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Reader's Companion to Military History

Franco-Prussian War

1870-1871

The first war fought by a united Germany and the last by an imperial France, the Franco-Prussian War created the European order that would last until World War I; drastically altered the way most states raised, trained, and equipped their armies; and was largely responsible for the spread of an ideal of military professionalism that is still very much in evidence around the world. Ostensibly fought over the issue of whether the German prince Leopold von Hohenzollern would be permitted to accept the vacant throne of Spain, the Franco-Prussian War was really a dispute about German unification.

Led by the brilliant Helmuth Karl von Moltke, the fast-moving Germans managed, within seven weeks of starting to mobilize their armies (July 16, 1870), to force the personal capitulation of Emperor Napoleon III as well as the surrender of the bulk of the French forces in the field at the first Battle of Sedan (September 2, 1870). In this short campaign, soldiers on both sides displayed similar degrees of courage and self-sacrifice. However, French efforts were marred by indecision at the highest levels, failure to concentrate forces, mutual jealousy among corps commanders, and gross inefficiency in the fields of transport and supply. The German armies, on the other hand, benefited from rapid and efficient mobilization, a faultless railroad deployment, and a spirit of cooperation that caused commanders at all levels to take bold measures in the service of common purposes.

Although the loss of the main French army caused the demise of the Second Empire, it did not end the war, for the newly created Third Republic decided to continue fighting. The second phase of the war consisted largely of a German siege of Paris, the beating back of French attempts to relieve the capital, the taking of a number of French fortresses (such as Metz and Strasbourg), and considerable activity on the part of francs tireurs (French guerrillas) behind German lines. The fighting between the Germans and the French ended with the surrender of Paris on January 28, 1871. A few weeks later a long-feared revolt erupted in the French capital—the Paris Commune—and the Franco-Prussian War gave way to a short but bloody French civil war.

The lesson drawn by most governments from the Franco-Prussian War was the efficacy of the German way of warfare. As a result, most of the world's armies began to imitate, with varying degrees of success, German uniforms, equipment, administration, military literature, organization, and training. This enthusiasm for methods that promised swift and decisive victory was so great, in fact, that most observers forgot that the initial German victory, though swift, had been far from decisive and that the French Republic was only brought to terms because it was less afraid of the Germans outside the gates of Paris than of the revolutionaries within.

Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War (1989); Dennis E. Showalter, Railroads and Rifles (1975).



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