Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Franco-Prussian War: Revenge of the Paper-Pushers

“The Franco-Prussian War” by Michael Howard

I’ll confess that when I opened this book, I knew very little about the Franco-Prussian War. I didn’t even know who won until I read the front flap. (“Darn, now I know the ending!”

The author, Michael Howard, would be appalled by this, of course. He wrote this book for serious history students who know all the players, read French and German fluently (1), and can find Staarbrucker on a map.

But despite the language barriers, the Franco-Prussian War fills a vital gap in history for me. I’ve spent some time with Napoleon I and Clausewitz and the Civil War generals, but then it’s a long dark night until Franz Ferdinand gets shot in Sarajevo in 1914.

So it’s time for the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871, between a barely united north Germany under Prince William and France under Napoleon III.

SPOILER ALERT: The Germans win.

In the 40 years following the Napoleonic Wars, Howard says, big armies supported by mobilized nations went right out of style. European governments were back to running little armies as a side hobby. The emerging middle class was more interested in making money than going to war.

“Everywhere armies languished in unpopular and impoverished isolation,’ Howard said.

Well, isn't that so sad. Poor, peaceful Europe.

That changed when Prince William took the Prussian throne in 1858. In a few short years he and his buddy Roon remodeled the army, created a North German Confederation and won some victories. The French also reformed their own military somewhat, creating a bigger army, but they didn’t account for the changes science and industry had made to war.

The Germans did. They realized that army commanders needed a good general staff now so they could split up their big armies and move them around. “The Prussian general staff acted as a nervous system animating the lumbering body of the army,” Howard said.

The French, on the other hand, “huddled together in masses without the technical ability to disperse.” They had a good breech-loading system, but terrible artillery. (2)

In effect, the Franco-Prussian conflict was the first Paper-Pushing War. Its outcome would depend on organization, not skill in leadership or courage in battle. Armies had to be in the right place, on time and in adequate strength. That certainly didn’t bode well for the French.

But in 1870, France felt fairly good about their reforms. They had nearly 500,000 soldiers available and could scrape up 300,000 more. They had tons of supplies.

“By the standards of its last campaigns, the French Army was ready,” said Howard. “It was the tragedy of the French Army, and of the French nation, that they did not realize in time that military organization had entered into an entirely new age.”


(1) The book's footnotes are filled with long quotes in French or German that probably begin “Ha ha, you monolingual Americans have no clue what’s going on here! Ha ha!” Not that I’m paranoid.

(2) Howard makes a little side joke about the artillery in French here. Apparently France’s minister of war just filed away reports about some great steel guns with the comment “Rien a fair.” I think that means “Nothing to do.”

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