The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871

  By Preobrazhenskoe, 7 December 2006; Revised

In post-Napoleonic Europe, the spark of the Industrial Revolution that had begun in England and spread in practice throughout continental Europe by the early-mid-19th century drastically and rapidly changed the technological pace of weaponry, mobilization, and the manner in which warfare was planned and engaged. Like in eras past, the compacted placement of neighboring countries on the European landscape meant the risk of a nation’s own survival if alliances shifted out of their favor or if they could not manage to compete on the same or greater level of manpower in industry and the amount of armed forces as their potential enemies. Although horse-riding cavalry were still employed in battle and a fairly large component of the armed forces for any nation, this was the age where railroad tracks stretched across the face of Europe, moving troops and supplies by locomotive train much faster than a mass of horse-drawn vehicles. This was the age of infantry-riflemen based armies and revolutionary new weaponry. There was widespread implementation on both sides of the effective breech-loading rifle (over muzzle-load), with the French Chassepot being more effective in longer-range firing distance than the Prussian Dreyse Needle-Gun (and emitting far less odorous gas). The efficient and longer-ranged Prussian steel-cast breech-loading cannon (the Krupp) over the ineffective, then out-of-date muzzle-loading cannon of the French (the Lahitte), was a clear advantage for the Prussians. There was the first machine-gun (mitrailleuse) used as standard equipment of war by the French (the American Gatling Gun during the American Civil War, although effective, was used rarely and sparingly). During the 1860s, the heavily-militarized Germanic state of Prussia in north-central Europe won a string of impressive victories over Denmark, Austria, Bavaria, Baden, and Wurttemberg. This was through use of their new breech-loading weaponry, faster mobilization by greater use of railroads, and by the efficient administrative abilities embodied in their Prussian General Staff, an effective organizational unit at the head of the armed forces which the French lacked. With these advances on both sides, the states of Prussia and the Second Empire of France were poised to revolutionize the manner in which European warfare was planned and conducted, and, for the first time in Europe, two armies faced each other while both wielding standard breech-loading rifles. This was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

The French Chassepot
The French Chassepot

After three decades of gradually intensified construction of widespread railway lines built across Europe since the 1830s, France and Prussia were able to meet modernized standards of warfare with quick staging of massed armed forces straight to the battlefront or onto enemy soil. Both France and Prussia would simply need to heed the earlier example of the American Civil War (1861-1865), where it was proven that if the railways providing fresh troops and supplies could be defended and undisturbed, “armies could keep the field so long as there was blood and treasure in the nation to support them,” (Howard, 3). Indeed, armies could also travel large amounts of distance in a shorter span of time without marching, where troops that were immediately shipped to the battlefield needed not to worry about exhaustion and fatigue of a long march that would hinder their fighting morale. Back in 1866, the commander of the Prussian army, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, saw the importance of creating numerous and efficient rail lines to eventually oppose France, and “with the construction of four more lines, [Moltke] told Roon, the time needed to concentrate the thirteen corps of North Germany could be reduced from six weeks to four,” (Howard, 43). He also concluded that, “Counting on the support of the South German states, he would have 360,000 men available in three weeks, 430,000 in four,” (Howard, 43). Although Moltke indeed would be allowed to move a massive bulk of hundreds of thousands of troops into France over a short period of time, the issue of constantly supplying them with necessary provisions became a problem. Back in 1866, with the Austro-Prussian War, insufficient planning led to clogging up of rail traffic at the railheads, which were responsible for supplying some 200,000 Prussian troops, and was indeed slowing down the war effort, as “18,000 tons of supplies were trapped and hundreds of railway wagons were serving as temporary magazines,” (Bond, 18). Again, this was a continuing problem for Prussian forces during the Franco-Prussian War, and, most often, when troops were deployed far beyond the railheads, “they subsisted by traditional methods that differed little from Napoleonic times,” (Bond, 19) which meant they had to rely on local food storage in France and agricultural abundance behind enemy lines in order to feed and sustain the army. This was in comparison to France, which, by 1870, still lacked organizational refinement and efficiency in its own rail system. With clogging and over-congestion on the existing railways in France, much as there was the same problem in Prussia, “supply trains [were] sent forward without any thought as to the unloading facilities needed at the other end,” (Bucholz, 169). Much like Prussia’s inability to fully supply its troops with all the necessary provisions on time, France’s “great fortress of Metz gradually filling up with troops…had no sugar, coffee, rice, or salt. Troops were on their own. After they had eaten the locals out of house and home, they turned to pillage,” (Bucholz, 170), and, in many cases, added to lack of discipline and greater desertion of their overall forces. French public and private rail companies “burdened the others with mountains of paperwork every time a load of men or material was transferred from one line to another,” (Wawro, 49). A French commission under Marshal Adolphe Niel, in 1869, attempted to hasten the construction of a crucial rail line that would aid foreseen military efforts, but “His successor, General Edmond Leboeuf, dissolved the commission and left the Verdun-Metz line unfinished under pressure from the Ministry of Public Works,” (Wawro, 49). Nevertheless, the French rail system allowed them to mobilize and stage the initial attack upon German soil with the taking of the town, Saarbrucken, by August 2nd (14 days after France declared war). However, this had no detrimental effect on Prussian forces already massing by the Rhine River anticipating French forces there, and “Moltke was astonished as more and more German troops arrived at the Rhine, but there were no French attacks,” (Bucholz, 170). Somewhat like the rapid troop and supply movement staged by the Union during the American Civil War, Europe, at this stage of warfare and strategic planning, was able to move mass amounts of troops. Supplying them became a different story, however, with getting necessary supplies in a constant fashion becoming a major issue which forced their armies, in search of means for sustenance, to turn to archaic methods of plundering the countryside of its goods. Therefore, Brian Bond put it best when he wrote, “despite the contemporary exaggeration of Moltke’s mastery of railways in 1870, the revolutionary potential of rail communication was becoming clear,” (Bond, 20). The implementation of a mass of railways quickly servicing the field of battle with troops and supplies, along with the recently innovated telegraph wiring system, both meant swifter methods of communication from the home-front to the battlefront. With the battlefront no longer a remote area apart from the home-front, “newspaper-correspondents could travel to and fro, sending back their reports by telegraph. Troops could come and go on leave. The wounded could be cared for and entertained at home. The nation at war thus became an armed camp – sometimes a besieged fortress,” (Howard, 3).
Emperor Napoleon III of France
Emperor Napoleon III of France

