Franco-Prussian War: A Prelude to Armageddon

The military effects of this short, decisive war at the tail end of the 19th century set the stage for the Great War and the horrors that followed

Grant Piper
May 28 · 9 min read

TThe horrors of World War One are well recounted and well documented. A horrible combination of outdated tactics and deadly new technology led to an unprecedented slaughter that no one had predicted. The familiarity of modern people with World War One is mirrored by the unfamiliarity with the events of the Franco-Prussian War. The latter, by all accounts, laid the groundwork for the slaughter to come by reforging war doctrine, tactics, and technology.

It is a strange twist of history that the dress rehearsal for the Great War would be so short and decisive when the following conflict would be precisely the opposite. Many of the factors that caused the Great War to be so horrific were direct results of things that happened during the war in 1870 between the North German Federation and the Second French Empire.

Quick Overview

The scope of this war was extremely large, with hundreds of thousands of men being mobilized on both sides of the conflict. Total deployment was around 1.5 million people on both sides with active armies in the field, nearing 1 million fighting men, each. These numbers had not been seen in Europe since the height of the Napoleonic Wars and foreshadowed the mass mobilization that was to come in the following world wars.

Dates: July 19th, 1870 — January 28th, 1871

Total casualties: 900,927 (~144,000 Germans | ~757,000 French)

Killed or wounded: 416,303 (~135,000 Germans | ~280,000 French)

Result: Prussian victory leads to the formation of the German Empire and the dissolution of the Second French Empire

Many observers at the time focused on the rapid success that the Germans had over the French rather than the rapid number of casualties that were accumulated. While the war was swift, lasting about six months in total, the number of battle casualties was also swift. Nearly half a million men were killed or wounded in those short months with hundreds of thousands more who were captured, deserted, or died from disease.

The Prussian armies were brutally efficient, used modern technology to bolster their strength, utilized the newly constructed railroad system to move supplies and troops, utilized modern artillery pieces to support infantry advances, and showed a willingness to throw well-armed conscripts into bloody battles in pursuit of victory. All of these things would return to the battlefield in 1914 on a much grander scale.

The French armies were ill-organized and ill-prepared for such a ferocious and modern attack. Their equipment was outdated, and so were their tactics. France also moved into war alone, without support from any local powers or international allies. These were all things that they would amend before World War One, setting the stage for the greatest conflict ever to arise until that point.

France Goes It Alone

Period depiction of the French taking Strasbourg early in the war (Library of Congress)

One of the biggest distinctions between the Franco-Prussian War and World War One is the lack of allies on both sides of the war. The Prussians formed the North German Alliance, a conglomeration of German states at the time that were united militarily under Prussian military leadership. While this was an alliance of sorts, it did not include any outside nations other than Germans.

Due to a series of events in the 1860s, the French were hard pressed to find any allies that had a stomach to face the Germans militarily at the time. The French sought help among the British and Russians but found no overt support. This was partly because of the diplomatic efforts of the Germans as well as recent military events on the continent.

The Russians had just come out of a bloody conflict in the Crimean War in which they had suffered a lot of casualties, the British were primarily focused on expanding and controlling their overseas empire, and the Austrians and Danish had recently suffered decisive defeats at the hand of the Prussians and did not want to suffer more losses to their powerful neighbors.

The result was a conflict that saw two large nation states going at it alone. This one-on-one conflict between large, populous, and highly industrious nations led to a rapid realization in Europe that in the future, to win this new kind of war, a state would have to have allies to outnumber the opponent in order to secure a more sure victory.

In the years directly following the Franco-Prussian War, the nations of Europe begin to forge the system of entangling alliances that would drag the entire world to war a few decades later.

Having buckled under a single frontal assault from the German armies in 1870, the French immediately try to form an alliance with the Russian Empire, hoping that faced with two powers on either side, the Germans would be warier about war in the future.

As a result, despite historically being opposed, the new German Empire forges a powerful bond between themselves and the Austro-Hungarian Empire to maintain the balance of power. This alliance would form the backbone of the Central Powers and be officially formed in 1879, less than a decade after the Franco-Prussian War.

The French would create an official alliance with the Russian Empire in 1894 that would last until the Russian Empire dissolves during the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Not wanting to be outdone on either side, more and more European countries great and small begin to sign onto these alliances either publicly or in secret. But none of this would have happened if not for the ally-less fighting that took place in 1870 between the Germans and the French.

Modern Tactics vs. Old World Pomp

French emperor Napoleon III surrenders after losing to the Prussians (Library of Congress)

One of the reasons that the French folded so quickly was due to the fact that Prussia had quietly been modernizing it’s military but not just in terms of technology. They had been taking notes from the recent military conflicts, including the Crimean War and the American Civil War, and were rapidly incorporating the best of what they were finding into their military strategy.

