The Franco-Prussian war 1870-1871 ended in disastrous defeat for the French and declared the arrival of the new powerful united German state. The Prussian victory can be attributed their ability to deploy troops quickly using a more extensive rail network, a well organised and educated General Staff, superior morale and discipline of their infantry and more advanced artillery.
The first major advantage the Prussian’s had was their extensive rail network which gave them the ability to move and amass troops very quickly. In the 1840’s German railroads only possessed 291 miles of track. By 1850 this had grown to 3,369 miles of track a rate of grown twice that of France. This expansion of the railways was encouraged and facilitated by Von Moltke chief of the General Staff. He bought private railway companies under Military control and diverted spending from fortresses to railway construction. He also saw the potential of the telegraph for coordinating massive encirclement battles (Kesselschlachten).
A major advantage possessed by the Prussian’s in the war was their general staff this innovation was mainly German. The General staff were comprised of graduates of the German Kriegsakademie, were highly educated, trained and intellectually prepared men who ensured field commanders got the best advice possible. The Prussian General staff was well prepared for an invasion of France as members had travelled around France in the 1860’s mapping out Alsace-Lorraine, calculating food stocks in each area and making useful contacts. The French had nothing in comparison to this and its leaders were for the most part divided on the issue of war with Prussia.
As well as a superior rail system and General staff the Prussian army as a whole were better trained and more numerous than their French opponents. Prussia had a system of short compulsory service which resulted in them being able to call up around 1.2 million men in war time, during peace the standing strength of the army was around 300,000. Prussian conscripts spent 3 years on active service, four years in the reserve and five years in the Militia. Prussian soldiers also got more target practice than troops in other armies and also spent more time practicing small unit fighting. French soldiers were nowhere near this well disciplined or trained. Most veterans were too old by 1870 and even French officers called their men ‘vermin’ or ‘parasites.
The superiority of the Prussian army allowed them to use tactics that to the French seemed chaotic. The Prussians used what was called Auftragstaktik or mission tactics. This allowed for much decentralization in the Prussian army. Each unit strove towards a particular objective independently but they were not isolated. This allowed them to utilize artillery to the maximum. Prussian artillery were primarily breech-loading steel guns from the Krupp works. The main calibre used were 6 and 24 pounders which gave greater rates of fire, greater range and better accuracy. Artillery officers were briefed on the objectives of battle and always operated in support of the infantry.
The Franco-Prussian war was decided by superior Prussia organisation, ability to deploy quickly and effectively, superior infantry training and discipline and more evolved tactics using both infantry and artillery.
Doughty, R. A. & Gruber, I. D. (Eds), Warfare in the Western World. Vol I Military Operations from 1600 to 1871. (Lexington, 1996)
Wawro, G. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. (Cambridge, 2003)
 Doughty, R. A. & Gruber, I. D., Warfare in the Western World. Vol I Military Operations from 1600 to 1871. p. 475.
 Wawro, G. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. p. 47.
 Doughty, R. A. & Gruber, I. D. pp. 473-474.
 Wawro, G. pp. 47-48.
 Wawro, G. pp. 38-39.
 Wawro, G. p. 41.
 Doughty, R. A. & Gruber, I. D. p. 484.
 Wawro, G. p. 43.
 Wawro, G. p. 42.
 Wawro, G. p. 54.
 Wawro, G. p. 59.
 Wawro, G. p. 59.
Guest Writer: Paul Heffernan
I studied English and History in the National University of Ireland, Galway and got my M.A. in Military History and Strategic Studies in N.U.I. Maynooth. I also gained an M.A. in archival studies from U.C.D. and currently work as an archivist.