The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War (German language: Deutsch–Französischer Krieg), often referred to in France as the War of 1870[page needed] (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), was a significant conflict pitting the Second French Empire against the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies in the North German Confederation, as well as the South German states of Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt.
The conflict emerged from tensions regarding the German unification. A war against France was deemed necessary to unite the North German Confederation and the independent southern German states, while France was preoccupied by the emergence of a powerful Prussia. Napoleon III seized on a supposed insult in the Ems Dispatch to declare war, which most French leaders expected to win.
The German coalition quickly took charge. Its forces were superior, due to much better training and leadership, and more effective use of modern technology. A series of swift Prussian and German victories in eastern France culminating in the Battle of Sedan, saw Napoleon III and his whole army captured on 2 September. Yet this did not end the war, as the Third Republic was declared in Paris on 4 September 1870 and French resistance continued under the Government of National Defence and Adolphe Thiers. Over a five-month campaign, the German forces defeated the newly recruited French armies in a series of battles fought across northern France. Following a prolonged siege, Paris fell on 28 January 1871. The German states proclaimed their union as the German Empire under the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, uniting Germany as a nation-state. The final Treaty of Frankfurt of 10 May 1871 gave Germany most of Alsace and some parts of Lorraine which became the Imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine.
Following defeat, a left-wing revolt broke out in Paris against the new French republic. Known as the Paris Commune, it was a landmark event in the revolutionary seizure of power by the masses, but it was harshly crushed by Adolphe Thiers. The unification of Germany into an empire in its own right, with the new industrialization of the nation, shifted the European balance of power and Otto von Bismarck maintained great authority in international affairs for two decades. France's determination to regain Alsace-Lorraine would subsequently be a major factor in France's involvement in World War I.
- 1 Causes
- 2 Opposing forces
- 3 Summary of military events
- 4 French Army incursion
- 5 Prussian Army advance
- 6 The Government of National Defence
- 7 French and Prussian naval activities
- 8 Factors resulting in German victory
- 9 Aftermath and legacy
- 10 See also
- 11 Notes
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
The causes of the Franco–Prussian War are deeply rooted in the events surrounding the German unification. In the aftermath of the Austro–Prussian War (1866), Prussia had annexed numerous territories and formed the North German Confederation. This new power destabilized the European balance of power established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon III, then the emperor of France, demanded compensations in Belgium and on the left bank of the Rhine to secure France's strategic position, which the Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, flatly refused. Prussia then turned its attention towards the south of Germany, where it sought to incorporate the southern German kingdoms, Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt, into a unified Prussia-dominated Germany. France was strongly opposed to the annexation of the southern German states, which would have significantly strengthened the Prussian military.
In Prussia, a war against France was deemed both inevitable and necessary to arouse German nationalism in those states that would allow the unification of a great German empire. This aim was epitomized by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's quote: "I knew that a Franco–Prussian War must take place before a united Germany was formed." Bismarck also knew that France should be regarded as the aggressor in the conflict to bring the southern German states to side with Prussia, hence giving Germans numerical superiority. Many Germans also viewed the French as the traditional destabilizer of Europe, and sought to weaken France to prevent further breaches of the peace.
However, the immediate cause of the war resides in the candidacy of a Prussian prince to the throne of Spain. France feared encirclement by an alliance between Prussia and Spain. The Hohenzollern prince's candidacy was withdrawn under French diplomatic pressure, but Otto von Bismarck goaded the French into declaring war by altering a telegram sent by William I. Releasing the Ems Telegram to the public, Bismarck made it sound as if the king had treated the French envoy in a demeaning fashion. Six days later, France declared war on Prussia and the southern German states immediately sided with Prussia. In addition to the diplomatic insult, Napoleon III and his Prime Minister, Émile Ollivier were also motivated to declare war in an attempt to solve internal political problems.
The French Army comprised approximately 400,000 regular soldiers, some of them veterans of previous French campaigns in the Crimean War, Algeria, the Franco–Austrian War in Italy, and in the Franco–Mexican War. The infantry were equipped with the breech-loading Chassepot rifle, one of the most modern mass-produced firearms in the world at the time. With a rubber ring seal and a smaller bullet, the Chassepot had a maximum effective range of some 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) with a short reloading time. The artillery was equipped with rifled, muzzle-loaded Lahitte "4-pounder" (actual weight of shot: 4 kg or 8.8 lb) guns. In addition, the army was equipped with a precursor to the machine-gun: the mitrailleuse, which could unleash significant, dangerous, concentrated firepower, with a weakness of having short range and relative immobility and thus prone to being easily overrun. The mitrailleuse was mounted on an artillery gun carriage and grouped in batteries in a similar fashion to cannon. The army was nominally led by Napoleon III with Marshals Francois Achille Bazaine, Patrice de Mac-Mahon, and Jules Trochu among others.
The Prussian Army was composed not of regulars but conscripts. Service was compulsory for all of the men of military age, and thus Prussia and its North and South German allies could mobilise and field some 1,200,000 soldiers in time of war. The sheer number of soldiers available made mass-encirclement and destruction of enemy formations advantageous. The army was still equipped with the "needle-gun" Dreyse rifle of Battle of Königgrätz fame, which was by this time showing the age of its 25-year-old design. The deficiencies of the needle-gun were more than compensated for by the famous Krupp 6-pounder (3 kg) steel breech-loading cannons being issued to Prussian artillery batteries. Firing a contact-detonated shell filled with zinc balls and explosives, the Krupp gun had a range of 4,500 metres (14,800 ft) and blistering rate of fire compared to the French bronze muzzle loading cannon. The Prussian army was commanded by Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke and the Prussian General Staff. The Prussian army was unique in Europe for having the only General Staff in existence, whose sole purpose was to direct operational movement, organise logistics and communications, and develop the overall war strategy. In practice, a chief of staff was a much more important figure in the Prussian Army than in any other army, because he had the right to appeal against his superior to the commander of the next highest formation. Thus, for example, the Crown Prince was unable to contradict the advice of his Chief of Staff, General Leonhard, Count von Blumenthal, for fear of a direct appeal (in this case) to his father, the King.
