Friday, July 19, 2013

This Day in History: Jul 19, 1870: Franco-Prussian War: France declares war on Prussia.

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The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War (German: Deutsch–Französischer Krieg), often referred to in France as the War of 1870[6][page needed] (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), was a significant conflict pitting the Second French Empire against the Kingdom of Prussia. Prussia was aided by the North German Confederation, crafted in 1867 after Prussia's victory against the Austrian Empire and of which it was a leading member, and the South German states of Baden, Württemberg, Bavaria and Hesse-Darmstadt. In 1870 France mobilized and declared war on Prussia only, but the other German states quickly joined on Prussia's side. The conflict marked the outbreak of rising tension between the two powers, following the failure of Napoleon III's plan to annex Luxembourg, an event which ended a relatively balanced relationship with Otto von Bismarck. Relations further soured because of the growing influence exerted by Prussia on the southern German states of the former German Confederation, with things coming to a head over the issue of a Hohenzollern candidate for the vacant Spanish throne in 1868. The public release of the Ems Dispatch, which played up alleged insults between the Prussian king and the French ambassador, inflamed public opinion on both sides. The war and its resulting German victory brought about many important economic, political and social events that had a lasting impact on European and world developments.


It soon became evident that the Prussian and German forces were superior, due in part to their efficient use of industrial technology; Prussia possessed superior Krupp steel artillery and internally had the fourth densest rail network in the world at the time, while France had the fifth.[7] A series of swift Prussian and German victories in eastern France culminated in the Battle of Sedan, at which Napoleon III and his whole army were captured on 2 September. Yet this did not end the war, as the Third Republic was declared in Paris on 4 September 1870 and French resistance continued under the Government of National Defence and Adolphe Thiers. Over a five-month campaign, the German forces defeated the newly recruited French armies in a series of battles fought across northern France. Following a prolonged siege, noted for the first use of anti-air artillery, Paris fell on 28 January 1871. Ten days before the fall of the city, the German states proclaimed their union as the German Empire under the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, uniting Germany as a nation-state. During the time of the Paris Commune uprising, the final Treaty of Frankfurt was signed 10 May 1871. The settlement gave Prussia the French territories of Alsace and part of Lorraine to become part of the new Germany.

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The Franco-Prussian War was the most important conflict fought in Europe between the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War, ending with the complete victory of Prussia and its allies. In France, internal discontent intensified to cause the downfall of Napoleon III and the end of the Second French Empire. This imperial regime was subsequently replaced by the temporarily subordinate French Third Republic while the Paris Commune uprising after France's defeat is regarded as a landmark event in the revolutionary seizure of power by the masses. The most important consequence was the unification of Germany into an empire in its own right, with the newly industrial nation shifting the European balance of power and maintaining great authority in international political relations during the following decades. Along with the unification of Italy, this resolved territorial issues that had kept nations embroiled in conflicts at the heart of Europe. However, imperialist ambitions of these countries would spur further conflicts, as France’s determination to regain Alsace-Lorraine would keep it and Germany constantly poised for war. After a tense period of peace, the events are considered a precursor to World War I, as a result of which France would recover its lost lands in the Treaty of Versailles.




The causes of the Franco–Prussian War are deeply rooted in the events surrounding the German unification. In the aftermath of the Austro–Prussian War (1866), Prussia had annexed numerous territories and formed the North German Confederation. This new power destabilized the European balance of power established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon III, then the emperor of France, demanded compensations in Belgium and on the left bank of the Rhine to secure France's strategic position, which the Prussian chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, flatly refused.[8] Prussia then turned its attention towards the south of Germany, where it sought to incorporate the southern German kingdoms, Bavaria, Wurttemberg, Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt, into a unified Prussia-dominated Germany. France was strongly opposed to the annexation of the southern German states, which would have significantly strengthened the Prussian military.[9]

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In Prussia, a war against France was deemed both inevitable and necessary to arouse German nationalism in those states that would allow the unification of a great German empire. This aim was epitomized by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck's quote: "I knew that a Franco–Prussian War must take place before a united Germany was formed."[10] Bismarck also knew that France should be regarded as the aggressor in the conflict to bring the southern German states to side with Prussia, hence giving Germans numerical superiority.[11] Many Germans also viewed the French as the traditional destabilizer of Europe, and sought to weaken France to prevent further breaches of the peace.[12]


