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The Siege of Paris, lasting from September 19, 1870 – January 28, 1871, brought about French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and led to the establishment of the German Empiremarker.


As early as August 1870 the Prussian 3rd Army led by the Crown Prince (the future Emperor) Frederick III had been marching towards Parismarker, but was recalled to deal with French forces accompanied by Napoleon III himself. These forces were crushed at the Battle of Sedanmarker and the road to Paris was left open. Personally leading the Prussian forces Wilhelm I of Prussia along with his chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke, took the 3rd Army along with the new Prussian Army of the Meuse under Crown Prince Albert of Saxony and marched on Paris virtually unopposed. In Parismarker the Governor and commander-in-chief of the city's defenses General Louis Jules Trochu, assembled a force of regular soldiers that had managed to escape Sedan under Joseph Vinoy plus the National Guards and a brigade of sailors which totalled around 400,000.

The Siege

The German armies quickly reached Paris, and on September 15 Moltke issued orders for the investment of the city. Crown Prince Albert's army closed in on Paris from the north unopposed, while Crown Prince Frederick moved in from the south. On September 17 a force under Vinoy attacked Frederick's army near Villeneuve Saint Georges in an effort to save a supply depot there and were eventually driven back by artillery fire. The railroad to Orleansmarker was cut and on the 18th Versailles was taken, which would then serve as the 3rd Army's and eventually Wilhelm's headquarters. By September 19 the encirclement was complete and the siege officially began.

Prussia's prime minister von Bismarck suggested to shell Paris in order to ensure the city's quick surrender and render all French efforts to free the city pointless, but the German high command, headed by the king of Prussia, turned down the proposal on the insistence of General Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal, who commanded the siege, on the grounds that a bombardment would affect civilians, violate the rules of engagement, and turn the opinion of third parties against the Germans, without speeding up the final victory. It was contended also that a quick French surrender would leave the new French armies undefeated and allow France to renew the war shortly after. The new French armies would have to be annihilated first, and Paris would have to be starved into surrender.

Trochu had little faith in the ability of the National Guards which made up half the force defending the city. So instead of making any significant attempt to prevent the investment by the Germans, Trochu hoped that Moltke would attempt to take the city by storm and the French could then rely on the city's defenses. Moltke never had any intention of attacking the city and this became clear shortly after the siege began. Trochu changed his plan and allowed Vinoy to make a demonstration against the Prussians west of the Seinemarker. On September 30 Vinoy attacked Chevilly with 20,000 soldiers and was soundly repulsed by the 3rd Army. Then on October 13 the II Bavarianmarker Corps was driven from Châtillon but the French were forced to retire in face of Prussian artillery.
General Carey de Bellemare commanded the strongest fortress north of Paris at Saint Denis. On October 29, without orders de Bellemare attacked the Prussian Guard at Le Bourget and took the town. The Guard actually had little interest in recapturing their positions at Le Bourget, but Crown Prince Albert ordered the city retaken anyway. In the battle of Le Bourget the Prussian Guards succeeded in retaking the city and captured 1,200 French. Upon hearing of the French surrender at Metz and the defeat at Le Bourget, morale in Paris began to sink. The people of Paris were beginning to suffer from the effects of the German blockade. Hoping to boost morale Trochu launched the largest attack from Paris on November 30 even though he had little hope of achieving a breakthrough. Nevertheless he sent Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot with 80,000 soldiers against the Prussians at Champigny, Creteil and Villiers. In what became known as the battle of Villiers the French succeeded in capturing and holding a position at Creteil and Champigny. By December 2 the Württembergmarker Corps drove Ducrot back into the defenses and the battle was over by December 3.
Balloons escaped from the Siege of Paris
On January 19 a final breakout attempt was aimed at Buzenvalmarker near the Prussian Headquarters west of Paris. The Crown Prince easily repulsed the attack inflicting over 4,000 casualties while suffering just over 600 himself. See main article: Battle of Buzenval. Trochu resigned as governor and left General Joseph Vinoy with 146,000 defenders.

