France a Republic again


General Louis Jules Trochu

 Trochu served as President of the Government of National Defense, de facto head of state of France from September, 4 1870 until his resignation in January, 22 1871

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 ( 1815 - 1896 ) , Jules Favre ( vice-president 1809 - 1880 ) as vice-president , and Léon Gambetta ( 1838 - 1882 ) as Minister of the Interior 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 patriotism 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 immobilized and besieged in the city of Metz, and the army led by Emperor Napoleon III himself had surrendered to the Germans. Under these circumstances, the Germans hoped for an armistice which would put an official end to the hostilities and lead to peace. Prussia's Prime Minister von Bismarck, in particular, entertained that hope for he wanted to end the war as soon as possible. To a nation with as many neighbors as Prussia, a prolonged war meant the growing risk of intervention by another power, and von Bismarck was determined to limit that risk.


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 Franc-Tireurs


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.

German hussar prisoner

Siege of Paris 


September 19, 1870 – January 28, 1871


A week without cafe au lait will break the Parisians




 Map of the defense of Paris

Click on map for larger image .


Prussian breech loading siege battery at Paris .

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.


The Battle of LeBourge Sept 27-30, 1870 . French General Carey de Bellemare

attacked an isolated Prussian positron at the town of LeBourge without authorization from Trochu . The Prussians were taken by surprise and fell back . Trochu refused to send reinforcements and the Prussians counterattacked and took the town on the 30th, capturing 1,200 French soldiers. This engraving shows Jewish Prussian soldier Siegfried Karfunkelstein rescuing the regimental flag from the hands of the enemy before he was mortally wounded . Click image for larger view .

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 .

From The Franco-German war (1871)

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

 Click for larger image .

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 .


 Siege of Strasbourg


Loire campaign  

  Northern campaign   

Eastern campaign