Given that France maintained a strong standing army, and that Prussia and the other German states would need weeks to mobilise their conscript armies, the French held the initial advantage of troop numbers and experience. French tactics emphasised the defensive use of the Chassepot rifle in trench-warfare style fighting; German tactics emphasised encirclement battles and using artillery offensively whenever possible.
Summary of military events
The efficiency of German mobilization contrasted with confusion and delay on the French side. Germany was able to deliver 380,000 troops to the forward zone within 18 days of the start of mobilization on 14 July, while many French units reached the front either late or with inadequate supplies. The German and French armies that then confronted each other were both grouped into right and left wings. After suffering a check by the Crown Prince and General von Blumenthal at the Battle of Wörth on 6 August 1870, the commander of the French right (south) wing, Marshal Patrice MacMahon, retreated westward. That same day, about 40 miles (64 km) to the northwest, the commander of the French left wing, Marshal Achille Bazaine, was dislodged from near Saarbrücken and fell back westward to the fortress of Metz. His further retreat was checked by the German right wing in two blundering battles on 16 and 18 August, respectively (the Battles of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte), and he then took refuge behind the defenses of Metz until forced by starvation to surrender on 29 October.
The French right wing, commanded by MacMahon and accompanied by Napoleon III himself, attempted to relieve Bazaine but was itself surrounded and trapped by the Germans in the disastrous Battle of Sedan on 31 August. Encircled, the 83,000 French troops with Napoleon III and MacMahon surrendered on 2 September. Since Bazaine's army was still bottled up in Metz, the result of the war was virtually decided by this surrender. French resistance was carried on against desperate odds by a new government of national defense, which assumed power in Paris on 4 September 1870, and proclaimed the deposition of the emperor and the establishment of the Third Republic. On 19 September, the Germans laid siege to Paris. Jules Favre, foreign minister in the new government, went to negotiate with Bismarck, but the negotiations were broken off when he found that Germany demanded both Alsace and Lorraine regions. Léon Gambetta, the leading figure in the provisional government, organized new French armies in the countryside after escaping from besieged Paris in a balloon. These engaged but could not defeat the German forces. Bazaine capitulated at Metz with his 140,000 troops intact on 27 October, and Paris surrendered on 28 January 1871.
French Army incursion
Preparations for the offensive
On 28 July 1870 Napoleon III left Paris for Metz and assumed command of the newly titled Army of the Rhine, some 202,448 strong and expected to grow as the French mobilization progressed. Marshal MacMahon took command of I Corps (4 infantry divisions) near Wissembourg, Marshal François Canrobert brought VI Corps (4 infantry divisions) to Châlons-sur-Marne in northern France as a reserve and to guard against a Prussian advance through Belgium.
A pre-war plan laid out by the late Marshal Adolphe Niel called for a strong French offensive from Thionville towards Trier and into the Prussian Rhineland. This plan was discarded in favour of a defensive plan by Generals Charles Frossard and Bartélemy Lebrun, which called for the Army of the Rhine to remain in a defensive posture near the German border and repel any Prussian offensive. As Austria along with Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden were expected to join in a revenge war against Prussia, I Corps would invade the Bavarian Palatinate and proceed to "free" the South German states in concert with Austro-Hungarian forces. VI Corps would reinforce either army as needed.
Unfortunately for General Frossard's plan, the Prussian army was mobilizing far more rapidly than expected. The Austro-Hungarians, still smarting after their defeat by Prussia in the Austro–Prussian War, were treading carefully before stating that they would only commit to France's cause if the southern Germans viewed the French positively. This did not materialize as the South German states had come to Prussia's aid and were mobilizing their armies against France.
Occupation of Saarbrücken
Napoleon III was under immense domestic pressure to launch an offensive before the full might of Moltke's forces was mobilized and deployed. Reconnaissance by General Frossard had identified only the Prussian 16th Infantry Division guarding the border town of Saarbrücken, right before the entire Army of the Rhine. Accordingly, on 31 July the Army marched forward toward the Saar River to seize Saarbrücken.
General Frossard's II Corps and Marshal Bazaine's III Corps crossed the German border on 2 August, and began to force the Prussian 40th Regiment of the 16th Infantry Division from the town of Saarbrücken with a series of direct attacks. The Chassepot rifle proved its worth against the Dreyse rifle, with French riflemen regularly outdistancing their Prussian counterparts in the skirmishing around Saarbrücken. However the Prussians resisted strongly, and the French suffered 86 casualties to the Prussian 83 casualties. Saarbrücken also proved to be a major obstacle in terms of logistics. Only one railway there led to the German hinterland but could be easily defended by a single force, and the only river systems in the region ran along the border instead of inland. While the French hailed the invasion as the first step towards the Rhineland and later Berlin, General Le Bœuf and Napoleon III were receiving alarming reports from foreign news sources of Prussian and Bavarian armies massing to the southeast in addition to the forces to the north and northeast.
Moltke had indeed massed three armies in the area—the Prussian First Army with 50,000 men, commanded by General Karl Von Steinmetz opposite Saarlouis, the Prussian Second Army with 134,000 men commanded by Prince Friedrich Karl opposite the line Forbach–Spicheren, and the Prussian Third Army with 120,000 men commanded by Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, poised to cross the border at Wissembourg.
