Franco-Prussian War

 
   

(1870-1871)

 
    Europe:  Germany & France War  
   

France vs Prussia (with Wurtemburg, Baden & Bavaria)

 
       
   

The immediate cause of the conflict was the question of the Hohenzollern candidature for the Spanish throne. In 1868, Queen Isabella had been deposed, and the throne was finally  offered to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a relative of the King of Prussia.

The French were naturally unwilling to see a Hohenzollern on their western frontier and protested. King William, himself lukewarm about the idea, acquiesced but refused to undertake that the candidature could never be renewed. France tactlessly insisted, and when the King refused to discuss the matter further or to see the French Ambassador, Bismarck managed to make it appear that France had been insulted. The infamous Ems Telegram threw the French Assembly and people into a rage, and war was declared.   General Leboeuf assured the government that the army was ready down to “the last gaiter button”.   This unfortunately was untrue.

Most military pundits assumed that the war would begin with a rapid French thrust across the Rhine to disrupt German mobilisation plans. Events were to prove, however, that French planning was haphazard, contrasting sharply with the efficient German preparations, and after a brief foray against Saarbruken in early August 1870, the French fell tamely back across the frontier. The Germans then took the initiative and moved into France in three large armies. Moltke, commanding the German forces, planned an enveloping attack by the third Army, whilst the 1st and 2nd Armies attacked frontally. This plan was frustrated by Steinmetz, commander of the 1st Army, who attacked prematurely at Spicheren (August 6th). Although successful, his attack persuaded the French to withdraw, thus escaping the turning movement. The same day, the 3rd Army was also unintentionally engaged at Froeschwiller. Again the French were driven back, though both sides suffered heavy casualties. Already the difference in attitude between the French and German commanders was becoming clear:  the French generals seemed reluctant to take the initiative, whilst their opponents attacked at every opportunity.

French morale suffered considerably after these initial setbacks, and as they trudged back towards Metz it became worse. As order and counter-order flew back and forth between the Emperor, the Ministry of War in Paris, MacMahon and Bazaine, the army became split: part under Bazaine retired on Metz, the remainder under MacMahon moved towards Chalons-sur-Marne. Disaster struck almost immediately. Bazaine failed to secure his line of retreat, and soon found himself cut off. An attempt to break through at Mars la Tour failed due to a complete lack of drive on the part of the French commander, despite inflicting nearly 25% casualties on the enemy. The French then pulled back to an excellent defensive position to the West of Metz, where they were engaged again on August 18th. The battle of Gravelotte-St Privat was decisive. Although suffering heavy casualties in a hard fought contest, the Germans succeeded in turning the French right flank, and forced them to seek refuge in the fortress of Metz itself. Despite their efforts, the trapped army was unable to break out, and surrendered ten weeks later. As the investment of Metz was completed, Moltke reorganised his forces to operate against MacMahon, who, after lingering listlessly around Chalons, had been ordered to aid Bazaine. MacMahon’s demoralised army moved on Metz, only to be blocked at Beaumont. He then ordered a withdrawal on Sedan, where he was cornered and forced to surrender.

It was fully expected that France would now sue for peace, but the newly formed republic affirmed its intention of continuing the war, and began the mammoth task of building new armies. The Germans, meanwhile, advanced on Paris, which they surrounded in mid-September. For the next four months the French capital was closely besieged, whilst a series of provincial armies tried unsuccessfully to relieve it. The poorly trained provincial armies, despite heroic efforts, were defeated. A guerrilla war waged by the francs-tireurs provoked savage reprisals. Finally, in January 1871, peace was signed: with France losing Alsace, Lorraine and five billion francs;  and the German Empire forged from Prussia and her allies.

 

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