150 years ago: the Franco-Prussian War


One hundred and fifty years after a war that many appear to have forgotten, the French State faced a large-scale mobilisation and high expectations from the regions that still bear traces of the conflict in remembrance sites and local commemorative practices.


In autumn 2018, the Ministry of the Armed Forces Directorate for Heritage, Remembrance and Archives (DPMA) was contacted by a number of partner organisations in Île-de-France, Hauts-de-France and Grand Est ahead of the 150th anniversary commemorations of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Conscious of the dispersion of remembrance of the Franco-Prussian War and of their unique commemorative, cultural and tourism practices, these regions asked the State to provide support for the different initiatives and overall coordination for the activities.

While there are plenty of artistic and literary expressions on the subject, the challenge for the Ministry of the Armed Forces and its partners, in particular the regions affected first-hand by the conflict, was to get across to the general public the importance of this war to understanding the two Franco-German conflicts that followed, its lasting memory, and the resonances it can have in today’s world.

Dispersed remembrance and mobilised regions

In France, there are 22 sites and museums connected to the Franco-Prussian War and four military burial sites (the crypt and ossuary of Champigny-sur-Marne, the ossuary of Bazeilles, the Metz-Chambière cemetery and the hall of remembrance and Franco-German cemetery at Gravelotte) owned by the Ministry of the Armed Forces. Remembering this war is an opportunity for the DPMA to reflect, together with the communes concerned and its German partner VDK, the German war graves commission, on the future of the French and German graves whose preservation was provided for in the peace treaty of 1871, inaugurating a State policy in this sphere that persists to this day. These more than 20 remembrance sites are so many heritage expressions of a war which, though distant in contemporary history, remains very much alive in some communes due to the suffering endured by the people and the 138 000 French deaths.

Many got involved in 2018 to offer a rich, new programme of cultural and remembrance events, which in recent months has undergone a number of changes owing to the current health situation. Comprising a network, the sites, supported by local authorities and Le Souvenir Français, an organisation founded in the wake of the conflict, shared their visions and resources concerning the Franco-Prussian War, to offer an innovative, educational approach. Unusual objects, historical anecdotes, unpublished archives and artworks all offer windows onto this “first” Franco-German conflict, which the regions are passionate about promoting through a strategy of tourism development, stimulus to historical research and cultural promotion.

The Ministry of the Armed Forces: a key role in the 150th anniversary events

As well as providing support and nationwide promotion for the events programmes of its regional partners, the DPMA has also carried out actions to make this 150th anniversary, in the words of the state secretary to the Minister for the Armed Forces, Geneviève Darrieussecq, a time to “step back in remembrance”. This includes official ceremonies, such as the one at Gravelotte at the end of August to remember the bitter fighting of 16 and 18 August 1870.

It also includes other approaches, such as the production of a documentary feature, a booklet and a clip, available on the page dedicated to the commemorations on the website, and the production of a ten-episode web series by the Établissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense (ECPAD). The web series offers a fresh look at the history of the Franco-Prussian War through its cultural and remembrance sites, telling the stories of places and objects as symbolic as they are unusual. For example, it opens with the panoramic painting of Rezonville by Alphonse de Neuville, depicting the initial fighting of the French army, then goes on to look at the “little histories” of 1870, like that of a family of refugees from Champigny in Paris, or the compass used by Colonel Denfert-Rochereau during the Siege of Belfort.

The DPMA’s ministerial partners also got involved. The Service Historique de la Défense, for instance, embarked on the major task of classification and cataloguing of the GR L series, devoted to the archives for the conflict. In addition, in 2021 it will be holding an exhibition on the Franco-Prussian War and is preparing to publish a series of previously unpublished officers’ memoirs and first-hand accounts by soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Musée de l’Armée gives its own take on the conflict with the exhibition “La guerre franco-allemande à hauteur d’hommes” (The Franco-Prussian War on a human scale). From October 2020, a selection of photographs, prints and drawings will tell the story of the men who made history in 1870. To round off, visitors are invited to have a go at taking their own portrait photograph, in a period setting with period accessories.

Education at the heart of remembrance

While cultural and heritage aspects are essential to the transmission of this memory, education soon also proved to be crucial. The first of a series of three Franco-German conflicts in less than a century of contemporary history, the Franco-Prussian War offers an insight into the reasons for the Franco-German antagonism (the French defeat, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, the German occupation) that led to the two world wars of the 20th century.

In 2019, at a time when still little was taught about the conflict in schools, the Ministry of National Education and Youth reincorporated it as the historical cornerstone of the new educational syllabuses. Its educational interest lies not only in its political and military aspects, but in our understanding of the path taken by Europe over the last 150 years.

Meanwhile, educational aspects are at the heart of the commemorative programme for this anniversary. A number of organisations offer learning resources, including the Musée du Service de Santé des Armées, the Musée de Loigny-la-Bataille and the DPMA, on its defence education platform, Educ@def.

In addition, many sites have a new educational offering in place: for example, the Musée de la Guerre de 1870 et de l’Annexion, in Gravelotte, offers learning activities for children from infant to high-school age, the Musée de la Bataille du 6 Août 1870, in Wörth, is laying on a number of play activities, including puzzles, and the Musée Guerre et Paix en Ardennes is putting in place an academic training programme for teachers.

By focusing on education, developing heritage remains and celebrating Franco-German reconciliation, the Franco-Prussian War commemorations show that, 150 years on, the memory of the war has not been lost over the 20th and 21st centuries.

The editorial team

Read more

Find history resources and the cultural and commemorative events programme here

Articles of the review