Franco-Prussian War

Military history of France
Military History of Germany
ConflictFranco-Prussian War
DateJuly 19, 1870 - May 10, 1871
PlaceFrance and Germany
ResultGerman victory
Battles of the Franco-Prussian War
France Prussia allied with German states
(later German Empire)
500,000 550,000
150,000 dead or wounded
284,000 captured
100,000 dead or wounded

The Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870May 10, 1871) was fought between France and Prussia (backed by the North German Confederation) allied with the south German states of Baden, Bavaria and Württemberg. The conflict marked the culmination of tension between the two powers following Prussia's rise to dominance in Germany, still a loose federation of quasi-independent territories.

The war began over the possible ascension of a German candidate to the Spanish throne, which was opposed by France. The French issued an ultimatum to the king of Prussia, who refused. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck then published his famous Ems Dispatch, basically a propagandized account of the negotiations between France and the king of Prussia. Outraged, the French declared war on Prussia. Over a six-month campaign, the German armies defeated the French in a series of battles fought across northern France, ending in a prolonged siege of the French capital, Paris. The French emperor was captured in battle, resulting in a bloodless revolution and France becoming the only republican Great Power in Europe. During the final stages of the war, the German states proclaimed their union under the Prussian King, uniting Germany as a nation-state (the German Empire).

Missing image
The Prussian 7th Cuirassiers charge the French guns at the Battle of Mars-La-Tour, August 16, 1870

In France and Germany the war is known as the Franco-German War, in French as La guerre franco-allemande de 1870 (French-German War of 1870) and in German as Deutsch-Französischer Krieg (German-French War), which perhaps more accurately describes the combatants rather than simply France and Prussia alone.


Causes of the war

Tensions had long been running high between Prussia and France following the Prussian victory in the Austro-Prussian War and its subsequent annexation of almost all Northern Germany. The humbling of Austria and Prussia's new territorial gains had shattered the European balance of power that had existed since the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Following the end of the Austro-Prussian War, the Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck and the French emperor Napoleon III had attempted to reach a private agreement regarding the balance of power in Europe. Napoleon III wished to realise French aspirations for "natural borders", a long term goal of French foreign policy since the Middle Ages - to annex all land west of the Rhine river and the Alps including Belgium, the southern Netherlands and Luxembourg, and Savoy. A solid defensible border was also insurance against the possibility of a united Germany unfriendly to France.

Savoy had been obtained from Italy following French support for Italian independence from Austria. Now Napoleon III sought Prussian neutrality when attempting to acquire Luxembourg and Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium), while expecting Prussian neutrality as "compensation" for French neutrality during the Austro-Prussian War and for Prussian territorial gains. Bismarck was non-committal at best, but to the French government, Bismarck appeared to agree to or at least agreed not to obstruct any French moves against the Low Countries.

The Luxembourg Crisis

Thus in 1867, France began by negotiating the purchase of Luxembourg from the Dutch government, as Luxembourg was then in personal union with the Netherlands. Assuming that Bismarck would honour his part of the agreement, the French government was shocked to learn that instead Bismarck, Prussia and the North German Confederation were threatening war should the sale be completed. Luxembourg lay astride one of the principal invasion routes an army would use to invade either France or Germany. The city of Luxembourg's formidable fortifications, constructed by the famous military engineer Marshal Vauban were considered "the Gibraltar of the North", and neither side could tolerate the other controlling such a strategic location. To mediate the dispute, Britain hosted the London Conference (1867) attended by all European great powers confirmed Luxembourg's independence from the Netherlands and guaranteed its independence from all other powers. War appeared to have been averted, at the cost of thwarting French designs.

