Franco-Prussian War

From New World Encyclopedia

Franco-Prussian War
Part of the wars of German unification
Pierre-Georges Jeanniot's La ligne de feu (1886), depicting the Battle of Mars-La-Tour
Date July 19, 1870 – May 10, 1871
Location France and Prussia
Result Decisive Prussian and German victory; Treaty of Frankfurt
Spanish succession dispute
North German Confederation and other German states unite to form German Empire; Germany annexes Alsace-Lorraine; End of the Second French Empire; Formation of the French Third Republic
Flag of France.svg Second French Empire War Ensign of Prussia (1816).svg Kingdom of Prussia

Flag of the German Empire.svg North German Confederation allied with South German states
(later German Empire)

Flag of France.svg Napoleon III
25px François Achille Bazaine
25px Patrice de Mac-Mahon, duc de Magenta
War Ensign of Prussia (1816).svg Otto von Bismarck
492,585 active[1]
417,366 Garde Mobile[2]
300,000 regular
900,000 reserves and Landwehr[3]
138,871 dead or wounded[4]
474,414 captured[5]
116,696 dead or wounded[6]

The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War, often referred to in France as the 1870 War[7] (July 19, 1870 – May 10, 1871) was a conflict between France and Prussia, which was backed by the North German Confederation and the South German states of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria. The thorough Prussian and German victory brought about the final unification of the German Empire under King William I of Prussia. It also marked the downfall of Napoleon III and the end of the Second French Empire, which was replaced by the Third Republic. As part of the settlement, almost all of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine was taken by Prussia to become a part of Germany, which it would retain until the end of World War I.

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 siege, Paris fell on January 28, 1871. 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 peace Treaty of Frankfurt was signed May 10, 1871, during the time of the bloody Paris Commune of 1871.

The Franco-Prussian War had a profound impact on both France and Prussia. It helped served to bring about the unification of the German states. For France it put an end to the Second Empire and the reign of Napoleon III. It was replaced by the Third republic which would last until the German invasion during World War II.

Franco-Prussian War
Wissembourg – Spicheren – Wœrth – Borny-Colombey – Strasbourg – Mars-la-Tour – Gravelotte – Metz – Beaumont – Noiseville – Sedan – Bellevue – Coulmiers – Amiens – Beaune-la-Rolande – Hallue – Bapaume – Villersexel – Le Mans – Lisaine – St. Quentin – Paris – Belfort

Causes of the war

The causes of the Franco-Prussian War are deeply rooted in the events surrounding balance of power after the Napoleonic Wars, in which France and Prussia had been combatants, resulting in France's loss and Napoleon I's exile to Elba. After the ascension of Napoleon III through a coup in France and Otto von Bismarck taking over as minister in Prussia, events soon brought them to war after the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

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 vacant Spanish throne, 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 July 19 declared war on Prussia only, but the other German states quickly joined on Prussia's side.

Opposing forces

French Army

"French National Guards, Gardes Mobiles, Pompiers, and Volunteers" from the Illustrated London News, September 3, 1870.

After the stunning Prussian victory over Austria in 1866, Marshal Adolphe Niel, French Minister of War, decided to embark on a program of army reorganization to improve the quality of soldiers within the army. He immediately revoked all bonuses given out for reenlisting soldiers, with crippling results; a large number of veteran soldiers left the service, and a high number of reservists called up (one in four) were buying their way out of their obligation. The Military Law of 1868, created by Marshal Niel and modeled after Prussian organization, increased service in the French army from seven to nine years. However, it was subverted by the French legislature, who provided only a small amount of money to support the Garde Mobile, and enacted several rules severely limiting the effective training of these units. They were forbidden from traveling outside of their home region, and not required to stay in the barracks during training. These conditions were borne out of fear of another repeat of the military structure under Napoleon I, which was still fresh in the memory of the representatives.[8]

The French Army in July of 1870 had 492,585 regular soldiers, some of them veterans of previous French campaigns in the Crimean War, Algeria, Franco-Austrian War, and the French intervention in Mexico. Of this number, 300,000 were to be ready in three weeks according to the new French War Minister, Marshal Edmond Le Bœuf (Marshal Niel had died the year previous). This strength would increase to 662,000 on full mobilization with the recall of reservists, with another 417,366 in the loosely organized Garde Mobile, which would require time to train.[9]

