The war between France and Prussia in 1870-71 came to define an entire era of European politics. It not only gave rise to a unified and fiercely militaristic Germany, but France’s defeat and loss of territory left a bitter legacy that exploded in World War One. Meanwhile, the subsequent French retribution of 1919 went on to create the sense of injustice that became Hitler’s rallying cry.
The decisive clash of the war took place on 1 September 1870 at Sedan, where an entire French army, along with Emperor Napoleon III, was forced to surrender after a bruising defeat.
The conflict was the culmination of a decade of political and military maneuvering between France’s emperor, the nephew of the original Napoleon, and Prussia’s Minister-President Otto von Bismarck. In that time, the balance of power had decisively shifted in Prussia’s favour following its successful war against Austria in 1866 and the disastrous French military campaign in Mexico.
Bismarck had also got closer than any man in history to unifying the various nation-states of modern-day Germany, by creating a strong North German Confederation. Now, only the southern states, such as the old Catholic kingdom of Bavaria, remained outside of his control, and he knew that the best way to get them in line was through antagonism with their historic enemy – France.
Bismarck pulls a Machiavellian move
In the end, events played into Bismarck’s hands perfectly. In 1870, a succession crisis in France’s southern neighbour, Spain, led to the proposal that a Hohenzollern, the ancient ruling family of Prussia, should succeed the Spanish throne – something that Napoleon interpreted as an aggressive Prussian move to encircle France.
After a relative of Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm I withdrew his candidacy for the Spanish throne on 12 July that year, the French ambassador to Paris met with the kaiser in the town of Bad Ems the following day. There, the ambassador asked for Wilhelm’s assurance that a member of his family would never again be a candidate for the Spanish throne. The kaiser politely but firmly refused to give it.
An account of the incident – which became known as the Ems Telegram or Ems Dispatch – was sent to Bismarck, who, in one of his most Machiavellian moves, altered its text. The minister-president removed details of courtesies in the two men’s encounter and transformed the relatively innocuous telegram into an inflammatory near-declaration of war.
Bismarck then leaked the altered account to the French press, and the French public reacted exactly how he would have hoped. After a huge crowd marched through Paris demanding war, it was duly declared on the North German Confederation on 19 July 1870.
In response, the southern German states joined Bismarck in the fight against France, promising that Germany would fight as a united nation for the first time in history.
On paper, the two sides were roughly equal. The Germans could muster as many as one million men, with a formidable body of artillery, but the French soldiers were veterans of a number of recent conflicts going back to the Crimean War, and possessed state-of-the-art Chassepot rifles and Mitrailleuse machine guns – one of the first models of machine guns used in war.
In practice, however, revolutionary Prussian tactics gave Bismarck’s side an advantage. While the overall responsibility for French war planning rested with the erratic figure of Napoleon, the Prussians had a novel general staff system, lead by the great military innovator Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke.
Moltke’s tactics were based on encirclement – inspired by Hannibal’s victory at Cannae – and the use of railways for lightning troop movements, and he had already used these tactics to great effect during the earlier war against Austria. The French war plans, meanwhile, were overly defensive, and completely underestimated the swiftness of Prussian mobilisation.
Under pressure from the general population, however, the French attempted a feeble stab into German territory, only to find that the Prussian armies were far closer than they had anticipated. Their slightly panicked withdrawal was followed by a series of frontier battles, in which they came off worse, despite the superior range of their rifles causing problems for the attackers.
After the huge, bloody and tightly-fought Battle of Gravelotte, the remains of the French border armies were forced to retreat to the fortress city of Metz, where they quickly fell under siege from more than 150,000 Prussian troops.
Napoleon goes to the rescue
Upon learning of this defeat and the perilous new situation of the French forces, Napoleon and French Marshal Patrice de MacMahon formed the new Army of Châlons. They then marched towards Metz with this army in order to relieve the siege and link the scattered French forces.
On their way, however, they found themselves blocked by Moltke’s Prussian Third Army. After coming off worse in a minor battle at Beaumont, they were forced to withdraw to the town of Sedan, which offered Moltke a perfect chance to achieve his encirclement strategy.
