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 The War







The French Mobilization

French volunteers



Edmond Le Bœuf, French Minister of War


The French War minister, Edmond Le Bœuf, had made plans for the creation of three armies at Metz, Strasbourg and Chalons .The army of Strasbourg would be commanded by Marshall MacMahon ( of Irish ancestry), hero of Crimea and Governor of Algeria.All the troops which could be spared from Algeria would be sent to this army, which was to be made of three corps. The army of Metz, would also have three corps, commanded by Marshal Bazaine, the leader of the recent failed Mexican expedition. The army of Chalons, with two corps, would be under the command of Marshal Canrobert .


For five days all preparations were made on this plan, then on July 11, the emperor ordered that one large army, eight corps strong and under his personal command, which would gather in Metz .The three marshals, would command one corps each .Napoleon made these changes, expecting Austria would join the war on his side as well. Most Austrians, were rather surprised at what they considered premature declaration of war, for which they were unprepared .Russia, also threatened to mobilize to aid Prussia, if Austria mobilized .  Austria was to declare neutrality on July 20th.


The French mobilization was chaos . French troops were scattered all over the country .There was no great organizer like Moltke in France .Leboef decided that mobilization should take place at once rather than successively to be able to launch an attack before German could bring their massive armies together. By August 6, only half of the reservist had reached their units and many lacked equipment and uniforms . Many were stuck in railway stations due to rail delays .

Most of the French command had served in Algeria in their formative years and this influenced the command style, with ambushes being common and a desire to seek a strong defensive position.France had been fighting in Algeria for 30 years by the time the war started .


Strasbourg was the base of operations for the French right, and Metz for the center and left. Besides Strasbourg and Metz other frontier fortresses strengthened the advanced line — Bitche and Phalsbourg in the Vosges, and Thionville on the Moselle. The French army occupied, therefore, a very long line, and its advanced corps, extending from Thionville on the left to Strasbourg on the right, were scattered over too wide a front, insufficiently connected, and too far from their supports at Metz .This left them be exposed to being defeated in detail


French Military Commanders 


Patrice de MacMahon (1808-93)


His ancestors came from Ireland.Graduated from the French military academy Saint-Cyr in 1827.Served in Algeria 1834-54.Became commander of the Foreign Legion in 1843.In the Crimean War, he distinguished himself in the Battle of Malakoff .He fought in the Second Italian War of Independence as commander of the Second Corps ("Army of Italy"). He secured the French victory at Magenta (June,4 1859) and rose to the rank of marshal . He was later created Duke of Magenta by Napoleon III .

Personally courageous, but suffered from indecision in the heat of battle .Commanded the I and V French Corps (the Alsace army). Doomed his army by trying to relieve Bazaine .Wounded at Sedan and command passed to General De Wimpffen. MacMahon and resided at Wiesbaden until the conclusion of peace. He served as Chief of State of France from 1873 to 1875 and as the first president of the Third Republic, from 1875 to 1879.

François Achille Bazaine (1811-1888)

Bazaine rose through the ranks as a legionnaire. He served in Algeria for many years and in the Crimean War. He became the youngest general in the army at 44.He commanded the First Division under General Forey in the Mexican expedition in 1862.In 1863 he replaced Forey to take supreme command .At the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, he was given command of the III Corps of the Army of the Rhine .After the defeats of Marshal MacMahon’s army at Worth and Marshal Canrobert’s at Forbach, Napoleon III , was swift to hand over to Bazaine as Commander-in-Chief of the French Army on 13 August 1870.The day after assuming command he was badly wounded by a shell on the left shoulder. Forced to retreat to Metz after the battle of Mars-La-Tour. Bazaine asked for no aid, but they was a public outcry for Marshal Mac-Mahon's "Army of Châlons", to rescue Bazaine . After the fall of Napoleon, He refused to recognise the new republic and desired to restore the Monarchy. Bazaine surrendered Metz on Oct 23, 1870, which some claimed prevented the defeat of the German army in Loire by freing up the German army beseiging him .He was tried for treason and made a scapegoat for the French defeat in the war and sentenced to 20 years. He later escaped, and died in Spain in poverty.

 François Certain Canrobert (1809-1895)


He attended the St.Cyr and served in Algeria. He took part in the coup d'état of Napoleon in 1851and fought in the Crimean War .In the Franco-Prussian War he commanded the VI army corps, which won the greatest distinction at the Battle of Gravelotte and was captured after the surrender of Metz .Refuse a position as C o C of the Army of the Rhine, thinking it out of his range .



Marshall Edmond Le Bœuf (1808-88)


The war with the Prussians will be a mere stroll, stick in hand .


In 1869, became Marshall of War.Distrustful of the Garde Mobile, when war came they were woefully unprepared to aid the regular army and ignored breech loading artillery such as the Krupp gun.The earlier work of his predecessor Niel to improve the rail system were also ignored .Laboef drew up the war mobilization plans based on the reports of General Charles Frossard which called for the creation of three armies on the frontier in a defensive position and invade Germany with Austrian allies.Dismissed on Aug 14, 1870 and assumed command of the IIICorps .Captured at Metz.

Gen Charles Denis Bourbaki (1816-97)

Son of Greek colonel Constantin Denis Bourbaki, educated at St Cyr and served in Africa.In the Crimean War he commanded a portion of the Algerian troops; and at the Alma, Inkerman and Sevastopol Bourbaki's name became famous.In 1870 he was given command of the Imperial Guard- a resevre force which saw little action in the opening weeks of the war.He offered his services to Gambetta and the new republic and received the command of the Northern Army, but was recalled on November 10 and transferred to the Army of the Loire.

In command of the hastily-trained and ill-equipped Army of the East, Bourbaki made the attempt to raise the siege of Belfort, which, after the victory of Villersexel, ended in the repulse of the French in the three days' battle of the Lisaine. Other German forces under Manteuffel now closed upon Bourbaki, and he was eventually driven over the Swiss frontier with the remnant of his forces. He tried to commit suicide on Jan 26, but was unsuccessful.

Louis Jules Trochu (1815-96)

Educated at St. Cyr and served in Algeria, the Crimea and distinguished himself in the Italian campaign of 1859. Lost some support from the court after publishing books advising reform of the army in 1867.Appointed to command the 12th Corps but later tapped to become  governor of Paris and commander-in-chief of all the forces destined for the defence of the capital, including some 120,000 regular troops, 80,000 mobiles, and 330,000 National Guards. After the downfall of Napoleon after Sedan on September4 he became president of the Government of National Defence (new Republic)

Antoine Chanzy (1823-1883)

Attended St Cyr and served in Algeria where he became governor . After the revolution he was given command of the Army of the Loire formed by Léon Gambetta.Regarded by the Prussians as one of their most formidable opponents .