During the winter, tensions began to arise in the Prussian high command. Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke and General Leonhard, Count von Blumenthal who commanded the siege (seen in the illustration on this page behind Bismarck's right shoulder) were primarily concerned with a methodical siege that would destroy the detached forts around the city and slowly strangle the defending forces with a minimum of German casualties.
Prussian artillery during the siege
But as time wore on, there was growing concern that a prolonged war was placing too much strain on the German economy and that an extended siege would convince the French Government of National Defense that Prussia could still be beaten. A prolonged campaign would also allow France time to reconstitute a new army and convince neutral powers to enter the war against Prussia. To Bismarck, Paris was the key to breaking the power of the intransigent republican leaders of France, ending the war in a timely manner, and securing peace terms favourable to Prussia. Moltke was also worried that insufficient winter supplies were reaching the German armies invading the city, as diseases such as tuberculosis were breaking out amongst the besieging soldiers. In addition, the siege operations competed with the demands of the ongoing Loire Campaign against the remaining French field armies.Due to a severe shortage of food, Parisians were forced to slaughter whatever animals at hand. Rats, dogs, cats, and horses were regular fare on restaurant menus. Even Castor and Pollux, the only pair of elephants in Paris, were not spared.
A Latin Quarter menu contemporary with the siege reads in part:
* Consommé de Cheval au millet. (horse)
* Brochettes de foie de Chien à la maître d'hôtel. (dog)
* Emincé de rable de Chat. Sauce mayonnaise. (cat)
* Epaules et filets de Chien braisés. Sauce aux tomates. (dog)
* Civet de Chat aux Champignons. (cat)
* Côtelettes de Chien aux petits pois. (dog)
* Salamis de Rats. Sauce Robert. (rats)
* Gigots de chien flanqués de ratons. Sauce poivrade. (rats)
* Begonias au jus. (flowers)
* Plum-pudding au rhum et à la Moelle de Cheval. (horse)

Air medical transport is thought to have first occurred in 1870 during the Siege of Paris when 160 wounded French soldiers were transported by hot-air balloon to France.

On January 25, 1871, Wilhelm I overruled Moltke and ordered the field-marshal to consult with Bismarck for all future operations. Bismarck immediately ordered the city to be bombarded with heavy caliber Krupp siege guns. This prompted the city's surrender on January 28, 1871. Parismarker sustained more damage in the 1870-1871 siege than in any other conflict.

The Prussian Army held a brief victory parade in Paris on February 17, 1871 and Bismarck honored the armistice by sending train-loads of food into Paris and withdrawing Prussian forces to the east of the city, which would be withdrawn as soon as France paid the agreed war indemnity.

Pigeon post

A pigeon post was employed during the course of the siege, pigeons were regularly taken out of Paris by balloon. Soon a regular service was in operation, based first at Toursmarker and later at Poitiersmarker. The pigeons were taken to their base after their arrival from Paris and when they had preened themselves, been fed and rested, they were ready for the return journey. Tours lies some 200 km from Paris and Poitiers some 300 km. Before release, they were loaded with their despatches. The first despatch was dated 27 September and reached Paris on 1 October. During the four months of the siege, 150,000 official and 1 million private communications were carried into Paris by this method. Balloon mail was also used to overcome the communications blockade, with a rate of 20 cents per letter. Letters were photographically reduced by René Dagron‎ to save weight. A total of 66 balloon flights were made, including one that accidentally set a world distance record by ending up in Norwaymarker.


On January 18, 1871, the German Empire is proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles.
The Prussians had secured their victory in the Franco-Prussian War. On January 18, 1871 at Versailles Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor. The kingdoms of Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxonymarker, the states of Badenmarker and Hessemarker, and the free cities of Hamburgmarker and Bremenmarker were unified with the North German Confederationmarker to create the German Empiremarker. The preliminary peace treaty was signed at Versailles and the final peace treaty was signed with the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871. Otto von Bismarck was able to secure Alsace-Lorrainemarker from France as part of the German Empire under the Treaty of Frankfurt.

Another stipulation of the treaties was a German garrison to be left in Paris. This angered bitter Paris residents at the continued presence of German troops in the wake of defeat. Further resentment arose against the current French government and from April-May 1871 Paris workers and National Guards rebelled and established the Paris Commune.


  • Horne, Alistair The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71 ISBN 0-330-49036-2
  • Chandler, David G. Atlas of Military Strategy ISBN 0-02-905750-7
  • Howard, Michael The Franco Prussian War ISBN 0-415-26671-8

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