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Franco-Prussian War

Military history of France
Military History of Germany
Conflict Franco-Prussian War
Date 1870-1871
Place France and Germany
Result German victory
Battles of the Franco-Prussian War
France Prussia allied with German states
(later German Empire)
500,000 Soldiers 550,000 Soldiers
150,000 KIA & WIA
284,000 POW's
100,000 KIA & WIA

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).

The Prussian 7th Cuirassiers charge the French guns at the , ,
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.

France's position in Europe was now in danger of being overshadowed by the emergence of a powerful German state led by Prussia. 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

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.

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 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 cancelling 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.


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 the 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 Rome united with Italy as the Italian 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. Reconaissance 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 divison. 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 re-inforce 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.

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 Genl Douay of I Corps, with some attached cavalry, which was posted to watch the border, attacked in overwhelming but poorly co-ordinated 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 by 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. Genl 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

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

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