French Army Transport July-August 1870:
Regulations and Reality
French Military Transport
during and after Mobilisation
The French mobilisation in 1870 is generally regarded as having been somewhat confused and inefficient. The transport organisation reflects this, and this article covers various problems and shortcomings which became apparent during July and August of 1870.
The ammunition columns were the responsibility of the train d`artillerie. In 1870 this had 2 regiments, one at St. Omer and one at Auxonne, each with 16 companies. These were nowhere near enough for the task in hand, and the process of augmenting them proved very slow in the face of a great shortage of horses.
The train des équipages was responsible for providing the supply columns. It was reckoned that one company would be able to provide columns for 2 infantry divisions or 3 cavalry divisions, if some 70-80 voitures de réquisition were added. This increase in train strength which was difficult to carry out in itself was made more so by the fact that the establishments had not been kept up to strength in peacetime. When mobilisation was completed the batteries and columns were short of 9,000 horses, the train was short of 3,708 trained personnel, 10,659 horses, 820 wagons and 3,474 harnesses, quite apart from the train auxiliaire which had to be requisitioned. The shortage of personnel affected other areas of the army also. In the case of doctors, after those for the troops and the personnel for hospitals inside France had been deducted only 173 were left for the field army. The Intendance was short of 2 Intendants générals, 54 sous-intendants, and 80 administrative officials. Some of the wagons stored in the arsenals were unusable due to rotted wood, and as in the case of the missing 820 wagons mentioned above they had to be replaced by requisitioned vehicles.
The distribution of the existing material to the army was hindered by the centralised administration of the mobilisation. A large proportion of the vehicles of the train des équipages was at Vernon, the medical vehicles in Paris, from where they had to be sent to the troops in the deployment areas. There the troops received wagons without wheels and harnesses. The troops received large deliveries of saddles without other parts, of harnesses, bridles etc. that were unusable because they were incomplete and other deliveries had gone astray.
A situation arose in which some army corps were unable to set up full-strength columns, where whole sections of their columns were missing, and where in places ammunition had to be transported by requisitioned wagons.
Inefficiency by higher commands also made the assembly of transport more difficult. Frossard for example forgot to bring his bridging train up to his corps; a supply convoy for the 2. Corps d`Armée was mistakenly directed to the 3., and the despatch of fully mobilised columns was delayed for three days because no orders to move arrived. At the time the first clashes occurred on the frontier a number of columns had still not reached their units, and several corps lost a part of their transport during the initial defeats and the subsequent retreats. Some of these losses were replaced with vehicles taken from other corps.
At the end of July little in the way of regular train vehicles had reached the troops: "Les régiments attendaient encore leurs équipages régimentaires. Plusieures divisions n`avaient pas leurs matérial d`ambulance. Quelques corps n`étaient pas munis de leur réserve d`artillerie, les parcs de munitions étaient en retard. Enfin, les convois d`enterprise auxiliaires étaient seulement en formation." ( from Baratier, "L`intendance militaire pendant la guerre de 1870/71", Paris 1871) - "The regiments were still waiting for their regimental wagons. Several divisions did not have their ambulance material. Some corps had no ammunition for their reserve artillery as their parks had been delayed. Finally, the auxiliary convoys were only in the process of forming". On 27th July Le Boeuf reported to the Emperor after inspecting the corps that everywhere the equipping of the troops and transport was still in progress, and he had ordered that shortages were to be made up quickly by requisitions so that operations could soon begin. At this point all stocks of train vehicles, ambulances and field baking ovens in the frontier fortresses had been used up.
As a result of the problems the French command began requisitioning vehicles in order to cover the most urgent requirements and to make at least some units mobile. All available wagons from the departements of Moselle, Meuse, Meurthe, Vosges and Ardennes were requisitioned, so that when eventually the train particulier arrived at these units they ended up with a far greater number of wagons than called for by regulations or orders. In addition the French troops often increased the numbers of wagons used for regimental baggage above the regulation number. A single battalion being transported from Marseilles to the frontier had brought nine vehicles with it. An Intendant complained about the numbers of wagons: "elles comprenaient outre les voitures régimentaires déjá trop nombreuses, une quantité effroyable de voitures de pays, attelées de 2 à 4 chevaux" ("in; addition to the regimental wagons which were already too numerous, they comprised a horrifying quantity of country wagons hitched up to two or four horses"), and General Montaudon wrote that instead of the excess baggage with the troops being reduced, this train was constantly increased by higher staffs as well as by regiments, battalions and companies, and orders had to be issued repeatedly to reduce them to the authorised levels.
On the outbreak of war the train régulier and train auxiliaire seem to have been made larger than called for in the 1867 regulations by order of the Intendant-General. Papers captured by the Germans show that as regards the train régulier an infantry division was to have:
44 voitures pour subsistance,
41 voitures pour nourriture de chevaux,
20 voitures pour le matérial,
20 voitures pour ambulance,
for a total 52 greater than that called for by the regulations (the regulations called for 42, 15, 9, 7 respectively).
On 23rd July 1870 Emperor Napoleon III. personally issued orders concerning the completion of the army`s organisation which in several cases regulated the numbers of vehicles to be used.
The train auxiliaire was as a rule assembled inside a corps, and at the outbreak of war was set at around 500 vehicles per corps instead of the 265 to 313 called for by the 1867 regulations. In some cases however it reached a greater size. With the Armée du Rhin some corps carried twelve days` provisions on their wagons, and when to the west of Metz Bazaine ordered the disbanding of the train auxiliaire it numbered 2,890 wagons instead of the 1,300 called for by regulations.
Finally the train included a quantity of cantiniéres far above the regulation level (for a corps with three infantry divisions the regulation number was 122). The high command issued repeated orders that they were to be reduced, seemingly in vain.
The French transport organisation went into the war in a state that reflected the absence of any systematic planning and preparation for war. The system had been extensively reorganised after 1859, however the planned establishments proved in some cases too small (as reflected in the orders for much larger trains regulier than specified in regulations), and the existing personnel, horses and wagons proved insufficient in most areas. The German organisation was by no means perfect, and there were some differences in effetiveness between the various contingents- for example the Bavarian supply organisation proved to be insufficient for the two Bavarian corps` requirements as early as the march through the Vosges in August 1870, and the Prussian system (in which a corps would have five proviantkolonnen for provisions each with 80 wagons manned by military personnel, and a fuhrparkkolonne of 400 vehicles for carrying fodder which was made up of requisitioned wagons with civilian drivers) experienced considerable problems at various times (the fuhrparkkolonnen were undisciplined and often delayed during the mobilisation period); Baden, which had taken over the Prussian organisation wholesale, fielded a very efficient transport organisation (they had purchased the vehicles for the fuhrparkkolonnen outright and manned them with beurlaubten (serving soldiers on extended leave).
See also French Military Transport Organisation as laid down in the 1867 Regulations
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©Martin Tomczak 2004