The Halt in the Mud: French Strategic Planning from Waterloo to Sedan

By Gary P. Cox | Go to book overview

Preface

This book is about strategic planning and its beginnings in nineteenthcentury France. It might be called a book of intellectual history, but this quaint conceit would merely emphasize that it is a book about thought rather than action. Specifically, it seeks to examine how the French Army thought about a relatively new and ultimately crucial requirement for modern armed forces: the ability and willingness to look into the future and draw up contingency plans. As this study shows, for certain periods of their history at least, the French thought hard about these issues -- and the solutions they entertained were realistic enough to be studied fifty years after their creation and utilized almost a century after first formulated. Traditionally Prussia has been seen as the home of modern strategic planning. The members of the Great General Staff in their carmine-striped pants have long received credit for allegedly perfecting and utilizing "off-the-shelf" plans to win for their country a predominant place in mid-nineteenth century Europe. As for Prussia's great rival, the French have been depicted as effete martinets or feckless hussars, fearless in the attack but so empty-headed as to be utterly indifferent about operational or strategic questions.

The stereotypes of the monocled, serious Prussian staff officer and his dashing if frivolous French counterpart are not mere literary fabrications. Elements of truth lie behind each caricature. But so delighted were the Germans with their triumph in 1870, so disgusted were the French with their debacle, and so dumbstruck were most observers that all parties contributed to a portrait of German invincibility and French incompetence that is only now being systematically examined. For the French Army in particular, the works of such historians as Douglas Porch and Paddy Griffith have helped to uncover the real army of nineteenth-century France, with all its weaknesses, but also with impressive strengths -- and mercifully free of the polemics that clouded so much French scholarship about this institution whose importance guaranteed it a central role in French political life.

I argue in this book that one of this army's strengths was its strategic planning -- from a different background and perspective than Prussia's to be sure -- but in the end, arguably no less effective. The French plans, moreover, were certainly the product of a more "modern" system, in the sense that in France after 1815 the military came under the intense scrutiny of a civilian government that ultimately circumscribed its actions. Detractors of the

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