10 February 2006 by Published in: General musings 16 comments

A few observations about the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which I’ve done some reading about over the past few years:

1. Napoleon III most assuredly did not inherit his uncle’s military prowess. In fact, he was almost completely incompetent. He reminds me a great deal of the current occupant of the White House: all gung-ho for war, and then incapable of doing the job correctly. Both were utterly incompetent war-time leaders.

2. The Schlieffen Plan worked big time in 1870, just like it did in 1940, and as it nearly did in 1914. You would have thought that the French would have learned something from that, but they certainly didn’t.

3. If the Civil War was the last Napoleonic war, the Franco-Prussian War, just five years later, was definitely the first truly modern war. Talk about an instance where technology made a huge difference….the guns manufactured by Krupp were a quantum leap in the artillery (the French were still using their smoothbore Napoleons), and they made all prior artillery obsolete. Just five years after the end of the Civil War, virtually all soldiers on both sides were armed with breech loading repeating rifles and not the muzzle loaders that were so prominent during the Civil War. The German General Staff also demonstrated, once and for all, that a modern staff system like the ones used today were far preferable to a single commander a la Henry W. Halleck. What’s particularly interesting about this is the quantum leap in technology that occurred in just five years from the end of the Civil War. That is, I think, what I find most striking about it.

4. The seizing of Alsace-Lorraine by the Germans made WWI inevitable. The French were bound and determined to get it back, no matter what. It also was a major bone of contention in the days leading up to the beginning of WWII. Once again, you would think that the French would have learned something over the years, but it’s also pretty obvious to me that they haven’t here, either.

5. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 is an example of what happens when the press fans the flames and events spiral out of control. The same phenomenon brought about the Spanish-American War of 1898, and also played a major role in the outbreak of World War I. This aspect fascinates me.

6. The defeat of the French was a direct trigger to the Paris Commune. This undoubtedly laid the seeds of Communism, and showed that Republicansim was the first stage of the process, i.e., Russia and China. The direct result of the Russian Empire being defeated in World War I was the rise of the Bolsheviks. Hence, it’s clear that the defeat of the French Republic had far-reaching consequences that went far beyond what was obvious at the time that the war was commenced. It seems to me that the present occupant of the White House could have learned a few important lessons from this before invading Iraq.

7. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are bound to repeat the same mistakes again and again. See item #1 above.

Scridb filter


  1. Bob
    Fri 10th Feb 2006 at 11:36 pm

    I generally really enjoy reading your blog, particularly to learn about people like Albert Morrow or the cavalry during the Pope/McClellan period, or any number of other interesting topics. And I’ve greatly enjoyed several of your books. I don’t much enjoy the detours into modern politics and the need to criticize a man who is certainly already overloaded with criticism enough already – but anyway it’s your blog of course. And I guess it would be missnamed if you didn’t actually use it to rant occasionally. Looking forward to more late 19th century insights…and hope your Blackberry is working for you. Just thought I’d post on this tonight. Keep up the good work.

  2. Fri 10th Feb 2006 at 11:52 pm


    Thanks for your kind words.

    Believe me, what I’ve said about Mr. Bush here is far, far more tame than what I really feel about him, and I’ve gone out of my way not to unduly impose my political views upon my readers. As you say, it’s my blog, and I’m entitled to rant once in a while.

    With that in mind, one point of modern politics–I have a difficult time feeling sorry for Mr. Bush when the vast majority of the current criticism is the result of his own actions. My mother taught me that when you make choices, you have to live with those consequences, no matter what they may be. Choosing to disobey the law also has its consequences.

    Enough of that. I haven’t gotten the Blackberry yet–although I’m confident that the case will settle, it hasn’t actually done so to date, and until it does, I’m not prepared to spend the money.

    Please do keep reading, even if it does mean periodically indulging my political rants.


  3. Stephen Graham
    Sat 11th Feb 2006 at 1:48 am

    If you haven’t already read them, there are two books I would highly recommend to someone interested in the Franco-Prussian War and the ACW:

    Dennis Showalter’s The Wars of German Unification, which covers the Danish War, the Seven Weeks War and the Franco-Prussian War, each with reasonable detail but with a good eye towards the development of the German Army.

    On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871, edited by Stig Forster and Jorg Nagler. This is a conference proceedings from the mid-90s. The articles on the American Civil War won’t break any new ground for you but the European and comparative material is well worth it.

