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"Superior technology as decisive factor in any battle?" Topic

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redcoat18 Jan 2024 5:17 a.m. PST

Hi all,

When looking at the issue of technology across the nineteenth century, you could certainly argue that one side's technological advantage over the other played a decisive role in the outcome of certain engagements. I am thinking of maybe the Dreyse needle gun at Koniggratz 1866 or the Europeans' use of modern weaponry against spear and shield armed native hordes – Omdurman 1898 being a good example.

What about the Napoleonic period?

I know Napoleon was not very interested in new tech like, for example, the rifle. However, I'd find it hard to argue that the British Baker rifle was the decisive factor in any Napoleonic battle. What about Gribeauval guns? They were light and manoeuvrable, were they not? Could you argue that Friedland 1807 was won primarily by the Gribeauval guns blasting away at the Russian centre?

If not Friedland, which other battle could you argue was mainly won by superior tech?

Thanks in advance for any help!

Eumelus Supporting Member of TMP18 Jan 2024 5:59 a.m. PST

I would pretty confidently assert that technological superiority did not decide or even greatly influence any Napoleonic battle, and indeed I cannot recall any 18th-century battle where its influence was decisive either.

4th Cuirassier18 Jan 2024 6:38 a.m. PST

Some aspects of the British artillery system were so superior to others that everyone eventually adopted them, e.g. block trails and shrapnel, but they were incremental rather than decisive technical advantages.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP18 Jan 2024 7:36 a.m. PST

I'd agree with 4th and Eumeleus. Between the adoptions of the socket bayonet and the Minie ball, change was incremental. Armies would note and copy superior tech, but there was never enough of an advantage at any one time to decide a battle.

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP18 Jan 2024 8:31 a.m. PST

Napoleon's victories over the Mameluks in Egypt would be the only thing I can think of. Other then that, I agree with the others, that improvements were incremental and never decisive.

GildasFacit Sponsoring Member of TMP18 Jan 2024 9:43 a.m. PST

If you go outside the European theatre and consider colonial conflicts there are plenty of examples.
Also naval battles, a small number on the outskirts of Europe and more further afield. In these technology developed rapidly after the Napoleonic wars ended and those navies that didn't keep up could be unable to face a fleet that had.

Grelber18 Jan 2024 9:58 a.m. PST

Not quite what you were thinking of in that it isn't a weapon, but what about the Royal Navy's system of communication by flag at Trafalgar.


jwebster Supporting Member of TMP18 Jan 2024 10:16 a.m. PST

+1 ScottWasburn

I think that technology is either decisive or creates rapid tactical changes (eg American Civil War or WW1)

One of the things that fascinates me about the napoleonic/revolutionary wars was that there were a lot of tactical changes without technical changes

The musket was the same design as in the seven years war. Horses didn't get turbocharged. Canons became lighter and more flexible with Gribault, but it didn't allow any nation to dominate. Russian artillery was the least sophisticated, but still effective. I think the "grand battery" tactical was more important than the technical differences between artillery pieces


4th Cuirassier18 Jan 2024 10:30 a.m. PST

Did the French in Egypt have any special technological advantages against Mameluke cavalry, or was the advantage tactical?

I did once read that Napoleon reckoned his armies moved twice as fast as had Caesar's although this can't be down to technological improvements in footwear.

The period wherein infantry small arms suddenly outranged smoothbore artillery, much later in the century, was a fairly epochal change – although the status quo ante was fairly quickly restored.

Frederick Supporting Member of TMP18 Jan 2024 10:31 a.m. PST

While not perhaps a battlefield impact, the French semaphore system did give Napoleon a distinct strategic advantage – an order issued in Paris could be transmitted to Boulogne-sur-Mer in 6 hours versus the day or so it would take by courier – not sure how much this helped but one would think it could

4th Cuirassier18 Jan 2024 1:05 p.m. PST

@ Frederick

The British Admiralty had the same thing. They could communicate with Portsmouth in 15 minutes.

rmaker18 Jan 2024 1:07 p.m. PST

Napoleon's victories over the Mameluks in Egypt would be the only thing I can think of.

And that was at least as much due to superior discipline and command-control as to technology.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP18 Jan 2024 1:53 p.m. PST

"an order issued in Paris could be transmitted to Boulogne-sur-Mer in 6 hours versus the day or so it would take by courier not sure how much this helped but one would think it could"

I would have too, Frederick, except that a lifetime in large bureaucracies makes me wonder. Is everything we gain in the rapid transmission of orders lost because it feeds the Boss's conviction that he can successfully micromanage everyone?

Bonaparte is his usual brilliant self when campaigning in Spain. If all we had to go by was his attempt to conduct a war in Iberia from Paris, Warsaw or Moscow, he would not rate as a Great Captain.

There are stories of platoon leaders in Vietnam who had their entire chain of command up to MAC-V in helicopters overhead second-guessing him and each other. Switching to smart phones for Afghanistan doesn't seem to have changed the dynamic.

Ignore me. Every wargamer knows that The General sees all, knows all and his presence or close supervision always improves troop performance. The miniature wargamer in me knows this. Sometimes the old sergeant and the military historian have bad thoughts.

