Excerpt from "Pride Comes Before the Fall: The Third Coalition War"
The March to War
"... By August of 1835, the Grand Army of the Republic was on the march once again, this time into the very heart of the Holy Roman Empire. Unlike the previous two Coalition Wars, the French Republic was more than ready to bring a swift end to its enemies and enforce a favorable peace treaty upon Austria and Prussia within a year. It had prepared and established supply trains for three months while mobilizing the National Guard and building up a sufficient stockpile to directly push into its rivals' territories. With Hanover as its ally, France had a firm foothold in the Holy Roman Empire itself, and the road to Vienna and Berlin seemed straightforward. The French National Guard would protect Hanover and France while the Grand Army was away on its campaign. Three hundred thousand French soldiers advanced into German territory from two separate directions: the Rhine and Hanover. Split into six different armies of fifty thousand men, the French Army rapidly descended upon the German states to sweep its enemies from the battlefield. Yet, when the soldiers advanced, they quickly noticed that something was wrong...
Prussia and Austria, along with the various Holy Roman states, did not sit idly during the three-month grace period. A week after the beginning of hostilities, Prussian Chief of Staff of Army General Carl von Clausewitz and Austrian Marshal Archduke Charles, the Duke of Teschen, were appointed as the leaders of the joint Coalition to defend against France. Both men had worked with one another during the First and Second Coalition Wars and oversaw the various joint exercises between Austria and Prussia during peacetime (an idea imported from the United States during the early 19th century). The two were familiar with each other's doctrines and methods of war and agreed in many aspects, ensuring a unified and experienced command to lead the Coalition Army. Within three months, they had gathered a large force of nearly one hundred and twenty thousand men: fifty thousand Austrian troops, sixty thousand Prussian troops, and twenty thousand troops from other parts of the Empire. An additional ten thousand Italian mercenaries also joined the fray, bolstering the Coalition Army's strength. However, despite its preparedness and unity, the Coalition was heavily outnumbered against the Grand Army. Even with France splitting its attention into two separate advances, the entirety of the Coalition forces could barely match one of the French advances, let alone both at the same time. Thus, General Clausewitz and the Duke of Teschen formulated a plan to draw the French deep into German territory and weather down the French Army through sheer attrition...
General Clausewitz considered himself a student of warfare and constantly studied various battles and wars across the globe. During the height of the Anglo-American War, he had extensively examined the methods and doctrines the American military employed. While many considered America's victory in the war was due to luck and technology, the Prussian officer was unconvinced and delved deeper into the after-action reports. After a year of deliberation and comparing his notes about the American Revolutionary War and the Coalition Wars, he believed he had found the answers.
War was an extension of the state's affairs, necessitating the entire population to participate in it to achieve certain victory. The state and the people were expected to make sacrifices for the military to gain a decisive advantage, which could then be exploited to seize victory. Additionally, the defenders inherently held an edge against the aggressors, and the swiftest way to achieve success in an offensive war was to set limited political and military objectives. The only obstacle to a rapid victory was if the defenders' government, people, and military had more will than the aggressors. If that was the case, then the defenders could win through attrition and resistance. He surmised three critical components to a successful defense in war: number and relationship of soldiers and people, political and military intelligence, and flexible strategies and tactics.
After reviewing the reports of the Anglo-American War a second time, he concluded that the United States held the advantage in all three components despite their lack of readiness at the beginning of the war. The American military was well-organized, well-supplied, and well-informed. America's population was larger than Britain's population, and a strong leader led the nation, one who was unwilling to surrender to Britain. Through attrition, willpower, and resistance, the Americans held off long enough to force the British to overplay their hand to shatter their resolve decisively. He noted that other factors played parts in America's victory, such as terrain and the introduction of new and unfamiliar technologies. However, Clausewitz believed that even without those factors, the United States would have won in the end. These points were later published in his book, The Aspects of War.
It was these beliefs that influenced the overall strategy of the Coalition during the Third Coalition War. At the time, General Clausewitz reasonably assumed that the Rhineland Kingdom would either join the war on France's side or remain neutral while allowing French soldiers to pass through its territory. Thus, he concluded that a direct defense of the southern parts of the Rhine was inconceivable, if not foolish. The French armies could quickly march through the Rhineland Kingdom and flank the defenders instead of fighting across the Rhine. With the limited number of men under the Coalition's banner, losing tens of thousands of soldiers in the opening stages of the war would mean inevitable defeat. Initially, Archduke Charles was adamant about directly defending the Rhine River. He believed the river was a natural and essential barrier to slow the French invasion, but he conceded after a short argument with his Prussian counterpart. Prophetically, Clausewitz's prediction became true when the French bypassed the Rhine entirely through the Rhineland Kingdom when the war began...
However, southern Germany held other natural barriers and was mountainous, and upon the Duke of Teschen's insistence, a Coalition army of forty thousand was positioned near Stuttgart. The Army would be a distraction to split the French Army's attention and fight a slow retreat while avoiding encirclements. The Austrian Marshal would personally lead this army, mainly consisting of soldiers from the minor German states and the Italian mercenaries.