  4. Sat 11th Feb 2006 at 11:02 am


    I’ve read the Showalter book and think it’s well done. I was not aware of the other book, but I will undertake to track down a copy. It sounds like the comparative material is well worth having. Thanks for the suggestions.


  5. Bob
    Sat 11th Feb 2006 at 8:25 pm

    On my some-time-in-the-future reading is the Crimean War. I’m interested in how the most recent Big Powers war impacted the ACW. I’m generally familiar with the Delafield Commission and McClellan’s study of the Russian Army (not sure why he focused on them so much) but am curious about the possible influences on the war. McClellan seemed to be trying a Sebastopol-like siege of Richmond. Also, I’m familiar with how Col. Lamb, in command at Fort Fisher, modeled his seacoast bastion on the Malakoff fort at Sebastopol. But I’ve never seen that there was a great deal of Crimean influence on the thinking of American officers generally, except perhaps in the naval realm. Do you have any deeper familiarity on this subject or can recommend any books on the Crimean War?

    Also, Eric, in your Sheridan study did you find that he brought back anything noteworthy to the US military from his observer status in the Franco-Prussian War (other than pickelhaubes)?

    By the way, you seem to be feel about the same about Pres. Bush as you do about that barbarian Sheridan.

  6. Sat 11th Feb 2006 at 8:33 pm


    I’ve done some reading on the Crimean War, but I have to admit that most of it was focused ont he Charge of the Light Brigade, of which I’ve read five or six books. The only full-length study of the war I’ve read is a recent (2004) book titled Clash of Empires, which is a pretty thorough study that I can recommend to you.

    I never addressed Sheridan’s observer status in the Franco-Prussian War in my book because the book was focused solely on Sheridan’s Civil War career.

    As for Bush and Sheridan, I think that Sheridan at least had some competence–he was, for instance, actually pretty good at commanding a combined arms operation. I wish I could say that there’s something that I find Bush to be competent at, but I have never yet come up with anything. I’ve met smarter and more eloquent cinder blocks. The cinder blocks are at least honest.


  7. ESRafuse
    Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 3:01 pm


    Another great post that contains a lot of really good points–historically. I am not touching your comments on current affairs.

    But, the Schlieffen Plan could not have worked “big time” in 1870; it was not conceived until decades after the victory of 1870-71. Moreover, the Schlieffen Plan was based on the premise that the French would make their main effort in a future war in Alsace-Lorraine (where the decisive battles of 1870 were fought) and sought to bypass this by going elsewhere, namely Belgium. And whether you considered the Schlieffen Plan to have “worked” depends on your standard for success. If it was the complete defeat of France in less than two months (as Schlieffen defined “worked”) this was simply impossible, for Schlieffen made ridiculous assumptions regarding the marching and fighting capacity of the German reservist, logistics, and how the enemy would react. Even taking the “inside track” east of Paris, rather than the much longer “outside track” proposed by Schlieffen, compelled the German First Army to march about 400 miles in 27 days in 1914, 11 of those days seeing battles.

    On the other hand, the German plan of 1914 did ensure that the Western Front would be on French and Belgian soil and that the richest of France’s provinces would be unavailable to the French war effort. The advantages this provided to the Germans were many. It forced the French to be on the offensive, for one, with all the consequences that brought in terms of blood. Moreover, using the trenches of the West as an economy of force measure, enabled the Germans to save the Austrians and ultimately knock Russia out of the war.

    And the French did learn from the Schlieffen Plan. Their war plan for 1940 was based on the assumption that the Germans would replay the Schlieffen Plan and go through Belgium. Had the Germans done so–as the initial Plan Yellow called for in late 1939–the French were prepared for this and may well have stopped them at some point in Belgium. Unfortunately for the French, the Germans did not replay the Schlieffen Plan, in part due to the fact that the French got their hands on documents that enabled them to discern the German plan. The Germans learned of this, which contributed to their changing their minds and deciding to make their main effort in 1940 through the Ardennes (the famous Sichelschnitt), which, thanks in part to great luck on the Meuse River, won the campaign of 1940.

    Still, the French must have gotten something right. Alsace-Lorraine now belongs to them and they, not the Germans, have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.


  8. Charles Bowery
    Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 3:19 pm

    I would recommend Jeffrey Wawro’s _The Franco-Prussian War_ if you have not already had the pleasure. It is an admirable piece of scholarship, and reads like a novel besides.

    Like Ethan Rafuse, I was forced by assignment to the Department of History at USMA to learn about 1870-71, but since reading Wawro’s book I’ve been hooked. The French held many of the cards- including an excellent rifle, a seasoned professional army, and strong defensive positions on their home turf. In many respects, the Prussians won in spite of their army- a mass conscript force that had a significant percentage of troops from satellite states who didn’t really want to be there. I believe you are correct to point out the ineptness of Napoleon III as one of the deciding factors.

    The town in Germany where I live, Bad Windsheim (near Nuremberg), has a Franco-Prussian War memorial, and because of Wawro’s descriptions of the Bavarians’ reluctance to charge into the face of French Chassepot fire, I chuckle every time I run or drive by it.
    Charles Bowery

  9. Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 3:20 pm

    One comparative study begging to be written is a cross-national study dealing with the political and social dynamic fault lines ripped open by the loss of a war. Eric’s point about France’s loss to Prussia in 1870 and Paris Commune is spot on; the fault lines of the Commune survived its destruction, arguably morphing into a French Communist-Fascist political binary (often evidenced by rampant anti-Semitism) that ran through the Dreyfuss trial, the political rot of the 1930s, which finally culminated in Vichy. Likewise, Germany’s loss of World War I also led to a Communist-Fascist binary that was ultimately resolved in favor of the latter and was likewise not resolved until 1945. Interestingly, the destabilization of the Soviet Union, in part brought on by the failure of Afghan War, also brought enormous change. It is quite possible that the U.S. failure in Vietnam provoked a domestic fault line (of course, not a Communist-Fascist binary) but an unprecedented “harder” left and “harder” right split that bedevils us through the present hour.

    Proof of the latter can be found in a quick survey of commentary about the current Iraq War. The Vietnam paradigm reigns supreme. One party argues that the effort is Vietnam redux–“quagmire,” “disaster,” puppet government, natives that won’t fight, and so forth–while the other party argues domino theory, world-wide threat matrix, conflict concentration “over there” to avoid having to wage it “over here,” and so forth.

    The American fault line have been going strong now for over 30 years. I wonder how, (if ever) it will be resolved?

  10. Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 3:28 pm


    As always, I appreciate your input. Thanks for correcting me about the Schlieffen Plan–I realize that Schlieffen himself could not have engineered the plan; rather, I meant that the concept itself worked. I recognize now that I could have been a lot more clear in how I said what I said.

    Of course, your point about the French is well-taken.

    I am, however, reminded of one of my favorite cartoons. It’s a picture of a stack of rifles with a sign over them that says: “French military rifles for sale. Never fired. Only dropped once.” 🙂

    Thanks for reading.


  11. Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 3:31 pm


    I read Wawro’s excellent book last year when I was recovering from shoulder surgery. As you say, it was a terrific read, and it spurred me to go on and then read a two-volume biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II.

    There was obviously a significant difference in the martial skills of Napoleon III and Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, the very competent Prussian army commander, and the father of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The contrast is pretty stark.

    Next time you go by the memorial, if you could get a digital photo of it, I would be happy to post it here. I’d be interested in seeing it.


  12. Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 3:33 pm


    What a great Ph.D. dissertation topic that would make….what a fascinating thesis. Perhaps someone will latch onto the idea.


  13. will keen
    Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 5:35 pm

    Has anyone read Michale Howard’s book on the Franco-Prussian War? I bought it becuase I think very highly of Howard’s writings on military history but I havent gotten around to reading it.

  14. Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 7:51 pm

    Yes, I’ve read Howard’s book–first rate, comprehensive and traditional narrative. It is the text I use for reference.

  15. Mon 13th Feb 2006 at 11:42 pm

    Thanks for the suggestions, Will and Richard. I just ordered a copy of Howard’s book.


  16. Stephen Graham
    Wed 15th Feb 2006 at 1:57 am

    Howard and Wawro are both good volumes. I slightly prefer Wawro but why doesn’t come to mind immediately. It might be, in part, because you can pair his FP volume with his Austro-Prussian volume for a deeper view of the period. Now if he’d just write companion volumes to cover 1859 and 1864….

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