Progress Of Liberal Ideas
Revolutions Of 1848
Rivalry Of Austria And Prussia
Napoleon III And Italian Unity
Fall Of The Second Empire—franco-german War
The German Empire
The Third French Republic.
The Eastern Question
Decadence Of Spain
Russia's Increase In Power And Influence
Read More Articles About: Modern Europe
Fall Of The Second Empire-Franco-German War
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Meanwhile Napoleon III, in spite of his declaration that "the Empire is peace," continued to interfere in foreign affairs in a way that insured the downfall of the political edifice he had reared. A few months after he had deserted the Italians, disorders of an aggravated character broke out in Syria and hundreds of Christians were massacred and the French consulate destroyed. The Emperor sent an expedition into, Syria and order was restored, but the troops remained until their recall was demanded by Lord Palmerston. Europe and Asia not affording adequate scope for the scheming and restless Emperor, he interfered in America. Mexico had always been a wild chaos of misrule and disorder, but his intervention only led to greater bloodshed and ended ignominiously for his arms and fatally for the cause and life of his protégé the Austrian Prince Maximilian (See volume "American History") . Again, the Emperor ardently desired to recognize the independence of the Confederate States in the American Civil War, but was persuaded not to do so by the English.
There were a few years of quiet, but although the brilliant success of the Paris exposition of 1867 seemed to afford evidence of personal and national consideration in which the Emperor was held, his political credit had already then lost its importance. At home the great financial embarrassments of his government were rousing the discontent of his people, and to avert the growing disaffection Napoleon offered (1869) to adopt a constitutional form of government, and to make some concessions in regard to freedom of the press. It was soon found that the responsibility of the ministry was fictitious and that the Emperor availed himself of its protection to cloak his own acts of personal government. The result of the appeal made to the Nation (in 1870) on the plea of securing its sanction for his policy was not what he had anticipated, and the 50,000 dissentient votes given by the troops in this plébiscite revealed a hitherto unsuspected source of danger. Confident in the efficiency of the army and anxious to rekindle its ardor, he availed himself of the pretext to declare war against Prussia.
For centuries France had been to Germany a most undesirable neighbor. It had been her hereditary policy to repress and weaken to the utmost the multitudinous States which lay beyond the Rhine to maintain their paralyzing divisions, to foster every antipathy, to exercise a destructive predominance in the internal affairs of a race which might become a formidable rival. France, united, aggressive, and swift in movement, found an easy prey in Germany divided, discordant, unwieldy. Louis XI frustrated Burgundy in her natural desire to unite with Germany, and held her as his own. Francis I intrigued to gain the dignity of Emperor, as Louis XIV did after him. Louis XIV took Alsace and Lorraine, and would have taken much more unless he had been prevented. Louis XV devised the erection of four German kingdoms whose policy France would direct. Napoleon stole German territory, and gave it away or kept it in his own family as inclination dictated. He assumed the subserviency of Prussia as his right, and chastised her hesitating assertion of independence by blows which were almost annihilating. For fifty years after his fall, Prussia had rest from French aggression, and grew in power by the wisdom of her government and the peaceful industry of her people. Her rise was regarded with unfriendly eyes, and with a jealousy which became, year by year, more intense. In process of time there occurred the war in which Prussia was signally victorious over Austria (1866). She was now the head of united Northern Germany, and all men foresaw the early adhesion of the Southern States also. France resented, as an 'affront to her majesty, this unparalleled increase of power. A cry arose for immediate war. But the army had been lately reduced, and it was not yet furnished with the new musket which in Prussia's hands had proved so deadly. The Emperor perceived that he was not ready and he "resisted with all his strength," as he himself tells, "the bellicose ideas which had taken possession of a portion of the public." He restrained the untimely zeal of his followers, but he addressed himself with diligence to the work of preparing to abate the audacious strength of Germany. The law of 1868 increased largely the number of his recruits; breech-loading muskets were served out as rapidly as they could be produced; vast stores were accumulated or appeared to be so; the Emperor himself gave much thought to the organization of the army and wrote voluminous memoranda regarding its minutest details.
