The Franco Prussian War 

The Franco-Prussian War, was a war in 1870-1871 lost by France to the German states under the leadership of Prussia. The underlying causes of the conflict were the determination of the Prussian statesman Prince Otto Edward Leopold von Bismarck to unify Germany under Prussian control and, as a step toward this goal, to eliminate French influence over Germany. On the other hand, Napoleon III, emperor of France from 1852 to 1870, sought to regain both in France and abroad the prestige lost as a result of numerous diplomatic reverses, particularly those suffered at the hands of Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. In addition, the military strength of Prussia, as revealed in the war with Austria, constituted a threat to French dominance on the continent of Europe.

INITIATING INCIDENTS


The event directly precipitating the Franco-Prussian War was the candidacy of Leopold, prince of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, for the throne of Spain, rendered vacant by the Spanish revolution of 1868. Leopold had accepted the candidacy under persuasion from Bismarck. The French government, alarmed at the possibility of a Prusso-Spanish alliance resulting from the occupancy of the Spanish throne by a member of the Hohenzollern dynastic family, threatened Prussia with war if Leopold's candidacy was not withdrawn. The French ambassador to the Prussian court, Comte Vincente Benedetti, was dispatched to Ems, a spa in northwestern Germany being visited by William I, king of Prussia. Benedetti had been instructed to demand that the Prussian monarch order Prince Leopold to withdraw his candidacy. William, although angered, gave Benedetti permission to communicate directly with Leopold by telegraph. Leopold could not be reached, but his father, Prince Charles Anthony, wired a retraction of the candidacy in the name of his son.

The government of Napoleon III, still not content, was determined to humiliate Prussia, even at the cost of war. Antoine Agénor Alfred, duc de Gramont, the French foreign minister, demanded that William submit a personal letter of apology to Napoleon III and a guarantee that the Hohenzollern candidacy would never be renewed. In an interview with Benedetti at Ems, the Prussian king rejected the French demands. The same day, Bismarck obtained William's authorization to publish the French demands and the Prussian rejection contained in what was known as the Ems Dispatch. Bismarck edited the document in a manner calculated to aggravate the resentment of the French and the Germans. The Prussian statesman realized that this move would in all probability precipitate war, but he knew that Prussia was prepared, and he counted on the psychological effect of a French declaration of war to rally the south German states to Prussia's cause, thus accomplishing the final phase in the unification of Germany.

THE WAR BEGINS  
On July 19, 1870, France declared war on Prussia. The south German states, in fulfillment of their treaties with Prussia, immediately joined King William in a common front against France. The French were only able to mobilize about 200,000 troops; the Germans, however, quickly marshaled an army of about 400,000 men. All German forces were under the supreme command of William, with the great strategist Helmuth Karl Bernhard, Graf von Moltke, as his chief of staff. Three German armies drove into France, led, respectively, by General Karl Friedrich von Steinmetz, Prince Frederick Charles, and Crown Prince Frederick William, later Frederick III of Prussia and emperor of Germany. The first engagement, a minor skirmish, was won by the French on August 2, when they drove a small Prussian detachment from the city of Saarbrücken, near the border between France and Germany. In the major battles at Weissenburg (August 4), at Wörth (August 6), and at Spichern (August 6), however, the French under Marie Edmé Patrice Maurice, comte de MacMahon were defeated. MacMahon was ordered to fall back on Châlons. Achille François Bazaine, in command of all French troops east of the city of Metz, was directed to maintain his positions. Metz itself was to be held at all costs. These orders split the French forces, which were unable thereafter to regain their unity or freedom of action. On August 12 the French emperor handed the supreme command over to Bazaine, who was badly beaten in the great battles of Vionville (August 15) and Gravelotte (August 18), and forced into Metz. There he was besieged by two German armies. MacMahon then was ordered to relieve Metz. On August 30 the Germans surprised and defeated MacMahon's leading corps at Beaumont, whereupon he decided to withdraw his army to the town of Sedan.

BATTLE OF SEDAN AND CAPTURE OF NAPOLEON III  
The decisive battle of the war opened in Sedan on the morning of September 1, 1870 (see Sedan, Battle of). At about 7:00 AM MacMahon was severely wounded, and an hour and a half later General Emmanuel Félix de Wimpffen received the chief command. The battle continued until 4:15 PM, when Napoleon, who meanwhile had arrived in Sedan, resumed command. Recognizing the hopelessness of the situation, he ordered the white flag to be hoisted. Terms of surrender were negotiated during the night, and on the following day Napoleon, together with 83,000 troops, surrendered to the Germans.

Upon receiving intelligence of the capture of the French emperor, Paris rose in rebellion, the Legislative Assembly was dissolved, and France was proclaimed a republic. Before the close of September, Strasbourg, one of the last points at which the French had hoped to stem the German advance, capitulated, and Paris was completely surrounded. On October 7 the minister of the new French government, Léon Gambetta, made a dramatic escape from Paris by balloon, and with his chief assistant, Charles Louis de Saulces de Freycinet, established a provisional capital in the city of Tours. From there they led the organization and equipment of 36 military divisions. The efforts of these troops proved unavailing, however, and they were at length driven into Switzerland, where they were disarmed and interned.

SIEGE OF PARIS, FRENCH CAPITULATION, AND GERMAN OCCUPATION  
On October 27 Marshal Bazaine surrendered at Metz with 173,000 men. Paris, meanwhile, was subjected to siege and bombardment. Its citizens, attempting to stave off the enemy with crude and makeshift weapons, and reduced to eating cats, dogs, and even rats, were at length compelled, on January 19, 1871, to open negotiations for surrender.

A day earlier, January 18, an event had occurred that represented the culmination of Bismarck's unremitting efforts for the unification of Germany. William I, the Prussian king, was crowned emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The formal capitulation of Paris took place on January 28, following which an armistice of three weeks was arranged. A French national assembly, elected to negotiate the peace, convened at Bordeaux on February 13 and chose Adolphe Thiers as the first president of the Third Republic. In March Parisians broke out in revolt of the new assembly and organized a revolutionary government known as the Commune of Paris (see Commune of Paris, 1871). Opposing the armistice, they fought bitterly against government troops sent by Thiers to suppress the revolt. The ensuing civil war lasted until May, when the revolutionaries surrendered.

The Treaty of Frankfurt, signed on May 10, 1871, ended the war between France and Germany. The treaty provided that the French province of Alsace (excepting Belfort) and part of Lorraine, including Metz, were to be ceded to the German Empire, and that France was to pay a war indemnity of 5 billion gold francs ($1 billion), submitting to occupation by German troops until the amount was rendered in full. This heavy obligation was discharged in September 1873, and during the same month, after an occupation of almost three years, France was at last freed of German soldiers.

Back to Main menu

A project by History World International

World History Center