Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71


a war between France and Prussia and its allies—the other states of the North German Confederation and the south German states of Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Darmstadt.

The Franco-Prussian War was caused by deep conflicts between Prussia and France. While Prussia was striving to complete the unification of Germany under its hegemony and to weaken France and its influence in Europe, France was trying to maintain its dominant influence on the Continent by hindering the unification of Germany and by preventing Prussia from strengthening its position. Moreover, France hoped by a victorious war to avert a crisis in the Second Empire.

The event that touched off the war was a diplomatic conflict between France and Prussia over the candidacy of Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a relative of the Prussian king William, to the vacant Spanish throne. Both sides aggravated the situation as they prepared themselves for a military clash. On July 13, 1870, the Prussian chancellor O. von Bismarck, seeking to provoke France into declaring war, deliberately distorted the text of a conversation between the king of Prussia and the French ambassador, making the document insulting to France. On July 15 the French government called up its reservists, and the next day Germany began to mobilize. On July 19 the government of Napoleon III officially declared war on Prussia. Miscalculations in French foreign policy enabled Bismarck to secure, to Prussia’s advantage, the neutrality of Russia, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Thus, at the outbreak of the war France found itself diplomatically isolated and without allies.

For Prussia, the war was historically progressive at the outset in that it was directed against Napoleon Ill’s attempt to hinder the full unification of Germany. Weakened by colonial wars and by rampant corruption at all levels of the state bureaucracy, the French Army was unprepared for war. After mobilization, the French Army numbered slightly more than 500,000 men, including 262,000 men in the Army of the Rhine, which increased to 275,000 men by August 6. The German states mobilized more than 1 million men, of whom more than 690,000 were in the field forces. Moreover, the French Army lagged behind the German armies in the quantity and quality of its artillery. The German steel rifled cannon with a range of 3.5 km were far superior to the French bronze guns in terms of combat efficiency. In infantry armament, however, the French had the advantage. The French rifled chassepot needle-gun was better than the Prussian Dreyse rifle. The ground forces of the German states were superior to the French Army in organization and combat readiness. Although the French Navy was stronger than the Prussian, it had no effect on the course of the war.

Fearing a drawn-out war, the French command planned to concentrate the army rapidly on the border and launch a surprise attack from the Strasbourg region to the northeast aimed at cutting off the south German armies from the troops of the North German Confederation. From the beginning of the mobilization, the Army of the Rhine (eight corps) was deployed along a broad front from Thionville to Belfort. The mobilization and deployment of the French forces proceeded slowly and without organization. Transport plans were disrupted, and the troops arrived at the border late and without adequate provisions or ammunition. Napoleon III, who had taken command of the army, was obliged to postpone the invasion.

The German war plan, developed by the Prussian chief of the General Staff H. von Moltke, called for the invasion of Alsace and Lorraine by large groupings, the rout of the French Army in border battles, and an offensive on Paris. In Germany the mobilization proceeded smoothly. Making good use of the railroad system, the German command by August 1 had deployed along the French border from Trier to Karlsruhe three armies comprising ten corps. They were the First Army under General K. F. von Steinmetz, the Second Army under the Prussian prince Frederick Charles, and the Third Army under the Prussian crown prince Frederick William; by August 6 the armies numbered 96,000 men, 228,000 men, and 167,000 men, respectively.

On August 4, the German forces began a general offensive. The German Third Army, deployed on the left wing, invaded Alsace. The army’s advance guards launched a surprise attack on a French division under General A. Douay at Wissembourg and threw it back. On August 6, the German Third Army defeated Marshal M. E. MacMahon’s corps at Wörth, forcing the right wing of the French forces to retreat to Saarbourg and on to Lunéville. On the same day the German Second and First armies defeated the French corps under General C. A. Frossard in the Spicheren-Forbach area, pushing it back to Metz. The French Army of the Rhine was thus divided: three corps under the command of Marshal MacMahon retreated toward Châlons-sur-Marne, and five corps withdrew toward Metz.

After the first defeats suffered by the French forces, anti-Bonapartist feeling ran high in France. The right-wing Bonapartist group that came to power under Count Palikao on August 9 was primarily concerned with saving the Bonapartist regime, thereby hastening the military defeat of France.

On August 12, Napoleon III turned over the duties of commander in chief to Marshal A. F. Bazaine in Metz and left for Châlons. Bazaine decided to lead his army through Verdun to Châlons and join MacMahon’s army in covering the approach to Paris. After a short halt at the Saar River, the German command renewed the offensive. Encountering no resistance, the German Third Army moved on Lunéville and Nancy; the First Army advanced on Metz; and the Second Army marched on Pont-à-Mousson, encircling the flank and rear of the French forces around Metz. On August 14 the First Army attacked the French forces on the left bank of the Moselle River at Colombey-Borny east of Metz. The battle was inconclusive, but it delayed the French troops’ crossing of the Moselle. On August 15, when the French forces resumed their retreat, the roads to Verdun were already covered by two corps of the German Second Army. In the battles of Vionville–Mars-la-Tour (August 16) and St. Privat-Gravelotte (August 18) Bazaine’s army was defeated and driven back toward Metz, where it was besieged by seven German corps. Only the Châlons Army under Marshal MacMahon, numbering some 140,000 men, stood in the way of the German march on Paris.

By order of the government, which demanded that decisive measures be taken to free Bazaine’s besieged army in Metz, MacMahon began moving toward Metz. At the direction of the German command, the Third Army and the newly formed Meuse Army advanced in a broad front to the north and northeast to intercept the Châlons Army. MacMahon’s army was encircled near Sedan, and its fate was decided in the battle that began there on September 1. With their numerical superiority, strategic advantage, and strong artillery, the German forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the French Army. After 12 hours of heavy fighting, Napoleon III ordered the white flag to be flown over the Sedan fortress, and on September 2 the Châlons Army surrendered. The Sedan catastrophe sparked the revolution of Sept. 4, 1870, which brought down the Second Empire. A government of bourgeois republicans and Orléanists, calling itself the Government of National Defense, came to power under the leadership of General L. J. Trochu.

