Bismarck’s War: the Franco-Prussian war and the making of modern Europe


Although the often-forgotten Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 was launched by the French Empire of Napoleon III, the truly central figure in the conflict – as the title of this new book by historian Rachel Chrastil suggests – was Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. In the opening chapters, Chrastil summarises how Bismarck’s earlier wars against Denmark and Austria had already given Prussia a dominant position in Germany, by absorbing the territories of Schleswig-Holstein, Hanover, Nassau, Hesse-Cassel, Hesse-Homburg, and Frankfurt. All the remaining states north of the Main were part of a Prussian-dominated North German Confederation, leaving Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Darmstadt as the only German states with any real sovereignty.

With Germany expanding at such an aggressive rate, it was clear that conflict with France was only a matter of time. Tension increased as Napoleon III’s attempts to follow up Bismarck’s deliberately vague hints about territorial concessions in the Rhineland and Luxembourg in 1866/1867 provoked the south German states into agreeing to put their armies under Prussian command in the event of war with France. Prussia now had the equivalent of a further three army corps on mobilisation, bringing her total manpower to virtually twice that of the French.

However, even when France declared war on 19 July 1870, there was still considerable mistrust between Prussia and the south German states, especially Bavaria, a mistrust that manifested itself in the form of cartography. As the author notes, ‘Bavaria and the other south German states were under such suspicion that Moltke, the Prussian commander-in-chief, did not allow their officers below the rank of general to have Prussia’s high-quality 1:80,000 maps (they were given only 1:250,000-scale maps).’

Napoleon III attempted to introduce a conscription system based on the Prussian model in order to even the numerical odds, but met fierce resistance from his generals, who limited the reforms which were forced through. These increased the numbers of reservists, to bring the army up to 800,000 men on mobilisation. Able-bodied men exempted from conscription were liable for service in the Garde Mobile, a poorly trained militia with a nominal strength of 400,000.

In action, most Garde Mobile units proved to be less effective than the francs-tireurs, irregular forces raised from civilian rifle clubs, who fought a bitter guerrilla campaign as the Prussians advanced into France, ambushing supply columns, destroying vital bridges, and raiding isolated outposts.

The efficient German mobilisation, which succeeded in moving 384,000 men with their horses and artillery to their assembly areas within two weeks, is contrasted with the chaotic French system, which left tens of thousands of reservists scattered across France vainly trying to reach their units. Moltke had a two-to-one overall numerical superiority, but at key points his forces outnumbered Napoleon’s armies by an overwhelming four to one.

The Germans also had an unexpected advantage in that Napoleon III was in constant pain from gallstones which, combined with the side-effects of the opium prescribed by his doctors, made him incapable of exercising effective command. As a result, there was no one able to impose a clear overall strategy on the quarrelling French generals.

French assumption that they could even the odds by bringing Austria-Hungary, Bavaria, and Denmark into the war against Prussia were wildly optimistic – all three states were simply not prepared to risk further disasters after their defeats in 1864-1866. Meanwhile, any British sympathy for France was largely destroyed when Bismarck leaked Napoleon III’s proposals dating from 1866 to support Prussia’s dominance of a united Germany in exchange for a French takeover of Belgium and Luxembourg. Eventually, British neutrality was confirmed by treaties with both sides which guaranteed Belgian independence.

Chamber pot

In the early stages of the fighting, the French scored a minor victory, taking Saarbrücken on 2 August, but were unable to exploit this success as three German armies were already advancing into France. Prussian victories at Wissembourg (4 August), Wörth and Spicheren (both 6 August), began a steady erosion of French morale. After these defeats, the French field army was split: the Army of the Rhine under Marshal François Bazaine at Metz, with Marshal MacMahon at Châlons organising a new ‘Army of Châlons’.

Bazaine’s attempt to break out from Metz was defeated at Mars-la-Tour on 16 August and Gravelotte-St-Privat two days later. Napoleon III and MacMahon tried to fight their way through to Metz, but they were defeated at Beaumont on 30 August and fell back to the fortress town of Sedan, which was quickly surrounded. As the hard-bitten General Ducrot put it: Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdés (‘We’re in a chamber pot and about to be shat on’). The French made repeated attempts to break out on 1 September, but all were beaten back with heavy losses. The next day, Napoleon III recognised the inevitable and authorised a formal surrender.

