History of Prussia - John S. C. Abbott

War, and Its Woes

The capture of the army at Sedan, with the emperor, was an irreparable disaster to France. There was no longer any force in the field to resist the invaders; there was no longer any government which France would recognize. It was no longer possible for neighboring dynasties, despising democracy, to enter into affiance to aid France, since such aid would strengthen that democracy which the dynasties feared far more, even, than they feared Germanic supremacy in Europe. Victorious Prussia was also deeply embarrassed. She had overthrown the republican empire, with its respect for monarchical forms, only to introduce the genuine democracy of Favre and Hugo and Rochefort, which prided itself in trampling all monarchical forms under its feet. Thus was Prussia inspired with a new incentive to reject all terms of peace but those which would re-establish monarchy in some of its forms in France, or which would so degrade and weaken the nation, that Europe would have nothing to fear from a dishonored and powerless democracy.

Never before in the history of the world was there so sudden and awful a collapse of a great nation, France seemed ruined beyond all hope of redemption.

Catholic  France could not rally with enthusiasm to fight the battles of an infidel democracy. For such a cause the priests could not pray; for such a cause, the peasants, who reflected the opinions of the Catholic clergy, reluctantly advanced to meet the foe.

Imperial  France, which embraced nearly the whole rural population, and all the civil, ecclesiastical, and military officers, maddened by the overthrow of the government by city mobs in the hour of the most dire extremity of the nation, was paralyzed in all her energies.

The military leaders refused to recognize any authority but that of the empire; and every vestige of the empire the democratic populace had swept from Paris. The men who had thus grasped the reins of power had but little confidence in the generals who were in open antagonism to them; and they accused these generals of lukewarmness, and even treason.

Thus clouds and darkness enveloped France. From no quarter could a ray of light be seen. The condition of Marshal Bazaine was hopeless. The army of Prince Charles and of the Crown Prince united in surrounding him. In the mean time, the siege of Strasburg was prosecuted with great vigor; while powerful Prussian armies marched in all directions, capturing towns, levying contributions, and gathering up ample supplies. What a condition for proud France to be in! The dispatches of the King of Prussia indicate his astonishment in view of the marvellous results so suddenly accomplished.

After an heroic resistance of two months, Strasburg capitulated on the 28th of September. The terrific bombardment commenced on the 15th of August. The besiegers had four hundred heavy guns and mortars, with which they threw an incessant storm of shot and shell into the city night and day. It was the object of the bombardment to inflict such misery upon the inhabitants, that the soldiers in the citadel would be compelled, from humane considerations, to surrender.

The sufferings in the city were awful beyond all description. The bursting-forth of conflagrations, the explosion of shells, the crash of falling walls, the shrieks of the wounded; famine, sickness, misery,—all combined in converting wretched Strasburg into a volcanic pandemonium. There was no safety anywhere. Children were torn to pieces in the streets, and their gory limbs scattered far and wide over the pavements. Shells crushed through the roofs, and exploded in the cellars where mothers and maidens were huddled together in terror. One shell fell in the third story of a house, and killed twelve persons outright, wounding twelve more.

Gen. Ulrich, who was intrusted with the defence, was compelled to steel his heart against these cries of woe. His defence was heroic in the highest degree. Four hundred citizens—men, women, and children—were killed; seventeen hundred were wounded. Four hundred houses were burned, rendering eight thousand persons houseless. Three hundred children died of starvation. Damage was inflicted upon the city to the estimated amount of fifty million dollars.

The surrender of Strasburg with its vast military stores released the besieging army of over fifty thousand men to co-operate in the siege of Metz and in the march upon Paris. A garrison of eight thousand Germans was left to hold Strasburg, while the remainder of the beleaguering host pressed forward to new victories.