In a short while it seemed to her chiefs that France was now ready to set about reducing the intolerable strength of her neighbor. The minister of war asserted his possession of an army which, after all needful deductions, would enable him to place 400,000 men on the frontier. Organization was faultless. The stores of clothing were inexhaustible; "not even a gaiter button" was wanting. There were cartridges enough to maintain for years the slaughter of offending Germans. Elaborated in secret, and known to the world only by dark whispers, was the terrible mitrailleuse, whose power was now to be revealed in destruction hitherto unexampled. The Emperor satisfied himself that Northern Germany could place on the Rhine no more than 330,000 men. Even should the Southern States cast in their lot with their Northern brethren a contingency which he scarcely apprehended this number would be raised only to 420,000. He might thus outnumber his enemies; he could not, be appreciably outnumbered by them. With a natural confidence in the fortune of his house, in his own military skill and the high fighting qualities of his people, the expectation that his march would lead him to Berlin did not appear wholly unwarranted.
There was only required now some pretext of quarrel not necessarily credible, but at least susceptible of being expressed in the decorous phrases of diplomacy. This was opportunely found. The distracted Spaniards, searching among the royal families of Europe for a king, chanced upon a certain Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern, to whom they addressed the prayer that he would rule over them. The potentate was a kinsman of the King of Prussia. He stood in a closer degree of relationship to the Emperor himself, but the King might be regarded as the head of the family of which he was a member, and might be therefore plausibly held responsible for his actions. It was intimated that France would not approve of the occupancy of the throne of Spain by any member of the house of Hohenzollern. ( July 4, 1870.) The King, caring little about the affairs of the Peninsula, disclaimed all knowledge or responsibility in regard to the proceedings of his relative. What was still more to the purpose, that relative himself, who at first inclined a favorable ear to the petition of Spain, announced decisively his refusal of the- vacant throne. It seemed that France had lost her pretext for declaring that war upon which she was resolved. But the Emperor was equal even to this emergency. He demanded, with premeditated rudeness, a pledge that the King would never, in any future time permit his kinsman to accept the overtures of Spain, The desired refusal was promptly given on July 11. Prussia, said the King, was in no way concerned in the transactions of Prince Leopold and the Spanish Government, and would not mix herself up with them. Eight days later, July 19, 1870, the formal declaration of war was delivered at Berlin.
There is no room for doubt that in the visible decline of the second Empire a successful war had become, for personal and dynastic reasons, necessary to the Emperor. In truth the country was becoming tired of his government. It was said that he had grown old and inefficient. His rule was very expensive more so than any republic, or monarchy, or empire which France had ever known. His foreign policy had brought mainly disgrace; his plots had all been found out, his intrigues had all been baffled. Even the good which he had done became a fault. Thiers and the liberals reproached him with having helped to make Italy great. France now demanded that he should mar the threatening greatness of Germany, and perpetuate her enfeebling divisions. Probably he would not have under-taken the task if he dared shun it. But the voice of France was for war. The Chambers were unanimous; Paris was enthusiastic; the provinces blindly acquiesced. France, with unanimity, sanctioned the great crime which the Emperor, not without reluctance consented to commit. Six weeks later, when his career had closed, and he was a prisoner in the hands of the Germans, he assured Count Bismarck that he himself had not wished for war, but had been compelled to wage it by the pressure of public opinion.
The Emperor joined the army at Metz, prepared to lead his eager troops across the Rhine and on to Berlin. (July 25, 1870). Expressions loud, if not deep, of devotion to his person and enthusiastic approbation of the war were showered upon him at every stage of the journey. But there met him at the very outset discoveries fitted not merely to disappoint, but also to alarm. He should have found himself at the head of 400,000 men, perfectly disciplined and equipped. To his dismay, there were no more than 220,000. The men of the reserve, not breathing the general enthusiasm, "took an infinite time," as the Emperor mourns, "to rejoin their corps." Moreover, it quickly appeared, when they came, that many of them had not been drilled in the use of the breech-loading musket, and their education had now to be commenced in this perilous hour when the highest accomplishment in the use of weapons was indispensable. The officers, who were familiar with the mitrailleuse, had been carelessly drafted off to other duties, and this formidable weapon was of necessity entrusted to men who were strangers to its qualities. Supplies of every description, even of money and food, were wanting. Vast accumulations were piled up in two or three grand depots whence they could not be rapidly delivered. 'The transport wagons were stored at one point; their wheels lay elsewhere at a distance, and weeks elapsed before the inopportunely scattered members of those wagons could be recombined. The artillery were without horses until they borrowed from the cavalry. The only maps which were provided were of Germany.