The Second Empire collapsed as soon as news of the surrender of Sedan reached Paris. On 4 September, a provisional government calling itself the Government of National Defence proclaimed the formation of the Third Republic. Chrastil explains how the seemingly decisive German victory at Sedan failed to end the war, as there was no legitimate French authority with which to negotiate a peace treaty. The new French republican government had no electoral mandate, Napoleon III was a prisoner, and the Empress Eugénie was in exile in England.

However, the Emperor had never formally abdicated, and the French army was still bound by its oath of allegiance to the defunct imperial regime (which was also still popular with much of the French peasantry). When Bismarck’s tentative negotiations with the new French government broke down, the Germans advanced on Paris, surrounding the city on 19 September.

In response, the French government imposed a levée en masse (universal conscription) to raise new forces in the provinces, including the Army of the Loire, which surprised and defeated a much smaller Bavarian force at Coulmiers on 9 November, before retaking Orleans. French attempts to exploit this victory ended with defeats at Beaune-la-Rolande (28 November) and Villiers (30 November).

Thereafter, there was an unbroken run of German successes – they broke the raw Army of the Loire in a two-day battle near Orleans (3-4 December), and recaptured the city. The French then formed two more armies – another Army of the Loire and a new Army of the East that was ordered to raise the Prussian siege of Belfort. The latter collapsed after being defeated in the three-day Battle of the Lisaine in mid-January 1871, and its remnants were interned in Switzerland.

At the same time, the French raised yet another army – the Army of the North, under the able General Louis Faidherbe. He won several minor victories against smaller German forces, but each success came at the cost of higher casualties to his poorly trained troops than he was able to inflict on the enemy. In January 1871, Faidherbe was ordered to raise the siege of Paris, but he was heavily defeated by the Germans at St Quentin on 19 January, which destroyed his army as an effective fighting force.

A final sortie by the Paris garrison was made on 19-20 January, but was beaten back with the loss of more than 4,000 men. By this time, the situation in the capital was critical, with worsening food shortages – eventually dogs, cats, rats, and most of the animals in the zoo were killed to supplement the dwindling rations. Chrastil includes an account of a dinner with a menu that included meat from Castor the elephant, which was described as ‘appetising, pink, firm, with a fine grain and little flecks of the purest white’. The city finally surrendered on 28 January, which effectively marked the end of the war.

Otto von Bismarck looks on as Prussian king Wilhelm I is proclaimed German Emperor at the Palace of Versailles, January 1871, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A matter of time

Well before this, it was apparent that a German victory was only a matter of time – and that the balance of power in Europe had shifted dramatically. Germany’s new ‘Great Power’ status was emphasised by the proclamation of Wilhelm I of Prussia as Kaiser Wilhelm I of the new Deutsches Kaiserreich (German Empire) in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles on 18 January 1871.

An armistice came into effect following the surrender of Paris, and the French finally agreed to ratify the Treaty of Frankfurt on 10 May that same year. The Reich gained Alsace-Lorraine and a war indemnity of five billion francs (to be paid in full within five years). It also gained the lasting enmity of France – although this was relatively unimportant while the astute Bismarck controlled Germany’s diplomacy. However, after his enforced retirement in 1890, his successor Kaiser Wilhelm II’s erratic foreign policy increased this hatred, which became a significant factor in the outbreak of the First World War.

Just before his death in 1898, Bismarck made an uncannily accurate prediction, warning that: ‘[The Battle of] Jena came 20 years after the death of Frederick the Great; the crash will come 20 years after my departure if things go on like this.’

Chrastil is clearly an accomplished historian, but the flow of the narrative sometimes suffers from an awkward and disjointed mix of military, political, and social history. At times, it feels that several different books are fighting for dominance. Nonetheless, this is the first new book on the Franco-Prussian War for 20 years and is a valuable addition to the coverage of an often-neglected conflict.

Rachel Chrastil
Allen Lane, hbk (£30)
ISBN 978-0241419199