General Pierre Louis Charles de Failly (1810-92) Commander of the V Corps Attended St Cyr, defended Rome against Garibaldi, was to become infamous for actions at Worth and Spicheren



It was taken for granted by most foreign military observers, that the war would begin with a French invasion into Germany, either to the north into the Palatine or eastward into the Rhine .Fredrich Engels wrote in the Pall Mall Gazette, that the French must be planning an offensive if they declared war . The Germans themselves also expected an invasion .


The one strong card that the French held was their supposed ability to mobilize their smaller army quicker than the larger Prussian army could . Every day that passed without an invasion favored the Germans .Moltke was astonished that the French declared war two weeks before they were ready for it .What happened ?


The mobilization was in chaos because of poor planning .The main train station for the war with Germany was at Metz, which could not handle the huge quantities of supplies, ammunition and rations which were brought to it .Many supplies were uninventoried and eventually forgotten, including millions of rounds of chassepot ammunition. Troops assembled in Metz and Strasbourg lacking supplies .By the 14th day of mobilisation, Leboef, the French minister of war, hoped to have 385,000 men and around 900 guns ready of action .Instead he found 202,448 men. The French troops were garrisoned throughout the country and the troops were sent straight to the frontier, to be armed there .


The German Mobilization


The German crown Prince read the mobilization order to cheering crowds at Postdam on July 15. Within 18 days, 1,183,000 men were placed in the army and 462,000 were transported to the frontier .To make the mobilization go smoothly,  a special Line of Communication Department of the General Staff was created and a civilian-military Central Commission to make plans for the railways in time of war . Moltke was deeply concerned with the details of mobilization and supply and contributed greatly to the German success .It did not all go smoothly, and the Germans suffered transportation problems as well, but nowhere near the chaos the French were having .


Moltke divided his attacking force into three armies, the First Army under Stienmetz with the I,VIII and VIII Corps of 50,000~70,000 made up of the 7th Corps of Westphalians, under General von Zastrow; the 8th Bhinelanders, under General von Goben ; part of the 10 th Corps ; and the Brandenburg . 7 division of cavalry and 186 guns .The 1st Army occupied the line of the Saar, from Saarburg on the right, to Saarbriicken .


The large Second Army under Crown Prince Charles of the III, IV,IX,X,XII Corps and the Prussian Guard of 134,000 and the Third Army under the command of Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, of the V,XI and 2 Barvarian Corps of 125,000 made up of the 1st East Prussian Corps, under General Manteuflfel; the 2nd Pomeranian, under General Fransetzky; the 3rd Brandenburger, under General von Alvensleben II.; the 4th Prussians, Saxons, and Thuringians, under General von Alvensleben I.; the 9th Schleswig Holstein, under General von Manstein; the 10th Hanoverians, under General von Voigts Rhetz ; the 12 th Saxons, under the Crown Prince of Saxony; the Hesse Darmstadt division ; the Garrison of Mayence (Mainz) ; and the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 10th, and 12th cavalry divisions with 660 guns.



At the beginning of the war the Third Army was considered to be less reliable due to its South German units .consisting of the Corps of the Guard, under Prince Augustus of Wurtemburg ; the 5th Poseners, under General von Kirchbach ; the 6th Silesians, under General von Sumpling; the 11th Hesse and Nassau, under General von Bose; the Wurtemburg contingent, under Lieutenant-General von Obernitz; the Baden contingent, under General von Beyer ; the Bavarian contingent, under General von der Tann ; and the 6th cavalry division : making a total of 250,000 men, with 660 guns.


The Germans dispersed their armies over 300 miles and were seperated by mountains. The French concentrated their forcesbetween Saarbruken and Metz. The orginal German plan was to destroy Napoleon's Army by encircling it after it had invaded German territory.


German Military Commanders  


Helmuth von Moltke 1800-91

 (the Elder)


Chief of Staff of the German Army since 1857, whose great skill as an organizer was largely responsible for Germany's success with training and mobilization of reservists, railway organization  and his General Staff to run it .Unlike Napoleon I, who invaded Russia with an army half Germany's size, the German's were able to control theirs quickly and effectively .Moltke was also largely responsible for drawing up war plans

Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz (1796-1877)


Educated at cadet school of Stolp in Pomerania from 1807 to 1811 during the French occupation .Won the Iron Cross for his battles against Napoleon III. Awarded the Pour le Mérite for actions during the First Schleswig War. Led led the V Corps in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Given command of the first Army in the war.Moltke had trouble with him not following commands, such asat the beginning of the war in Aug along the Saar. After the fall of Metz, Moltke merged the three German armies into two .After reportedly being uncivil to Prince Frederick Charles, he was given a retirement position as Governer of Posen.

Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia



Son of Prince Charles of Prussia . Served in the First Schleswig War. Her served with distinction in the Austro-Prussian War, where he commanded the First Army. Given command of the 2nd Army at the outbreak of the war .Nicknamed the 'Red Prince' for his Hussar uniform. A reliable but cautious commander .distinguished himself at the Battle of Spicheren and the battles of Vionville-Mars le Tour and Gravelotte-St.Privat and the following Siege of Metz. After the fall of Metz, his army was sent to the Loire to clear the area around Orléans, where French troops, first under Aurelle de Paladines, then under Chanzy, were trying to march north to relieve Paris. He won battles at Orleans and Le Mans. For his services he was promoted to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall.

Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (1831-1888)

(later to become Frederick III, German Emperor ) The only son of son of Emperor William I. He experienced his first combat in the Second Schleswig War and his army was instrumental in winning the Austro-Prussian War and awarded the Pour le Mérite . He commanded the Third Army at the outbreak of the war.He won victories at Wörth Wissembourg, and the Battle of Sedan . Noted for his humaness toward his soldiers and enemies , which some felt was unmilitary softness. See photo below .

Albrecht von Roon (1803-79)


His family was of Flemish origin. Entered military school in 1816. Aware of the inefficient state of the Prussian Army and introduced reforms under Prince William such as to increase universal military service  and combining the Landwehr and the regular army .After victories in the Second Schleswig War and the Austro-Prussian War,His army system was adopted after 1866 by the whole North German Confederation.Roon saw to it that a ring of fortifications armed with Krupp guns were built on the coasr, preventing a French sea-invasion.