After receiving reports of the effectiveness of the Prussian breech-loading rifles in 1866, the French had hastily equipped their infantry with the 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 1600 yards (1463 m) with a faster rate of fire.[10] In addition, the army was equipped with the precursor to the machine-gun—the mitrailleuse. Produced secretly beginning in 1866, it was made up of 25 barrels activated by a hand crank, firing 150 rounds per minute up to a range of 2,000 yards (1,829 m). Despite its revolutionary design and huge potential, it was ineffective due to a lack of training, deployment in tight formation, and fired at long range with minimal accuracy.[11]

The artillery could not be re-equipped as the money was not voted by the Assembly, and was made up of three main pieces, four-pounders, 12-pounders, and the mitrailleuse. The muzzle-loading four-pounder guns had an effective range of 1,300 yards (1,189 m) for short burst, or 2,500 yards (2,286 m) for a long burst, while the muzzle-loading 12-pounder was provided for heavier duties.[12] French civilians were invited to view the massive Krupp artillery at the Exposition Universelle (1867) in Paris, but were largely oblivious to the danger, perceiving the weapons as too large and expensive to be relevant, or viewing war as obsolete or irrelevant to real progress. As Victor Hugo noted, "The enormous steel cannonballs, which cost a thousand francs each, shot from the titanic Prussian cannons forged by Krupp's gigantic hammer, which weighs a hundred thousand pounds and costs three million {francs}, are just as effective against progress as soap bubbles floating off the end of a pipe blown by a small child."[13] Early in 1868, French experts in weaponry witnessed the superiority of the Krupp breech-loading artillery pieces in a demonstration in Belgium. Despite their positive endorsement, Marshal Le Bœuf wrote "Rien à faire" (Nothing to do) on the Krupp order and the matter was closed. After the war, it was revealed that he and his associates were trying to protect the French Schneider works from competition.[14]

The army was nominally led by Napoleon III. Marshals Bazaine, MacMahon and Canrobert were initially selected to command field armies. They and many of their subordinates had gained high reputations for bravery and leadership in the Crimean War, Franco-Austrian War and various colonial wars.[15][16]

In practice, the French army, which had undertaken urgent reforms as a result of the outcome and lessons of the Austro-Prussian War, was nevertheless crippled by its poor administration and lack of coherent planning. Although Minister Le Bœuf had stated that the French Army was ready for war, "down to the last gaiter button," as the fighting began, many of its formations were understrength as reservists were living hand-to-mouth at depots and railway stations as they tried to find their regiments. Among various deficiencies in supplies and equipment, most of the medical supplies were still at the Invalides in Paris, awaiting transport.[17] Throughout the war, the movements of French formations were to be badly directed and confused.

Prussian Army

Prussian artillery provided by Krupp, 1870

Thanks to the hard work of Gen. Albrecht von Roon and King William I of Prussia in mid-1858 and beyond, the entire military organization of Prussia was transformed. After enacting reforms, the Prussian Army was composed not of regulars but conscripts and reservists.[18] Service was compulsory for all men of military age, thus Prussia and its North and South German allies could mobilize and field some 1.2 million soldiers in time of war[19], which it did within days. Prussia retained a decisive advantage in mobility due to its ability to move men and material to areas of choice swiftly, and avoided logistical nightmares that hampered the French.[20]

The army was still equipped with the Dreyse "needle-gun" rifle, made famous at the Battle of Königgrätz, which was by this time showing that it was not nearly as effective as the French Chassepot rifle. The range of the needle-gun was not comparable to the Chassepot, which meant that the Prussian infantry would have to make it through French fire before their rifles could threaten the enemy. Head of the General Staff, Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, had probably not kept up with improving rifle technology due to its overwhelming success against the Austrians.[21] The deficiencies of the needle-gun were more than compensated for by the Krupp 6 pounder (3 kg) breech-loading cannons issued to Prussian artillery batteries. The Krupp gun had a longer range, faster rate of fire, and was much more accurate than the French muzzle-loading cannon.[12]

