The Age of Bismarck Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Congress of Vienna, held to settle European affairs after the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), completed its work in 1815 after deciding not to unite the German states, creating instead the German Confederation of thirty-nine principalities that replaced the Holy Roman Empire.

Political Considerations

The Congress of Vienna, Congress of (1814-1815)Vienna, held to settle European affairs after the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), completed its work in 1815 after deciding not to unite the German states, creating instead the German German ConfederationConfederation of thirty-nine principalities that replaced the Holy Roman Empire. AustriaAustria, the leading German state, was ruled from Vienna by Germans but also included a dozen other nationalities. The strongest of the remaining German states, Prussia, stretched across north-central Europe, its western end separated from its eastern, its pride drawing it to claim leadership of the non-Austrian Germans, and its power unequal to the project.Bismarck, Otto vonBismarck, Otto von (chancellor of Germany)Bismarck, Otto von (chancellor of Germany)

When Austria was weakened in 1848 by a liberal revolution in the capital and indifferent performance in putting down an uprising in its Italian provinces, PrussiaPrussia dared support the Frankfurt Parliament’s proposal of a league of the northern German states. The Austrians mobilized for war and Prussia had to endure a humiliating loss of face. In 1862 the ultraroyalist diplomat Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) became Prussian foreign minister and president of the cabinet. He immediately took up the project of unifying the northern Germans. When the king of Denmark, a former Austrian ally, died in 1863, Bismarck perceived Austria’s isolation. Austria could expect aid neither from Russia, with which it was at odds over the Balkans, nor from France;nineteenth centuryFrance, which supported the Italian struggle to drive the Austrians back beyond the Alps. Bismarck created a diplomatic crisis that united Austria and Prussia in a successful war against the Danes in 1864, then saw to it that serious friction arose between the victorious allies. The resulting Austro-Prussian War Austro-Prussian War (1866)[Austro Prussian](1866) defeated Austria in only seven weeks and gave Prussia unquestioned leadership of the northern Germans. When Bismarck provoked the French emperor Napoleon Napoleon IIINapoleon III (emperor of France)[Napoleon 03]III (1808-1873) into a rash declaration of war in 1870, Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War]France was isolated because both Italy and Austria feared the speed of German mobilization. France fell in six weeks, though the mopping up took several more months. The German Empire, a union of all the Germans outside Austria, was proclaimed at the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles in 1871.

Military Achievement

Otto von Bismarck, Prussian statesman and engineer of German unification.

(Library of Congress)

In 1864 Prussia took advantage of a diplomatic contretemps to join with Austria in wresting the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein from Denmark. The best way to force the issue was to overrun the provinces, which the Prussians and Austrians were able to do because of the speed of Prussian mobilization, the élan of the Austrian troops, and the effectiveness of Prussian fire tactics. When Prussia made war on Austria in 1866, its aim was to advance three armies as quickly as possible into northern Austria to forestall an Austrian invasion of Prussia and to create the opportunity for an encirclement of Austria’s main force. The Austrians, forced to fight against both the Prussians in the north and the Italians in the south, mobilized in a leisurely fashion, preferring to fight a defensive battle anchored on one of its fortresses, thus missing the opportunity to deal with the Prussian armies individually. Although its northern army escaped encirclement at the Battle of Königgrätz Königgrätz, Battle of (1866)[Koniggratz](1866), Austria lost 44,000 men to 9,000 Prussians and had to sue for peace.

Because of its 1866 victory, Prussia was able to persuade many German states to join effectively in league with Prussia and create a far larger army, the Army of the North German Army of the North German ConfederationConfederation. During the 1870 diplomatic crisis with France, this force was able to appear on France’s eastern frontiers with incredible speed and to force its will upon the French army. By contrast, French mobilization was slow and confused–the strategic plan little more than a pious wish to march to Berlin via the Palatinate–and coordination between its armies was almost nonexistent. Using superior artillery to great advantage, the Prussians pinned one French army in Metz and forced the other to surrender along with Emperor Napoleon III, then proceeded to besiege Paris and dictate their terms of peace.

