Monday, 3 July 2017

Sedan 1870: The Eclipse of France - Douglas Fermer

This review has been submitted to The British Military History Journal.

Title: Sedan 1870: The Eclipse of France
Author: Douglas Fermer
ISBN: 978-1-473-82889-6
Publisher: Pen and Sword
Year: 2015
Pages: 244
Photos/ Maps: 30/10

The Franco-Prussian War marked a historic shift in the dynamics of the European political and national stage; the decline of France and the rise of the German confederation. This was made all the more significant given the assumption by many of the predominance of French martial prowess and the relatively junior position of Germany. The results of the war left the French in political and military disarray and the Germans as the new masters of the profession of arms. Fermer’s book covers the events leading up to the commencement of the war and the proceedings up to the conclusion of the Battle of Sedan and the surrender of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.

While the book ultimately focusses upon the Battle of Sedan, the author has undertaken to provide the reader with a comprehensive understanding of not only the events but also the capabilities and political/military realities of the protagonists leading up to the conflict. This is critical as it speaks to the conditions that resulted in the unforeseen military cataclysm for France. The analysis undertaken by Fermer looks at not only the size and capabilities of the respective armies, but more importantly their respective doctrines and leadership.

France’s doctrine relating to combat was only part of the equation and, as Fermer so aptly discusses, it was the doctrine surrounding the processes relating to mobilization and logistics that proved to be the true Achilles Heel of the French. Their plans were unrealistic, unproven and based on capabilities that existed only on paper. Further exacerbating this shortcoming, the French political and military leadership chose to ignore the realities of French weakness and undertake their roles and responsibilities more as partisan political adversaries living in a delusional  world of past glories rather than the real politique of 1870 Europe.

Fermer also casts a strong light on the nascent German Empire and its efforts to establish itself as a leading member within the European host of nations. While Fermer equitably identifies the strengths and weaknesses of the German approach, it is clear that the political and military leadership of Prussia (read Germany) was much better prepared and in tune than the French. They also had the benefit of much more recent combat experience with the Danish and Austrian wars where they were able undertake critical analysis of their plans and doctrine.

Having prepared the groundwork through this macro, pan-European approach, Fermer is able to focus on the immediate events leading up the outbreak of hostilities and the initial stages of the war. His eye is critical and unrelenting as he relates the activities of the individual armies and commanders. As he discusses, the French were not without opportunity and courage but they were immediately caught behind the ‘power curve’ and surrendered the initiative to the Germans. The Germans, for their part, maintained a clear operational focus that allowed their armies to operate independently but in concert with one another. The French command and support structure rapidly collapsed under the rapidly changing operational and tactical environment and they found themselves operating reactively instead of proactively with little or no central control.

The narrative reaches its apogee with its examination of the Battle of Sedan itself. The study is such that the reader instinctively feels for the French soldiers as they fight with futile desperation under a command that has abrogated its responsibilities to the vagaries of fate. The unfolding of the battle is easily followed and related with a critical eye to the impact of local encounters on the overall battle. Both the German and French leadership is studied in some detail as to their conduct and competence with lessons to be learned for the modern day practitioner.

Fermer is an eminently readable author and his books well worth the investment. Sedan 1870, is an excellent study in hubris and hunger, doctrine and professionalism and the underlying motivation that drives troops, regardless of the quality of their leadership, to astonishing levels of self-sacrifice.       

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