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Kurt Kuhlmann


HST 261


Review:                  Michael Howard, The Franco-Prussian War (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1961).

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 historical perspective.

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.

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