Siege of Paris (1870–71)
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|Siege of Paris|
|Part of the Franco-Prussian War|
The Siege of Paris by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Oil on canvas.
(later German Empire)
|Commanders and leaders|
| Wilhelm I of Germany
Helmuth von Moltke
| Louis Jules Trochu
Joseph Vinoy (POW)
|240,000 regulars||200,000 regulars
200,000 militia and sailors
|Casualties and losses|
|12,000 dead or wounded||24,000 dead or wounded
47,000 civilian casualties
The Siege of Paris, lasting from September 19, 1870 – January 28, 1871, and the consequent capture of the city by Prussian forces led to French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the establishment of the German Empire as well as the Paris Commune.
As early as August 1870 the Prussian 3rd Army led by the Crown Prince (the future Emperor) Frederick III had been marching towards Paris, but was recalled to deal with French forces accompanied by Napoleon III himself. These forces were crushed at the Battle of Sedan and the road to Paris was left open. Personally leading the Prussian forces Wilhelm I of Prussia along with his chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke, took the 3rd Army along with the new Prussian Army of the Meuse under Crown Prince Albert of Saxony and marched on Paris virtually unopposed. In Paris the Governor and commander-in-chief of the city's defenses General Louis Jules Trochu, assembled a force of regular soldiers that had managed to escape Sedan under Joseph Vinoy plus the National Guards and a brigade of sailors which totalled around 400,000.
The German armies quickly reached Paris, and on September 15 Moltke issued orders for the investment of the city. Crown Prince Albert's army closed in on Paris from the north unopposed, while Crown Prince Frederick moved in from the south. On September 17 a force under Vinoy attacked Frederick's army near Villeneuve-Saint-Georges in an effort to save a supply depot there, but it was eventually driven back by artillery fire. The railroad to Orléans was cut, and on the 18th Versailles was taken, and then served as the 3rd Army's and eventually Wilhelm's headquarters. By September 19, the encirclement was complete, and the siege officially began. Responsible for the direction of the siege was General (later Field Marshal) von Blumenthal.
Prussia's prime minister Bismarck suggested shelling Paris to ensure the city's quick surrender and render all French efforts to free the city pointless, but the German high command, headed by the king of Prussia, turned down the proposal on the insistence of General von Blumenthal, on the grounds that a bombardment would affect civilians, violate the rules of engagement, and turn the opinion of third parties against the Germans, without speeding up the final victory. It was contended also that a quick French surrender would leave the new French armies undefeated and allow France to renew the war shortly after. The new French armies would have to be annihilated first, and Paris would have to be starved into surrender.
Trochu had little faith in the ability of the National Guards, which made up half the force defending the city. So instead of making any significant attempt to prevent the investment by the Germans, Trochu hoped that Moltke would attempt to take the city by storm, and the French could then rely on the city's defenses. These consisted of the 33 km Thiers wall and a ring of sixteen detached forts, all of which had been built in the 1840s. Moltke never had any intention of attacking the city and this became clear shortly after the siege began. Trochu changed his plan and allowed Vinoy to make a demonstration against the Prussians west of the Seine. On September 30 Vinoy attacked Chevilly with 20,000 soldiers and was soundly repulsed by the 3rd Army. Then on October 13 the II Bavarian Corps was driven from Châtillon but the French were forced to retire in face of Prussian artillery.
General Carey de Bellemare commanded the strongest fortress north of Paris at Saint Denis. On October 29, de Bellemare attacked the Prussian Guard at Le Bourget without orders, and took the town. The Guard actually had little interest in recapturing their positions at Le Bourget, but Crown Prince Albert ordered the city retaken anyway. In the battle of Le Bourget the Prussian Guards succeeded in retaking the city and captured 1,200 French. Upon hearing of the French surrender at Metz and the defeat at Le Bourget, morale in Paris began to sink. The people of Paris were beginning to suffer from the effects of the German blockade. Hoping to boost morale Trochu launched the largest attack from Paris on November 30 even though he had little hope of achieving a breakthrough. Nevertheless he sent Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot with 80,000 soldiers against the Prussians at Champigny, Créteil and Villiers. In what became known as the battle of Villiers the French succeeded in capturing and holding a position at Créteil and Champigny. By December 2 the Württemberg Corps drove Ducrot back into the defenses and the battle was over by December 3.
On January 19 a final breakout attempt was aimed at the Château of Buzenval in Rueil-Malmaison near the Prussian Headquarters, west of Paris. The Crown Prince easily repulsed the attack inflicting over 4,000 casualties while suffering just over 600 himself. Trochu resigned as governor and left General Joseph Vinoy with 146,000 defenders.
During the winter, tensions began to arise in the Prussian high command. Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke and General Leonhard, Count von Blumenthal who commanded the siege (seen in the illustration on this page behind Bismarck's right shoulder) were primarily concerned with a methodical siege that would destroy the detached forts around the city and slowly strangle the defending forces with a minimum of German casualties.
But as time wore on, there was growing concern that a prolonged war was placing too much strain on the German economy and that an extended siege would convince the French Government of National Defense that Prussia could still be beaten. A prolonged campaign would also allow France time to reconstitute a new army and convince neutral powers to enter the war against Prussia. To Bismarck, Paris was the key to breaking the power of the intransigent republican leaders of France, ending the war in a timely manner, and securing peace terms favourable to Prussia. Moltke was also worried that insufficient winter supplies were reaching the German armies investing the city, as diseases such as tuberculosis were breaking out amongst the besieging soldiers. In addition, the siege operations competed with the demands of the ongoing Loire Campaign against the remaining French field armies.
