The Franco-German War 1870/71

Also referred to as the Franco-Prussian War

A.) The Diplomatic Pre-History of the War

The cause of events which triggered the declaration of war by France on July 14th 1870 began with the Spanish throne being vacant after the deposition of Queen Isabel II of Spain (1868). There were two candidates to succeed to the throne, one of them being a Hohenzollern of the Catholic Sigmaringen line. France's Emperor Napoleon III. demanded Prussian king Wilhelm IV. to renounce the candidacy; he complied. Then, through his ambassador, and implying French readiness to declare war in case of non-compliance, he demanded King Wilhelm to renounce any Hohenzollern candidacy for the future. Wilhelm did not comply and, by telegram, informed Bismarck who, at that time, was staying in the spa at Bad Ems. Bismarck had a shortened version of the telegram published in a newspaper, the Ems Dispatch. France regarded this an affront and declared war.
French foreign policy under Emperor Napoleon III. was lead by the quest for Gloire, glory, and the decade-old Bonapartist policy of breaking the imposed balance of powers on the European continent. France was overly confident in it's recent victories (Crimean War 1853-56, over Austria 1859) and negligent of Prussia's military accomplishments (against Denmark 1864, against Austria 1866).
When, after the Austro-Prussian war, Bismarck went of to reform the German Federation - now without Austria and under Prussia's leadership, Napoleon III., insisting on old alliances France had with the principalities of southern Germany (Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden) insisting on Prussia's German federation being limited to the northern bank of the Main River - the NORTHERN GERMAN CONFEDERATION (1867-1870). France's Interference in and obstruction of the process of German unification was the main motive which brought Bismarck on collision course with France. When Bismarck in 1867 ordered Prussian troops to garrison Luxemburg (a member of the German Federation) which Napoleon III. strove hard to annex, France regarded this an affront, a first step in the deterioration of Franco-Prussian relations.
French diplomats relying on old alliances with the southern German principalities believed to protect the interests of the dynasties ruling these states, as well as of their population. They were unaware that the governments of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden had signed secret alliances with Prussia, and that a large part of their people avidly supported the idea of a unified German state.

B.) The Military Course of Events

In the early days of the war, a lack of coordination in the French military organization lead to confusion; on July 28th Emperor Napoleon III. arrived in Metz to personally take command. On August 2nd French troops took Saarbrücken (Prussia). But soon German troop units invaded, and badly coordinated French units had to repeatedly withdraw. The French suffered losses in the battles at WEISSENBURG (Wissembourg, Aug. 4th), at WÖRTH (Aug. 6th), SPICHERN (Aug. 6th) and GRAVELOTTE (Aug. 18th). The French forces were split in two, one army around Metz, the other around Sedan, with it Emperor Napoleon III., both armies surrounded by German troops. The French army at Sedan was forced to move into the fortress; under heavy artillery fire, on Sept. 2nd 1870, Sedan surrendered, 83,000 French were taken prisoner, including Emperor Napoleon III. The fortress of Metz surrendered on October 27th.

C.) The Provisional Government and the Siege of Paris

On September 4th a GOVERNMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENSE was established; Napoleon III. was declared deposed, the THIRD REPUBLIC proclaimed. Now after the regular French forces had humiliatingly been defeated, German forces laid SIEGE to PARIS (Sept. 20th), in order to put pressure on the French government (it was questionable if the German forces intended to occupy the city). The population of Paris found itself in a desparate situation, all kinds of supplies soon running low, most importantly food. Paris communicated with the free parts of France via balloons and mail carried by pigeons - the world's first airmail.
Two attempts to break through the German lines failed; on January 28th 1871, Paris, alsost at the end of its food supplies, surrendered. During the siege the French had lost 4,000 K.I.A., the two breakout attempts disregarded. The French Provisional Government, on March 1st 1871, accepted the German peace terms.

D.) The Frankfurt Peace; the Legacy of the War

The conditions Germany demanded for a peace were harsh - the cession of ALSACE-LORRAINE (Elsass-Lothringen) as well as REPARATIONS amounting to 5 billion Gold Francs.
War statistics : the Germans had invaded France with a combined total of 797,500 men; French fighting troups : 935,760. German dead 44,000; French dead 150,000, figures include those whi died in battle, died of wounds, died of disease.