Prussian Crown Prince Frederick  ( marked with an x ) was famous for his humanness toward his enemies, here

photographed with French prisoners of war at Cologne . It is estimated that nearly 730,000 Frenchmen

were captured by the Prussians at some point in the war . Most disease deaths came

 from typhoid and dysentery ( Epidemics resulting from wars , Prinzig 1916) .


The War Begins



On 28 July 1870 Napoleon III left Paris for Metz and assumed command of the newly titled Army of the Rhine, some 100,000 strong and expected to grow as the French mobilization progressed.  Napoleon was in ill health and suffered from a bladder stone and was in constant pain .Marshal MacMahon took command of I Corps (4 infantry divisions) near Wissembourg, Marshal François Canrobert brought VI Corps (4 infantry divisions) to Châlons-sur-Marne in northern France as a reserve and to guard against a Prussian advance through Belgium.


A pre-war plan laid out by the late Marshal Adolphe Niel called for a strong French offensive from Thionville towards Trier and into the Prussian Rhineland. This plan was discarded in favour of a defensive plan by Generals Charles Frossard and Bartélemy Lebrun, which called for the Army of the Rhine to remain in a defensive posture near the German border and repel any Prussian offensive. As Austria along with Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden were expected to join in a revenge war against Prussia, I Corps would invade the Bavarian Palatinate and proceed to "liberate" the South German states in concert with Austro-Hungarian forces. VI Corps would reinforce either army as needed.


Unfortunately for General Frossard's plan, the Prussian army was mobilizing far more rapidly than expected. Against all expectations, the South German states had come to Prussia's aid and were mobilizing their armies against France. The Austro-Hungarians, still smarting after their defeat by Prussia, seemed content to wait until a clear victor emerged before committing to France's cause.


Already, by August 3, some 320,000 German soldiers were now massed near the French border. A 40,000 strong French offensive into southern Germany would run into superior numbers and be rapidly cut off and destroyed. Napoleon III, however, 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 one Prussian division guarding the border town of Saarbrücken, right before the entire Army of the Rhine. Accordingly, on July 31 Napoleon III ordered the Army forward across the Saar River to seize Saarbrücken.

Occupation of Saarbrücken The French invade


The bridge at Saarbrücken


General Frossard's II Corps and Marshal Bazaine's III Corps crossed the German border on August 2, 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 dead-end in terms of logistics— only one single railway there led from the border 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 Frossard was receiving alarming reports from foreign news sources of Prussian and Bavarian armies massing to the southeast in addition to the forces to the north and northeast.


Moltke had indeed massed three armies in the area— the Prussian First Army commanded by General Karl von Steinmetz (50,000 soldiers) opposite Saarlouis, the Prussian Second Army commanded by Prince Friedrich Karl (134,000 soldiers) opposite the line Forbach— Spicheren, and the Prussian Third Army commanded by Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm (125,000 soldiers) poised to cross the border at Wissembourg. Cavalry reconnaissance had identified a French division of MacMahon's corps at Wissembourg. The Third Army moved forward to engage this division. The Second Army moved forward towards the border and Forbach and Spicheren beyond. The First Army marched to Saarlouis, to catch in the flank and rear any French forces moving to reinforce Spicheren. Moltke planned for the First Army in concert later with the Third Army to envelop the entire French army against the Second Army and destroy the entire force.


Battle of Wissembourg 

August 4, 1870


Three German army corps surprise a small French garrison at Wissembourg and results in a Prussian victory and allows them to invade France. The Prussians lost 91 officers and 1,460 men. The French lost 2,300 killed, wounded and  made prisoner.


The French defenders, despite being outnumbered, fought stubbornly  painting by Alphonse de Neuville


On learning that the Second Army was just 30 miles (48 km) from Saarbrücken and was moving towards the border, General Frossard hastily withdrew the elements of Army of the Rhine in Saarbrücken back to Spicheren and Forbach. Marshal MacMahon however was unaware of Prussian movements beyond vague rumours from newspapers, and left his four divisions spread 20 miles (32 km) apart in depth to react to any Prussian invasion. At Wissembourg on August 4, MacMahon's 2nd Division commanded by General Abel Douay was the first to make contact with leading elements of the Prussian Third Army, beginning the Battle of Wissembourg.


The first action of the Franco-Prussian War (excluding the push into Saarbrücken by elements of Frossard's French II Corps on 2 August) took place on 4 August. 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 which was notable for the complete lack of higher direction by the Prussians and blind offensive haste by their low level officers.

Douay held a very strong position but his force was too thinly stretched to hold it and his division was driven south by way of Riedseltz at dusk. Douay himself was killed in the early afternoon when a caisson of the divisional mitrailleuse battery exploded near him. General Pelle took up command and withdrew the remnants of the division.


Although Failly's V Corps was just a few miles away at Bitsche and the other three divisions of MacMahon's I Corps were a similar distance away to the south at Worth, neither moved to assist, despite the clear rumble of guns.


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

August 6, 1870


The German I Army under General Karl von Steinmetz advanced west from Saarbrucken and attacked the French 2nd Corps under Charles Auguste Frossard. The German victory compelled the French to withdraw to the defenses of Metz. The Prusians lost The Germans lost 223 officers and 4,648 men.


Famous Prussian assult on Rotherberg by 1 company of the 39th Regiment and 4 companies

of the 74th Regiment, commanded by General von Francois, who was killed.

Painting Erstürmung des Roten Berges by Carl Röchling



Frossard repulsed early German attacks, but came under increasing pressure on his flanks as more Germans arrived. Bazaine sent no reinforcements and Frossard was forced to retreat. This failure of French commanders to support each other and Failley's failure to support MacMahon at Woerth became one of the causes célèbre of the French during the war.


Another view of the Storming Spicheren (Sturm auf den Spicherer Berg) by Anton von Werner


The Battle of Spicheren, on August 5, was the second of three critical French defeats. The French were able to stall the German I Army until the German II Army under Prince Friedrich Karl of Prussia came to the aid of their compatriots and routed the French in a blazing attack. Together with the Battle of Wœrth, on the following day, the Prussians succeeded in separating the northern and southern flanks of the French army. The German victory compelled the French to withdraw to the defenses of Metz.


