Woe to the Conquered
Today we will discuss what, as I said last week, is probably the most important conflict in Europe before the First World War. If you’ve never really heard of the Franco-Prussian War before, or if you have heard of it but know very little about it, I hope that by the end of today’s episode you will at least in general understand why it so deeply affected the countries that fought in it. So, to begin today we are going to quickly recap the political, cultural, and diplomatic context of the war, so we can finally get into the nuts and bolts of this most decisive of 19th century European wars.
So if you’ll remember, in July of 1870, after Bismarck waved his “red cape” for the “Gallic Bull” in the form of the insulting Bad Ems Dispatch, Emperor Napoleon III of France declared war on the Kingdom of Prussia. Well, technically he declared war on the North German Confederation, as that was officially the name of the country that made up north-central Europe at the time after 1866, but for clarity’s sake I’m going to call it “Prussia” for the most part. Anyway, this declaration of war was mostly meant to restore flagging confidence in Napoleon III’s regime, as the legitimacy of that regime was based on the French nationalist yearning for France to go out a conquerin’ just as it had under Napoleon I. The French civilian and military command in 1870 believed that they could isolate Prussia diplomatically, perhaps even form a grand anti-Prussian coalition, and that the armies of France were just qualitatively superior to the armies of Prussia. Both of these assumptions would prove to be totally, completely, wrong.
We will get the diplomatic side of this out of the way quickly, as we already mostly set this all up last week. Basically, Napoleon III’s plan was to call on four interested parties in this brewing conflict to help him crush the upstart Prussians: the British, the Austrians, the Italians, and the southern German states. Napoleon III calculated that all of these groups either supported France, wanted to see Prussia humbled, or both. The British, he figured, would be worried about the possibility of German unification, as that would upset the balance of power on the European continent and, more importantly, on the North Sea, over which the British would want to maintain naval superiority. The Austrians would want to seek revenge on Prussia after their humiliating defeat back in 1866, the Italians would surely support Napoleon III after he had so critically aided them in their unification, and the southern German states would surely be nervous about being swallowed up by Prussia. Except, that Bismarck had skillfully ensured in the months leading up to war that none of these predictions would come true. For the British, Bismarck simply showed them the French demand for Luxembourg back in 1866, which the British saw as a naked attempt to annex more territory and which they had no interest in helping. The Austrians were still furious with France for having helped the Italians conquer Milan and Venice from them in the 1860s (and were understandably humbled after being defeated by Prussia so recently), and as for the Italians, while they did still appreciate that French aid, they had of late grown dissatisfied with the French. The Italians, you see, wanted the eternal city of Rome to be their capital, but in order to secure support from pious French Catholics, Napoleon III maintained a French garrison inside of Rome to prevent the Italians from taking it from the Pope. Finally, while the rulers of the southern German states were perhaps nervous about being annexed by Prussia, Bismarck’s plan to lure the French into declaring war first worked exactly as it was supposed to. German nationalists everywhere were outraged by this provocation, support for German nationalism swelled, and thus not only would the southern German states not help the French crush the Prussians, but they in fact declared war on France in solidarity with Prussia. Uh oh.
Ok, so, that’s not too good, but at least the French Army is far superior than the upstart Germans, right? After all, look at how often and how easily the French crushed the armies of Austria and Prussia under Napoleon I. Surely the superiority of French arms will once again triumph over the Germans, right? RIGHT? Wrong.
If you listened to the supplemental episode about the state of the armies of 1870, which for the record is posted along with this episode, you learned how military technology had advanced to a point that all armies had to radically rethink their military theories and tactics. In short, the Prussians had done a much better job adapting to the new realities of warfare than the French had, and this will show in the coming disaster of the Franco-Prussian War.
Before the war could begin, both sides needed to mobilize their forces and bring them to the front, specifically along the border between France and the North German Confederation (which, again, I’m just going to call Prussia from here on out for clarity’s sake). If you look at the map of the initial stages of the war, attached to today’s episode, you can see that while Prussia and France did share a border in 1870, that border was incredibly small. Most of France’s northeastern frontier bordered with the still independent southern German state of Baden, which along with Bavaria and Württemberg the French were hoping would join in the war against Prussia. This would not only obviously add much needed manpower to France’s war effort (as due to Prussia’s larger conscription effort, France would only be able to muster about 400,000 soldiers against Prussia’s 1.2 million), but would also provide a territorial buffer against Prussia, thus protecting France from invasion. However, as previously mentioned, rather than join the French or even just stay neutral in the war, the southern German states actually joined the war with Prussia against France, which was a shocking and highly unwelcome development for the French.