Prussian Army advance
Battle of Wissembourg
Upon learning from captured Prussian soldiers and a local area police chief that the Prussian Crown Prince's Third Army was just 30 miles (48 km) from Saarbrücken near the town of Wissembourg, General Le Bœuf and Napoleon III decided to retreat to defensive positions. General Frossard, without instructions, hastily withdrew the elements of Army of the Rhine in Saarbrücken back to Spicheren and Forbach.
Marshal MacMahon, now closest to Wissembourg, left his four divisions spread 20 miles (32 km) apart in diameter to react to any Prussian invasion. This organization of forces was due to a lack of supplies, forcing each division to seek out basic provisions along with the representatives of the army supply arm that was supposed to aid them. What made a bad situation much worse was the conduct of General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot, commander of MacMahon's 1st Division. He told General Abel Douay, commander of MacMahon's 2nd Division, on 1 August that "The information I have received makes me suppose that the enemy has no considerable forces very near his advance posts, and has no desire to take the offensive". Two days later, he told MacMahon that he had not found "a single enemy post [...] it looks to me as if the menace of the Bavarians is simply bluff". Even though Ducrot shrugged off the possibility of an attack by the Germans, MacMahon still tried to warn the other divisions of his army, without success.
The first action of the Franco–Prussian War took place on 4 August 1870. This battle saw the unsupported division of General Douay of I Corps, with some attached cavalry, which was posted to watch the border, attacked in overwhelming but poorly coordinated fashion by the German 3rd Army. As the day wore on, elements of one Bavarian and two Prussian Corps became embroiled in the fight, and were aided by Prussian artillery which blasted holes in the defenses of the town. Douay held a very strong position initially thanks to the accurate long range fire of the Chassepots, but his force was too thinly stretched to hold it. Douay was killed in the late morning when a caisson of the divisional mitrailleuse battery exploded near him. No matter who took his place, the encirclement of the town by the enemy had put the entire division in peril.
The fighting within the town had become extremely intense, becoming a door to door battle of survival. Despite a never-ending attack of Prussian infantry, the soldiers of the 2nd Division kept to their positions.The people of the town of Wissembourg finally surrendered to the Germans. Those who did not surrender retreated westward, leaving behind 1,000 captured men and all of their remaining ammunition. The Prussians seemed poised to capitalize on these happenings, and the French appeared still woefully unaware of the now forming Prussian juggernaut.
Battle of Spicheren
The Battle of Spicheren, on 5 August, was the second of three critical French defeats. Moltke had originally planned to keep Bazaine's army on the Saar River until he could attack it with the 2nd Army in front and the 1st Army on its left flank, while the 3rd Army closed towards the rear. The aging General Karl Von Steinmetz made an overzealous, unplanned move, leading the 1st Army south from his position on the Moselle. He moved straight toward the town of Spicheren, cutting off Prince Frederick Charles from his forward cavalry units in the process.
On the French side, planning after the disaster at Wissembourg had become essential. General Le Bœuf, flushed with anger, was intent upon going on the offensive over the Saar and countering their loss. However, planning for the next encounter was more based upon the reality of unfolding events rather than emotion or pride, as Intendant General Wolff told him and his staff that supply beyond the Saar would be impossible. Therefore, the armies of France would take up a defensive position that would protect against every possible attack point, but also left the armies unable to support each other.
While the French army under General MacMahon engaged the German 3rd Army at the Battle of Wörth, the German 1st Army under Steinmetz finished their advance west from Saarbrücken. A patrol from the German 2nd Army under Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia spotted decoy fires close and Frossard's army farther off on a distant plateau south of the town of Spicheren, and took this as a sign of Frossard's retreat. Ignoring Moltke's plan again, both German armies attacked Frossard's French 2nd Corps, fortified between Spicheren and Forbach
The French were unaware of German numerical superiority at the beginning of the battle as the German 2nd Army did not attack all at once. Treating the oncoming attacks as merely skirmishes, Frossard did not request additional support from other units. By the time he realized what kind of a force he was opposing, it was too late. Seriously flawed communications between Frossard and those in reserve under Bazaine slowed down so much that by the time the reserves received orders to move out to Spicheren, German soldiers from the 1st and 2nd armies had charged up the heights. Because the reserves had not arrived, Frossard erroneously believed that he was in grave danger of being outflanked as German soldiers under General von Glume were spotted in Forbach. Instead of continuing to defend the heights, by the close of battle after dusk he retreated to the south. The German casualties were relatively high due to the advance and the effectiveness of the chassepot rifle. They were quite startled in the morning when they had found out that their efforts were not in vain–Frossard had abandoned his position on the heights.
Battle of Wörth (known also as Fröschwiller or Reichshoffen)
The two armies clashed again two days later on 6 August 1870 near Wörth in the town of Fröschwiller, less than ten miles (16 km) from Wissembourg. The Crown Prince of Prussia's 3rd army had, on the quick reaction of his Chief of Staff General von Blumenthal, drawn reinforcements which brought its strength up to 140,000 troops. The French had also been reinforced, but their recruitment was slow, and their force numbered only 35,000. Although badly outnumbered, the French defended their position just outside Fröschwiller. By afternoon, both sides had suffered about 10,000 casualties, and the French army was too battered to continue resisting. To make matters even more dire for the French, the Germans had taken the town of Fröschwiller which sat on a hilltop in the centre of the French line. Having lost any hope for victory and facing a massacre, the French army disengaged and retreated in a westerly direction, hoping to join other French forces on the other side of the Vosges mountains. The German 3rd army did not pursue the withdrawing French. It remained in Alsace and moved slowly south, attacking and destroying the French defensive garrisons in the vicinity.
