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The Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815

Corps development - Anton Mayer in Austria

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Corps development - Anton Mayer in Austria

Postby DaveH » November 26th, 2017, 9:24 pm

Like many in the Internet forum age, I have always been rather sceptical about claims that Napoleon was the originator of the modern cops system. It seemed in many ways to be typical of the sort of work produced by the likes of Hittle in 1944 to conveniently ignore the Prussian Auftragstaktik and the divisional staffs they used. The word corps itself was misused to try to pretend this originated in 1800 when in fact all the armies were using it much earlier simply to mean a force bigger than a division or having some task separate from the main army. That developed into complex arguments about staffs at all levels - staffs have always existed as the leader's entourage, but the crucial break comes in Austria in the early 7YW as a general Staff takes on operational functions usually reserved for the CinC. Alongside the recent interpretations of corps have come the looking back into operational organisation to "see" the early forms of modern use.

In Campaigns of Napoleon, Chandler looks at Napoleon's way of waging war in the context of Castiglione, but only really gets into army organisation with "Le Batallion Carre" in 1806, which he analyses as showing Napoleon's ideal way of waging a campaign with four corps in a diamond able to support each other. I don't have Chandler to hand at the moment, but I did find my own comment on it: "Looking at Chandler, he does give various N quotes, but none specifically about a carree, so I think this might have been overlaid by later authors on to his basic idea, namely keeping formations fluid, yet close enough together (ideally 1 day's march) to support each other, which could then be closed up to the main point of attack. Much of N's style of war relies on being on the offensive, so he can determine the axis of the main attack, while his enemy has to cover a range of options." Another contributor pointed out that it was necessary to follow the corps movements in a campaign, especially the supply routes behind these three axes of advance. Another mentioned it went wrong at Gross-Beeren in 1813, in part because Napoleon was by then on the defensive.

In Austria prior to 1809, the armies were composed of allocated Generals, staff, regiments etc., which were then subdivided into columns as required by the general. in peacetime, these higher-level formations disappeared, where they became "permanent" in France, mainly because the French army was pretty permanently at war. The crucial difference in Austria was that General staff were allocated to column commands, so that its commander would understand what HQ was intending. The Napoleonic system was still reliant on a central direction and it seems pretty clear that there was no "Auftragstaktik" initiative for the corps commanders, but such has been overlaid on to them by later authors.

So much then for commentators looking back 200 years. So, I was interested to come across an essay written by Anton Mayer in November 1806 called "Betrachtungen uber die Ereignisse in Preussen 1806", published in Mitteillungen des Kriegsarchivs 1881 p.183. Alongside Chief of staff Schmitt, Mayer had directed Charles' successful 1796 and 179 campaigns in Germany. Charles had inserted him as Army CoS to Archduke Ferdinand in Germany in 1805, but he was of course sidelined by Mack and Vienna with disastrous consequences. After that war, Mayer was made peacetime CoS and his was the initial 1809 plan for an advance from Bohemia towards Regensburg. He also laid out the army organisation (best known in English from Bowden: Armies on the Danube), where he set out nine pretty much symmetrical Korps plus two Reserve Korps. Dating from 1st March, in my view, this was a planning aid, as the actual formations were of varying sizes and arrangements by late April. Nevertheless, his comments are interesting as a contemporary view of the Napoleonic system, albeit we have to remember that reformers will always say that x is doing things better.

He wrote: "The division of the French army into Corps and divisions, where each of these is composed of the different arms, completely equipped and with all the necessary individuals, is indisputably an advantage, which cannot be underestimated, given the (Austrian) army's current state of morale. The approximately similar divisions of arms remain together in order to be able to support each other alternately. Movements are masked and opponents misled by individual detachments under the corps name ... The Corps march by various routes to their designated points, so that not only do they gain a lot of time, but these corps also make the operations of the supply and otherwise necessary wagons easier. In a case of urgency, they are ready to support each other, which they can effect all the more efficiently when they take up more space, also on the march, there is less risk of the whole army being wiped out."

It is a function of these bigger armies that they must advance along multiple axes, but interesting that he picks up that knowing about a particular unit (especially advance-guards and outposts) will only tell you about part of the army rather than all of it.
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