French prestige and domestic politics

France's position in Europe was now in danger of being overshadowed by the emergence of a powerful German state led by Prussia, a France that looked increasingly flat-footed following Bismarck's successes. In addition, France's ruler Napoleon III was on increasingly shaky ground in domestic politics. Having successfully overthrown the Second Republic and established the Bonapartist Second Empire, Napoleon III was confronted with increasingly virulent demands for democratic reform from leading republicans such as Jules Favre along with constant rumors of impending revolution. In addition, French aspirations in Mexico had suffered a final defeat with the execution of the French puppet Emperor of Mexico Maximillian. The only force uniting the French was the universal desire to punish Prussia for its "arrogance". A war with Prussia would unite the French nation behind Napoleon III, quash any republican or revolutionary sentiment behind reactionary nationalism, re-establish France as the paramount power in Europe, and gain France the Rhineland and later Luxembourg and Belgium.

See also: Second French Empire

Bismarck and German nationalism

Prussia in turn was also beset with problems. While revolutionary fervour was far more muted than in France, Prussia had recently acquired millions of new suspicious citizens as a result of the Austro-Prussian War. The remaining German kingdoms maintained a steadfastly parochial attitude towards Prussia and German unification, their suspicions only heightened following Austria's defeat. A complicated set of 3 national parliaments (the Reichstag, Landtag and Zollparlament) made legislative reform into a nightmare. Nationalism was also at a fever pitch throughout Germany following the unification of Italy and the North German Confederation. The Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck was nonetheless determined to realise his dream of a united Germany, if necessary with "blood and iron". Given all Germany's recent experience of French aggression, pillage and subjugation at the hands of the first Napoleon, Bismarck viewed a war with France as a method to enlist the support of nationalists throughout Germany and unite all of the squabbling factions into one nation led by the Prussian king.

Crisis and the outbreak of war

Napoleon III and Bismarck independently sought a suitable crisis to ferment, and in 1870 one arose. The Spanish throne had been vacant since the revolution of September 1868. The Spanish offered the throne to the German prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (cousin of King Wilhelm of Prussia). Napoleon III was determined this time to stand up to the expansion of Prussian influence and successfully forced the prince's father to withdraw his son's candidacy. Disappointed that the Prussians had backed down so easily, the French government tried to prolong the crisis. The French ambassador in Prussia Vincent Benedetti issued a further demand to the Prussian King Wilhelm I — to guarantee that no Hohenzollern would ever be a candidate for the Spanish throne. The king coldly listened to the demand, then left without giving a response and canceling a later appointment with the French ambassador. His telegram (the Ems Dispatch) reporting this interview with the French ambassador was edited by chancellor Bismarck of Prussia in such a way as to provoke French indignation. France officially declared war on July 19, 1870.

Alliances and diplomacy

Diplomatically and militarily, Napoleon III looked for support from Austria, Denmark, Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg as all had recently lost wars against Prussia and the North German Confederation. However, Napoleon III inexplicably failed to conduct any diplomacy to secure revanchist alliances from these states. Denmark had twice fought and lost to Prussia during the First and Second Wars of Schleswig and was unwilling to confront Prussia again. Austria also refused to risk confronting Prussia again so soon after the near disaster of the Austro-Prussian War.

To make matters worse, acts by Napoleon III and his governments had isolated France from the other European powers. Russia remained neutral, unwilling to aid France after French participation in Russia's humiliation during the Crimean War. Italy was also disinclined to assist France, having been forced to surrender claims to Savoy to France as the price for assistance against Austria during the Italian wars for unification. In addition, Napoleon III had made himself protector of the Papal States, infuriating Italian nationalists who wanted Italy united with Rome as the capital.

Bismarck had also worked assiduously to diplomatically isolate France from the other European powers. As part of the settlement of the Austro-Prussian War, secret treaties of mutual defense were signed between Prussia and Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg. Bismarck also added the threat that should the south German monarchs refuse to honour their treaty commitments, he would personally appeal to pan-German nationalists in southern Germany to overthrow the royal houses. Bismarck then made public French correspondence demanding Belgium and Luxembourg as the price for remaining neutral during the Austro-Prussian War - Britain in particular took a decidedly cool attitude to these French demands and showed no inclination to aid France.

