Modern France: The Franco-Prussian War, Sedan and the Commune [1870 CE -1871 CE]

A prominent American I knew received an invitation to attend a French Government commemoration of the French Revolution. I congratulated him, but responded to his enthusiastic comments regarding how the Revolution had shaped current French society and politics by suggesting that the events responsible for that had probably taken place in 1871 CE, not 1789 CE.

“What happened in 1871?” he asked.

“The Franco-Prussian War ended” chimed in his carefully educated wife.

“Yes,” I said, “and the Paris Commune was suppressed. One of the essential ironies of the Franco-Prussian War was that the only city the French Army took and held was Paris. It set the tone for French life and politics thereafter.”

The French thought they would win the conflict with Germany that was clearly coming to a head as 1870 progressed. They declared war on Bismarck’s Prussia, planning to advance to Berlin.

Bismarck had adroitly used the crises leading up to the Franco-Prussian War to push for German unification under Prussian leadership. He put together a significant coalition of German states to fight France. The Germans crossed the Rhine into France before French mobilization was substantively underway.

The French attributed Prussia’s recent 19th century string of victorious conflicts in Europe to its use of breech loading rifles, and the French military had equipped its troops with breech loading rifles they considered to be of better design. In addition, the French high command had a secret weapon: an early machine gun called the mitrailleuse.

As World War I was to show, the machine gun could revolutionize the battlefield, but in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871 the French command seemed to view it as a kind of light artillery. Anyway, they generally kept the mitrailleuse secret from most of their own men as well as the enemy.

The French were also confident because they were being led by a Napoleon. It did not matter that he was dubiously the son of Bonaparte’s younger brother Louis. Napoleon III had proven himself on the field during the Battle of Magenta in Italy in 1859. His genuine horror at the slaughter was conveniently ignored, as was the fact that his subsequent campaigns in the dining room and in the boudoir had left him in no shape for campaigns in the field: he could not sit astride a horse, and often found it agonizing to ride in a carriage.

The Germans quickly bottled up one French army in Metz. Marshall MacMahon, accompanied by Napoleon III, led the roughly 120,000 strong Army of Châlons towards Metz in an attempt to break the siege.

After being defeated in the Battle of Beaumont, the French relief forces got as far as the town of Sedan before the Germans caught up with them. The French high command issued instructions: “Repos pour toute l’armée demain 1er septembre“ [‘Rest for the whole army tomorrow September 1’]. The junior officers were marking German campfires on their maps: they made a circle around the French position.

On the 1st of September, surrounded by German troops and artillery, the French were utterly defeated. Napoleon III, the high command, and approximately 103,000 French troops were captured. Napoleon III had bravely if vainly sought death on the battlefield.

Metz surrendered a while after the debacle at Sedan. The Germans eventually pushed the potentially successful French Army of the East into Switzerland, where it was rounded up and interned by the relentlessly neutral Swiss.

Bismarck was ready for peace. The citizens of Paris were not ready to surrender, however, and in March of 1871 set up the revolutionary government of the Commune.

Bismarck was largely indifferent as to what form of French government surrendered to him, but he had no interest in losing any more German lives as a result of Gallic internal squabbling.

After a round of tit-for-tat executions between the Communards and the French government in German captivity, the Commune executed two French generals who had tried unsuccessfully to remove cannons defending the city, and several dozen people of similarly high rank, including the Archbishop of Paris. The Communards killed some 66 or 68 of their prisoners.

On 21 May the Germans loosed re-armed French prisoners of war on Paris. They took the city, probably killing between 17,000 and 35,000 fellow Frenchmen [nobody kept accurate count], and quickly established a new government that surrendered to the Germans with celerity. They also deported 4,500 suspected revolutionaries to remote French territories in the Pacific, with many exiled to New Caledonia.

Napoleon III found the death that eluded him at Sedan in January of 1873 after a number of operations for gallstones in England. His son the Prince Imperial died in South Africa at the age of 23 in 1879, speared by Zulus.

The German Empire was proclaimed in January 1871 in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Bismarck went on to engineer more than a generation of peace in Europe, based on the simple expedient of keeping the French from making friends and allies. Europe’s population grew faster than it ever had before, or since.

The French erected the imposing if architecturally vapid basilica of Sacré-Cœur to take the sting out of defeat by the Germans and add piquancy to victory over the socialists, siting it on top of the neighborhood most radical in its support for the Commune.

Further Reading:

• Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War provides a solid English language introduction to this often analyzed conflict.

• John Merriman’s Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune provides a comprehensive and balanced summary of its subject. Robert Tombs’ The War Against Paris 1871 details the French army’s conquest of the capital. Marx and Lenin wrote on the Paris Commune [The Civil War in France]; Alistair Horne’s The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-1871 provides additional perspective.

• Zola’s La débâcle is vivid and informed, if highly dramatized, and far superior to Guy de Maupassant’s unhealthy effusions on the war and its aftermath.


4 thoughts on “Modern France: The Franco-Prussian War, Sedan and the Commune [1870 CE -1871 CE]

    1. Chris,

      The influence of the debacle at Sedan had major impact on the actions of the French Army in WWI. In addition to the battles you cite, the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War underlay the heavy casualties of the underappreciated Battle of the Frontiers in August 1914, especially with regards to ordering reckless French attacks without adequate intelligence or preparation. The resultant failure of the French command and excessive losses among their troops were in large part caused by lessons mis-learned from 1870-1871. In many ways, the French army never recovered from the Franco-Prussian War and the Battle of the Frontiers. Steve


  1. Napoleon III was a mere shadow of the original. If he couldn’t ride astride OR in a carrriage, I suppose he could have been carried in a litter by eight or ten husky individuals. The poor guy probably had terrible hemmoroids besides gall stones! A literal pain in the butt.


    1. Debra,

      His major medical problems appear to have been genito-urinary and renal, the result of amorous infections and excessive dietary indulgence. Though his shortcomings are all too clear in retrospect, he is far from the worst leader the French have suffered. That might be setting the bar a bit low. He was however brave, dashing from hot spot to hot spot during the Battle of Sedan. And his ultimate demise at the hands of British surgeons might elicit sympathy, as might the Prince Royal’s at the hands of Zulu warriors badly underestimated by British Imperial officers. The slaughter at Magenta in Italy seems to have genuinely horrified him. He could barely manage peace. He was not fit for war. Whether that speaks well or ill of him can be debated endlessly. Steve


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