Unification of Germany, 1863-1871

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

One of the decisive events in weapons technology during the era of Bismarck was the invention of the Dreyse needle Dreyse needle gungun, which the Prussian army adopted in 1848. A Breech-loading weapons[Breech loading weapons]Riflesbreech-loading rifle, Dreyse’s weapon used a needle-shaped firing pin to strike a percussion cap of fulminate of mercury in the middle of the powder charge. This mechanism made possible a rate of fire five to seven times faster than that of troops using muzzle-loaders. The Dreyse’s firing pin eroded quickly, its breech was so badly sealed as to endanger the user and dissipate velocity, and the stiffness of its bolt action was such that troops in battle sometimes had to hammer it open or closed with a rock. The weapon was sighted to 400 yards. The chief objection made to its use was that it would lead to huge wastage of ammunition, leaving its users defenseless as a battle progressed. Helmuth von Moltke, Helmuth vonMoltke, Helmuth vonMoltke the Elder (1800-1891), the military architect of the unification of Germany, insisted that training would develop fire discipline and forced the Prussian army to rely on fire tactics. The Austrians were going in the other direction. In their 1859 war with Piedmont and France, the Austrian troops were armed with the Lorenz, an excellent muzzle-loading rifle that was sighted to 600 yards. Because of their unfamiliarity with the new weapon, which had a slow loading sequence, the Austrian troops could not use it correctly and were mowed down by the Bayonetsbayonets of the French, who attacked in shock columns. After the war, Austria decided to use the column rather than the line as their battle formation and came to regard the Lorenz rifle as merely a good mounting for a bayonet.

Sobered by the way in which the needle gun had cut huge swaths in the Austrian army at the Battle of Königgrätz in Königgrätz, Battle of (1866)[Koniggratz]1866, the French army adopted the breech-loading rifle invented by Antoine-Alphonse Chassepot, Antoine-AlphonseChassepot, Antoine-AlphonseChassepot (1833-1905), a vastly improved needle gun. Because the percussion cap was at the rear of the cartridge, the needle was shorter and eroded less; a superior breech seal made the weapon safer and effective at 1,600 yards.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, chief of the Prussian General Staff and the military architect of the unification of Germany.

(Library of Congress)

Rapid improvements in Artillery;Bismarck’s ageartillery also changed the battlefield. Using a mixture of bronze muzzle-loaded smoothbore cannon and unreliable breechloaders that tended to explode and butcher their crews, Prussia’s artillery was inferior to that of Austria during the Austro-Prussian War. Moreover, the Prussian gunners were inferior in both training and ability, giving the Austrians a fire capability one-third greater than that of their foes. In the next few years, however, the Prussians rearmed with the steel cannon whose rifling and superior breech mechanism deepened the battlefield to 7,000 yards. In 1870 the French were still using inferior bronze muzzle-loaders and had weakened their artillery with the addition of theMitrailleuse (machine gun)mitrailleuse. An early Gatling-type machine gun with twenty-five crank-turned barrels, the mitrailleuse could deliver 150 shots per minute. The French army, however, did not site and use the mitrailleuse as it did later machine guns. Instead it placed them with the artillery, dividing its batteries in thirds, with two six-cannon batteries and a battery of ten mitrailleuses. Because cannons had far greater ranges, the mitrailleuses were easily destroyed by Prussian fire, and the system was an overall weakening of the French artillery capability.

Military Organization

The sizes of armies increased remarkably in the nineteenth century, and their control became possible only through their organization into two or more corps, each the size of an eighteenth century army. Each corps was then organized into two or more divisions to facilitate command and control. Professional general staffs became increasingly necessary to plan and support mobilization, logistics, and operations. However, not all nations adopted the general staff General staffssystem. Those that did develop such staffs often employed them merely as clerks to field commanders.

Helmuth von Moltke, Helmuth vonMoltke, Helmuth vonMoltke became chief of the Prussia;armyPrussian General Staff in 1858 and strengthened it by selecting only the most outstanding graduates of the military academy to undergo staff training. Some of these officers then moved into field commands. Those who remained with the staff were rotated periodically into field armies. In this way, the barriers between staff and field personnel were gradually erased, and each better understood and relied on the other. Moltke realized that the advent of mass armies meant that a general headquarters could deploy armies wisely only for strategic purposes and must leave tactical responsibilities to field commanders. Between 1858 and 1866, he and the Prussian minister of war, Count Albrecht von Roon, Albrecht vonRoon, Albrecht vonRoon (1803-1879), increased the Prussian army from 100,000 to 300,000 men. They bound the Landwehr (citizen militia)Landwehr, a citizen militia, more tightly to the regular army by requiring that Landwehr recruits come from the ranks of ex-regulars and by giving command of the Landwehr recruits to officers from the regular army. After the Prussian victory over Austria, Prussia was able to create the Army of the North German Army of the North German ConfederationConfederation, using armies of the other German states organized into corps and subordinated to Prussian control. This army was able to put 983,000 men into action against France in 1870.