Battle of Wörth 

August 6, 1870


Germany commanded by Crown Prince Frederick defeat the French commanded by Marshal MacMahon. After a closely fought engagement, the French were driven from their positions, and made a hasty retreat beyond the Vosges Mountains. General Bonnemain's cuirassier division was largely destroyed in charging the German infantry, near Helsass Hausen. The German losses amounted to 489 officers, and 10,153 men, while the French lost 10,000 killed and wounded, 6,000 prisoners, 28 guns and 5 mitrailleuses.


German artillery caused high causalities among the French. Failley, who was ordered to send a corps to support MacMahon, only sent a division which was only useful for covering MacMahon's retreat.


700 French 9th Cuirassiers under General Michel trapped in Morsbronn-les-Bains

  Jean Baptiste Edouard Detaille


The two armies clashed again only two days later (August 6, 1870) near Wœrth in the town of Frœschwiller, 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 Frœschwiller. 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 Frœschwiller 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.


French heavy calvary ( cuirassier ) charge at Helsass Hausen, Aimé Morot


The battle of Wœrth 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 Wœrth 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 .


Battle of Mars-La-Tour or Rezonville

August 16, 1870


Map of the battle, from Battles of the 19th century 1897 by G.A. Henty


Two Prussian corps encountered the entire French Army of the Rhine under Bazaine, and successfully forced the Army of the Rhine to retreat into the fortresses of Metz. Generals Rhetz and von Alvensleben deceived Bazaine as to their real strength. Germany victory. Of note is the desperate charges of the German cavalry, and especially of Von Bredow's brigade, against the French infantry . This provided cover for the shattered German infantry to reform and was one of the last successful massed cavalry charges of modern warfare. "Von Bredow's Death Ride" resulted in large casualties for the Prussian forces but it managed to defeat a French force that outnumbered them four or five to one ( The French actually believed themselves significantly outnumbered ).The losses of the overall battle were roughly equal, with about 16,000 killed and wounded on each side. Mars-la-Tour led directly to the Battle of Gravelotte (just 2 days later) and then to the siege of Metz. A French victory at Mars-la-Tour would have changed the entire complexion of the Franco-Prussian War.


"Von Bredow's Death Ride" The bitter day long battle near Rezonville convinced

Bazaine to fall back on the left bank of the Moselle.


With the Prussian army now steam rolling, 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 the 16 August, 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.


Bitter Cavalry action at Mars-La-Tour. On Aug 18, the Prussians attacked in force, the Prussian Guard lost over 8,000. Bazaine's right flank fell that night and Bazaine fell back on Metz. Painting by Aimé Morot .


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 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.


Battle of Gravelotte 

August 18, 1870


"Tod des Majors von Halden" Painting by Carl Röchling .



Map of the Battle of Gravelotte-St-Privat , from Battles of the 19th century 1897 by G.A. Henty


The largest battle of the Franco Prussian War with roughly 200,000 combatants facing each other on both sides . Gravelotte-St-Privat was probably the hardest fought of all the battles of the Franco-Prussian War. The French held their position in the area of Gravelotte, the Germans turned their right flank at St. Privat, and they were eventually forced to abandon all their positions, and retire into Metz.

Attacked by superior Prussian forces from both the First and Second armies, Marshal Bazaine's French Army of the Rhine inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing Prussian's before finally being forced to retreat into the fortress city of Metz. Unable to break out and with no hope of relief Bazaine's army grimly held on to the end of the war. French failure at Gravelotte-St-Privat led directly to their final defeat at Sedan, the collapse of Napoleon III's regime and the proclamation of the German Empire.The combined German armies under Field Marshal von Moltke with 188,332 men fought The French Army of the Rhine under Marshal Bazaine with about 113,000 men. The Germans lost around 20,000, most to the Chassepots and mitrailleuses and the French around 7,800 to Krupp guns. Bazaine was blocked from going to the fortress of Verdun and retreated to Metz, where he was besieged.


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.


French soldiers advance at Gravelotte. The French inability to take advantage of the many Prussian mistakes cost them their best chance to halt the Prussian advance.


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.


The French use their mitrailleuse to great effect against the Prussians


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 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 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 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 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.


MacMahon, with his broken army, had escaped towards Strasbourg, and De Failly was proceeding to join him, but both were cut off from all communication with the main body. The left and centre of the French army were gathering in and around Metz ; this force, the principal hope of France, numbered 160,000 men, and 400 or 500 guns, a force quite unequal to that of the Prussians, who had 200,000 men on their way from the Saar, while the Crown Prince with his corps was rapidly advancing through the passes of the Yosges. The Emperor, who had drawn his chief corps to Metz, still lost three days in holding councils, reviewing troops, and planning the campaign ; he also at this time resigned the chief command to Marshal Bazaine.


 The German masses were meanwhile advancing on Metz, and had so arranged that a retreat on Chilonss would be impossible to the French. On the 14th August, the Emperor, however, crossed the Moselle, and reached Chilons ; but the principal part of the army remained encamped to the east of the fortress ; they were here attacked, and after a hotly contested fight of three or four hours, retreated into the town. The Germans had suffered greatly, but they had accom- plished their design of detaining the French army in its for- mer position, and were themselves being strengthened hourly by the arrival of fresh forces.


The Battle of Chateaudun, Oct 18, 1870. 1,000 Francs-tireurs and soldiers held of 5,000 Germans for nine hours.


Siege of Metz


Metz 1870


September 3 – October 23, 1870



MacMahon, with his broken army, had escaped towards Strasbourg, and De Failly was proceeding to join him, but both were cut off from all communication with the main body. The left and centre of the French army were gathering in and around Metz ; this force, the principal hope of France, numbered 160,000 men, and 400 or 500 guns, a force quite unequal to that of the Prussians, who had 200,000 men on their way from the Saar, while the Crown Prince with his corps was rapidly advancing through the passes of the Yosges. The Emperor, who had drawn his chief corps to Metz, still lost three days in holding councils, reviewing troops, and planning the campaign ; he also at this time resigned the chief command to Marshal Bazaine. The German masses were meanwhile advancing on Metz, and had so arranged that a retreat on Chilonss would be impossible to the French. On the 14th August, the Emperor, however, crossed the Moselle, and reached Chilons ; but the principal part of the army remained encamped to the east of the fortress ; they were here attacked, and after a hotly contested fight of three or four hours, retreated into the town. The Germans had suffered greatly, but they had accom- plished their design of detaining the French army in its former position, and were themselves being strengthened hourly by the arrival of fresh forces.


