The Franco-Prussian War - Masterful Prussians or Comically Blundering French?

May 2018
442
Michigan
#1
I was recently re-reading Geoffrey Wawro's The Franco-Prussian War. Wawro provides a fairly well-rounded account of the conflict, pointing out some serious Prussian mistakes (Particularly those of Karl Frederick von Steinmetz, who twice nearly fucked Moltke's plans).

-Was the conflict a masterful Prussian victory or a cautionary tale of French incompetence? Probably a bit of both: the French "defensive tactics" allowed them to be flanked and encircled by highly maneuverable German platoons. Although the Chassepot was vastly superior to the Needle Gun, Wawro makes the case that Prussia's vastly superior breech-loading Krupp artillery more than made up for the deficiency in small arms. Institutionally, the Prussians were simply superior to the French: the Prussians had an organized mobilization while the French were scrambling to get troops from depots to the front lines.

-Bazaines's bizarrely horrible performance in the war. Bazaine, an experienced French general with numerous victories to his credit, couldn't seem to get his **** together. Further, the quality of the French Army at the time seems to comically low (soldiers casually throwing away their rifles because they were "too heavy" for the march) it almost defies belief. Further performance by MacMahon and Bourbaki also defies belief, and as poorly-disciplined as the regular French Army was, the French National Guard was even worse.

When one thinks of "Victorian Era Military Incompetence", imagines of Lord Cardigan at Balaclava or Chelmsford at Isandlwana (the British lost while being outnumbered 20 to 1) usually come to mind. Ironically, both of these disasters happened in wars that the British won, and even Lord Chelmsford redeemed his reputation at Ulundi. I think the most egregious display of military incompetence comes from the French Army of 1870-1871, and the military performance of France and its generals in the Franco-Prussian War should be the premiere examples of "Victorian Military Blunders." The scenes described by Wawro (taken from first-person sources) of French ineptitude seem to be from an episode of Family Guy or the film Stripes, not the army of a Great Power.
 
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Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
6,865
#2
It was both. The Germans were good in many areas, but in was French failures that led to the Germans solid victory. Better performance by the French might have led to more of a stalemate, and better term for France.
 
Oct 2015
686
Virginia
#4
The speed and completeness of the German victory was due to the General Staff system and von Moltke. The Prussian General Staff was a revolution in command and control that made possible the mobilization, deployment, maneuver, coordination and supply of massive armies approaching 1,000,000 men. All continental armies (and Japan) rushed to copy it after the war.
 
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Nemowork

Ad Honorem
Jan 2011
8,213
South of the barcodes
#5
What the two are mutually exclusive?

Also you have to remember that while the French might have been the least effective some of the Prussian leadership was quite capable of mixing brutally direct tactics with an incompetent disregard for casualty levels. Its the same sort of idea that Prussian pride in the General staff allowed them to confuse discipline with overarching sclerotic incompetence when they went into WW1.
 
Apr 2017
614
Lemuria
#6
The French had the better infantry as usual but outdated artillery and artillery tactics. They addressed the problem in WW1. Historically, a longer war favours the French while the German a shorter war.
 
Apr 2014
297
Istanbul Turkey
#7
What the two are mutually exclusive?

Also you have to remember that while the French might have been the least effective some of the Prussian leadership was quite capable of mixing brutally direct tactics with an incompetent disregard for casualty levels. Its the same sort of idea that Prussian pride in the General staff allowed them to confuse discipline with overarching sclerotic incompetence when they went into WW1.
That is right. They are mutually exclusive. French overconfidence is due to diplomatic blunders of Napoleon III who was outmaneuvered by Bismark. As a result Napoleon III declared war on time and choosing of Bismark when it most suited Bismark and when France had no allies and Prussia was pulling up all Germanic states at his side (that was Bismark's main objective after all). On strategy Germans were ahead due to Bismark but Napoleon was also lacking capabilities dealing with him. On top of that most French officer corps were still living in past when Napoleon I crushed Prussia. Someone should have reminded them 65 years passed after that.

On top of that Prussian and overall German mobilization was planned ahead and most effectively executed on schedule thanks to Moltke's planning , staff system and use of railways and telegraph (two new communication technologies) While France although having a much larger body of men and conscripts on paper , could never match Prussian speed due chaos of their war ministry. (they had no peacetime General Staff unlike Prussians. "In every country a state has an army , in Prussia the army has a state") So in short term campaign strategy and organisation (which they confused with overall strategy during incoming world wars afterwards) , real factors of Prussian victory lies. Once they brought a larger body of men and guns faster on the frontiers before French were ready , they caught Napoleon III and all of his marshals in complate suprise and after that neither Moltke nor field commanders like Crown Prince let initiate slip from their hands.

