1870-1871. The Franco-German conflict

Réservistes français de 1870.
Réservistes français de 1870.
Corps 1

1870-1871. The Franco-German conflict

Corps 2

The imperial war

In July 1870 the French emperor, who did not agree with the accession of a Prussian prince to the vacant throne of Spain, obtains satisfaction with the withdrawal of the pretender Leopold of Hohenzollern. But Napoleon III wants more: he wishes that Prussia signs an agreement for the future, in definitively giving up the Spanish throne. It's unthinkable to him to live the situation of the XVlth century again, where the emperor Charles of Austria, better know as Charles the Fifth, reigning over Spain and Germany encircled France in a stranglehold. This impossible situation provoked six wars, from 1521 to 1559. It's also important to remember their prolongations: six other wars from 1635 to 1748 took place. Needless to say, that France valued the tranquillity of the Pyrenees area.

In Ems the ambassador of France is received by the King of Prussia. In a German newspaper, manipulated by the royal chancellor Bismarck, he finds out about an unacceptable French proposal which was rejected by the King William the 1st of Hohenzollern. This provocation offends the French diplomacy and stirs up the bellicosity of the court around the empress Eugenie, herself Spanish and influencing Napoleon III. Assembled in the castle of Saint-Cloud, the Council of Ministers decides to declare war to Prussia. The Chamber of Deputies pronounces itself in favour of war with a majority of 425 votes against 10.

July 19th in 1870 the French empire declares war to the Prussian kingdom. Napoleon III leads the army in July 28th in Metz. August 2nd in Mayence, William the 1st takes command of his troops to which the allied German troops will join. During this victorious campaign he is proclaimed emperor (or Kaiser) by all the sovereign vassals and the German allies. Compared to the army of the powerful enemy, who has more then 600 000 soldiers, 70 000 horses and 1500 canons, France, weakened by its preceding wars (Crimea, Italy, Mexico) has an army of hardly 250 000 men, 43 000 horses and 900 canons. The huge German army is made up of confederated troops gathering those of Prussia and twenty-two subjected States of the northern Confederation plus those of the southern States: the kingdoms of Baviera, Württemberg, of the great duchy of Bade. The very tough Prussian army has just beaten Denmark in 1864, then Austria in 1866. Moreover, it improved its armament. The French count on their modern ”Chassepot” rifle with mobile breech and on their Reffye machine-guns.

The first French soldier killed, falls on July 25th in Alsace : warrant officer of the 12th horse fighters during the fight against the ”badois” dragons. This happened during a patrol encounter in Schirlenhof (Low Rhine).

The beginning of the war is a succession of defeats sustained by the imperial army: in Wissembourg August 4th, in Woerth and in Froeschwiller August the 6th. In this last location the very famous attack of Reischoffen will take place. While the Prussian army encircles Strasbourg, another enters in Lorraine and will win the battle of Forbach August 6th. The enemy arrives in Metz, where the army of Marshal Bazaine is forced to withdraw. The French respond by attacking the enemy, during the battles of Borny, Gravelotte, Sainte-Privat, respectively on August 14th, 16th and 18th. However, Bizaine commander in chief doesn't react rapidly, allowing 200 000 German encircle him and finally besiege him. Marshal Mac Mahon gathers his army in Châllons (Marne),chere he hopes to free Metz,with the help of Napoleon III. But the enemy drives Mac Mahon's army towards the Ardennes where the battle of Sedan will take place. The French will lose this fight on September 1st ; the emperor and thousands of his men are imprisoned. The army of Châlons is destroyed and the remaining men flee where they can.

The national defence

The imperial surrender provoked in Paris marks the decline of Napoleon III and his regime. The Republic is proclaimed the September 4th and a government of the National Defence is constituted and made up of Parisian deputies like, Jules Favre, Jules Ferry, Jules Simon, Léon Gambetta ect. Without any obstacle on their way, the German army invades the region of the Champagne and finally reaches Paris. The capital is completely encircled on September 19th. The besieging of Paris begins. In autumn the fortified places of Toul, Strasbourg and Metz surrender. Marshal Bazaine capitulates in Metz without even fighting, abandoning 173 000 soldiers, 3 Marshals, 50 Generals, 53 flags, 200 000 rifles, guns and ammunitions. Bismarck refuses the peace proposals of the Republic and already claims Alsace and Lorraine as conquered. The enemy aims his available forces to Paris and in general the whole centre of the country. He is beaten in Orleans and Coulmiers. It is now possible for the army of the Loire to move forwards to help the Parisians. The battle of Artanay (October 10th), Baune-le-Rolande (November 28th) and Patay (December 2nd) will take place. While in Paris on December 2nd, General Ducrot tries in vain to exile from Champigny. On November 9th the enemy takes Orleans back.