In terms of overall weaponry used in battle, the French and Prussian forces were on somewhat equal footing, as the Prussian victory in the end was more or less due to the cunning strategy of Moltke and the Prussian General Staff, alongside the indecisiveness and blundering decisions carried out by Napoleon III of France. The French model of the breech-loading Chassepot in 1866 was ahead of the Prussian design of the Dreyse Needle-Gun (derived since the 1840s) in nearly every aspect, even with the Prussian improvement of the gun with the M1862 model. In accordance to the latter weapon, “It’s poor compression sealing reduced its muzzle-velocity to only about 30 percent that of the French 11mm Chassepot rifle, reducing its lethal range to about 550-600 yards; its effective battle range could be as low as 300 yards – only half to three-quarters that of the French weapon,” (Solka, 37). Indeed, the Dreyse Needle-Gun was far outmatched by the Chassepot, since “the Prussian Needle Gun was effective only up to 600 yards: the Chassepot was sighted up to 1,600…and a million were available at the outbreak of the war in 1870,” (Wawro, 34). When faced against French infantrymen wielding the Chassepot, Prussian infantrymen suffered heavier casualties due to this and other ineffective traits of their Dreyse Needle-Gun in comparison to the Chassepot, including the lack of a sound gas-tight breech, which would inhibit a foul odor from escaping when firing. The French Chassepot “solved this problem by introducing a rubber ring to seal the breech, which produced a rifle easier and safer to fire, while, by giving the weapon a smaller caliber, [it] increased the number of rounds which the infantryman could carry and, substantially, increased the range,” (Wawro, 34). The French also had the terrifying machine-gun known as the mitrailleuse, which “had a range of 2,000 yards and a rate of fire of 150 rounds per minute,” (Howard, 36), and, unlike the American Gatlin Gun of the American Civil War, was made into an official part of an armed force’s standard equipment. However, Napoleon’s French government pulled a veil of almost absolute secrecy over the weapon’s existence before the start of the war, so much so that the field commanders were unsure of its potential and most efficient use. Because of this, the French mistakenly treated the mitrailleuse as an artillery supplement instead of a primary infantry weapon, like the much-effective Chassepot rifle. Therefore, “it was used at extreme range; sited in the open and in battery; and fired inaccurately and wastefully,” (Howard, 36), overall making its effectiveness for French forces on the field during the Franco-Prussian War somewhat trivial in comparison to Prussian superiority over the French in the abilities of their artillery in the new Krupp cannon model. Although the Germans learned to respect the mitrailleuse and fear the Chassepot, “the reason that [the Prussians] were lumbered with such a mediocre rifle in 1870 was that they had invested so heavily in the procurement of cutting edge artillery after 1866,” (Wawro, 57), this spawning from Moltke’s concern in the earlier Austro-Prussian War of 1866, where “Most of the Prussian casualties had been caused not by Austrian bayonets or small arms fire, but by shell and shrapnel,” (Wawro, 58). The Austrian artillery tactic that had taken many Prussian lives was actually a copied, identical tactic to that of France in 1859, where massed batteries of artillery were used instead of Napoleon’s earlier tactic of strewing the battlefield with separate artillery. If Prussia was to successfully invade France, Moltke and others knew that the French tactic of massed batteries would have to be curbed, with the new steel-cast Krupp artillery design as their greatest hope to, ultimately, batter and dismantle from a far distance any French attempt to use massed batteries or the Chassepot to their favorable range. Although the bronze, muzzle-loading French Lehitte was amongst some of the best artillery manufactured back in 1859, the “breech-loading steel Krupp cannon…fired more quickly and accurately and farther than France’s ten-year-old bronze guns,” (Wawro, 57). While the standard French artillery projectile was four pounds in weight, the Prussian Krupp had a six pound standard, with their heavy gun at a standard of firing twenty-four pound rounds. The Prussian artillery projectiles were also “percussion detonated shells,” (Wawro, 58), exploding directly upon the moment of their desired impact, while the French had an ineffective time-fused shell that exploded with either of two standards, “a short one, 1,300 yards, or a long one, 2,500 yards,” (Wawro, 58). This meant that everyone outside of the range or within the broad gap of these two zones of bursting fire was kept safe. Indeed, the Prussian Krupp artillery gun was responsible for a majority of Prussia’s crucial successes in the war, especially in critical moments such as the capture of Napoleon III after the Battle of Sedan, when “at Sedan the excellent French Chassepot was completely nullified by the superior range of the Prussian guns,” (Bond, 17). In overall effectiveness and implementation of weaponry, the Germans outmatched the French on the field.

