Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The End of the Second Empire

Each report of a new defeat of the French army naturally caused great excitement in all parts of France, but especially in Paris, the chief center both of population and of discontent. When it became evident that the country had been launched, unprepared, into a war which could only result fatally, public indignation against the government became extreme. Without pausing to weigh consequences, the people, ascribing all the evil which befell them to Napoleon III., railed against him without measure. Then riots took place, culminating three days after Sedan in a violent invasion of the Chamber, where the "Downfall of the Empire" was proclaimed, and a Commission of National Defense hastily organized. Still, even in the midst of the general confusion, some voices were raised in favor of law and order, Jules Favre, for instance, managing to give the populace the necessary caution: "No scenes of violence! Let us reserve our arms for our enemies!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber


By surrendering to the Germans at Sedan, Napoleon III. escaped the vituperation which broke out on all sides, not only against his government, but also because he had surrendered. The common verdict was, "An emperor gets killed, but does not give up!" and such was the state of popular irritation, that no one now dared speak openly in favor of the fallen ruler.

The Prince Imperial having been safely carried out of the country by his tutor, the poor empress-regent remained alone in the Tuileries, to bear the whole weight of the people's displeasure. At first, many of the officials had sworn by all that was sacred to stand by her, but the loss of 17 out of 120 regiments,—either shut up in Metz or surrendered at Sedan,—and the fact that no troops were left to oppose the Prussians advancing toward the capital, filled all hearts' with despair. The empress not being a Frenchwoman by birth, the people wrongly assumed that she could not feel for them, and unjustly accused her, besides, of having spent in personal extravagance the money which should have been used for the country's defense. The result of all this was, that even while Eugenie was bending every thought and energy to save the situation, a wild mob broke into the Tuileries, from which she had to escape through the picture galleries of the Louvre!

Cast adrift in Paris with her companion, with only three francs in her pocket, the empress, after vainly trying to find some of her friends at home, had to cast herself upon the charity of her American dentist, who cleverly got her out of the city and country where her life was now in imminent danger. On arriving in England, Eugenie was joined by her son, and hospitably welcomed by Queen Victoria, who, having been her friend in prosperity, generously did all she could for her in time of need. The ex-empress, therefore, took up her abode at Chislehurst, where Napoleon III. came to join her when his captivity was over some six months later.

Meantime, the Government of National Defense, dating from the 4th of September, 1870, had intrusted the government of Paris to General Trochu and had given the venerable Thiers instructions to visit London, Florence, St. Petersburg, and Vienna, in hopes of inducing some or all of the governments located in those cities to intercede with Prussia in behalf of France. But in spite of all Thiers's patriotic eloquence, no help was vouchsafed. The Prussians, meanwhile, continually advancing, surrounded Paris on the 19th of September, thus beginning a memorable siege which was to last nearly four and a half months, and to cause untold suffering to about two million people. But before this siege began, the Parisians had heard how bravely Strassburg was resisting a whole month's bombardment, and although they felt that their capital would probably have to yield in the end, they were fully determined to rival their sister city in courage.

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber