Bismarck’s War: The Franco-Prussian War and the Making of Modern Europe 
by Rachel Chrastil.
Allen Lane, 485 pp., £30, June, 978 0 241 41919 9
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On​ 18 August 1870, French and German forces clashed along a six-mile arc between the hamlets of Gravelotte and St Privat, in a Lorraine landscape of open fields and low rolling hills. Four weeks into the Franco-Prussian War, it proved to be the deadliest battle of the conflict, prefiguring the butchery of 1914-18. After directing six hours of intense artillery fire from emplacements just north of Gravelotte, the Prussians swarmed the French positions at Moscow Farm and Point du Jour. According to one account, they found the defenders

fearfully torn and mutilated by the German shell; limbs and bodies were blown from thirty to fifty paces apart … some French were found burnt in their defensive positions, and a large number of the wounded showed marks of the flames which had destroyed both uniforms and limbs. All around there lay rifles and swords, knapsacks and cartridges, the remains of limbers which had been blown up, broken gun-carriages and wheels, and a large number of hideously torn and mangled horses.

But while the German guns were battering Moscow Farm and Point du Jour, the French infantry at St Privat had turned their chassepots – then the best infantry rifles in the world – on the thick columns of Prussian guards spreading out across the fields below and pushing up the slopes towards the French positions. In his classic account of the war, the historian Michael Howard described what happened next:

The field officers on their horses were the first casualties. The men on foot struggled forward against the chassepot fire as if into a hailstorm, shoulders hunched, heads bowed, directed only by the shouts of their leaders and the discordant noise of their regimental bugles and drums. All formation disintegrated: the men … inched their way forward up the bare glacis of the fields until they were within some six hundred yards of St Privat. There they stopped. No more urging could get the survivors forward … The casualty returns were to reveal over eight thousand officers and men killed and wounded, mostly within twenty minutes.

Gravelotte was the first set-piece battle of the war. The earlier clashes had been ‘encounter fights’ designed to probe enemy positions or sparked by accidental collisions. By contrast, Gravelotte involved a substantial part of the two field armies: 200,000 German troops with 730 guns faced 113,000 French troops with 520 guns, well-placed for the most part on high ground. So numerous were the dead that the memory of the battle survives in a proverbial French expression for heavy rain: ‘Ça tombe comme à Gravelotte.’ Yet it was not decisive. Neither side conceded defeat. At the cost of around twenty thousand killed, wounded or missing in action, the Prussians and their Hessian allies had driven the French back from their positions. The French sustained twelve thousand casualties (though this official figure is probably an underestimate), but managed an orderly withdrawal towards Metz, while the Prussians remained on the battlefield, burying their dead in massive open graves.

Only in retrospect did it become clear that Gravelotte was a turning point. It exposed the gross incompetence of the French commander, Marshal Achille Bazaine, who throughout the battle refused to dispense meaningful instructions to his subordinate commanders, showed little interest in conditions on the front line, and failed to make effective use of his reserves. It cut the largest French army off from the rest of France, forcing them back east to the fortress city of Metz, which turned out to be a trap, not a refuge. The Prussians besieged the city and it surrendered two months later.

The war dragged on until the armistice of 26 January 1871, but the French never regained the initiative. After a devastating defeat at the Battle of Sedan on 1 September 1870, Emperor Napoleon III surrendered and was taken prisoner with 104,000 troops. On 4 September, a popular uprising overthrew the Second Empire and established the Government of National Defence, which in turn morphed into the Third Republic. On 18 January 1871 – the anniversary of the coronation of the first Prussian king in 1701 – an extraordinary ceremony took place in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Surrounded by his fellow German monarchs and cheered by generals and officers of the German contingents, Wilhelm I of Prussia proclaimed a German Empire and was himself proclaimed German emperor. The Franco-Prussian War became the last of the three ‘Wars of German Unification’, the previous two being the Prussian victories against Denmark in 1864 (claiming Schleswig and Holstein) and Austria in 1866.