The lightness with which the Austria;armyAustrians took the institution of general staff is evident from the fact that in 1860 they made Ludwig von Benedek, Ludwig vonBenedek, Ludwig vonBenedek (1804-1881) both Chief of Imperial General Staff and Commander of the Army of Italy based in Verona. Four years later, Benedek arranged that the staff job go to his friend, Baron Alfred Henikstein, AlfredHenikstein, AlfredHenikstein, who promptly recommended that the position be abolished. When Benedek took over command of the Northern Army upon its mobilization in 1866, Henikstein went with him into the field while remaining as staff chief. Soldiers were recruited from all of the empire’s nationalities for a seven-year hitch. Nine different languages were used in training, but only German was used for giving commands in battle. On the eve of war in 1866, Austria could put 528,000 men in the field: 175,000 in the north, 75,000 in Italy, the rest on fortress duty. An additional 150,000 were expected from Austria’s allies among the other German states.

Otto von Bismarck (left), with French ministers Adolphe Thiers (center) and Jules Favre, negotiating peace terms at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The French Armies;Frencharmy suffered from inadequate military schools, lack of expertise in its officer corps, and a woeful lack of ability to plan, organize, and supply on any large-scale level. Its recruits were selected annually by Drafts;Francelottery, one portion to serve for seven years and provide the nucleus of a long-service professional army, and the other to receive minimal training as a reserve. Impressed by the Prussian victory over Austria, the French in 1868 attempted to increase the size of their army by having the long-term recruits serve for five years as regulars and four years as reservists, while the short-term recruits were trained for five months as a reserve. Those who escaped the lottery had to enter a national guard in which they had two weeks of training per year for five years. This system meant that the regulars and reserves would number nearly 500,000 in 1870, 300,000 of whom could be mobilized in three weeks, while the national guard would number over 417,000, with about 120,000 available for service.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, Fortresses;Bismarck’s erafortresses became increasingly obsolete as the ever-larger armies masked them with troops to prevent sallies and simply maneuvered around them. The Prussians gradually came to view the aim of war as being to crush the enemy’s army and to destroy his will and ability to resist. The Austrians, however, continued to expend huge amounts of money on fortress systems such as the Quadrilateral (fortress system)Quadrilateral, a system of four mutually supportive fortresses in northern Italy, the northernmost of which guarded Bohemia, and a series of fortified areas on the French frontier.

The French first utilized the potential of Railroads;French userailways for quickly mobilizing armies and used this ability to call a Prussian bluff in 1859. Spurred both by this episode and by the realization that Prussia was extremely vulnerable because of its level plains and geographical configuration, Moltke decided that Prussia needed war plans that emphasized extremely quick mobilization, rapid deployment, and a forward strategy that forced the enemy to fight on its own soil. He and Roon improved railways, adapting their trackage and the interior of their wagons for army use, and stringing telegraph lines along them for instant communication. In the war against Denmark, Moltke realized that railroads could be used for maneuvers as well as for mobilization and logistics. This insight, in combination with the needle rifle, led him to rely more on fire tactics than shock tactics.

The standard battle plan of the era emphasized shock Shock tactics;nineteenth centurytactics. The enemy’s line would be disrupted first by cannonade, then by sharpshooting skirmishers and dragoons. The regular regiments would then surge forward in a massive assault to break the enemy line and unleash a cavalry pursuit of the disorganized survivors. Moltke envisioned using rifle companies such as skirmishers to disrupt the enemy line and carry out a tactical envelopment. In this way, small units trained in riflery and moving and shooting from cover could destroy far larger enemy formations. These small-unit tactics were the mirror image of the movement of armies, for Moltke envisioned spreading his forces into a wide net to envelop the enemy’s army. Railroads enabled him to bring armies

from different parts of Prussia and concentrate them at the point of battle. When this method of making war worked brilliantly against the Austrians, the French began to reevaluate their reliance on columnar shock tactics and to seek a doctrine built around finding and holding superior positions. Given their long emphasis on the role of morale in shock tactics and the offensive character of their war plan against Germany, the French had not resolved the problem by the start of hostilities in 1870.

