Friday, 20 December 2013

The Franco-Prussian War - Geoffrey Wawro

In the course of exploring history, there are some areas which are comparatively poorly served, at least in the English language. On such is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71. I suspect that if this topic was put to the average "man in the street" in Britain, you would be confronted with a blank expression, as the conflict did not involve "us", and fell in between other episodes, such as the Crimean and Boer Wars, which had far less significant long-term global repercussions.

The war has always held a certain fascination for me, for a number of reasons.  It inhabited a kind of "twilight zone", between the Napoleonic and "revolutionary" period and the First World War, exhibiting characteristics of both. It has a kind of "mystique" for non-German and non-French observers, because it was a localized affair, with the other powers watching from the sidelines with a mixture of foreboding and bemusement. Also, its ultimate legacy and side-effects are remembered more than the war itself.

The import of the Franco-Prussian war has been at the forefront of my mind since reading Geoffrey Wawro's excellent book, which manages to cover the causes of the conflict, the military campaign itself, and the aftermath.  In addition to a comprehensive account of the fighting, Wawro comes up with thought-provoking and trenchant views on the central characters in the tragedy, and also on the implications of its outcome.

The book contains an excellent analysis of the background to the approach and outbreak of war, an intriguing feature being comparisons between Napoleon III and his illustrious uncle. This is an obvious line of inquiry to pursue, but Wawro looks at it from a few different angles, pointing out that Louis-Napoleon, whilst striving to complete the previous emperor's unfinished business, was also anxious to avoid the errors of the past. Clearly, Napoleon III also saw emulating the "glories" of the early 19th century as a means of securing his own salvation. Clearly, the worsening domestic political outlook solidified the "case" for war in the estimation of some....

The other pivotal character is Otto von Bismarck, someone who may not inspire affection to modern sensibilities, but whose shrewdness and focus do command grudging respect. There is much illuminating comment here about the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Can it even be argued that in moral and political terms, that conflict represented a greater hurdle on the path towards German unification than did the collision with France four years later? In order to unite Germany, Bismarck firstly required a united Prussia. The war with Austria helped to placate and bring together disparate elements in the kingdom.

From absorbing Wawro's account, my interpretation was that Bismarck brought Prussia to primacy "on the blind side", achieving these aims bit-by-bit, gradually bolstering power, resources and strategic advantage. Prussia's menace was underplayed by means of diplomatic sleight of hand. By the time that France realized what confronted it, it was too late to redress the balance. Berlin could also count on Napoleon III's desperation, such as territorial ambitions, to assist in binding together any wavering German states.

There is a look at the situation in Germany during the 1860s, with heavy hints that things were by no means as cohesive and united as might sometimes be assumed, with rebellious states and acrimony over integration and harmonization.

The book contains a concentrated and sharp analysis of the final crisis, on the Spanish Question, how gnawing pressures drove France on to seek Prussian humiliation, Bismarck knowing exactly which buttons to press, firstly to provoke France, and subsequently to make them look like the aggressors, unreasonable and excessive.

One theme which came through was the contrast in approach and mentality which the two sides showed. It seems that the initial French enthusiasm and zeal was not matched by practicality, planning and efficiency. Inertia and stagnation soon emerged. Many decisions about personnel may have been based on favouritism and paranoia rather than merit or necessity.  Reading about the morale, organization and readiness of France in 1870 reveals distinct similarities with the position commonly supposed to have existed on the eve of Germany's attack in 1940. Apathy, buck-passing, drift....

The differing attitudes within the respective armies are also revealed. Many French soldiers were questioning, insolent, cynical and inquisitive, whilst their Prussian counterparts were subservient, "loyal" and acquiescent. Modern eyes would see the French approach as admirable, courageous even, but was it ever going to suffice to overcome the Prussians?  An interesting sub-text is found in comments about the education systems of the combatant countries. Wawro asserts that both the Prussian officers and the "ordinary" soldiers were better educated than their French opposite numbers, citing this as contributing to the outcome. An interesting reflection, when considering the traditional view of the two systems; the hotbed of revolution viewed against a conservative militarist aristocracy....

The author draws attention to the focused professionalism of the Prussian army, in contrast to the French, who were beset by infighting, over-caution and then defeatism. The French appear to have squandered what advantages they had. The Prussians were prepared to gamble, and follow up and capitalize on openings.

One is also made aware of the stark difference between the chaos of the French hierarchy, and the comparatively calm, determined and measured stewardship of Moltke, Bismarck and the Hohenzollerns. In saying this, these pages partially dispel the widespread notion that the Prussians swept all before them in an unending sequence of decisive victories. It was more complicated and difficult than that. Over-zealous Prussian commanders had to be reined in, and there were setbacks, with heavy casualties incurred.

This work features some graphic and chilling descriptions of the carnage on the battlefield, and the damage inflicted on human bodies by artillery shellfire, and the other new and vicious implements which science and technology had placed at the disposal of the armies. Another step in the mechanization and industrialization of warfare. Even so, it was still an age when people displayed some sang-froid about casualties.

Whilst saying that the Franco-Prussian war was influenced by the march of industrial progress, it doesn't always come across that way when reading accounts of the campaign. Yes, strategic railways, modern rifles and machine-guns were involved, but many aspects were little changed from Napoleonic times, including the politics, the morality and the socio-economic landscape. The composition and organization remained a touch archaic and feudal.

Wawro includes some poignant anecdotes about the fate of individual servicemen, placing the spotlight on the cruelty and horror, jarringly set against the grandiose political backdrop, and the grand strategy. Utilization of quotes and diary extracts from the "rank and file" soldiers on both sides helps to convey this. It is easy to lose sight of the impact on the humble soldier or civilian, in an often impersonal and soulless "war of numbers". Some of the quotes from people on both sides are very interesting, not always conforming to stereotypical expectations, or slavishly endorsing their own country's "party line".  An example of this is the sympathy occasionally expressed by Prussians for the plight of French troops. The details of the French ordeal at Sedan are quite harrowing.

The closing stages and conclusion of the war are outlined in their full complexity. The plots to establish new dictatorships or monarchies, the great importance of Alsace and Lorraine, and the continuing brutality and chaos. The weariness of French civilians, and their revulsion at the pointless continuation of the fighting, amidst plunder and poverty, shines through.

When appraising the consequences of the war, and the peace settlement, it is interesting to note the impact which was felt in France and Germany. France became more modern and united. The war may have accomplished long-cherished ambitions and aspirations for Germans, but many of its results were baleful and unhealthy. It reinforced the grip of militarism, regressed some and constitutional reform, and engendered wider political tension, mistrust and antagonism.

I would imagine that there are more comprehensive and extensive books about the war than this one, but Wawro's work would be a fine starting point.

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