by Geoffrey Wawro
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 327.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN:0-521-58436-1
An insightful account of one of perhaps the most critical European war of the period between the Waterloo and the “Guns of August,” which brought about the collapse of the French Second Empire and the creation of the German Second Reich.
Wawro provides a readable, often detailed account of the principal events of the war within their political and diplomatic context. Although primarily a traditional “drum and bugle” account, he dips often into personal diaries and reminiscences to give the reader a “soldier’s eye-view” of events, and discusses the impact of the war on French civilians and provides a concise, but sometimes chilling look into German occupation polices.
Among the more interesting insights that Wawro provides is a look at the often remarkable paralysis that affected the principal French commanders. Despite their impressive prior military attainments, men such as MacMahon, Bazaine, and Bourbaki proved remarkably unable to take advantage of frequent excellent opportunities, through away numerous chances to take advantage of enemy errors or battlefield developments, to the point where their contemporaries could confuse ineptitude with treachery.
Wawro’s principal conclusions both deal with the relationship of the war to the First World War. At the highest levels, the Franco-Prussian War imposed a conservative, militaristic character to German nationalism, which played an important role in the outbreak of World War I. In terms of military theory and practice, students of the war concluded that German success was due to the “Prussian general staff” model of organization, which was ultimately adopted by all the powers, even including France, which also adopted Prussian infantry tactics, which were actually a disaster, since the German victories had been largely due to the effectiveness of their artillery, not of their infantry, which took enormous casualties.
Naturally, Wawro’s account necessarily bears comparison with Sir Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War, published nearly a half century ago. Oddly, in many ways Wawro’s work complements, rather than supplants Howard’s, leaving us with two reliable, standard accounts of the war.