With the defeat and fall of the Second Empire, the external obstacles to the unification of Germany were eliminated. In November 1870 treaties of alliance were signed between the North German Confederation and the south German states of Baden, Bavaria, Hesse-Darmstadt, and Württemberg. Under the treaties, the south German states pledged to join the German Empire.

In September 1870 the nature of the Franco-Prussian War changed. It became a just war of liberation for France and a predatory war on the part of Germany, which attempted to wrest Alsace and Lorraine away from France. A “government delegation” was formed at Tours (later moving to Bordeaux) to direct the French war effort; from October 9 it was headed by L. Gambetta. The eagerness of the popular masses to participate in the country’s defense enabled the Tours delegation to organize within a short time 11 new corps numbering 220,000 reservists and gardes mobiles (untrained army reserves).

France was in a difficult strategic position. The German Third Army was moving on Paris via Reims and Epernay; further north, the Meuse army was advancing via Laon and Soissons. On September 19, Paris was surrounded. In the city were some 80,000 regular forces and about 450,000 national guardsmen and gardes mobiles. The city’s defense depended on the bastions of its ramparts and 16 forts. The German command had insufficient forces to storm Paris and limited itself to a siege. The large army under Prince Frederick Charles continued to surround the walls of Metz. In the rear of the German forces, the garrisons of many French fortresses continued to resist. The Army of the Loire was organized south of Orleans, the Northern Army in the Amiens region, and the Eastern Army along the upper Loire. In occupied France a partisan struggle was launched by detachments of francs tireurs, totaling some 50,000 men. The Italian revolutionary G. Garibaldi formed an international volunteer detachment called the Army of the Vosges, which fought in the mountainous region southeast of Dijon.

The operations of the newly formed French armies were waged with insufficient preparation. Moreover, the actions of the three armies and the Paris garrison were not coordinated and did not produce any decisive results. The capitulation of Marshal Bazaine, who surrendered a large army without a fight on October 27 in Metz, freed a large number of enemy forces. The German First Army was transferred to the Compiègne region to besiege Paris from the north and to fight against the French Northern Army. In late November the German forces pushed the Northern Army from Amiens to Arras and in January 1871 defeated it at St. Quentin. In early November the Army of the Loire waged a successful offensive against the German forces at Orléans, but in early December and in January 1871 the French troops suffered defeat. The Eastern Army, after launching an offensive from Besançon toward the east in November, was defeated west of Belfort in January 1871 and retreated to Besançon. Part of the army went to Switzerland and was interned. The Paris garrison failed in its attempts to break through the encirclement.

On the whole, the Government of National Defense was unable to organize an effective resistance against the enemy. Its unwillingness to arm the people and its fear of revolutionary outbreaks impelled the French government to seek an armistice as soon as possible. The government’s inability to lead the struggle against the enemy, the secret negotiations for an armistice, and the hardships brought on by the war and the siege provoked uprisings in Paris on Oct. 31, 1870, and on Jan. 22, 1871. The formation of the German Empire was proclaimed at Versailles on Jan. 18, 1871. The imperial constitution assured Prussia’s hegemony in a united Germany, with the king of Prussia becoming the hereditary German emperor. Germany was thus unified “from above,” succumbing to Prussian militarism and the Junkers.

On Jan. 28, 1871, an armistice was concluded that imposed harsh terms on France. Most of the French forts were given to the German forces, as well as a large quantity of arms and ammunition. Paris was assessed 200 million francs in reparations. With the exception of one division and units of the National Guard, the Paris garrison surrendered and was disarmed. By this time, German forces occupied more than one-third of France, an area populated by more than 10 million people.

On February 26 a preliminary peace treaty was signed, and on March 1 the German forces entered Paris and occupied part of the city. After receiving word that the National Assembly had ratified the preliminary treaty, the troops were withdrawn from the capital on March 3.

The antipopular and antinational policy of the French government and the acute misery of the workers provoked a revolutionary outbreak. A popular uprising in Paris on March 18 initiated history’s first proletarian revolution. The German occupying forces assisted the counterrevolutionary Versailles government, headed by A. Thiers from February 1871, in its struggle against the Paris Commune. Concurrently, the German leaders tried to take advantage of the difficult position of the French bourgeoisie in order to make the peace terms more onerous for France. By the Treaty of Frankfurt, signed on May 10, France ceded Alsace and the northeastern portion of Lorraine to Germany and pledged to pay 5 billion francs in reparations. German forces were to occupy part of the country until the indemnity was paid.

During the Franco-Prussian War the unification of Germany under Prussian hegemony was completed, and the German Empire was formed. In France the Second Empire collapsed, to be replaced by the Third Republic. Moreover, the country’s international position was weakened. By creating a new balance of forces, the Treaty of Frankfurt became a factor in the growth of tension in Europe.

The conduct of the war was strongly influenced by changes in the technological base of warfare, which now included railroads, steamship fleets, rifled weapons, attached and free balloons, and the telegraph. Greater technological and material capabilities permitted the rapid formation of armies that were large for those times. The railroads made it possible to mobilize and deploy armies in less time, increased the mobility of forces, and improved supply methods. The greater firepower of the new rifled guns brought about changes in combat and in tactical methods. Defensive positions were equipped with trenches. In field tactics, close company or battalion columns gave way to dispersed formations and the deployment of infantry in extended fire positions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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