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The biggest change in warfare between 1792 – 1871 Essay

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Between 1792 and 1871 there were many significant technological, social, and political changes which were often closely linked that greatly affected the nature of warfare. There were highly important changes in strategy and tactics, and in the quality and numbers soldiers. However, to a large extent the biggest change that occurred has to be that of weapons technology.

The area of warfare between 1792 and 1871 where the biggest change occurred was in weapons technology. Pre 1792 muskets were unreliable, and although the adoption of the matchlock increased accuracy to 200 yards, it took twice as long to load and was twice expensive. Moreover artillery had poor accuracy, and was often prone to backfiring, furthermore soldiers were forced to fire blind due to the smoke produced by the equipment. Although there was little significant change in weapons technology in Napoleonic Warfare due to a lack of progress in industry, the rate of change soon accelerated as the German Wars of Unification approached. Most importantly the development of artillery had a profound impact on warfare. The technological breakthrough of rifling and breech loading in small arms could be applied to artillery.

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Prussian steel cannons were lighter more mobile and could fire greater ranges than French adversaries link to tactics. Explosives left no cloud of gun smoke to give away gunners positions and as the range expanded to 5 miles it could be safely concealed positions often miles behind the front. All these artillery related changes had a huge impact on tactics in warfare as it meant that the benefit was now with the defender instead of the attacker due to the increased rate and range of fire. These defensive benefits that occurred due to improved artillery were evident in the American Civil War in the battle of Fredericksburg where six successive waves of Union troops attempted to storm Confederate troops out of Fredericksburg but were repelled by efficient artillery leading to heavy losses.

Another significant area of change due to weapons technology was the development of the modern maxim machine gun, this was capable of causing huge casualties and thus wasn’t always adopted by governments due to growing accountability, this shows how public opinion also had an impact on warfare in this period. The Dreyse rifle changed warfare as it eliminated the need for muskets, and was excellent as it could be fired and loaded from lying position allowing effective cover. After initially seeing service during the 1849 May Uprising in Dresden it quickly proved its effectiveness during the the Austro-Prussian War (1866).

During this war Prussian soldiers were able to release five shots to each fired by their Austrian counterparts. This massive advantage in firepower contributed to Prussia’s swift victory in the conflict. However despite all these changes in weapons technology there were some continuities as new inventions weren’t always adopted quickly such as the French being slow to adopt the mitrailleuse as it was too expensive and not enough were trained to use it. Moreover there was continuity in this period in that the bayonet was still used.

Although development in weapons technology represented the biggest change in warfare in the period 1792 to 1871, there was also significant change in quality and numbers of soldiers. Pre 1792 officers paid for ranks and so authoritative positions in the army were made up of the nobility or wealthy aristocrats whilst lower ranks were made up of criminals and drop outs. This socially structured nature of the army changed largely during Napoleonic Warfare where meritocracy was enforced. This was possible largely the increasing literacy rates among the middle classes. Meritocracy within the army meant big changes in warfare because it meant those who were best suited to the role got the job, and thus meant the standards of generalship were higher. Particularly in the German Wars of Unification this allowed power to be delegated to flexible generals on the battlefield, who could then make decisions based on what was in front of them, rather than on a rigid strategic plan.

This flexibility within armies, particularly the Prussian one, reaped dividends in battles such as Konnigratz where both the Prussians and Austrians armies on field leadership had to think on their feet as the armies stumbled into each other. The higher quality of the on field Prussian soldiers prevailed in this battle through tactics such as envelopment whilst the Austrians dithered. During the Napoleonic wars there was also a huge change in the numbers of soldiers. One of the key reasons for such a fast rate of change in this area was the French Levee En Masse which was ordered on 23rd August 1793 conscripting all unmarried, able bodied men aged 18 – 25, and in doing so recruiting over 1 million men. The advantage of a large army was obvious in battles such as Valmy where the French won as they outnumbered the Prussians by 2000 and Jena Auerstadt where the French won as they outnumbered the Prussians by 8000. However despite these changes there were still some consistencies in quality and numbers of soldiers from 1792 to 1891 such as disease being a major problem especially in the American Civil War where for every 1 soldier killed in battle, roughly 3 died of disease.

Another area of warfare where a substantial amount of change occurred in the period 1792 to 1891 was strategy and tactics. Pre 1792 battles were avoided if at all possible with the 2 tactics either being to fight or by winning without fighting by keeping the enemy on the move to exhaust them and their supplies or drive them into a bad position so that they retreat and surrender without any conflict. During the period 1792 – 1871 Napoleon distanced himself from the 18th century tactic of avoiding battles and instead went to looking for the quickest possible destruction of enemy forces. This represented a large change in warfare because it meant battles were more destructive and had more casualties compared to pre 1792 where opponents could be defeated by maneuver and counter maneuver.

This destructive nature of 19th century warfare is backed up by the battle of Leipzig where around 100,000 were killed. This links in to numbers of soldiers as the more the European armies conscripted, the more casualties they could afford. However despite these changes, marching geographically to defeat the enemy was still crucial due to the prominence of envelopment in Napoleonic warfare. The greatest example of envelopment being used successfully was at the battle of Ulm which has been recognised as a victory achieved as much by marching as fighting. This is because the French marched 500 miles from North East France to the Rhine and then the Danube to envelop the Austrians at Ulm. The rate of change in strategy and tactics stayed at a steady rate into the German Wars of Unification as improved communications and the development of railways within Europe meant troops could be transported far quicker than when having to march.

Moreover another important change in this period was the development of blockading strategies which moved the nature of warfare from being limited towards total. A clear example of this is in the American Civil War where the Union Navy maintained a blockade on the Atlantic and Gulf Coast of the Confederate States of America designed to prevent the passage of trade goods, supplies, and arms to and from the Confederacy in an attempt to starve their opponents. Despite all these changes in strategy and tactics there were some consistencies in this period such as the sustained use of infantry and cavalry in battles as well as the continuation of bayonet charges to weaken the enemy.

Overall the area where the most changed occurred in the period from 1789-1871 was in fact in weapons technology. However there were also significant changes in quality and organisation of soldiers as well as strategy and tactics which should not be undermined when assessing the evolving nature of warfare in this period of history. Despite all these changes in warfare, there were still some consistencies which show that none of these areas of warfare changed completely.

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