According to the secret treaties signed with Prussia and in response to popular opinion, Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg mobilized their armies and joined the war against France. While not prepared to join a German united state, the south German monarchs could not ignore public opinion which would not stand for another Bonapartist invasion of Germany.

Opposing forces

The French Army comprised approximately 400,000 regular soldiers, some veterans of previous French campaigns in the Crimean War, Algeria, Franco-Austrian War in Italy, and in Mexico supporting the Second Mexican Empire. The infantry were equipped with the breech-loading Chassepot rifle, one of the most modern firearms in the world at the time. With a rubber ring seal and a smaller bullet, the Chassepot had a maximum effective range of some 1,500 meters with a rapid reload time. The artillery was equipped with somewhat less modern muzzle-loading bronze 4 pounder (2 kg) cannons little changed from Napoleonic times. In addition, the army was equipped with the precursor to the machine-gun — the mitrailleuse, which was mounted on an artillery gun carriage and grouped in batteries in a similar fashion to cannon. The army was nominally led by Napoleon III with Marshals François Achille Bazaine, Patrice MacMahon and Jules Trochu among others.

The Prussian Army was composed not of regulars but a conscript army. Service was compulsory for all men of military age, but Prussia and its North and South German allies could mobilize and field some 1.2 million soldiers in time of war. The sheer number of soldiers available made mass-encirclement and destruction of enemy formations advantageous. The army was still equipped with the "needle-gun" Dreyse rifle of fame from the Battle of Königgrätz but by this time was showing the age of its 25 year old design. The deficiencies of the needle-gun were more than compensated for by the famous Krupp 6 pounder (3 kg) breech-loading cannons being issued to Prussian artillery batteries. Firing a contact-detonated shell filled with zinc balls and explosive, the Krupp gun had a range of 4,500 meters and blistering rate of fire compared to muzzle loading cannon. The Prussian army was commanded by Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke and the Prussian General Staff. The Prussian army was unique in Europe for having the only General Staff in existence, whose sole purpose was to direct operational movement, organise logistics and communications and develop the overall war strategy.

Given that France maintained a strong standing army, and that Prussia and the other German states would need weeks to mobilize their conscript armies, the French held the initial advantage of troop numbers and experience. French tactics emphasised the defensive use of the Chassepot rifle in trench-warfare style fighting, however German tactics emphasised encirclement battles and using artillery offensively whenever possible.

French incursions

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. Marshal MacMahon took command of I Corps (4 divisions) near Wissembourg, Marshal François Canrobert brought VI Corps (4 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 1870 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.

Occupation of Saarbrücken

General Frossard's II Corps and Marshal Bazaine's III Corps crossed the German border on August 2 1870 and evicted the Prussian 40th Regiment of the 16th Division from the town of Saarbrücken. The Chassepot rifle proved its worth against the Dreyse rifle, French riflemen regularly outdistancing their Prussian counterparts in the skirmishing around Saarbrücken. However 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 south-east in addition to the forces to the north and north-east.

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 envelope the entire French army against the Second Army and destroy the entire force.

Battle of Wissembourg

Main article: Battle of Wissembourg

On learning that the Second Army was just 30 miles 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 rumors from newspapers, and left his 4 divisions spread 20 miles apart in depth to react to any Prussian invasion. At Wissembourg on August 4, MacMahon's 2nd Divsion commanded by General Abel Douay was the first to make contact with leading elements of the Prussian Third Army, beginning the Battle of Wissembourg.

4th August 1870, the first action of the Franco-Prussian War (excluding the push into Saarbrucken by elements of Frossard's French II Corps on 2nd 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 strength by 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.

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.

Battle of Spicheren

Main article: Battle of Spicheren

The Battle of Spicheren, on August 5, was the second of three critical French defeats. Together with the Battle of Worth, on the following day, the Prussians succeeded in separating the northern and southern flanks of the French army.

