Franco-German War

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Napoleon III surrenders to Wilhelm I, German King of Prussia, on 2 September 1870, after the Battle at Sedan. The battle marked the decisive defeat of the French in the Franco-Prussian War and led to the fall of the Second French Empire. In Germany, the "Sedantag" was celebrated yearly on the date of this great victory.

Franco-German War, sometimes Franco-Prussian War (German: Deutsch-Französischer Krieg), often referred to in France as the 1870 War (19 July 1870 - 10 May 1871), was a conflict between France and the German kingdom of Prussia, which was backed by the North German Confederation and the South German states of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria. The thorough German victory brought about the final unification of the German Empire under King William I of Prussia. It also marked the downfall of Napoleon III and the end of the French Second Empire, which was replaced by the Third Republic. As part of the settlement, the territory of Alsace-Lorraine was taken by Germany, which would retain it until World War I.


Franco-German War map.jpg
Map of the German and French armies near the common border on 31 July 1870
Generalmajor Otto von Bismarck (right) and Napoleon III after his capture by Captain Hugo von Winterfeld in front of the meeting house at Sedan (weaver's cottage in Donchery), depending on the source on 1 or 2 September 1870
Proclamation of the German Empire on 18 January 1871, painted by Anton von Werner
Kaiser Wilhelm I awards some soldiers the Iron Cross for courageous deeds
German monument in Gravelotte

The conflict was a culmination of years of tension between the two powers, which finally came to a head over the issue of a Hohenzollern candidate for the vacant Spanish throne, following the deposition of Isabella II in 1868. The public release of the Ems Dispatch, which played up alleged insults between the Prussian king and the French ambassador, inflamed public opinion on both sides. France mobilized, and on July 19, declared war on Prussia only, but the other German states quickly joined on Prussia's side.

The superiority of the German forces was soon evident, due in part to efficient use of railroads and innovative Krupp artillery. A series of swift German victories in eastern France culminated in the Battle of Sedan, at which Napoleon III was captured with his whole army on 2 September. Yet this did not end the war, as the Third Republic was declared in Paris on 4 September 1870, and French resistance continued under the Government of National Defense and later Adolphe Thiers.

Over a five-month campaign, the German armies defeated the newly recruited French armies in a series of battles fought across northern France. Following a prolonged siege, the French capital Paris fell on 28 January 1871. Ten days earlier, the German states had proclaimed once again (for the first time after the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) their union under the Prussian King, uniting Germany as a nation-state, the German Empire and forming the German Army.

The final peace Treaty of Frankfurt was signed 10 May 1871, during the time of the bloody Paris Commune of 1871.

Population and soldiers mobilized at the start of the war
Population in 1870 Mobilized
Second French Empire 38,000,000 500,000
North German Confederation 32,000,000 550,000

Summary of military events

The efficiency of German mobilization contrasted with confusion and delay on the French side. Germany was able to deliver 380,000 troops to the forward zone within 18 days of the start of mobilization on 14 July, while many French units reached the front either late or with inadequate supplies. The German and French armies that then confronted each other were both grouped into right and left wings. After suffering a check by the Crown Prince and Generalfeldmarschall Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal at the Battle of Wörth on 6 August 1870, the commander of the French right (south) wing, Marshal Patrice MacMahon, retreated westward.

That same day, about 40 mi to the northwest, the commander of the French left wing, Marshal Achille Bazaine, was dislodged from near Saarbrücken and fell back westward to the fortress of Metz. His further retreat was checked by the German right wing in two blundering battles on 16 and 18 August, respectively (the Battles of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte), and he then took refuge behind the defenses of Metz until forced by starvation to surrender on 29 October.

The French right wing, commanded by MacMahon and accompanied by Napoleon III himself, attempted to relieve Bazaine but was itself surrounded and trapped by the Germans in the disastrous Battle of Sedan on 31 August. Encircled, the 83,000 French troops with Napoleon III and MacMahon surrendered on 2 September. Since Bazaine's army was still bottled up in Metz, the result of the war was virtually decided by this surrender.

