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 sites of major actions in the Franco-Prussian War

The Franco-Prussian War ( French: Guerre Franco-Allemande de 1870, German: Deutsch-Französischer Krieg ) was waged between France and Prussia and the German states from July 15, 1870 to Feb. 1, 1871 . Napoleon I had smashed through the German states with ease during the Napoleonic wars . Now a generation later, the roles would be reversed .Even though the war was a short duration, it dramatically changed European history .The rapid and overwhelming victory of the German states under the leadership of Prussia in this conflict made possible the creation of a unified German Empire and brought the fall of the French empire of Napoleon III which was replaced by the Third Republic. Prussian would first fight and destroy the armies of the emperor Napoleon, then the newly raised armies of the Third republic . The waralso marked the final step in Germany's rise to the position of a major continental power . As part of the settlement, the territory of Alsace-Lorraine was taken by Germany, which would retain it until after World War I.


CCauses of the Franco-Prussian War


Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was the Ministerpräsident or Prime Minister of Prussia. Bismarck policies brought about 3 European wars which led to the unification of Germany. As a university student, he acquired a reputation for fighting and was a member of Hannovera, a famous dueling corps. More cosmopolitan than the average junker and spoke English fluently. Famous for his Sept 29,1862 speech " The great questions of the day will not be decided by speeches...that was the blunder of 1848...but by blood and iron.' Made Chancellor in 1871 and became known as the 'Iron Chancellor' and Germany consolidated economically and politically. The young Kaiser, William II, was too ambitious to have a strong leader like Bismarck and had him retire. No other German statesman was able to maintain Bismarck's complicated international act and Germany blundered into WWI.


From 1868 on, Bismarck ( Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck - April 1, 1815 – July 30, 1898 ) Chancellor of the North German Confederation , prepared to accomplish the unification of the German Protestant  states of the north and the German Catholic south through a provoked war with France . Such a war would unite the German states quickly rather than the years or decades it might otherwise take . The Germans were divided culturally and politically, but they were united in their hatred for France since the Napoleonic Wars, when France had looted the German states and pressed an estimated 250,000 Germans into the French armies . Most countries had kept up citizen militias, usually separate from the regular forces. But the Prussians began to build up large trained reserves which were integrated into the army .



Napoleon III (1808-1873) Son of the brother of Napoleon I, Louis Bonaparte. In 1832, upon the death of the only son of Napoleon and his father in 1846, became heir to the Napoleonic line. After the final abdication of Napoleon, all Bonaparts were exiled from France .In 1840 he returned in a coup attempt in Boulogone and was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. He escaped tp England in 1846. After the revolution of 1848, France became a republic and he was allowed to return to France .He was elected to the National Assembly and won the presidency in the same year. The french constitution forbade a president from serving more than one term, so he staged a coup and made himself dictator on Dec 2, 1851 and later emperor.


Napoleon III sought to defeat Prussia and recover all or part of the Rhine frontier lost after the defeat of Napoleon I and bring the rising upstart power Prussia to heel .Prussia's victory over Austria in the recent Austro-Prussian War of 1866 increased tensions with France which felt Prussia was growing too strong . Many French military leaders shocked by the Prussian defeat of the Austrians an Koniggratz in 1866 and urged military reforms .Since the defeat of 1815, France had become a subordinate power in Europe .



video from German documentary on Bismarck showing Sedan reenactment (in German)


The French hoped that  Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte ( 20 April 1808 – 9 January 1873), the nephew of the famous Napoleon I, could restore the power and prestige of France. Louis-Napoleon launched a major rebuilding plan for Paris to make it again the capital city of a new French led Europe .Louis-Napoleon was the popularly elected president of France in 1848, however, the French Constitution did not allow a president to serve more than one term of four years.  .Louis-Napoleon therefore staged a coup d'état and crowned himself emperor on December 2, 1851. The new French Empire of  Napoleon III needed a victory after the recent reverses such as the recent failed Mexican adventure which ended in 1867.  Napoleon III had broad support among the rural farmers, but there was growing discontent and even riots against his autocratic rule in urban areas . Napoleon III hoped a good short war would restore faith in his Empire .


Both Napoleon III and Bismarck needed a war for political reasons . The war that started in 1870 could have started anytime after the Prussian victory against Austria in 1866 .It didn't because Napoleon III wanted more time to complete army reforms and Bismark need time to gather southern German support for a unified Germany .But it was inevitable that some event would trigger a war .


Prince Leopold


There remained only to find a pretext for war .This presented itself in 1869, when the Spanish Cortes or parliament offered the throne of Spain to Prince Leopold of  Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, nephew of King Wilhelm I of Prussia . The Spanish throne been vacant since a revolution in 1868 had deposed the Bourbons. Bismarck saw the Spanish offer as another way to possibly provoke war with France if he could place Prince Leopold on the Spanish throne. If that happened, France would have two German Hohenzollern monarchies on its borders .


The Foreign Secretary of France, the Duc de Gramont, described by Bismark as "the stupidest man in Europe."


However, the prince and the king were not much interested in the offer .He might be chased from the throne as Maximilian had been in Mexico or Queen Isabella in Spain in 1868 . Upon Bismarck's insistence, Leopold Accepted the offer . On July 2, 1870, the Spanish informed the French ambassador of their choice .When the  French minister of foreign affairs, Antoine Alfred Agénor, Duc de Gramont, heard of it he hurriedly convened the legislature and made a threatening speech .Gramont knew the French army was weaker than the Prussian army, but he assumed that if warcame he would have the support of Austria , which lost a war to Prussia in 1866 and Denmark, which lost Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia in the Second Schleswig War of 1864 . However, there was no formal alliance between France and Austria and Denmark .


