The Original Mitrailleuse

(The German Emperor William is declared…in the great palace of the Kings of France)

ADDED: “Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdes.” Gen. Ducrot, Sedan, France, Aug. 31, 1870.

As we come to the close of the year I’d like to again thank Meister Bloom for the opportunity to write here, and recognize the wealth of talent and intelligence gathered on this most excellent blog.

I hope that reader either knows, or has taken the time to learn, what a mitrailleuse is:

One of the earliest successful “machine guns”, this excellent and ingenious weapon was developed by the French in the 1860s, just in time to be deployed in the so-called “Franco-Prussian” War of 1870-1; the result of which, for the French, was one of the greatest military defeats in history (eerily repeated in 1940, but let’s take it one war at a time).

I’ve been rereading Michael Howard’s superb The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870-1871 and was struck by this passage:

The Emperor [Napoleon III]…also had the mitrailleuse. With this he had been experimenting since 1860, and production had begun under conditions of great secrecy in 1866. In appearance it resembled the fasces of the Roman Lictors: a bundle of twenty-five barrels, each detonated in turn by turning a handle. It had a range of nearly 2,000 yards and a rate of fire of nearly 150 rounds per minute…but such secrecy surrounded its manufacture that training in its use was almost out of the question, and no useful discussion was possible about how it should be employed.

Better employment of the limited number of mitrailleuse’ would not have saved the French in this war; while the fighting quality of the individual French trooper was just as high as his Prussian (and Saxon, Bavarian, etc.) counterpart, the organization of the French leadership and the French state was very much worse. The Prussians had a wise King, von Moltke and Bismarck, the French Napoleon III, Bazaine and a fractious bunch of “democratic” politicians back in Paris. Avoiding riots and revolution in Paris shaped the French strategy, while the Germans looked for…victory.

After the disaster of 1870-71 the French Empire was dissolved, replaced by the Third Republic, the political entity that oversaw the bookend debacle of 1940. (Of course, the Third Republic does get credit for [barely, with British help] holding off the Germans in 1914). One might with profit read William Shirer’s classic Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940.

It has come to my attention that the United States doesn’t seem to include “victory” in its military lexicon, these days. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were, of course, crushing military victories in the mode of the Germans of 1870, but American leadership was curiously reluctant to celebrate and even name these achievements. Shirer’s description of French politics in the 1930s is eerily similar to some of the circumstances in the U.S. today. At least, all of the parties involved in 1940 loved the Mother Country, La Belle France. I have serious doubts about whether this is true for certain members of the current American administration, and Congress.

Read : Not All Politics Are Created Equal

On January 1, 1871 the Emperor William and the unification of Germany was proclaimed – at Versailles. The mitrailleuse was not enough to counter a superior system, superior organization, superior leadership.

The United States currently has a military machine superior to any other. Perhaps in this brief history there is some food for thought.

Wishing you, Dear Reader, a most happy and prosperous 2015.

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