On the 16th, however, Bazaine might still have escaped to Verdun, but it seems he did not know of the danger threatening him, for he did not attempt to advance till the next day, and it was then too late. His army had commenced its march when it was sud- denly assailed by a Prussian corps ; the French fought under great disadvantages, for they were attacked always on their flank, and soon were obliged to retreat into Metz. At the same time another divison was attacked on the Etain road, and obliged to fall back on Doncourt, and from thence to Gravelotte and Metz. Bazaine endeavoured again to extricate himself; he posted 110,000 men on the heights of Gravelotte, at the junction of the Verdun and Etain roads, where they had every advantage of position, with a wood beneath them commanding the neighbouring approaches; he left a reserve force of 20,000 men at Metz. The Germans, in the interval, advanced and occupied the roads to Verdun and Etain, from Rezonville to Doncourt, and had a force of 240,000 men to oppose to the French, whom they had decided to attack right and left simnltaneonsly. The attack began about mid-day, and lasted until night ; for hours the victory hung in suspense, but the French at length fell back on Metz, fighting to the last ; they lost 19,000 men. On the (rerman side, it is supposed 25,000 men at least were killed. Bazaine with his army was now completely imprisoned in Metz, with no prospect, if he could not force his way through the lines of the enemy, but to surrender.


A council of war was held, and it was determined that as a retreat on Paris would prove fatal to the Imperial interests, MacMahon should assume the defensive, and endeavour to join Bazaine at Metz.On the 27th August the French marshal, who ought to have reached the Meuse, was only at Le Chdne le Populeux : the delay must be explained by the bad condition of the troops, who only marched 22 miles in two days, and the misconduct of some of the regimental officers ; this delay proved fatal, for the Grerman armies, numbering about 24,000 men, were marching on with astonishing rapidity, and the Crown Prince of Saxony reached the Meuse in time to fall upon the vanguard of the French when they should cross it; the Crown Prince of Prussia arrived on the line of march of the French by the 28th. MacMahon, now warned of his danger, determined to cross the Meuse and to go on to Carignan by Montmedy, but the Prussians advanced and drove back the French as they arrived on the river, with terrible loss, and shut off the road to Montmedy. MacMahon, with his disheartened troops, then collected behind the Chiers. Here, with his 110,000 men, with Balan and Bazeilles in front, and Sedan to the right of the Meuse, he waited the attack, the emperor, it is said, still sanguine as to the result. On the morning of the 31st August the battle began, every step was disputed, every position the scene of a bloody contest ; the emperor himself fought bravely and cheered on his men, but all was in vain, the French line after a struggle of several hours gave way, and was "driven headlong into the town, smitten by the weight of a crushing artillery." Firing was still kept up on the town, until a flag of truce was waved from its undefended walls, in token that a parley was desired. A coun cil of war was held in Sedan ; with almost one voice it was agreed that the position was hopeless, and that the terms of the King of Prussia must be submitted to.


The Prussians enter Metz


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 and 6,000 officers on October 27. Bazaine and his army marched off into captivity and a new Prussian army was now free to besiege Paris.  A little later the Republic was proclaimed. The leaders of the new Republic labelled Bazaine a traitor and sentenced him to death. It was felt that his surrender and the freeing up of troops prevented a victory against the Prussians in the Loire.The sentence was commuted and he died in exile in poverty. He remains a hero to the Foreign Legion.


Surrender of the French army of Bazaine at Metz



Battle of Sedan 




September 1, 1870

The most decisive of the war. The battle resulted in the capture of Napoleon III and his entire army and decided the war for Prussia. A new French republic continued to fight after the capture and exile of Napoleon III. The French had 17,000 casualties and 21,000 captured and the surrender gave the Germans 83,000 more .The German suffered only 9,000 killed and wounded. The high French casualties were due to the German artillery . The battle is remarkable for the charge of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, under General Margueritte, at Floing. His brigade was cut to pieces and the general killed.


Now we have them in the mousetrap .



Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdes

We are in the chamber pot and about to be shat upon.

                                                      French General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot



MacMahon's object in falling back to Sedan was to gain time to reorganize and re-equip his forces . Sedan was the site of a 17th century fortress . 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.


Bavarians of the Prussian army in a ferocious engagement at the  village of Bazeilles in the early morning of Sept 1st . Villagers took up arms to help the French army, many of whom were shot if captured. The village was taken by the Prussians at noon .


Battle of Sedan rare 19th photographs of actual battle


The Prussians, under the command of Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke, took advantage of this incompetent 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 August 30. After a hard-fought battle with the French losing 5,000 men and 40 cannon in a sharp fight, they withdrew toward Sedan.


Large cannons were not enough to protect the French at 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 by a shell fragment to the leg on the previous day, General Auguste Ducrot took command of the French troops in the field.Unlike MacMahon, he realised that if the French army stood and fought, it would be destroyed and issued immediate orders for retreat.At 8:30 am Gen Wimpffen, the new French commander arrived.A old warhorse, he countermanned the order to retreat, despite Ducrot's protest . Soon, the French army was surrounded, and a circle of batteries placed around the French and rained shells on the infantry.The king of Prussia and a gaggle of German princes gathered to watch the upcoming battle on the wooded hills above Frenois along with military observers such as Gen Sheridan from the United States and Colonel Walker from the British army .


One the three great cavalry charge at Sedan led by  General Margueritte who was mortally

wounded against the Prussian IX Corp at Floring .


The French Imperial Guard with Prussian prisoners at Sedan


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. Wimpffen tried to break out at Carigan, which failed and his force retreated pell mell to Sedan .During the day, Napoleon rode on the battlefield, seeking a death that eluded him .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.


Guns captured by the Prussians at Sedan


Wimpffen was sent to negotiate with Bismarck and Moltke. Wimpffen wanted a ' honourable capitulation' with his army able to march away with its arms , under a promise not to take up arms against Prussia. Bismark and Moltke refused this, and Wimpffen threatened to defend Sedan to the last. Moltke pointed out that the French army was reduced to only 80,000 and was ringed by artillery , while the Prussians and their forces totaled some 250,000 . Wimpffen asked for more time to consult with his colleagues, and the truce was extended to 9:00am the next day .Napoleon, decided to make an appeal directly to the King of Prussia, and without his advisers knowledge, set off early on Sept 2 to the Prussian position at Donchery .


Napoleon III surrenders after Sedan, from a 1901 print .



Bismarck talks with Napoleon III at a cottage in Donchery. Napoleon suffered intensely from bladder stones and hemorrhoids at Sedan and exposed himself to danger during the battle, seeking death.