The battle of Wörth was the first major battle of the Franco–German war, with more than 100,000 troops in the battlefield. It was also one of the first clashes where troops from various German states (Prussians, Badeners, Bavarians, Saxons, etc.) fought jointly. These facts have led some historians to call the battlefield of Wörth the "cradle of Germany". It was not without cost, however, as Prussia lost 10,500 to death or wounds. MacMahon's situation was even more dire, as French casualties reached 19,200 killed, wounded or captured.
Battle of Mars-La-Tour
With the Prussian army now steamrolling, 130,000 French soldiers were bottled up in the fortress of Metz following several defeats at the front. Their attempt to leave Metz in order to link up with French forces at Châlons was spotted by a Prussian cavalry patrol under Major Oskar von Blumenthal. Four days after their retreat, on 16 August a grossly outnumbered Prussian force of 30,000 men of III Corps (of the 2nd Army) under General Konstantin von Alvensleben, found the French Army near Vionville, east of Mars-la-Tour.
Despite odds of four to one, the III Corps launched a risky attack. The French were routed and the III Corps captured Vionville, blocking any further escape attempts to the west. Once blocked from retreat, the French in the fortress of Metz had no choice but to engage in a fight that would see the last major cavalry engagement in Western Europe. The battle soon erupted, and III Corps was shattered by incessant cavalry charges, losing over half its soldiers. Meanwhile, French suffered equivalent losses of 16,000 soldiers, but still enjoyed huge numerical superiority.
On 16 August, the French had a chance to sweep away the key Prussian defense, and to escape. Two Prussian corps attacked the French advanced guard thinking that it was the rearguard of the retreat of the French Army of the Meuse. Despite this misjudgment the two Prussian corps held the entire French army for the whole day. Outnumbered 5 to 1, the extraordinary élan of the Prussians prevailed over gross indecision by the French. The French had lost the opportunity to win a decisive victory.
Battle of Gravelotte
The Battle of Gravelotte, or Gravelotte–St. Privat, was the largest battle during the Franco–Prussian War. It was fought about six miles (10 km) west of Metz, Lorraine, France where on the previous day, having intercepted the French army's retreat to the west at the Battle of Mars-La-Tour, the Prussians were now closing in to complete the destruction of the French forces.
The combined German forces, under Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke, were the Prussian First and Second Armies of the North German Confederation numbering about 210 infantry battalions, 133 cavalry squadrons, and 732 heavy cannons totaling 188,332 officers and men. The French Army of the Rhine, commanded by Marshal François-Achille Bazaine, numbering about 183 infantry battalions, 104 cavalry squadrons, backed by 520 heavy cannons, totaling 112,800 officers and men, dug in along high ground with their southern left flank at the town of Rozerieulles, and their northern right flank at St. Privat.
On 18 August, the battle began when at 08:00 Moltke ordered the First and Second Armies to advance against the French positions. By 12:00, General Manstein opened up the battle before the village of Amanvillers with artillery from the 25th Infantry Division. But the French had spent the night and early morning digging trenches and rifle pits while placing their artillery and their mitrailleuses in concealed positions. Finally aware of the Prussian advance, the French opened up a massive return fire against the mass of advancing Germans. The battle at first appeared to favor the French with their superior Chassepot rifle. However, the Prussian artillery was superior with the all-steel Krupp breech-loading gun.
By 14:30, General Steinmetz, the commander of the First Army, unilaterally launched his VIII Corps across the Mance Ravine in which the Prussian infantry were soon pinned down by murderous rifle and mitrailleuse fire from the French positions. At 15:00, the massed guns of the VII and VIII Corps opened fire to support the attack. But by 16:00, with the attack in danger of stalling, Steinmetz ordered the VII Corps forward, followed by the 1st Cavalry Division.
By 16:50, with the Prussian southern attacks in danger of breaking up, the Prussian 3rd Guards Infantry Brigade of the Second Army opened an attack against the French positions at St. Privat which were commanded by General Canrobert. At 17:15, the Prussian 4th Guards Infantry Brigade joined the advance followed at 17:45 by the Prussian 1st Guards Infantry Brigade. All of the Prussian Guard attacks were pinned down by lethal French gunfire from the rifle pits and trenches. At 18:15 the Prussian 2nd Guards Infantry Brigade, the last of the 1st Guards Infantry Division, was committed to the attack on St. Privat while Steinmetz committed the last of the reserves of the First Army across the Mance Ravine. By 18:30, a considerable portion of the VII and VIII Corps disengaged from the fighting and withdrew towards the Prussian positions at Rezonville.
With the defeat of the First Army, Prince Frederick Charles ordered a massed artillery attack against Canrobert's position at St. Privat to prevent the Guards attack from failing too. At 19:00 the 3rd Division of Fransecky's II Corps of the Second Army advanced across Ravine while the XII Corps cleared out the nearby town of Roncourt and with the survivors of the 1st Guards Infantry Division launched a fresh attack against the ruins of St. Privat. At 20:00, the arrival of the Prussian 4th Infantry Division of the II Corps and with the Prussian right flank on Mance Ravine, the line stabilised. By then, the Prussians of the 1st Guards Infantry Division and the XII and II Corps captured St. Privat forcing the decimated French forces to withdraw. With the Prussians exhausted from the fighting, the French were now able to mount a counter-attack. General Bourbaki, however, refused to commit the reserves of the French Old Guard to the battle because, by that time, he considered the overall situation a 'defeat'.
By 22:00, firing largely died down across the battlefield for the night. The next morning, the French Army of the Rhine, rather than resume the battle with an attack of its own against the battle-weary German armies, retreated to Metz where they were besieged and forced to surrender two months later.
