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The Road To War
The French Army
The Prussians
First Encounters
The Battlefield
The Battle




The Prussians

Helmuth von Moltke
The contributing factor to all Prussian success was their superior organisational skills, without which they could not have achieved such rapid and decisive concentrations of manpower and material on the battlefield. They also realised that supply and support was also a key element when manoeuvring masses of troops and equipment over large areas. No small part in these complicated and calculated undertakings was played by the Prussian Chief of Staff, Helmuth Carl  Bernhard Graf von Moltke.

The credit for restructuring the Prussian army after its crushing defeat at the hands of the French in 1806 must go to military reformers such as Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Clasuewitz , however none of these could have realised the impact that rapid technological advances would make during the middle of the nineteenth century when, “…the varying pace of technical progress in different countries which, thanks to new inventions and their industrial exploitation, might give any one of the Great Powers a temporarily matchless potential superiority over all its neighbours…the ability of military authorities to perceive such an opportunity when it occurred and turn it to practical account strategically or tactically. This was essentially a new problem, and one which has persisted on commanders’ and general staffs’ considerations and calculations which would have been entirely irrelevant to Frederick the Great or Napoleon…”[1] 

Although Prussia lagged far behind Britain in terms of the exploitation of her industrial potential, she nevertheless made rapid advances in railway development and in steel manufacturing. All of this was not lost on the Prussian military who soon saw the potential offered by the railways in rapid mobilisation and concentration of their forces. Also the new technology had enabled them to acquire, at least for a time, a weapon that was superior to those still being used in other European armies - the Needle Gun.[2]

These factors, together with the far reaching reforms put in place by Albrecht von Roon the Prussian Minister of War, gave Moltke the basic tools from which he was to develop the Prussian army into a formidable war machine. From the moment that he became Chief of Staff in 1857 he worked diligently and tirelessly training his staff and drafting and redrafting plans for rapid mobilisation. This entailed not only the study of railway timetables, but also the need to have detailed knowledge of rolling stock available as well as a prepared plan on hand to deal with any unforeseen emergency that would occur on the political scene.[3]  Although not perfect, as the campaigns of 1864, 1866 and 1870 would show, the Prussian system of continually updating and training, of studying and of analysing all aspects of military art and history certainly gave them a great advantage over their adversaries

In 1870, counting the army of the South German States, the Prussians could put almost 1,200,000 men in the field. These troops were organised into military Kreise (Circles’), which were based throughout the kingdom. Each Kreise became an Army Corp headquarters, and was concentrated in the main city of the area to which it was allocated, with divisional and regimental staffs grouped in close proximity in the outlying towns. This meant that the each corps was always permanently and geographically established where the commander in chief could contact it, and conscripts had no further to go to join their units than a day’s travel. The recruit, in turn would be officered by men from the same district, who were also familiar with their superiors at divisional and corps level, “Thus Scharnhorst (had) sought to perpetuate the Clausewitz ideal of war as an integral part of civilian life.” [4]

Prussian plans for war against France had been prepared back in 1867, and had been revised and updated each year. In principle the plan was simple, take the offensive and drive onto Paris seeking to destroy the enemy where and when they were met.[5] The available forces for immediate operations against France consisted of:

  • First Prussian Army, General von Steinmetz, VIIth and VIIIth Army Corps with one cavalry division; 60,000 men.
  • Second Prussian Army, Prince Frederick Charles, IIIrd, IVth and Xth Army Corps, The Guard and two divisions of cavalry; 131,000 men.
  • Third Prussian Army, Crown Prince of Prussia, V and XI Army Corps, I and II Bavarian Army Corps, one Württemberg and one Baden Divisions, one cavalry division; 130,000 men.
  • Reserve, The King of Prussia, IX Army Corps and XII Saxon Army Corps; 60,000 men.

In addition there were the I, II and IV Army Corps with one Regular division and four Landwehr divisions watching the Danish coast and the Austrian frontier.[6]

The Aufmarsch towards the frontier was carried out on a wide front between the Rhine and the Moselle with, on the right wing the First Army concentrating at Wadern and then moving on Saarlouis and the Moselle River below Metz. In the centre the Second Army, which now included the IX and XII Corps originally forming the Reserve, was to advance on Kaiserslautern and Neunkirchen and from thence on Saarbrücken, from where it was to move on Metz-Nancy on the upper Moselle. On the left wing, the Third Army, grouped around Landau, Rastadt and Karlsruhe were to advance on Strasbourg and occupy Alsace.[7]

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[1] McElwee.William, The Art of War, page 106

 [2] Ibid, page 107

[3] Howard. Michael, The Franco-Prussian War, page 25

[4] McElwee. William, The Art of War, page 60

[5] Fuller. General J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World, Vol. III, page 107

[6] Fuller. General J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World, Vol. III, page 107-108

[7] Ascoli. David, A Day of Battle, page 63-64



Copyright © 2004  Graham Morris. 
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