Perhaps even more worrisome for the French was their relatively slow progress on moving troops to Alsace-Lorraine, the northeastern corner of France where the first battles of the war would be fought. This was the era of the railroad, an era where every industrialized country crisscrossed their country with thousands of miles of railroad tracks, and both the French and Prussians had done so. However, whereas the Prussian’s had purposefully laid six double tracks of railroad to their border with France, thus allowing for a constant movement of trains picking up and dropping off troops to send to the front, the French for the most part only laid single tracks out to their frontiers. Meaning that a troop train after dropping off its load of soldiers in Alsace-Lorraine, would have to go back on the same track it had just come from to pick up a fresh load of troops. This meant that not only would the French be massively outnumbered by the Germans, but it took them much longer to send troops to the front. Whereas the Prussians were able to send fifty trains per day to their border with France, the French could only send twelve. Whereas it took the Prussian’s three to seven days to assemble an army corps at the border, it took the French three weeks to do the same.
By the end of July, 1870, both sides had begun to deploy their armies on their mutual borders. The French plan was to amass an army of 100,000 in Alsace under Marshal Patrice MacMahon, a longtime advisor and confidant of Napoleon III, with another army known as the Army of the Rhine to be commanded by the emperor himself (though he would not yet personally preside over this army) stationed around the city of Metz. A third force, known as VI Corps, under general Canrobert was to be stationed in the city of Châlons a little bit behind where it was expected the main action would be, to serve as a reserve (this is all on the maps). MacMahon’s force was supposed to hold off any German thrusts into Alsace while the emperor’s personal army was to sweep north into Baden to cut off the German armies, smash them between his own force and MacMahon’s, and then chase them all the way back into Prussia, perhaps all they way to Berlin.
Yet this was all on paper. On July 28 Napoleon III found that MacMahon’s army was only 40,000 strong out of its planned strength of 100,000, while the Army of the Rhine was only 100,000 strong out of its planned strength of 150,000. Beyond that, the men of these undersized armies were ill-equipped and fed; many did not even have rifles, and those that did often had no ammunition for them.
Meanwhile, the German coalition had amassed 320,000 men along the French border divided into three armies – First Army, Second Army, and Third Army – with tens of thousands of reinforcements streaming in every day. In overall command of these three armies was General Helmuth von Moltke, the mastermind of the Prussian victory over Austria in 1866. Moltke’s genius lay not so much in his tactical brilliance, but in his mastery over grand strategy and logistics. He had made sure that every general, every lieutenant, every private in all three of his armies knew exactly where they had to go, how they were going to get there, and what to do when they got there. He made sure that each of his soldiers had enough food, ammunition, spare boots, and everything else a soldier needs to do his job. By August 4, the Germans had pushed across the Rhine river, smashed a French expeditionary force at the town of Wissembourg just on the French side of the border, and were soon streaming into Alsace-Lorraine in a rapid and well-coordinated invasion.
This gets at the heart of why the Prussian-led German coalition is about to utterly dominate the French in this war. First of all, the French people as a whole not nearly as enthusiastic about this war as the Germans were. For example, when the war was declared tens and then hundreds of thousands of German men volunteered for service, while in France a mere 4,000 men volunteered for service. Every other French soldier in the army was an unhappy conscript. Throughout the war, socialist propaganda was distributed to French soldiers calling for the overthrow of the emperor, and in one famous incident, a group of French soldiers ordered to march towards the Prussian border threw down their packs and rifles, and refused to march unless carts would carry their equipment for them.