It was the intention of the Emperor to cross the Rhine before the Germans could gather strength to prevent him.
But he quickly perceived the incompleteness of his own preparations rendered this impossible. He concentrated his troops for an advance into the valley of the Saar. At Saarbrück there lay a small force of Germans, who adventurously disputed with him the passage of the river. But they were driven away and the river secured (August 2, 1870). But no use could be made 0f the success. The Emperor was not to enter German territory till four or five weeks had passed; and then he was to enter it as a prisoner. His army lay inactive for two days, and then fell back toward Metz. Already the idea of invasion was seen to be hopeless. For, almost from the day that war was declared the armed manhood of Germany had been hurrying to the frontier admirable in discipline, marvelously complete in organization, guided by the highest military genius of the age. Internal divisions yielded to the first pressure of a common danger, and the States of the South marched with their countrymen of the North. By day and night railway trains followed each other at brief intervals, laden with soldiers, horses, and artillery. Fourteen days sufficed to place 450,000 perfectly equipped Germans face to face with the rash and ill-prepared armament of France.
The Germans lost no time in beginning the invasion of French territory. The Crown Prince crossed the Lauter at that point is the boundary which divided the two countries and at Weissenburg, with an overwhelming force, fell upon the French and defeated them (August 4, 1870). The victorious Germans passed immediately southwards to assail Worth, where Marshal Mac-Mahon was striving to draw his scattered forces together. The French kept careless watch, and it was a painful surprise to the Marshal to be attacked in the early morning by a force which here, as well as elsewhere, largely out-numbered his own. MacMahon had every advantage of position, and his troops fought with desperate courage. But they failed to hold their ground against their assail-ants. Both sides endured heavy loss, and the French, beaten and disordered, fled from the field on August 6. Nor was this the only calamity which befell the French on that unhappy day. At Speichern the French, under General Frossard, occupied heights which were deemed almost impregnable. But the Germans, after hours of heavy fighting, scaled the heights and drove the French army away with lamentable slaughter on both sides.
This accumulation of disaster filled the Emperor with dismay. He was at Metz, vainly endeavoring to hasten the concentration of the whole force, but frustrated at every point by this terrible flood of armed Germans who overran his country and dashed all his combinations into hopeless ruin. He already thought of returning to Paris to resume the reins of government. But the Empress counseled him to delay his return until he should have gained an important success, and he remained. His military reputation, as he himself states, was not sufficiently established to resist evil fortune and the confidence of his troops diminished. On August 13 he made over the command of the army at Metz to Marshal Bazaine. Hence-forth he was borne helplessly along, scarcely regarded either by his Government or his soldiers "condemned to impotence while he saw his armies and his government on the road to destruction." To the evils of this sad position it has to be added that he was suffering physical pain, constant and often intense, from the disease which ultimately proved fatal.
It was yet only eleven days since the first blow had been struck, and already the war was lost beyond hope of recovery. During the first week of August the cry of Paris was still "On to Berlin." So sudden was the collapse of these vain hopes, that during the second week the concern of Paris was for her own defense. The Parisians, who so lately urged their Government into war, now assailed those in its direction, overthrew a ministry, and assumed an attitude threateningly hostile to the throne. It was determined that MacMahon, who had withdrawn to Châlons, where the Emperor had joined him, should retreat in the direction of Paris, for the protection of the capital. But the next day brought a new policy. Bazaine had been left at Metz surrounded by the enemy, and the Government "feared the worst" in Paris if he should be abandoned to his fate (August 21, 1870). MacMahon must, therefore, hasten to his relief. The Marshal hesitated, for he knew the enterprise to be impossible. His troops 140,000 in number were not all of the best quality; they were exhausted by toilsome marches, discouraged by defeat, and insufficiently provided with the most indispensable supplies. Their flank must be exposed during their long march of 1I0 miles to the attack of an enemy of unknown strength, of whose energy they had already had terrible experience. Confidence in their leaders was gone; and the gloom which forebodes and invites disaster was in every heart and on every face. But the fear of revolution in Paris overruled all other considerations and on the 23d of August the Marshal set out on a march which he scarcely hoped could end otherwise than in ruin.
