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Thursday, May 8, 2014

“The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871”, by Geoffrey Wawro

344 pages, Cambridge University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0521584364

The world watched in surprise as Prussia easily defeated Austria in the Austro-Prussian War (1866), nearly annihilating the Austrian army at the Battle of Königgrätz. The new Prussian breech-loading rifle – the Dreyse Needle Gun (or Zündnadelgewehr) – allowed the Prussian forces an overwhelming superiority in fire power over the slower muzzle-loading weapons of the Austrian army. In addition, Prussian “swarm” infantry tactics (which called for units advancing in supporting skirmish lines until they overlapped the enemy’s flanks) confused the Austrians. Lastly, the Prussians had completely revised their tactics regarding the use of artillery, allowing batteries to be quickly moved and concentrated anywhere on the field of battle, pulverizing enemy forces. Military strategists all over the world analyzed the conflict and tried to adapt their doctrine to the new style of waging war introduced by the Prussians.

And then, it was the turn of France.

The Franco-Prussian War forever changed the social, political and economic balance in Europe. The major European powers were stunned as the military might of France was devastated by a newly united Germany, and the seeds were sown for the constant political maneuvering and arms race that lasted until the start of the First World War. France was largely caught unprepared when war came in mid-July 1870, even though war with Prussia had nearly occurred every year since 1866. Prussian leaders – King Wilhelm Hohenzollern and the Statesman Otto von Bismarck – were motivated by a desire for revenge against France stemming from the Napoleonic Wars, the possibility of regaining Alsace and Lorraine, formerly German territory, and providing a national motive for uniting Prussia and the independent German States. The French sought to “keep Prussia in its place” and maintain France's position as the leading power in Europe.

The French defeat was owed as much to deficiencies on the part of the French themselves as it was to Prussian superiority. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III was corrupt, indecisive, and unschooled in military matters. France’s generals had a penchant for political infighting and bitter rivalry, created in large part by the Emperor’s habit of passing over senior officers to promote his friends and supporters, subordinating the more experienced commanders to their juniors. France’s generals also were indoctrinated to believe that their strength lay in defense rather than attack, and French officers repeatedly passed up opportunities to attack and destroy smaller or weaker Prussian units, even when French forces were overwhelmingly superior.

Organizationally, the French had a larger professional army than Prussia, as well as a developed system of reserves. The French army, however, proved to be poorly disciplined and the reserve system was wholly inadequate, as were mobilization plans, railways, etc. The Prussian army, though smaller, was better educated and trained, and backed up by a vast, quickly mobilized reserve. The one bright spot for France was their superb infantry rifle, the Chassepot. This powerful breech-loading rifle had double the effective range of the Prussian Dreyse, allowing the French troops to cut Prussian infantry to pieces before they closed. Unfortunately for the French, the Prussians more than offset this advantage with their overwhelming artillery, blasting French units to pieces under a rain of high explosive shells.

Aside from the discussion of the actual fighting, Mr. Wawro treats all the facets of this brief but bloody struggle, from personal accounts of soldiers of both antagonists and the foreign observers and reporters of the conflict (which included US General Phillip Sheridan) to the Republican rebellion after the Prussian capture of Emperor Napoleon. For those interested in military or European history this book is a must have!

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