen.
57. With the more effective use of fire-arms, the necessity was felt of adopting a formation both of infantry and cavalry, that would present a less exposed mark to their balls; but the disinclination to innovation which seems natural to all professions, retarded this change, and it was only after the war of the Spanish Succession that the French gave the example of a formation of infantry in three ranks. The cavalry was still far from that point of efficiency which it subsequently reached. Its movements were slow and timid, and fire-arms, unwieldy implements in the hands of horsemen, were still preferred by it to the sword.
58. The usual order of battle was in two or three lines; the infantry in the centre, and cavalry on the wings. The lines were from 300 to 600 paces apart; having intervals between their battalions and squadrons, in each equal to their front, so as to execute with ease the passage of lines. The importance of keeping some troops in reserve, to support those engaged, and also to be used for special objects, as turning the flank of an enemy, began also now to be acted on. Yet the trammels of routine were but slowly laid aside. Maneuvers and marches made with a tediousness and circumspection difficult to be comprehended in the present day; engagements commenced along the entire front at once; the intermingling of cavalry with infantry; the power of artillery but vaguely felt; little appreciation of the resources to be found in varied ground; battles fought apparently with no other view than to drive the enemy from the battlefield; such were the prominent military features of this celebrated epoch, – one of faults, which deserve to be attentively studied for the lessons they afford even to the present day.
59. The period intervening between the age of Louis XIV., and the rise of the Prussian power under Frederick II., was one of comparative stagnation in the military art. The Duke of Orleans, the afterwards celebrated Regent, on one or two occasion, gave promise of military talents. The mad career of Charles XII. of Sweden, and the achievements of Marshal Saxe–to whom we owe the modem cadenced step, and the well-known axiom, that the secret of victory resides in the legs of the soldiers,—are the most instructive events of this time; particularly as regards the use of fortified points as an element of tactics; shown in the destruction of Charles’s force at Pultowa, and in the influence of the redoubts on the renowned day of Fontensy, with which closed the military life of Marshal Saxe.
60. Epoch of Frederick II. With Frederick II of Prussia arose a new order of things; a mixture of sound axioms and execrable exactions upon the natural powers of man, of which the latter, for years afterwards in the hands of ignorance and military pedagoguism, became the bane of the art, and the opprobrium of humanity, through the cruel tasks and wretched futilities with which the private soldier was vexed; to convert a being whose true strength resides in his volition into a machine of mere bone and muscle.
61. What influence the early hardships to which Frederick was subjected by the half-mad tyrant to whom he owed his being, or the mercenary material, fashioned under the same regimen as himself, with which afterwards he was obliged to work, may have had, in creating this state of things, it is not easy to say; but it seems incredible that, without some such bias, a man who showed such eminent abilities, as a statesman and soldier,- who, in most things, thought wisely, and acted well- should have fallen into an error so gross and lamentable; one that even the poor shallow philosophy, of which he made his plaything, ought to have detected and reformed.
62. Frederick’s first attention was given to the drill, or the mere mechanism of the art which he attained a sad celebrity. Firing executed with a celerity that rendered aim impracticable, and with an ensemble which made a point of honor of having the report from a battalion indistinguishable from that of one gun; maneuvers calculated with mathematical precision, applied with equal precision by human beings tutored as dancing dogs; the cane of the drill-sergeant more dreaded than the bayonet of the enemy; the field of battle, that arena where genius and military instinct should be least trammeled, converted into a parade ground, for carrying on the all the trivial mummery of a mere gala-day: such were some of the worst features of Frederick’s system.
63. But whenever his mind was left free to carry out an original conception, the master of the art again shone forth. In his orders of march and encampment, his choice of positions to receive an attack, he seldom failed to exhibit the consummate general. In his appreciation of the powers of the oblique order of battle, by which he obtained such decisive results on the field of Leuthen; the perfect state to which he brought his cavalry, and the brilliant success with which he was repaid by it, for his exertions in restoring it to its essential purposes; his introduction of flying artillery, and his clear-sighted views as to the proper employment of this arm generally on the battlefield ; Frederick has high claims upon the profession, as well as for his written instructions to his generals, which are a model both of military style and good sense.
64. Frederick adopted invariably the formation of three ranks for his infantry, and that of two for his cavalry. From the preponderating value given to the effects of musketry, his dispositions for battle were always with lines deployed, and so disposed as to favor an easy passage of lines. This, and the curious importance attached to preserving an exact alignment in all movements, deprived the troops of the advantages of celerity, and the use of the bayonet, to which the present column of attack so admirably lends itself.