The Prussian army had its Commander in Chief of the Federal Army, King William I, who carried with him military cabinet officials, Bismarck, Roon, and other military experts such as August Keim. Royal and noble officers such as the Crown Prince Frederick commanded the major formations. In practice, all operations were directed by Field-Marshal von Moltke.[22] The Prussian army was unique in Europe for having the only General Staff in existence, whose sole purpose was to direct operational movement, organize logistics and communications and develop the overall war strategy. General Staff officers, who had undergone rigorous selection procedures and training, performed similar functions at all major headquarters. A Chief of Staff was an important figure in the Prussian Army because he was expected to maintain a trusting bond between superior and subordinate.[23]

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) could 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, partial elements of the 470-ship French Navy, overall commanded by Admiral Bouet-Villaumez, were put to sea on July 22, 1870. Before too long, the French navy suffered chronic shortages of coal. An unsuccessful blockade of Wilhelmshafen and conflicting orders on whether or not to proceed to the Baltic Sea or to return to France made the French naval efforts ineffective.[24]

The French fleet as it was in 1870

To take 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 the substantial Danish Navy. However it was discovered that Prussia had recently installed formidable coastal defenses 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. The French Navy lacked the necessary heavy weaponry to deal with these coastal defenses, while the difficult topography of the Prussian coastline made a seaborne invasion of northern Germany impossible.[25]

The 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 Metz and the Battle of Sedan, naval officers were taken from their ships to officer the hastily assembled gardes mobiles or French reserve army units.[26]

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 war.[26]

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[27], and the gunboat battle between the Prussian Meteor and the French Bouvet outside of Havana, Cuba in November 1870.[28]

French Army incursion

Preparations for the offensive

Map of German and French armies near their common border on July 31, 1870

On July 28, 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.[29] 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 favor 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.[30]

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, 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.[31]

Occupation of Saarbrücken

Napoleon III was under immense domestic pressure to launch an offensive before the full might of Moltke's forces were 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 July 31 the Army marched forward toward the Saar River to seize Saarbrücken.[32]

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 logistically. Only one single 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.[33] 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.[34]

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.[35]

Wiretapping in Paris

By December of 1870, Paris was under siege by the Prussians. The invention of the telegraph cable had changed the dynamics of warfare and the Prussians did not neglect this important aspect. They went to work in a severely scientific and business-like way. In Paris they discovered subterranean lines of wires which they cut. They also found some in the cellars of Meudon. Doubtless before they were destroyed they were made to furnish a wealth of intelligence to benefit the besieging army.[36]

Prussian Army advance

Battle of Wissembourg

Upon learning from captured Prussian soldiers and a local area police chief that the Second 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.[37]

Marshal MacMahon, now closest to Wissembourg, left his four divisions spread 20 miles (32 km) 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. Making a bad situation 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."[38] 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.[39]

The first action of the Franco-Prussian War took place on August 4, 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 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 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.[40]

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 its remaining ammunition.[41] 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, August 5 and 6, 1870

The Battle of Spicheren, on August 5, 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 Gen. 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.[42]

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.[43]

While the French army under General MacMahon engaged the German 3rd Army at the Battle of Worth, 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.[44]

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. By 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.[45] 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 of course had been 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.[46]

Battle of Wörth (known also as Fröschwiller or Reichshoffen)

Aimé Morot's La bataille de Reichshoffen, 1887

The two armies clashed again only two days later (August 6, 1870) near Wörth in the town of Fröschwiller, less than ten miles (16 km) from Wissembourg. 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 center of the French line. Having lost any outlook for victory and facing a massacre, the French army broke off the battle and retreated in a western 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 one 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. The situation of MacMahon was more dire, as France lost 19,200 to not only death or wounds but to the enemy as prisoners.[47]

The superiority of the Prussian and German forces was soon evident, due in part to efficient use of railways[48] and innovative Krupp artillery.

Battle of Mars-La-Tour

The Prussian 7th Cuirassiers charge the French guns at the Battle of Mars-La-Tour, August 16, 1870.

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 August 16, the ever-present Prussian forces, a grossly outnumbered group 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 charges, losing over half its soldiers. Meanwhile, French suffered equivalent numerical losses of 16,000 soldiers, but still held on to overwhelming numerical superiority.

