The Franco-Prussian War

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Often overlooked by history, the Franco-Prussian War had a profound impact on France, Germany, and Europe.

The Battle of Gravelotte-St-Privat, during the Franco-Prussian War.
The Battle of Gravelotte-St-Privat, during the Franco-Prussian War.

The Franco-Prussian War overturned the balance of power in Europe. That balance, stable since the defeat of Napoleonic France in 1814-15, had depended on a rough equivalence among five European great powers: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, and Russia.

It helped, too, that all five powers were preoccupied: the British and the French were building overseas empires; the Russian Tsar was expanding into Central Asia; the Austrian Habsburgs were sinking in a cauldron of national tensions; while the Prussians had the opposite problem, that the Germans were fragmented into petty states.

Between 1864 and 1871, this situation was transformed by the enforced ‘solution’ of the national question in Germany – the Prussian-dominated unification of the country by Bismarckian ‘blood and iron’. The Danish-Prussian, Austro-Prussian, and Franco-Prussian Wars had the intended effect of generating a tidal wave of German nationalist sentiment that overwhelmed the petty-potentates of the minor German states and compelled them to unite with Prussia. The Prussian King became the German Emperor in January 1871.

Prussia had absorbed Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, Nassau, Hesse-Homburg, Hesse-Cassel, and Frankfurt. All the remaining states north of the Main had been forced into a Prussian-dominated North German Confederation. Prussia had acquired the equivalent of three additional army corps. Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Darmstadt were the only German states to retain full sovereignty.

It was clear that a Franco-Prussian conflict was now only a matter of time: a successful outcome could be expected to cement Germany into a modern nation-state.

French reservists answer the call-up at the outbreak of the war.
French reservists answer the call-up at the outbreak of the war.

Tension increased as Napoleon III’s attempts to follow up Bismarck’s deliberately vague hints about territorial concessions in the Rhineland and Luxembourg in 1867 provoked the south German states into agreeing to put their armies under Prussian command in the event of war with France. Prussia now had the equivalent of a further three army corps on mobilisation, bringing her total manpower to virtually twice that of the French.

Napoleon III took great pride in his professional regular army, especially the 20,000-strong Imperial Guard, but recognised that it was now hopelessly outnumbered. He attempted to introduce a conscription system based on the Prussian model in order to even the numerical odds, but met with fierce resistance from his generals, who limited the scope of the urgent reforms that were forced through.

The new Germany, on the other hand, was a fusion of three forces: the Prussian Army, based on the Junker officer caste of eastern Germany; the rising industrial the power of the Rhineland in the west; and a vast pool of military manpower in an enlarged population of 41 million people.

It was, in short, an amalgam of militarism, industry, and mass. Rhineland capitalism experienced massive expansion after 1871. Within half a century, Germany had become Europe’s foremost industrial power. This expansion drove an ever more imperative search for markets – in the east, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, and in the wider world. That meant tension with the other great powers, both in Europe and overseas, and that in turn became an arms race that eventually exploded into world war.

From 1871 onwards, Imperial Germany was a rising power and a potential pan-European hegemon. Kaiser Wilhelm II took on the aspect of Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, and, of course, Napoleon – a European ruler liable to over-master the continent. Germany found itself unable to prevent the formation of a hostile alliance and the danger of a ‘war on two fronts’.

Given its enormous geopolitical consequences, it is surprising that the Franco-Prussian War receives relatively little attention. Its impact on France was also prodigious: the fall of Napoleon III’s Second Empire; the Paris Commune of 1871; the establishment of the Second Republic; the advent of the burning question of Alsace-Lorraine in French politics.

In a carefully choreographed ceremony, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had King William I of Prussia crowned German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on 18 January 1871.
In a carefully choreographed ceremony, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had King William I of Prussia crowned German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on 18 January 1871.

Its military aspects also deserve close study, for here was a clash of armies of immense size and the most advanced weaponry, made possible by Europe’s industrial revolution. Formations as dense as those at Waterloo were shattered by the concentrated fire of steel guns, breech-loading rifles, and machine-guns.

In terms of weaponry, the two sides were more evenly matched. In fact, the French had one of the best rifles of the period, the Chassepot breech-loader, over a million of which had been produced by 1870. It was an exceptional weapon for its day, with a maximum effective range of 1,200 metres, virtually twice that of the Prussian Dreyse needle-gun.

They also had one of the best manually operated machine-guns of the period, the Reffye mitrailleuse, firing heavy 13mm ammunition at up to 125rpm. However, no more than 200 or so had been completed by 1870, and the weapon rarely had a chance to demonstrate its potential as an infantry support weapon. This was largely due to its misuse as light artillery, in which role it was out-ranged by German guns and frequently silenced before it could effectively return fire.

After its disappointing performance in 1866, the Prussian artillery had been drastically reformed. A School of Artillery had finally been established in 1867, which did much to increase its effectiveness on the battlefield. The rifled, breech-loading Krupp field-guns were modified to improve reliability and consistently outperformed the rifled muzzle-loaders of the French artillery.

But while killing power was impressive, doctrine lagged hopelessly behind. The lessons of the American Civil War had been ignored. And even afterwards, with the experience of slaughter-pen battles like Gravelotte-St-Privat, the generals drew all the wrong conclusions and would repeat the mistakes in 1914.

This is an extract from a 14-paged special on the Franco-Prussian War, published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.


  1. “profound impact”. That’s putting it mildly. The Franco-German war of 1870-71 was a warning tremor. The opening skirmish of the 20th century 1914-45 world war that mortally wounded Western Civlization and its core demographic. France post-1871, unwilling to play second fiddle to Germany in Europe (due to its defeat in the Napoleonic War France was already playing second fiddle to Britain on the world stage), immediately began to reform its military, strengthen its national bonding and, above all, instituted a policy of diplomatic and military encirclement of Germany that was essentially complete by 1914. You know the rest.

    • The First World War is first and foremost linked to the world-stage rivalry between a declining Britain and an agressive and industrially powerful Germany. British elites’ fear of decline, far more than franco-german relations, is the key explanation of the process that led to the collective suicide of 1914-1918. In this case the Charles Doran model works quite well (a paranoïd busted flush – Britain – building ad hoc coalitions to counter a hubristic challenger – Germany. The French strategy is not the key explanation in this case.

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