German invasion

Battle of Worth/Fröschweiler

Main article: Battle of Worth

The French are unable to hold their position along the French-Prussian border and begin the retreat from Alsace

Battle of Mars-La-Tour

Main article: Battle of Mars-La-Tour

130,000 French soldiers were bottled up in the Fortress of Metz after suffering several defeats at the front. Four days after their retreat, on the 16th, the ever-present Prussian forces, here a group of grossly outnumbered 30,000 men of the advanced III Corps (of the 2nd Army) under General Constantine von Alvensleben, found the French Army near Vionville, east of Mars-la-Tour. Despite odds of four to one, the heroic III Corps routed the French and captured Vionville, blocking any further escape attempts to the West. Once blocked from retreat, the French in the fortress of Metz had no choice but to fight in a battle that would see the last major calvary engagement in Western Europe. III corps was decimated by the incessant calvary charges, losing over half its soldiers, while the French suffered equivalent numerical loses of 16,000 soldiers, but still held onto overwhelming numerical superiority.

On August 16, 1870 the French could have swept away the key Prussian defence and escaped. Two Prussian corps attacked the French advanced guard thinking that it was the rearguard of the retreat of the French Army of the Meuse. Despite this misjudgement the two Prussian corps held the entire French army for the whole day. Outnumbered 5:1 the extraordinary self-belief of the Prussians prevailed over gross indecision by the French.

Battle of Gravelotte

Main article: Battle of Gravelotte

The Battle of Gravelotte, or Gravelotte-St. Privat, was the largest battle during the Franco-Prussian War. It was fought about six miles west of Metz, Lorraine, France where on the previous day, having intercepted the French army's retreat to the west at the Battle of Mars-La-Tour, the Prussians were now closed in to complete the destruction of the French forces.

The combined German forces, under Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke, were the Prussian First and Second Armies of the North German Confederation numbering about 210 infantry battalions, 133 cavalry squadrons, and 732 heavy cannons totaling 188,332 officers and men. The French Army of the Rhine, commanded by Marshal Francoise-Achille Bazaine, numbering about 183 infantry battalions, 104 cavalry squadrons, backed by 520 heavy cannons, totaling 112,800 officers and men, dug in along high ground with their southern left flank at the town of Rozerieulles, and their northern right flank at St. Privat.

On August 18, 1870, the battle began when at 08:00 Moltke ordered the First and Second Armies to advance against the French positions. By 12:00, General Manstein opened up the battle before the village of Amanvillers with artillery from the 25th Infantry Division. But the French had spent the night and early morning digging trenches and rifle pits while placing their artillery and their mitrailleuses, an early type of machine gun, in concealed positions. With them finally aware of the Prussian advance, the French opened up a massive return fire against the mass of advancing Germans. The battle at first appeared in the French favor for they had better armed rifles, the Chassepot, which was a early bolt-action rifle replacing the musket with a range of over 1,500 yards, far superior to the Prussian Dreyse bolt-action rifle, also called the needle-gun, which had a range of only 600 yards. However, the Prussian artillery was superior for they had the all-steel Krupps breech-loading gun.

By 14:30, General Steinmentz, the commander of the First Army, unilaterally launched his VIII Corps across the Mance Ravine in which the Prussian infantry were soon pinned down by murderous rifle and mitrailleuse fire from the French positions. At 15:00, the massed guns of the VII and VIII Corps opened fire to support the attack. But by 16:00, with the attack in danger of stalling, Steinmetz ordered the VII Corps forward, followed by the 1st Cavalry Division.

