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A short history of the large units

Free Reflection
Operational commitment
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While doctrine and discourse consecrate, below the "operative" command, three sacrosanct "earthly tactical levels of command", misunderstood substitutes for large unitsWhile doctrine and discourse enshrine three sacrosanct "land tactical levels of command", misunderstood substitutes for the large, inter-services units of the past, as a condition for the coherence of command, the observation of actual operations shows that most of the time we implement only one level of command in all and for all.

A quick study of the history of the large joint units, applied to today's conditions, would make it easier to understand that, as in the seventeenth century, we now only need an army command directly directing the levels of execution.

Until the middle of the 18th century, armies in the field had only two levels of command: the army and the battalion. (1). Any isolated military force in one of the theatres of war was called an "army" under the command of a "general". (2) "He was surrounded by numerous lieutenant-generals who took turns commanding on his behalf every day.

The army in principle always remained grouped, any division or detachment, in the conditions of movement of the time, putting it in danger of not being able to regroup in case of encounter with the enemy army. They were not separated from the bodies (3) important than exceptionally, for the needs of a vanguard, a rearguard or for any other mission deemed necessary which was then usually entrusted to a lieutenant-general. The battalion and squadron were the basic tactical pawn and the unit of account of armies.

Since the regiments that supplied them had a widely varying number of battalions, it became the practice to group them into brigades. (4)This was a more or less temporary grouping of a more or less homogenous number of battalions, whose command was entrusted to a colonel and then to a marshal-de-camp. The battalion and the brigade were thus the first articulation of the army to engage in battle, while corps or divisions, which were detachments of the army, constituted an articulation between battles for this part of the army.This part of the art was called in the 18th century "great tactics" or sometimes "logistics" and can be compared to what modern people now call "operative".

It should be added that the smallest armies of the time were already lining up between 10,000 and 30.000 men, a considerable number if we compare them to the contemporary French "armies" and if we take into account the fact that these commands were exercised without any real command body: in the winter of 1674, Turenne thus led in Alsace 25.000 men, without any subordinate commands, without any real staff, and with a rudimentary logistical organisation.

In the middle of the 18th century, the development of the administration, technical progress in armaments, improvements in the organisation of the armies, combined with the growth in manpower to make the division of the army both possible and necessary. This was the result of the convergence of three needs:

- Moving, housing and feeding an army with increasingly large numbers of troops meant that it had to be divided into portions of a size compatible with the roads and resources available in an area or valley. Pierre de Bourcet (5)In his Principles of Mountain Warfare, he calls "division" the largest body that can move and feed in a valley.

- To fight a battle or combat over an ever-expanding battlefield, divided into separate compartments of terrain, and with larger numbers of personnel, required the army to be organized into tactically autonomous units, each with the capabilities of all the arms, infantry, cavalry, and artillery, which must support each other. Mauritius of Saxony (6) in His Reveries thus calls for the creation of inter-army formations which he calls "legions", in reference to the Roman legion which, in the spirit of the times, combined "organically" various "weapons". (7). Bourcet's demand for this permanent joint composition was accentuated by the risk that a "division" of the army engaged in a separate valley might be forced to fight the bulk of the enemy army. In this spirit the "division" thus becomes the smallest part of the army capable of fighting a battle. (8).

- The absence of intermediate commands in an army too big for the general and his troops to see each other had several negative effects: the army was crowded with unemployed generals whose horses and the rest "ate the army's straw and bread. (9)The army was crowded with unemployed generals whose horses and entourage "ate the army's bread and straw", and discipline was even less firmly maintained because, since the officers were not fed, they had to leave their troops to beg for their food from the generals who, for this purpose, kept an "open table" where resources were available, i.e., outside the camps. These numerous inconveniences led the Duke de Broglie, then commander of the German army (10)In spite of the minister's reluctance and the protests of the gentlemen and courtiers, he assigned a lieutenant-general and a few field marshals to each division of the army and dismissed all those who were not assigned. The division was then nothing more than the command entrusted to it on a permanent basis to a lieutenant general, or the largest portion of the army that a general officer can command directly.

The Count de Guibert will only synthesize these three legacies by standardizing the composition of the division with which the generals of the Republic will enter the campaign: a permanent command assigned to a lieutenant-general. (11)organically composed of a standard number of infantry battalions. (12)The Canadian Forces is a key link in the chain of command, joint manoeuvre, and support. Guibert and his successors believed that this division was capable of delivering a single battle to an enemy army of the time, which was contradicted by the lesson of Marengo.