In January, on Bismarck's advice, the Germans fired some 12,000 shells into the city over 23 nights in an attempt to break Parisian morale through terror bombing. About 400 perished or were wounded by the bombardment, which "had little effect on the spirit of resistance in Paris." Delescluze declared, "The Frenchmen of 1870 are the sons of those Gauls for whom battles were holidays." Due to a severe shortage of food, Parisians were forced to slaughter whatever animals at hand. Rats, dogs, cats, and horses were regular fare on restaurant menus. Even Castor and Pollux, the only pair of elephants in Paris, were not spared.
A Latin Quarter menu contemporary with the siege reads in part:
- * Consommé de cheval au millet. (horse)
- * Brochettes de foie de chien à la maître d'hôtel. (dog)
- * Emincé de rable de chat. Sauce mayonnaise. (cat)
- * Epaules et filets de chien braisés. Sauce aux tomates. (dog)
- * Civet de chat aux champignons. (cat)
- * Côtelettes de chien aux petits pois. (dog)
- * Salamis de rats. Sauce Robert. (rats)
- * Gigots de chien flanqués de ratons. Sauce poivrade. (dog, rats)
- * Begonias au jus. (flowers)
- * Plum-pudding au rhum et à la Moelle de Cheval. (horse)
Air medical transport is often stated to have first occurred in 1870 during the Siege of Paris when 160 wounded French soldiers were evacuated from the city by hot-air balloon, but this myth has been definitively disproven by full review of the crew and passenger records of each balloon which left Paris during the siege.
During the siege, the only head of diplomatic mission from a major power who remained in Paris was United States Minister to France, Elihu B. Washburne. As a representative of a neutral country, Washburne was able to play a unique role in the conflict, becoming one of the few channels of communication into and out of the city for much of the siege. He also led the way in providing humanitarian relief to foreign nationals, including ethnic Germans.
On January 25, 1871, Wilhelm I overruled Moltke and ordered the field-marshal to consult with Bismarck for all future operations. Bismarck immediately ordered the city to be bombarded with heavy caliber Krupp siege guns. This prompted the city's surrender on January 28, 1871. Paris sustained more damage in the 1870–1871 siege than in any other conflict.
The Prussian Army held a brief victory parade in Paris on February 17, 1871, and Bismarck honored the armistice by sending train-loads of food into Paris and withdrawing Prussian forces to the east of the city, to be withdrawn from there as well as soon as France paid the agreed war indemnity.
Mail service by balloon and pigeon
Balloon mail was the only means by which communications from the besieged city could reach the rest of France. A regular mail service was established, with a rate of 20 cents per letter. After some initial successes the letters were photographically reduced by René Dagron to save weight. A total of 66 balloon flights were made, including one that accidentally set a world distance record by ending up in Norway. The ballons also carried pigeons out of paris to be used as a pigeon post. This was the only means by which communications from the rest of France could reach the besieged city, as all other means (dogs, balloons) had failed. The pigeons were taken to their base, first at Tours and later at Poitiers, and when they had preened themselves, been fed and rested, they were ready for the return journey. Tours lies some 200 km from Paris and Poitiers some 300 km. Before release, they were loaded with their despatches. After a while these also were photographically reduced for a dramatical increase in bandwidth. The first despatch was dated 27 September and reached Paris on 1 October. During the four months of the siege, 150,000 official and 1 million private communications were carried into Paris by this method.
The Prussians had secured their victory in the Franco-Prussian War. On January 18, 1871 at Versailles Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor. The kingdoms of Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, the states of Baden and Hesse, and the free cities of Hamburg and Bremen were unified with the North German Confederation to create the German Empire. The preliminary peace treaty was signed at Versailles and the final peace treaty was signed with the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871. Otto von Bismarck was able to secure Alsace-Lorraine from France as part of the German Empire under the Treaty of Frankfurt.
Another stipulation of the treaty was a German garrison to be left in Paris. This angered bitter Paris residents at the continued presence of German troops in the wake of defeat. Further resentment arose against the current French government and from April–May 1871 Paris workers and National Guards rebelled and established the Paris Commune.
In Popular Culture
Empires of Sand by David W. Ball (Bantam Dell, 1999) is a novel in two parts, the first of which is set during the Franco-Prussian war, more particularly the Siege of Paris during the winter of 1870-71. Key elements of the siege, including the hot-air balloons used for reconnaissance and messages, the tunnels beneath the city, the starvation and the cold, combine to render a vivid impression of war-time Paris before its surrender.
Elusive Liberty - a novel by Glen Davies. Follows the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, Major Auguste Bartholdi, who fought against the German invaders as ADC to General Garibaldi, and his muse, who is in Paris during the Siege. Takes the reader from the splendour of the Great Paris Exhibition of 1867 to the Pyramids of Egypt, from the Siege of Paris to the lavish Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.
- Michael Howard and Michael Eliot Howard, The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871, Routledge 2001, ISBN 0-415-26671-8 (p.318)
- Cobban (1961), p. 204
- Lam DM, "To Pop A Balloon -- Air Evacuation During The Siege of Paris, 1870"; Aviation, Space, & Environmental Medicine, 59(10): 988-991, October 1988.
- David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, Simon & Schuster, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4165-7176-6
- Levi, Wendell (1977). The Pigeon. Sumter, South Carolina: Levi Publishing Co, Inc. ISBN 0-85390-013-2.
- Cobban, Alfred (1961). A History of Modern France: 1799–1945 II. Penguin.
- Horne, Alistair (2002), The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune 1870-71, London: Pan, ISBN 0-330-49036-2.
- Chandler, David G. (1980), Atlas of Military Strategy, New York: Free Press, ISBN 0-02-905750-7.
- Howard, Michael (2001), The Franco Prussian War, New York: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-26671-8.
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