Was the Franco-Prussian War Modern?

The Franco-Prussian war was a modern war although it was not the first of Europe’s modern wars.   The Franco-Prussian war was also not a total war because while it was intensive in manpower while it lasted, its limited duration did not force a radical reorganization of both countries economies in order for it to be waged.

In order to determine whether the Franco-Prussian war was a modern war or not we must define what a modern war is.   Is it a war in which all the modern implements of war as well as the modern methods of raising armies are employed?  Is it a war in which all the resources of both the state and people are involved in its prosecution?  Modern war could perhaps best be defined as one in which the resources of the modern nation-state are used as well as modern technologies especially metallurgy.   The dividing line between modern and archaic is poorly marked and somewhat arbitrary.   In Europe the line between archaic and modern can be drawn during the 40+ years between the Congress of Vienna and the Crimean War; a time when Europe itself was relatively peaceful.

By that definition, the modern era began in the mid-nineteenth century after the invention of the steam engine, which revolutionized transport.   The introduction of railways seems to mark the beginning of an era in which technological improvements happened at an ever-increasing pace.   Military planners immediately noticed the utility of railways to military movements.   The German general staff seized upon the railway as the solution to the strategic dilemma that faced a Germany seemingly surrounded by enemies.   It gave them the ability not only to mobilize their army rapidly, but also to get the troops to the threatened frontier faster.   The railroad was thus initially seen as a defensive device.   The Germans went a step further and also realized that the railway gave them the ability to mass troops on the frontier more quickly than their opponents if they began the mobilization fast enough; this would give them an offensive edge in future wars.   The French planned on using the railroads as well for to speed up their mobilization and deployment.

The mid-nineteenth century also saw improvements in metallurgy and design that significantly improved the performance of weapons.   Although the rifle’s utility had been recognized during the Napoleonic wars where it was extensively employed by skirmishers and elite units; advances in technology had made it possible for every soldier to have a rifle by the 1840’s.   A further advance had made breechloading rifles possible.   The Prussian army had completed equipping its infantry with the rifled breech-loading Dreyse needle-gun in the 1850’s.   The needle-gun had some problems with an inefficient gas seal around the breech, but this deficiency was more than made up for by the increased range and rate of fire of the breechloading rifle.   Similar advances were made in the construction of field pieces, increasing their range and lethality almost threefold.   The French had also equipped there army with a breechloader the Chassepot rifle which was in many respects superior to the needle-gun.   They had also adopted the new quick firing artillery.   The French had even equipped themselves with a rudimentary machine-gun, the Mittraileuse, which they unfortunately deployed as artillery thus squandering the perhaps decisive effect it could have had in the defense.

Canning as a method of food preservation had been invented during Napoleons time, but its use would come into its own in the wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.   This made it possible for armies to campaign year round; they were no longer restricted to fight while there was food and fodder available on the area to be fought over.

The last technological innovation that would prove truly revolutionary was the telegraph.   The telegraph allowed near instant communication over vast distances where before communication had been limited by line of sight or the speed of a horseman.   The telegraph made it possible for a commander to coordinate the maneuver of several field armies to achieve his ends in a campaign.   Moltke had use the telegraph to great effect during the Austro-Prussian war and it had also been used to great effect over the large distances involved in the American Civil War.

An innovation of the modern era that was used in the Franco-Prussian war to good effect by the Prussians was the staff system to generate plans and orders.   The French had a staff system though it was poorly developed and mistrusted by the higher commanders in the French army.   The Prussian staff system allowed for prior planning and better coordination, which combined with the telegraph, meant that Prussian troop movements and operations were more efficient and successful.   The staff system and the schools that trained staff officers also contributed to a better degree of doctrinal orthodoxy within the Prussian army.   This gave officers throughout the army a common view and appreciation for the ways in which operations should be conducted.

The Franco-Prussian war was a modern war because the combatants made use of the latest available technology and intellectual development in the philosophy and doctrine of warfare.   The results were to prove that the side that mastered these technologies and doctrinal developments to the fullest would prevail.   The Prussian army made more efficient use of the technologies available to them.   Even when French arms were superior such as the French rifle, Prussian training, and doctrine was able to overcome these obstacles and lead the Prussians to victory.

The Franco-Prussian war approached totality and indeed for the French it was a total war but it was not a total war on the Prussian side of the equation.   It was also not a total war because the war aims of the Prussians was not complete conquest and subjugation of France but only the possession of those border territories Germany felt necessary for her future security.   Towards the end of the war, the Prussian contribution approached totality in manpower, but the Prussian economy was not subjugated to the war effort, as it would be in World War I.   The Prussian government did not take over the management of the economy as a whole as the French did, Prussian commercial and luxury manufacture continued throughout the war.

The Franco-Prussian war was indeed a modern war of the early modern war era.   The technologies and doctrine employed would only be improved and expanded upon after the war.   The war was a precursor of things to come as the most prominent technologies that would be employed in World War I minus the tank and airplane were used during the war.   It gave a false impression of the value of the offense because French defensive doctrine was faulty; this would lead to horrendous casualties when the French mistakenly took the offensive in the opening months of the next war.

The war while approaching totality in economic and manpower use was in reality a large-scale limited war because of the war aims of the aggressor, Germany.   The French war aims were initially conquest of Germany but the opening battles rapidly made it clear that they would be lucky to retain their own territory intact, and thus their war aims shifted to staving off total defeat.   The Franco-Prussian war was indeed a modern war, but not a total war.

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