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

Nov 2010
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.
This is partly true. In terms of equipment, the French had a superior rifle and the early design of the machine-gun, a "secret" weapon so secret that very few units had been allowed to train with it.
The French mobilisation was partly a mess, with many soldiers talking days to reach their units, compared to the professionally executed German concentration plan, or compared to the mobilisation of the French army in 1914.

Yet there was another factor which hampered the French concentration of troops, compared to the Germans, something that Wawro does not mention in his book.
The Germans used five doubled rail lines to carry their troops to the border, so 10 trains running at a time, which meant that a whole Army Corps could be moved in just three days.
The French only had three single rail lines, so only 3 trains running at a time, which meant that it took them 2 weeks to move the same amount of troops...

There was also no real provision made for logistical needs whatsoever, which beggars belief indeed.
In late July, Napoléon III had to intervene personally to impose priority for the daily transportation of bread to troops by train.

-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.
Bazaine's terrible performance comes from a combination of systemic problem within the French army's organisation at the time and the French goals of war, which were mainly defensive to contain a much ambitious neighbour.

There was no unified command system, nobody knew who was in charge, on top of which you should add Napoleon III's inability to command due to his failing health, PLUS the tricks played in his back by his wife in Paris.
As there was no clear direction or communication among the French commanders, there was no possibility to plan any efficient tactic, let alone strategy.
Some commanders did well, such as Denfert-Rochereau or Chanzy, because they were left alone (forgotten even!) and their commanding capabilities weren't hampered by contradictory orders coming from different sources as was the case for most other commanders. Still, as they were virtually abandonned to their fate, their tactical successes were wasted.

As for the "the quality of the French Army at the time seems to comically low", this isn't quite accurate.
The episode of soldiers throwing their rifles away is not representative of the French army as a whole, it is merely an anecdote depicting the disastrous situation created by inept leadership and useless sacrifice after the series of defeats and retreats.
While first hand accounts do indeed mention this anecdote, and others of the same kind, one should be careful about cherry-picked anecdotes...
On a side note, it is worth mentioning that Wawro's translations of the first-hand accounts he used is often inaccurate or a bit "wonky", from what I have seen.

At the battle of St Privat, the French lost 12,000 men and the Germans 20,000 eventhough they had numeric superiority by 75,000. The Prussian Guard was virtually wiped out during the engagement.
At Mars-la-Tour, casualties amounted to almost 16,000 for the Germans and close to 14,000 for the French.
At Froeschwillers, casulaties were comparable for both belligerents, about 11,000.
At Borny-Colombey, casulaties amounted to more than 6,000 for the Germans and under 4,000 for the French.
Still all were French defeats or unexploited tactical successes.

The French army was composed of about 280.000 well-trained professional soldiers, facing about 500.000 Prussian soldiers at the beginning of the conflict.
Later the numbers grew to about 900.000 for the French, including about 120,000 reserve units, and 400.000 conscripts with no training/experience whatsoever, opposed to 1.2 million well organised Germans altogether.

The National Guard was mostly useless indeed, but those were not soldiers, and the operations in which they were involved had no chance of ever leading to a positive outcome anyway...

The French defeat of 1870 comes from a total failure of the political and military elites, exactly as in 1940, and for (not?) surprisingly similar reasons.
And Bourbaki was an appalling commander, everyone knew that, even at the time.

For a more comprehensive and thorough study of the Franco-Prussian war, may I suggest reading "La Guerre de 70" by François Roth ?çois-Roth/dp/2213023212
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Nov 2010
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.....
Well neither the British nor the Americans were involved so... ;)

On a more serious note,

I'd say the reason why this war does not draw much interest is that it's about the Second Empire, which is largely overlooked by historiography in general, even in France, and thus it has little visibility compared to other conflicts/periods.

What influenced the way this war was led has more to do with the conflicts in which the Second Empire had been involved previously.

The Italian wars had been huge successes yet had been totally unprepared and unplanned, during which improvisation and good fortune had played a huge part.
Napoléon III just hoped that this recipe would work again.

But I think you are right about the colonial aspect, in the sense that most French commanders had gained their fame and military experience during the colonial expansion, leading perhaps to overconfidence or the idea that the commanding structure and tactical theories experienced in Algeria could be replicated elsewhere...
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Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
Part of the paradox of the Franco-Prussian war was that after a decade of military engagements, successful ones, that was likely the war in history the French were the most convinced they could win in advance.

And as Frog said, what did it for the French were logistics and communications. Not technology, or tactics, and least of all moral.

The end and aftermath is also interesting, as it is one of the clearest examples of a victorious power NOT falling prey to the lure of overestimation of their own success, and subsequent overstretch.

The Prussians clearly did not find the French in any way comical or blundering. As von Moltke observed, when the Prussians exited France in 1871 there were still more French troops under arms ranged against them than there had been when they entered in 1870. What he was after was the fact that had the Prussians stuck around, to try to press some advantage, further capitalize on their victories, odds were very high that relative gains of continuing the war would have been wasted, with the Prussians getting bogged down.

A large part of the joint political-military successes of Bismarck and Moltke was the realisation of the advantage of wrapping things up quickly when they had achieved the limited objectives they were after.