Meanwhile, flatlands dominated northern Germany, and the Elbe and Havel Rivers were the only natural barriers against the French advance. Unfortunately for the Coalition, this was where they expected the main bulk of the Grand Army to push through. Thus, Clausewitz decided to utilize his well-disciplined and well-trained army as a mobile force to confuse the French Army and to lure them deeper into Germany. While his units retreated, they would raze the countryside and seize foodstuffs and supplies to strain France's logistics. With winter setting in just three months, all he needed to do was to overextend the French supply lines and force them to take extreme measures to supply their troops. In conjunction with this plan, he purposely armed civilians with old muskets and weapons to give them 'a fighting chance' once the invasion officially began. Austria and Prussia both started to conscript more men into their respective armies, but Clausewitz would need to delay the French as long as possible until they were ready.
While Clausewitz's decision to altogether avoid the enemy for several months, along with employing scorched earth tactics, was controversial among some political leaders in Austria and Prussia, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich fully endorsed it. The Chancellor saw the war as an opportunity to strike fear in the French and unite the German states behind the leadership of Prussia and Austria (weakening them through the war and presenting the two major powers as an alternative to French domination). Thus, he supported Clausewitz's plans to 'achieve victory with costs.'
His endorsement prevented any political intervention in the decision-making of the Coalition military, which allowed the reinvented Prussian and Austrian armies to display their full potential. Additionally, Chancellor Metternich's vast spy network proved extremely useful to General Clausewitz, who utilized it to track the French armies accurately...
With these preparations, the trap was set. And when the Grand Army advanced in August, the Coalition implemented its plan and prepared for the trap to be sprung.
The French Advance
Unaware of the Coalition's preparations, the French Army pushed into Germany on August 12th of 1835 with little resistance. In command of the largest army France had ever fielded was Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, a veteran of the Second Coalition War. Unlike his Austrian and Prussian counterparts, Suchet was heavily pressured by the French government to advance rapidly and end the war as fast as possible. Thus, he assigned two armies to march through the Rhineland Kingdom, which agreed to allow passage to French troops, and flank the Rhine River entirely. After clearing the Rhineland, the two armies would march towards Prague and then Vienna.
Meanwhile, the remaining four armies led by Suchet would march from Hanover into the open fields of northern Germany, marching towards Berlin and then to Prague. It was expected that the Coalition would focus the majority of its army in the area, and Suchet was confident that he could easily defeat it within a month. While the Prussians and Austrians had caught up in weapons technology, the French still had superior artillery and numbers. Thus, the French commander believed that a few decisive battles were all that were needed to destroy the Coalition's forces. If all went well, the French Army would occupy the major cities of the Holy Roman Empire and force Austria and Prussia to the negotiating tables within half a year. Unfortunately for him, Clausewitz and Archduke Charles had no intentions of fighting him out in the open.
Splitting his one hundred thousand men into five divisions, Clausewitz positioned the units west of the Elbe River when the French soldiers moved eastward from Hanover and quickly withdrew them across the Elbe once the French spotted them. Suchet, seeing the smaller Coalition armies and believing there was friction between the Coalition's military command, pushed forward eagerly. This started what would, later on, be known as the 'Great Fox Chase' across central and eastern Germany. The Prussian general remained one step ahead of his French counterpart as he refused to engage in a direct battle against the numerically superior French forces. Due to the larger size of the French armies and artillery, the Coalition's quick and mobile forces remained elusive and out of the French's grasp.
Only a few battles occurred during this chase, specifically when the French overextended and lacked field artillery to whittle the Coalition forces. One example was the Battle of Magdeburg, where a Prussian division led by Brigadier Carl von Spiegel engaged a disorganized French advance force on September 1st. Both sides had even numbers, but the French troops were completely caught off guard when the fleeing Prussians suddenly turned and faced them in a pitched battle. As a result, the disciplined Prussian soldiers inflicted heavy casualties on the French, dealing four thousand casualties for a thousand and five hundred of their own. However, the French officers caught on quickly, and soon, the Coalition armies avoided battle unless it was necessary. Even so, during the initial month of the war, Clausewitz's units inflicted over thirteen thousand casualties for five thousand of his own, slowing down the aggressive advance ordered by Marshal Suchet.
At the same time, the French offensive into the Rhineland had stalled as the Duke of Teschen caught wind of the French flanking maneuver and forced the French Army to a draw at the Battle of Gmund on September 4th. The French suffered eight thousand casualties, while the entrenched Austrian, German, and Italian forces suffered six thousand casualties. The bloody battle allowed the Austrian marshal to pull back to a more defensible position in Ellwangen, saving his entire army. The two French armies under Marshal Etienne Maurice Gerard retreated to Stuttgart for a week to regroup and allow logistics to catch up before capturing Gmund and advancing on Ellwangen. Gerard, who believed that Archduke Charles would challenge him once more, was surprised to discover that Ellwangen had been abandoned and emptied with the Coalition forces retreating to Nordlingen. When he arrived at Nordlingen a week later, the Coalition forces were now on the Danube River and moving towards Ingolstadt. Like Clausewitz up in the north, the Austrian marshal refused to engage in an extended battle after the Battle of Gmund. Instead, he lured the French into German territory, slowing their advance as they organized occupational forces and supply lines.
