Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German
War, often referred to in France as the 1870
War (19 July 1870—10 May 1871) was a conflict between
France and Prussia. Prussia was aided by the North German
Confederation, of which it was a member, and the South German
states of Baden,
Württemberg and Bavaria.
The complete Prussian and
German victory brought about the final unification of Germany
Wilhelm I of Prussia
also marked the downfall of Napoleon III
and the end of the
Second French Empire
, which was
replaced by the Third
. As part of the settlement, the territory of
Alsace-Lorraine was taken by Prussia to become a part of Germany,
which it would retain until the end of World
The conflict was a culmination of years of tension between the two
powers, which finally came to a head over the issue of a Hohenzollern
candidate for the
, following the deposition
of Isabella II
in 1868. The public release
of the Ems Dispatch
, which played up
alleged insults between the Prussian king and the French
ambassador, inflamed public opinion on both sides. France
mobilized, and on 19 July declared war on Prussia only, but the
other German states quickly joined on Prussia's side.
The superiority of the Prussian and German forces was soon evident,
due in part to efficient use of railways
and impressively superior Krupp
Prussia had the fourth most dense rail network in the world; France
came fifth.In Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to
(1977), Martin van Creveld argues that the significance
of Moltke's use of railways has been somewhat exaggerated:
There is no doubt that the German siege and bombardment
of Paris, involving as they did the concentration in a small space
of very large masses of men and heavy expenditure of artillery
ammunition, would have been wholly impossible without the
Also, the view that the German use of the railways to
deploy their forces at the opening of the campaign as a supreme
masterpiece of the military art is amply justified, though we have
seen that this triumph was only achieved at the cost of disrupting
the train apparatus before the war against France even got under
Between these two phases of the struggle, however, the
railways do not seem to have played a very important role, partly
because of difficulties with the lines themselves and partly
because of the impossibility of keeping the railheads within a
reasonable distance of the advancing troops.
Most surprising, however, is the fact that none of this
had much influence on the course of operations, or indeed caused
Moltke any great concern...
of swift Prussian and German victories in eastern France culminated
in the Battle of
Sedan, at which Napoleon III was captured with his whole
army 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
and later Adolphe
Over a five-month campaign, the German armies defeated the newly
recruited French armies in a series of battles fought across
northern France. Following a prolonged
, Paris fell on 28 January 1871. The siege is also notable
for the first use of anti-aircraft artillery, a Krupp piece built
specifically to shoot down the hot air balloons being used by the
French as couriers. Ten days earlier, the German states had
proclaimed their union under the Prussian king, uniting Germany as
a nation-state, the German Empire.
The final Treaty of Frankfurt
was signed 10
May 1871, during the time of the Paris
uprising of 1871.
Causes of the war
The causes of the Franco-Prussian War are deeply rooted in the
events surrounding the balance of power in Europe after the
. France and Germany had
been combatants, with France on the losing side and Napoleon I exiled to Elba.
ascension of Napoleon III, events soon
brought them to war four years after the Austro-Prussian
War of 1866.
It is thought that Otto von Bismarck
was keen to bring about
the war, and his intentions were seemingly proved in his book,
after he was forced to resign from the role of Chancellor, saying
"I knew that a Franco-Prussian War must take place before a united
Germany was formed."
The French Army comprised approximately 400,000 regular soldiers,
some veterans of previous French campaigns in the Crimean War,
Algeria, the Franco-Austrian War in Italy, and in Mexico in support
of the Second Mexican Empire. 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 meters with a rapid reload time. The artillery
was equipped with rifled, muzzle-loaded Lahitte '4-pounder (actual
weight of shot: 4kg/8.41 lb) guns. In addition, the army was
equipped with the precursor to the machine-gun - the mitrailleuse,
which 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
MacMahon and Jules Trochu among others.
The Prussian Army was composed not of regulars but conscripts.
