Review: Michael Howard, The
Franco-Prussian War (Rupert
Michael Howard admits in his preface that the
Franco-Prussian War is territory already well-covered by military
historians. He justifies his book as
both filling the need for a post-World War I perspective on the war, and
because a large amount of primary material has become available since most of
the works on the war were written. I
also suspect that he felt that his distance in time and emotional involvement
would allow him to give a more dispassionate account than was possible for
French and German historians writing between 1871 and 1914.
This is a very orthodox military history in structure and
focus. The book is structured around
the declaration of war and the conclusion of peace, and very tightly focused on
the maneuvers and clashes of the two armies.
Howard does provide a valuable opening chapter on the technical and
organizational developments in the French and Prussian armies in the preceding years,
but he avoids all discussion of the repercussions of the war, political,
diplomatic, social, or economic. He
cannot entirely avoid the internal politics of wartime France, but he often
seems to deliberately avoid some of the most significant effects of the war,
even those which are clearly a direct result.
For example, neither the creation of the German Empire nor the Paris
Commune receive more than passing mention.
In essence, this is a narrative of what the two armies did during the
war, with little attempt to evaluate the importance of these actions from a
However, these same criticisms can be made of most military
histories, and are unfair to Howard's accomplishment. Within the limits that he sets for himself, he does a masterful
job. This book is a pleasure to read,
and deservedly made Howard's reputation as a writer. While he takes a strongly top-down view of war, with the activities
of generals as the main focus, Howard is very sensitive to the limitations of a
general's powers. He takes pains to
show the multitude of factors in war that are outside or only marginally within
a commander's control, such as weather, training, and motivation. In this regard, more attention to the actual
conduct of battles would have been helpful, especially the changes which
resulted from the Prussian troops' experience, on the one hand, and the
increasingly untrained French troops on the other.
Howard is particularly effective in his even-handed
treatment of both sides. He points out
that both sides assumed that the war would begin with a French invasion of
Germany, a useful reminder to twentieth-century readers that until the
Franco-Prussian War it was France, not Germany, that was viewed as the
potential threat to European peace. Howard
attributes the Prussian victory to "superior organisation, superior
military education, and . . . superior manpower" (p. 455)--a victory for
the Nation In Arms over the professional army backed by untrained militia which
was the standard European system. However,
he never casts the outcome as inevitable.
The French had numerous chances to at least avoid the disastrous defeat
which befell them, but the superior organization of the Prussians allowed them
to capitalize on French mistakes while mitigating their own plentiful blunders.
Michael Howard took for granted that a concise account of
the military action of the Franco-Prussian War would be valuable, and he
delivered just that. The Franco-Prussian War fulfills the
highest standards of historical writing.
However, John Keegan's The Face of
Battle has seriously challenged the old assumption that the importance of
battle narrative is so obvious that it requirs no justification. While Howard's book can no longer suffice as
the definitive military history of the Franco-Prussian War, it will certainly remain
an essential starting point for any historian of that war.