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Review: The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871

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The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871
The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871 by Geoffrey Wawro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Franco-Prussian War is one little read about, less often written about, and frequently forgotten. In fact, many Americans may not have even heard of it. This is unfortunate because along with other wars such as the Crimean War and American Civil War, it was a war in which modern technology met old tactics and foreshadowed the death and destruction of World War I. Like the Crimean War, it also helped set the stage for World War I. During this centennial of World War I, I have been looking for books to read on the war and it occurred to me that reading about wars that helped set the stage for it would be just as important as reading books about World War I itself. Along those lines, I just finished reading The Franco-Prussian War by Geoffrey Wawro.

The war was a brief war but important one and to ignore the origins and the after effects of the war would have been a mistake. The Franco-Prussian War can be divided into three sections, one on what brought the war about, another composed of 2/3 of the book on the fighting, and a final section on the aftermath of the war and its after effects. Each section explores both the military and political/foreign policy aspects of the war.

In the lead up to the war, Wawro explains how politics and foreign policy brought France and Germany to war and discusses the military readiness of both countries as well as the states of the armies and schools of thought on tactics and strategy. The contrast between the German Army and the French Army was stark. The Germans, under Prussian leadership, had a modern, forward thinking military that emphasized initiative and education. In the German army, not just the officers were educated, many of the common soldiers were literate. Not so in the French Army; it looked more to the past and there was a distinct cultural divide between the aristocratic officers and the illiterate lower class soldiers. The French Army looked more to the defense and lacked the flexibility at lower ranks that the Germans enjoyed. The Franco-Prussian War very much seemed to be contest between a disorganized and apathetic French Army and a well-organized and professional German Army. When it came to political leadership, it seemed Napoleon III was seeking to put the Prussians in their place after being diplomatically outmaneuvered and stumbled into a trap Bismarck had set to create an environment in which he could finish German unification.

The section about the war itself doesn’t limit itself to a discussion of the strategy and tactics employed by the generals but also how their political masters’ actions shaped those strategies. Just as Bazaine and Moltke and the Chassepot rifle and the Krupp cannon were important militarily, Napoleon III and Bismarck were just as important politically, it was their actions and policy that impacted the decision making of the generals and the use of the weapons. Wawro discusses how the superior French Chassepot rifle shaped and the superior German Krupp artillery shaped the German tactics. He also discusses how errors by the French squandered their advantages and how errors by German leadership led them to take heavier casualties than they should have. Essentially, leaders on both sides committed many errors, but the errors on the part of the French leadership were more grievous and contributed toward their defeat. Particularly in the closing stage of the war, he shows how the political leadership of both sides and political upheaval in France shaped strategy in attempt to bring about each sides’ desired outcome.

Perhaps the most important part of the book is the final section about what happened post-war; Wawro writes about what the military leadership took away as lessons learned, how the war altered the map of Europe, and how the outcome of the war led to World War I. He discusses how the military leadership of both France and Germany (and the generals of other countries) came away from the Franco-Prussian War with a false reading on offensive tactics and how those false readings led to the massive loss of life in World War I. He tells how the landscape was altered through annexation and how Bismarck’s humiliating terms to France primed the pump for World War I, much as the terms of peace following World War I led to World War II. It is easy to come away from this last section of the book that in the short term, the Germans won the war but that in the long term they lost it by setting themselves up for defeat in World War I.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was well written and well researched. Political and military histories can easily become dry but Wawro wrote a book that is easy to read and captures the reader’s attention and touches on tactics, strategy, and technology without getting bogged down in minutiae. Perhaps it was because I was reading about a war that doesn’t receive a lot of attention but I genuinely found this book hard to put down. Each chapter has extensive end notes; it’s obvious that he did a massive amount of research. As usual, I read the Kindle version and it’s important to note that The Franco-Prussian War has maps in their appropriate place – with the relevant text (see, it can be done!!),  making it easy to visualize the military maneuvers that Wawro was writing about. I enthusiastically give this book 5 out of 5 stars and I strongly recommend it if you are interested in learning about an overlooked yet historically important war.

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