Service was compulsory for all men of military age, thus Prussia
and its North and South German allies could mobilise and field some
1.2 million 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 fame from the Battle of Koniggratz
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 (3kg) steel breech-loading cannons
being issued to Prussian artillery batteries. Firing a
contact-detonated shell filled with zinc balls and explosive, the
Krupp gun had a range of 4,500 meters 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
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 (July 14) of mobilization,
while many French units reached the front either late or with
inadequate supplies. The vast German and French armies that then
confronted each other were each grouped into right and left wings.
After suffering a check at the Battle of Wörth on Aug. 6, 1870, the
commander of the French right (south) wing, Marshal Patrice
Mac-Mahon, retreated westward. That same day, about 40 miles
(65 km) to the northeast, 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
August 16 and 18, respectively (see Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte,
Battles of), and he then took refuge behind the defenses of Metz
indefinitely.The French right wing, commanded by Mac-Mahon
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 August 31.
Encircled, 83,000 French
troops with Napoleon III and Mac-Mahon surrendered on September 2.
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 Sept. 4, 1870,
and proclaimed the deposition of the emperor and the establishment
of the Third Republic. On September 19 the Germans began to besiege
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 Alsace and Lorraine. 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
October 27, and Paris surrendered on Jan. 28, 1871.
French and Prussian naval activities
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
do little to oppose. Despite this, the blockade was 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
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
The French fleet as it was in
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. It
was 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
consisting of Krupp heavy artillery that could hit French ships
from a distance of 4,000 yards. 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.
French Marines and naval infantry tasked with the invasion of
northern Germany were subsequently dispatched to bolster the French
Army of Châlons, where they were captured at the Battle of
Sedan along with Napoleon III.
Suffering a severe
shortage of officers following the capture of most of the
professional French army at the Siege of
and the Battle of Sedan, naval officers were taken from
their ships to officer the hastily assembled gardes
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. By September 1870, the blockade was finally
abandoned altogether for the winter, and the French Navy retired to
ports along the English
Channel, remaining in port for the rest of the
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
Cuba in November 1870.
French Army incursion
Preparations for the offensive
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.
plan laid out by the late Marshal Adolphe
Niel called for a strong French offensive from Thionville towards Trier and into the
This plan was discarded in favour of a
defensive plan by Generals Charles Frossard
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
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
's plan, the Prussian army was mobilizing far more
rapidly than expected. The Austro-Hungarians, still smarting after
their defeat by Prussia, 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.
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.
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
which 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.
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
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 Second Army was just 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 apart in depth 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
, 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
. 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 bloody little 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 defences 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 himself
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 itself 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. It was the people of the town of Wissembourg
that surrendered to the Germans, refusing to even help their own
soldiers fight on, thinking of it as a lost cause. 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
Map of Prussian and German offensive,
5 August and 6 August 1870
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
While the French army under General MacMahon engaged the German 3rd
Army at the Battle of Worth
German 1st Army under Steinmetz finished their advance west from
Saarbrücken. A patrol from the German 2nd Army under Prince Friedrich Karl of
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 their 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
armies clashed again only two days later (6 August 1870) near
Wörth in the town
of Fröschwiller, less than ten miles (16 km) from
The German 3rd army had 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
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
decimated by the incessant cavalry
, losing over half its soldiers. Meanwhile, French
suffered equivalent numerical losses of 16,000 soldiers, but still
held on to overwhelming numerical superiority.
On 16 August, the French had a chance to sweep away the key
Prussian defence, 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
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 favour 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
By 16:50, with the Prussian southern attacks in danger of breaking
up, the 3rd Prussian Guard 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 4th Prussian
Guard Infantry Brigade joined the advance followed at 17:45 by the
1st Prussian Guard 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 2nd Prussian Guard Infantry
Brigade, the last of the 1st Guard Infantry
, 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 Guard 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 Guard 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
, 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
Guard Infantry Divisions losses were even more staggering with
8,000 casualties out of 18,000 men. The Special Guard Jäger
lost 19 officers, a surgeon and
431 men out of a total of 700. The 2nd Guard Infantry Brigade lost
39 officers and 1,076 men. The 3rd Guard 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
, 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 manoeuvre 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 hard-fought battle with
the French losing 5,000 men and 40 cannons in a sharp fight, they
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
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
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 Defense
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
, 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
, 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 von
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 von
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
Ferrières and submitted a list of
moderate conditions, including limited territorial demands in
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
As Prussia had
recently acquired large areas populated by Catholics, further
extensions were not considered desirable by Bismarck, though.
