(Note: This review is for both Volumes 1 and 2 of Quintin Barry's "The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71").
For any serious student of the Franco-Prussian War, this two-volume account by Quintin Barry would have to be considered "must reading". Barry offers up the most complete and comprehensive study of the war currently in print, even more detailed than Douglas Fermer's two books on the subject, "Sedan 1870" and "France At Bay". These books are not for the casual reader, however, or someone not already familiar with the Franco-Prussian War. For more introductory accounts, either Warwo's or Howard's works would be more appropriate. But for those who really want to submerge themselves in the war, right down to the "nuts and bolts", then I would highly recommend Barry's two-volume history.
Barry has a very good writing style, which can usually overcome the sometimes very dry nature of the subject. As I mentioned, Barry's works are highly detailed, and give almost daily movements of French and especially German units, as well as clashes both large and small, for every campaign of the war. In fact, the level of such detail, especially in covering some of the lesser-known campaigns chronicled in Volume 2, can get a bit tedious. Thankfully Barry is skilled enough as a writer to enliven the subject wherever he can. Still, for all the detail, I wouldn't recommend Barry for those seeking alot of anecdotal information from the private soldier's point of view. Barry mostly confines himself to unit movement and action, and the thoughts and motivations of the commanding generals.
It helps to have good maps handy to follow the movements that are so heavily detailed in these books. Sadly, the maps given are definitely the weakest point of these volumes -- they are small and smudgy, black & white only, and appear to be very old reprints. The units are statically indicated on them, and poorly marked out. And while some maps do indicate unit locations at different times/dates, it's really hard-sledding to follow the battles and make sense of them. Also, indicators of movement (such as arrows) are not used. The maps also tend to give too much information -- as far as irrelevant topographical features, such as marking out every stream, road, and tiny village, all of which tends to interfere with the necessary information they're trying to convey... these maps are simply too "busy". After getting used to full-color, topographical maps of, say, the Osprey Series (including excellent three-quarter views of battlefields), these maps hugely disappoint. I actually ended up following the text along on such superior maps as I could find in other books or off the internet, which helped me get the feel of the action being described. I would recommend any reader to do the same, instead of relying on the maps given! Barry does provide a wealth of drawings of the actions and portraits/photographs of the various participants.
Both volumes are written definitely more from the German point of view than the French, but this fact is highlighted in the books' subtitle: "Helmuth von Moltke and the Overthrow of the Second Empire" and "Helmuth von Molkte and the Defeat of the Government of National Defense". Barry gives top priority to chronicling Moltke's plans, orders, and thoughts, which is actually very wise, because the war was so largely fought on Moltke's terms, not those of any other Germans, nor of their French adversaries. One might wish to have a bit more detailed information on French plans and movements, but due to the relative dearth of French manuscripts to draw on, compared to the vast storehouse of German works available, this is understandable. As the winners of the war, Germans were anxious to publish their accounts, including some very valuable and detailed journals of such participants as Generals Blumenthal, Verdy du Vernois, Waldersee, Stosch, the Crown Prince, Prince Frederick Wilhelm, Colonel Wartensleben, and of course, Helmuth Von Moltke himself.
During the second volume, which chronicles the various thrusts and counter-thrusts of numerous armies around France, as well as the situation in besieged Paris, Barry does a good job of presenting a balanced account, shifting focus as necessary to the various theaters of the war. My only complaint about how the material is presented is in the first volume, where the critically important battles of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte-St Privat are each only given one thin chapter apiece, while the anti-climatic Battle of Sedan occupies five whole chapters! Sorry, but I've always regarded the lopsided German victory and French surrender at Sedan as the final and inevitable outcome of a horrible political policy forced upon Marshal MacMahon and his Army of Chalons. Once MacMahon accepted the suicidal course of action being demanded from Paris, it was a foregone conclusion that his army would be penned and defeated, as they were on September 1st.
Yet the smaller scale Battle of Mars-la-Tour on August 16th offered Marshal Bazaine and his beleaguered Army of the Rhine it's best chance of defeating segments of the German army in detail and opening up the road west to Verdun, and hence to Chalons, where Bazaine could unite with MacMahon. The bigger Battle of Gravelotte-St Privat, fought two days later, still offered Bazaine some opportunities for victory and break-out towards his base to the west. It was also the biggest battle of the war by any measure, and had the largest strategic implications. Had the French gained a strategic victory at Gravelotte, then the whole course of the war would have been effected. As it was, the Germans' strategic victory insured that Bazaine and his army would be shut-up in the Metz fortifications until surrendered in late October.
Tactically, the Battle of Gravelotte is, I believe, the most interesting of the war, and offers up so many possibilities and interpretations. While it showed Marshal Bazaine once again to be a timid and weak general, and certainly not up to field-army command, it's also one of the few battles that shows the vaulted German commanders, including Moltke, and the usually reliable staff-work of the army, in a relatively poor light. Gravelotte was hardly a "feather in the cap" for the Germans, and only the muddled and defensive-based thinking of Bazaine saved them from possible disaster, as they flung 4 complete corps haphazardly and with little coordination against immensely strong French defensive positions. Based on the results of the battle, which included the heaviest losses suffered by either side in any battle of the war -- 20,160 dead & wounded Germans (against only 7,855 French killed & wounded) it's difficult to award the tactical victory to the Germans. Their final assault at 8pm against the French extreme right-flank, while very successful, was far too late in the day to allow any follow-up, and the French were given the chance to staunch the rout of their 6th Corps, stabilize their lines for the night, then pull back into Metz the next morning. Sadly, I found Barry's account of this crucial battle to be very weak and cursory, especially when considering the space he devotes to the Battle of Sedan.
Still, that having been said, I can strongly recommend both volumes of Barry's "The Franco-Prussian War" to any student of that war, or of 19th century warfare in general.