However, the immediate cause of the war resides in the candidacy of a Prussian prince to the throne of Spain. France feared encirclement by an alliance between Prussia and Spain. The Hohenzollern prince's candidacy was withdrawn under French diplomatic pressure, but Otto von Bismarck goaded the French into declaring war by altering a telegram sent by William I. Releasing the Ems Telegram to the public, Bismarck made it sound as if the king had treated the French envoy in a demeaning fashion. Six days later, France declared war on Prussia and the southern German states immediately sided with Prussia.[11] In addition to the diplomatic insult, Napoleon III and his Prime Minister, Émile Ollivier were also motivated to declare war in an attempt to solve internal political problems.[13]

Opposing forces


The French Army comprised approximately 400,000 regular soldiers, some of them veterans of previous French campaigns in the Crimean War, Algeria, the Franco–Austrian War in Italy, and in the Franco–Mexican War. The infantry were equipped with the breech-loading Chassepot rifle, one of the most modern mass-produced 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 metres (4,900 ft) with a short reloading time. The artillery was equipped with rifled, muzzle-loaded Lahitte "4-pounder" (actual weight of shot: 4 kg or 8.8 lb) guns. In addition, the army was equipped with a precursor to the machine-gun: the mitrailleuse, which could unleash significant, dangerous, concentrated firepower, with a weakness of having short range and relative immobility and thus prone to being easily overrun. The mitrailleuse 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 Francois Achille Bazaine, Patrice de Mac-Mahon, and Jules Trochu among others.


The Prussian Army was composed not of regulars but conscripts. Service was compulsory for all of the men of military age, and thus Prussia and its North and South German allies could mobilise 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 Battle of Königgrätz fame, which was by this time 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) steel breech-loading cannons being issued to Prussian artillery batteries. Firing a contact-detonated shell filled with zinc balls and explosives, the Krupp gun had a range of 4,500 metres (14,800 ft) and blistering rate of fire compared to the French bronze 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. In practice, a chief of staff was a much more important figure in the Prussian Army than in any other army, because he had the right to appeal against his superior to the commander of the next highest formation. Thus, for example, the Crown Prince was unable to contradict the advice of his Chief of Staff, General Leonhard, Count von Blumenthal, for fear of a direct appeal (in this case) to his father, the King.


Given that France maintained a strong standing army, and that Prussia and the other German states would need weeks to mobilise 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; German tactics emphasised encirclement battles and using artillery offensively whenever possible.

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Summary of military events

The efficiency of German mobilization contrasted with confusion and delay on the French side. Germany was able to deliver 380,000 troops to the forward zone within 18 days of the start of mobilization on 14 July, while many French units reached the front either late or with inadequate supplies. The German and French armies that then confronted each other were both grouped into right and left wings. After suffering a check by the Crown Prince and General von Blumenthal at the Battle of Wörth on 6 August 1870, the commander of the French right (south) wing, Marshal Patrice MacMahon, retreated westward. That same day, about 40 miles (64 km) to the northwest, the commander of the French left wing, Marshal Achille Bazaine, was dislodged from near Saarbrücken and fell back westward to the fortress of Metz. His further retreat was checked by the German right wing in two blundering battles on 16 and 18 August, respectively (the Battles of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte), and he then took refuge behind the defenses of Metz until forced by starvation to surrender on 29 October.


The French right wing, commanded by MacMahon and accompanied by Napoleon III himself, attempted to relieve Bazaine but was itself surrounded and trapped by the Germans in the disastrous Battle of Sedan on 31 August. Encircled, the 83,000 French troops with Napoleon III and MacMahon surrendered on 2 September. Since Bazaine's army was still bottled up in Metz, the result of the war was virtually decided by this surrender. French resistance was carried on against desperate odds by a new government of national defense, which assumed power in Paris on 4 September 1870, and proclaimed the deposition of the emperor and the establishment of the Third Republic. On 19 September the Germans began to besiege Paris. Jules Favre, foreign minister in the new government, went to negotiate with Bismarck, but the negotiations were broken off when he found that Germany demanded both Alsace and Lorraine regions. Léon Gambetta, the leading figure in the provisional government, organized new French armies in the countryside after escaping from besieged Paris in a balloon. These engaged but could not defeat the German forces. Bazaine capitulated at Metz with his 140,000 troops intact on 27 October, and Paris surrendered on 28 January 1871.