This experience led Bonaparte, instead of redefining the composition of the division, to divide the army into larger portions, organically composed ofThis experience led Bonaparte, rather than redefining the composition of the division, to divide the army into larger portions, organically composed of several divisions, a brigade of light cavalry and an artillery reserve, a portion he would call "corps d'armée. "The march to Ulm and Austerlitz, then the army's march across the Harz to Iena and the battle of Auerstadt. (13)For more than 100 years, the corps thus organized as the real army division as imagined by Guibert, Saxony, Bourcet or Broglie, the smallest portion capable of fighting alone while being able to move and support itself on a road, will consecrate itself for more than 100 years.

From all this it can be deduced that battalions, regiments, and brigades, administrative organizations and army articulations in battle, functionally constitute one and the same level of warfare, that of execution in combat or battle, while divisions and corps, true "portions of an army", constitute the "parts of an army".army" or "mini-armies", the articulations of the army for the needs of the campaign, constitute another functional level that can be interpreted either as the "army's parts" or as the "mini-armies", or as the "army's articulations" for the needs of the campaign.This can either be interpreted as an intermediary between the previous level and that of the army, or it can be confused with the functional level of the army itself. From this perhaps derives the difficulties we have in distinguishing concretely the functions of the division from those of the corps, and those of the corps from those of the theatre.

The industrial growth and the systems of general mobilization will come to blur this simple distinction as of 1914, the army no longer being the only circumstantial force in a theatre.The army was no longer the sole force of circumstance in a theatre, but a quasi-organic formation aligned neck and neck with its neighbours, under the authority of a "group of armies" flanked by other neighbouring groups of armies. The enormity of the manpower, the immensity of the fronts and their depth, the complexity of the mass movements by the use of the railroad in particular, the appearance or the rapid development of numerous new functions (artillery, engineers, aviation, signals, etc.), and the fact that the army is a "group of armies" flanked by other groups of neighboring armies.), the introduction of many new weapons, changes in tactics and procedures, all contribute not only to increasing the number of echelons of command but also to the distribution of functions among them: The division thus became the permanent organic command and the elementary tactical organization combining artillery and infantry, with the army the command responsible for delivering what was still called in France in 1918 ". the army group, the echelon in charge of the organization of the rear (works to improve parking lots, logistics depots, railways, manoeuvring networks, etc.), the army group the echelon in charge of delivering what is still called "the battle" in France in 1918.) and the preparation divisions to the new conditions of combat14.

In isolated theatres such as Macedonia, the "force" is now called an army group. It is between 1916 and 1918, in the staffs of French armies and army groups, that one imagines the staff organisations that we know, the 1st, 2nd2nd, 3rd and 4th offices, and the assistants to the chief of staff for operations and logistics that would become today's ACOS and DCOS. The Americans, having adopted the French structures and organisations in 1917, brought them back with them in 1941, and imposed them on NATO until the end of the "war". Cold War", a period of armed peace still involving huge numbers of troops in operations potentially as complex as those of the Second World War.

The end of this period was characterised by a very rapid decline in the number of personnel in the standing armies and an even more rapid reduction in the number of personnel engaged in operations that were now very real but often of a very "non-military" nature. Apart from a few major powers, the upper echelons of the major commands of the period 1914-1990, army groups, armies and even corps, remain only as more or less mythical references. As we have become accustomed to calling a large permanent organic training of a large volume15 , a model that no longer seems to have a credible job, we are in the habit of deforce" each grouping of elements, of all arms and "armies", deployed in a theatre for expeditions now called "operations".

Since contemporary operations usually involve only very small "forces" (often no more than one or two battalions), it has become the practice to assign command to a single brigade. It is forgotten in passing that the reduction in personnel numbers has not been accompanied by an equivalent reduction in the complexity of operations, the difficulties of implementing a reduction in the size of the brigade, and the fact that the reduction in the size of the brigade has not been accompanied by an equivalent reduction in the complexity of the operations.The difficulties of implementing the purely military means of conventional warfare have been replaced by those of the military taking into account all the political aspects of conflicts which it is no longer claimed to be waging but to resolve.

In fact, the force commander in a theatre is functionally, and whatever his rank, an 'army' commander, as was Turenne in Germany at the end of the Thirty Years' War: His duties today require a staff large enough to cope with difficulties far beyond what a brigade is normally tasked to do. However, this general had no use for intermediate commands16 to direct the few battalions and the often "sample" means of support and assistance entrusted to him. In practice, as in the 17th century, there are now only two levels of command in our operations: the army and the battalion17.

