Saturday, 7 July 2012

The mid Victorian Swiss Army

For Switzerland, the Europe of the mid 19th century was a dangerous place. France under the glory seeking Napoleon III to the west, a Prussia bent on becoming a superpower to the north, the traditional enemy Austria to the east and a fiercely ambitious Italy to the south. Switzerland was very much a federation of cantons, each mostly self governing, though since 1848 the Federal Assembly had responsibility for defence. The problem with this was that they were especially vulnerable to salami tactics, cantons picked off one by one. With French, German and Italian speaking cantons, and Prussia and Italy determined to unite the German and Italian speaking peoples, Switzerland was especially vulnerable. This is their response.

 Swiss uniforms 1857

1855 - The Swiss Army (Putnam's Magazine)

In Switzerland no national standing army exists. Every Swiss is compelled to serve in the militia, if able-bodied; and this mass is divided into three levies according to age. The young men, during the first years of service, are called out separately for drill, and collected from time to time in camps; but whoever has seen the awkward gait and uncomfortable appearance of a Swiss squad, or heard the jokes they crack with the drill-sergeant while under drill, must at once see that the military qualities of the men are but very poorly developed. The organization of the militia is almost entirely in the hands of the various cantonal governments; and, though its general form is fixed by federal laws, and a federal staff is at the head of the whole, this system cannot fail to create confusion and want of uniformity, while it must almost necessarily prevent a proper accumulation of stores, the introduction of improvements, and the permanent fortification of important points, especially on the side where Switzerland is weak, toward Germany.

The Swiss, like all mountaineers, make capital soldiers when drilled; and, wherever they have served as regular troops under foreign banners, they have fought exceedingly well. But being rather slow-headed, they need drilling much more, indeed, than either French or North Germans, to give them confidence in themselves, and cohesion. It is possible that national feeling might possibly replace this in the case of a foreign attack upon Switzerland, but even this is very doubtful. An army of 80,000 regular troops, and less, would certainly bo a match for all the 160,000 and more men which the Swiss say they can congregate. In 1799, the French finished the business with a few regiments.

 A Swiss sharpshooter 1852 (New York Digital Library)

The Swiss boast a great deal of the rifles of their sharp-shooters. There are, certainly, in Switzerland, comparatively more good shots than in any other European country, the Austrian Alpine possessions excepted. But when one sees how these dead shots, when called in, are almost all armed with clumsy common percussion muskets, the respect for the Swiss sharp-shooters is considerably lessened. The few battalions of rifles may be good shots, but their short, heavy pieces (stutzen) are antiquated and worthless, and their awkward, slow method of loading, with loose powder from a horn, would give them but a poor chance when opposed to troops armed with less superannuated weapons.

Altogether, arms, accoutrements, organization, drill, everything is old-fashioned with the Swiss, and very likely will remain so as long as the cantonal governments have anything to say on the subject.

The Neuchatel Crisis of 1856

Swiss troops at Mamertshofen castle in the winter of 1856/7

There were very few states that faced down Prussia in the 19th century, but Switzerland was one of them.
To understand the Neuchatel crisis you have to remember that Switzerland was not a unitary state, but a loose federation of semi-independent cantons. One of these, Neuchatel, was ruled by the King of Prussia, but as head of state, not as part of Prussia, Neuchatel was still part of Switzerland. In 1848 Neuchatel had rebelled and kicked out the Prussians, but in 1856 Royalists attempted a coup, to bring back the Prussian king, William. It failed, and the plotters were captured, but Prussia made its move. William demanded the release of the rebels and backed that up with a threat of military intervention. Thirty thousand Federation troops were mobilised and stationed along the Rhine, the border, against 110,000 Prussians.
Faced with opposition from Britain, France and Russia, Prussia backed down. In 1862 Count Otto von Bismarck took over, and from then on Prussian conquests were much more sure footed.

 Swiss troops during the crisis

1861 (The New American Cyclopedia)

The Swiss army consists entirely of militia, and is divided into 3 classes: 1, the regular army, composed of men between 20 and 33 years of age, to the number of 3 per cent, of the population; 2, the reserve, consisting of men between 33 and 40 who have served their time in the regular corps; 3, the landwehr, comprising all men under 44 years of age who are fit to bear arms and are not serving in either of the other divisions. The strength of the army in March, 1860, was as follows: regular force, about 90,000; reserve, 51,000; landwehr, 43,000; total, 184,000. Probably over 100,000 could be brought into the field at a few days' notice. The organization is very complete, and for celerity of movement and concentration the Swiss army will compare favorably with any in the world.

1862 (From the Stateman's Yearbook of 1865)

The army numbers 80,000 men, and 120 companies of "sharpshooters," comprising 8,712 picked riflemen. The cavalry comprises 2,911 men, divided into 35 companies, and the artillery, 12,400 men, with four "mountain batteries," of 10 guns each, and eight "rocket batteries", besides twelve companies of sappers and miners.

