At first glance, the introduction of railways meant that the size of armed forces was now constrained only by the dimensions of a state’s manpower pool, the political and economic ramifications that would arise were it to be tapped, and the government’s practical ability to do so in terms of financial, bureaucratic and material resources. Yet, experience in the Napoleonic Wars had already indicated that, as armies became larger, so too did the problems surrounding their command and control. At a time when so few people could read and write, simply finding sufficient soldiers who were capable of discharging even rudimentary administrative functions was hard enough; those with the skill and aptitude to fulfil the demanding duties inherent in the work of a general staff were in still shorter supply. Because of widespread illiteracy, training manuals, if they could be produced at all, were not always helpful. In any event, most of the theoretical works that were written during this period focused on tactical and strategic considerations; the majority of armies, with results that were frequently debilitating, neglected the essential but far less glamorous work performed by staffs. In the 1809 campaign, the lack of appropriately schooled personnel at his headquarters and dependable subordinate commanders prevented the Archduke Karl from securing much benefit from the structure, based on Armeekorps, that he himself had introduced into Austria’s forces. Indeed, in the midst of the fighting, he was compelled to all but abandon it. During the wars of 1807 and 1812-14, the Russians, too, struggled to furnish their massive armies with staff officers who had any inkling of doctrine and logistics, never mind standardized procedures and vocabulary. Thanks to the efforts of Scharnhorst and her other military reformists during the aftermath of Jena, Prussia, by contrast, fared appreciably better; she had an educational process that yielded tolerably good staff officers, notably Neithardt von Gneisenau, who translated Marshal Blücher’s strategic vision into detailed orders and disseminated them systematically and efficaciously.
Napoleon’s own headquarters was a model of efficiency by the standards of the day. Known as `the cabinet’ and located in either the largest and most conveniently placed room in the building where he was living, or in a tent adjacent to his own, this was, as Baron Odeleben, an eyewitness, recalls,
always arranged with the greatest particularity. In the middle . was placed a large table, on which was spread the best map that could be obtained of the seat of the war… This was placed conformably with the points of the compass . [and] pins with various coloured heads were thrust into it to point out the situation of the different corps d’armée of the French or those of the enemy. This was the business of the director of bureau topographique, … who possessed a perfect knowledge of the different positions … Napoleon . attached more importance to this [map] than any want of his life. During the night [it] … was surrounded by thirty candles … When the Emperor mounted his horse, … the grand equerry carried [a copy] … attached to his breast button . to have it in readiness whenever [Napoleon] … exclaimed `la carte!’
In the four corners of the [headquarters] …. were . small tables, at which the secretaries of Napoleon were employed. He most commonly dictated to them . pacing up and down his apartment. Accustomed to have everything which he conceived executed with the greatest promptitude, no one could write fast enough for him, and what he dictated was to be written in cipher. It is incredible how fast he dictated, and what a facility his secretaries had … in following him …
These secretaries were like so many strings attached to the administrative war departments, … as well as to the other authorities of France. … It is really astonishing how he made so small a number of persons suffice for such a load of business . … Neither keepers of records, nor registrars, nor scribes were seen in the cabinet; … there was one keeper of the portfolio … and all the … archives, in which was included the bureau topographique.
Whilst Napoleon’s seemingly boundless energy and the phenomenal capacity of his memory removed the need for masses of paperwork and assistants, all of this also testifies to the fact that this particular headquarters was custom designed for him alone. Although it met most of his needs and complemented his talents, lesser mortals would have found it wholly inadequate. Without him, it could not have functioned at all. Even with him it could not take full responsibility for everything that affected the army’s performance in the field. As Odeleben further observes, the cabinet itself dealt with `only those matters wherein Napoleon was particularly engaged’. This comprised, above all, the formulation and implementation of strategy. Yet, although the emperor knew `with great precision the position of the armies, the composition of the different masses, their combination and employment’, the issuing of detailed directives to his forces was the responsibility of Marshal Berthier, the Chief of Staff, and his many aides-de-camp.
It would be unkind but not inaccurate to describe Berthier as Napoleon’s head clerk. `I am nothing in the army’, he once conceded. `I receive, in the name of the Emperor, the reports of the marshals, and I sign his orders for him.’ Together with his assistants, he also compiled the résumés and carnets that his master regularly perused. However, he was neither a tactician nor a strategist. Indeed, on the one occasion when the emperor’s absence obliged this normally calm and courageous officer to take command, he was reduced to abject panic.
Napoleon’s immediate entourage also included several Imperial aides – high-ranking officers who, if necessary, could act as his executors in remote sectors of a battlefield while he tried to orchestrate proceedings from a central position. Talented though many of them were, these men could only represent him; they were not his equals in skill and, whilst mandated by him, might be reluctant to try to impose any authority they had on corps and wing commanders who were often distinguished marshals of France with correspondingly inflated egos. In fact, the very devolution of power that the demise of monolithic armies entailed could make it that much harder for a commander to maintain a firm grip on events. It was not just that, with the concomitant expansion of troop and unit numbers, military machines became more complex, increasing the scope for minor and major breakdowns alike: human beings are that much less predictable than machines, and it was quite an achievement for one man to know even his immediate subordinates sufficiently well to predict how they would react to a given set of circumstances. Those further down the pyramid were commensurably unfamiliar, yet might have pivotal positions thrust upon them in the course of an engagement or campaign; during the Battle of Wagram alone, the French Army saw 32 of its generals and 1121 other officers killed or wounded, while the Austrians’ casualties included 793 officers, among whom were 17 generals.