French resistance was carried on against desperate odds by a new government of national defense, which assumed power in Paris on 4 September 1870, and proclaimed the deposition of the emperor and the establishment of the Third Republic. On 19 September the Germans began to besiege Paris. Jules Favre, foreign minister in the new government, went to negotiate with the ""Hero of Sedan" Otto von Bismarck, but the negotiations were broken off when he found that Germany demanded both Alsace and Lorraine regions. Léon Gambetta, the leading figure in the provisional government, organized new French armies in the countryside after escaping from besieged Paris in a balloon. These engaged but could not defeat the German forces. Bazaine capitulated at Metz with his 140,000 troops intact on 27 October, and Paris surrendered on 28 January 1871.


German troops fought against the French Republic (Government of National Defence) and its Foreign volunteers. The army before 18 January 1871 (after that German Empire) consisted of:

Strength and Casualties

In addition ~250,000 civilians died, including 162,000 Germans in a smallpox epidemic spread by French POWs.


  • Total deployment: 1,494,412 men (regulars, reservists and Landwehr)
    • 44,700 dead
    • 89,732 wounded
    • 10,129 missing or captured
      • Total: 144,642


  • Total deployment: 2,000,740 men (regulars, reservists and Garde Mobile)
    • 138,871 dead
    • 143,000 wounded
    • 723,556 captured, capitulated or interned
      • Total: 1,005,427

Further reading

The Brandenburg Gate lit up on Sedantag in 1898. In English, the sign reads "What a change [turn of events] through God's guidance".
  • August Mackensen: Das Leibhussaren-Regiment Nr. 2 im Kriege gegen Frankreich, 1877
  • Moltke, Field Marshall Count Helmuth von, The Franco-German War of 187-71, London, 1893.
  • Allinson, A.R., The War Diary of the Emperor Frederick III 1870-1871, London, 1927.
  • Craig, Gordon A., Germany: 1866–1945. Oxford University Press, 1980.
  • The Last Days of Papal Rome by Raffaele De Cesare (1909) London, Archibald Constable & Co.
  • Hughes, Daniel J., ed., Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings, trans. Harry Bell and Daniel J. Hughes (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993).
  • Jerrold, William Blanchard, The Life of Napoleon III. Longmans, Green & Co.,1882.
  • Lowe, William Joseph. The Nest in the Altar or Reminiscences of the Franco–Prussian War of 1870. Reprinted by Chapter Two, London in 1999. ISBN 1-85307-123-4.
  • Manchester, William, The Arms of Krupp: 1587–1968. Bantam Books, 1981.
  • Maurice, John Frederick, with Wilfred James Long The Franco–German War, 1870–71. S. Sonnenschein and Co., 1900.
  • McElwee, William. The Art of War: Waterloo to Mons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974. ISBN 0-253-20214-0
  • Ridley, Jasper, Garibaldi. Viking Press, 1976.
  • Robertson, Charles Grant. Bismarck. H. Holt and Co., 1919.
  • Rüstow, Friedrich Wilhelm, with John Layland Needham, The War for the Rhine Frontier, 1870: Its Political and Military History. Blackwood, 1872.
  • Fontane, Theodor, Der Krieg gegen Frankreich, 1870–1871, Verlag der königlichen geheimen Hofbuchdruckerei, Berlin, 1873, Reprint 2004, ISBN 3-937135-25-1
  • Stoneman, Mark R. "The Bavarian Army and French Civilians in the War of 1870–71," Magisterarbeit, Universität Augsburg, 1994.
  • Taithe, Bertrand. Citizenship and Wars: France in Turmoil 1870–1871. Routledge, 2001.
  • Taylor, A.J.P., Bismarck: The Man and the Statesman. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988. ISBN 0-241-11565-5.
  • Varley, Karine. Under the Shadow of Defeat: The War of 1870–1871 in French Memory. Palgrave 2008.
  • Creveld, Martin van, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. ISBN 0-521-29793-1.

French and German studies

  • Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane, 1870: La France dans la guerre (Paris: Armand Colin, 1989).
  • Baumont, Maurice. Gloires et tragédies de la IIIe République. Hachette, 1956.
  • Förster, Stig, ed., Moltke: Vom Kabinettskrieg zum Volkskrieg: Eine Werkauswahl (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag, 1992).
  • Helmert, Heinz and Hansjürgen Usczeck, Preussischdeutsche Kriege von 1864 bis 1871: Militärischer Verlauf (Berlin: Militärverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 1967).
  • Nolte, Frédérick. L'Europe militaire et diplomatique au dix-neuvième siècle, 1815–1884. E. Plon, Nourrit et ce, 1884.

External links