Gambetta who left capital by balloon, tries to animate the national defence in the province. Meanwhile the isolated places of Belfort and Bitche in the east of the country still resists. On December 6th the Germans enters in Normandy and take control of Rouen. On December 23rd in the region of Picardie, General Faidherbe forces the enemy back Pont-Noyelles. He will also beat them January 2nd and 3rd 1871 in Baupaume before being defeated on January 19th during the battle of Saint-Quentin. Paris is bombarded by the artillery of the Prussian siege and sustains serious damage and conflagrations. Like the soldiers, the population suffer of famine and cold. The besieged lose the fight of Bordeaux, Le Bourget and Buzenval.

Indeed General Chanzy can't help them because his army is beaten on January 10th in Mans. The capital is exhausted and has to give itself up to the enemy on January 28th. In the east, the army of General Bourbaki, in its attempt towards Belfort, wins the battle of Villersexel January 9th, but is pushed back in Héricourt the 15th, 16th and 17th and rejected towards Switzerland, where he finds the rest of his troops. The war takes place also in Burgundy from December 70 to January 71 where the battle of Dijon and Nuits-Saint-Georges take place.

Once the Parisian capitulation is signed on January 28th, a temporary armistice is concluded. Thanks to the elections of February 8th, Adolphe Thiers becomes chief of the executive power in Bordeaux, where the government retrieved temporarily. In Versailles, February 26th, Thiers negotiate with the chancellor von Bismarck a general suspension of the hostilities. Nevertheless some French carry on the fights. March 1st the victorious Germans enter Paris from the west. The regiments descend the Champs-Elysées. That day, in Bordeaux, the national assembly accepts the peace conditions with 546 votes against 107. March 27th the defenders of Bitche, in Moselle leave the citadel. The enemy gives the military honour to the French. The same thing happens with the defenders of Belfort who left the place on January 16th. From March 18th until May 27th , the tragic Parisian events explode. During these months Versaillians and Communards conduct a fratricidal fight without mercy. On May 10th the treaty of Frankfurt stops these rough fights. France nearly loses 1700 communes, that is to say the whole Alsace and a part of Lorraine. It represents a loss of 1 600 000 men ; moreover, France has to pay an indemnity of 5 billion Gold francs plus the interests of 567 million francs, to the German winner. To guarantee that payment, the enemy troops will occupy some of the French departments during two years. They will leave Verdun, the last invaded city only in September 13th 1873. The 341 million Francs of occupation expenses are paid by the French. During this period the French army hasn't got the right to station beyond the Loire. France cries over 138 000 killed people ; over 400 000 prisoners and among them 18000 will die in captivity.

Memory and commemorations

Graves and charnel houses The article 16 of the peace treaty of Frankfurt precise «that the two governments, French and German, reciprocally promise to respect and entertain the graves of the soldiers buried in their respective territories ». In France the low of April 4th 1873 fixes the rules related to the construction and installation of the burials. The State assumes the construction of the national necropolis intended to gather the bones of the French and German soldiers together, who fell during the battles and buried by the victorious army. The census of the burials is entrusted to the Home Office. Forced to respect a deadline of five years before being able to arise to the exhumations and the groupings, the prefects temporarily organise common burials and isolated graves. Therefore it's only from 1876 that the exhumation and concentration works starts. The isolated graves are grouped in plots held in perpetuity and bought by the State from the different communes. Around the principal battle fields, the charnel houses are arranged, to shelter the remainders of the soldiers of the two armies.

Commemorative monuments The war of 1870 has deeply touched the French population. When peace is restored, the memorial monuments appear around the battle fields. The concerned communes and regiments, encouraged by the local comities of the French Memory, are generally at the origin of the subscriptions intended to finance these buildings. The successive governments, support these initiatives. They help reminding the visitors, the patriotic values for which these soldiers died. Simple engraved stones, columns, obelisks and pyramids are some examples.

From 1875 the authorities want to give a more ”realistic” image of the war, by increasing the statues representing more often soldiers of the national guard. For the first time the simple soldier is honored. More expensive, these statues are often subject of various artistic contests. The most successful find a place in foundry catalogs intended to the less fortunate communes. These commemorative monuments sometimes distinguish the courage of some army corps in particular.