Second, and just as important, was the fact that the French leadership had done a very poor job of preparing for this war. While Napoleon III and his military high command knew in general how they wanted their invasion of German territory to proceed, very few of the boring but necessary nitty gritty details of this had been worked out: which units would march down which roads, and how long it would take to get there, arranging for food and supplies to be ready to meet the soldiers after each day of marching. And perhaps even worse, there was no contingency plan ready to go if, oh let’s say, French thrusts into German territory were immediately turned back and the Germans invaded France proper. While the Prussian’s had an entire department of their army dedicated to drawing up incredibly detailed maps not only of Germany but also France to be given to all officers, the French had no such luxuries, and mapping was considered to be beneath the dignity of French Army officers. Thus, when the war did in fact move into France, the German forces, amazingly, had a far better idea of where they were and how to get to where they were going than the French ever would.
Following the Prussian victory at Wissembourg, which cost them about 1,500 killed and wounded, General von Moltke smelled blood in the water. While the battle raged in Wissembourg towards the south and east, a French force commanded by General Charles Frossard had occupied the Prussian town of Saarbrücken just south of the Rhine River. But this left Frossard’s II corps exposed, a good distance away from reinforcements, and right in between the Prussian First and Second Armies to their north. On August 6, the highly aggressive and General Karl von Steinmetz, commander of the Prussian First Army, launched an attack on a smaller French force in the town of Spicheren, on the French side of the border, hoping thereby to drive a wedge between the French Armies. Steinmetz, however, ordered this attack without consulting with Moltke, who had been planning to methodically encircle the French at Saarbrücken. When one of Moltke’s staff officers learned of this move he cried out, “Steinmetz has fatally compromised my beautiful plans!”
This gets at the heart of one of the defining characteristics of Prussian army officers of this period: aggressiveness and individual initiative that bordered on insubordination. The Prussian Army had for years instilled an outlook among their officers to seize the initiative and act independently whenever they believed it would be advantageous. This for the most part worked wonders for the Prussians, as it gave them far more flexibility and speed of action than any other army of the period. But it had a downside too, as it often meant sub-commanders would act in such a way not in line with the plans of their superiors. This could leave them in a position where they did not know how strong an enemy force they were attacking was. Historian Geoffrey Wawro has a great line about this in his book on the Franco-Prussian War wherein he says, “for the French, it was often impossible to know whether one was engaged in a ‘reconnaissance in force’ against a small detachment or a real battle. Often the Prussians themselves did not know; they were literally blundering into an enemy and feeling him out, like a cop patting down a suspect.”
Regardless, while this move of Steinmetz to attack the French at Spicheren was done without orders, and in fact contrary to what Moltke wanted to do, it did prove successful. The Battle of Spicheren began at around noon on August 6, when two Prussian brigades under General von Kameke launched themselves upon the French left flank just north of the town of Spicheren, after a short but intense artillery barrage. These brigades were initially halted by superior French rifle fire, as the Prussians did not realize how large a force they were attacking, and indeed believed that these French forces were only the rearguard of a retreating army, rather than a full division dug in and waiting for them. Yet French counter attacks were easily swept back by massive Prussian artillery bombardments, far superior and with far better range than anything the French had to answer them with. In response to this, rather than launch all his forces in a mass counterattack to drive back the strong but reeling Prussian lines, the French General Frossard instead elected to stay on his defensive position on the heights north of the town, reflecting the conservative and defensive nature of French doctrine during this period.
This stalemate persisted until Prussian reinforcements arrived in mid-afternoon. Prussian artillery batteries were moved to within 1200 yards of the French positions, disconcertingly close if the French launched a counter-attack, but which allowed the Prussian guns to pour heavy doses of shrapnel and high explosive shells on the French positions with deadly accuracy. A final attack on the French left flank at around 6 o’clock pushed the French back, and by 9 o’clock the French were in full retreat, and the battle was over. Though costly, the German forces had sustained almost 5,000 casualties in just a few hours, Spicheren proved to be another Prussian victory. The French were falling back into Alsace-Lorraine on all fronts, and the German coalition was slowly tying a noose around these scattered and disorganized French units.
