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.