The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18

Author: Charles F. Horne  | Date: A.D. 1871

The Siege of Paris and the End of the Franco-Prussian War*

A.D. 1871


Events in the Franco-Prussian war followed one another with amazing rapidity, and the entire struggle, gigantic as it was and momentous in results, included little more than six months of military operations. This war, unparalleled in modern times for its brevity, compared with the scope of its action and the reach of its consequences, is equally remarkable for its one-sidedness. In every great battle and in every siege the French were defeated.

After the surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan (September 2, 1870), the tide of Prussian success swept quickly on to final triumph. From the proclamation of the Republic, two days after the capitulation of the Emperor, to the preliminary settlement of peace—followed by the definitive Peace of Frankfort, May 10, 1871—Charles F. Horne gives a concise but comprehensive view of the Third Republic in its unavailing struggle against the might of Prussia.

THE republic that was proclaimed in Paris, September 4, 1870, amid the gloom and terror caused by Napoleon’s surrender, is the present Government of France. At first it had neither constitution nor president. Indeed, it had no legal authorities whatsoever.

The feeble Assembly that had helped Napoleon III to govern felt itself out of place amid the tumult that followed upon his downfall. One of its few members who really represented the people was Jules Favre. At his demand, and under the menace of a gathering mob, the Assembly declared France a republic. Then most of its members hastened to disappear into the oblivion whence they had come.

The Parisians were left to form a government of their own. Favre and a few other leaders declared themselves temporarily the "Government for the National Defence," and began arranging for the election in October of a regular Assembly, to be truly representative of the nation. This election was prevented by the advance of the German armies; and the self-constituted "Government for the National Defence" continued to rule France until the war was over.

In energy and—resource its members proved themselves not inferior to the Jacobins of 1792. Their lack of legal authority to enforce any command made their work infinitely difficult; and their patience, honesty, and devotion to France deserve all our praise. Chief among them were Jules Favre, a lawyer of ability and proven patriotism, and Leon Gambetta, a fervid, hot-headed young orator hardly thirty-two. They offered the renowned statesman and former prime minister, Louis Adolphe Thiers, a place among them, but he declined the dangerous honor.

The first effort of the Republicans was to restore peace. They asserted that Prussia had no cause for quarrel with them, and that the senseless dispute had vanished with the Empire that had originated it. They were willing to compensate Prussia for the expense she had been under, and would pay her a heavy indemnity, but, as Favre put it: "Not a foot of our territory! Not a stone of our fortresses!" If the war were forced upon them, they would fight to the utmost.

Bismarck, at that time Chancellor of the North German Confederation, was by no means willing to recognize this new Government. He would have much preferred dealing with the Empire, whose chief was in his hands. When Favre was sent to negotiate with Bismarck, the Chancellor treated him with neglect and harshness. A great outcry had already risen in victorious Prussia for the restoration of her ancient borders, the return of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been wrested from her in the time of Louis XIV, two centuries before. Bismarck made this demand the first condition of peace. All France upheld Favre in his indignant refusal.

So the war continued, under conditions directly reversed from its beginning. Defeated France sought only peace. It was triumphant Prussia that now demanded concessions and surrender of territory. There were two ways by which the country might be saved: by finding allies among the other nations, or through the uprising of the whole united people to destroy the Germans. Both methods were attempted. M. Thiers, upon his own authority and that of the Provisional Government, made the round of the capitals of Europe in quest of alliances upon any terms. But none of the Powers cared to treat with an ambassador of such doubtful legality or to involve themselves in a cause that seemed already lost.

Meanwhile the utmost efforts were put forth to rouse the French people of the provinces. These had enthusiastically accepted the new Republic. Indeed, many of the provincial cities had themselves proclaimed its existence, without waiting for news from the capital. Yet now they held back doubtfully. They were jealous of the pretensions of the Government at Paris. They dreaded the excesses of the Paris mob.