On October 20th, the French Army captured Berlin, though the Prussian government had fled to Konigsberg several weeks prior. Marshal Suchet had rushed to the city after two Coalition divisions were spotted near it, making the French marshal believe that Clausewitz would finally stand his ground and fight with the Prussian capital city on the line. However, several days before one hundred thousand French soldiers arrived to seize the city, the defenders fled to Frankfurt, looting Berlin's food stores in the process. Enraged and disappointed, the marshal sacked the city and left an army group to defend Berlin and the surrounding areas. The remaining men were reattached to the main bulk of the French Army as it prepared to march from Halle to Leipzig, where Clausewitz and the majority of the Coalition forces were. It was an opening that the Prussian general had been waiting since the beginning of the invasion, and he struck expeditiously.
Just before the push towards Leipzig was set to begin, Clausewitz and two divisions under his direct command seized a supply cavern headed towards Berlin and quickly took Postdam, which had been captured two days before the fall of Berlin. Coinciding with this bold attack, the two divisions in Frankfurt rapidly converged on the former Prussian capital and sieged it, trapping nearly twenty thousand French soldiers while Clausewitz regrouped with his units at Berlin. A French counterattack consisting of the army group remnant led by Colonel Isaac Donnet turned into a disastrous defeat. Most of its artillery was trapped in Berlin, and the Coalition forces fought from entrenched positions while flanking French lines with cavalry. The Battle of Havel River on October 30th saw the death of over six thousand French soldiers for just two thousand Coalition troops, which forced Colonel Donnet to turn back and seek assistance from Marshal Suchet. With no food and supplies, it would only be a matter of time before the French garrison within Berlin would surrender.
Clausewitz believed that he had caught the French by complete surprise. However, three French army groups had already departed from Halle and were rapidly making their way to Berlin even before the Battle of Havel River occurred. What the Prussian general failed to account for France's own intelligence agency: Ministére de la Sécurité Extérieure (The Ministry of External Security). The Ministry of External Security was an 'off the book' department created in 1821, under the Ministry of the Armed Forces (a successor to the Ministry of Defense). Its primary role was similar to that of the American National Intelligence Service: gathering military and civilian intelligence. During the three-month preparation period, various agents working under the MSE had infiltrated the Holy Roman Empire and provided valuable information to Marshal Suchet. However, the MSE was a relatively new organization with an entrenched enemy that attempted to counter its every move (Metternich's spy network). Thus, it was limited to tracking the movement of larger armies, such as the two divisions under Clausewitz's direct command.
The existence of the MSE was known to a few select people in the French government and military, to the point where only the marshals partaking in the invasion were aware of its presence. Thus, while most of the officers and soldiers were bewildered by Clausewitz's initial retreats, Marshal Suchet was unfazed. Why the French marshal refused to detach some of his men to rapidly converge on the Coalition forces and stall their retreat is still unknown today. It is believed that he expected Clausewitz to withdraw to a defensible position while 'making an effort' to defend the areas around Hanover. And after the initial retreat, the Coalition troops would stand their ground and fight for an important city such as Berlin. When the Coalition army kept on retreating, playing a game of cat and mouse with the French Army, Marshal Suchet became frustrated, thus his sacking of Berlin and his wild chase of Clausewitz.
Due to the MSE, Marshal Suchet was aware of Clausewitz's sudden advance towards Berlin, which forced him to mirror his Prussian counterpart's movement. Ironically, Clausewitz was well-aware of the 'fog of war' and believed that he could utilize it to seize the initiative and destroy an entire French army group in one swift stroke. Unknown to him, the French had caught on and was just a week away from relieving the defenders of Berlin. He became aware of the French forces several days before their arrival, and he reacted quickly. He had received two new divisions of men from Prussia, under the command of General Friedrich Graf von Wrangel. Combined with one division from Clausewitz's group, the three divisions were sent west towards Stendal to throw off Marshal Suchet. Meanwhile, Clausewitz ordered the remaining three divisions to be ready to flee 'at a moment's notice.' By playing more aggressively than he had in the previous two months, he believed his actions would confuse his French counterpart and force him to react predictably.
As Clausewitz expected, Marshal Suchet moved towards General Wrangel's group to prevent their advance towards Hanover. While MSE had tracked the movement of Wrangel's army, it mistakenly concluded that Clausewitz was leading it. As such, the French marshal believed that Berlin had already fallen back into Coalition hands, thus maneuvering his soldiers toward Stendal instead of his original objective. Only a week later, he discovered his mistake, as the defenders of Berlin surrendered to Clausewitz after it became clear that no relief force was coming. Meanwhile, Wrangel headed south before crossing the Elbe and moved towards Wittenburg. The French were exhausted from the chase by this time and decided to prepare for the coming winter months instead of continuing their pursuit. Thus, as Clausewitz had planned, the French advance had stalled, and winter had arrived.
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