Gramont informed the French ambassador that he insisted the King Wilhelm renounce the offer .Bismark was away on holiday, and King Wilhelm, afraid of risking war, complied . Both Gramont and Bismarck were disappointed by this .


 popular French print of the Siege of Paris


A red rag for the Gallic bull - Bismarck's reworded Ems Telegram


Just as the crisis seemed to be coming to a close, Gramont rekindled it on July 12, 1870 by informing  the French ambassador to Prussia Count Vincent Benedetti, to inform King Wilhelm that he must sign and publish a document renouncing all claims to the Spanish throne . Wilhelm was insulted  and refused this request .A report of this incident was telegramed to Bismarck,who was elated to hear of it . However, instead of declaring warright away, he sought a way to engineer the French into declaring war on Prussia first, so the south German states would join the north German alliance and insure the neutrality of the other great powers . Bismarck reworded the telegram as to arouse a war fever in France and the Germanic states . As a result, the French Chamber on July 15, 1870 declared war on Prussia .There was not universal support for the war in the French legislative body as some republicans realized the bad position it would place France in  .The German states, seeing France as the aggressor, came to Prussia's support .


The Paris suburb of St. Cloud after the siege


The Germans, with a national army organized under universal military service, efficient use of railroads and innovative Group artillery quickly proved their superiority to the French and won a decisive battle at Sedan on Sept 1 - 2 1870,where Napoleon III was captured .


French surrender at Sedan


Paris surrendered in January 1871 after being under siege from Sept 19, 1870  .The treaty of Frankfurt was signed on May 10, 1871 . France ceded Alsace, except Belfort and eastern Lorraine to Germany and agreed that a German army could occupy northern France till an indemnity of five billion Francs was paid .


The proclamation of King William I as emperor at Versailles, by Anton von Werner


On Jan 18, 1871 at Versailles ( which was made the German military headquarters ) William I was proclaimed The German emperor ( Kaiser ) .The creation of a unified German Empire destroyed the balance of power that had been created with the Congress of Vienna after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.


German victory parade in Paris. The Parisians were defiant in the face of defeat and were prepared to fight if the entry of the German army into the city . Before the Germans entered Paris, National Guards removed large numbers of cannons away from the Germans' path and store them in "safe" districts. This was to be one of the factors leading to the Paris Commune .The Germans entered Paris briefly and left again without incident


Germany quickly established itself as the main power in Europe with one of the most powerful and professional armies in the world . In France, anger at the Germans over the loss of Alsace and Lorraine and the large indemnity would led to a permanent state of crises between the two states and their seeking revenge with a large indemnity against Germany after their defeat in World War I and trigger events which would lead to World War II . The war also influenced Italian history and its struggle for unification. With the outbreak of war, Napoleon withdrew his garrison from Rome. With this garrison gone, the Italian national army was able to take the Papal State of Rome in 1870.


Victorious German troops march through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 16, 1871. Ever since this day it was traditional for German troops to march through the gate on their return from war .


The arrival in Strassburg of part of the indemnity. France was required to pay an indemnity of 5 millard gold francs by the terms of the peace treaty.


Growing discontent after the Franco-Prussian War led to the brief establishment of the Paris commune from March 18 to May 28, 1871.The National Assembly's army brutally crushed the Commune, and when the Commune had been demolished, the National Assembly proceeded with executions that numbered 20,000 in one week.



A  barricade of the Paris Commune


Drawing by Manet of the fighting during the Paris Commune. One of the most famous painters to die in the war was Frédéric Bazille, who was killed in 1870.


Toppling of the Place Vendôme Column of Napoleon I. After the fall of the uprising, the mitrailleuse was used by the government to execute many members of the commune.


There was great French bitterness over the Treaty of Frankfurt which ended the Franco Prussian War and the loss of Alsace and Lorraine . When the European crisis of 1914 came, many Europeans felt the coming war would be brief as the Franco Prussian War had been. Here French Cuirassiers , looking much like their predecessors from 1870, are cheered as they ride toward the front in 1914.





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Recommended books on the

Franco-Prussian War



The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871

by Geoffrey Wawro

Military historian Wawro gives a comprehensive and lucid account of the political and diplomatic dimensions of the war


The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871

by Michael Howard



The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune, 1870-71

by Alistair Horne

Horne's writing makes the story of the Paris siege and commune every bit as compelling, fast-moving as the best fiction



La Débâcle (The Downfall)

by Émile Zola

Novel by Émile Zola about farmer Jean Macquart,set against the background of the series of political and military events that ended the reign of Napoléon III and the Second Empire in 1870, in particular the Franco-Prussian War, the Battle of Sedan and the Paris Commune



La Commune (Paris, 1871)

a 2000 historical drama film directed by Peter Watkins about the Paris Commune. It is a historical re-enactment in the style of a documentary













Bismarck wearing one of the famous spiked helmets or Pickelhaube.

These were designed  by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1842 to make the Prussian army more distinctive. Made of leather with a metal front piece and spike, became popular in many armies, including the U.S. after the German victory in the war. Contrary to popular belief, the spike was never meant to be a weapon.

Pickelhaube for sale.




books on the

Franco-Prussian War




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books and dvds on the Paris Commune
































 Comparisons of the Armies


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