The position of military affairs was briefly this. Several French fortresses along the eastern frontier still held out, notably Strasburg; but these were compelled to surrender one by one. The only considerable French army of regular troops that remained was under Marshal Bazaine, shut up in Metz. It consisted of nearly two hundred thousand men; and about three hundred thousand Germans surrounded it, while a second German army, almost equal to the first, marched toward Paris.

General Trochu was made military commander of the capital, and it was hastily prepared to resist either an assault or a siege. Around the city stretched a gigantic wall which King Louis Philippe had planned and Napoleon III had built. It was now nearly completed, thirty feet in height, and was protected at every angle by huge forts and heavy guns. The defences were strengthened as much as possible, and provisions were gathered from all quarters. Fugitives from the surrounding villages flocked into the city, swelling its total population to nearly two and a half millions of excited and determined people.

From these nearly four hundred thousand men were enrolled as soldiers, but of course the great majority were untrained and unreliable, noisily patriotic, but little better than a mob clamoring through the streets. General Trochu had only eighty thousand regular troops on whom he felt he could rely.

The Prussians first appeared before the desperate city on September 18th. They made no attempt at an assault, but, extending their lines around the walls and forts, settled down to the most stupendous siege of modern times. They were less numerous than the French troops, but they were a thoroughly disciplined army and were everywhere successful in the little preliminary skirmishes by which they established themselves.

At first the Parisians found their greatest trial was being shut out from all news of the outside world. They organized a balloon service, and pressed carrier-pigeons into use. Early in October the fiery Gambetta escaped from the city in one of these balloons, and establishing himself at Tours soon perfected an efficient organization extending over all the country. His glowing speeches thrilled his countrymen to action, and outside of Paris he became the dictator of France.

There was no longer any question of apathy among the provinces. If Paris would really fight, they would not be behind her in heroism. France responded as one man to Gambetta’s appeals. At one time he had probably a million and a half of volunteers under arms. But alas, armed men are not armies! These raw recruits, undrilled, lacking proper weapons, half starved, and, as time went on, half naked, proved no match for the German troops. There were armies of the North, armies of the South, and armies of the West, attacking the invaders furiously all over France. But the brave peasants sacrificed their lives in vain. They met only repeated defeats. Not one genuine French victory brightens the record of this disastrous and one-sided war.

Most notable perhaps of these feeble yet glorious armies was one gathered on the Loire and placed under the command of General de Paladines. A plan was formed for him to advance toward Paris from the south, while the Parisians were to make a sortie to meet him; and at the same time Marshal Bazaine was to break out of Metz, and threaten the Prussian rear.

Bazaine, however, instead of liberating his enormous army, surrendered it bodily (October 29th). About one hundred seventy-five thousand troops, most of whom, at Gravelotte, had proved themselves worthy of better things, were yielded, without further effort, to a foe not greatly outnumbering them. The case is without a parallel in history! After the war Bazaine was tried as a traitor. He pleaded that his provisions were exhausted, that a battle would have meant only useless sacrifice of life, and above all that he was a servant of the Emperor, that no legal government had superseded Napoleon, and hence he knew not what or whom to fight for. "There was still France," was the noble answer of the Duc d’Aumale; and the court judges condemned Bazaine to death. His sentence was reduced to imprisonment, and he afterward escaped.

His surrender of Metz prostrated the last hopes of Frenchmen. It brought a long succession of evil consequences in its train. During the siege of Paris one of the most serious difficulties of the Provisional Government was the controlling of the lower classes of the populace. The majority of these were "Red Republicans" or anarchists; and their leaders, hoping to seize upon power for themselves, took advantage of every free disaster to rouse the ignorant multitude to tumult.

The news of Bazaine’s surrender stirred the Red Republicans to indiscriminate fury. A mob assailed the Government for the National Defence, and threatened its leaders with instant death. Favre and the others sat calmly in their seats awaiting the inevitable. Someone showed General Trochu a way of escape, but he declined it, saying, "Friend, a soldier dies at his post of duty." Warning of the perilous situation of the Government finally reached the regular troops; and they hastened to their chief’s defence and suppressed the tumult. Its consequences they could not suppress. Negotiations for peace with Prussia had been once more under way; but at news of the rioting in Paris, Bismarck broke them off, on the old plea that here was still another government, and he knew not with which to deal. Doubtless he felt that if the jarring factions meant to destroy each other, he could make better terms with the exhausted remnant.