The casualties were horrible, especially for the attacking Prussian forces. A grand total of 20,163 German troops were killed, wounded or missing in action during the August 18 battle. The French losses were 7,855 killed and wounded along with 4,420 prisoners of war (half of them were wounded) for a total of 12,275. While most of the Prussians fell under the French Chassepot rifles, most French fell under the Prussian Krupp shells. In a breakdown of the casualties, Frossard's II Corps of the Army of the Rhine suffered 621 casualties while inflicting 4,300 casualties on the Prussian First Army under Steinmetz before the Pointe du Jour. The Prussian Guards Infantry Divisions losses were even more staggering with 8,000 casualties out of 18,000 men. The Special Guards Jäger lost 19 officers, a surgeon and 431 men out of a total of 700. The 2nd Guards Infantry Brigade lost 39 officers and 1,076 men. The 3rd Guards Infantry Brigade lost 36 officers and 1,060 men. On the French side, the units holding St. Privat lost more than half their number in the village.
Siege of Metz and the Battle of Sedan
With the defeat of Marshal Bazaine's Army of the Rhine at Gravelotte, the French were forced to retire to Metz where they were besieged by over 150,000 Prussian troops of the First and Second Armies. The further crushing French loss was sealed when the 180,000 soldiers surrendered on 27 October.
As a result of the defeat, Napoleon III, along with Field Marshal MacMahon, formed the new French Army of Châlons to march on to Metz to rescue Bazaine. With Napoleon III personally leading the army with Marshal MacMahon in attendance, they led the Army of Châlons in a left-flanking march northeast towards the Belgian border in an attempt to avoid the Prussians before striking south to link up with Bazaine.
The Prussians, under the command of Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke, took advantage of this maneuver to catch the French in a pincer grip. Leaving the Prussian First and Second Armies besieging Metz, Moltke formed the Army of the Meuse under the Crown Prince of Saxony by detaching three corps from them, and took this army and the Prussian Third Army northward, where they caught up with the French at Beaumont on 30 August. After a sharp fight in which they lost 5,000 men and 40 cannons, the French withdrew toward Sedan. Having reformed in the town, the Army of Châlons was immediately isolated by the converging Prussian armies. Napoleon III ordered the army to break out of the encirclement immediately. With MacMahon wounded on the previous day, General Auguste Ducrot took command of the French troops in the field.
On 1 September 1870, the battle opened with the Army of Châlons, with 202 infantry battalions, 80 cavalry squadrons and 564 guns, attacking the surrounding Prussian Third and Meuse Armies totaling 222 infantry battalions, 186 cavalry squadrons and 774 guns. General De Wimpffen, the commander of the French V Corps in reserve, hoped to launch a combined infantry and cavalry attack against the Prussian XI Corps. But by 11:00, Prussian artillery took a toll on the French while more Prussian troops arrived on the battlefield. The French cavalry, commanded by General Marguerite, launched three desperate attacks on the nearby village of Floing where the Prussian XI Corps was concentrated. Marguerite was killed leading the very first charge and the two additional charges led to nothing but heavy losses.
By the end of the day, with no hope of breaking out, Napoleon III called off the attacks. The French lost over 17,000 men, killed or wounded, with 21,000 captured. The Prussians reported their losses at 2,320 killed, 5,980 wounded and 700 captured or missing.
By the next day, on 2 September, Napoleon III surrendered and was taken prisoner with 104,000 of his soldiers. It was an overwhelming victory for the Prussians, for they not only captured an entire French army, but the leader of France as well. The defeat of the French at Sedan had decided the war in Prussia's favour. One French army was now immobilised and besieged in the city of Metz, and no other forces stood on French ground to prevent a German invasion. Nevertheless, the war would drag on for five more months.
The Government of National Defence
When news hit Paris of Emperor Napoleon's III capture, the French Second Empire was overthrown in a bloodless and successful coup d'état which was launched by General Trochu, Jules Favre, and Léon Gambetta at Paris on 4 September. They removed the second Bonapartist monarchy and proclaimed a republic led by a Government of National Defence, leading to the Third Republic. Napoleon III was taken to Germany, and released later. He went into exile in the United Kingdom, dying in 1873.
After the German victory at Sedan, most of France's standing forces were out of combat, one army was immobilised and besieged in the city of Metz, and the army led by Emperor Napoleon III himself had surrendered to the Germans. Under these circumstances, the Germans hoped for an armistice which would put an official end to the hostilities and lead to peace. Prussia's Prime Minister Bismarck, in particular, wanted to end the war as soon as possible. To a nation with as many neighbors as Prussia, a prolonged war meant the growing risk of intervention by another power, and Bismarck was determined to limit that risk.
At first, the outlook for peace seemed fair. The Germans estimated that the new government of France could not be interested in continuing the war that had been declared by the monarch they had quickly deposed. Hoping to pave the road to peace, von Bismarck invited the new French Government to negotiations held at Château de Ferrières and submitted a list of moderate conditions, including limited territorial demands in Alsace. Further claims of a French border along the Rhine in Palatinate had been made since (Adolphe Thiers, Rhine crisis) 1840, while the Germans vowed to defend both banks of the Rhine (Die Wacht am Rhein). As Prussia had recently acquired large areas populated by Catholics, further extensions were not considered desirable by Bismarck.
Armistice rejection and continuance of hostilities
While the republican government was amenable to reparation payments or transfer of colonial territories in Africa or in South East Asia to Prussia, Jules Favre on behalf of the Government of National Defense declared on 6 September that France would not "yield an inch of its territory nor a stone of its fortresses." The republic then renewed the declaration of war, called for recruits in all parts of the country, and pledged to drive the enemy troops out of France.
