The Franco-Prussian War Primer

A history of the war for the Rhine frontier

First Weeks and Mobilization

The outbreak of the war showed the military differences between the two nations, with effective German mobilization and conscription system on the one hand and France’s standing professional army and less than stellar mobilization on the other. Soon after France declared war on the North German Confederation, skirmishes began along the border of France and the German states.[1] These small and often inconsequential skirmishes were simply the prelude as the primary fighting forces of the French and German armies continued their mobilization.[2] German mobilization proceeded much smoother than France’s, thanks to the use of railroads and because of the seriousness for which the Germans planned and prepared in peacetime for a large-scale mobilization. Von Moltke noted the effectiveness of the German mobilization: “On the night of July 16th, the Royal order to mobilize was issued, and when his Majesty arrived in Mayence fourteen days later, he found 300,000 men assembled on the Rhine and beyond.”[3] In contrast, the French mobilization met with less than stellar management combined with troops called in from other areas of French influence, such as Rome and Africa.[4]

Along with mobilization, the nature of the standing army for the two sides significantly differed. Germany, unlike France, had a conscription system that saw a small cadre of professional officers and sergeants that would train every male in the nation for their three years of required service before the conscript then transferred to the reserve for four years. Therefore they possessed a large pool of trained men that could mobilize to join the war.[5] France, however, was an entirely professional and volunteer army, so while the French army at the start of the war was smaller, after German mobilization, it was a well-trained and capable force of career soldiers. However, there did not exist a large pool of trained reservists to replace losses as existed for Germany.[6]

The two nations also deployed their armies differently, with Germany choosing to assemble armies in three areas that could better react and only advanced once adequately mobilized. The French deployed seven Corps along the entire line and mobilized at the front that could not react easily due to the Vosges Mountains.[7] The French army that readied for the war was the Army of the Rhine, under the supreme command of Emperor Napoleon III. The force was split into two wings by the Vosges Mountains, with the Emperor and Bazaine leading the larger left-wing and Marshal MacMahon nominally leading the right-wing; the Imperial Guard was under the Emperor’s command.[8]

Under the supreme command of King Wilhelm and the Prussian General Staff, headed by Helmuth von Moltke, the German army mobilized into three units. The First Army, commanded by Karl von Steinmetz, assembled at Wittlich, the Second Army, commanded by Prince Frederick Charles, assembled near Homburg and Neunkirchen, and the Third Army, commanded by the Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, assembled at Landau and Rastatt. The First and Second armies primarily consisted of Norther German forces, while the Third army consisted of Prussian, Bavarian, Würtemberg, and Baden forces.[9]

[1] Helmuth von Moltke; Translated by Clara Bell and Henry W. Fischer, The Franco-German war of 1870–71, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1892, P.9

[2] Leonhard von Blumenthal; Albrecht von Blumenthal; A.D. Gillespie-Addison, Journals of Field-Marshal Count von Blumenthal for 1866 and 1870-71, London: Edward Arnold, 1903. P.79-81

[3] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.7-8

[4] Wilhelm Rüstow, translated by John Layland Needham, The War for the Rhine Frontier, 1870: Its Political and Military History, Volume 1, Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1872, P.179

[5] Julius von Pflugk-Harttung, Translated by J.F. Maurice,Wilfred James Long, and A. Sonnenschein, The Franco-German War, 1870–71, London: S. Sonnenschein and Co, 1900, P.50-52

[6] Arpad F. Kovacs, “French Military Institutions before the Franco-Prussian War,” The American Historical Review 51, no. 2 (January 1, 1946): 217–35, P.219-223

[7] General Staff School, Franco-German War of 1870: Source Book, Fort LeavenWörth, Kansas: The General Service Schools Press, 1922, P.8

[8] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier, P.178-182

[9] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.432-447