Aftermath and legacy

Prussian reaction and withdrawal

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The Prussian Army held a brief victory parade in Paris on 17 February, and Bismarck honoured the armistice by sending trainloads of food into Paris and withdrawing Prussian forces to the east of the city, which would be withdrawn as soon as France agreed to pay five billion francs in war indemnity.[50] At the same time, Prussian forces were withdrawn from France and concentrated in the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. An exodus occurred from Paris as some 200,000 people, predominantly middle-class, left the city for the countryside. Paris was quickly re-supplied with free food and fuel by the United Kingdom and several accounts recall life in the city settling back to normal.[citation needed]

French reaction to the defeat

National elections produced an overwhelmingly conservative government, which, under President Adolphe Thiers, established itself in Versailles, fearing that the political climate of Paris was too dangerous to set up the capital in the city. The new government, formed mainly of conservative, middle-class rural politicians, passed a variety of laws which greatly angered the population of Paris, such as the controversial Law of Maturities, which decreed that all rents in Paris, which had been postponed since September 1870, and all public debts across France, which had been given a moratorium in November 1870, were to be paid in full, with interest, within 48 hours. Paris shouldered a disproportionately large amount of the indemnity payments made to the Prussians, and the population of the city quickly grew resentful of the Versailles government.


With Paris under the protection of the revolutionary National Guard and few regular soldiers in the city, left-wing leaders established themselves in the Hôtel de Ville and established the Paris Commune, which was repressed by Versailles with the loss of 20,000 lives after portions of the city burned down.

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The defeat sparked an unpredented wave of war commemorations organised at local levels, with war memorials being erected across France in memory of those who had died in the war. The war memorials at Mars-la-Tour, Bazeilles and Belfort became particular focuses for remembrance.[51]


In the 1890s, the Dreyfus affair developed out of the aftermath of the war when confidential French military information was discovered in a wastebasket at the German Embassy in Paris by an agent of French military counter-intelligence. An Alsatian-born French captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was also Jewish, was framed for this action and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. He was finally exonerated and freed by 1900.
The Treaty of Frankfurt, in addition to giving Germany the city of Strasbourg and the fortification at Metz, made Germany the possessor of Alsace and the northern portion of Lorraine (Moselle), both of which (especially Alsace) were home to a majority of ethnic Germans and contained 80% of French iron ore and machine shops.[citation needed] The loss of this territory was a source of resentment in France for years to come, and contributed to public support for World War I, in which France vowed to take back control of Alsace-Lorraine. This revanchism created a permanent state of crisis between Germany and France (French–German enmity), which would be one of the contributing factors leading to World War I.

Paris Commune

The Paris Commune was a government that briefly ruled Paris from March 18 to May 28, 1871. It existed before the split between anarchists and Marxists had taken place, and it is hailed by both groups as the first assumption of power by the working class during the Industrial Revolution. The Commune was the result of an uprising in Paris after France was defeated in the war. This uprising was chiefly caused by the disaster in the war and the growing discontent among French workers.

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German unification and power


The creation of a unified German Empire ended the "balance of power" that had been created with the Congress of Vienna after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Germany quickly established itself as the main power in continental Europe with the most powerful and professional army in the world. Although Great Britain remained the dominant world power, British involvement in European affairs during the late 19th century was very limited, allowing Germany to exercise great influence over the European mainland. Besides, the Crown Prince's marriage with the daughter of Queen Victoria was only the most prominent of several German–British relationships.

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The Polish aspect

In the Prussian province of Posen, with a large Polish population, there was strong support for the French and angry demonstrations at news of Prussian-German victories—a clear manifestation of Polish nationalist feeling. Calls were also made for Polish recruits to desert from the Prussian Army—though these went mainly unheeded. An alarming report on the Posen situation, sent to Bismarck on 16 August 1870, led to the quartering of reserve troop contingents in the restive province.[52] The Franco–Prussian War thus turned out to be a significant event also in German–Polish relations, marking the beginning of a prolonged period of repressive measures by the authorities and efforts at Germanisation.

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Taken from: [19.07.2013]

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