Rachel Chrastil’s book is the latest in a long sequence that includes three brilliant Anglophone studies: Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-71 (1961), Geoffrey Wawro’s The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-71 (2003) and Dennis Showalter’s The Wars of German Unification (2015). All of them foreground the predicamental character of military situations, their constant emergencies, and the contingency and pressure of decision-making. Howard, who took part in the Allied landings at Salerno in 1943 (receiving the Military Cross for his role in the capture of a small hill under close-range German machine-gun and grenade fire), brings readers as close as they will ever get to the experience of the combatants. Wawro provides a forensic analysis of command failure under conditions of high stress and information dearth. Showalter focuses on technological and logistical performance. All three, and Chrastil too, try to understand why the French lost.

Contemporaries did not see it as a foregone conclusion. The Prussian needle-gun had wrought destruction on the Austrians at Königgrätz in 1866, but was rendered obsolete by the chassepot, more accurate and with a much longer range. The fabled mitrailleuse, an early machine-gun (though French strategists thought of it as a bullet-firing cannon), struck terror into the Prussians whenever it came into play. So what went wrong? The established view, which Chrastil repeats, is that the French lacked a coherent campaign plan. The blundering first phase of mobilisation left 280,000 men scattered along a two-hundred-mile line. Napoleon III clung jealously to his power of command but proved phenomenally inept at wielding it – in this respect he really was a farcical parody of his famous uncle, as Marx suggested in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. His decision not to press ahead with an invasion of Germany, even though the fighting opened with a successful French attack on Saarbrücken, ‘effectively passed the initiative to the Prussians’. French logistics were another vulnerability. Supply trains arrived at Metz to support the armies there, but were unable to leave because they were blocked by incoming troop transports. Railroad despatchers solved the problem by dumping them in sidings with no unloading facilities; they sat there while troops went hungry. When the Germans took Metz in October 1870, they captured sixteen thousand freight cars full of supplies.

Napoleon III’s chaotic interventions prevented a clear French chain of command from emerging, and operational cohesion was further undermined by squabbling and rivalry among his generals. Both French and Prussian units blundered into fights they hadn’t anticipated, but the two sides tended to behave differently when this happened. ‘The Prussians,’ Chrastil writes, ‘were willing to engage without knowing whether they had seized upon an army or a regiment. They were willing to see what happened and to trust that their soldiers would run to the sound of guns.’ The worst Prussian errors tended to follow from the aggressive impetuosity of junior commanders, the worst French ones from inertia and passivity. The crucial difference was at the top: there was no one on the French side with the authority and strategic overview of Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian General Staff. Moltke’s mastery of the flanking attack – understood not as a tactic but as an all-embracing operational principle – and his aggressive forward deployment of the Prussian field guns, a lesson learned from the failures of the Prussian artillery in 1866, enabled him to minimise the effectiveness of French long-range weaponry. ‘If [the French armies] had been under a Moltke instead of under Napoleon III and then MacMahon,’ Chrastil remarks, ‘they might have done all right.’

Chrastil has already written a fine study of the siege of Strasbourg in 1870, and here too she is most interested in the war’s impact on civilians. In France, the experience of warfare and occupation varied from region to region. Among the first to be uprooted by the war were the German foreign nationals expelled from the département of the Seine on 28 August 1870. Some forty thousand people left the capital, including the very numerous Hessian street sweepers, who were familiar Parisian figures. Most French observers, Chrastil notes, perceived the invading Germans as ‘disciplined and serious’. They had good supply systems and staffing, and this ‘lessened their desperation when seeking requisitions’. However, in areas where the German lines were stretched and supplies low, civil-military relations came under strain. The Germans demanded ‘firewood, bread, meat, fat, coffee, tobacco and alcohol, as well as oats, hay and straw for the horses’. A soldier called Rindfleisch described the worsening behaviour that followed:

At first we were forbidden, with the severest penalties, to burn vine-posts in bivouacs, and woe to him who used unthreshed corn for his palliasse! Childlike innocence! Now no one asks whether you are using garden fences or the doors of houses or wagons for fuel, and only scrupulous idealists like ourselves care whether a hurriedly abandoned fire will catch the straw nearby and then one’s host’s roof; no Frenchman can any longer lay claim to property or means of livelihood.

