Review: Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe 1792-1914

Posted: June 8, 2014 in Reviews
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I greatly enjoy Geoffrey Wawro’s work. His writing is crisp, his arguments clear, his learning deep but lightly worn. His study on the Austo-Prussian War of 1866 is spectacularly good, though perhaps too hard on the Austrians and I’m still partial to Gordon Craig’s old study of Koeniggraetz.  In this post, I want to focus on his 2000 volume Warfare and Society in Europe 1792 – 1914, which I have used very successfully in teaching, and intend to use again.

First of all, the book is pitched at just the right level for undergraduate teaching, and is a great reference for grad students as well (though of course the bibliography needs updating after nearly 15 years). The chapters are anywhere from 18 to 36 pages, rendering them ideal for subject overviews that also state arguments for class discussion.

Despite the opening date of 1792, Napoleon and the French Revolution do not dominate the narrative so much as explain and contextualize the century of war-making that followed. The chapter is 23 pages, leaving enough time to identify the salient points of the Revolution and Napoleon’s impact on the art of war. In particular, Wawro deftly shows how social, tactical, and political issues cannot be considered in isolation from each other, as too many histories of Napoleonic warfare. The character of warfare was changing, as Dennis Showalter has argued began during the Seven Years War. “Civilians,” writes Wawro, “were drawn inexorably into the fighting and brutally sacrificed. Methods of strategy and tactics also change” (5).  Crucially, Wawro asks “How did Napoleon keep French-occupied Europe and the multinational Grande Armée going?” (16)  Another subtext of the chapter (and in some measure of the book) is the theme of “modern war,” which term crops up throughout the Napoleon chapter. speaking of the Battle of Borodino in 1812, he says, “Here at last was modern war: mass armies and mass slaughter, with no immediately apparent result. (Of course the fact that fewer than 80,000 men were injured by 2.09 million projectiles indicated just how far ‘modern war’ had yet to go to become truly modern.)” (20) Statements like this make the book a gold mine for teaching, as they present students with positions to argue for or against–and, full disclosure, there are many points throughout the book with which I disagree. But that’s part of the pleasure of using the book in the classroom.

Slightly less successful, in my opinion, is the chapter assessing Napoleon’s legacy, “Restoration and Revolution, 1815-49,” but that is due to two factors. First, every military historian has his or her opinions on Clausewitz and Jomini, and it will be a cold day in Hades when you can find two who agree in every particular. So, I have a different and somewhat less critical interpretation of Jomini, and indeed a less polarized picture of Jomini’s position viz-a-viz Clauswitz. Second, and partly the cause of the first point, the most incisive analysis of the Napoleonic legacy is, in my opinion, Hew Strachan’s European Armies and the Conduct of War, which actually does not take as its starting point the opinion that Clausewitz somehow grasped an “essential truth” of “modern war” that Jomini had missed. That, I think would be to give Clausewitz too much prescience, and Jomini too little. Rather, I prefer Strachan’s argument that Jomini better fit the cultural and social world of post-Napoleonic Europe.  This aside, the chapter discusses technological advances and the utility of force in post-1815 conflicts that should lead to great classroom discussions.

The following three chapters–on Napoleon III and two chapters on the rise of Prussia–are the heart of the book, and are simply outstanding. It will doubtless seem strange to some to say that Napoleon III matters in the military history of 19th-century Europe, but Wawro shows why he did.  The Prussian case is encapsulated in “Prussia’s Military Revolution” (78-84), which is a great section on which to focus the class’s attention. It also works to ask whether these military initiatives were the most important theme from 1848 to 1871, and Wawro also give plenty of material on the social and cultural aspects of Prussia to have that conversation. Although he has been occasionally criticized for treating the Prussian soldier as some kind of superman (and this admiration definitely comes through in his description of Sadowa/Koeniggraetz in 1866), there’s not much to critique in his description. The chapter on the Franco-Prussian War is pure gold, and should open readers’ and students’ eyes to the realities of the war from the French perspective. Whatever the faults of their military machine, and the weaknesses of their social-military relations, the French were not stupid, and students will benefit from Wawro’s analysis of the French approach to war.  Particularly worth pondering is Wawro’s analysis of the Battle of Woerth: “Ultimately, only two things saved the Prussians, and they were the keys to modern warfare. First, sheer numbers…Second, artillery” (113).

