THE FRENCH AND GERMAN SOLDIER
By H. ROSINSKI
I N more than a thousand years of struggle French and German soldiers have crossed swords and come to appre- ciate each other on countless bloody battlefields, and yet so fundamentally opposed are they in national outlook, just as in the subconscious characteristics of their psychology, that to this day they continue to puzzle and intrigue, and to remain an inexhaustible source of wonder and of interest to each other.
To the German, accustomed to the rigid notions of his Prussian discipline, the easygoing manner of the " poilu," the familiarity of his relations with his officer, the lack of smartness in his outward appearance, seem almost im- possible to reconcile with the remarkable inner cohesion of the French Army of which he has received so many proofs in practice. The French soldier in his turn is inclined to overstress the mechanical aspects of German discipline and to underrate the very considerable scope which it leaves beneath its rigid surface for the personal initiative and independence of the individual.
Again, the strongly emotional element in the French soldier's psychology, the role played by " heroic gestures " in inflaming this enthusiasm, his strong susceptibility to mass-suggestion, appear to the German to further indeed the development of a spirit of dashing attack, the famous élan, but also the tendency to turn into panic, when brought up by an unexpected obstacle. The German therefore is inclined involuntarily to underrate the Frenchman's tenacity and staying power. " That soldiers, who had retreated for days and days, men who were sleeping half-dead from fatigue, should rise, grasp their rifles again and attack at the sound of the bugles, is something with which we had never reckoned in our war games," General von Kluck, the commander of the extreme right wing of the German Army in France, confessed to a Swedish journalist in the autumn of 1914. In his turn the Frenchman, maintained in his élan by a grim and an exultant devotion to his highest ideal —" patrie " and " gloire "—finds it difficult to understand the curious mixture of boyish dash and an almost mystical experience of the intensity of life that animates the German soldier in the supreme danger of the last violent assault.
Even more pronounced are the differences between the two armies in the larger fields of strategy and tactics. In the organisation of units and the most elementary tactics there is today, as an excellent French student of the German Army, Carrias, rightly remarks, little to choose between the various European forces ; it is in the co-ordination of various arms that national characteristics begin to manifest them- selves to a really important degree.
Three points appear to the Frenchman as the outstanding peculiarities of German tactics: reconnaissance, initiative, speed in execution. Reconnaissance means not so much the constitution of strong and well-organised special units for all the various forms of reconnaissance, as a fundamental tendency of the German Army to temper, by the studious research of information of the enemy and his moves, its natural aptitude to act a priori, in contrast to the French- man's s'engager et puffs voir; thus giving its methods of action, despite their extremely audacious character, a con- crete and realistic base.
The second point, initiative, is even better apt to show the differences in the fundamental outlook of the two armies, connoting in this connexion not so much the normal mean- ing of " enterprise " as the peculiar tendency in the German Army to give the individual commander the greatest latitude conceivable in the execution of his " mission "; the German view being that the man on the spot should be left as untrammelled as possible to exploit the quite peculiar circumstances of the concrete situation facing him, and should, therefore, be given full freedom to execute or dis- regard his orders, provided only that he keeps within the general line of his commander-in-chiefs intentions.
In the same line of thought the German Army tends to set rapidity of execution above the faithful adherence to strategical or tactical regulations and patterns. In fact, French observers are struck by the complete absence of any such patterns in German military training, all tactical studies dealing always with individual cases, which are being presented essentially as elastic, not as rigid " classical " solutions.
The German students of French tactical and strategic methods on their side are struck above all by the strictly methodical character of French military thought. That methodical outlook—in the last resort a heritage from that great French soldier, mathematician and philosopher, Descartes, whose spirit reigns in the two great military schools of St. Cyr and the Ecole Polytechnique—gives the French officer with a profound training in mathematics his peculiarly " scientific outlook "; teaching him to advance from a few clearly established principles towards embracing the infinite variety of military actions in an ever more closely-meshed net of elaborate case-studies. On the other hand, in the eyes of his German opposite number it is apt to mislead him into the attempt to evolve carefully-thought- out patterns of conduct for every conceivable contingency ; that appears to the Germany military mind too rigid—despite the elasticity conferred upon them in practice by the French- man's traditional esprit de finesse—as well as, above all, too slow ; more suitable for the static or semi-mobile conditions of the World War than for that " war of movement " which every general staff today is hoping and praying for.
It is thus in their attitude towards such " war of move- ment " and its typical form of action, the " encounter," that, as both French and German observers unanimously agree, the deepest difference between their respective training and outlook lies ; the German Army's concentration upon speed and vigour in the exploitation contrasting with the care for ensuring " security " which characterises French tactical ideas.
These general contentions are strikingly illustrated by a quite unusually interesting study of the difference in outlook between the German and the French artillery officer recently published in a German service journal. The German officer, according to this observer, considers the relatively simple methods laid down in his regulations as fully adequate and above criticism. He is not interested in their critical exami- nation, but exclusively with their best application to the infinite variation of circumstances. As one of them said, when asked why the German artillery had failed to adopt a certain French mathematical system: " The German officer refuses to subject his action to a rigid mathematical system. He wishes to act creatively and responsibly, according to the dictates of the situation, and believes that in that manner he will be able to make the best use of his instrument."
In contrast to this, the French officer is not satisfied with merely accepting the rules he is instructed to follow, but feels personally responsible for their adequacy. To that end, therefore, he constantly re-examines their bases, working out new mathematical methods that appeal to his taste for an " elegant and " scientific " solution. This strong reliance upon automatic mathematical methods of ranging and firing is apt to lessen the physical and psychological strain imposed by the German system of " creative " ranging as well as to facilitate the taking over from another command ; the more so as the methods thus evolved are easy in their application. In a " war of movement," on the other hand, such mathema- tical fire-direction is apt to prove inferior to " creative " ranging if the choice of the mathematical methods employed is not made with the greatest care and intelligence.