65.The great authority of Frederick overshadowed, and kept down, the naturally rebellious promptings of common sense against parts of his system; and all Europe soon vied in attempts to rival its worst features, without comprehending its essence. In England, it was silently imposed upon a hired soldiery without difficulty; and showed itself in a guise in which, but for the painful features, the exhibition would have been eminently ludicrous. Throughout Germany it made its way, in spite of the impenetrable character of the institutions of the day. In France, a furious, war of words and writings was waged between the respective advocates for the true French laissez-faire, and the Prussian tournequetism and strait-jacketism; as well as upon the more important question of the deep and shallow formations. If this contest did nothing more, it provoked discussions in which the voice of the real soldier was occasionally heard in the din of mere military pedagogues. it produced the brilliant pages of Guilbert, and the whimsical scene, so graphically described by De Segur, of the experimentum crucis, to which he involuntarily, and a comrade voluntarily were put, to ascertain man’s powers of endurance under the punishment of the flat of a sabre. Then came that event which swept all these puerilities and most other futilities into one vortex,-the French Revolution. The value of proper control, and the evils arising from its want, were here equally demonstrated; and a just medium it length hit upon, which left to the individual his necessary powers under all circumstances.
66. Epoch of the French Revolution, and its Sequel. With the emigration of her nobles, France saw herself deprived of nearly all those who were deemed capable of organizing and leading her armies. Her enemies were upon her, still brilliant with the prestige of Frederick’s name and Frederick’s tactics; and to these she had to oppose only ill-armed and disorganized masses driven to the field, in some cases, more through apprehension of the insatiable guillotine, than through any other motive, dreading it more than the disciplined Prussians. But here the man, thrown on his own resources, lifted up and borne onward by an enthusiasm bordering on fanaticism, showed himself equal to the emergency. Like our own first efforts, so those of the French were the actions of individuals. Where the drill had done nothing, individual military instinct filled up the want. A cloud of skirmishers soon become expert marksmen, harassed and confounded lines taught to fire only at the word of command; the compact column, resounding with the Ca ira, scattered to the winds feeble, frigid lines, torpid with over-management, and effected a revolution as pregnant to the military, as the political one to which it owed its birth was to the social system. Thus was laid the foundation of the tactics of this day; a system that partly sprung up in the forests of America; and upon which, a few years later, the ingenious Bulow would have had military Europe to base its system.
67. The frenzy of enthusiasm past, reason and discipline again claimed their rights; and the judging, able generals of France, brought both the system of skirmishers and the column of attack, to their proper functions; and the way was prepared for that Genius who swayed these two elementary facts with a power that shook Europe to its centre, and caused her firmest thrones to reel.
68. Napoleon appeared upon the scene at a moment the most propitious for one of his gigantic powers. The elements were prepared, and although temporarily paralyzed by a state of anarchy, resulting from the political and financial condition of the country, they required only an organizing hand to call into activity their inherent strength. This hand, endowed with a firmness and grasp that nothing could shake, or unloose, was that of Napoleon. To him we owe those grand features of the art, by which an enemy is broken and utterly dispersed by one and the same blow. No futilities of preparation; no uncertain feeling about in search of the key-point; no hesitancy upon the decisive moment; the whole field of view taken in by one eagle glance; what could not be seen divined by an unerring military instinct; clouds of light troops thrown forward to bewilder his foe; a crushing fire of cannon in mass opened upon him; the rush of the impetuous column into the gap made by the artillery; the overwhelming charge of the resistless cuirassier; followed by the lancer and hussar to sweep up the broken dispersed bands; such were the tactical lessons practically a in almost every great battle of this great military period. The task of the present one has been to systematize, and embody in the form of doctrine, what was then largely traced out.
69. In an intimate knowledge of the peculiar application of each arm, and a just appreciation of their respective powers; in all that is lofty in conception, skilful in design, and large in execution, Napoleon confessedly stands unrivaled. But it has been urged that, for the attainment of his ends on the battle-field, he has shown a culpable dis-regard of the soldier’s blood, and has often pushed to excess his attacks by masses.
To do the greatest damage to our enemy with the least exposure to ourselves. is a military axiom lost sight of only by ignorance of the true ends of victory. How far this may have been disregarded by Napoleon, can be known, with certainty, only through Napoleon himself. He, who suffered no important fact, or its consequences, to elude his powers of analysis, could hardly have been unmindful of the fate of the grand column at Fontenay, nor have forgotten the imminent danger in which those squares were placed that, at the battle of the pyramids, resisted like walls of iron the head-long charge of the reckless Mameluke, when he launched forth the formidable column of M’Donald on the field of Wagram.
Mahan’s Outpost Main Page
Chapter I – Tactics
Chapter II – Manner Of Placing and Handling Troops
Chapter III – Positions
Chapter IV – Advanced-Guards and Advanced-Post
Chapter V – Reconnaissances
Chapter VI – Detachments
Chapter VII – Convoys
Chapter VIII – Surprises and Ambuscades