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

By Gary P. Cox | Go to book overview

9
Paved with Good Intentions

The election of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte to the French presidency would spell finis for the Second Republic. For his critics and for defenders of the French Army, Napoleon III also served as a convenient scapegoat for the army's failures in 1870. Here was the man who used the army as a domestic political instrument; who went to great lengths to curry favor with the rank and file; who thoroughly politicized promotions in the officers corps. From draining the best soldiers from line units to create the Imperial Guard, to an inspection system always suspected of favoritism, to an even more lax and discriminatory recruiting system, Napoleon III allegedly turned France's army into a "praetorian guard." 1

According to this interpretation, the army of the Second Empire was converted from the "old reliables" of Gouvion Saint-Cyr and Soult to a new entity: crushed by routine and dominated by domestic politics, where the Empress Eugénie might secure promotion for a young officer who was "un bon danseur, danseur intripide."2 In retrospect, the battle before Sebastopol ( 1855) and the grim triumphs over the Russians marked the transition between the stern professionalism of the old army and the corrupting politicization of the new as symbolized by the coterie of "Bonapartist generals" who won their stars in the Crimea. 3

At best this portrait is overdrawn, ignoring the many attempts Napoleon III would make to strengthen the army. At worst it displays a suspicious amnesia, conveniently forgetting the domestic political concerns that dictated the nature of Saint-Cyr's reforms. The army as an institution had never been far removed from politics, however much the high command sought to insulate the rank and file from civilian political influence through such institutional practices as long enlistments and frequent garrison rotations. The doctrine of "passive obedience" was specifically devised to insulate the officer corps from the seemingly endless changes of French political life. With the coming of another Bonaparte, perhaps the real difference was that the army found itself courted, rather than shunted off to a corner of the political landscape. Little wonder the new president of the Republic, Louis Napoleon, was immensely popular in the ranks, won instant credibility from veterans and ac-

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