Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber

The Franco-Prussian War

You remember, do you not, how deeply the first Napoleon's wars and cruelty had branded hatred for the French into German hearts? This hatred had been kept alive by glowing patriotic songs and other writings. Meanwhile, the French, forgetting all their own sins, remembered only that while France had been robbed of her natural frontiers by the Congress of Vienna, Prussia had constantly been growing larger. In fact, not only had Prussia gained by the losses of France, but in two recent wars she had also wrested territory from Denmark and several small German states, besides recently preventing France from acquiring Luxemburg. Now, the newspapers suddenly announced that the crown of Spain had been offered to a cousin of the Prussian king, who, everybody knew, was by far the strongest and most important of the German rulers, and who was working hard to bring about German unity by creating a new German Empire of which Prussia would naturally be head. With such an empire on one side of them, always ready to threaten their peace, the French naturally did not want a foe on the other side, too, which would be the case should a German become ruler of Spain.

So vehement a protest was therefore made, that the prince in question, rather than bring about war by accepting, quietly declined the proffered honor. The Germans now considered the matter settled; but the French, dreading lest it might turn up again, asked King William of Prussia—son of Queen Louise—to promise he would not allow the prince to accept this offer if it were renewed. This old monarch, on hearing of this request from the French ambassador, politely declined to make the promise, and mischief-makers interpreted his courteous refusal as a deadly insult to France!

The clever Prussian minister Bismarck, who wished war, colored the news of this occurrence to suit his ends; the "yellow journal" element in France demanded war; and in the French ministry, the ambitious Eugenie threw her influence on the same side. People differ on the question who was most to blame. However that may be, the fact remains that upon the strength of a fancied insult, such a clamor arose in France that the ministry declared for war, and the Chamber, in spite of the opposition of Thiers and a few others, who kept repeating, "You are not ready," ratified the declaration by voting the necessary supplies (July 15, 1870).

Since "the real author of a war is not the man by whom it is declared, but the man by whom it is rendered necessary," this war, so often laid to the charge of Napoleon III, can more justly be ascribed to Bismarck, who for years past had systematically been preparing for the conflict and scheming to bring it about. He had made his plans so carefully that Germany had a perfectly equipped and finely drilled army, ready to advance at a moment's notice, under the guidance of such able men as Bismarck and Von Moltke, not to mention sundry German kings and princes. The patriotic spirit, so long fostered by German literature, was roused to instant action the moment war was declared, and all the Germans immediately banded together to prevent a new French invasion.

Meantime, Thiers proved right: the French were not ready, although the general-in-chief had boastfully declared, "Not a gaiter-button will have to be purchased!" Ill-equipped, poorly disciplined, and badly generaled, about 240,000 Frenchmen were hastily dispatched to defend a long stretch of frontier, and to oppose three magnificent armies composed, altogether, of much greater numbers.

Napoleon III., although desperately ill at the time, hastened to the frontier to join his troops, accompanied by his fourteen-year-old son, who was to have his first glimpse of actual warfare. They left the empress in charge at Paris as regent, and departed amid cheers, although the emperor was already troubled with presentiments of coming evil, and not nearly so sanguine as his soldiers, whose battle cry was, "On to Berlin!" The French emperor was, besides, sorely disappointed in his attempts to secure alliances. Having helped the English in the Crimea, and the Italians in Italy, and having declared war upon the greatest enemy of the Austrians, he had naturally hoped to receive their support in time of need, but all three nations now decided to remain neutral.

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


The first action of the Franco-Prussian War took place at Saarbrucken, early in August, where the Prince Imperial "stood the first fire," and part of the French army won a doubtful advantage by defeating a smaller number of the enemy. Two days later another French force was defeated (Weissenburg), and, the French lines being broken, nothing prevented one of the German armies from entering France. Then came two battles (Worth and Spicheren) where the Germans triumphed again, but at a fearful cost of life, although numbering more than two to one. In the first of these encounters the French cuirassiers made a gallant charge to cover the retreat of their comrades; but these defeats left the way clear for the advance of three enormous columns of Germans—numbering some 250,000 men—under the able leadership of the princes of Prussia and Saxony, and of the best German generals.

On the flank of these forces—which plundered the country ruthlessly while passing, through—there was a large French army under General Bazaine, who deemed it his duty to remain near Metz, while fighting several battles in mid-August, chief among which was the desperate struggle at Gravelotte. At the end of this campaign, in spite of great daring and heroic charges on the part of the French, Bazaine found himself, surrounded by Germans, in the fortress of Metz, whence he could not escape to help his countrymen. After a siege of little more than two months, Bazaine surrendered fortress, men, and stores,—a deed for which he was tried later on, and condemned to death as a traitor. But this sentence was speedily changed to twenty years' imprisonment, his family being allowed to share his captivity; then, after eight months of close detention in the southern prison where the Iron Mask had been so long captive, Bazaine cleverly effected his escape and went to live in Spain, where he spent the remainder of his life trying to justify in his writings what Frenchmen and Germans alike consider a cowardly surrender.

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


Meantime, another army under General MacMahon, ordered to go and help Bazaine at Metz, was attacked on the way thither, and took position near Sedan, to await re-enforcements. During the next day, however, the French were surrounded by much larger forces of Germans, and were forced to fight at a great disadvantage, partly because MacMahon was wounded early in the battle. Only one cavalry corps managed to cut its way out; the rest of the army was driven into Sedan and was compelled to surrender. So did Napoleon III., who, in spite of great suffering, had heroically kept on horseback many hours in succession. He now wrote to the King of Prussia: "Not having been able to die in the midst of my troops, it only remains for me to place my sword in the hands of your Majesty. I am your Majesty's good brother, Napoleon."

But he was not to be allowed to treat directly with his opponent; instead, he was met by Bismarck, who rode beside his carriage until they could alight and hold a quiet conversation in front of a poor cottage by the wayside. When all had been arranged, Napoleon met William of Prussia in a neighboring castle, where he was courteously received, and learned that he was to have the Castle of Wilhelmshohe as his residence while a prisoner of war. But, although the emperor was captured, the Prince Imperial escaped, thanks to the presence of mind of his tutor, who, seeing that all was lost, hurried the lad into a train just leaving, and whisked him safely out of France into Belgium. From there, a few days later, they proceeded to England, where the young heir was to rejoin Eugenie and grow up under her care.

Meanwhile, the general who replaced the wounded MacMahon met Bismarck and Von Moltke and signed the Capitulation of Sedan. The victorious Germans secured thereby 8o,00o prisoners of war, whose loss left the road to Paris undefended.