The new tactics being incorporated were revolutionary and rapidly outmatched the Old World thinking of the French forces. The Prussians used a heavy emphasis on attack, using small squads moving to achieve individual missions rather than being part of one large body of troops. The military doctrine at the time, while changing slowly, was still the old way of large infantry lines, supported by cannon batteries and flanking cavalry charges. In contrast, the Prussians broke down their armies into smaller groups, which were given broad objectives but no specific orders on how to achieve them.

The Prussians also used modern artillery in an offensive capacity to support the advance of the infantry, something that was also relatively new to warfare at the time. Combined with the Germans’ use of rail to move people and supplies around rapidly, this new way of fighting quickly outstripped the old way of fighting in spectacular and bloody fashion.

While Napoleon III was famous (or infamous depending on your perspective) for trying to rebuild and relive the glory days of his uncle Napoleon I, he was not caught completely still. Napoleon III had introduced a precursor to the machine gun to try and stop the fast moving German infantry, and he had a grand plan to mobilize millions of people to the front. The problem was neither of these things was fully realized at the time and were introduced alongside dated flamboyant officer uniforms and heavy use of ill-trained militia to bolster official troop numbers. The German innovations had been better studied and prepared for ahead of time and thus were more effective in this conflict.

The French would refine their advances that were just being brought about in 1870 in World War One with greater use of machine gun nests, artillery, and mass mobilization of the nation. At the time, the rapid and fluid movement of the German armies, combined with their modern and effective artillery, defeated the French army that was very much in a transition period at the time.

Overall Effects on Military Thinking

The Franco-Prussian War cemented the doctrine of mass artillery which is later seen in WWI. (LoC)

The lessons of the Franco-Prussian War led to the horrors of the Western Front. At the outbreak of war in 1914, many analysts thought that the war would be over quickly, often citing the results of the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War. Modern war was fast, bloody, and decisive, and a war between so many great powers could only continue to be those things. They were terribly wrong.

Everyone had seen the effective use of artillery and continued use of cavalry in the Franco-Prussian War, and both things were seen in extreme numbers during subsequent wars.

As a result of the speed in which Paris fell in 1870, the French spent the ensuing decades digging an elaborate series of trenches and artillery batteries along their border with Germany. In the War of 1870, the French were primarily defensively minded while the Germans were very much offensively minded, a trend which continues into World War One, but now the technology has caught up with both.

The Germans did immediately press the French via Belgium and were quickly caught up in this new kind of war that they had helped develop. The ranges of guns were much farther, the machine gun had come into its own, and everyone had perfected their own brand of artillery to great effect. The French were no longer ill organized, technologically lagging behind the Germans despite being at an industrial and population disadvantage. Many people on both sides of the French-German front thought that World War One could only end the same way that the previous war had.

The biggest takeaways from the Franco-Prussian War were the effective use of artillery, which evolved into a system of indirect fire and massive use of shells to support infantry advances. Following the French’s early plans and the Prussian execution of deployment, a system of mass mobilization of people using railroads was put into use. Lastly, the use of mass rifle-equipped infantry was still the king. While the old way of line fire and mass grouping had been dissipating at the end of the 19th century, rifle wielding armies only grew larger in the run-up to WWI.

A Turning Point

On paper, it is easy to overlook the Franco-Prussian War as a short conflict between two powers that no longer exist, but the military influence is greatly outsized. The history and politics behind the war are more complicated involving the independent German states, a claim to the Spanish throne, an emperor living in the past, and a steely eyed goal of the Prussian elite to create a unified German state. Despite the rich history that laid the groundwork for this conflict, it is largely forgotten, but its effects are felt very powerfully in WWI.

Many people said the US Civil War was “the last of the old wars, and the first of the new wars” in terms of military strategy and tech. If that is the case, then the Franco-Prussian War is definitely the first fully modern war. In terms of tactics, technology, mobilization, and mentality, it is the first war to fully combine the nation state, modern industrial economy, and massive conscription.

The Franco-Prussian war’s effect on WWI cannot be overstated, and WWI’s effect on WWII can also not be overstated. The Prussians learned from the Americans by taking notes on their civil war. It is all connected. The full picture of the emergence of modern warfare cannot be painted without the inclusion of a six-month blitz in the east of France in 1870.

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Grant Piper

Written by

Everything is a story, if you know how to tell it. Sharing stories of history, politics and religion.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

Grant Piper

Written by

Everything is a story, if you know how to tell it. Sharing stories of history, politics and religion.

History of Yesterday

From the times that the pyramids were raised to the end of the cold war in this publication you will find it all. This is a publication that has been created to tell the stories of forgotten battles and fortunes that have crafted the world that we live in today.

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