The Crimean War, 1853-56
After a long period of peace, the coup of 1851 brought Napoleon III to the French throne, dedicated to the pursuit of glory through an aggressive foreign policy. At the same time, the growing problems of the Ottoman empire opened up to the Russians the possibilities of their first territorial gains since the short Russo-Turkish clash in 1853, and was joined by Britain, France and Piedmont-Sardinia on the Turkish side in 1854-55. It was ended by negotiation when it became clear to the Russians that they could not gain their objectives.
The Franco-Austrian War, 1859
As in the Crimean War, the aims of both sides were limited: by backing the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in its drive to expel the Austrians from northern Italy and push on towards the unification of Italy under moderate nationalist auspices, Napoleon III gained a small amount of territory.
He also hoped to defuse the radical wing of Italian nationalism, which had led to an attempt on his life by Felice Orsini the previous year. The war ended with the defeat of Austria at the battle of Solferino and the creation of a new kingdom of Italy.
Austro-Prussian War, 1866
Like the Piedmontese leader, Cavour, the Prussian chancellor, Bismarck, realised that nationalism could only be tamed, not destroyed, so in order to preserve Prussian institutions he engineered a war with Austria aimed at expelling the Austrians from the German confederation.
After a quick victory at the battle of Sadowa, Bismarck successfully resisted military pressure to annex territory. Instead, he disbanded the confederation and prepared the next step towards German unification. He realised that it would be disastrous if Austria was left with a desire for revenge. This was another short war because, like all 19th century conflicts, it had limited objectives.
Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71
Here, too, Bismarck engineered a war to remove the main obstacle to German unification, while Napoleon enthusiastically fell into a Bismarck’s trap in the belief that the defeat of Prussia would improve his weakening position at home. French forces were heavily defeated at the battle of Sedan, but the war dragged on for more months with a siege of Paris and German occupation of eastern France.
Eventually the Third Republic, which replaced Napoleon on his defeat, realised the inevitable, and peace was concluded. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine fuelled a desire for révanche that came to fruition in 1914.
Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78
Nationalist revolt in the Balkans, still under Ottoman rule, led to Turkish repression, and Russia saw the opportunity to step in and make good the reverses of 1856. The Russians inflicted a series of defeats on the Ottoman forces, who sued for peace, backed by the British, who feared any further growth of Russian influence in the region.
The treaties of San Stefano and Berlin gave independence to Serbia, Montenegro, Romania and Bulgaria, depriving the Ottoman empire of nearly all its remaining European territories. The Russians were compensated with some minor territorial gains, and the British had the satisfaction of seeing the Russian march towards the Mediterranean halted again.