Meanwhile Bazaine had suffered fierce attack from the Germans. He vainly attempted to escape from Metz. He fought two bloody and indecisive battles at Rezonville (August 16) and Gravelotte (August 18). He found it impossible to break through the German lines, and he drew back his disheartened troops to the shelter of the forts.
Tidings of MacMahon's movements were immediately carried to the Prussian camp. His purpose could at first only be guessed, but it was rightly guessed, and prompt measures were taken for its frustration. Two German armies, numbering 160,000 men, were sufficiently strong to shut in Bazaine till hunger forced his surrender. The other two armies the third and the fourth with a strength of 230,000, were available for service elsewhere. It was possible for this great force to fall upon MacMahon, while still on his march, and before he could receive help from Bazaine. The two armies immediately turned northward.
As the French drew near the little town of Stenay, where they proposed to cross the River Meuse, the Germans approached them closely, and in overwhelming numbers were concentrating on their flank (August 26). The country was densely wooded; the watch of the French was, as usual, careless. At Beaumont a German force, issuing from forest roads, burst upon the unexpectant French occupied in cooking. In the engagement which followed the French were forced aside from the advance which would have led them to Metz, and driven northward toward Sedan. About midnight the wearied men set out on this dismal journey. The night was dark; heavy rains had made the roads difficult; the confusion which prevailed was extreme. All night the men toiled forward, and reached Sedan at nine next morning. The Emperor had gone to the little town of Carignan to rest for the night. A message from Mac-Mahon told him of the enforced change of route, and required him to repair to Sedan. He arrived there late at night, without baggage or escort, and walked almost alone from the little railway station into the town where the crowning agony of his career was to be endured. His advisers urged him to go further and save himself, but he refused. Life was little worth saving then. He would stay with his army and share the fate which no power could now avert.
The next day the French busied themselves in restoring some measure of order in their ranks, and in making such preparations as they found possible for the approaching conflict. All that day the German advance continued. When night fell their two armies had gathered themselves around the French so closely and in such strength that resistance was hopeless, and escape, in the event of defeat, impossible.
The French occupied a range of heights which overlook Sedan and the Valley of the Meuse. Before daybreak (September i) the indefatigable Germans advanced to the attack. Their coming was not expected at so early an hour, but the French stood their ground. The Marshal, hastening to the front, was struck down and disabled by a fragment of a bursting shell. As they bore him from the field he was met by the Emperor, who spoke some kind words and rode onward to the battle. It was their final parting tragical and mournful as few partings have been.
No one understood the position of the two armies, or knew anything of the Marshal's plans if, indeed, he had any plan beyond a resolution to fight stubbornly to the last. He made over the command to General Ducrot, who began to order certain new dispositions. But an hour or two later the command was claimed by General Wimpffen, who had just arrived from Africa, and who bore a commission. from the Minister of War. This new leader at once reversed the arrangements of Ducrot. The manifest vacillation in command destroyed confidence among the troops and accelerated the now inevitable ruin. For many hours, however, they maintained with heroic courage the hopeless struggle enduring and inflicting lamentable slaughter of brave men. The fortune of war was so decisively adverse, that the utmost hope of the General was to hold his ground till nightfall, and then to break through and escape.