Now, in all of this, we have been looking at these campaigns from the perspective of the generals: seeing how different units and army groups moved around the map, and describing actions in a fairly clean and clinical way. Such and such a division moved here, such and such a regiment was pushed back there. But I don’t want to lose the human element of this story. When talking about giant wars like this, involving hundreds of thousands or even millions of human beings moving around the countryside trying to kill one another, it is easy to lose sight of the individual suffering of individual human beings. But even relatively small encounters in this, or any other war, result in real people being killed or grievously wounded, snuffing out their lives forever or leaving them as cripples for life. For example, at the relatively small battle of Wissembourg which we described previously, there is a heartbreaking story of a young Bavarian drummer boy, perhaps only fifteen or sixteen years old, being shot through the arm and squirming on the ground in agony, screaming, “My god, my god, I’m dying for the Fatherland!”
History often forgets the stories of these individuals, as for every person killed, wounded, or simply forced to endure these horrible conditions, there is a story just as horrible as this one. Josef Stalin’s old aphorism could not be truer: “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This is something I want all of you to keep in mind as we move into the First World War, as the pain and suffering of individual human beings in that story is simply indescribable, though I will try my best to describe it because, well, why else are we here?
Anyway, while the Prussians gained there decisive yet costly victory at Spicheren, they were winning an even more decisive yet even more costly victory. Following his defeat at Wissembourg on August 4, Marshall MacMahon led his bedraggled French army southeast. The Prussian III Army, under the Prussian crown prince Friedrich, chased after them believing they were headed for the fortress city of Strasbourg on the Rhine River. Yet at the end of the day on August 5, Prussian cavalry scouts had confirmed that MacMahon had gathered his army in a defensive position at the small town of Froeschwiller about 30 miles north of Strasbourg. He had good reason to do this; Froeschwiller guarded road and railroad intersections that were critical to the French supply network. Beyond that, Froeschwiller sat on a hill just behind a small river, the Sauer, providing a good natural defense, beyond which sat wide open fields of fire in all directions. In fact Marshall MacMahon had earlier said of Froeschwiller when touring the area before the war, “One day I would like to greet the Germans here; not even a field mouse would come out alive.” This is, I think, indicative of the fire tactics doctrine that defined the French Army of this period; emphasizing defensive positions that would allow the French to pour huge amounts of fire into hapless attackers. This would prove to be the case at Froeschwiller.
There was a problem with this strategy however; Froeschwiller was surrounded by such wide open spaces, that it wouldn’t be too hard to envelop the whole town if, say, you outnumbered the defenders by a two to one margin. And while MacMahon commanded an impressive force of 50,000 at Froeschwiller, Crown Prince Friedrich had some 100,000 German forces of his own. The Crown Prince planned to attack and slowly encircle the French on August 7, in what was dubbed a “Kesselschlacht” or “cauldron battle.” The idea being to slowly push the French on all sides until eventually they were completely surrounded and cut off. Yet just as at the battle of Spicheren, unfolding at this exact same time, the recklessness of individual Prussian commanders would spoil this plan.
On the morning of August 6, 1870, the Prussian V Army Corps under General von Kirchbach unintentionally bumped into the left wing of the French Army just northwest of Froeschwiller, specifically the French 1st division under General Durcot. Rather than fall back and wait for reinforcements (or even just further information on what was in front of him), Kirchbach ordered his entire corps to launch a frontal attack on the French. This went just about as well for the Prussians as you might expect. With a clear field of fire in front of them, and well protected by trees on top of a hill, the French rained an incredible amount of deadly rifle fire on the Prussian attackers, inflicting horrific casualties. One company of Württembergers, who started the battle with 250 men, were down to just 84 after less than an hour and a half of fighting. The Prussian companies, rather than advance in a tightly packed column, instead advanced in open order with companies trading in turn the role of firing and advancing on the French lines. Not that there were any targets the German forces could shoot at, well-hidden as the French were. Just as disconcerting to the Germans as the inability to shoot back at their opponents were the new French mitrailleuses (aka proto-machineguns), which though they did not turn back the attack did inflict hundreds of casualties. One Prussian lieutenant later recalled how he watched one of his fellow officers literally get turned to paste by these infernal new French weapons, as bullets ripped apart his face, arms, and torso in seconds.
