Learning the Wrong Lessons

I’m in the last couple chapters of Geoffrey Wawro’s The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871, and right now the Prussians are trying to deal with their catastrophic success at Sedan. Having accidentally shattered Napoleon III’s government along with his armies, the Prussians find themselves trying to negotiate a peace with a shaky provisional government that is held hostage by Parisian extremists.

But the story of the Franco-Prussian War is crucial to understanding what would happen to France in the first half of the 20th century. Back when I was reading Tuchman’s The Guns of August, I found it baffling that the French were so ill-prepared for what the new war would look like. Tuchman places heavy emphasis on the French military’s pseudo-religious devotion to the concept of elan and the offensive a outrance that nearly lost them the war in the first month. But what she doesn’t fully explain is the degree to which this was an understandable, even rational response to the debacle in 1870. And of course, the decisions that led to the French collapse in 1940 were themselves understandable and rational responses to the events of WWI.

According to Wawro, the French army in 1870 was in bad shape. The officer corps was moribund, and both the commissioned and enlisted ranks were packed full of dead wood. But in spite of all the deficiencies of French training and discipline, that’s not really what appeared to cost the French the war. Those problems certainly contributed, but the larger problem that Wawro finds in 1870 is a deadly lack of initiative at almost every level of command.

For instance, the manpower disparity between the French and the Prussians meant that time worked against the French. The French had a large standing army but no real reserves which they could mobilize. What they had at the start would have to win the war. By comparison, the peacetime Prussian army was a skeleton and nervous system onto which the mobilization of the reserve forces would pack muscle and flesh. Once that process completed, it was a force to be reckoned with. But it was vulnerable at the start of a conflict.

So France’s hope in 1870 would be to deliver some brutal blows in Germany before numbers could begin to tell. But that’s not what happened. The French army really had no agreed-upon leadership and no war plan. So they basically milled around the border, delaying any kind of offensive action while the Prussians mobilized. Then, they started looking for a good place from which to defend themselves from the Prussians’ superior numbers. But from that point on, the French would always be at a strategic disadvantage, at constant risk of being encircled and destroyed.

Even then, however, there were opportunities for success. The Prussian armies had to disperse as they advanced, which created chances for the French to isolate and destroy Prussian units. Thanks to a few missteps by Prussian officers, and some smart selections of defensive terrain on the part of French generals, the French had some golden opportunities to crush Prussian detachments. But time and again, the French would turn back a few Prussian attacks, then sit in place while Prussian reinforcements arrived to change the balance.

Finally, on the tactical level, the French had the advantage of a much better rifle, the Chassepot. It had a dominating range advantage over the Prussian rifle, and French infantry enjoyed a great reputation for marksmanship. And indeed, the Chassepot exacted a murderous toll. But rather than switching over to the offensive and counterattacking after Prussian troops had been stopped cold and slaughtered, French units would remain behind cover while the Prussian brought up artillery to blast them out. Had the French just been more aggressive, even locally, they could have set Prussian units to rout and thrown their battle plans into disarray.

But strategically, operationally, and tactically, the French army remained passive while the Prussians destroyed it. So with that background, it’s easier to understand why the French were wedded to the offensive when World War I broke out. They’d spent over thirty years correcting the caution and hesitancy that undid them in 1870, but at the cost of taking a hard look at the likely effects of long range, heavy artillery and the machine gun. To take steps in developing tactics appropriate to a battlefield dominated by big guns and machine guns would be to start encouraging exactly the kind of defensive, static thinking that resulted in defeat in 1870.

By the same token, the French army suffered stupefying casualties due to its failure to to prepare for the attrition warfare of WWI. So they spent 20 years refining their capacity to wage defensive warfare efficiently, led by a general (Petain) who had been traumatized by the sucking wound of Verdun, where a failure to maintain and defend the city’s old strongholds drastically increased casualties. The response, in one form, was the Maginot Line. In another, it was the French belief that tanks would be relegated to a supporting role in warfare, helping troops break through local defenses and preventing the same.

History buffs often talk about the lessons of history and its predictive powers. But if you look at it another way, it misleads as often as it informs. History predicts just about everything that could happen, which is why you can’t really use it to predict anything. The French drew a lot of lessons from each war with the Germans, and dutifully went about trying to prevent a repetition of old mistakes. In doing that, they managed to make new ones.

    • Ruberton
    • October 19th, 2010 12:25am

    “History predicts just about everything that could happen, which is why you can’t really use it to predict anything.”

    –The Quotable Zacny (coming soon to fine booksellers near you)

      • Flitcraft
      • October 19th, 2010 12:39am

      I really want to have such a book entering publication near the end of my career. That would make it all worth it. I’d be like Voltaire. Oft-quoted, never actually read.

    • RitalinGamer
    • October 19th, 2010 3:09am

    Interesting – I never properly understood why the French acted the way they did in The Guns of August until now. I always thought they were hidebound idiots, but the truth is much more interesting.

      • Flitcraft
      • October 19th, 2010 3:43am

      I love Guns of August and consider it one of the best historical works I’ve ever read. But I do kind of feel like Tuchman is looking at everything from the point of view of 1914. Which is fine, and probably makes it a more readable work. But it also drives her toward some pat answers for complex questions. Why did French doctrine suck? Groupthink and a thirst for revenge. But if you look to 1914 from the perspective of late 1870, it makes a little more sense.

  1. I like to tell the story of the _second_ battle of Thermopylae. This time, the Greeks sent not 300 men to the pass, but over 1000. And the Romans began looking for goat paths within minutes of realizing how stupid the Greeks were being…

    And that’s how Greece came to be a Roman province in 191BC…

      • Ruberton
      • October 19th, 2010 5:51am

      Brings to mind Patton vs. Rommel: “You magnificent bastard, I READ YOUR BOOK.” ‘cept the book was Herodotus.

      To be fair, the Greeks remembered too, but blew it anyway.

  2. Ha, it’s always interesting to see literal examples of generals attempting to re-fight the last war. Thanks for the post!

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