Thursday, June 28, 2012

1870, The Terrible Year

While other people are interested in WWII, my imagination is captured by the "Guns of August, 1914".  Most gamers show a distinct disinterest in this time period.  I've game it.  If you want to capture the tactical feel, it's mass slaughter with 80% losses.  The carnage is overwhelming for a wargame.  Only a fanatical would want to play this.  So in desperation, I dropped back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.  Most of the English speaking world tends to ignore this conflict other than a precoursor for the First World War.  It was very real to the French and Germans who fought it.  The French called it, "1870, the Terrible year..."

There were two phases of the War.  The Imperial phase that lasted six weeks and the Republican phase that lasted the rest of the conflict until January 1871.  Most of the interesting fighting happened during the Imperial phase of the conflict.  Basically, the French would entrench in a position and the Germans would attack headlong into it.  Until the Germans brought up their breachloading Krupp guns and shelled the French infantry out of their positions.  Both sides used breachloading rifles.  And battlefield cavalry was useless during this period.  The major battles that were fought were the battles of Weissenburg, Spricheren, Froeschwiller, Colombey, Mars La Tour, Gravelotte, and Sedan.  Weissenburg, Spricheren, and Froeschwiller were frontier battles where the Imperial French had a chance to stop the German advance and failed.  Mars La Tour and Gravolette were set piece battles where both sides planned to fight instead of reacting to each other. 

And Sedan was the crowning disaster of French arms with the capture of Louis Napoleon III and one hundred thousand soldiers on the Belgian border by two German armies on September 1, 1870.  The Germans thought the War was over by then.  But the Republicans in Paris went on fighting.  The War ended with the Siege of Paris and the different provincial French armies being trampled upon by the superior German forces.  However, even the Germans got sick of the conflict and longed for peace by the Christmas of 1870.  The Siege of Paris ended in the Commune uprising and its bloody suppression by Marshal Patrice MacMahon. 

Part of the problem with the French war effort was the fossilized deadwood that inhabited the French high command.  The French infantry were good soldiers.  They were just poorly led.  The French war effort and mobilization was such a disaster, the French should have never declared war against the Prussians.  They neither had the manpower or the logistics to win against the Germans.  That is hard to replicate in a tactical wargame.  It is something better carried out in a campaign.  So the initiative lay with the Germans.  But the Germans were handicapped by their firearms, which were inferior to the French Chassepot rifle.  German artillery made up for this by raining artillery shells down on French positions during a battle.  The Germans would then send their infantry columns to attack the beleagured French once they were forced out their positions.  That microcosism is the essessence of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.     

There were also primative machine guns on the French side in addition to their muzzle loading artillery.  But the French were again handicapped by attaching their mitraileuse batteries to artillery officers, instead of using them as close support infantry weapons.  I hope this information has captured some of the flavor of the period.  My next article will focus on different rule systems that can be used to game this conflict.  

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