Yet just as at Spicheren, despite turning back the Prussians with devastating casualties, the French did not immediately counter-attack to finish the job. Rather, they simply held fast in their defensive positions, which allowed the Prussians to regroup and call in reinforcements. So, after regrouping as the French were allowing them to do, the Prussians brought up their artillery batteries and started blasting huge holes in the French ranks, causing unbelievable amounts of carnage. Despite the good defensive positions the French held, they were not impervious, especially to the Prussian’s fantastic artillery, and this artillery outranged French artillery who were unable to counter it.
Finally, at around midday, the Prussians launched another attack, this time at the French center at the town of Froeschwiller itself, and were able to punch a hole in the French lines. Despite the appalling casualties they had suffered, and despite the fact that many units (particularly non-Prussian units who were less well trained and experienced) had broken in panic, the Prussian waves kept coming on in their smaller, more nimble units. In desperation, at around 1 o’clock the French commander, Marshal MacMahon, ordered his heavy cavalry to charge the Prussian left wing in the hopes of rolling up their lines or at least slowing the attack down. But this charge was an unmitigated disaster. Such a charge of heavy cavalry, in shining metal breastplates and wielding sabers, may have worked in an earlier era. But the rifles of the Prussian infantry, though inferior to their French counterparts, were more than enough to allow the Prussians to mow down this charging cavalry. One Saxon soldier remembered his officer, cool as anything despite the fact that they were facing more than a thousand horsemen galloping at them at full speed, saying, “Cavalry! 400 paces, short range sights, put the man’s chest in your sights, aim! Fire! Rapid Fire!” And rapid fire the Prussians did. Of the 1,200 cavalrymen that charged the Prussians, within minutes more than 800 of them were dead.
This was a turning point. After destroying the French cavalry, the Prussian left wing launched a renewed offensive on the French right wing, driving them back in panic, allowing the Prussians to completely encircle the town of Froeschwiller. Soon the entire French army was in panicked rout. Those Frenchmen who did not flee or were not captured were burned alive as the town itself caught fire.
I should also say that the term “Frenchmen” here is not entirely accurate. Many of the defenders at Froeschwiller fighting for France were actually Algerians, residents of France’s first colony in Africa on the Mediterranean coast. These were some of the best and most dogged fighters on the French side. To quote Geoffrey Wawro again, who recalled the words of an Algerian officer, “’we will all die here, if need be,’ Suzzoni had told his men in the morning, and most of them did.”
The German troops, most of whom had never seen a dark-skinned person in their lives, were quick to tell stories of Algerians killing or maiming German prisoners, stories that were almost certainly not true or at least were exaggerated. Nevertheless, many Algerian troops who were captured on that day were summarily executed by their German captors. Not that this barbarity was really condemned by their leadership. As the wise and brilliant statesman Otto von Bismarck later said of the Algerians, “there should have been no question of making prisoners of those blacks. If I had my way, every soldier who made a black man prisoner would be placed under arrest. They are beasts of prey, and ought to be shot down.” And this, kids, is why the Geneva conventions are now a thing.
The Battle of Froeschwiller was a ghastly affair for the Prussian led German Army. In just a few hours of fighting, some 10-11,000 men had been killed, captured, or wounded. The French, meanwhile, had suffered about 10-11,000 killed and wounded themselves, had not only given up the vital road network at Froeschwiller, but had lost a further 9-10,000 men as prisoners. This was the deadliest fight of the war so far, and while it cost the Prussians dearly, it was yet another resounding victory.
The next few weeks saw similar actions on all fronts: on August 16 a battle was fought at the small town of Mars-la-Tour just west of Metz (it’s on one of this week’s maps), wherein the French Marshal Bazaine snatched stalemates from the jaws of victory by failing to properly set up a defensive position or drive the Prussians from the field, resulting in a bloody draw that cost both sides around 16,000 casualties. Two days later, Bazaine was defeated at the battle of Gravelotte just seven miles east of Mars-la-Tour after failing to use any of his elite reserve corps as he was pushed back by alternating Prussian artillery bombardments and infantry attacks. This was, again, a horrendously costly battle for the Prussians, as they suffered now 20,000 casualties; apparently Prussian commanders were trying to outdo each other in terms of casualties suffered per battle. Yet once again, the French were in retreat.
