The Battle of Waterloo: The French Operational Commander, the Prussian Staff System, and Auftragstaktik

In 1815 there were two competing staff systems, the French and the Prussian. Until 1813, everyone used the French system. After their embarrassingly quick defeat in 1806, Prussian generals Gerhard: Von Blucher and Von Scharnhorst, reformed the army and in particular their staff processes. The Prussian General Staff system is roughly the same one we theoretically use today. In short, a commander has a staff of junior officers usually two ranks lower than himself, but sometimes three, who keeps the commander informed of the war fighting functions: operations, logistics, communications, intelligence, information ops etc. And this staff is supervised by an executive officer, chief of staff, 2iC etc who is the senior staff cat, but is still two ranks lower than the commander. Think of it as a wagon wheel: operations is the hub, the other staff sections are the spokes, the 2iC is the rim which keeps everything together, and the commander is the axle that keeps the cart upright and moving in the right direction. (And that’s as far as that analogy goes)

The relative seniority of the commander over the staff was deliberate: it allowed the specialists and star performers to rise to the top and be noticed (the epitome of this were August Gneisenau, Blucher’s Chief of Staff, and everyone’s favorite dead Prussian, Carl Von Clausewitz, the III Corps CoS at Waterloo). More importantly, the system prevented the staff officers that were the same rank as the commander from issuing orders, which was a feature of the French system.

The French system recognized that the largest force multiplier was a commander’s presence on the battlefield. The French system ensured the right decision maker was at the right place at the right time to make the right decision. In the French system, the overall commander, usually Napoleon, came up with the plan, the chief of staff translated it into orders, and an operational commander was assigned to execute it at the operational and tactical level. This freed up the overall commander to concentrate on strategery, influence the operational area through the use of the reserve, and be at the decisive point. (Stop me if this sounds familiar… cough IJC/ISAF… cough) This was very effective when combined with the French corps system: when each corps had a marshal of the same rank as the operational commander, this system provided an amazing amount of flexibility and allowed the subordinate commanders the ease to exercise initiative. In an era where a commander could only influence troops he could physically see and hear, or gallop to, and had trusted subordinates who understood intent, like Napoleon’s marshals, this worked out fine, brilliantly even.

In Prussian terms, the French operational commander was both a commander and operations staff officer (An equivalent today would be FSCOORD/DIVARTY Cdr, a command/staff concept that works for supporting troops, not so much for maneuver troops). The Operational Commander was the connection between the staff, and through the staff to the overall commander, and then the commanders in the field. The big benefit of this was that if a decision had to be made the Operational Commander could make it and he didn’t have to bother the staff or overall commander about it, unlike the Prussian system. He just had to keep them informed, not look for a decision and then wait for an order. This system was in place at the division, corps, and army level. But for this to work, the Napoleons of the world had/have to be hands off, which was increasingly hard to do as the battlefields became larger and subordinates not as talented or trusted. Finally, there are also at least three decision makers at any level: the overall commander, the chief of staff, and the operational commander. This is no problem if orders are clear and everyone understands the plan, and most importantly the intent.

In our Waterloo example, the French system made Ney, Soult, and Napoleon all primary decision makers. This became a problem when Ney attempted to seize key terrain – Quatre Bras, while Napoleon and Soult were at the decisive point – the destruction of Blucher’s Army at Ligny. They eventually “competed” for D’Erlon’s Corps whom were marching between them responding to contradictory orders from four different sources (including Grouchy who was just parroting Napoleon’s orders). Unfortunately for Napoleon, this inherent flaw in the French system was a feature, not a bug. When it worked, and it did most of time during the Napoleonic Wars, the French system worked brilliantly. But when it didn’t, which was rare for the French, it failed catastrophically.

The Prussian system took the personalities out of the system, and placed the responsibility of understanding the immediate situation on the staff, who could then inform their commander, instead of relying on the talent of the commander to intuitively understand everything happening around them. This permitted the primary decision making authority to fall on the commanders at all levels. It allowed commanders to make more informed decisions, but not nearly as fast. The Prussian system is more systems and processes driven than personality driven like the French and sacrifices flexibility for resilience. However, and this is a huge “however”, the Prussians mitigated the relative slowness and rigidity of their staff system compared to the French with a culture of “Auftragstaktik”. Auftragstaktik, roughly translated as “mission tactics” is a culture of trust based on professional competence, situational awareness, and understanding of the commanders’ intent. With Auftragstaktik, subordinate commanders are expected to take initiative and are required to alter their commander’s orders if they are irrelevant to the situation and the accomplishment of the mission warrants it. Auftragstaktik gave the Prussian staff system and its commanders the agility to act upon a situation, without the burden of competing personalities of the same rank, by placing the onus of situation understanding on the lowest level staff and the decision to act on the lowest level commander. Auftragstaktik demands commanders and staffs have “skin in the game”. This responsibility, which good commanders seek out, incentivizes subordinates to support their commander, and more importantly, commanders to support their subordinates. With the lowest level subordinate commander the immediate decision making authority, this also ensured that contradictory orders only happened rarely, as a subordinate commander would only change his own commander’s orders with good reason. At a time when commanders were no longer operating in sight of the armies they commanded, the Prussian system within the context of Auftragstaktik gave them a resilience and agility that the personality driven French armies lacked.

As Rocky pointed out, “It’s not how hard you hit, it’s how hard you can get hit and still keep going that matters”. And that’s exactly what happened when the French failed to destroy the Prussian Army at Ligny. The Prussians bounced back from their defeat, while French dithered about on 17 June, thus setting the conditions necessary for the French defeat at Waterloo.

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