At the dawn of the 20th century, Germany and France were already preparing for the war that would break-out in 1914. Following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, these two Great Powers spent the intervening 44 years preparing for a Franco-Prussian War redux. But each had analyzed their first encounter, and drawn very different conclusions as to how best to fight the next one.

The problem for the potential combatants was one of space and magnitude of forces available to both sides. There was too little of one and too much of the other.

The Franco-German frontier was only 150 miles long; from Belgium and Luxembourg in the north, to the Swiss border in the south. Because of the conscription system developed and implemented by both countries in the years since 1870, both sides had greater masses available to fill this frontier zone than ever before; creating a virtual wall of divisions from north to south.

Prussia_WilhelmII_1914_01_fullThe Kaiser inspects his troops on the eve of the Great War. All the Great Powers  had instituted universal conscription, with much of the male population of Europe enlisted in either regular or reserve formations.  This created massive armies, on a scale unseen. The Schlieffen Plan gave the Kaiser’s General Staff confidence that they had the means of defeating the French Army rapidly on the Western Front; allowing them to then shift forces east to meet the Russians.

To make matters worse for any offensive-minded theorists, both countries had spent a great deal of effort and treasure in creating fortress belts on their side of the frontier. Any attack across the mutual border by either promised to be a very hard slog indeed!

For the Germans, the problem was also one of time: they were facing a potential two-front war; with the possibility of Tsarist Russia throwing-in with the French out the outbreak of hostilities. But Russia was….

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  1. Alex Schumer says:

    This is a very interesting article. I guess one could argue that WW2 was just a continuance of the Franco-Prussian war. World War 2 was unfinished business from WW1. This is a really interesting post.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Certainly one could say that the grudges engendered by the Franco-Prussian War provided some of the tinder that led to WWI; though a much more direct cause of that terrible conflict was the interlocking series of alliances and committments all of the Great Powers had made with each other. So, when one pair of nations went to war, like dominoes it set off one chain of events after another till all the Powers were at war.

      WW2 in Europe was certainly set up by the unjust Treaty of Versailles; as well as the growth of and territorial ambitions of both communism and fascism.

      Taking it back further in history, Prussia’s animosity against France dates back to at least Napoleon. England, for its part, has played “counter-balance” in Europe to any state that tried to rise above the fold. In the 19th century, that was first Napoleonic France; and then Czarist Russia. By the early 20th century, Germany had become the greatest threat, and England turned against its traditional ally and joined its traditional enemy, France, in WWI.

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