Emperor William First - George Upton

The Franco-Prussian War

The period immediately following the Austro-Prussian War was a comparatively peaceful one, but the gradual increase of national strength and power in Germany had long since aroused the jealousy of France, and there was little hope of bringing about the unification of the country until the opposition of this hereditary enemy had been ended by a final and decisive struggle. And for this France herself soon furnished a pretext, though without any just cause.

The throne which Napoleon Third had seized by force was weak and crumbling, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that he was able to keep up an appearance of the magnificence for which his court had been famous. Nor was it founded on patriotism and love of liberty, those firm supports of sovereignty=; on the contrary, the present occupant of the throne of France had aroused much dislike and condemnation among his subjects, and not without cause. Public dissatisfaction throughout the country increased daily, and the Emperor, alarmed for the future, determined at length that the only resource left him was to occupy the attention of the people by a great war, and give them something else to think of. Should it prove successful, his sinking star would doubtless rise once more to dazzling heights, while if defeated, no worse fate could overtake him than that which now threatened. As to whom the war should involve in order to make the strongest appeal to the sentiments and prejudices of the French, there could be no doubt, for from the earliest times there has been no nation so hated by them as Germany. Ever since the battle of Koniggratz King William and his ministers had felt sure that France would not view Prussia's increase of power without a protest, though they had been careful to avoid giving her any pretext for making trouble. But there is an English saying, "Where there is a will there is a way," the truth of which was proved by the French.

After the revolution which had deposed Queen Isabella the Spaniards were looking about for a King, and of the many candidates who offered themselves their choice fell on Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern. This was cause enough for grievance on the part of France, and King William, as head of the house of Hohenzollern, was requested through the French ambassador Benedetti to forbid his kinsman's acceptance of the Spanish crown. To this our hero replied by refusing to put any constraint on the Prince's decision; but Leopold, finding that his acquiescence in the wishes of Spain was likely to cause serious complications between France and Prussia, voluntarily withdrew his candidacy, thus, it would seem, removing any cause for trouble between the two powers. France, however, whose chief desire was to humiliate Prussia, had no intention of allowing this opportunity to slip through her fingers. Benedetti was ordered to obtain from King William, who was then staying at Ems, a written declaration that he regretted the annoyance this matter had caused Napoleon and would never again permit Prince Leopold to be a candidate for the throne of Spain.

The King's behavior on receipt of this insulting demand was worthy of so great a sovereign. Calmly turning his back on the obtrusive Benedetti, he refused to have anything more to say to him and referred him to the ministry in Berlin for further discussion of the subject. This was on the thirteenth of July, 1870, and a stone now marks the spot on the promenade at Ems where this brief conference took place.

War was declared on the following day in Paris, and King William responded by issuing an order for the immediate mobilization of the entire army. The news was hailed with joy throughout the country. Napoleon had already brought about the very thing he most wished to prevent—the unification of all the German-speaking peoples. The whole nation rose in indignation at the insult that had been offered to the aged King, and his return to Berlin was like a triumphal progress. Everywhere crowds assembled to greet him, eager to express their admiration of the dignified way in which he had met the insolence and presumption of France. His appearance in the capital was hailed with wildest enthusiasm by his loyal subjects, and, deeply moved by their devotion, the King turned to his companions, saying: "This is as it was in 1813!" What most gratified him, however, was the despatch that promptly arrived from South Germany, which, but a short time since in arms against Prussia, now that a common enemy threatened the Fatherland, hastened to enroll her whole forces under the banner of the commander-in-chief. Little did France know the people or the spirit of Germany when she counted on the support of the South German States, expecting them to hail her, with joy as their deliverer from the yoke of Prussia! Events now crowded fast on one another, yet there was little commotion in the country. Thanks to King William's splendid organization, even this sudden mobilization of the whole army proceeded quietly and steadily, as if it were no more than the execution of some long-prepared-for maneuver,—a state of things that served to calm and encourage both army and people. The German forces were divided into three great armies: the first, commanded by General von Steinmetz, stationed along the Moselle; the second, under Prince Frederick Charles, at the Rhine Palatinate; while the third, consisting chiefly of the South German troops under the Crown Prince, occupied the upper Rhine country.

Napoleon III and William I


The King left Berlin July 31 to take command of the united forces. At half past five in the afternoon the iron gates of the side entrance to the palace were flung open and the King and Queen drove out in an open carriage drawn by two horses. A roar of welcome greeted the vigorous old hero, who in military cloak and cap sat bowing acknowledgment to the rousing cheers of his enthusiastic subjects, while the Queen at his side seemed deeply affected. The royal carriage could scarcely make its way through the weeping and rejoicing throngs that swarmed about it all the way to the railway station, eager to bid farewell to their beloved sovereign and wish him a happy return. Banners floated from the roofs of houses and handkerchiefs fluttered from open windows,—a scene which was only typical of the feeling that pervaded the whole land. At the station the King's companions were already awaiting him, his brother Prince Charles, General of Ordnance, and that great trio who had so ably assisted him in the previous war, Bismarck, von Moltke, and Minister of War van Roon, surrounded by a group of other generals. After the Queen had departed, King William entered the waiting train and moved off westward toward the seat of war, followed by the unanimous shout "With God!"

And truly God was "with King and Fatherland," for in seemingly endless succession the telegraph brought news to the astonished people of one great victory after another. The French were wildly enthusiastic when with two entire army corps they finally forced a single Prussian battalion of infantry and three squadrons of uhlans to retreat after the latter had held out for fourteen days, and then with more than twenty guns bombarded the unprotected town of Saarbrucken; but it was to be their only occasion for rejoicing.

On the fourth of August Queen Augusta received the following message:

"A splendid but bloody victory won by Fritz at the storming of Weissenberg. God be praised for this first glorious achievement."

The news quickly spread throughout the country, bringing joy and renewed confidence to all hearts. Two days later word came of a second victory for the Crown Prince. He had completely defeated the great Marshal MacMahon at Worth, August 6, and King William in his despatch to his wife might with just pride send word to Berlin that "it should be in love with Victoria!

A series of engagements followed, in the neighborhood of Metz, on the fourteenth, sixteenth, and eighteenth of August, which changed the general plans of the German army. The French Marshal Bazaine had attempted to invade the enemy's territory from that place, but without success, while MacMahon, who had advanced from Chalons to the borders of the Palatinate and Baden, had suffered such losses at Weissenberg and Worth that he was forced to fall back to his former position. It was therefore decided that the two French armies should unite in the neighborhood of Chalons and, thus strengthened, offer battle to the enemy. To prevent this, the Germans at once attacked Bazaine, cutting off his retreat to Chalons and occupying him until the arrival of some of their delayed corps. The maneuver was successful, and after two days of hard fighting at Courcelles on the fourteenth, and Mars la Tour on the sixteenth, the struggle culminated two days later in the great battle of Gravelotte. It was for life or death; the desperate struggle of a brave army—the best, perhaps, that France ever sent into the field. But all in vain. Closer and closer about them drew the iron ring. German courage and tenacity permitted no escape.

At nine o'clock that evening King William sent his wife this despatch from the camp at Rezonville:

"The French army attacked to-day in strong position west of Metz. Completely defeated in nine hours' battle, cut off from communication with Paris, and driven back towards Metz.


In the letter that followed he says:

"It was half-past eight in the evening before the firing ceased. . . . Our troops accomplished wonders of bravery against an equally gallant enemy who disputed every step. I have not dared to ask what our Josses are. I would have camped here, but after several hours found a room where I could rest. We brought no baggage from Pont-a-Mousson, so I have not had my clothes off for thirty hours. Thank God for our victory!"