The French deployment of francs-tireurs, or guerrilla formations, created further difficulties. The French Government of National Defence authorised the creation of three hundred such units involving some 57,600 men, often with improvised uniforms or no uniforms at all. They were particularly effective on the margins of the German-controlled area, in the Vosges mountains and along the further reaches of the Oise and the Seine, where irregulars stood a better chance of surprising and overwhelming small units and stragglers. Chrastil is good on the tensions that sometimes arose between franc-tireur units seeking to mount wildcat attacks and municipal governments tasked with preventing reprisals. Often it was unclear who had the authority to decide whether a specific town or village should be defended against the oncoming Germans – the municipal authorities, the French army command or partisan units. About a thousand German soldiers were killed by these irregular formations and Moltke was ultimately obliged to deploy 105,000 troops to protect supplies and communication lines. The vengeful hatred of the franc-tireur became a force in its own right, resurfacing with murderous effect after the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.

The Franco-Prussian War broke out at a time of increasing interest in the humanitarian implications of armed conflict. The International Red Cross had been founded in Geneva in 1863, and this was the first war between signatories to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which committed belligerents to impartial treatment of the wounded of both sides, respect for the inviolability of medical personnel and hospitals, and recognition of the Red Cross symbol as identifying persons and equipment. Even if the convention was honoured more in the breach, the war of 1870 witnessed an unprecedented international humanitarian effort; by its end, the Red Cross had treated at least 110,000 soldiers in hospitals across France. Humanitarian aid provided a new and highly visible arena for women volunteers, but, as Chrastil writes, it also ‘mobilised new understandings and tools … Humanitarian intervention reimagined the relationship between oneself and the rest of the world. Those with means now felt the need to act. Humanitarians believed the world could be a better place, a more civilised place, and that they could actively help make it happen.’ The curious intertwining of humanitarianism and war has been a feature of our world ever since.

The most vivid chapter of the book chronicles the horrors that awaited those who fell into the hands of the military medical services. Particularly challenging were the effects of artillery rounds on the bodies of servicemen. Chrastil cites François Poncet, director of the Strasbourg Military Health Service School:

A man hit by a voluminous burst, having his two legs blown off or crushed, falls struck down, annihilated … His face has a mortal pallor, his features are contracted, immobile, his eyes closed or haggard, fixed, sickly; saliva stains [his] beard … His chest is cold, or covered with a viscous sweat (as are the temples). The extremities are … insensible and cold. The pulse is light, slow, spindly … It is the image of agony or death.

In the field of military medicine, as in so many other areas, there were sharp contrasts between the two sides. The Germans had a larger and better organised medical corps, meaning that they were under less pressure to save lives by amputating injured limbs. Following Joseph Lister, German surgeons, unlike their French colleagues, used carbolic acid spray to sterilise their tools and operating areas. French surgeons did insist on ‘hygiene’, but by this they meant the provision of adequate bedding and the maintenance of medical supplies, not sterilisation. Death rates for amputations on the French side reached 75 per cent (including toes and fingers) – a shocking figure, given that by 1870 the use of Lister’s techniques in peacetime amputations had resulted in a drop from 50 per cent to 15 per cent. The Prussians were also more systematic in their policy of compulsory vaccination against smallpox. Only 278 German soldiers died of the disease; for French servicemen, whose vaccination was less consistent, the figure was 1963. These were military vaccination schemes: civilian populations remained unprotected and the arrival of French prisoners of war in German towns sometimes triggered smallpox outbreaks.

Surprisingly,​ Chrastil’s book has little to say about the Paris Commune, a revolutionary uprising fuelled by resentment at the French government’s conduct of the war, which lasted from 18 March until 28 May 1871. In an important recent study of the Commune, Quentin Deluermoz argued for its global character, as a manifestation of revolutionary republican tumult stretching from Martinique to Algiers, and a moment of political rupture that shaped the radical left for generations. This colonial-imperial nexus is in evidence everywhere in the Franco-Prussian War: not just in the chain of Algerian ‘communal’ revolts which preceded the uprising in Paris, but also in the biographies of the principal French commanders. Louis Faidherbe, appointed commander-in-chief of the Army of the North in December 1870, had spent his career in Algeria, Guadeloupe and Senegal, where he was an enthusiast for the creation of a French African empire reaching from Senegal to the Red Sea. Emmanuel de Wimpffen, commander of the Fifth Army Corps, who led the assault on the Prussian armies at Sedan, had served in Algeria and was governor of Oran when he was summoned to his new post. Marshal Bazaine, whose torpor and incompetence during the war’s opening phase were among the weightiest factors in the French defeat, had served with distinction in Algeria and Mexico: a contemporary critic denounced his ‘thoroughly Arab fatalism’.