“Those who are skilled in combat do not become angered; those who are skilled at winning do not become afraid. Thus, the wise win before the fight, while the ignorant fight to win.”
Those were the words of a 3rd century Chinese statesman for the Three Kingdoms Era Kingdom of Shu, the renowned Prime Minister Zhuge Liang. In essence, Zhuge’s famous quote relates much to the legendary preparedness of the high-commanding, officer-based Prussian military agency known simply as the General Staff. Beyond new weapon technology, intensive railway movement of troops, supplies and communication, the innovative Prussian General Staff was, in and of itself, a revolutionary concept and head military bureaucracy that overall enhanced the concise organizational and strategic movements of Prussia’s armed forces, as well as heavily trained and learned in the concepts of regional theory and diplomacy. Its origins lay in the concerned philosophical and practical writings of one Christian von Massenbach, beginning in the year 1795. With the ongoing Age of Enlightenment during Massenbach’s era, maturity and blossoming of European thought and philosophy had begun transforming the fabric and workings of society, and, with the rise of Napoleon after the French Revolution, Massenbach began to wonder if war wasn’t so much the will of circumstance or God above, and more to do with “mathematical benchmarks to calculate outcomes systematically,” (Bucholz, 16). With the crushing defeat of Prussia in 1807 at the hands of Napoleon’s merit-driven army, the Prussians looked to revitalize their warring spirit, to reform their now archaic methods and standards of planning for war and engaging in war, and had finally brought about the institution of the Prussian General Staff “by the time Moltke joined the Prussian Army in 1822,” (Bucholz, 17). This came just two years after Napoleonic France’s domination over Europe had crumbled.

