The War Begins



 Click map for larger image .

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.

Saarbrücken The French invade Aug 2, 1870


The bridge at Saarbrücken (Location of 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.


Map of the battle of Saarbrücken

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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



( Location of Wissembourg )

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

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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.


Map of the battle of Wissembourg .

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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.

Defence of the Chateau Geisberg


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

 Battle of Wörth