One of the saddest losses of 2019 was the great historian Sir Michael Howard who died in November aged 97. Among my favourite books – and one that has probably influenced me more than any other – is his `The Franco-Prussian War`, written in 1961.
I did not read the book until a quarter of a century later, when I was already more than half way through my career as a soldier, largely because, I am embarrassed to admit, I knew the square root of very little about the subject and cared less. Indeed, I might still be in that state of ignorance had I not had the good fortune to attend the army`s Higher Command and Staff Course. One of the star lecturers was Professor Howard, and the subsequent staff ride, led by three inspiring historians, Richard Holmes, Brian Holden-Reid and Keith Simpson, included some of the key battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War.
Reading the book immediately after the course took me a considerable length of time because although the narrative was gripping, so was much of the analysis, causing me frequently to put the book down to think and reflect. I recently dug out the notes I made at the time, some of which clearly resulted from admiration of Michael Howard`s coruscating prose, others from his deep wisdom, together with statements or passages that I found seriously thought-provoking.
For those who have read the book, I hope that these notes will provide a happy reminder of the brilliance of Sir Michael Howard; for those who have yet to read it, a taste of a treat that awaits you.
- `[The Prussian army] committed plenty of mistakes – not only in 1864 and 1866 but in 1870. But its adversaries committed worse; and the Prussians at least studied their errors, and readjusted their training and organization accordingly. They did so, not because the Prussian generals were more intelligent or harder working than their opponents, but because the Prussians possessed, in their General Staff, a body whose object was to fulfil exactly this function: applying to the conduct of war a continuous intelligent study, analysing the past, appreciating the future, and providing the commanders in the field with an unceasing supply of information and advice.` p.23
- ‘The man who destroys the legend destroys the faith, and whoever destroys the faith destroys an immeasurable force in which every race, one after the other, has sought victory.’ An opponent of Trochu’s proposed reforms to the French army (1867), quoted p.37.
- . `Leboeuf`s gallant and disastrous assurances to the Ministry [of War], that the French army was ready, had a solid foundation in fact. By the standards of its past campaigns the French army was ready; ready, as Trochu was later to write, “as it had been for the Crimean War, for the Italian War, for the Mexican adventure, for all the military enterprises of that era; that is to say, ready to fight successfully and sometimes with brilliance against armies constituted and trained like itself”. It was the tragedy of the French army, and of the French nation, that they did not realise in time that military organization had entered an entirely new age.` p.39
- In the French army ‘Gallantry in the field and an agreeable personality were passports to court favour, and court favour was the passport to high command.’ p.65
- `The inhabitants of Froeschwiller, where MacMahon was concentrating his forces, saw with astonishment the slovenliness, the lack of self-respect and the open contempt for their officers which were displayed by regiments reputed to be among the finest in the army. “Everyone behaved as he wanted”, observed the parish priest at Froeschwiller, “the soldier came and went as he liked, wandered off from his detachment, left camp and came back as he saw fit”. When such troops as these were left to fend for themselves they rapidly sank to the condition of the marauding bands which had terrorized Europe during the Thirty Years War. They might yet, with brilliant leadership, win victories; but they were in no condition to stand up to the shock of defeat.` p.71
- ‘General Frossard, undefeated, thought he had been, and so he was. General von Zastrow was half-defeated, but refused to be and so was not. This was the secret of the Prussian victory [at Spicheren].’ Bonnal, ‘Manoeuvre de St Privat’, quoted p.89.
- `The most common of all military faults…the failure to pursue a retreating enemy`. p.103
- ‘Only the very clear sighted could have seen the triple significance of 6 August 1870: the collapse of the cavalry; the transformation of the infantry; and the triumph of the gun.’ p.119
- ‘Bazaine remained [away from his HQ] straightening bivouac-lines, sighting gun-positions and sending well-intentioned but belated instructions to his corps commanders about the detailed conduct of operations….He was living from day to day, confining himself to the routine details of administration which he understood, and trusting to his good luck to pull him through.’ pp.136 & 164.
- The Prussian Guard at St Privat: ‘The men on foot struggled forward against the chassepot fire as if into a hailstorm, shoulders hunched, heads bowed, directed only by the shouts of their leaders and the discordant noise of their regimental bugles and drums…The casualty returns were to reveal over 8,000 officers and men killed and wounded, mostly within twenty minutes; more than a quarter of the entire corps strength. If anything was needed to vindicate the French faith in the chassepot, it was the aristocratic corpses which so thickly strewed the fields between St Privat and St Marie-les-Chȇnes.’ p.175.
- `[On 25 August 1870] Moltke was faced with one of those decisions which arise only once or twice in the course of a campaign, which can be taken only by the supreme commander and in which no amount of skill or training can help – only that most necessary quality of all soldiers, lovers and gamblers: luck.` p.193
- `The Austro-Prussian War had been a struggle for power uncomplicated by national animosities. Bismarck may have viewed the war with France in the same light, but his countrymen did not. For them it was a chance to pay off two centuries of old scores, beside redressing an uneasy feeling of inferiority whose roots were buried in a thousand years of history.` p.233
- `The real accusation lies not against Bazaine himself, but against the military system which bred him and allowed him to rise to the command of the French army. Nations get the generals, as well as the governments, they deserve.` p.257
- `[Bazaine] completely failed to provide that driving will and moral force for which troops look in a commander. When he gave orders, Jarras noted, they were couched in vague and often ambiguous terms, as if to cover himself if things turned out badly. The corps commanders, receiving no impulse from above, ignorant of the general situation, and concerned to preserve their men, were not prepared to provide the impetus which Bazaine lacked. Rather they immersed themselves, as did their commander, in the comforting anaesthetic of professional routine.` p.268
- ‘A large proportion of them [the Breton Gardes Nationales] arrived equipped only with American muzzle-loaders left over from the Civil War. Their ammunition was soaked by rain and snow; it was of the wrong calibre; and the troops did not know how to load. Even had they been able to do so the defective mechanism of the rifles would have made them impossible to fire. No cleaning equipment was provided, but it is doubtful whether anything would have made any impression on the thick coating of rust which had accumulated in the six years since the Civil War had ended.’ p.400
- `The German victories, as was universally recognized, had been won by superior organization, superior education, and, in the initial stages of the war at least, superior manpower.` p.455
- Germany`s magnificent and well-deserved victory was, in a profound and unforeseeable sense, a disaster: for herself, and for the entire world.` p.456