History of Germany - H. E. Marshall

William I—United Germany

But now, having settled its national quarrels, Germany was soon plunged into another war.

In 1869 the Spaniards offered the throne of Spain to Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern, a distant relative of King William of Prussia. Now the French had long been jealous of Prussia's growing power, and when they heard of this offer they became very much alarmed. They cried out that the days of Charles V would come again, and that Spain and the German Empire would be united under one crown. They declared that this they would never allow, and indeed they created such a storm that Prince Leopold at length promised not to accept the crown offered to him.

But this did not satisfy the French. They demanded a promise from the King of Prussia that he would never at any time allow a Hohenzollern prince to accept the throne of Spain. They even suggested that King William should apologise to the French for ever allowing the Prince to think of accepting the crown.

At this King William was very angry. In Paris too excitement rose to white heat. The French, from the Empress Eugenie downwards, clamoured for war. "Your throne has fallen into the mud," cried the Empress when the Emperor hesitated. So war with Prussia was declared amid frantic excitement.

There was frantic excitement in France, but over Germany there swept a great wave of patriotic enthusiasm. The Germans rose to a man, and flocked to the standards, not only in Prussia but all over Germany. The South Germans too forgot their differences with the North Germans, and threw in their lot with their brethren.

Prussia was absolutely ready for war. Long ago Von Moltke had planned it all out. He had played with little tin soldiers, and settled exactly what should be done in case of war with France. And now everything was carried out just as he had planned it. There was no hurry, no confusion. Each man knew what he had to do, and did it.

Far other was it with the French. They had boasted that they were ready for war "down to the last button." But in reality they were not ready at all. From first to last all was confusion, and the lives of thousands of brave men were thrown away for want of forethought and order. "I have confidence in the success of our arms," said Napoleon III proudly, "because I know that France is behind me, and France is in God's care."

But while the French Emperor talked thus bravely, the minister of war was wringing his hands in despair over the complaints which poured in upon him. "You send me maps that are no use to us," said one, "and we have not a single map of the French frontiers." "There is no money in the corps treasury," says another. A general in wild despair telegraphs, "Can't find my brigade, can't find my division. What am I to do? Don't know where my regiments are."

And this was the army which was "ready twice over," which "could fight for a year without feeling it." Little wonder, then, that from the very beginning things went well for the Germans. They won victory after victory, and the war, begun on German soil, was carried into France. Here, too, the Germans were victorious, and at length, on September 1, the great battle of the campaign was fought at Sedan. The French were stationed in the valley, the Prussians were on the heights above, and so had their enemies at their mercy. The French were caught like mice in a trap, and bravely though they fought, there was no escape for them. With dawn the fight began, and all day it lasted. Closer and closer the Germans pressed upon the French, hemming them in on every side.

As the day went on, the Germans wondered much if the Emperor Napoleon was with his troops. "No fear," said some one, "the old fox has long ago run to earth." But he was mistaken. The Emperor was with his troops.

At length, in the late afternoon, a breathless messenger came to King William.

"Sedan will capitulate," he cried. And there sure enough a white flag was seen floating over the town.

The King turned to a general, "Let the firing cease," he said.

A few minutes later the terrible crash and roar of the cannon died away in silence, and a deep and solemn stillness succeeded to the frightful noise of battle.

Then in the silence a second messenger approached.

"Your Majesty," he said, as he saluted, "Sedan surrenders with the Emperor and the whole army."

For a moment those who heard held their breath. In the group around the King there was a tense stillness, then followed an outburst of joy. Tears dimmed their eyes as, with voices choked with sobs, they congratulated each other and pressed round the King to wish him joy.

Again a messenger came. This time he bore in his hand a letter from the Emperor.

"Sir, my brother," it ran, "not having been able to die in the midst of my troops, nothing remains to me but to place my sword in the hands of your Majesty."

King William accepted the Emperor's surrender. He treated Napoleon with great courtesy, but sent him to the castle of Wilhelmshöhe, where he remained a prisoner until the war was over.

When the news of the defeat of the army and surrender of the Emperor reached France, there was a terrible outburst of rage and anger. The people declared the French Empire at an end, and once more proclaimed a republic. They would now gladly have made peace. But when it became known that the Germans would demand Alsace and Lorraine as the price of peace, the French refused. "Not an inch of land, not a stone of our fortresses will we yield," they said.

But the Germans were determined to have back the land they had lost. "With whom are you fighting?" asked a Frenchman of a German.

"With Louis XIV," quickly replied the German. For it was Louis XIV who had taken Alsace and Lorraine from Germany.

Now, as the French refused to accept their terms, the Germans marched towards Paris, and in little more than a fortnight after Sedan the splendid city was ringed round by a fence of steel.

The siege of Paris is one of the most tremendous undertakings in all modern war. Von Moltke did not want to bombard the town, and ruin the splendid buildings. He hoped, in a few weeks, to starve the people into surrender. But the French were far more brave and enduring than he had expected, and the months went by, one by one, and still Paris would not yield.

Bismarck and others grew impatient. They did not care whether the fair city was ruined or not. They wanted to bring the war to a quick and victorious end. "The people of Paris have too much to eat," they said, "and not enough to digest. Iron pills are what they want, and too few of them have been used."

So at length opposition was broken down, and the bombardment of the city began.

William I of Prussia


Meantime, while the people of Paris were suffering untold misery, the King of Prussia had taken up his abode in the splendid palace of Versailles. All Germany had been thrilled with the events of the war, and now all Germany, south as well as north, desired unity at any price. They desired it so eagerly that they would not even wait for peace, but while they were still in the throes of the terrible struggle with France, both northern and southern Germany asked the King of Prussia to take the title of Emperor. And to this King William consented.

So on January 18 a brilliant company met together in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It was the anniversary of the day upon which the first King of Prussia, Frederick I, had crowned himself, and now, with solemn ceremony, King William was proclaimed German Emperor.

Deeply moved, William spoke to the gathered princes and nobles. "May God grant," he said, "that both we and our followers upon the throne may ever be Emperors of the German Empire, not through warlike conquests, but through works of peace, and so lead the nation to happiness, freedom, and prosperity."

As he ceased speaking, a great shout went up: "Long live his Imperial and kingly Majesty, Emperor William I." Again and again the hall rang with the joyous shouts. The Crown Prince knelt to kiss the Emperor's hand, but his father quickly raised him, and throwing his arms about him, kissed him again and again. After the Crown Prince the nobles thronged round the new-made Emperor to pay their homage.

Thus was the German Empire born again. "And God be with us," says one who was present, "and may it all redound to the rich blessing and true weal of the German people and land."

The latter part of the Franco-Prussian war became little more than a series of sieges. The chief of these sieges were Strassburg, Metz, and Paris. But already, on September 27, Strassburg, after a brave defence, had yielded. A month later Metz followed suit, and now, ten days after the German Emperor was proclaimed, Paris too gave way. The Germans marched in triumph into the city, and at length peace was signed.

Alsace and Lorraine were given back to Germany, and France had also to pay the enormous sum of £200,000,000 (six billions in francs).