The provisional government in Paris, assuming that the war was the criminal act of the imperial government, which was now overthrown, applied through M. Thiers for peace. "It is understood," said The London Times  of Sept. 14, "that M. Thiers offered an indemnity of five hundred million dollars, one-half the French fleet, to dismantle the fortresses of Alsace and Lorraine, and to leave the Rhine provinces, for which France had commenced the war, in the hands of Prussia."

The reply, so far as it can be gathered from the official journals in Berlin, was, that there is no longer any government in France with which Prussia could form a treaty; that the present government in Paris exists only by leave of the gutter democracy; that the security of the new empire which Prussia is establishing in Germany renders it essential that France should be so weakened, that Germany shall never again have cause to fear hat France will cross the Rhine.

Then it was asked, "Is it not equally important that France should have protection against Germanic invasion?" The emphatic and unanswerable reply was, "The conquered must submit to the will of the conqueror."

The onward sweep of the Prussian armies was sublime in its aspect. While nearly three hundred thousand troops were assailing Marshal Bazaine at Metz, in a war-tempest whose thunders were unintermitted by day or by night, four hundred thousand more veteran soldiers, with rapid strides, in such array that no force could be brought to resist them, circled around the doomed city of Paris, girding it with a chain of ponderous batteries and bristling steel, through which there was no escape.

It seemed as though there were no limit to the number of troops which Germany had poured into France. There were enough to besiege Metz, to besiege Paris, to besiege a score of other minor fortresses; and there were men enough left to send powerful armies,—north to Amiens, and south to Orleans and Tours. Every day announced some new German victory. Jules Favre endeavored to represent the Bonaparte dynasty as exclusively responsible for the war. To this, Bismarck's organ in Berlin, The North-German Correspondent, replied,—

"M. Jules Favre has given himself the trouble to defend this perversion of history and common sense in a long circular dispatch. We maintain, on the other hand, and our asseverations are supported by all the facts of the case, that the immense majority of the French people, through all the organs of public opinion,—in the press, the Senate, the Corps Legislative, and the army, nay, down to the very street-mobs of Paris,—demanded war. Even the small minority which hold at present in their hands the reins of state are so far from honestly seeking peace, that they are doing what in them lies to make peace impossible."

We can form some estimate of the state of feeling in France upon this subject by supposing that Mexico were a rich, powerful military empire, with a population of forty millions, and every man a trained soldier. If the Mississippi were the only natural boundary between Mexico and the United States, it would indeed be humiliating to allow Mexico to hold the territory on both banks of the stream, from the Gulf to the Ohio.

The German Empire, now rising in such gigantic proportions, is in direct and intense antagonism with the political principles prevailing almost universally in France. It is an absolute government, founded upon the doctrine of the divine right of kings and the exclusive privileges of the nobles. The French Empire, now crumbling to decay, was founded upon the doctrine of the divine right of the people, universal suffrage, and equal rights for all men.

There was necessary antagonism between two systems of government so diametrically opposed to each other. There could be no possible peace between them but by clearly-defined boundaries which neither could easily pass,—which France sought to establish; or by the one empire so disarming and weakening the other as to render it impotent,—which last Prussia sought to do.

It would require volumes to describe the scenes of horror which were now every hour transpiring. The Prussians, in this most wonderful of campaigns, displayed military ability which certainly has never been surpassed, and I know not that it has ever before been equaled. Paris was invested, in a circuit forty miles in diameter, by an army numbering three hundred thousand men. Every avenue of escape was cut off. The most formidable entrenchments were thrown up at every point which a sortie  could strike. These entrenchments were protected by thirty thousand men. In case of a sortie, telegraphic communication instantly brought to their aid thirty thousand men on either side of them to attack the assailants on both flanks. Thus ninety thousand men behind the strongest earthworks were prepared to repel any attempts to pierce their lines.

Three hundred thousand men surrounded Metz, and its doom was sealed. The storm of an incessant bombardment fell upon Montmedi and Toul and Thionville and Bitche and Phalsburg. Bazelle was in ashes; and its three thousand inhabitants were wandering along the roads, houseless, foodless, clotheless, seeking relief from those who were nearly as miserable as themselves.

