Franco-Prussian War

Franco-Prussian War
   The final and most significant of the wars of German unification, the Franco-Prussian War lasted from July 19, 1870, to May 10, 1871. It pitted France against Prussia and its allies, which included the states of the North German Confederation, as well as the south German states of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria. Presented to the peoples of all belligerent lands as a test of national honor, its deeper causes were Prussia’s ambition to bring about the national unification of the German states of Central Europe under its aegis and France’s attempt to buttress its flagging geopolitical position, especially against the surging power of Prussia. The war was a decisive victory for the Prussian monarchy. The French Second Empire collapsed in military debacle and Prussia unified Central Europe largely on its own terms. The war was therefore a diplomatic revolution in Europe and a grave portent of the violent national conflicts to come in the twentieth century.
   The war resulted from such pan-European developments as the technological creativity of industrial economies, the growth of bureaucratic states, and the explosive power of popular nationalism; but its immediate causes were the deliberate actions of Count Otto von Bismarck, the chief minister of the Kingdom of Prussia, and Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III), emperor of France. Bismarck’s primary strategic objective was the unification of the quasi-independent territories of Central Europe into a national polity. To reach this objective, in the 1860s he provoked a series of international crises, including wars with Denmark in 1864 and the Austrian Empire in 1866, to marginalize Austria in Central European affairs and to encourage the smaller German lands in the north and south to accept national unification under Prussian control. The confessional affinities of a common Protestantism coaxed the northern lands into the Prussia-dominated North German Confederation in 1867, but the southern Catholic lands of Baden, Württemberg, and Bavaria resisted Prussian claims to national leadership. Bismarck hoped that by goading France to attack Prussia, these lands would fly to the flag of a victimized Germany and accede to Prussian supremacy in a unified Second Reich.
   Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I (see Bonaparte, Napoleon ) and ruler of the French Second Empire, played into Bismarck’s scheme. By the 1860s, his empire suffered from chronic political rancor and widespread institutional corruption, as well as from a series of foreign policy fiascoes, whose fallout put the lie to his boast that he would restore the greatness of France in the international arena. Living off the legend of his uncle, and alarmed at Prussia’s audacity and military competence, he was determined to check Prussian ambitions for the control of Central Europe. Victory in war against a hated national enemy promised to restore public confidence in his unstable regime and achieve political integration by appeals to patriotic unity. Bismarck exploited Louis-Napoleon’s saber rattling to provoke a conflict in which France would be seen as the aggressor. The casus belli concerned the succession to the Spanish throne. Spain offered its throne to Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, the nephew of Wilhelm I, the Prussian king. France opposed the move and in a needless provocation, insisted that Wilhelm renounce for all time any Prussian designs on the Spanish crown. Wilhelm registered his resistance to this demand in a telegram he dispatched from the spa at Ems to his foreign ministry in Berlin. When the Ems Telegram arrived, Bismarck edited it to make it look like Wilhelm and the French ambassador, Count Vincent Benedetti, had insulted one another. Then he released the doctored version to the diplomatic corps and the press. Feeling rebuffed, and keen to capitalize on the anger of a humiliated French public, Louis-Napoleon ordered mobilization against Prussia and declared war on July 19, 1870.