By 16:50, with the Prussian southern attacks in danger of breaking up, the 3rd Prussian Guards Brigade of the Second Army opened an attack against the French positions at St-Privat which were commanded by General Canrobert. At 17:15, the 4th Prussian Guards Brigade joined the advance followed at 17:45 by the 1st Prussian Guards Brigade. All of the Prussian Guard attacks were too pinned down by lethal French gunfire from the rifle pits and trenches. At 18:15 the 2nd Prussian Guards Brigade, the last of the Guards Division, was committed to the attack on St Privat while Steinmetz committed the last of the reserves of the First Army across the Mance Ravine. By 18:30, a considerable portion of the VII and VIII Corps disengaged from the fighting and withdrew towards the Prussian positions at Rezonville.

With the defeat of the First Army, Crown Prince Frederick Charles ordered a massed artillery attack against Canrobert's position at St. Privat to prevent the Guards attack from failing too. At 19:00 the 3rd Division of Fransecky's II Corps of the Second Army advanced across Ravine while the XII Corps cleared out the nearby town of Roncourt and with the survivors of the Guards Division launched a fresh attack against the ruins of St. Privat. At 20:00, the arrival of the Prussian 4th Division of the II Corps and with the Prussian right flank on Mance Ravine, the line stabilized. By then, the Prussians of the Guards Division and the XII and II Corps captured St. Privat forcing the decimated French forces to withdraw. But with the Prussians exhausted from the fighting, the French were now able to mount a counter-attack. But then General Bourbaki refused to commit the reserves of the French Old Guard to the battle because he considered it a 'defeat'.

By 22:00, firing largely died down across the battlefield for the night. The next morning, the French Army of the Rhine, rather than resume the battle with an attack of its own against the battle-weary German armies, retreated to Metz where they were besieged and forced to surrender two months later.

The casualties were horrible, especially for the attacking Prussian forces. A grand total of 20,163 German troops were killed, wounded or missing in action during the August 18 battle. The French losses were 7,855 killed and wounded along with 4,420 prisoners of war (half of them were wounded) for a total of 12,275. While most of the Prussians fell under the French Chassepot rifles, most French fell under the Prussian Krupp shells. In a breakdown of the casualties, Frossard's II Corps of the Army of the Rhine suffered 621 casualties while inflicting 4,300 casualties on the Prussian First Army under Steinmetz before the Pointe du Jour. The Prussian Guard Division losses were even more staggering with 8,000 casualties out of 18,000 men. The Special Guard Jäger lost 19 officers, a surgeon and 431 men out of a total of 700. The 2nd Guards Brigade lost 39 officers and 1,076 men. The 3rd Guards Brigade lost 36 officers and 1,060 men. On the French side, the units holding St Privat lost more than half their number in the village.

Battle of Sedan

Main article: Battle of Sedan

The French were soundly defeated in several battles owing to the military superiority of the Prussian forces and their commanders.

With the defeat of Marshal Bazaine's Army of the Rhine at Gravelotte, they were forced to retire to Metz where they were besieged by over 150,000 Prussian troops of the First and Second Armies. Emperor Napoleon III, along with Field Marshal MacMahon, formed the new French Army of Chalons to march on to Metz to rescue Bazaine. With Napoleon III personally leading the army with Marshal MacMahon in attendance, they led the Army of Chalons in a left-flanking march northeast towards the Belgian border in an attempt to avoid the Prussians before striking south to link up with Bazaine.

The Prussians, under the command of Field Marshal Count Helmuth von Moltke, took advantage of this incompetent maneuver to catch the French in a pincer grip. Leaving the Prussian First and Second Armies besieging Metz, Moltke took the Prussian Third Army and the Army of the Meuse northward where they caught up with the French at Beaufort on August 30. After a hard-fought battle with the French losing 5,000 men and 40 cannons in a sharp fight, they withdrew toward Sedan. Having reformed in the town, the Army of Chalons was immediately isolated by the converging Prussian armies. Napoleon III ordered the army to break out of the encirclement immediately. With MacMahon wounded on the previous day, General Auguste Ducrot took command of the French troops in the field.