Bismarck met him on the road, and foiled Napoleon's attempt to bypass him . Bismark said the King was too far away to fetch and together they went to a nearby cottage. However, Bismarck lost interest in the discussion once he discovered Napoleon regarded himself a prisoner and no longer a representative of France .Meanwhile, in Sedan, Wimpffen signed the terms Moltke presented him .The French army was to surrender as prisoners of war, with all arms and material .Officers who pledged not to take up arms against Germany were to be allowed to go free. 550 officers took advantage of this .The Germans had taken 21,000 prisoners during the battle, and to this 81,000 more men were added . The French surrendered 419 guns. The Prussians lost some 9,000 men .With the French army surrendered, Bismark allowed Napoleon to see the Prussian King. It was a brief awkward meeting. Napoleon complimented the King on his army and had only one request- that he not go through the French countryside into captivity, but through nearby Belgium, to avoid embarrassment .


French troops turn their backs on Napoleon III as he departs for Prussia. The French Republic was declared two days after news of Sedan reached Paris. Napoleon died in exile in London in 1873.His last words to his friend Henri Conneau, who also was at at Sedan on his deathbed were ' We were not cowards at Sedan were we?'


This Bismarck and the King allowed .On Sept 3, Napoleon left for Wilhelmshohe. As Bismarck and Moltke watched the Napoleon go, Bismark remarked,' There is a dynasty on its way out.' If Napoleon was no longer the legal sovereign of France, who was ?


Siege and Fall of Strasbourg  Aug 15 - Sept 28 1870



Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, had 85,000 inhabitants at the time of the war . The nucleus of the defences is the citadel, with its five bastioned fronts, built by Marshal Vauban in 1685 . Immediately after the s declaration of war with Prussia by France, it seemed as if Strasbourg was to be left untouched by the war, for it was evident that the French invasion of Germany and attack on Cologne must be begun with the right flank turned towards Rhenish Bavaria. But when Southern Germany ranged itself on the Prussian side, the situation of affairs was changed. It became necessary for the French armies to march off hastily in a new direction, and it became more probable that Strasbourg might be seriously threatened. All the accounts state that before the battle of Worth, the 6th corps, under the command of Marshal Canrobert, was in and round Strasbourg. After the battle was lost the corps marched off in 31 the direction of Metz, and the garrison of Strasbourg was thus so reduced that the place was left in a bad plight. Not even one company of engineers was left in the now-threatened fortress, and its garrison consisted chiefly of national guards. A great number of stragglers from the battle of Worth found accordingly a welcome reception at Strasburg, and its gates also opened for the reception of many thousands of fugitive country- people.

The preparations for putting the works and armaments in a state of siege were, just commenced, when the enemy appeared in the vicinity of the fortress.the time, Strasbourg (along with Metz) was considered to be one of the strongest fortresses in France. Werder's force was made up of 40,000 troops from Württemberg and Baden, which lay just across the Rhine River from Strasbourg. The French garrison of 17,000 was under the command of the 68-year-old General Jean Jacques Alexis Uhrich.

Prussian general August von Werder (1808-88)

On the 8th August the head of the division arrived before Strasbourg. It was believed that the fortress was occupied almost exclusively by national guards, and it was well known that the preparation of the works for a siege was incomplete. Lieutenant- General von Beyer, commanding the division, remained with the main body of the advanced guard a league and a half from Strasburg, and sent Major von Amerongen into the fortress, in order to represent to the commandant the serious disasters of the French army in the field, and to demand the surrender of the place. Tlie commandant, however, rouglily refused the demand, and after this the advanced guard employed upon this recon- naissance withdrew to Brumath.

On August 21 The head of the siege-train reached Veudenheim. The train consisted of 200 guns rifled on the Prussian system, and 100 smoothbore mortars ; 40 of these guns were at once brought into action against the fortress. Lieutenant-Greneral von Werder asked the commandant, in vain, to remove the observatory erected on the tower of the cathedral, in order that it might be possible to save this magnificent work of architecture from destruction. With similar results he endeavoured to have the military hospital moved out of the line of fire.

Prussians bombarding Strasbourg

On 23 August Werder's siege guns opened fire on the city and caused considerable damage to the city and many of its historical landmarks. Werder continued bombing the city, this time targeting selected fortifications. The German siege lines moved rapidly closer to the city as each fortress was turned into rubble. On 11 September, a delegation of Swiss officials went into the city to evacuate non-combatants. This delegation brought in news of the defeat of the French at the Battle of Sedan, which meant no relief was coming to Strasbourg. On 19 September the remaining civilians urged Uhrich to surrender the city, but he refused, believing a defense was still possible. However, that same day Werder stormed and captured the first of the city's fortifications. This event caused Uhrich to reconsider his ability to defend the city. On 27 September Uhrich opened negotiations with Werder, and the city surrendered the following day. in consequence of this capitulation, the French lost 451 officers, 17,111 men (including 7,000 national guards), and some 2,000 sick, 1,843 horses, more than 1,200 pieces of bronze ordnance, 3,000 cwt. of powder, 12,000 chassepot rifles, 50 locomotives, and great quantities of other warlike stores. The prisoners of war were sent to Rastatt. The fall of Strasbourg freed Werder's forces for further operations in northeastern France. His next move was against the city of Belfort, which was invested in November.

General von Werder enters Strasbourg Sept 30, 1870


France a Republic again


Louis Jules Trochu


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. Empress Eugenie was able to escape to London as was her son, Prince Eugène. The death of the prince in 1879 in Africa fighting as an English officer against the Zulus ended any hope of reviving the Bonaparte throne. Despite the fact that little remained of the armies Napoleon had led our six weeks earlier, the new government vowed to fight the war to the bitter end. A new sense of partiotism infused the lower classes, who no longer viewed it as an upper class affair .


Celebration in Paris at the proclamation of the Republic, Farve being congratulated to the right


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, 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.


Leon Gambetta, Minister of the Interior of the new Republic, leaves besieged Paris in a balloon


 ( considering the dangers of such a flight, this was no small act of courage) on Oct 8 to organize the provinces to fight the Prussians.His hand was grazed by a Prussian bullet departing Paris. He arrived safely in Tours in 48 hours, where he began to issue proclamations calling the provinces to arms.


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, though.


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 September 6 that

"We are not going to cede a single inch of our territory and not a single stone of our (Vauban-built) fortresses" (Nous ne céderons ni un pouce de notre territoire ni une pierre de nos fortresses.)