Seventy thousand Prussian cavalry scoured the country in all directions, gathering ample supplies for the invading army of nearly a million of men. Almost every day announced the demolition of some fortress, or the capture of some town, by the resistless Prussians. France, bleeding, robbed, humiliated, almost helpless, was without any recognized government or any spirit of cordial co-operation among its distracted people. As the Prussians advanced, they found almost a deserted country before them. The peasants, in terror, fled into the woods.

Mr. Malet, a secretary of the English legation in Paris, gives the following report of an interview he held with Count Bismarck. The Prussian minister said in reference to peace with France,—

"We don't want money: we are rich. We don't want ships: Germany is not a naval power. But we know very well that we shall leave behind us in France an undying legacy of hate; and that, happen what may just now, France will at once go into training. What we now insist upon is Metz and Strasburg. We shall keep them for a bulwark against French invasion, making them stronger than ever before."

Metz and Strasburg, which Bismarck thus demanded, were the main fortresses of the important provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. These provinces embraced the six northern departments of France, spreading over 12,430 square miles, and containing a population of about three million inhabitants, who were intensely French in their feelings.

In continuation of the conversation which Mr. Malet reports, Count Bismarck said, "What the king and I most fear is the effect of a republic in France upon Germany. No one knows as well as we do what has been the influence of American republicanism in Germany."

M. Jules Favre, in behalf of the government of the national defence in Paris, as minister of foreign affairs, visited Bismarck at the Prussian headquarters at Ferrieres. He gives a minute report of the interview in the Moniteur  of the 28th of September. He says,

"The count maintained that the security of Germany commanded him to guard the territory which protected it. He repeated several times, 'Strasburg is the key to the house: I must have it.' 'The two departments,' he said, 'of the Bas Rhin and the Haut Rhin, a part of the Moselle, with Metz, Chateaux Chalins aid Senones, are indispensable. I know well,' he added, 'that they are not with us. That will impose an unpleasant job upon us; but we cannot help it. I am sure, that, in a short time, we shall have a new war with you. We wish to make it with all our advantages."

"It is clear," writes Jules Favre, "that, in the intoxication of victory, Prussia wishes for the destruction of France. She demands three of our departments, two fortified cities,—one of a hundred thousand, the other of seventy-five thousand inhabitants,—and eight or ten smaller ones also fortified. She knows that the populations she wishes to tear from us repulse her; but she seizes them, nevertheless, replying with the edge of the sword to their protestations against such an outrage of their civil liberty and their moral dignity. To the nation that demands the opportunity of self-consultation she proposes the guaranty of her cannon, planted at Mt. Valerien. Let the nation that hears this either rise at once, or at once disavow us when we counsel resistance to the bitter end."

On the 16th of October, Soissons, after a severe bombardment, fell into the hands of the Prussians, with a large amount of military stores. Some idea of the terrors of these bombardments may be inferred from the fact, that, from an official statement, it appears that in the bombardment of Strasburg, which lasted thirty-one days, 441 pieces of ordnance were used, which threw into the city 193,722 shots, averaging 6,249 daily, or between four and five each minute. Some of these enormous missiles of destruction weighed a hundred and eighty pounds.

Day after day came fraught with disaster. Though the broken bands of the French, and the new recruits which sprang up here and there, fought with desperation, and gained some victories, the majestic march of the Prussians was resistlessly onward. Paris was every hour becoming more hopelessly bound in the iron girdle which surrounded it. Under the empire, Paris had become the most beautiful city in the world. Scholars, artists, pleasure-seekers, thronged it from all nations. Even the bitterest foes of the empire did not deny its rapid increase in wealth, beauty, and all artistic attractions.

"The life of this beautiful city," says The New York Tribune  of Nov. 29, 1870, "has been for eighteen years one of the most singular examples ever seen of an unbroken tide of material success. It has increased vastly in extent, in riches, in population; and, in every department of luxury, and art, there has been an improvement without parallel in recent times."

