Franco-Prussian War of 1870

Franco-Prussian War of 1870

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The war of 1870 pitted France and allied Prussia against a coalition of German states, from July 1870 to January 1871. It originated in a diplomatic incident between the two countries concerning the succession of the crown of Spain, the ambitious Chancellor Bismarck having skillfully trapped Napoleon III with the famous dispatch from Ems. Badly prepared, this war will turn into a disaster for France, resulting in the loss of the territories ofAlsace Lorraine, which were therefore at the center of Franco-German litigation until 1914. Supreme humiliation, the German Empire would be proclaimed ... in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles on January 18, 1871.

The origins of the war of 1870

Towards the end of the 1860s, a strong Francophobic current reached Prussia. In 1867, Count von Moltke called for a preventive war to "exterminate the hereditary enemy". For Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the war situation offers, on the one hand, a pretext to try to convince the last reluctant German states (Württemberg, Bavaria) of the relevance of German unity and, on the other hand, a bias to reduce - even stifle - French power on a European scale.

The French population does not want war. But the Emperor Napoleon III seeks to regain, both at home and abroad, the prestige lost after several diplomatic setbacks, in particular the Prussian victory over Austria after Sadowa (July 1866) which allows Prussia to dangerously extend its territories. Besides his disapproval of the progress of German unitary nationalism, Prussian military might poses a threat to France.

The Ems Dispatch Trap

The event which precipitates the war is the candidacy of Léopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, cousin of King William I of Prussia, to the throne of Spain left vacant since the revolution of 1868. Under Bismarckian pressure, Leopold accepts to run for the throne on July 3, 1870. France sees in this advent the threatening possibility of a Prusso-Spanish alliance; therefore, the government threatens to go to war if the Hohenzollern candidacy is not withdrawn. The French ambassador to Prussia, Count Benedetti, leaves for Ems - a spa town in north-western Germany where William I is staying - and asks him to order Leopold's withdrawal. Though upset, the monarch gives Benedetti permission to contact his cousin. In his absence, the latter's father, Prince Charles-Antoine, accepts the withdrawal of the candidacy.

Emperor Napoleon III was not satisfied with this retreat. He wants to humiliate Prussia, even at the cost of war. The Duke of Gramont, Minister of Foreign Affairs, then asked William I to write a personal letter of apology to the emperor and to guarantee that Hohenzollern's candidacy for Spain would never be renewed. On July 13, 1870, during an interview with Benedetti, William I rejected these claims in a dispatch known as "Ems". Chancellor Bismarck immediately publishes an abstract of the dispatch, the wording of which, offensive, exasperates Franco-Prussian tension. He knows that this provocation will engender the hoped-for conflict: Prussia is militarily ready and Bismarck is counting on the psychological effect of entering the war to rally the German states to his cause.

The war turns into a disaster for the Second Empire

Following the dispatch of Ems deliberately offensive to France, war was declared on July 19, 1870. The troops then set out and rushed towards the enemy: the Prussians. The French officers, adventurers rather than tacticians, acted in disorder and the Prussians took the advantage, both by their numerical superiority (1,200,000 men against 900,000 French) and by their tactical skill. The war was short (six months) and the French army suffered defeats in practically all the battles which opposed it to the Prussians. Moreover, all battles - except the first - took place on French soil, including the Battle of Reichshoffen which took place on August 6, 1870 in northern Alsace.

The most resounding defeat is undoubtedly that of Sedan which took place on August 31 and 1er September 1870. Napoleon III committed his troops commanded by Mac Mahon against those of Von Moltke. Despite the effectiveness of the French Chassepot rifle and the fighting spirit of the French troops, the Prussians and Bavarians won and Napoleon III was taken prisoner there on September 2. The imperial war became a republican war with the proclamation of the Third Republic on September 4, 1870, two days after the surrender of Sedan.

Peace will not come immediately, however. Bismark's desire to annex Alsace and part of Lorraine pushes the national defense government to continue the war, without a real army. Paris was besieged in October and Gambetta managed to flee in a balloon in an attempt to build up a rescue army in the provinces, while Thiers tried unsuccessfully to obtain support from other European countries. Gambetta formed an army of 600,000 men who defeated the Prussians at Coulmiers (November 9, 1870), took Orleans and went back north. But the capitulation of Bazaine in Metz allows the German army to come to meet the French.

Consequences of the War of 1870

The debacle to the east then opened the door to Paris and the war continued until January 28, 1871, when France admitted defeat and resolved to sign an armistice. On May 10, 1871, peace was ratified by the Frankfurt Treaty. France had lost. She then ceded Alsace and part of Lorraine (assimilated to the Moselle department) except Belfort, had to pay compensation of 5 billion gold francs and, particularly humiliating condition, she had to authorize the parade of German troops on the Champs -Elysées. It won't be the last time ...

With the defeat of 1870 the Second Empire darkened and the Napoleonic dream of French hegemony in Europe. King William of Prussia becomes Emperor of Germany, achieving the political unification of the German states. This war exacerbated nationalisms and stirred France with a revenge current and it was one of the causes, behind the scenes, of the First World War.


- LECAILLON, Jean-François, The French and the War of 1870, Paris, 2004.

- MILZA, Pierre, The terrible year: September 1870 - March 1871, the Franco-Prussian war Perrin, Paris, 2009.

- ROTH, François, The war of 1870, Fayard, Paris, 1990.

Video: Franco Prussian War


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