Prelude to War
By 1870, Prussia had already established a dominant position for itself among German states and was the leader of the North German Confederation.It was under Otto von Bismarck’s political, Albrecht von Roon and Helmuth von Moltke’s military leadership. At the beginning of the century, Prussia experienced several embarassing defeats again Napoleon’s France. After these defeats, with the efforts of some of the Prussian statesmen, such as Karl Freiherr vom Stein and Karl August Fürst von Hardenberg, a series of reforms took place. These were adminstrative, military, social, educational and economic reforms.
Until 1848, Prussia did not participate any wars, which allowed it to recover from the devastating causes of the Napoleonic Wars. After long years in peace, Prussia fought two wars against Denmark over Schleswig-Holstein region. First one was between 1848-1851 and the second one was in 1864.In the second war, Prussian armies, along with Austrian armies, decisively defeated Denmark, thus forcing it to cede the region to Germans for good. Despite the Prussian-Austrian alliance in this war, there had long been a rivalry between these two states for the control of Germany. The conflicts resulted in the eruption of Austro-Prussian War in 1866. Even though most German states sided with Austria in the war, Prussia, with its more technologically advanced and disciplined troops, came out victorious. In the Peace of Prague (1866), Prussia annexed several Austrian allies in Northern Germany and, with the participation of its own allies, formed the North German Confederation.The war set Prussia as the undisputed leader of Germany but there was still a more powerful danger for it, France.
In 1870, France was under the leadership of Emperor Napoleon III. Even though Napoleon was a smart diplomat and statesman, who sought to empower his country’s position by expanding over the Rhine River and into Belgium, Bismarck had been able to keep him under control thus far. Bismarck wished to force France to be the aggressor side, so that it would be alone and without allies in a war against Prussia. Bismarck’s wish came true later on, in a surprising way.
In early 1870, there was a succession crisis in Spain.Since there was nobody to wear the crown, the Spanish sent an offer to Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern to be the new King of Spain. Napoleon, fearing that a Prussian ally to the south would be of utmost danger, declared opposition against the offer and implied a declaration of war would follow had Leopold ascended to the throne. After the threats, Leopold declined the offer. This, however, was not enough for the French. They demanded from the King of Prussia, to agree that no member of Hohenzollern family would ever be a candidate for the Spanish throne. French ambassador Vincent Benedetti met with the King Wilhelm I to persuade him into accepting the terms. The meeting was quite satisfactory for the French as the King did not seem to oppose the French.
However, in reality, Wilhelm found the French ambassador to be quite annoying and aggressive in his demands. After learning this, Bismarck wrote a report that included Wilhelm’s rejections of French demands despite the threat of war.The report also criticized the French’s arrogant diplomatic relations and gave the impression of an aggressive and dangerous France to other European great powers. Bismarck, writing this report, happily worsened the relations between France and Prussia in order to force France to declare war on Prussia. The report made the exact effect Bismarck wished it to make in France. Almost all high level French government officers and many French people demanded war in the streets of Paris. On 19 July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. Other German states immediately sided with Prussia.
Opening Moves and Decisive Battles
At the beginning of the war, French army consisted of around 300.000 men and 800.000 more were ready for mobilization. French soldiers were equipped with the Chassepot Rifle, which was one of the most technologically advanced rifles of the time.As for artillery, the French were still using bronze artillery and the use of artillery in warfare was more or less the same as it was in Napoleon’s time.The French also had an early machine gun, mitrailleuse, in their inventory, although there weren’t many soldiers trained to use it. French army was essentially led by Napoleon III himself.
The Prussian army, and other German states’ armies could potentially field almost 1.000.000 men through mobilization. The army was equipped with Dreyse rifles, which had a far shorter range than the French Chassepot. Prussian artillery, produced by Krupp, were far more superior to those of the French.With their higher range and more devastating effect, German armies could advance despite their disadvantage in rifle range. Prussian army was not commanded by the King, but the General Staff, under the leadership of Helmuth von Moltke.
As the aggressor, Napoleon and his army left Paris 28 July and moved to Metz, which is a city close to the Prussian border.French army then swiftly crossed the border and occupied the German town, Saarbrücken. French generals thought they had the upper hand with this first move, but German mobilization proved to be much more successful thanks to the more improved railway network, which allowed Germans to quickly outnumber the French across the border. In the first week of the war, the Germans won 3 consecutive battles and pushed the French back to Metz.
On 18 August, in the town of Gravelotte, just west of Metz, German armies caught the French army and again pushed them back into fortress of Metz. Then they besieged the city with more than 150.000 French soldiers in it.
In an attempt to lift the siege, Napoleon gathered a new army, Army of Chalons. He marched his army towards the Belgium border to avoid an early engagement with Prussian forces. Seeing the opportunity, Moltke left enough men to continue the siege and take the rest of his army and started chasing Napoleon’s army to north. On 30 August, he caught the French at Beaumont and inflicted heavy casualties on them, forcing them to retreat to Sedan.
Moltke swiftly encircled Napoleon’s army without giving them the chance to recover. The attempts to break out resulted in around 40.000 casualties on the French side which made Napoleon to stop the attacks. On 2 September, seeing that there is no way to break off the situation, Napoleon surrendered with his entire army. Battle of Sedan marked the most decisive moment of the Franco-Prussian War. An entire French army and the Emperor himself was taken prisoner. With Army of Chalons completely eliminated and the other part of French army besieged in Metz, the roads to Paris were clear from any French interference for Prussian army. Bismarck, however, was very upset with the surrender of the Emperor, because he believed this would unnecessarily prolong the war since now they would have to fight their way into Paris too.
War against the Third Republic
Upon hearing the news of the Battle of Sedan, the Third Republic and Government of National Defence were hastily declared in Paris. The new government responded German calls for negotiation with a strict answer of “France will not give an inch of its territories”. German armies, with nothing else to do, went on to besiege Paris. They reached the city on 19 September and started the siege. The government ordered the formation of new armies all around France to help lift the siege in Paris. These various small armies, however, could not break the Prussian lines.
As the siege was going on, states of the North German Confederation and other Prussian allies to the south agreed to the offer from Prussians to declare Wilhelm as the German Emperor.On 18 January, in the Palace of Versailles, Wilhelm was declared the German Emperor -or Kaiser- , which historically unified Germany as a nation state for the first time.
On 26 January, French government started to negotiate for an armistice. Two sides quickly reached an agreement as the city was starving, Germans hold a small triumph in the city and then withdrew. On May 10, French Third Republic and the German Empire signed the Treaty of Frankfurt, which marked the end of the war. In the treaty, France ceded Alsace-Lorraine to Germany, both sides recognized each other as legitimate governments and France accepted to pay Germany around five billion Francs.