The republic 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 change, which was best exemplified by the reaction of Garibaldi:

On 7 September 1870, within three days of the revolution of 4 September in Paris, he wrote to the Movimento of Genoa: 'Yesterday I said to you: war to the death to Bonaparte. Today I say to you: rescue the French Republic by every means.'"


The Francs-Tireurs


illustration from The Young Francs-Tieurs


After the demise of France's main armies, the leaders of the new republic began to consider the use of guerrilla warfare .These were to be a auxiliary to the newly formed Army of the Loire . There was guerrilla activity against the Germans by a parts of the French population even before the new governments' consideration of a guerrilla war and became a serious problem for the Germans in Alsace. At first these guerrilla's sprang up on their own in local communities and joined by foreigners, such as Garibaldi who went to France and assumed command of the Army of the Vosges, an army of volunteers that was never defeated by the Germans.



They harassed the German lines from Wissembourg to Nancy until September .One of the most successful actions of the Francs-Tireurs was the destruction of a vital bridge on Jan 22, 1871 at Fontenoy-sur-Moselle. On Nov 4th, Gambetta brought the francs-tireurs under command of local military commanders . The actions of the francs-tireurs did tie down large numbers of German troops in many areas and led to brutal German reprisals . Moltke ordered that regular French soldiers were to be treated as prisoners of war, francs-tireur were to be shot on the spot .When individual francs-tireurs could not be caught, the village or area in which they were located was to be destroyed . As the war went on, the activities of the francs-tireurs grew, starting an ever savage cycle of savagery.


 A battalion of Francs-Tieurs, The Illustrated London News, 1870


Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Army of the Vosges


The Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) landed in Marseilles to support republican France. The republicans were distrustful of him with the communards agitating in Paris, and many of the monarchists leaders in the countryside did not care for him either. At first Gambetta offered him a command of 300 volunteers, which he considered an insult and a larger command was given him. He was too popular with the French people to be dimissed out of hand and was placed in charge of the motley Army of the Vosges, made up of volunteers from many countries and Frenchmen, including many francs-tireurs. This army, unlike the French, was able to defeat the Prussians despite being outnumbered.On Nov 4, 1870 they won a victory against the Prussians at Châtillon and holding off the Prussians from Dijon until Feb 1,1871. The French signed an armistice with the Prussians on Jan 30, but neglected to include the Army of the Vosges. Why this happened is still a mystery, some say Bismarck wanted to capture Garibaldi as a prisoner to Germany, and the Prussians continued to attacked even though the war was finished. Garibaldi, realizing he was being ill served, manage to retreat through Prussian lines.


Nov 9, 1870 The Battle of Coulmiers

One of the few French victories of the war for the French was at the Battle of Coulmiers, west of Orleans on Nov 9, 1870. Here, one of Gambetta's newly created armies,the French Army of the Loire under General D'Aurelle de Paladines surprised a Barvarian army under the command of Ludwig Freiherr von und zu der Tann at the village of Coulmiers west of Orleans. The French artillery detachment shelled the German camp, causing panic in the German camp and causing the Germans to retreat in disorder during a direct bayonet charge by French infantry. Orleans was recaptured and encouraged a sortie against the Prussians at Paris.

Siege of Paris 


September 19, 1870 – January 28, 1871


A week without cafe au lait will break the Parisians





After the French defeat at Sedan the Prussian Army of the Meuse and First Army advanced on Paris, leaving the Sedan area on Sept 7 and arriving in the Paris area Sept 15 . The Prussians expected the French to ask for terms and were shocked by the calls to fight to the bitter end by the new French Republic .The Siege of Paris (19 September 1870–28 January 1871) brought about the final defeat of the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War. On 18 January the new German Empire was proclaimed at the Palace of Versailles . The new government predicted the food supply in Paris would last three months .


The shooting of the elephants Pollux and Castor for food in December. Parians were reduced to eating rats


Preparations for the defense of the city had been going on for 50 years, since Thiers in 1840 equipped the city with fortifications .The city was surrounded by a 33 foot high wall and 15 detached forts .There were two new corps, the 13th and the 14th, which were formed in Paris,10,000 troops who had escaped Sedan, 3,000 Marines and others which totaled around 106,000 officers and men, with the Garde Mobile and the hastily organized Parisian Garde Sedentaire, made up off all male citizens between the ages of 25 to 35, armed with whatever they could find , there were an estimated 400,000 French soldiers .The French commander, Trouchu, felt the men under his command were in no condition to meet the Germans in the open field, they were to await the Germans in their fortifications . The Germans cut the railway to Orleans on Sept 17 and on the 20th, two cavalry patrols met, sealing off the west.


Many weapons were being turned out in Parisian new factories. Many of the weapons, such as cannons, were supported by subscriptions. Inhabitants of the poorer districts felt that these weapons had been bought by them. This was to be one of the causes of the future outbreak of civil war in Paris after the war.




Balloons were used for getting messages and people out of Paris. Pigeons were used to send messages to and from Paris. The Prussians used trained falcons to attack the post pigeons.


Communication could only be done through a telegraph cable secretly laid in the Seine, that went into operation on Sept 23 It was dredged up by the Germans on Sept 27, and unable to decipher the telegrams, they destroyed it . Coal gas fired balloons started to be used on Sept 23 and on the 26 regular postal service was introduced, with the balloons leaving 2 or 3 times a week .Carrier-pigeons were also used, with typed reduced to microscopic size . A total of 10,675 kilograms and 164 went out in 65 balloons .All but eight of the balloons landed safely, one drifted as far away as Oslo, Norway . The last balloon was launched on Jan 28, 1871, the day of the armistice .Two railroad stations were transformed into balloon factories. The Prussians developed an anti-balloon gun and forced the French to launch balloons at night .On Oct 7 Léon Gambetta escaped Paris in a hot air balloon to rally French forces in Tours, narrowly escaped capture and suffered a wound to his hand from a Prussian bullet .

A magic lantern projecting balloon dispatch done in microfilm


The winter of 1870-71 was one of the coldest in living memory. Sentries froze to death .Smallpox arose and killed many .By Jan 5, 1871, the Prussian siege guns had arrived and Paris was shelled for 3 weeks . An estimated 400 shells fell on the city everyday. The guns were fired at night to keep the Parisians from sleeping and lower morale . The bombardment stopped on Jan 27 when the new government agreed to a surrender .

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.