King William, and his son the Crown Prince, had been honored guests at the Tuileries, and had admired the beauties of a city which has no rival in Europe. It is said that they shrank from the vandalism of throwing their shells into the palaces, the churches, the thronged streets, the homes of elegance, and the galleries of art, with which the city abounded. They feared that the sympathies of the world would be with Paris, thus doomed to destruction.

The war had now become simply an effort, on the part of Prussia, to wrest from France Alsace and Lorraine, that France might be thus weakened, and Prussia thus strengthened. The openly-avowed object was territorial aggrandizement. Would Christendom sustain Prussia in the destruction of Paris and the slaughter of thousands of its helpless citizens for such an object? It, is confidently said that Count Bismarck urged the hurling of the shells, but that the king hesitated.

It should also be stated that Paris was surrounded by a cordon of forts, supporting each other at such a distance outside of the walls, that the Prussians could not plant their siege-guns near enough to throw their shells into the city; and that this fact, not considerations of humanity, caused the bombardment to be postponed.

But, whatever the cause may have been, the dreary weeks rolled on, with incessant and bloody battles around the walls; while two millions of people, shut out from all intercourse with the outside world, were consigned to the resistless approaches of famine,—a foe more to be dreaded than fire or the sword.

A part of the provisional government was in Paris: a part had escaped in a balloon to Tours. A French army was gathering near Tours for the defence of the portion of the ministry assembled there. A large army of Prussians was on the march to capture those ministers, or disperse them. The Prussian king and his suite took possession of the magnificent saloons of Versailles, where they fared sumptuously every day." Jules Favre was in Paris, acting as President of France. Gen. Trochu was military governor of the city, having received his appointment from the emperor. The complications would have been exceedingly ludicrous, had not the circumstances been so extremely distressing.

On the 27th of. October, King William sent the astounding telegram to Berlin, This morning, Bazaine and Metz capitulated. A hundred and fifty thousand prisoners, including twenty thousand sick and wounded, laid down their arms this afternoon,—one of the most important events of the war. Providence be thanked!"

For sixty-seven days, the gallant troops had struggled against overpowering numbers. They had expended their ammunition, and had eaten up their horses. Their hospitals were filled with the sick and wounded, and starvation was staring them in the face. The army did not fall unavenged. Forty-five thousand of the army of Prince Charles had perished, during the siege, of sickness or wounds, sending a wail of anguish into forty-five thousand German homes beyond the Rhine. The surrender of this army with its veteran soldiers and generals, and the surrender of this all-important fortress with its vast supply of heavy guns and small-arms, was a disaster apparently irretrievable.

Marshal Bazaine was an imperialist. He had no respect for the democratic committees which had sprung up in different parts of France. These committees consequently denounced him as a traitor, and clamored for his head; but subsequent developments proved that he had done everything he could do for the salvation of woe-stricken France.

The capitulation of Metz released an army of three hundred thousand Prussians to co-operate in the siege of Paris, and to march with the forces advancing towards the Loire. On the morning of the 30th of October, the governmental committee in Tours issued a proclamation, in which they said,—

"Metz has capitulated. A general upon whom France relied has just taken away (vient d 'enlever)  from the country, in its danger, more than a hundred thousand of its defenders. Marshal Bazaine has betrayed us. He has made himself the agent of the man of Sedan, and the accomplice of the invader. Regardless of the honor of the army of which he had charge, he has surrendered, without even making a last effort, a hundred and twenty thousand fighting men, twenty thousand wounded, guns, cannons, colors, and the strongest citadel of France. Such a crime is above even the punishment of justice.

"Meanwhile, Frenchmen, measure the depths of the abyss into which the empire has precipitated you. For twenty years, France submitted to this corrupting power, which extinguished in her the springs of greatness and of life. The army of France, stripped of its national character, became, without knowing it, an instrument of tyranny and servitude, and is swallowed up, in spite of the heroism of the soldiers, by the treason of their chiefs. It is time for us to re-assert ourselves under the aegis of the republic."

