Franco-Prussian War and the Treaty of Frankfurt

Franco-Prussian War, Battle of Sedan
Franco-Prussian War, Battle of Sedan

The Franco-Prussian War lasted from 1870 until 1871 and started after the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck created the North German Federation and its became increasingly anti-French.

When the Prussians tried to put a Hohenzollern on the throne of Spain, Napoleon III, worried about having to fight Germany on two fronts, decided to declare war on the Germans on July 15, 1870.

Although the French started the war, they quickly lost the initiative, with the Germans rapidly mobilizing and gaining diplomatic support from the states of south Germany: Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg.


On July 31 three massive and well-equipped German armies totaling 380,000 troops massed on the French border. The First Army, led by General Karl F. von Steinmetz, had 60,000 men located between Saarbrücken and Trier.

The Second Army was under the command of Prince Friedrich Karl with 175,000 men between Bingen and Mannheim, and the Third Army (145,000 men), under Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, was located between Landau and Germersheim. All these were officially under the command of King Wilhelm I; the field commander was General Moltke.

Most units were under Prussian command, although troops from allied parts of Germany fought alongside Prussians in most engagements. In addition, the Prussians also held back 95,000 soldiers in case the Austrians decided to intervene in the war.

German army
German army

Facing them, the French had eight separate army corps, with a total troop strength of 224,000, but with many units below strength and some lacking adequate provisions. They were, however, inspired by the French people who cheered them with the cry “On to Berlin.”

The French, trying to force the pace of the war at the behest of Emperor Napoleon III, invaded Germany, with the first battle being fought at Saarbrücken on August 2. Ba

ttles quickly followed at Weissenburg (August 4), Fröschwiller (August 6), and Spichern (August 6), leaving the French forces in disarray and the Prussians able to advance toward Paris. On August 12 Napoleon relinquished command of the French army, and the Prussians pushed back the French forces.

The major battle was fought at Sedan on September 1, 1870. General Auguste Ducrot had taken command of the French forces from Patrice MacMahon but had been forced back to the Belgian border with 200,000 German soldiers facing him.

The French had only 120,000 men. At the start of the battle, the French cavalry was destroyed by the German infantry, and 426 German guns bombarded the French forces throughout the day. However, French machine guns were able to hold off the German infantry attack.

General Emmanuel de Wimpffen, the new French commander, urged Napoleon III to lead his forces, most of whom had retreated into the fort at Sedan. The French emperor declined the offer of a final charge and surrendered to the Prussian king. Wimpffen then surrendered the rest of the French forces. This left the Germans able to march on Paris.

With the news of the defeat at Sedan, the people in Paris overthrew the Second Empire of Napoleon III and proclaimed the establishment of the Third Republic. The authorities in Paris mobilized militia and hastily gathered together an army and threw up fortifications around the French capital.

The German commander Moltke decided not to attack the heavily fortified city and involve his soldiers in street fighting. Instead, on September 19, the siege of Paris began. The Prussian king, William, established headquarters at Versailles.

The French tried to disrupt the German lines of communication and at the same time raise another army in the Loire Valley and start a new war from the base of the provisional French government at Tours.

On October 27, the Germans captured the city of Metz, with the surrender of the French commander Marshal Bazaine and his army of 173,000. This did not stop the French army from the Loire launching several attacks to relieve Paris.

The French managed a few victories, such as at the Battle of Coulmiers on November 9, when they defeated a Bavarian Army Corps, forcing them to withdraw from the city of Orléans. On December 2–4 after a bitter battle around the city, the Germans retook Orléans.

On January 5, 1871, the Germans started bombarding Paris, and on January 10–12 managed to repulse the French at Le Mans. At the Battle of Belfort on January 15–17, the only major French frontier force that had not been captured fell. One of the volunteers fighting for France at that battle was the Italian patriotic leader Giuseppe Garibaldi.

The French sued for a cease-fire on January 26, surrendering two days later. The terms of the Convention of Versailles on January 28 did not include the disarmament of the Paris National Guard and, as a result, some Parisians tried to resist in the Paris Commune.

The Germans eventually marched into Paris on March 1, and on May 10, the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed between the French and the Germans. The French were forced to cede Alsace and northwestern Lorraine to Germany and pay an indemnity of 5 billion francs, a German army of occupation remaining until the indemnity was paid.

The defeat was a humiliating one for the French, causing the collapse of the Second Empire, the creation of a French republic, and also the emergence of the modern German state, with King Wilhelm I of Prussia having been proclaimed the emperor of Germany on January 18, 1871.

This quick victory would also encourage German actions at the outbreak of World War I when they believed their greater efficiency, mobility, and generalship would deliver them a relatively easy victory.