The Battle of Villiers Nov 29 - Dec 3 1870

Fighting at Champigny during the Battle of Villiers.


One of the fiercest battles of the siege of Paris was the Battle of Villiers, a sortie against the Prussian forces besieging Paris . News of the recent victory at Coulmiers encouraged General Trochu decided to attempt a breakout to link with the French Army of the Loire. The French commander in Paris, Ducrot was making plans for an attack to the west, when a message by pigeon was received from Gambetta urging Trochu and Ducrot to attack southwards. Ducrot now had to shift 80,000 men and 400 cannon and cross the Marne in the face of the Prussians. The Prussians got wind of the switch in plans and Moltke began to reinforce the threatened positions .


French Gen Ducrot. Ducrot, who fought at Sedan was imprisoned after refusing to sign the treaty of capitulation. He was able to escape to Paris.


The date chosen for the sortie was Nov 29. This message was to go to Gambetta via balloon, but that balloon was blown to Norway and Gambetta was never informed .Ducroit was able to cross the Marne under a barrage of gunfire and captured the Prussian forts of Brie and Champigny firing on them. Next, the French had to attack the steep Villiers position, where the French ran into murderous fire and high casualties and the attack began to stall. Ducroit himself rode into the battle to encourage his men and sending retreaters back into battle under his saber point .By the end of the day, the French had lost a little over 5,000 men and the Prussians around 2,000. On Dec 1, a 24 hour truce was arranged to remove the wounded. On Dec 2 , the Prussians launched a massive counter attack, which nearly routed the French forces, who fled back across the Marne under cover of fog .The sortie had failed .


Meat was rationed starting in Oct , and the prices rose so high that the poor faced the prospect of starvation .The animals in the Parisian Zoo were eaten .

The Bombardment of Paris



Moltke felt that Paris would capitulate as soon as the milk supplies ran out , this was not to happen .It was feared by the Germans that if the French could prolong their resistance, other powers might intervene or the German alliance might collapse .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 civilised 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.The bombardment began on Jan 6 on forts around the city, but soon shells were aimed at the city itself .Between 300 - 400 shells fell on the city daily, but they did little damage .



Ambulance Internationale during the siege of Paris


The Battle of Buzenval

Jan 19, 1871


Defence of Longboyau's gate, château of Buzenval, October 21st 1870;  by Alphonse de Neuville


The shelling drove the Parisians to anger, not to surrender. 'There are 400,000 of you!' the Parisian women said to their men in the city. Surely they could overwhelm the German forces of 120,000 outside the city. The military felt the pressure to attack, even though they knew their troops could not accomplish much against the smaller, dug in and more disciplined German force .The result was the battle of Buzenval, a sortie en masse, in which 90,000 French troops were involved .On Jan 19, the French advanced against the German lines between Bougival and St. Cloud on a 4 mile front .The French fought their way into St. Cloud, but came under heavy German artillery fire, while the French were delayed in bringing their up .A retreat was called at nightfall by Trochu .The French lost some 4,000 killed and wounded, the Germans around 700 .Soon word came of the crushing French defeat at Le Mans. There was no longer any force capable of marching to relieve Paris .


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 10–12 January).

Prussian army crossing the Loire at Orleans


After the loss at Battle of Loigny-Poupry on Dec 2, Gambetta reorganized the army into two groups, one under Charles Denis Bourbak and the other under Antoine Chanzy. Chanzy 150,000 man force made up of new recruits reservistswas defeated by a Prussian army of 50,000 at the battle of Le Mans on Jan 10 - 12, 1871, which ended organized French resistance in western France. Chanzy was able to retreat to Laval.

Battle of Le Mans, by Lionel Royer


A second French army which operated north of Paris was turned back near Amiens (November 27, 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 


French fortress at Belfort


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).



The Belfort Lion was created to honor the people of Belfort in their resistence against the Prussians in 1870. The Belfort citadel was one of the many citadels across France built by Vauban who revolutionised the designs of fortresses.He worked as a military engineer during the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th Century.


Arrival of German negotiators at Belfort. The garrison at Belfort withstood a siege of 103 days and was bombarded by 400,000 projectiles.Belfort surrendered on Feb 18, 1871. The garrison was allowed to march out with everything it could carry and withdrew to Grenoble.



Prussian coin celebrating victory over France


By the middle of January 1871 the armies of the provinces and Paris had been defeated and to a large extent destroyed .The French population was war weary and the Germans were overextended with an army of 800,000 in France . There were growing strains in the Prussian-south German alliance and Bismark feared possibly entry of other European powers on the side of France .Moltke and Bismarck were arguing on the future corse of the war.Farve left Paris for the German headquarters at Versailles on the 23rd after a stormy debate as to whether the armistice should be for Paris or all of France . The question was not decided and Farve was sent to see what terms the Germans would offer.


Bismarck, Favre and Thiers at the armistice negotiations in late February


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,who swore never to surrender, 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 Defence, which promptly ordered a cease fire across France. Thiers was elected at an Assembly to decide matters on the war and left with Farve as his foreign Minister for Versailles on Feb 21st. At first, Bismarck wanted Lorraine, including Metz, Alsace, Belfort and 6,000,000,000 francs. The 6,000,000,000 was a bargaining ruse and Bismark accepted 5,000,000,000. Thiers threatened to walk out and let Bismarck govern france himself if he insisted on retaining Belfort, and Bismarck yielded on this .


On Feb 26, Bismarck, Thiers,Favre and representatives of the German states signed a preliminary of peace.France was to pay 1,000,000,000 francs in 1871 and the rest within three years .The Germans would leave an occupation force till the indemnity was paid .There was no attempt to control the internal affairs of France nor a limiting of the size of the French military. Many in Germany felt Bismarck left France too strong and many agitated for some of the French overseas colonies .The French National Assembly passed the peace treaty with great speed by 546 to 107. There were few calls to resume the war .There was a by the Third Army down the Champs Elyees with some jeering and rock throwing. Later the army retired on the quarters along the Seine and mixed with their former enemies for the most part on amicable terms .As the troos marched out on March 3rd, riots were already beginning. Two weeks later the Commune seized power . The Germans sped up the return of prisoners so the French could supress the revolt .


The Treaty of Frankfurt was signed 10 May, marking the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The war had lasted 5 months and cost 88,488 German around 150,000 French lives .


France was able to repay the huge indemnity in two years, thanks in part into the boom in wine exports  after the development of the pasteurization of wine by Louis Pasteur.





































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