Book review: The War That Changed the World

Author(s) : ZAKHARIS Thomas
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John Allen-Price, an independent historian from New York who wrote the introduction to the latest edition of Jomini's The Art of War, starts The War That Changed the World with an explanation of the Franco-Prussian War's historic importance and why it seems to have vanished from popular memory. One reason for its virtual disappearance from the history books, he maintains, is thanks to the movie and television industries, which have drawn mainly from World War II, occasionally World War I and a little from Roman and Greek History. Another reason is the way history is being presented in schools, as a collection of independent aspects rather than a continuous dialectic process. 

Having established that premise, the author begins his narration with the Peace of Bratislava (Pressburg) on December 26, 1805, which effectively dissolved the Holy Roman Empire. On August 6, 1806, the former Holy Roman Emperor Francis II became Emperor Francis I of Austria. On July 19, 1806, French Emperor Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, amalgamating 360 feudal German states into roughly forty. Without intending to do so, Napoleon began the process of uniting the German Nation. 

The German state that took the lead toward unification after Napoleon's fall was the militaristic kingdom of Prussia. Neglected and humiliated by the Treat of Tilsit, reduced to the status of a satellite of the French Empire, Prussia found a fresh opportunity after the decimation of Napoleon's Grand Armée in Russia to regain its place among the European powers with a newly reorganised army.

Price investigates all the political and military steps that led Prussia and the rest of Germany toward their war against Napoleon III's France. All the German states – not just Hellmuth von Moltke, who sent a full corps of observers – studied the course of the American Civil War in the utmost detail. While British and French officers ridiculed both the Union and Confederate use of cavalry, the Germans carefully studied the daring cavalry raids of both sides, as led by commanders like Brig, Gen. John Hunt Morgan and Colonel Benjamin Grierson. 

Before the American Civil War was over, Moltke was already applying what he had learned against Denmark in 1864. All the transportation depended on railway lines. To understand how advanced the Prussian army became for its time, one might consider that Sir Garnet Wolseley, serving as a correspondent for Great Britain in Robert E Lee's headquarters made use of the partially completed railroad for his own military move against the rebellious Métis in Western Canada in 1870. 

Price traces the converging paths that brought France and Germany to war. After losing 7,000 men in his ultimately failed Mexican “adventure”, Napoleon III urgently needed a great victory to restore his reputation. While Germany possessed such advanced weaponry as the cast iron Krupp field gun, the French army had Chassepot bolt-action rifle, superior to the Prussians' Dreyse needle gun rifles, as well as a number of machine guns called mitrailleuses. It was the maneuvers of the Prussian staff, however, that ultimately brought victory to Germans. 

Price also describes the role played by the Second Paris Commune in the war's course. The Commune's minister of war, Gustave Paul Clyseret, had had previous martial experience fighting under Maj. Gen. John C. Frémont in the American Civil War, during which he also attacked Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in his writings and supported Frémont's bid for president.

The War That Changed the World describes in the most concise possible detail a conflict a war whose results led to WWI, whose outcome reignited in the form of WWII. One might even include the Vietnam War as a consequence of the Franco-Prussian War, since after 1873 Republican France, seeking to expand its power overseas, began a great effort to colonize Kingdom of Annam and the rest of Indochina. Shedding light on Europe's first modern war,  this wonderful book will satisfy all the readers. Highly recommended.

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