On September 1, 1870, the battle opened with the Army of Chalons, with 202 infantry battalions, 80 cavalry squadrons and 564 artillery guns, attacking the surrounding Prussian Third and Meuse Armies totaling 222 infantry battalions, 186 cavalry squadrons and 774 artillery guns. General De Wimpffen, the commander of the French V Corps in reserve, hoped to launch a combined infantry and cavalry attack against the Prussian XI Corps. But by 11:00, Prussian artillery took a toll on the French while more Prussian troops arrived on the battlefield. The French cavalry, commanded by General Marguerite, launched three desperate attacks on the nearby village of Floing where the Prussian XI Corps was concentrated. Marguerite was killed leading the very first charge and the two additional charges led to nothing but heavy losses.

By the end of the day, with no hope of breaking out, Napoleon III called off the attacks. The French lost over 17,000 men killed and wounded with 21,000 captured. The Prussians reported their losses at 2,320 killed, 5,980 wounded and 700 captured or missing.

By the next day, on September 2, Napoleon III surrendered and was taken prisoner with 104,000 of his soldiers. It was an overwhelming victory for the Prussians, for they not only captured an entire French army, but the leader of France as well. When news hit Paris of Emperor Napoleon's III capture, the French Second Empire was overthrown in a bloodless revolution leading to the creation of a new government of national defense and the Third Republic.

The defeat of the French at Sedan decided the war in Prussia's favor. With the Second Empire overthrown, Napoleon III went into exile in England, while within a fortnight, the Prussian armies were besieging Paris.

Siege of Metz

Main article: Siege of Metz

A further crushing French loss came at Metz, where Marshal Bazaine surrendered 180,000 soldiers on October 27.

Siege of Paris

Main article: Siege of Paris

The Siege of Paris lasting from September 19, 1870 – January 28, 1871 was the final defeat of the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War.

The Loire Campaign

While siege operations were taking place in and around Paris, the German armies attempted to destroy the last remaining French field armies in and around the Loire river south of Paris. The German armies eventually won the battles of Orleans and Le Mans, shattering the French Army of the Loire. Template:Campaign

Eastern Campaign

Following the destruction of the French Army of the Loire, remnants of the Loire army gathered in eastern France to form the Army of the East, commanded by General Charles Bourbaki. In a final attempt to cut the German supply lines in north-east France, Bourbaki's army marched north to attack the Prussian siege of Belfort in an attempt to relieve the beleaguered French defenders. In three days of bitter fighting at the battle of Belfort, the East army failed to relieve the siege and was in turn counter-attacked in the rear by a detachment of German troops recently arrived from the siege of Paris. Surrounded on all sides, the Army of the East retreated to neutral Switzerland to be disarmed and interned.

The War at Sea

At the outset of the war, the 470-ship French Navy put to sea and attempted a blockade of the north German coast, which the relatively small Prussian navy could do little to oppose. Despite this, the blockade was only partially successful as the French navy suffered chronic shortages of coal and the lack of a forward base in the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The French navy also lacked the necessary heavy weaponry to deal with the formidable coastal defences around German ports, which made a seaborne invasion of northern Germany impossible. As autumn storms took their toll on the patrolling ships, the blockade became less and less effective. By September 1870 the blockade was finally abandoned altogether for the winter, and the French Navy retired to ports along the English Channel.

The French Marines and naval infantry tasked with the invasion of northern Germany were subsequently dispatched to bolster the French Army of Châlons, where they were captured at the Battle of Sedan along with Napoleon III. Suffering a severe shortage of officers following the capture of most of the professional French army at the Siege of Metz and the battle of Sedan, naval officers were taken from their ships to officer the hastily assembled gardes mobiles or French reserve army units. As a result the French Navy remained in port for the rest of the war.


An armistice was signed on January 28, 1871, ten days after Wilhelm's proclamation as German emperor at Versailles. The preliminary Franco-German peace treaty was signed at Versailles on February 26 1871.