Under these circumstances, the Germans had to continue the war, yet could not pin down any proper military opposition in their vicinity. As the bulk of the remaining French armies were digging-in near Paris, the German leaders decided to put pressure upon the enemy by attacking Paris. By September 15, German troops reached the outskirts of the heavily fortified city of Paris. On September 19, the Germans surrounded it and erected a blockade, as already established and ongoing at Metz.
When the war broke out, European public opinion heavily favored the Germans. For example, many Italians attempted to sign up as volunteers at the Prussian embassy in Florence, and a Prussian diplomat visited Giuseppe Garibaldi in Caprera. Bismarck's demand for the return of Alsace caused a dramatic shift in that sentiment in Italy, which was best exemplified by the reaction of Garibaldi soon after the revolution in Paris, who told the Movimento of Genoa on 7 September 1870 that "Yesterday I said to you: war to the death to Bonaparte. Today I say to you: rescue the French Republic by every means." Subsequently, Garibaldi went to France and assumed command of the Army of the Vosges.
Siege of Paris
The Siege of Paris (19 September 1870 – 28 January 1871) brought about the final defeat of the French Army during the Franco–Prussian War. On 18 January the new German Empire was proclaimed at the Palace of Versailles.
Faced with the German blockade of Paris, the new French government called for the establishment of several large armies in France's provinces. These new bodies of troops were to march towards Paris and attack the Germans there from various directions at the same time. In addition, armed French civilians were to create a guerilla force—the so-called Francs-tireurs—for the purpose of attacking German support lines.
These developments prompted calls from the German civilian public for a bombardment of the city. General Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal, who commanded the siege, was opposed to the bombardment on moral grounds. In this he was backed by other senior military figures such as the Crown Prince and Moltke. All of them had married English wives and as a result they were accused of coming under English liberal influence.
Dispatched from Paris as the republican government's emissary, Léon Gambetta passed over the German lines in a balloon inflated with coal gas from the city's gasworks, and organized the recruitment of new French armies.
News about an alleged German "extermination" plan infuriated the French and strengthened their support to their new government. Within a few weeks, five new armies totaling more than 500,000 troops were recruited.
The Germans noticed this development and dispatched some of their troops to the French provinces in order to detect, attack, and disperse the new French armies before they could become a menace, for the blockade of Paris or elsewhere. The Germans were not prepared for an occupation of the whole of France. This would overstretch them and they would become vulnerable to the Danes or the Austrians who had recently lost to Prussia in 1864 and 1866 respectively
On 10 October, fighting erupted between German and French republican forces near Orléans. At first, the Germans were victorious, but the French drew reinforcements and defeated the Germans at Coulmiers on 9 November. But after the surrender of Metz, more than 100,000 well-trained and battle-experienced German troops joined the German 'Southern Army'. With these reinforcements, the French were forced to abandon Orléans on 4 December, to be finally defeated at the Battle of Le Mans (between 10–12 January).
Following the Army of the Loire's defeats, Gambetta turned to General Faidherbe's Army of the North. The Army of the North had achieved several small victories at towns such as Ham, La Hallue, and Amiens, and was well-protected by the belt of fortresses in northern France, allowing Faidherbe's men to launch quick attacks against isolated Prussian units, then retreat behind the belt of fortresses. Despite the army's access to the armaments factories of Lille, the Army of the North suffered from severe supply difficulties which kept the soldiers' already poor morale at a permanently low level. In January 1871, Gambetta forced Faidherbe to march his army beyond the fortresses and engage the Prussians in open battle. The army was severely weakened by low morale, supply problems, the terrible winter weather, and low troop quality, whilst General Faidherbe himself was unable to direct battles effectively due to his poor health, the result of decades of campaigning in West Africa. At the Battle of St. Quentin, the Army of the North suffered a crushing defeat and was scattered, releasing thousands of Prussian soldiers to be relocated to the East.
Following the destruction of the French Army of the Loire, remnants of the Loire army gathered in eastern France to form the Army of the East, commanded by General Charles Bourbaki. In a final attempt to cut the German supply lines in northeast France, Bourbaki's army marched north to attack the Prussian siege of Belfort and relieve the beleaguered French defenders.
In the battle of the Lisaine, Bourbaki's men failed to break through German lines commanded by General August von Werder. Bringing in the German 'Southern Army', General von Manteuffel then drove Bourbaki's army into the mountains near the Swiss border. Facing annihilation, this last intact French army crossed the border and was disarmed and imprisoned by the neutral Swiss near Pontarlier (1 February).
On 28 January 1871 the Government of National Defense based in Paris negotiated an armistice with the Prussians. With Paris starving, and Gambetta's provincial armies reeling from one disaster after another, French foreign minister Jules Favre went to Versailles on 24 January to discuss peace terms with Bismarck.
Bismarck agreed to end the siege and allow food convoys to immediately enter Paris (including trains carrying millions of German army rations), on condition that the Government of National Defence surrender several key fortresses outside Paris to the Prussians. Without the forts, the French Army would no longer be able to defend Paris. Although public opinion in Paris was strongly against any form of surrender or concession to the Prussians, the Government realised that it could not hold the city for much longer, and that Gambetta's provincial armies would probably never break through to relieve Paris. President Jules Trochu resigned on 25 January and was replaced by Jules Favre, who signed the surrender two days later at Versailles, with the armistice coming into effect at midnight. Several sources claim that in his carriage on the way back to Paris, Favre broke into tears, and collapsed into his daughter's arms as the guns around Paris fell silent at midnight.
