Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Franco‑German War

"Heirs no more of others' glory,

But the makers of their own."

— Trench

T HE victory of the Prussians at Sadowa, startled the French Emperor Napoleon III., and set all France in a ferment. This growing power of Prussia, this union of the northern German states, must be stopped—the unity of Germany prevented at all costs.

For the next few years the storm-cloud hung over France and Prussia, only to burst in 1870, when war was declared by France. Never did a nation rush so headlong upon its fate, than did France in that fateful July. She had yet to discover that the Grand Army of Napoleon I. existed no longer.

Within a fortnight of the ultimatum, the wonderful machinery of the Prussian army was in perfect order, and half a million men stood at the frontier fully equipped for the coming war. In the face of a common danger, many of the southern German states had thrown in their lot with Prussia. The last days of July found William, the old warrior-king, now seventy-three, bidding good-bye to his white-haired Queen, as he left her for his last campaign, while Napoleon was leaving the Empress Eugenie in Paris and hastening with his only son, the young Prince Imperial, to the Franco-German frontier.

While William King of Prussia was taking over the command of the splendid army, created by himself, Napoleon was experiencing bitter disappointment, as he too placed himself at the head of the French troops. For the truth was dawning upon him, that the French army had degenerated, and that it was totally unprepared to carry on a great war.

In the first battle, fought at Saarbrücken, a small Prussian town just across the frontier, the young Prince Imperial received his "baptism of fire," displaying a coolness and presence of mind worthy the name he bore. The victory was with the French. It was their first and almost their only success in their unfortunate contest. A few days later, a victory was won by the Prussian Crown Prince on the heights of Wörth, and on the same day the Germans defeated another French army at Spicheren. Within a week, the French armies were in full retreat towards Metz, whither they were being forced by the Prussians.

Napoleon, now ill, disappointed, broken, resigned his command to Marshal Bazaine. Matters fared no better. By the middle of August, after severe fighting, Bazaine, with 70,000 French soldiers, was shut up into Metz and communication was cut off.

Meanwhile Paris was in a state of wild consternation. Marshal Macmahon, sent with a large force to the relief of Bazaine at Metz, was forced by the enemy towards Sedan, into the beautiful valley of the Meuse. Napoleon and the Prince Imperial, after driving hither and thither, had reached Sedan at midnight on August 30. Their outlook was hopeless enough. By masterly strategy, the Germans had surrounded Sedan by an iron circle.

"Soldiers," pleaded Napoleon in broken tones,—"Soldiers, prove yourselves worthy of your ancient renown. God will not desert France if each of us does his duty."

The morning of September 1 broke through dense mist. The battle began early.

While William, King of Prussia, with Moltke and Bismarck, watched the fight from the top of a neighbouring hill, the Emperor Napoleon was exposing himself recklessly, hopelessly, wherever the fight was hottest. As the day wore on, the struggle continued, and the Prussian ring of fire closed in more and more hotly round the gallant Frenchmen. It is impossible to describe that fateful day of Sedan. Macmahon was wounded early in the morning, and disorder prevailed among the French troops. In a confused and hopeless mass, the French fought heroically: they were almost sublime in their despair. At last all was over. At five o'clock, a white flag of truce was borne to the King of Prussia from Napoleon, shouts of "Victory, Victory," rent the air; but it was in a broken voice that the old king read aloud the few heart-broken words, addressed to him, by his fallen foe: "Not having been able to die in the midst of my troops, there is nothing left me, but to render my sword into the hands of your Majesty."

The capitulation of Sedan was complete. An unconditional surrender was demanded by Prussia. A meeting took place between William of Prussia and Napoleon.


A meeting took place between William of Prussia and Napoleon III.

The contrast between the two men was very great. William, notwithstanding his burden of seventy-three years, was tall and upright; his keen blue eyes were flashing; there was the glow of triumph on his fresh cheeks. Napoleon was suffering deeply: his eyes drooped, his lips quivered, as he stood bareheaded and weary before his German conqueror. His sun had set for ever. His career was ended. After some detention in Germany, he went to England, where, with the Empress Eugenie and Prince Imperial, he made a home at Chislehurst till 1873, when, broken-hearted, he died.