Just as Napoleon’s inability to be everywhere and do everything obliged him to rely on lieutenants of varying quality to implement his strategic plans, so too was he compelled to leave other concerns to subordinates, not all of whom were as reliable or professional as his cartographers and secretaries. This was especially true of the department that was supposed to satisfy the troops’ needs for foodstuffs and drinking water. Though competent, the military personnel attached to the Intendant-Général were far too few to regulate every arrangement for the supply of a force as enormous as the Grande Armée of 1812-13. The impact of Russian `scorched earth’ tactics during Napoleon’s march on Moscow was not insignificant, but it was not so much a lack of supplies as an inability to get them to where they were required that had really hampered the French offensive; too often, the sheer immensity of Russia combined with her execrable roads to break what should have been a continuous transport loop. Even during the subsequent campaign in Germany, where supplies should have been relatively abundant, the logistical support for Napoleon’s forces was again undermined. Odeleben blames the `misconduct and cupidity’ of private contractors for the resulting shortfalls. However, this can only be part of the explanation. Whilst it is astonishing that Napoleon’s staff managed to control as many things as well as they did, the very innovations that the emperor and his contemporaries had embraced with such enthusiasm – conscription and semi-autonomous corps – had generated forces and operations of almost unmanageable dimensions.
All of this underscored the need for dedicated professional staffs to support a commander. With the advent of the use of railways for military purposes, established specialists, such as cartographers, had to be joined by officers with a detailed knowledge of networks, rolling-stock, timetables and so on. Clearly, potential candidates had to be identified and given appropriate training in peacetime. This led to the introduction of new curricula within military and other educational institutions as part of a wider partnership between the armed forces and private railroad companies. As the train became central to the state’s security, these links ineluctably became more formal, culminating, in Germany’s case, in the establishment of the Imperial Railroad Office which, from 1873, purchased one railway after another in a gradual process of nationalization that was primarily motivated by military considerations.
One innovation that, figuratively and literally, appeared alongside the railways was the telegraph patented by Morse in 1837. Whereas the Chappe system had relied upon visible signals, this used `dot and dash’ patterns of electrical impulses as a code. As such it owed much to the pioneering exploration of electromagnetism that had been undertaken in the late 1700s and early 1800s by Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, André-Marie Ampere, Georg Ohm and Michael Faraday. Morse collaborated with Alfred Vail to construct the first system, between Baltimore and Washington, in 1844. As they attenuated over distance, signals were relayed from one transmitting station to another. However, the addition of rubber insulation to the wires not only reduced this problem, but also permitted cables to be laid underwater, creating the prospect of transoceanic links.
The electric telegraph revolutionized strategic communication and, like the train, was quickly exploited for military purposes. If of limited use for the issuing of tactical directives on the battlefield, it offered a means of rapid communication between sedentary headquarters and other nodes within a state’s political and military hierarchy. Whilst this greatly facilitated processes like mobilization, it also made it possible for remote authorities to intervene more readily in military operations. So it was that, in 1855, General Pélissier – the latest in a succession of commanders nominally responsible for the French forces participating in the Crimean War – was reduced to impotent rage by Napoleon III, who, having been persuaded by both his own advisers and the British government not to lead his army in person, could not resist the temptation to meddle in Pélissier’s plans by means of a newly-laid telegram cable. `Your Majesty must free me from the narrow limits to which he has assigned me’, fumed the wretched general, `or else allow me to resign a command impossible to exercise in cooperation with our loyal allies at the somewhat paralysing end of an electric wire.’
Exasperating though this must have been for Pélissier, whereas he eventually emerged triumphant, others were less lucky. On 25 February, 1896, General Oreste Baratieri, commander of the Italian army in Ethiopia, was to receive a telegram from his prime minister, Francesco Crispi, in Rome. This castigated him for pursuing a strategy that was as fruitless as it was chary, before concluding with the fateful words: `We are ready for any sacrifice to save the honour of the army and the prestige of the monarchy.’ However justified his misgivings about confronting the Ethiopian army were, this missive spurred the hapless general into setting them aside. His troops promptly forsook the security of their entrenched position and were soon embroiled in the greatest colonial battle of the century, Adowa. Fighting against opponents who had been dismissed as racially and militarily inferior, in the space of a few hours Baratieri’s forces lost half their strength, the rest being driven from the field in headlong rout. Swiftly relayed to Italy by telegraph, news of the catastrophe aroused a sense of humiliation and indignation among the populace that manifested itself in widespread riots and demonstrations. Crispi’s administration fell and its successor was quick to acknowledge Ethiopia’s independence formally by concluding the Treaty of Addis Ababa.
Although it spawned an Italian desire for revenge that was destined to help Benito Mussolini in his quest for power and lead to his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the débacle of Adowa truncated Italy’s participation in the `scramble for Africa’ that, as the nineteenth century wore on, had increasingly preoccupied the European powers. Only established as a unified kingdom in 1861, she was a relative newcomer to the international stage and her role in Africa had always been a comparatively minor one. This was not so of France. At the very end of the 1700s, her `Army of the Orient’, under Bonaparte, had sought to use Egypt as a steppingstone to conquests further east, only to be thwarted by the staunch defence of Acre and Nelson’s triumph at the Battle of the Nile. British naval supremacy and General Abercromby’s victory at Aboukir in 1801 spelt the end for the French presence in Egypt, which was formally restored to the Porte in 1802. However, Mehemet Ali, the Khedive from 1805 to 1848, made extensive use of French advisers to develop his province’s army and economy, while one of his successors, Mehemet Said, also encouraged French influence, not least by permitting the construction of the Suez Canal. Although this was undertaken by an international company formed in 1858, it was one that was initially dominated by Frenchmen, notably the engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was a cousin of the Empress Eugénie. Indeed, she was to open the canal formally when, after ten years’ work, it was completed in 1869.