At Tours, Gambetta received word from Paris on 30 January that the Government had surrendered. Furious, he refused to surrender and launched an immediate attack on German forces at Orleans which, predictably, failed. A delegation of Parisian diplomats arrived in Tours by train on 5 February to negotiate with Gambetta, and the following day Gambetta stepped down and surrendered control of the provincial armies to the Government of National Defence, which promptly ordered a ceasefire across France.
At the outset of the war, the French government ordered a blockade of the North German coasts, which the relatively small North German navy (Norddeutsche Bundesmarine) could do little to oppose. Despite this, the blockade proved only partially successful due to crucial oversights by the planners in Paris. Conscripts that were supposed to be at the ready in case of war were in use in Newfoundland fisheries or in Scotland, thereby reducing manpower. Therefore, only partial elements of the 470-ship French Navy put to sea on 22 July 1870. Before long, the French navy began to suffer shortages of coal. An unsuccessful blockade of Wilhelmshaven and conflicting orders on whether or not to proceed to the Baltic Sea or to return to France made the French naval efforts ineffective.
To relieve pressure from the expected German attack into Alsace-Lorraine, Napoleon III and others in the French high command planned at the outset of the war to launch a seaborne invasion of northern Germany. French planners hoped that the invasion would not only divert German troops from the front, but also inspire Denmark to assist with its 50,000 strong army and substantial navy. However it was discovered that Prussia had recently installed formidable defences around the major North German ports, including coastal artillery batteries consisting of Krupp heavy artillery that could hit French ships from a distance of 4,000 yards (3,700 m). The French Navy lacked the necessary heavy weaponry to deal with these coastal defences, while the difficult topography of the Prussian coastline (see the article Wadden Sea) made a seaborne invasion of northern Germany impossible.
The French Marines and naval infantry tasked with the invasion of northern Germany were subsequently dispatched to bolster the French Army of Châlons and fell into captivity at the Battle of Sedan along with Napoleon III. With France suffering a severe shortage of officers following the capture of most of the professional French army at the Siege of Metz and at the Battle of Sedan, naval officers were taken from their ships to officer the hastily assembled gardes mobiles or French reserve army units.
As the autumn storms of the North Sea took their toll on the remaining patrolling French ships, the blockade became less and less effective. In September 1870 the French navy finally abandoned the blockade altogether for the winter, and the French Navy retired to ports along the English Channel, remaining in port for the rest of the war.
Isolated engagements took place between French and German ships in other theaters, such as the blockade by FS Dupleix of the German ship Hertha in Nagasaki, Japan, and the gunboat battle between the Prussian Meteor and the French Bouvet outside of Havana, Cuba, in November 1870.
Factors resulting in German victory
The quick German victory over the French stunned neutral observers, many of whom had expected a French victory and most of whom had expected, at the very least, a prolonged conflict. The strategic advantages possessed by the Germans were not appreciated outside Germany until after hostilities had ceased.
Other countries quickly discerned the advantages given to the Germans by their military system, and adopted many of their innovations, particularly the General Staff, universal conscription, and highly detailed mobilization systems.
General Staff system
The Prussian General Staff developed by Moltke proved to be extremely effective, in contrast to the traditional French school. This was in large part due to the fact that the Prussian General Staff was created to study previous Prussian operations and learn from previous mistakes. The structure also greatly strengthened Moltke's ability to control large formations spread out over significant distances. The Chief of the General Staff, effectively the commander in chief of the Prussian army, was independent of the minister of war and answered only to the monarch. The French General Staff—along with those of every other European military—was little better than a collection of assistants for the line commanders. This disorganization hampered the French commanders' ability to exercise control of their forces.
In addition, the Prussian military education system was superior to the French model; Prussian staff officers were trained to exhibit initiative and independent thinking. Indeed, this was Moltke's expectation. The French, meanwhile, suffered from an education and promotion system that stifled intellectual development. According to the military historian Dallas Irvine, the system "was almost completely effective in excluding the army's brain power from the staff and high command. To the resulting lack of intelligence at the top can be ascribed all the inexcusable defects of French military policy."
Albrecht von Roon, the Prussian Minister of War from 1859 to 1873, put into effect a series of reforms of the Prussian military system in the 1860s. Among these were two major reforms that substantially increased the military power of Germany. The first was a reorganization of the army that integrated the regular army and the Landwehr reserves. The second was the provision for the conscription of every male Prussian of military age in the event of mobilization. Thus, despite the population of France being greater than the population of all of the German states that participated in the war, the Germans mobilized more soldiers for battle.
|Population in 1870||Mobilized|
|Second French Empire||38,000,000||500,000|
|Northern German states||32,000,000||550,000|
At the outset of the Franco–Prussian War, 462,000 German soldiers concentrated flawlessly on the French frontier while only 270,000 French soldiers could be moved to face them, the French army having lost 100,000 stragglers before a shot was fired through poor planning and administration. This was partly due to the peacetime organisations of the armies. Each Prussian Corps was based within a Kreis (literally "circle") around the chief city in an area. Reservists rarely lived more than a day's travel from their regiment's depot. By contrast, French regiments generally served far from their depots, which in turn were not in the areas of France from which their soldiers were drawn. Reservists often faced several days' journey to report to their depots, and then another long journey to join their regiments. Large numbers of reservists choked railway stations, vainly seeking rations and orders.
The effect of these differences was accentuated by the pre-war preparations. The Prussian General Staff had drawn up minutely detailed mobilization plans using the railway system, which in turn had been partly laid out in response to recommendations of a Railway Section within the General Staff. The French railway system, with multiple competing companies, had developed purely from commercial pressures and many journeys to the front in Alsace and Lorraine involved long diversions and frequent changes between trains. Furthermore, no system had been put in place for military control of the railways, and officers simply commandeered trains as they saw fit. Sidings and marshalling yards became choked with loaded wagons, with nobody responsible for unloading them or directing them to the correct destination.