I do not think actual tactics or presence of better weapons played a more important role. As Nemowork said a lot Prussian commanders were capable of charging the enemy regardless of cost according to "vorweeertz" adage and suffering heavy casaulties. A lot of Prussian maneuvers in frontiers at Metz or Sedan were also , pointlesss in vain , units were going here and there without any aim. But French mistakes in tactics and operational sense were more severe. Disunity and discoordination and inability to cooperate among each other and Napoleon III's lack of overall supervision and inability to provide an overall command , doomed French generals one by one. They had a better infantry firepower (including mitrailuses or first crude machine guns) but unfortunetely Prussian artillery both in technology and tactics was way better and French severely underestimated that too. Fortune on battlefield is usually at the side of bigger guns and uncle of Napoleon III said that.
 
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May 2018
442
Michigan
#9
That is right. They are mutually exclusive. French overconfidence is due to diplomatic blunders of Napoleon III who was outmaneuvered by Bismark. As a result Napoleon III declared war on time and choosing of Bismark when it most suited Bismark and when France had no allies and Prussia was pulling up all Germanic states at his side (that was Bismark's main objective after all). On strategy Germans were ahead due to Bismark but Napoleon was also lacking capabilities dealing with him. On top of that most French officer corps were still living in past when Napoleon I crushed Prussia. Someone should have reminded them 65 years passed after that.

On top of that Prussian and overall German mobilization was planned ahead and most effectively executed on schedule thanks to Moltke's planning , staff system and use of railways and telegraph (two new communication technologies) While France although having a much larger body of men and conscripts on paper , could never match Prussian speed due chaos of their war ministry. (they had no peacetime General Staff unlike Prussians. "In every country a state has an army , in Prussia the army has a state") So in short term campaign strategy and organisation (which they confused with overall strategy during incoming world wars afterwards) , real factors of Prussian victory lies. Once they brought a larger body of men and guns faster on the frontiers before French were ready , they caught Napoleon III and all of his marshals in complate suprise and after that neither Moltke nor field commanders like Crown Prince let initiate slip from their hands.

I do not think actual tactics or presence of better weapons played a more important role. As Nemowork said a lot Prussian commanders were capable of charging the enemy regardless of cost according to "vorweeertz" adage and suffering heavy casaulties. A lot of Prussian maneuvers in frontiers at Metz or Sedan were also , pointlesss in vain , units were going here and there without any aim. But French mistakes in tactics and operational sense were more severe. Disunity and discoordination and inability to cooperate among each other and Napoleon III's lack of overall supervision and inability to provide an overall command , doomed French generals one by one. They had a better infantry firepower (including mitrailuses or first crude machine guns) but unfortunetely Prussian artillery both in technology and tactics was way better and French severely underestimated that too. Fortune on battlefield is usually at the side of bigger guns and uncle of Napoleon III said that.
After reading some of the works of Moltke (https://www.amazon.com/Moltke-Art-W...ie=UTF8&qid=1545553000&sr=8-1&keywords=moltke), I could agree. While Moltke the Elder is certainly among the "Great Generals of History" such as Scipio, Caesar and Wellington, many of his subordinates (such as Steinmetz), were not.

Moltke and the General Staff essentially turned what was an "art" (ie: the "Art of War") into a science: a cold methodology for victory. Imagine if the recipe or formula for a great painting or symphony could be deciphered into necessary ingredients, and suddenly painting goes from "art" to "science." The success of Moltke's system is difficult to overstate: even in the face of severe screw-ups (such as Steinmetz at Gravelotte), the Prussians were still successful (albeit with the help of a large does of French incompetence).

However, I don't believe that "Prussian genius" and "French stupidity" are mutually exclusive, they were both very much the case during the Franco-Prussian War. Imagine if Arthur Wellesley with his Peninsular Army was facing a rank-incompetent commander leading demoralized, poorly-trained troops: Wellesley and his Peninsular Army would obvious "own" in such a situation.
 

tomar

Ad Honoris
Jan 2011
12,538
#10
I wonder how colonial expansion of France (and thus being used to facing insurgencies and poorly equipped and organized armies) influenced this , if at all ?

In general this war for some reason does not seem to draw much interest.....
 

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