Meanwhile Paris was in a state of revolution. When Bismarck demanded the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, with the fortresses of Strasburg and Metz, France stoutly refused.

"Not one inch of our territories, not one stone of our fortresses will we surrender," cried the French people.

In less than a week after Sedan, two German armies began rolling their "waves of men" towards Paris, and the city prepared for a siege. "Like some gigantic clock whose works have broken, social life, industry, trade, business, had suddenly come to a stand-still, and there remained but one passion—the resolution to conquer." Everywhere men were in uniform, being equipped and drilled; Paris had become an immense intrenched camp.

On September 19, 1870, the siege of Paris began. Three weeks later the King of Prussia entered Versailles, and the palace of Louis XIV. became his home for the next five months. Paris had now no means of communication with the outer world, save by balloons. One day, Gambetta—now Dictator of the French Republic—escaped from the besieged city in a balloon. There is a story, that, as the balloon passed over the Prussian and German armies, amid the clouds and the birds of the sky, William turned to Bismarck.

"What is that black speck in the sky?" he asked.

"It is a minister," replied Bismarck. "It is the heroic Gambetta on his way to Tours, where he will assemble battalions."

He was right. Gambetta collected an army and marched against the enemy, only to be defeated near Orleans. A greater disaster yet, was in store for the unfortunate French people. On October 27, Marshal Bazaine surrendered at Metz, and his 70,000 men and vast stores of war-material fell into the hands of the Germans. It was a cowardly act, for which he was afterwards tried and sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, inside Paris, famine was threatening. Since the middle of October, meat had been rationed. In December, not a beast remained of the great droves of oxen and flocks of sheep, which had been turned into Paris in September. Horses were being slaughtered. Winter came on, with unusual severity. Balloons ascended into the cheerless wintry sky with their freight of carrier-pigeons, despatches, and letters, bearing news of suffering and misery to the outer world. December came and went. The New Year of 1871 dawned drearily. The sorties of the besieged were unsuccessful. At last 40,000 horses had been eaten. Dogs, cats, and rats fetched high prices. The death rate increased rapidly. With the advent of January, all shops shut and the streets grew deserted. Yet in all their misery, the Parisians would not tolerate the idea of surrender.

Meanwhile, under the influence of German triumphs on the battlefield, an idea of German unity had seized the minds of the German people. State after state had joined the union, and now the moment had come, to declare the old King of Prussia, Emperor of United Germany, of which Prussia would be the head.

He was at Versailles, when this supreme honour was offered him. As the deputation from the German states entered, the King stood in front of the great fireplace in full uniform, wearing all his well-won decorations.

On his right stood the Crown Prince, on his left, the princes of the new empire. The voice of the old white-haired monarch trembled with emotion, as he accepted the great position. On January 18, he was proclaimed Emperor of Germany at Versailles.

The following day, the men of Paris made their last desperate sortie on a large scale, but thousands were killed and the rest driven back to the now starving city. It was the beginning of the end. "Capitulation had become a brutal necessity." Pitifully, hopelessly, Paris awoke to the bitter truth. In January the last shot was fired. Paris had surrendered. By the treaty of peace Alsace and Lorraine, with Strasburg and Metz, were to be ceded to Germany. France recovered quickly, and has lived in peace under her Republic ever since.

And the old King of Prussia made his triumphant entry into Berlin, as Emperor of Germany, amid cheers that rent the air. Bismarck and Moltke, and his beloved son, the Crown Prince, were with him, to share in his enthusiastic reception.

"Hail, Emperor William! Hail to thee and to the brave German host thou leadest back from victory!" ran the words on the banner, that floated from the statue of Frederick the Great.

So united Germany hailed its conquerors, and to-day the grandson of William reigns over a German Empire, which has grown yet stronger since the eventful days of Sedan, Metz, and the siege of Paris.

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