Throughout this month of August, 1870, the Prussian led German coalition proved again and again a willingness to expend lives at an incredible rate, so long as the French were pushed back. Again and again, Prussian commanders aggressively, at times foolishly, sent waves of their men against French defensive positions, knowing that reinforcements would be soon on the way to exploit any successes they won with the lives of their men. The Prussian loose order, skirmishing tactics were the only thing that saved them from defeat at each of these battles, as individual units were free to move wherever they liked to find what cover they could, cover one another’s flanks, and exploit whatever opportunities arose.
Yet just as important to the German victories as Prussian aggressiveness was French reticence. At each of these battles, the French simply sat back in their defensive positions hoping to inflict enough casualties on the Germans to drive them back, only to be swarmed and eventually overwhelmed by numerically superior and tactically more nimble Prussian units. This would, eventually, teach a lesson to the French Army that they would use in the early stages of the First World War. But it was a lesson that they misunderstood, and would come to regret, as we shall see in future episodes.
So, on the morning of August 19 we find Bismarck riding around the battlefield of Gravelotte, appalled by the thousands of corpses strewn in every direction, accompanied by a military attaché from the United States. Now this is the kind of detail I normally wouldn’t mention, except that this attaché was none other than General Phil Sheridan, one of the key military leaders of the recent U.S. Civil War. So, that’s pretty cool. Anyway, following the bloody but decisive German victory at Gravelotte, the Prussian military high command including Bismarck, decided to follow the battered French Army of the Rhine, still commanded by Marshal Bazaine. Bazaine, with a relatively impressive force of 140,000 men, nonetheless realized that his army was battered, demoralized, and would probably not survive another set piece battle with the German armies. So, he headed towards the fortress city of Metz, which he garrisoned with his army (now renamed “the Army of Metz” on August 20. Within days, the Prussian First and Second Armies had completely surrounded the city with 300,000 men, and laid siege to it.
Bazaine was in an unenviable position, to say the least. He commanded a numerically inferior force that was low on supplies and morale, and completely surrounded by an enemy force more than twice his size that had roundly defeated him in several enormous battles. On top of that, the city of Metz was not provisioned to house enough food for an army this size, and food stores would be exhausted in just about a month. Despite this supremely difficult position, Bazaine decided that rather than try and do anything about it, he would do his best to make everything worse. He ordered his men to fortify the city, and then rewarded the backbreaking labor they were about to perform by cutting their rations in half. He made no attempt to break out of Metz, nor even really to send word back to Paris that he was in desperate need of relief. Instead he spent most of his time in Metz gossiping with his aide-de-camp (who was his nephew), and spent the evenings playing dominoes.
But, what could he have done, you ask? Well, a few things. First, Bazaine really, really needed to link up with MacMahon who was commanding the battered yet still formidable Army of Châlons down south, or at the very least send MacMahon a detailed report of his situation. While Bazaine’s position was dire, it was still possible for him to break out of Metz and either head west towards Paris or south toward MacMahon, if he concentrated all of his forces at a single spot in the German siege lines while they were still being set up. Yet not only did he not do this, he seemed weirdly uninterested in what MacMahon was up to. When, on August 22, he received a message from MacMahon that had been carried through the lines by a French scout who literally ate the message and then fished it out of his own feces so that the Germans would have no way of finding it (gross, I know, but also kind of ingenious and pretty crazy), Bazaine did not even read the message.
The French high command did not even learn of the disaster at Gravelotte and subsequent siege of Metz until August 22, as the Germans had cut all telegraph lines to Paris. When he learned of this news, Napoleon III ordered Marshal MacMahon to sweep north and east from his position in Châlons to relieve Bazaine in Metz. In perhaps the most critical moment of the war, Napoleon III decided that he would link up with MacMahon’s Army of Châlons and personally lead the relief of Metz. This decision would wind up not only destroying any hopes the French had of winning this war, but would cost Napoleon III his throne.