The Treaty of Frankfurt signed on (May 10, 1871) stipulated that France was to pay Germany a war indemnity of 5000 million francs and to cede three eastern départements originally seized from the Holy Roman Empire by Louis XIV.


German troops continued to occupy parts of northern France and Parisian forts until the last payment of reparations was completed in September 1873, ahead of schedule. The French territories surrendered to Germany became the German imperial province of Alsace-Lorraine (Elsaß-Lothringen).

Many in France found the humiliation of the defeat hard to bear, especially the National Guard and the workers of Paris. Refusing to accept defeat and blaming the conservative government for failing to organise an effective national resistance, Parisians seized control of the French capital on March 18 and established the Paris Commune. The French Army was permitted to pass through German lines outside the city, and proceeded to suppress the revolt. Tens of thousands of workers and revolutionaries were executed in the "Bloody Week" (May 21May 28) as the new French government forcibly re-established control of the capital. Memories of the Commune continued to divide both the left and right of French politics. The unique social experiment of the Paris Commune would later serve as an inspiration for the development of communism and a model for communist revolutionaries worldwide such as Lenin and Mao Zedong.

Italian unification

Italy was quick to use the power vacuum caused by the French defeats to complete the unification of Italian states. Due to wartime military commitments against Germany, France was no longer able to guarantee the independence of the Papal States from Italy.

The French garrison in Rome had already been withdrawn starting in July 1870, and following the surrender of the Napoleon III and the Army of Châlons at the battle of Sedan, the Papal States found itself deprived of its principal benefactor. Italy declared war on the Papal States on September 10 1870, and on September 20 Italian forces occupied Rome which later became the Italian capital. Apart from irredenta in Austria-Hungary, the unification of Italy was complete.

Advances in military science and technology

In most industrialized countries universal conscription replaced professional standing armies for the next one hundred years, which (along with soaring birth rates) resulted in huge national armies. Those countries without a general staff soon established one with special emphasis on central planning. The study of logistics expanded to include new communication technologies such as rail transport and telegraphy. Moltkean operational strategy and tactics became the standard curriculum at most military academies throughout the world. The perceived overwhelming success of artillery and firepower in general over entrenched defenders came to dominate battlefield tactics. However, the lessons of the battles of Mars-La-Tour and Gravelotte were forgotten, in which thousands of Germans perished in frontal assaults against entrenched French positions, and would have to be painfully re-learned in subsequent conflicts such as the Russo-Turkish War, 1877-78 and the Boer War. Likewise, the collapse of French morale and the poor planning by the French commanders gave the false impression of the superiority of élan and offensive-spirit over defensive firepower, and the cult of the offensive was firmly established in military thinking in Europe.

New balance of power in Europe

France's defeat, the unification of Germany and the resulting final unification of Italy swept away the old balance of power that existed in European politics and completely redrew the political map. France became a republic (February 1875), and republicanism again became mainstream politics in France, while in Germany militarism moved to the forefront. The war embittered Franco-German relations for decades to come, contributing to French agitation for revanche — revenge for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine — which gave its name to the phenomenon of revanchism, the desire to punish a past enemy and regain former territories. Post-war, Bismarck worked hard to keep France diplomatically isolated but these efforts ceased with his dismissal by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890, allowing France to forge new relationships with the other European Great Powers. The unease with which the other Great Powers viewed the new militaristic Germany was the start of a chain of events which led directly to World War I and World War II.

See also

de:Deutsch-Französischer Krieg el:Γάλλο-Πρωσικός πόλεμος es:Guerra franco-prusiana fr:Guerre franco-allemande de 1870 he:מלחמת צרפת פרוסיה nl:Frans-Pruisische Oorlog nds:Düütsch-Franzöösch Orlog ja:普仏戦争 pl:Wojna francusko-pruska pt:Guerra franco-prussiana fi:Ranskan-Preussin sota sv:Fransk-tyska kriget zh:普法戰爭


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