Part 1:

Franco Prussian War

In the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the Austrian Empire was transformed by the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 into the dual monarchy of Austro-Hungary, a course of action which reflected the government’s inability to resolve the Empire’s crippling domestic issues [1]. Austria ceded the province of Venetia to France, which in accordance to a secret treaty with Prussia, in turn ceded it to Italy, the last step in the independence and unification of Italy before the final Capture of Rome in 1870 [2]. Most importantly, Prussia annexed many of Austria’s former German allies, dissolved the German Confederation and permanently excluded Austria from German affairs, ending the possibility of a Großdeutsche Lösung [3]. The following year, Prussia corralled the northern German states into the North German Confederation, a nation state ruled by the Prussian King Wilhelm I, who was made President; Bismarck was designated Chancellor [4].  Since the North German Confederation would later form the basis of the German Empire, its formation represented a major step towards Germany’s final unification.

Ems Dispatch

The Franco-Prussian War

The final step in the unification of Germany arrived in 1870 in the form of the Franco-Prussian War. The result of years of tension between France and Prussia, the war erupted over the issue of a Hohenzollern candidate for the vacant Spanish throne and thus the possibility of an alliance forming between Spain and Prussia, a situation France deeply wanted to avoid [5]. Though the candidate, Prince Leopold, withdrew his acceptance of the throne following protests by France, Napoleon III’s government pushed the issue, demanding a guarantee that no member of the Hohenzollern family would ever be a candidate for the Spanish throne [6]. The French ambassador to Prussia, Count Benedetti, approached King Wilhelm I informally in Bad Ems to present the demand; the king refused courteously and the count departed [7].

Bismarck, who was convinced that a Franco-Prussian war must take place before Germany could be united, once again seized the opportunity to provoke a war beneficial to Prussia and, with the Kings permission, released an edited account of the meeting [8]. By emphasising Benedetti’s demands and the abruptness of Wilhelm’s replies, Bismarck highlighted that the King had refused demands made under threat of war and intentionally gave the impression that the two men had insulted one another [9]. Upon publication of the Ems Dispatch on 14 July 1870 (coincidentally Bastille Day), public opinion on both sides became enflamed; the French called for war while German nationalism surged (even the usually less pro-Prussia South German states were incensed) [10]. France, without allies despite the desire of Austria-Hungary and Denmark to avenge their recent military defeats at the hands of Prussia, mobilized immediately [11].  Five days later, on 19 July 1870, France declared war on Prussia only, but the latter was quickly joined by the other German states.

German General Staff

It soon became clear that, once again, Prussia held multiple decisive advantages in the conflict. The Prussian army was unique amongst its European counterparts for having a General Staff, an institution which afforded it an unparalleled logistical, operational and strategic organisation. The Prussian General Staff, the first of its kind when formally established in 1814, was a politically autonomous body comprised of officers formally selected by intelligence and merit, rather than by wealth or nobility, and then put through rigorous training [12]. This process produced a group of military experts with similar modi operandi (in later years this did have a tendency to produce an unimaginative leadership) who were utterly devoted to their creed [13]. Consummate professional leadership allowed the Prussian army to be deployed much more effectively and efficiently than its French adversary, the organisation of which systematically excluded intelligent soldiers from promotion [14].


German logistics

Furthermore, despite France’s larger population, universal conscription allowed Prussia to field more soldiers [15]. In addition, as in the Austro-Prussian War, Prussian reservists could be mobilized more quickly than those of the French, whose regiments generally served far from their depots, requiring reservists to undertake long journeys to join their units [16]. Prussia’s highly organised state/military controlled railways also contrasted sharply with the situation in France, where competion between the multitude of railway companies (with their own railways) created chaos [17]. The larger Prussian army could thereby concentrate on the border more rapidly than the French army could muster to face it, negating France’s initial advantage of having a larger standing army.

Lastly, the Prussian army’s steel breech-loading Krupp artillery outclassed every aspect of the French muzzle-loading pieces [18]. This advantage would prove more important than the superiority of the French Chassepot rifle in comparison to the ageing Prussian Dreyse needle gun (see part 1), as well as the deployment of primitive machine guns by the French [19]. As a modern war is decided by the tandem of manpower and industry, in retrospect the Franco-Prussian War can be said to have been decided almost before the first shot was fired.

Krupp peice

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[1] Mosse, The European Powers and the German Question 1848-71250.

[2] Ibid, 250.

[3] Ibid, 242.

[4] Ibid, 250.

[5] Mosse, The European Powers and the German Question 1848-71, 304.

[6] Ibid, 305.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, 306, 315.

[12] Dallas Irvine, “The French and Prussian Staff Systems Before 1870,” The Journal of the American Military History Foundation,2, no. 4 (1938): 192, (accessed November 9, 2012).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 192.

[15] Grant, Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders, 240-241.

[16] Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War: the German invasion of France 1870-1871 (New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1962), 68.

[17] Ibid, 70-71.

[18] Grant, Commanders: History’s Greatest Military Leaders, 240-241.

[19] Ibid.