The Germans attacked the French positions and carried them one by one, along the whole line, four or five miles in length. They established artillery on the heights, until at the close there were 500 pieces whose fire commanded every foot of ground upon which a Frenchman stood. By four o'clock resistance ceased. The French had been driven into Sedan or scattered or captured. Sedan was a prey to the wildest confusion. The streets were crowded with soldiers, many of whom had cast away their arms, and now, regardless of authority, sought only for food and for shelter from the withering fire of the German guns. Through these crowds mounted men and panic-stricken wagoners forced their desperate way, heedless of the wretches whom they trampled down. Loud imprecations rose on every side against the leaders who were responsible for these disastrous results. And over all rose the thunder of the German guns, which, converging their fire upon Sedan, sent an incessant storm of shell among the discomfited troops. The miserable Emperor, worn by fatigue and sorrow and physical pain, had vainly exposed himself, seeking death in the midst of his soldiers. Now he ordered a flag of truce to be hung out; he surrendered himself to the King, and sent General Wimpffen to make what terms he could for the army.
The German chiefs were all before Sedan. The King, his son, the Crown Prince, Count Bismarck, Count von Moltke, Von Roon, the Minister of War, were present to drink the delight of this marvelous triumph. Late at night the General of the defeated French met at Donchery with the officers empowered by the King to negotiate. He pleaded earnestly that his beaten soldiers should be allowed to pass the Belgian frontier only seven miles away and there be disarmed. Generous terms, he said, would awaken the gratitude of France. Rather than submit to the disgrace, he would renew the fight, and Germany would be guilty of blood which would be vainly shed. Count Moltke showed him that 80,000 Frenchmen, with food for only twenty-four hours, were surrounded by 240,000 Germans, and under fire of 500 guns, which would utterly destroy them in a few hours; and that the suggestion of renewing the fight need not, therefore, be discussed. Bismarck treated contemptuously the idea of National gratitude, and intimated, with perfect frankness, that, having France now in their power, they intended to provide for their future security. With much reluctance General Wimpffen consented to an unconditional surrender, and 83,000 Frenchmen laid down their arms. No such shame had ever before fallen on the arms of France.
The King of Prussia, accompanied by his son, came to visit the fallen and captive Emperor. The two monarchs met last in Paris three years before. The King came then as the Emperor's guest during the Paris Exhibition, when Napoleon, at the pinnacle of human greatness, received all the crowned and otherwise illustrious persons of Europe. The altered circumstances were referred to in sympathizing terms by the conqueror, and good-naturedly attributed to imprudent advice. A castle in Germany was assigned as a place of residence for the Emperor who now finally disappears from history.
And now the way to Paris was cleared of every obstacle, and the Germans without loss of time began their march on the capital. So soon as the disaster of Sedan was known there the Parisians deposed the Emperor and erected a Republic (September 4, 1870). The new Government determined upon a strenuous defense. The Germans completely surrounded the city, and effectively cut off communication with the world outside. They did not inflict much damage by bombardment, and were contented to wait till famine compelled surrender. During four months, from September 19, 1870, to January 30, 1871, the Parisians endured the miseries of partial starvation consuming animals whose flesh they loathed; maintaining postal communication with the world by the aid of the balloons. At length endurance reached its limit; Paris was given over to the enemies of France; the humbled Parisians looked on while the countless hosts of Germany, entering by the Arc de Triomphe, marched in triumph down the magnificent avenue which leads to the Tuileries, and possessed themselves of the city.
During the siege the King had occupied the palace of Versailles. The divisions of Germany were now healed; the last obstacle to the long-desired unity of the race was now overcome. For ages it had been the policy of France to maintain the divisions which kept her neighbors weak. So complete was her discomfiture that the union of all the German States was consummated in a French palace by the coronation of King William as the first Emperor of united Germany ( January 18, 1871).
The terms exacted by the conquerors expressed with terrible although not unreasonable severity the woe which waits upon the vanquished. Germany took back Alsace and Lorraine, once her own, and still, after the centuries of separation retaining their use of her language. She demanded an indemnity of $1,000,000,000 in reimbursement of the charges to which France had unjustifiably put her. A German army would remain on French territory, upheld at French expense, till this huge claim was fully met. The entire cost of the war to France, apart from the destruction to property and injury to commerce, was nearly $2,000,000,000, and in loss of men, 350,000.