By the morning of 1 September, Moltke had divided his army into three parts and completely cut off the French escape from Sedan, commenting that Napoleon’s men would now have to fight where they stood.
For MacMahon, who had been ordered to break out by his emperor, only one escape route appeared to offer itself up – the area around La Moncelle, a small fortified town on the outskirts of Sedan. The Prussians also saw this as the place where a French attack would come from, and placed some of their finest troops there to plug the gap.
The fighting started, however, with the Germans on the attack. At 4am, General Ludwig von der Tann led a brigade across pontoon bridges into the satellite town of Bazeilles on the French right flank and vicious fighting soon broke out.
Even at this early stage it was clear that the battle would be no walkover for Moltke’s forces; Tann was only able to gain a foothold on the town’s southernmost reaches and, five hours later, when the world-famous German artillery was brought in for support, the action was still undecided.
The tide turns
It was at La Moncelle, however, where the battle would be won or lost, and the German high command anticipated the attempted French breakout by ordering an attack by thousands of Bavarian troops. There, MacMahon was wounded in the opening exchanges, and his command passed to Auguste Ducrot, another experienced veteran, amidst the confusion.
Ducrot was on the verge of ordering a retreat when Emmanuel de Wimpffen, another high-ranking general, produced a commission from Napoleon’s government stating that he was under orders to take over should MacMahon be incapacitated.
Once Ducrot backed down, Wimpffen ordered all of the French troops at his disposal to launch themselves against the Saxons and Bavarians at La Moncelle. Quickly, the attack began to gain impetus and the waves of French infantry drove back the attackers and their guns. Simultaneously, however, Bazeilles finally fell under Tann’s assault, and fresh waves of Prussian soldiers began to descend on La Moncelle.
With the French counterattack now wilting, the Prussian soldiers were able to train their guns back onto the enemy, and Wimpffen’s men around Sedan began to suffer from a brutal barrage of shells.
“We are in the chamber pot”
The Prussian net began to close; by midday the entirety of MacMahon’s army was surrounded, with no means of escape possible. One gloriously foolish attempt to break out by the cavalry was doomed to failure, and France’s General Jean Auguste Margueritte was killed in the opening moments of the first charge.
As another French general, Pierre Bosquet, said, while watching the charge of the light brigade 16 years earlier, “It is magnificent, but it is not war, it is madness”. Ducrot, who would escape Prussian captivity to fight again in the siege of Paris, came up with a memorable phrase of his own as the last hopes of escape died away:
“We are in the chamber pot and about to be shat upon.”
By the end of the day, Napoleon, who had been present throughout the fighting, reached an agreement with his generals that their position was hopeless. The French had already lost 17,000 men to the Prussians’ toll of 8,000, and now they were facing either surrender or slaughter.
On 2 September, Napoleon approached Moltke, Bismarck and King Wilhelm bearing a white flag, and surrendered himself and his entire army. Defeated and bereft, he was left to talk sadly with Bismarck, a moment imagined in a famous painting by Wilhelm Camphausen.
With Napoleon gone, his empire collapsed in a bloodless revolution two days later – though the new Provisional Govenrment opted to continue the war with Prussia.
In truth, however, with the first and second armies still holed up in Metz and the Army of Chalons led away from Sedan as prisoners, the war as a contest was over. Napoleon was allowed to flee to England, and the Prussian armies continued remorselessly on to Paris, which fell in January 1871, an event that preceded the announcement of full German Unification in the Palace of Versailles.
The impact of Sedan was deeply felt. A hammer blow for French prestige, their loss of territory to the Prussians left a legacy of lasting bitterness that would manifest itself in the summer of 1914.
As for the Germans, who would celebrate Sedantag until 1919, the success of their military adventures led to an aggressive tradition of militarism. The opening salvoes of World War One were planned by none other than the nephew of Moltke, a man desperate to emulate his uncle’s achievements and bring glory to the new nation of Germany through military victory.