On August 16, 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 five to one, the extraordinary élan of the Prussians prevailed over gross indecision by the French.

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 (ten 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 August 18, 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. With them 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.

Juliusz Kossak, Battle of Gravelotte, depicting the Prussians at Gravelotte, 1871

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 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 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, Crown 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 stabilized. 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 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 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.

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 he surrendered 180,000 soldiers on October 27.

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.

Napoleon III and Otto von Bismarck after the Battle of Sedan

The Prussians, under the command of Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke, took advantage of this incompetent 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 August 30. 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, Gen. Auguste Ducrot took command of the French troops in the field.

On September 1, 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 September 2, 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 favor. One French army was now immobilized and besieged in the city of Metz, and no other forces stood on French ground to prevent a German invasion. The war, nevertheless 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'etat which was launched by General Trochu, Jules Favre, and Léon Gambetta at Paris on September 4. They removed the second Bonapartist monarchy and proclaimed a republic led by a Government of National Defense, 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 immobilized 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, entertained that hope for he 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, Prussia's Prime Minister von Bismarck invited the new French Government to negotiations held at 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, Deutschlandlied). As Prussia had recently acquired large areas populated by Catholics, further extensions were not considered desirable by Bismarck.

Armistice rejection and continuance of hostilities

"Discussing the War in a Paris Café" - a scene published in the Illustrated London News of September 17, 1870

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."[49] 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 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 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 September 7, 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."[50] Subsequently, Garibaldi went to France and assumed command of the Army of the Vosges, an army of volunteers that was never defeated by the Germans.

Siege of Paris

The Siege of Paris (September 19, 1870–January 28, 1871) brought about the final defeat of the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War. On January 18, 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. Gen. Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal, who commanded the siege, was opposed to the bombardment on civilized 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.

Loire campaign

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.

On October 10, 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 November 9. 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 December 4, to be finally defeated near Le Mans (between January 10–12).

A second French army which operated north of Paris was turned back near Amiens (27 November 1870), Bapaume (January 3, 1871) and St. Quentin (January 19).

Northern campaign

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 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 East.

Eastern campaign

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 (February 1).


On January 28, 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 January 24 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 Defense 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 realized 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 January 25 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 January 30 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 February 5 to negotiate with Gambetta, and the following day Gambetta stepped down and surrendered control of the provincial armies to the Government of National Defense, which promptly ordered a ceasefire across France.

The Treaty of Frankfurt was signed May 10, marking the end of the Franco-Prussian War.

Result of the war

Prussian reaction and withdrawal

The Prussian Army held a brief victory parade in Paris on February 17, and Bismarck honored 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.[51] 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 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 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 about 20,000 lives.

In the 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 was wrongfully sentenced for treason.

The Treaty of Frankfurt, in addition to giving Germany the city of Strasbourg and the fortification at Metz, more importantly gave them possession of Alsace and the northern portion of Lorraine (Moselle), both (especially Alsace) of which were home to a majority of ethnic Germans. 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 an on-going 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

Proclamation of the German Empire

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. Countries previously without a General Staff or a system of universal conscription soon adopted both, along with developments in logistics, military use of railways,[48] and the telegraph system, all proven by the German victory to be indispensable. Germany quickly established itself as the main power in Europe with one of the most powerful and professional armies in the world. Although the United Kingdom remained the dominant world power, British involvement in European affairs during the late nineteenth century was very limited, allowing Germany to exercise great influence over the European mainland. Additionally, the Crown Prince Friedrich III's marriage with the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, Victoria Adelaide Mary Louise, was one of a number of prominent German-British relationships.