Although Austria-Hungary and Denmark had both wished to avenge their recent military defeats against Prussia, they chose not to intervene in the war due to a lack of confidence in the French. Napoleon III also failed to cultivate alliances with the Russian Empire and the United Kingdom, partially due to the diplomatic efforts of the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and thus faced the German states alone.
The French breech-loading rifle, the Chassepot, had a far longer range than the German Dreyse needle gun; 1,600 yards (1,500 m) compared to 600 yd (550 m). The French also had an early machine-gun type weapon, the mitrailleuse, which could fire its twenty-five barrels at a range of around 2,000 yd (1,800 m). It was developed in such secrecy, however, that no real training with the weapon was effected, and French gunners had no practical experience using it in combat. It was therefore treated like a piece of artillery, and in this role it was ineffective. The French were equipped with bronze, rifled muzzle-loading artillery, while the Prussians used new steel breech-loading guns. The breech-loaders had a far longer range than the muzzle-loading guns, and could be fired faster. The Krupp C64 (field gun), a steel, breech loaded field gun which could fire an 8 cm caliber, 4 pound projectile, was one of the main artillery pieces of the Prussians in their 1870-1871 war with France. It was superior to the French counterparts in every way: accuracy, rate of fire and range. The C64 field gun was the sole gun of the Prussian horse artillery units. Each unit comprised three batteries, each battery was equipped with six C64 guns, for a total of eighteen guns per unit. The foot artillery units had an equal mixture of C64 and the heavier C67 (six pounder gun).
Aftermath and legacy
Prussian reaction and withdrawal
The Prussian Army held a brief victory parade in Paris on 17 February, and Bismarck honoured the armistice by sending trainloads of food into Paris and withdrawing Prussian forces to the east of the city, which would be withdrawn as soon as France agreed to pay five billion francs in war indemnity. At the same time, Prussian forces were withdrawn from France and concentrated in the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. An exodus occurred from Paris as some 200,000 people, predominantly middle-class, left the city for the countryside. Paris was quickly re-supplied with free food and fuel by the United Kingdom and several accounts recall life in the city settling back to normal.
French reaction to the defeat
National elections produced an overwhelmingly conservative government, which, under President Adolphe Thiers, established itself in Versailles, fearing that the political climate of Paris was too dangerous to set up the capital in the city. The new government, formed mainly of conservative, middle-class rural politicians, passed a variety of laws which greatly angered the population of Paris, such as the controversial Law of Maturities, which decreed that all rents in Paris, which had been postponed since September 1870, and all public debts across France, which had been given a moratorium in November 1870, were to be paid in full, with interest, within 48 hours. Paris shouldered a disproportionately large amount of the indemnity payments made to the Prussians, and the population of the city quickly grew resentful of the Versailles government. With Paris under the protection of the revolutionary National Guard and few regular soldiers in the city, left-wing leaders established themselves in the Hôtel de Ville and established the Paris Commune in January 1871, which was repressed by Thiers with the loss of 20,000 lives in "la Semaine Sanglante" after the Communards' arson of public buildings in late May 1871.
The defeat sparked an unprecedented wave of war commemorations organised at local levels, with war memorials being erected across France in memory of those who had died in the war. The war memorials at Mars-la-Tour, Bazeilles and Belfort became particular focuses for remembrance.
In the 1890s, the Dreyfus affair developed out of the aftermath of the war when confidential French military information was discovered in a wastebasket at the German Embassy in Paris by an agent of French military counter-intelligence. An Alsatian-born French captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was also Jewish, was framed for this action and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. He was finally exonerated and freed by 1900.
The Treaty of Frankfurt, in addition to giving Germany the city of Strasbourg and the fortification at Metz, made Germany the possessor of Alsace and the northern portion of Lorraine (Moselle), both of which (especially Alsace) were home to a majority of ethnic Germans and contained 80% of French iron ore and machine shops. The loss of this territory was a source of resentment in France for years to come, and contributed to public support for World War I, in which France vowed to take back control of Alsace-Lorraine. This revanchism created a permanent state of crisis between Germany and France (French–German enmity), which would be one of the contributing factors leading to World War I.
The Paris Commune was a government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871. It existed before the split between anarchists and Marxists had taken place, and it is hailed by both groups as the first assumption of power by the working class during the Industrial Revolution. The Commune was the result of an uprising in Paris after France was defeated in the war. This uprising was chiefly caused by the disaster in the war and the growing discontent among French workers.
German unification and power
The creation of a unified German Empire ended the "balance of power" that had been created with the Congress of Vienna after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Germany quickly established itself as the main power in continental Europe with the most powerful and professional army in the world. Although Great Britain remained the dominant world power, British involvement in European affairs during the late 19th century was very limited, allowing Germany to exercise great influence over the European mainland. Besides, the Crown Prince's marriage with the daughter of Queen Victoria was only the most prominent of several German–British relationships.
The Polish aspect
In the Prussian province of Posen, with a large Polish population, there was strong support for the French and angry demonstrations at news of Prussian-German victories—a clear manifestation of Polish nationalist feeling. Calls were also made for Polish recruits to desert from the Prussian Army—though these went mainly unheeded. An alarming report on the Posen situation, sent to Bismarck on 16 August 1870, led to the quartering of reserve troop contingents in the restive province. The Franco–Prussian War thus turned out to be a significant event also in German–Polish relations, marking the beginning of a prolonged period of repressive measures by the authorities and efforts at Germanisation.
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