This address was signed by Cremieux, Glais-Bisoin, and Gambetta,—men who were regarded as political adventurers, and in whom France had no confidence. Nothing can more clearly show the unfitness of such men to govern than the total want of acquaintance with human nature which this proclamation evinced. France, in these hours of anguish, needed the union of all parties by the spirit of mutual conciliation.

For twenty years the empire had governed France, crowning it with prosperity, and making it the leading power in Europe. Again and again the, empire had been sustained by the votes of the overwhelming majority of the people. The rural population were imperialists almost to a man. The army, composed of young men taken from the cottages and the workshops, ardently supported the empire. The generals who led these armies had, without an exception, taken the oath of allegiance to the empire. Without the support of these generals, these armies, and these masses of the people, France was powerless; and yet these committee-men, who assumed to be the government of France, who had gained power simply through the energies of a Parisian mob, endeavored to unite France under their government by denouncing the emperor in the strongest language of contempt, by declaring the chiefs of the army to be traitors, the soldiers to be dupes,—who had been, without knowing it, the instruments of tyranny and servitude,—and the masses of the people as guilty of the inconceivable folly of submitting for twenty years to a corrupting power which had extinguished the springs of life in France.

Under these circumstances, with the cities under the control of the democratic party, heaping scorn upon the imperialists and the rural districts, and all the leading officers of the church, the army, and the state, wedded to the empire, there seemed to be no possibility of that enthusiastic co-operation of all France which was essential to the repulse of the invaders.

Still the generals and the armies fought despairingly, and gained some minor victories. New recruits somewhat languidly entered the field. During the month of November, the battle raged almost incessantly over vast regions of the northern and central departments of France. The emperor was a prisoner. The empire was overthrown. There was no government in France. Prussia, on the contrary, was guiding her invincible bands with all the energies of despotic power. The world, which looked on, could see no hope for France. Her doom of utter defeat and humiliation seemed inevitable. Could France rally en masse  with enthusiasm under any recognized government,—imperial, monarchical, or republican,—with the seven millions of fighting men she could bring into the field, with the entire command of the sea, enabling her to obtain any amount of arms and munitions of war, she might still drive the invaders bleeding and breathless from her soil; but there seemed now to be no possibility of this co-operation.

Were the question between France and Germany presented to an impartial umpire, the decision would undoubtedly be, "Let the forty millions of Germans be organized under any form of government they may choose, with the River Rhine as their southern frontier. Let the forty millions of Frenchmen be organized under any form of government they may like, with the River Rhine as their northern frontier."

This would be settling the question according to the dictates of reason; according to the boundary which Nature has marked out. This would give neither party the advantage over the other. With such a boundary, the absolute empire of Germany and the republican empire of France, or republican Germany and republican France, might live on terms of fraternal kindliness.

But it seems now (early in December, 1870) that the question is not to be settled by reason, but by iron and by blood. The conquered must submit to the dictation of the conqueror. The rolling centuries have, however, taught us one lesson,—that nothing is settled in this world until it is settled right. The infamous treaties of 1815 planted the seeds of the wars which in these later years have drenched the fields of Italy and Austria with blood, and of the conflict which is now filling Germany and France with the wailing cry of widows and of orphans.

We know not what God has in reserve for France, for Europe, for humanity. Nations as well as individuals need and receive chastening from the Lord. In view of the woes which are still desolating this war-scathed world, one is led to cry out in anguish, "How long, O Lord! how long?" The awful carnage now drenching the fields of France with French and German blood must ere long come to a close. Then the settlement which shall be accepted will decide whether there shall be permanent peace and fraternity, or merely a truce, to give place, after a few years, to another bloody conflict, which shall again shroud two nations, and perhaps all Europe, in woe. Every friend of humanity will pray that God will so guide the event, that abiding puce may come to our sad, sad world.