Franco Prussian War


John French

The vacant throne of Spain was offered to a prince of the south German state of Hohenzollern and France feared encirclement by a German empire, as had happened before in the 16th Century.  The French sabre rattling was sufficient for the prince to withdraw his candidacy.  The French wanted the Prussians to undertake never to agree to the candidacy of any future prince of Hohenzollern.  The Prussian King William did not reply.  Bismarck the Prussian Prime Minister having received a telegram about the events published a truncated version of events by way of a propaganda exercise.  He knew the consequences of this could be war, but gambled that Britain and Russia would not intervene and that the German nationalistic feelings would be aroused sufficiently when they heard about the French attempts to humiliate the Germans.  Bismarck hoped that pressure from the major powers would cause the French to climb down, in which case France would have suffered only a political defeat.  Instead of which, Bismarck’s publication left the French fuming and they declared war on the North German Confederation on 13 July 1870.  The French were then to suffer a military defeat.  The French army was not as well prepared as it would have had people believe, and they also thought that the south German states of Bavaria, Baden and Wurtemberg would remain neutral.  When this did not prove to be the case the French found themselves faced by superior numbers.    

In September Napoleon III and his army of 100,000 men surrendered at Sedan.  It was to a certain extent seen by the French as the defeat of an Imperial regime and  its army rather than the defeat of France.  When a Republican Government was formed there were still plenty of Reservists which could be called upon to continue the fight.  There were a  few remnants of the Imperial army, cavalry squadrons who had escaped the net, infantry regiments recalled from Algeria and Italy.  These were added to the new forces.  The struggle was to continue until February of 1871, when the army of Bourbaki was interned in Switzerland and a Peace Treaty was finally signed.  As a result France lost the territories of Alsace and Lorraine and the scene was set for further conflicts of two World Wars.

The Franco-Prussian War saw the end of the French Empire and the start of the fledgling German Empire.  It also saw a few ‘firsts’ - the first use of breech-loading rifles by the main forces of both sides:  The first use in Europe of a machine gun, the French Mitrailleuse, even though it was not used to its best advantage:  The first use of massed breech-loading artillery.  

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