Meanwhile, General von Moltke, commander of the German coalition forces, while clearly in the favorable position still had several things he needed to do to secure victory. He needed to A) maintain the siege of Metz, B) keep an eye on MacMahon’s Army of Châlons and if possible bring it to decisive battle, and C) threaten Paris to keep his enemy divided. So he peeled off 120,000 men from his various Armies to form a new Army, called the Army of the Meuse, which he ordered to head northwest towards the village of Sedan near the Ardennes forest. He then kept First and Second Armies in siege around Metz, while the Third Army commanded by the Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich was ordered to sweep in a long arc to come in from behind MacMahon’s Army of Châlons now headed towards Metz to relieve the city (I really do recommend you look at the maps for this week’s episode). As the German soldiers marching through the Champagne region of France on the way to trap MacMahon were exhausted from weeks of marching and fighting, and many were often without adequate rations, many thousands of French peasants suffered bitterly at the hands of German troops marching through their villages. Such is sadly always the case when powerful leaders send thousands of men to kill each other in a quest for power or glory.
On August 30, MacMahon’s Army of Châlons was defeated at the village of Beaumont by Crown Prince Friedrich’s Third Army. This was a relatively small engagement (relative to the gargantuan battles of the Franco-Prussian War) resulting in about 10,000 total casualties for both sides combined. But it spooked MacMahon, who after all not only carried with him the only hope of relieving Metz but also had the Emperor of the French with him, and so he retreated towards the defensible town of Sedan, some 50-60 miles north west of Metz. There, he hoped that he could defeat or at least delay the Prussian Third Army, giving him some breathing space so he could move in on Metz. Except MacMahon was not only facing the Prussian Third Army, but also the new Army of the Meuse with its 120,000 men moving in to attack him from the other side. Realizing this by August 31, MacMahon set up his army in a defensive position on three ridge lines east of the town of Sedan itself. Now MacMahon was caught between two armies each of which roughly matched his own in size and strength. This prompted General von Moltke to say, “Now we have them in a mousetrap.”
General Ducrot, present with MacMahon and the Emperor, advised MacMahon to punch north between the two German armies so they could retreat back to Paris, but MacMahon, under orders from the Emperor to relieve Metz as quickly as possible, refused. This decision caused Ducrot to exclaim, “but we are here in a chamber pot, about to be shitted upon!” Though crude, this was a sound analysis of the French position, who would soon have no way to escape the incredible danger they were now in. Moltke planned to attack the French on the morning of September 1, but once again a Prussian divisional general decided to attack the French position just south of the town without orders at about 4 a.m. The Battle of Sedan had begun.
This first attack proved no more successful than earlier attacks carried out by eager beaver Prussian officers without orders. This division, mostly made up of Bavarians, was devastated when it found itself attacked from all sides when it pushed too far forward, shot at by French infantry, marines, and even a few civilians with shotguns and hunting rifles. With the battle now clearly on, German units began to attack from all sides, North, South, and West of the French lines. The French were arranged in a rough triangle formation to ward off these attacks, centered around the ridges east of Sedan. The French found themselves pushed back by superior Prussian artillery and swarming infantry companies, and at one point Marshal MacMahon was wounded in the leg, and command of the French Army passed to General Ducrot. This Prussian artillery destroyed almost every French battery that was set up to counter it, and soon enough the Germans were able to advance upon decimated French infantry who had no artillery support of their own.
Then, at around midday, the trap was snapped shut. Elements of the elite Prussian foot guard moved in around the eastern side of the French position, and pushed them back into the Garenne Woods. Now the entire French Army was completely surrounded. At 1:00, General Ducrot desperately attempted to break this encirclement by sending a single cavalry brigade to charge into the Prussian lines to their northwest. But this cavalry charge was utterly destroyed by Prussian rifle and cannon fire, and the French horsemen never got anywhere near the Prussian lines. By 2:00, whole French brigades were rushing up to the Germans shouting, “don’t shoot! We’re laying down our arms!” By three o’clock it was all over. Emperor Napoleon III, sheltering in a fort within the town of Sedan itself, set an orderly to meet with King Wilhelm I under white flag, who was present for this climactic battle. The orderly carried a message written by Napoleon III himself that was read aloud to Wilhelm, Bismarck, and Moltke by the Crown Prince Friedrich: “having failed to die amongst my troops, there is nothing left for me to do but place my sword in the hands of Your Majesty.” In just 12 hours of fighting, some 9,000 German soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing. The French, meanwhile, had lost 14,000 killed and wounded, and 21,000 taken prisoner before the Emperor surrendered. When he did so, he added to the German spoils 80,000 more French prisoners.
