A short Sedan ride

Napoleon surrenders his sword (Wikipedia)

September 1 was a bad day for France back in 1870. They lost the crucial battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War, forcing the surrender of their army and their Emperor Napoleon III the next day. Now for my money they were well rid of the latter. But their defeat, despite the efforts of the promptly proclaimed Third Republic to fight on, had to hurt. And in the end, it turned out to be a very bad day for the rest of the world too.

It’s not that they had much of a dog in this fight. And the establishment, bloody course and violent suppression of the Paris Commune in the aftermath of the war was mostly bad for France while offering an object lesson about political radicalism to those willing to learn it. But the Franco-Prussian War had several pernicious consequences.

First, it allowed Bismarck and company to complete the unification of Germany and establishment of the German Empire whose subsequent aggressive course was the main cause of the disastrous First World War, which in turn set in motion the events leading to Hitler’s aggression and the Second World War.

Second, and related, the fact that the Franco-Prussian War was such a quick affair led politicians and the public alike, in Germany, France, Britain and throughout Europe, to overlook the possibility that the next major war would be protracted. It’s easy in retrospect to say that developments in weaponry and logistics in the 19th century, the implications of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions for wars between advanced countries, would almost certainly lead to the long, hideous stalemate of World War I, with its muddy, bloody trenches and millions killed.

In fact it could have turned out otherwise (for more on this see my documentary The Great War Remembered and stay tuned for my book of the same name). But it was a possibility given too little weight in the run-up to 1914; far too few people pondered the risk that the long, sanguinary American Civil War was a harbinger of worse to come. If Sedan had gone the other way, if the Franco-Prussian War had lasted several years, even if the French had ultimately succumbed, it might have opened men’s eyes a little wider to the really nightmarish possibilities of allowing an assassination to escalate into a general war in the summer of 1914.

It happened todayJohn Robson