Stupefied by War
‘We’ve been very, very clear that we will not allow inflation to rise above two percent or less.’
We should probably be interested in what happens in Ukraine. In the last 30 days, the country has drawn more worldwide interest than it did in the last 2,000 years. And now everybody who is anybody in the halls of power knows that the capital of the country is Kyiv…not Kiev…and it includes the article ‘the’ as part of its name.
Every major headline implores us to pay attention. Practically every talking head tells us why we should know the difference between the devilish Russian separatists in the Donetsk Basin…and the God-fearing, democracy-lovers in the Dnieper valley.
Beyond that, we know very little…and more than we wanted to know.
Here we have no opinion about foreign policy…except that we are against it. We don’t understand it. But were we to take more of an interest, we would understand it even less. Science, logic, and poetry all agree you can’t be a thing…and watch it at the same time. Strictly as a watcher, we observe that public policy — particularly foreign policy — is almost always best avoided. Whether the authorities claim to be fighting inflation…or sanctioning the Russians…the results will be disappointing.
‘Stupefied by the war and the scale of the catastrophe’, writes Jean-Francois Lecaillon in his handy little book, The French and the War of 1870, ‘contemporaries were so shocked that they couldn’t keep their heads clear enough to learn from it’.
They were in it. They were part of it. They were appalled by it. They mistook everything about it. They were victims of their own foreign policy.
Don’t know much about the War of 1870 — between France and Prussia? Well, neither did the French. Especially not when they were in the middle of it. Its relevance to us is just that our mission is to connect the dots. And in the War of 1870, we see some dots that look familiar.
The war began with a diplomatic incident of no particular importance. But one side took offense. And then so did the other. And then ‘credibility’ was at stake. Before the French knew the what-for or why, they were marching to the sound of bugles.
‘To Berlin’, they yelled. Bands played. People cheered. Soon-to-be widows waved goodbye at the train stations.
It was all very glorious. And remarkably stupid. The French had no more reason to attack the Germans than Americans have getting tangled up in the politics of Eastern Ukraine.
At first, the average Frenchman was puzzled. The newspapers too. What? How come? They couldn’t recall any beef with Wilhelm I.
But after only a few days, all doubts were banished. Fervent patriotism took command. Young Frenchmen mobbed the recruiting stations, eager to get into the war before it was over.
Thus, did they march off to the Rhine…almost gleeful at the thought of the sparkling medals that awaited them. After all, at their head was a Bonaparte, a great nephew of Napoleon himself. And hadn’t his uncle taught them all a lesson — the Prussians…the Hanoverians…the Bavarians…the Lombards…the Spanish…the Italians. And the Russians? Well…never mind.
The problem was the French army was woefully unprepared for war in 1870. Its generals were schooled in the tactics of Napoleonic warfare, from a half century ago. They believed it was ‘fighting spirit’ that determined the outcome of wars…not precision artillery fire.
The Prussians, on the other hand, had sent observers to watch closely as Yankees and Rebels killed each other in the US, 1860–64. They had their men at the Wilderness, Antietam…and Gettysburg. One became so attached to the Confederate cause that he flew the Stars and Bars over his castle in Prussia for the rest of his life.
‘Remember the stone wall’, said Stonewall Jackson, reminding his officers that advances in riflery and artillery had tilted the advantage away from the attacker; he was now the one most likely to die. The stone wall protected the defenders.
A zoological smorgasbord
After the Franco–Prussian war was over…and memories faded…the contest was commemorated in art and literature. A nation needs its myths. The old soldiers told their stories. Top officers defended themselves from charges of ineptitude. Common foot-soldiers recalled how they had done their duty. Battles were painted on huge tableaux, showing the French in their superb uniforms, charging the fearful Hun. We’ve seen the paintings hanging in the Musee d’Orsay or in the Hall of Battles at Versailles. Bayonets gleaming in the sun, the French appear almost invincible.
But it didn’t happen that way. There were almost no Napoleonic bayonet charges. Instead, the French were cut to pieces by German artillery and machine guns before even getting close to the enemy. It was a butchery that almost none were prepared for.
The Prussians had better tactics, better weapons, better training, and better organisation. Within weeks they had captured hundreds of thousands of French troops — including the Emperor, Napoleon III himself. The Army of the Rhine was surrounded and surrendered soon after. Then, the Prussians marched on Paris and laid siege. And once again, the French deluded themselves. The president of the new republic (the Empire was a lost cause at this point), Leon Gambetta, escaped the city in a balloon. He quickly organised another army with which to break the siege. Between French soldiers inside the city and those approaching it from the south, the Prussians were heavily outnumbered.
But you can’t put together a modern army in a few days. The ‘Army of the Loire’ was largely untrained. When the shells began to fall upon it, the young recruits ran away. The ‘relief column’ was quickly repulsed and Paris began to starve. Rats became prime dinner fare. Fancy restaurants served up animals from the zoo, in ‘consommé d’elephant’, or ‘civet de kangaroo’.
Day after day, new hope came — a new ‘breakout’ rumour! And day after day came the disappointment; the ‘breakout’ had failed…or never even tried.
Finally, the city surrendered, and the war was over.
But the fantasies continued. The war had not been lost because of a failure of the army. No, the French told themselves, it was treachery…not incompetence. The army would have been victorious, the revisionist history continued, if they hadn’t been ‘stabbed in the back’ by traitors. (No real evidence of treachery was ever produced.)
This failure to stand back and learn anything proved even more disastrous a few decades later. By 1914, German machine guns and artillery were even better than they had been in 1870. But the French army still believed in its pre-Industrial Revolution doctrines. The army looked good, both on paper and on the field. But it was soon in tatters.
For The Daily Reckoning Australia