The Battle of Sedan, really, marked the end of the Franco-Prussian War, or at least any hopes that the French would ever win it. The capture of the Emperor led the French Legislative Body to declare the Empire dissolved and a “Government of National Defense” declared that would govern France until the end of the war. Within weeks, hundreds of thousands of German troops had surrounded Paris and put it to siege, a siege that would last for nearly five months and would result in tens of thousands of deaths due to Prussian cannon fire, a few feeble attempts to break out of the siege, but especially from starvation. This was after Bazaine had surrendered his entire Army of 140,000 odd men trapped in Metz in October, which meant that almost every single soldier of the regular French Army was now dead, wounded, or a prisoner of war.
On January 18, 1871, with the fall of Paris imminent, the generals and princes of all the German states that had utterly defeated France, met in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. There, in the ancient palace of Louis XIV, home of the now dead French monarchy, these princes and generals declared King Wilhelm I of Prussia to be Emperor Wilhelm I of a united German Empire. Ten days later, the Government of National Defense in Paris formally surrendered to the German coalition. The Franco-Prussian War was over.
The legacy of the Franco-Prussian War is almost incalculable. As with any war on this scale, it is impossible to know for certain how many people died, especially since this was an age where identification for each soldier was not yet standardized, thousands were blown to bits in unrecognizable heaps, and many thousands of French peasants and Parisian civilians were anonymously murdered or starved to death in their homes. We can estimate that as a direct result of the war, about 130,000 French people died, with a further 143,000 wounded and fully 450-500,000 were taken prisoner. On the German side we are looking at 40-45,000 dead, 90,000 wounded, and about 10,000 captured or missing.
On the political front, this war ended the regime of the last monarch in French history, while simultaneously resulting in the full unification of Germany into a single country. The new German Empire, flushed with victory, then demanded from the French in the subsequent peace negotiations not only five billion Francs in reparations (which yes, is an absurd amount of money), but also the eastern French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine to be annexed into the German Empire. When a lead French negotiator had protested these insanely harsh terms, Bismarck had replied that if they were not met, Germany would occupy all of France “and we will see if we can get five billion from it.” The French, now reorganized into the Third Republic, meekly agreed to all demands.
This humiliating peace also helped spark the famous uprising of the Paris Commune, a socialist revolution in Paris that had to be crushed by the forces of the new Third French Republic resulting in 30,000 deaths in just a week of fighting. The loss of Alsace-Lorraine would be a grievance that the French would nurse for decades, and was one of the principle reasons why France was so eager to go to war with Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. On the military front, the French Army was utterly humiliated by its terrible performance during the war, and over the next forty years would completely rework its tactical doctrine. This new doctrine was based around the aggressive attacks that had proved so devastating when utilized by the Prussians. Yet forty years of development in military technology meant that these massive attacks, when utilized in the First World War, cost the French hundreds of thousands of lives.
Yet perhaps the most important legacy of the Franco-Prussian War was in the reputation it gave to the new German Empire. In response to the incredibly harsh terms forced on France by Germany in 1871, the German Crown Prince Friedrich wrote, “We are no longer looked upon as the innocent victims of wrong, but rather as arrogant victors, no longer content with the conquest of the foe, but determined to bring about his utter ruin.” He went on to say that people no longer saw Germany as “this nation of thinkers and philosophers, poets and artists, idealists and enthusiasts; and see her only as a nation of conquerors and destroyers, to which no pledged word, no treaty, is sacred, and which speaks with rude insolence of those who have done it no injury…at the moment it seems as though we are neither loved nor respected, only feared.” These words would prove to be far more prophetic than even the crown prince could have possibly realized.
Next week, we will start to unpack just what the results of the unification of the German Empire meant for Europe, and the rest of the world. As the dust settles from the Franco-Prussian War, military leaders, politicians, and regular people everywhere in Europe will start to wonder when the next war will break out, and how they can ensure that they will emerge victorious.
Clodfelter, Michael. Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492-2015, 4th ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017.
Crankshaw, Edward. Bismarck. New York: The Viking Press, 1981.
Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.