   France expected to enjoy the early advantage in the conflict, but this optimism rested on serious miscalculations. The French took courage in the Chassepot rifle, whose long range and stopping power would reverse any Prussian invasion, and the mitrailleuse, a precursor to the machine gun, whose shock effect would deter infantry assault. They also banked on their smaller force of long-term service professionals, whose experience and veteran resolve would break the attacks of less formidably armed German conscripts. The Prussian army, however, led by Helmuth von Moltke, the hero of the 1866 Battle of Königgrätz against Austria, was matchless in Europe. When the army was arrayed to inflict concentrated and cross fire, the poundage, accuracy, and range of its artillery could shatter any defensive position. Its soldiery, although conscripted, were fit, disciplined, and skilled in small-unit tactics that promoted initiative and aggressive maneuver. These tactics ensured high casualties when applied to well-secured defenses, but Prussian expertise in mobilizing reserves by use of the civilian railway system furnished a constant supply of reinforcements. The French generals expected the Prussians to take seven weeks to arrive at the front. Within 18 days, Moltke had more than 300,000 of his best troops deployed on the forward edge of the battle area with tens of thousands of replacements filing into line behind them. Huddled into defensive positions and suffering from insufficient logistical supply and flaccid morale, the French army was vulnerable to Moltke’s ferocious strategy of encirclement and pocket annihilation. The war between these unbalanced forces began on August 2 with a French probing action into the German border town of Saarbrücken. Over the next four days, massive counterstrokes at Wissembourg, Spicheren, and Froeschwiller by Prussian forces and the armies of their allies overwhelmed this half-hearted assault. The Prussians exploited these victories by attacking French supply lines, cutting communications, and pursuing retreating French formations. The French command at the front, led by the vacillating Marshal François Achille Bazaine, gathered 200,000 French troops at Metz, where Moltke trapped them. On August 16–18, Moltke attacked outlying French positions northwest of Metz at Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte, severing the besieged French garrison from the hinterland and blocking any escape attempts to the West. Hoping to relieve the pressure on Metz, Louis-Napoleon and Marshal Patrice MacMahon led a new French army northwest of Metz to the old fortress town of Sedan, intending from there to attack Moltke and rescue Bazaine. Moltke took advantage of this clumsy move and, on August 30, encircled the French in and around the fortress. On September 1, he opened a withering assault of massed artillery barrage and converging infantry attack from all sides, which decimated French initiatives to break out. By the end of the day, Louis-Napoleon canceled resistance as futile, and on September 2, he surrendered his army to Moltke and Bismarck, who had arrived to witness the capitulation of his adversary.
   Louis-Napoleon’s fatigued regime was altogether too fragile to withstand the shock of national disaster on the battlefield. The Paris crowd, astonished by the precipitous collapse of the French army, proclaimed the end of the empire on September 4 and established a Government of National Defense to continue the struggle against Prussia. Although Bismarck hoped for a quick peace, the revolution evolved a regime, led by the radical republican Léon Gambetta, hardened against surrender to an enemy with annexationist aims, so the war continued inconclusively. On October 29, however, Marshal Bazaine, his troops starving and succumbing to epidemic dysentery, surrendered the garrison at Metz. Paris had been encircled as well, despite the harassment fire of irregular franc-tireurs against Prussian targets, and famine and disease loomed as winter approached. On January 28, 1871 the city capitulated and French leaders sought an armistice. The new French National Assembly, led by its provisional executive Adolphe Thiers, then accepted Bismarck’s humiliating terms in the Treaty of Frankfurt, which was signed on May 10: cession of the fortresses of Metz and Strasbourg, as well as the province of Alsace, loss of one-third of the province of Lorraine, including its rich coal and iron-ore deposits, the payment of a five-billion franc indemnity for starting the war, and payment of all German occupation costs. The arresting outcomes of the war were evident to all observers. The war was a devastating blow to French patriotic culture. Disputes over the assignment of blame for the catastrophe poisoned French politics for decades and stoked a furious revanchism, which insisted that the confiscated territories of Alsace-Lorraine be restored to a rehabilitated France. More alarming still was the emergence of a unified German Empire led by militaristic Prussia, a development long feared by European strategists. Industrially strong and culturally provocative yet lacking in domestic concord owing to inherent constitutional inequalities, imperial Germany represented a new and potentially disruptive force in world affairs. These developments encouraged national chauvinists on both sides, whose shrill discourses of friend and foe threatened European stability in an era of growing international competition. The human costs of the war were evident as well. In just six months of combat, France suffered 150,000 killed and wounded. Prussia and her allies lost 117,000. The unprecedented lethality of modern weapons, especially concentrated largebore artillery and overlapping machine gun fire, wiped out whole formations of men, inflicting massive wounds, mutilating the human body, and leaving hundreds dead in infantry assaults to be shoveled into mass graves. The brutalizing effects of this experience, which left long-lasting psychological damage on many of its veterans, led to frightful wartime atrocities. These included the summary execution of franc-tireurs, retaliation burnings of entire villages, the murder and neglect of prisoners of war, and the subjection of cities to starvation and disease to break civilian resistance. Such incidents as these suggested the “total wars” of the twentieth century, which would engulf soldiers and civilians alike.
   See also <>; <>; <>.
    Howard, Michael. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-71 . Oxford: Taylor & Francis, 2001;
    Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003;
    Wetzel, David. A Duel of Giants: Bismarck, Napoleon III, and the Origins of the Franco-Prussian War . Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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