1864 (The Eclectic Magazine: foreign literature, Volume 63)

It would not be fair to omit Switzerland from this comparative list, especially as the organization of her army, like that of Great Britain, possesses special and peculiar features of its own. Switzerland, in fact, disclaims the idea of having a standing army; her constitution prohibiting the existence of one within the limits of the Confederation. However, not to leave the commonwealth without a system of defense, every one is expected to be trained to arms, and nearly every one is so trained. Children from the age of eight are regularly instructed at the upper and middle schools in military exercises, undergo special examinations, and are frequently paraded and reviewed with all the pomp and eclat of veteran troops. When they have gone through their infantry exercises, and have become expert in the use of the rifle—Wimbledon has witnessed some of the excellent shooting of these gallant and keen-eyed sons of the Oberland—the young Tells practice gunnery, two and four pounders being supplied by the government for that purpose.  The total amount of this patriotic force—like the Spartans of old, every Swiss feels he fights, when he does fight, for his institutions, and therefore fights with the purest feelings of patriotism—is 339,926 men; a large number for so small a commonwealth. Only the Bundesausug, however, is on active duty, and the service of these is light and easy.  The policy of the government has invariably been unaggressive, and rarely has the army of Switzerland been called into the field. The arrogant claims of the late King of Prussia on Neuchatel was the last occasion on which the Swiss spirit was roused; but a show of popular indignation sufficed to puff out the ambition of a Pourtales and the pretensions of the crowned Hohenzollern.

 Carabiniers 1860 (New York Digital Library)

1869 - The Vetterli Rifle

Military technology made huge strides during this period, and so did infantry fire power. Rather than buy from outside the Swiss designed their own, the Vetterli rifle. Johann-Friedrich Vetterli (1822–1882) had worked in both England and Frenace before becoming director of the Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft's armament factory.
The 1869 Repetiergewehr (repeating rifle) Vetterli came on stream in 1869 It combined the magazine of the American M1866 Winchester rifle, the bolt system of the Prussian Dreyse needle gun and a novel self cocking action and at the time it was the most advanced in Europe. It was soon followed by the 1871 version, and continued in use until 1890.

1869 (Reflections on the Formation of Armies, With a View to the Re-organization by Walter James Wyatt)

The Swiss Army.
The thirteenth Article of the Constitution of September 13th, 1848, forbids the maintenance of a standing army within the limits of the Confederation. To provide for the defence of the country, every citizen has to bear arms, in the management of which the children are instructed at school, from the age of eight, and they pass through regular exercises and public reviews. Such military instruction is voluntary on the part of the children, but is participated by the greater number of pupils at the upper and middle-class schools. They not only go through the infantry exercises, but practice gunnery, the necessary rifles and cannon—-the latter 2 and 4 pounders— being furnished by the Federal Government.

The troops of the republic are divided into four classes, namely:—

1. The " Bundesauszug," or Federal army, consisting of all men able to bear arms from the age of 20 to 34. All cantons are obliged, by the terms of the Constitution, to furnish at least 3 per cent, of their population to the "Bundesauszug."
2. The army of reserve, consisting of all men who have served in the first-class, from the age of 35 to 40. The numbers are calculated to amount to 1J per cent, of the population.
3. The "Landwehr," or militia, comprising all men from the 41st to the 45th year.
4. The "Landsturm," or army of defence, including all men above 45, till the term when they are disabled by age from military service.

Swiss Federal Infantry (New York Digital Libray)

1871 (The Franco-Prussian War)

The first ever complete mobilisation of the Canton forces came in 1871, a defensive measure during the Franco Prussian war, to make sure neither side strayed across the border. Apart from anything else, they had responsibility for disarming 87,000 French soldiers of the French Armee d'Est, who asked for asylum and were interned for 6 weeks. It didn't help that the internees were arriving through Neuchatel, and the pursuing Prussian army might well seize the chance to take it back. But they didn't, and the enormous military and humanitarian operation did a lot for Switzerland's reputation in Europe.

 Swiss troops recieving French zouaves 1871

1871 (The American Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events)

SWITZERLAND, a federal republic in Europe. Area, 15,722 square miles; population, in 1860, 2,510,494; of which 1,476,982 aro Protestants, and 1,023,430 Roman Catholics.
The staff of the army, on April 15, 1870, was composed of 76 colonels, 93 lieutenantcolonels, 130 majors, 226 captains, and 292 lieutenants.

Immediately upon the outbreak of the war between France and Germany, and notwithstanding the friendly assurances of France and Prussia that the neutrality of Switzerland was to be strictly respected, the Federal Government determined to place such a force on its frontiers as would render a violation of Helvetic territory a more difficult undertaking than if it were only defended by a respect for existing treaties. In little more than a week's time, through the military organization of the republic, in which every man is a soldier, either in the active contingent, or in the reserve, or the landwehr, five divisions were called to arms, and marched to the most threatened part of the frontier, the line separating Switzerland from Baden. These corps formed an effective force of 50,000 men. The Government issued treasury bills to the amount of 5,000,000 francs, bearing interest at the rate of four and a half per cent, per annum, and the money was immediately furnished by Swiss bankers and capitalists. During the latter part of August, the Government consulted with General Herzog, commander-in-chief of the Swiss Army, and, upon his advice, recalled the entire military force on the frontier, leaving only two battalions of sharp-shooters as a corps of observation.

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