  1. Michael Howard. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France 1870–1871. (New York: Routledge, 1991. ISBN 0415266718), 39
  2. Howard, 39
  3. Geoffrey Wawro. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521584361), 42.
  4. Frédérick Nolte. L'Europe militaire et diplomatique au dix-neuvième siècle, 1815-1884. (E. Plon, Nourrit et ce., 1884), 527
  5. Nolte, 1884, 526-527
  6. Howard, 1991, 453
  7. Bertrand Taithe. Citizenship and Wars: France in Turmoil 1056-1871. (Routledge, 2001)
  8. Wawro, 2003, 46.
  9. Howard, 1991, 39.
  10. William McElwee. The Art of War: From Waterloo to Mons. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974), 139
  11. Howard, 1991, 36.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Wawro, 2003, 58.
  13. Michael J. West. Spectacular Ideology: The Parisian Expositions Universelles and the Formation of National Cultural Identity, 1855-1937, Chapter 2; 1867
  14. William Manchester. The Arms of Krupp: 1587-1968. (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), 95, 117, 130, 131.
  15. Howard, 1991, 63.
  16. Littell's Living Age 128 (1647), "France Before the War: a British assessment (1876) of French preparedness for the war."
  17. McElwee, 1974, 46.
  18. Howard, 1991, 18-19.
  19. Wawro, 2003, 41.
  20. McElwee, 1974, 107.
  21. McElwee, 1974, 140-141.
  22. Howard, 1991, 60-62.
  23. Howard, 1991, 25.
  24. Wilhelm Rüstow and John Layland Needham. The War for the Rhine Frontier, 1870: Its Political and Military History. (London: Blackwood, 1872), 229-235.}
  25. Wawro, 2003, 190-192.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Wawro, 2003, 192.
  27. John Frederick Maurice and Wilfred James Long. The Franco-German War, 1870-71. (S. Sonnenschein and Co., 1900), 587-588
  28. Rüstow, 1872, 243.
  29. Howard, 1991, 78.
  30. Wawro, 2003, 66-67.
  31. Howard, 1991, 47, 48, 60.
  32. Wawro, 2003, 85, 86, 90.
  33. Wawro, 2003, 87, 90.
  34. Wawro, 2003, 94
  35. Howard, 1991, 82.
  36. Harper's Weekly Dec 3, 1870: 782.
  37. Wawro, 2003, 95.
  38. Howard, 1991, 100-101.
  39. Howard, 1991, 101.
  40. Wawro, 2003, 97-98, 101.
  41. Wawro, 2003, 101-103.
  42. Wawro, 2003, 108.
  43. Howard, 1991, 87-88.
  44. Howard, 1991, 89-90.
  45. Howard, 1991, 92-93.
  46. Howard, 1991, 98-99.
  47. Howard, 1991, 116
  48. 48.0 48.1 In Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (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 railways. 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 way. 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…. (96)

  49. Gordon A. Craig. Germany: 1866-1945. (Oxford University Press, 1980), 31
  50. Jasper Ridley. Garibaldi. (Viking Press, 1976), 602
  51. A. J. P. Taylor. Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman. (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988), 133.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Jelavich, Barbara. Russia and the Formation of the Romanian National State, 1821-1878. Cambridge University Press, 2004 (original 1984). ISBN 978-0521253185
  • Jerrold, Blanchard. The Life of Napoleon III. Longmans, Green & Co., 2007 (original 1882). ISBN 978-1432668167
  • Kleinschmidt, Arthur. Drei Jahrhunderte russischer Geschichte. J. Räde, 1898. OCLC 5774456
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  • Maurice, John Frederick; Wilfred James Long. The Franco-German War, 1870-71. S. Sonnenschein and Co., 1900. OCLC 59593689
  • McElwee, William. The Art of War: Waterloo to Mons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974. ISBN 0253202140.
  • Nolte, Frédérick. L'Europe militaire et diplomatique au dix-neuvième siècle, 1815-1884. E. Plon, Nourrit et ce, 1884. OCLC 4899575
  • Radzinsky, Edvard. Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005. ISBN 978-0743273329.
  • Ridley, Jasper. Garibaldi. New York: Viking Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0670335480.
  • Robertson, Charles Grant. Bismarck. H. Holt and Co, 1919. OCLC 10227
  • Rüstow, Wilhelm; John Layland Needham. The War for the Rhine Frontier, 1870: Its Political and Military History. Blackwood, 1872. OCLC 13591954
  • Taithe, Bertrand. Citizenship and Wars: France in Turmoil 1870-1871. Routledge, 2001. ISBN 978-0415239288.
  • Taylor, A.J.P. Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988. ISBN 0241115655.
  • Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521584361.
  • van Creveld, Martin. Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. ISBN 0521297931.


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