The issue of the “new imperialism” has been the topic of many books, and is the subject of the longest chapter in Warfare and Society. The interconnectedness of culture and warfare comes through clearly, beliefs about the “right order” or “natural order” of the world influencing what people thought military force could be used for. But, as Wawro shows, diplomacy and technology were also crucially important, and carried real, as well as imagined, results in Asia and Africa. Conventional, state-vs-state conflict also receives a lot of attention, since (and this, I think, is important) most wars were ultimately fought for more-or-less the same reasons, whether in the Sudan, South Africa, on the Danube, or in China. Russia bulks large in this chapter, its wars with the Ottoman Empire and Japan being used as lightning rods for the conduct of war and the effectiveness of modern planning and training.

The next chapter, “Sea power and popular navalism, 1890-1914,” is an excellent example of Wawro’s penchant for presenting old, apparently unconnected stories, in innovative and provocative ways (which is one of my favorite teaching methods). In particular, this chapter connects American affairs to those of Europe and the wider world, providing much-needed context for the Spanish-American War. This discussion flows seamlessly into a discussion of the Anglo-German naval race. Perhaps most striking, and particularly relevant to my interests in American-European military connections, is the factoid on page 177, that Kaiser Wilhelm II had a copy of Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower on World History placed in every ship in the German navy.

The last two chapters, “War plans and armaments: the deadly spiral, 1911-14,” and “The outbreak of World War I in 1914,” I do consider quite problematic, and besides are badly in need of updating given the last fifteen years of scholarship on these controversial and complicated topics. In this instance, Wawro’s ability to turn a fine phrase is less useful, and I think tends to obscure the bigger questions and issues of the period.  Granted, I have not read his new study on the Austrians in 1914, A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire, so I don’t know whether or not he has modified his opinion since 2000, though I suspect not. In any case, Wawro’s account, readable though it is and packed with the opinions that work as discussion points in the classroom, is outdone by such studies as those of Sean McMeekin, Hew Strachan, Holger Herwig, and by Michael S. Neiberg’s Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I (2013) and even the next volume in the Routledge series, Warfare and Society in Europe 1898 to the Present (2003).

Perhaps it would have been better to avoid a quick summing up of what was in reality a very complex phenomenon: trench warfare. It was a military problem brought on by the realities of the modern battlefield and the limitations of modern communications and transport, but it intersected crucially with social realities in all the belligerent nations, and with the different cultural ideals and beliefs that people brought to the conflict in 1914.  Wawro’s closing point, “it is useful to reflect on how Europe had arrived at this pathetic juncture” (224), is I think great for the classroom, but not helpful to the general reader, not least because, despite Wawro’s own analysis throughout the book, the reader is left with the feeling that Napoleon somehow “got it right,” while everyone else “got it wrong.” That’s not a useful basis for historical analysis, and students (and readers) would do well to be reminded of what Moltke the Younger told Kaiser Wilhelm around 1911 (as I recall from Strachan): the fact of the matter was, no one really knew whether or not mass conscript armies armed with modern weaponry would be effective on the battlefield.  Hopefully they could be controlled. Hopefully communications, firepower, initiative, and the offensive, maintained as fast as men could walk, would win through. But the fact was that after the general adoption of mass conscript armies, Jominian warfare was over, and Clausewitzian warfare was back, but on a scale and with technology that even Clausewitz would have found trouble grasping. This, in my opinion, is the more important background to 1914, and it is rather lost in these last two chapters.

As a textbook, I think Warfare and Society in Europe 1792-1914 is superb for a course on modern warfare, or more narrowly on warfare in the nineteenth century. I have found it extremely useful in helping students grasp the major concepts and debates of the period, and excellent for promoting debate and discussion over Wawro’s arguments and conclusions, whether or not I agree with every one of them. In fact, I’ve come to prefer teaching books with which I don’t agree on every detail–and besides, these points of contention represent scholarly differences, not essential ones. Highly recommended.


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