Might these affiliations, typical of the French command structure, explain the low levels of cohesion among commanders used to acting on their own initiative in remote colonial locations? While Chrastil notes the tendency of French rearguard cavalry to stay close to the infantry – a practice which made sense for campaigns in Africa, but prevented them from acquiring useful intelligence about the enemy – she abstains from drawing broader inferences. Did long experience of asymmetrical warfare dim awareness among some French commanders of the challenges posed by an equally capable enemy? These remain interesting lines of inquiry.

The geopolitical impact of the Prussian-German victory was profound. For centuries, the German centre of Europe had been politically fragmented and weak. The continent had been dominated by the states on its periphery, whose interest was in maintaining the power vacuum at the centre. Now, for the first time, the centre was united and strong. Relations among the European states would henceforth be driven by a new and unfamiliar dynamic. Benjamin Disraeli makes no appearance in Chrastil’s book, but he saw the problem more clearly than most: ‘This war represents the German Revolution, a greater political event than the French,’ he declared in the House of Commons on 9 February 1871. There was not a single diplomatic tradition, he added, that hadn’t been swept away.

Disraeli’s perceptiveness was only gradually vindicated. The Franco-Prussian War destroyed the Anglo-French commitment to the settlement imposed on Russia after the Crimean War of 1853-56. Under the terms laid down by Britain and France in the Treaty of Paris, the waters of the Black Sea had been ‘formally and in perpetuity interdicted’ to the warships of Russia or any other power. The aim was to prevent Russia from threatening the Eastern Mediterranean or disrupting the British land and sea routes to India. But the political foundations of the treaty were destroyed by the defeat of France in 1871. The new French Republic renounced its support for the Crimean settlement and Russia pressed ahead with the construction of fortified harbour facilities and a Black Sea battlefleet. It seemed that a new era of Russian expansionism might be dawning, and it was this prospect that captured Disraeli’s attention. ‘The balance of power has been entirely destroyed, and the country which … feels the effects of this great change most is England.’

The war also placed the relationship between Germany and France on an entirely new footing. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine – strongly advocated by Bismarck – traumatised the French political elite and imposed a lasting burden on Franco-German relations. Alsace-Lorraine became the holy grail of the French cult of revanche, providing the focus for successive waves of nationalist agitation. But even without the annexation, the existence of the new German Empire would have transformed the relationship with France. After 1871, France was bound to seek every possible opportunity to contain the new power on its eastern border by means of an alliance of some kind with Russia. A lasting enmity between France and Germany – despite intermittent efforts on both sides to achieve a rapprochement – was built into the European international system.

The historical importance of this conflict is not in doubt, but its footprint in Franco-German popular memory is light, to say the least. For the French, there is little to celebrate in the bitter defeat that destroyed the Second Empire, or in the annexation that followed. For the Germans, this bloody victory over a neighbour is now an embarrassment and the empire created in 1871 lies under a cloud of critical historical introspection. It was not until 2014 that a Museum of the Franco-Prussian War and the Annexation – the first in either country – opened at Gravelotte. Perched like an alien spacecraft in the nondescript landscape of Lorraine, this wonderful trilingual institution (all texts are in French, German and English) combines a magnificent architectural structure with a stunning collection of exhibits and a design that blends linear narrative and analysis with a highly effective use of imagery, ephemera, animation and experiential space. Unfortunately, the region’s current political leadership is sceptical and unsupportive: the museum has struggled to retain its share of regional funding and now operates with a skeleton staff and reduced opening hours. The founders, whose academic advisers included many of the leading historians of the conflict, had hoped that the museum would serve as a hub for historical research and a prompt for deepening regional interest – on both sides of the border – in the Franco-Prussian War. That hope has yet to be realised.

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