This is no doubt why the "land tactical levels", to which we still cling like the shipwrecked man to his wreck but which we had the bad inspiration to "index" on the large joint units, are so unhelpful in organising our commands. These staffs have always been functionally dedicated to assisting the commander of an army or part of an army.

This is why one can only regret the attachment from command to our sacrosanct "three levels of tactical land command" and to the notion of "land component", that of our brigades to the idea of an interdepartmental commandThe army's determination to recreate an organization once adopted for an army of a million men.


1 And for the cavalry, the squadron, which at that time usually consisted of two companies.

2 The latter was often called "marshal", the name that was used in the Middle Ages, particularly in England and in military orders, with the leaders exercising command of the battle corps on behalf of the sovereign or master. In France, the person concerned was named "connétable" if he commanded the entire ost in the name of the King, a function that was replaced by that of Marshal General from Turenne onwards. The appellation "general" given for "army general" remained, for example, in the US Army.

3 These separate corps were indifferently called corps, division, detachment, army division, army detachment, army corps, etc. without these names covering any standardized structure or composition.

4 From the Italian brigatta.

5 Pierre Joseph de Bourcet (1700-1780), a Dauphinois, son of a captain in the Frankish company of Louis XIV, camp marshal, engineer to the King, served in Germany under the Duke of Broglie, in the Alps and in Italy. He founded the first staff school in Grenoble. His Principles of Mountain Warfare are, according to Camon, the basis of Napoleon's system of warfare.

6 Maurice, Count of Saxony (1696-1750), bastard son of the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, Marshal General of the camps and armies of the King in 1747 (although German and Protestant!), distinguished himself in the War of Austrian Succession, notably by the capture and then the defence of Prague, followed by a difficult retreat towards the Rhine (17411742) and then by a succession of victories (Tournai and Fontenoy, 1745; Rocourt, 1746; Lawfeld, 1747).

7 It should be noted that this permanent interarmy organization is characteristic of the era of the light troops, Fischer's hunters, Grassin's harquebusiers, etc.., of which Maurice of Saxony, who preferred the "small war" to the risks of a siege or a battle, was a fervent supporter.

8 A battle then universally means the general confrontation of two armies, the engagements between parts of the army being just as universally called "combat". Bourcet's division is a temporary circumstantial articulation with no defined composition, but must by function be capable of facing the bulk of the enemy army alone.

9 Not to mention the many gentlemen who, as in previous centuries, mounted and armed themselves at their own expense and joined the army where they served outside of any organization.

10 Victor-François, Duke of Broglie (1718-1804) defeated at Rossbach under Soubise (1757), victorious at Sonderhausen (1758) and Bergen (1759) under Contades, was named commander of the German army and made Marshal in 1759 to replace Contades who was defeated in Minden (last period of the Seven Years' War).Both hated for his character and esteemed for his military qualities, both by the Minister of War, the Marshal of Belle-Isle, and by the King, he carried out in his army the recommendations on command that one of his predecessors, the Marshal of Clermont, had sketched out. To Louis XV who complained about the bad temper of the Duke, Noailles would have said one day: "That man is only good at the head of the armies. I advise you to send him there. »

11 Hence the appellations of lieutenant general in English or General Leutnant in German, which have remained in many armies to the division generals.

12 Or regiments, since the latter became an "operational" command at that time, whereas it had until then been mainly an administrative entity for the maintenance and development of the army in peacetime. Regiment comes from the German Regiment, which literally means "ordinance" in the sense of "ordinance companies" or "governing by ordinance".

13 Auerstadt is indeed a battle since Davout faces there with his corps the main body of the Prussian army while conversely Napoleon faces with his big one in Iena the Prussian rearguard thus a detached corps.

14 What we call today RETEX and training, that is to say the missions of the 7th offices.

15 It will be observed that at the same time, the 1st French army, which was composed of corps, became the land action force, henceforth composed of "brigades".

16 Of "divisions" in the sense that Turenne would have understood it. 17 It can also be observed that the pressure of economies leads to the adoption in all fields of the organisational solutions of the army of the Ancien Régime: privatisation of support, civilianisation, recourse to private military companies, etc.

Title : A short history of the large units
Author (s) : Colonel Christophe de LAJUDIE