Stoppage18 Jan 2024 9:59 p.m. PST

Technology as system organisations:

Battle winners:

French divisional staff and organisation
French reserve cavalry formations
French grand-battery staff and formations

Campaign winners:

French Corps d'Armee staff and organisation
British maritime operations and supply
Prussian Kruemper recruitment system
British financing

Martin Rapier19 Jan 2024 12:59 a.m. PST

As others have noted above, differences in military technology had no influence on the outcome of Napoleonic battles. According to Clausewitz, all that actually mattered was numbers of men at the point of contact, with two to one odds virtually guaranteeing victory.

The trick was getting there the fastest with the mostest, hence the importance of staff systems, movement by Corps, methods of supply etc.

Superiority by process and organisation, not stuff.

Tbh, there are few periods whee technology trumps process, the Prussians would have beaten the Austrians in 1866 if they had only been armed with muskets, as Benedek was hopelessly out manouvered. His polyglot "Army" lacked cohesion and was almost immobile.

Murvihill19 Jan 2024 5:28 a.m. PST

Desert Storm is one example of a gross technological advantage.

Personal logo Mserafin Supporting Member of TMP19 Jan 2024 9:40 a.m. PST

I think a possible contender would be the British introduction of copper plating on their ships. This made them faster than their French and Spanish foes, which contributed to several British naval victories. On the other hand, this occurred around the time of the American Revolution, so not quite germane to this conversation.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP19 Jan 2024 2:41 p.m. PST

The tall bearskin (not the inferior Austrian version) seems to have been a consistent battle-winner unless seriously outnumbered. Only the innovation of the Belgic shako could finally see it off.

Erzherzog Johann20 Jan 2024 12:28 a.m. PST

Nothing wrong with the Austrian armchair :~)

ConnaughtRanger20 Jan 2024 1:52 p.m. PST

The Stovepipe shako seemed to be remarkably effective too?

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP20 Jan 2024 11:24 p.m. PST

Desert Storm is one example of a gross technological advantage.

Don't forget training and morale. How the weapons are used is just as important in my view. Technological advantages can be significant to a greater or lesser degree. So, are we only talking about 'gross technological differences?

If that was true, a 'decisive factor' 100% of the time, I don't think asymmetrical warfare would have become a thing.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP21 Jan 2024 3:37 a.m. PST

Serious answer time: I'm with Martin and Stoppage on system, process and organisation as the most important sources of 'technological' superiority in this period. These also play out in superior training per McLaddie.

As for British stovepipe shakos: these lost at least as often as they won, didn't they?

"The only British overall military success of the period was in Spain. Most other British operation were a failure: Flanders in 1793-94; Holland in 1799; Buenos Aires twice; Holland in 1809; the Dardenelles in 1807; Egypt in 1806; Spain and Sweden in 1808; Naples and Hanover in 1805; Spain and Italy in 1800. […] In 1793-1794 the British troops in Holland received "scathing criticism from foreign military observers and Allied commanders. There were damning comments on the appalling behaviour of officers, their lack of care for their men and their generally drunken demeanour. The Army as a whole showed up badly in the field. The drill manuals were out of date, the battalions were of poor quality …" (Haythornthwaite – "Wellington's Infantry (1)" p 6)
The war in Spain was also not a lightning campaign. In 1809 the British corps under general Moore fled before Napoleon to the sea. "The track was littered for mile after mile with discarded equipment and knapsacks, and the forlorn dead and dying." (Haythornthwaite – "Wellington's Infantry (1)" p 36)"

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP21 Jan 2024 4:43 p.m. PST

I'm with Martin and Stoppage on system, process and organisation as the most important sources of 'technological' superiority in this period. These also play out in superior training per McLaddie.

Keep in mind that the Austians had the superior rifle in the 1859 War, the French the rifled cannon. doctrine and training made the difference.

The same was true for the 1866 war. Prussians had the superior artillery, which didn't play a role in the war because of their doctrine. Their rifles did, even though out-ranged by the Austrian rifles, again because of competing doctrines.

And again in the 1870 war. The French had the far superior rifle, the Prussians artillery, in the end neither provided a 'decisive' superiority. It was doctrine, organization, and training that proved decisive.

4th Cuirassier22 Jan 2024 3:14 a.m. PST

@ ChrisBBB2

Surprising misapprehension by Haythornthwaite there – Britain was entirely successful in taking every last French overseas possession. The West Indies, Guadeloupe, Senegal, the east of India, Reunion, Mauritius, the Seychelles, Tobago, and Saint Lucia all fell to British troops, in some cases twice because they were taken before 1802, given back then taken again. The French were left with literally nothing. They lost Haiti to a slave uprising and as a result sold Louisiana to the USA because without a base in the Caribbean left it was indefensible. It was quite civilised of the USA to pay 3 cents an acre for it since they could have just sent in a company of militia to take it.

There were certainly a few expeditions that failed, but then again, whose did any better? French attempts to retake Haiti and Mauritius failed, and the less said about Egypt the better.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP22 Jan 2024 6:20 a.m. PST

Good points, 4th! Though more a tribute to the hornpipe than the stovepipe.

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