Contemporary Sources

Invaluable contemporary accounts of the weaponry, strategy, tactics, and operations of Bismarck’s wars are to be found in Prusso-German official histories, The Campaign of 1866 in Germany (1872), compiled by the Department of Military History of the Prussian Staff, and the five-volume The Franco-German War, 1870-1871 (1874-1884), by the English War Office. The Austrian official history of the Danish war, Der Krieg in Schleswig und Jütland in Jahre 1864 (1870; the war in Schleswig and Jütland in 1864) is by Friedrich von Fischer (1826-1907). The five-volume official French history of the Franco-Prussian War, La Guerre de 1870/71 (1901-1912; the war of 1870-71) is more cold-eyed and rigorous for having appeared so long after the fact. Moltke’s military writings are voluminous. The most useful for the period in question are Moltke’s militarische Korrespondenz aus den Dienstschriften des Krieges 1866 (1896; Moltke’s Projects for the Campaign Against Austria, 1907) and Geschichte des deutsch-französischen Krieges von 1870-71 (1891; The Franco-German War of 1870-71, 1891). A good selection is available in Daniel J. Hughes’s edited volume Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings (1993).

An analysis of the military lessons of Austria’s war against Piedmont and France in 1859 that was important for the formation of Austrian tactics in the Seven Weeks’ War is Anton von Mollinary’s Studien über die Operationen und Tactique (1864; studies on the operations and tactics). A thoughtful and influential eyewitness account on the first of Bismarck’s wars is Antonio Gallenga’s The Invasion of Denmark in 1864 (1864). Louis Jules Trochu’s L’Armée français en 1867 (1867; the French army in 1867) provides a description of the French army. The key and crucial role of artillery is thoroughly explored in Carl Edouard von Hoffbauer’s Die deutsche Artillerie in dem Schlachten und Treffen des deutsche-französischen Krieges, 1870-1871 (1876; German artillery in the Franco-Prussian War), and the military use of railroads is analyzed in Alfred Ernouf’s Histoire des chemins de fer français pendant la guerre franco-prussienne (1874; the history of the French railroad during the Franco-Prussian War). F. F. Steenacker’s Les Télégraphes et les postes pendant la guerre de 1870-1871 (1883) discusses military telegraphy.Bismarck, Otto vonBismarck, Otto von (chancellor of Germany)

Books and Articles
  • Badsey, Stephen. The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2003.
  • Bucholz, Arden. Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
  • _______. Moltke, Schlieffen, and Prussian War Planning. New York: Berg, 1991.
  • Carr, William. The Origins of the German Wars of Unification. New York: Longman, 1991.
  • Citino, Robert M. “Moltke’s Art of War: Innovation and Tradition.” In The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005.
  • Embree, Michael. Bismarck’s First War: The Campaign of Schleswig and Jutland, 1864. Solihull, West Midlands, England: Helion, 2006.
  • Gates, David. “The Franco-Prussian War.” In Warfare in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
  • Howard, Michael. 1992. Reprint. The Franco-Prussian War. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  • Shann, Stephen, and L. Delperier. The French Army of the Franco-Prussian War. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 1991.
  • Showalter, Dennis F. Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.
  • Solka, Michael. German Armies, 1870-71: Prussia. Illustrated by Darko Pavlovic. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2004.
  • _______. German Armies, 1870-71: Prussia’s Allies. Illustrated by Darko Pavlovic. Botley, Oxford, England: Osprey, 2005.
  • Wawro, Geoffrey. The Austro-Prussian War: Austria’s War with Prussia and Italy in 1866. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • _______. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • _______. War and Society in Europe, 1792-1914. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 2000.
Films and Other Media
  • Battles That Changed the World: The Franco-Prussian War. Documentary. Madacy Records, 1997.
  • Bismarck: Germany from Blood and Iron. Docudrama. Phoenix Learning Group, 2008.
  • Field of Honor. Thierry Brissaud, 1987.
  • The History of Warfare: The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 2007.

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