The PEACE OF FRANKFURT was signed May 10th 1871. France had not only suffered a humiliating, economically devastating defeat, Bismarck unlike in the case of Austria in 1966 now had pushed through harsh conditions. After the PROCLAMATION OF THE GERMAN EMPIRE on Jan. 2nd 1871 in the mirror hall in Versailles, an act intended to again humiliate the French. The demand to cede Alsace and Lorraine again was felt as another humiliation of France, although the far majority of the population of these areas spoke German as their first language.
Bismarck regarded a Franco-German animosity as a tool to keep up the German national sentiment which had helped him to extend the power of Prussia's Hohenzollern Dynasty, which he served, in the shape of the creation of a German Empire; he therefore humiliated France on purpose. The consequences were to be felt in World War I and beyond.
France had to go through a difficult period, not only repairing the damage caused by the war, but paying REPARATIONS of 5 billion Gold Francs to Germany (the war had almost entirely been fought in France, so it may be asked what these 'reparations' had been intended for). Germany, on the other hand, went through an economic boomtime period, in part due to the French payments.

Synopsis / Chronology of the Franco-Prussian War, by T. Shoberg
Franco-Prussian War and Ems Dispatch, from killeenroos on the diplomatic prehistory of the war, concise
Canadian Illustrated News and the Franco-Prussian War (July 1870-February 1871), from National Library of Canada
The Franco-German War 1870-1871, by Andreas Kopp posted by
The Franco-Prussian War (1870), from ICRC
The Franco Prussian War 1870-1871 : Why did the French lose ?, from William's World War II Page
The Pigeon Post into Paris 1870-1871by J.D. Hayhurst O.B.E.
Besieged Parisians Launch Balloons by Rick Bromer, from Old News
Fox's Regimental Losses Chapter V : Casualties Compared with those of European Wars, from Fox's Regimental Losses, has figures on German losses in Franco-German War
The costs of war, from Down to Earth, estimate total losses in Franco-Prussian War as 250,000 killed
Guerre franco-allemande de 1870 , from Guerres Francaises, in French, has statistical figures for Germans and French
Eric Dodemont, La guerre franco-allemande de 1870, from Histoire du Monde du 1er siecle a nos jours, in French, a Belgian site having many details on the Belgian army during that war
The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871, by Marcus Tomczak
DOCUMENTS The Siege and Commune of Paris, illustrations from Northwestern Univ.
History of the 19th Century in Political Cartoons : Chapter XXI The Outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Chapter XXII The Debacle, by Jim Zwick
A War Correspondent in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870, from Modern History Sourcebook
Documents on the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, from Hillsdale, 2 documents
Images of the Franco-Prussian War, from Canadian Illustrated News posted by National Library of Canada
Map showing movements in the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871, from Germany GenWeb Project
Guy de Maupassant, Boule de Suif (1880, extract), from Swarthmore, in French, on the Franco-German War 1870
La Guerre Franco-Allemande 1870-1871, from Musee d'Art et d'Histoire Militaire, on uniforms, in French
Emser Depesche, from Die Geschichtsseiten am LSG (Louise Schroeder Gymnasium Muenchen)
From the siege army near Paris, GHT Dec. 1870, from Nationalism Project at Univ. Stockholm, in Swedish (GHT = Goeteborgs Handels- och Sjoefarts-Tidning)
The Germans begin to bombord Paris, GHT Jan. 19th 1871, from Nationalism Project at Univ. Stockholm, in Swedish
Spies in Paris, GHT Jan. 1871, from Nationalism Project at Univ. Stockholm, in Swedish
After the Armistice, GHT Feb. 1871, from Nationalism Project at Univ. Stockholm, in Swedish
Guerra Franco-Prusiana, 1870-1871, from Uniformes Militares del Mundo, in Spanish
The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871, by Marcus Tomczak; has many documents in appendix

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2001, last revised on November 19th 2004

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