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
Defence declared on 6 September that France would not "yield an
inch of its territory nor a stone of its fortresses"
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
couldn't 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. In October, German troops reached the outskirts of
Paris, a heavily fortified city. The Germans surrounded it and
erected a blockade, as already established and ongoing at
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
, an army of volunteers that was never defeated by the
Siege of Paris
The Siege of Paris
1870–28 January 1871) brought about the final defeat of the French
Army during the Franco-Prussian War. On 18 January the new
Empire was proclaimed at the Palace of
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 hot air balloon
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
stretch them out, and they would become vulnerable.
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
, 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
French army which operated north of Paris was turned back near
Amiens (27 November
1870), Bapaume (3 January 1871) and St.
Quentin (19 January).
Following the Army of the Loire's defeats, Gambetta turned to
'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.
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
terrible 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
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
In the battle of the Lisaine, Bourbaki's men failed to break
through German lines commanded by General August
. Bringing in the German 'Southern Army', General
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 Defence 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
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
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
The Treaty of Frankfurt
was signed 10 May, marking the end of the Franco-Prussian
Result of the war
- For detailed information on the Commune and civil war, see
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 returned an overwhelmingly conservative
government, which, under President Adolphe , established itself in
, 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
in November 1870, were to
be paid in full, with interest, within 48 hours. Paris shouldered
an unfairly high proportion 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, which was savagely repressed by Versailles with the
loss of 20,000 lives.
1890s, the Dreyfus Affair developed
out of the aftermath of the war, when secret messages to Germany
were discovered in a wastebasket in the French intelligence
department, and Alsace-born Alfred Dreyfus, who was also Jewish, was sentenced for
Treaty of Frankfurt, in
addition to giving Germany the city of Strasbourg and the fortification at Metz, gave
Germany the possession of Alsace and the northern portion of
Lorraine (Moselle), both (especially Alsace) of which 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
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.
German unification and power
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
Proclamation of the German
Countries previously without a General Staff or a
system of universal conscription
adopted both, along with developments in logistics
, military use of railways
, and the telegraph
system, all proven by the German victory
to be indispensable. Germany quickly established itself as the main
power in continental Europe with one of the most powerful and
professional armies 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
Prussian province of
Posen, with a large concentration of Polish population, there were during the war strong
manifestations of 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
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 Germanization
- Seraphin Pruvost (1849–1955). Last French veteran.
- Karl Glockner (1845–1953). Last German veteran.
- Wawro(2003), pp. 190-192.
- Wawro(2003), p. 192.
- Rüstow(1872), p. 243.
- Howard(1991), p. 78.
- Wawro(2003), pp. 66-67.
- Howard(1991), pp. 47, 48, 60.
- Wawro(2003), pp. 85, 86, 90.
- Wawro(2003), pp. 87, 90.
- Wawro(2003), p. 94
- Howard(1991), p. 82.
- Wawro(2003), p. 95.
- Howard(1991), pp. 100-101.
- Howard(1991), p. 101.
- Wawro(2003), pp. 97-98, 101.
- Wawro(2003), pp. 101-103.
- Wawro(2003), p. 108.
- Howard(1991), pp. 87-88.
- Howard(1991), pp. 89-90.
- Howard(1991), pp. 92-93.
- Howard(1991), pp. 98-99.
- Howard(1991), p. 116
- Holden-Reid 1999, p. 198.
- Taylor(1988), p. 133.
- Christopher Clark, "The Iron Kingdom", p.
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