In many instances this new head-organizational-unit was clearly more able to make better judgment and critical decisions of conflicts in the field than the largely ineffective French government of later Napoleon III, operating over a loosely associated mass of troops and commanders. Just five days into the Franco-Prussian War, General Leboeuf was stripped of his right to command the armed forces, as Napoleon III took over as the supreme commander, totally reorganizing his army into one mass unit, instead of three, at the last moment before striking Saarbrucken on German soil. Saarbrucken itself was a location of largely non-strategic value, since there was only one railway leading to Saarbrucken, the river by Saarbrucken ran along the border and not directly into the countryside, and “when one of [Napoleon’s] generals suggested an attack against Saarbrucken just to fill the time until the Germans arrived from wherever, Napoleon agreed,” (Bucholz, 170). Napoleon III was convinced that “an Austrian intervention against the German southern flank,” would allow him to, “lead a sweep across the Rhine against their ancient foe,” (Bucholz, 168). However, French mobilization itself was almost a complete disaster, as “reservists had to go first to depots for uniforms and equipment and then to their regiments,” (Bucholz, 169), and, because of this, when individual troops finally returned to their regiment, “there was often no food or orders: no one knew what they were supposed to do or where they were supposed to go. Nothing had been arranged. Officers, equipment, food, and quarters: all were missing,” (Bucholz, 169). This was along with many numerous examples in lack of coherent regulations or leadership, with overlapping disorganization devolving into near chaos on the part of the French, coupled with uninspired strategic error emanating from the high command under that of Napoleon III himself.

In comparison to the latter, the Prussian General Staff was a highly-educated, trained, and effective think-tank heading the armed forces of Prussia. It was an agency that was driven and determined to provide the most effective strategy in light of gathered field logistics, with organizational division of a Great General Staff (GGS), the main think-tank based in Berlin, accompanied by its dual component, the Troops General Staff (TGS), which comprised those involved in the active corps and divisions. Its select group of officers entered initially upon the efforts of their own merit, as they “were handpicked from each War College class,” and “served an apprenticeship of several years, usually in the Berlin map and historical sections,” (Bucholz, 17). During their apprenticeship they would learn and practice many skills that would lead them to a successful career in the General Staff, including “trigonometric measuring and plane table drawing of the topography,” and “participated in war games: staff rides, sand table or map exercises, and outdoor maneuvers,” (Bucholz, 17). These war games served as a primary metaphor for war, as predictive scenarios of possible outcomes in battle, and were taken very seriously by the War Academy at Berlin, which was largely tied to the GGS since it, “comprised much of its teaching faculty and from each graduating class the best officers were directly recruited,” (Bucholz, 18). The Prussian General Staff’s main aim was to be fully knowledgeable and prepared to fight any foe, at any length of the border, at any time in place. The Berlin-based GGS component of the Prussian General Staff was divided into several groups with different regional focus, lest any of Prussia’s potential enemies should attack. For instance, there was a Russian Section, a French Section, and an Austrian Section, and to maximize efficiency of war planning within these groups, “each one assumed a foreign language and culture competence,” (Bucholz, 18). In sum, the innovation of the Prussian General Staff secured Prussia’s path to victory over less organized and efficiently-driven enemy states in Europe, despite a roughly equal size of manpower with proportion of armed forces to France, and despite advantages of equally modernized technology present on both sides.

The Franco-Prussian War, much like the previous American Civil War, saw the innovative use of many new advances in troop mobilization and transport, state and military organization, weapon technology, and strategic planning in warfare. The Franco-Prussian War stood as the greatest preliminary example and precedent of how European continental warfare would be planned out, implemented, and conducted before that of the First World War in the early 20th century. With massive, widespread rail-transport for troops, continuously updated models of firearms and artillery, and with the symbol of Prussian dominance through clear and concise war strategy embodied in its General Staff, Europe was on the brink of the modern age in technology, transport, and warfare. It was during the end of the Franco-Prussian War that Prussia finally found its window of opportunity to unite the German lands into one empire, which it did on January 18th of 1871 with the coronation of Prussian King Wilhelm I as the first German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles Palace, France. However, the Franco-Prussian War should not solely be looked at as a changing factor for the new course and bounds of European political history, but also a dark forbearance of European military history to come.


Bond, Brian, (1998). War and Society in Europe. Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Bucholz, Arden, (2001). Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871. New York, Palgrave Publishers Ltd.

Howard, Michael, (2001). The Franco-Prussian War. New York, Routledge Publishing of Taylor & Francis Group.

Solka, Michael, (2004). German Armies; 1870-71. New York, Osprey Publishing Ltd.

Wawro, Geoffrey, (2003). The Franco-Prussian War: the German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.