Politics & Policy

Saddam’s Sedan

Lessons from the Franco-Prussian War.

Even though this war is being fought 7,000 miles away with 21st-century technology amid the ziggurats of Ur and Babylon, the conflict that it most reminds me of is the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, a struggle full of lessons for American strategists today.

The Franco-Prussian War unfolded just like this one. A better-armed, better-led Prussian army marched rapidly into France, thrashed the French regular army at Gravelotte and Sedan, and rolled all the way to Paris in less than a month.

Like American planners today, Otto von Bismarck — the Prussian chancellor and foreign minister — and General Helmuth von Moltke — the Prussian general staff chief — assumed that the “shock and awe” engendered by those crushing French defeats in the first weeks of the war would force the French government to the peace table.

And then something entirely unexpected happened. French resistance stiffened rather than weakened despite the storm of defeats and bad news. 150,000 French troops had been captured after Gravelotte, and the rest of the regular French army — 90,000 troops — had been seized and imprisoned after Sedan. There was nothing left, yet the French fought on.

Bismarck, Moltke, and the Prussian king, who had all moved to sumptuous quarters in Versailles in the days after Sedan to preside over the collapse of Napoleon III’s French Empire, watched in astonishment first a revolution that toppled the Bonapartes and summoned a republic under Léon Gambetta, and then Gambetta’s vow to “fight to the bitter end.”

Just like the Americans today, the Prussians appeared to hold all the cards. They had 700,000 professional troops in France, and the entire pre-war French army in captivity. But then the French guerrilla war and “information campaign” began.

In the struggle for world opinion, the French after Sedan found themselves in the same predicament as the Iraqis. They, not the Prussians, had caused the conflict, by deliberately fanning a minor diplomatic incident into war. And yet this did not prevent French diplomats after Sedan from touring the European capitals to declare that the war had been caused by Prussian greed and militarism. Like the Iraqis today, the French argued that world opinion needed to close ranks against Prussia to prevent “the destruction of the balance of power.” The crimes of Napoleon III, in other words, were nothing beside the obligation to check the growth of Prussian hyperpower.

French agents also went into Prussia and the German states to monitor and shape opinion there. What they found was that highly educated Prussia, unlike France — where 70 percent of the population were illiterate peasants — was vulnerable to the “CNN effect.” With the economy sinking and thousands of sons and husbands deployed in France, German opinion wobbled uncertainly.

To protract the war and grind down German morale, the French government — like the Iraqis today — retreated into their densely populated capital city and, elsewhere, fielded irregular bands of francs-tireurs (“sharpshooters”), who dressed in civilian clothes (the Germans called them “blue smocks” because they usually wore the blue overalls of a French worker) and ambushed Prussian scouts, frontline units and lines of supply. An estimated 38,000 French irregulars were operating against the Germans by Christmas 1870, (yet, as is the case today, they were far less effective than their numbers suggested, accounting for fewer than 1,000 German casualties in the war.)

Had a Prussian eagle soared across France in early 1871, it would have looked down on a lamentable military situation, a veritable quagmire. 200,000 Prussians were camped around Paris, 140,000 were milling around Dijon, 200,000 more were floundering along the icy roads on either side of the Loire. They were mere flecks in a vast hostile country of 38 million.

There seemed no way to win the war, but within weeks the Prussians did. How?

First, Bismarck pulled the teeth from the French information campaign, challenging and discrediting it at every step by patiently reminding the world of the facts.

Second, the Prussians refused battle in the streets of Paris. They expected that it would be militarily bloody and politically damaging. Even before the Germans surrounded Paris in September 1870, the international press had begun to condemn Prussia’s “war on civilians.” Instead of besieging the French capital, the Prussians “invested” it; they encircled it, and stopped the flow of people and supplies in and out of the city, all the while assuring the watchful world press that Prussia was ready to make peace. After a few months of this, the cold, hungry Parisians themselves turned on their defenders: “mieux les Prussiens que la République.”

Second, Bismarck and Moltke dealt harshly with the guerrilla war. Rules of engagement — such as they were — relaxed to permit summary executions of armed peasants and collective punishment of towns and villages that offered any support (even a perch in an attic window) to francs-tireurs. Towns were either burned or fined. When a young French patriot fired (inaccurately) at a Prussian dragoon who was trotting along the beach at Dieppe, the city fathers were ordered to pay $500,000. Before long, Prussian troops were greeted by French mayors everywhere they went; they stood on the outskirts of their towns to shoo away would-be guerrillas and welcome German troops.

Third, and most importantly, Bismarck created an indigenous French alternative to Gambetta’s republic, which leached off public support for the diehards (the French people wanted peace more than anything else) and made the diehards themselves conscious that if they did not sign a peace with the Prussians they would become irrelevant. When Gambetta, ignoring a series of catastrophic French defeats in January 1871, vowed (Saddam-like) to “conquer or die,” Bismarck threatened to release French Marshal Achille Bazaine and 100,000 French troops from captivity. Gambetta understood that Bazaine would do and sign everything the Germans wanted; like Pétain in 1940, the marshal would pose as the “savior” of the French nation, a selfless man who would sacrifice territory (Alsace and Lorraine) and treasure (five billion francs) to bring peace to a traumatized French nation.

Gambetta caved and signed the armistice on January 26, 1871, not because French resources were exhausted, but because he had utterly lost the battle for French opinion. Had he fought even another week, the French republic might have dissolved and been replaced by Bazaine’s more pliable and popular dictatorship.

Here are lessons for U.S. strategists. We are fighting the information campaign intelligently by permitting broad, relatively unvarnished coverage of the war. We are revising our rules of engagement to cope with fedayeen and homicide bombers. Now we must reveal the Iraqi political alternative: forceful Iraqi voices that will detach local opinion from Saddam, his minions and the tribal leaders. Bismarck fitted this crucial piece only belatedly into his war effort. The sooner we do it, the sooner we prevail.

Geoffrey Wawro is professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and anchor of the History Channel’s Hardcover History. His latest book, The Franco-Prussian War, will be published by Cambridge University Press in the fall.


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