Another evil which sprang from the disaster at Metz was that the huge German army was left free there, and these troops hastened to reenforce their brethren before Paris, who were in urgent need of help. The French army of the Loire under General de Paladines had performed its part in the general plan, by attacking the invaders from the south. At the same time the Parisians sallied out upon them repeatedly, in force. There was severe fighting all through November.

The arrival of the second German army upon the scene made the struggle hopeless, yet it was persistently maintained. A body of fifty thousand troops under General Ducrot fought their way out from Paris as far as Champigny, on the farther shore of the river Marne. They had three days of sickening carnage, during which more Frenchmen fell than the armies of Napoleon III had lost at Woerth or Gravelotte. The besiegers also lost heavily. But the army of the Loire was defeated and scattered; so Ducrot and his men fell back upon Paris to await the end.

The defences of the metropolis were strong—impregnable, her newspapers had once boasted; and the most difficult problem of the sorely harassed Government became the feeding of the vast multitude within the walls. These soon stooped to mule-meat, next to fancy foods from their zoological gardens, antelope steak and elephant trunk, and then to dogs and cats, and even vermin. The suffering became intense. "Poor little babies," says one who was among them, "died like flies." The German engineers pushed their lines of intrenchments ever nearer to the doomed city. Shells began to fall upon its houses; and a regular bombardment opened, which could result only in the capital’s complete destruction.

Desperate sallies were made again and again all through January, but never with more than momentary success. At last the Government for the National Defence gave up in despair. There seemed no longer any hope for Paris or for France. Favre was again commissioned to confer with Bismarck, and to secure the best terms he could for the surrender of the city. The siege came to an end January 29, 1871.

One of the arrangements of the capitulation was that there should be a truce long enough to permit the election of a free French Assembly, which could with some show of legal authority negotiate a final peace, whose terms would thus become binding upon all France. The truce did not, however, include the last and only remaining one of those pathetic "armies of the provinces" which the genius of Gambetta had raised. This force, under General Bourbaki and the Italian hero Garibaldi, was struggling against the Germans in eastern France, trying to get around their armies and invade Prussia itself.

The effort failed. The weather was intensely cold, and Bourbaki’s half-naked troops suffered all the tortures of freezing and starvation. They were half surrounded, their leader shot himself, and finally the perishing remnant of the men was compelled to retreat into Switzerland. There, as they had invaded a neutral country, they were disarmed—probably much to their own relief—and the active operations of the war came to an end (February 1, 1871).

Meanwhile the Assembly for which the capitulation of Paris had provided was elected. It met in February, chose Thiers as its President, and deputed him to settle terms of peace with Bismarck. Favre assisted him. It was a terrible trial to both of these patriots thus to aid in tearing apart their beloved country, and Thiers, a man of more than seventy years, broke down frequently in the course of the long negotiations.

Considering how complete had been Prussia’s victory, the final terms seem not over-severe, though of course bitterly humiliating to the proud Frenchmen. Alsace, which had been French for two hundred years, whose people spoke French and were devoted to the country, was given up to Prussia. So was about one-fifth of Lorraine; and an enormous money payment, nearly a billion dollars, was to be made to the victors as quickly as possible. Until the money was delivered, the French fortresses were to be held by German troops.

The treaty was laid before the Assembly and finally accepted, March 2, 1871. On the same day thirty thousand German troops were paraded through the streets of Paris, as a visible sign of her surrender and captivity. Then they withdrew, and the war was at an end.

*From Charles F. Home’s Story of France (New York: F. R. Niglutsch), by permission.


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Chicago: Charles F. Horne, "The Siege of Paris and the End of the Franco-Prussian War," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: Horne, Charles F. "The Siege of Paris and the End of the Franco-Prussian War." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Horne, CF, 'The Siege of Paris and the End of the Franco-Prussian War' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from