New Glory & Defeat Episode: French Breakout Attempt During The Siege of Paris 1870 - Battle of Villiers-Champigny

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This week on Glory and Defeat: it’s la Grande Sortie, the biggest French breakout attempt of the war.

Last week, the Germans defeated the French at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande, and the signing of the November treaties commits all south German states to a future united Germany. Meanwhile Paris is growing hungrier by the day, so the French armies spring into action again.

Time is running out on the French armies that have so far failed to free Paris, and so this week, the French launch their biggest sortie out of city so far.

They commit 80 to 150,000 men to the attack on the southeast of the German siege ring. Defending the line are just 15,000 Germans mostly from the Kingdom of Württemberg. If the French can break through, they hope to reach the town of Meaux and link up with the Armée de la Loire advancing from the west. This would also allow them to cut off the railway the Germans need to keep their besieging armies supplied, which would force the Germans to break off the siege.

French General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot is blunt about his intentions:

"I shall either return dead or victorious. Je ne rentrerai que mort ou victorieux." (Hérisson, 278)

The attack is delayed by flooding on the Marne river, but on November 30, the inexperienced and badly led French troops attack in what becomes the Battle of Villiers-Champigny. German command rushes in Saxon units to reinforce the outnumbered Württembergers. Losses are heavy on both sides, and the French capture the first line but cannot break through the German second line. After a day of rest, both sides resume the offensive on December 2. The Germans partially retake Champigny and beat off a French counterattack.

A Württemberg officer later describes his experience:

"My brother was killed right by my side, and nearly all my comrades fell. [...] The slaughter below Villiers Park and the losses were terrible. The commander of our brigade [...] had two horses killed under him; I myself had 200 men under my command, of which only 30 still exist. Of 21 officers in my regiment, 15 are unfit for battle." (Fontane, Krieg, 500)

A few days later, the French accept the attack has failed and retreat across the Marne. Combined losses for both sides are about 14,000 men. Württemberg will commemorate the battle every year until 1918, because of the heavy losses but also to resist Prussian criticism that the southern Kingdom was an unreliable ally in the field. Even today, there is a Champigny street in Stuttgart, and a memorial in the small town of Pleidelsheim commemorates 19 and 21 year old brothers Erich and Axel von Taube, who die in each others’ arms at Champigny.

The ‘Grande Sortie’ of the Paris garrison turns out to be a ‘grand désastre,’ and French morale takes another hit. Writer Émile Zola describes the consequences of the defeat in his novel 'La debacle - The Collapse': "Ah, the dreary and sad days, after the abortion of this immense effort! The grande sortie, prepared for so long, the irresistible thrust that was to deliver Paris, had just failed [...] The menace of famine had begun. Les menaces de famine commençaient " (Zola, 574)

To add to the tragedy of Champigny, the French plan had no chance of success. French operational communications between Paris and the Loire are limited to carrier pigeons, which are slow and unreliable. So when the high command in Paris launches its attack at Champigny, they don’t yet know that the Loire Army was beaten last week at Beaune la Rolande and it will not meet them at Meaux even if they break out.

That said, there is still major fighting on the Loire this week. The French attack from December 2-4 at Loigny-Poupry but the Germans hold them back despite being outnumbered 3 to 1. 22,000 men are killed or wounded on both sides. Further clashes lead to the Germans taking Orléans for the second time on the 5th. Bavarian soldier Florian Kühnhauser is in continuous combat for 10 days in the ice and snow, grabbing what sleep he can on the frozen ground:
"[We] shivered so much from the frost my whole body trembled; [our] feet were quite rigid and numb, the whole body [little more than] a debilitated skeleton. And such soldiers were to go back into battle […]? Und solche Soldaten sollten wieder in den Kampf gehen [...]?“ " (Kühnhauser, 168).

The largest French breakout attempt of the war fails this week, as do their attacks on the Loire. In Versailles, meanwhile, German unity talks are making painful progress for Otto von Bismarck.

By the end of November, the southern German states have signed treaties agreeing to join the north in a new German Confederation. Bismarck wants Prussian King Wilhelm I to become emperor of the future state, but they disagree on the title. Bismarck wants Deutscher Kaiser, German Emperor, while Wilhelm prefers Kaiser von Deutschland, Emperor of Germany. Bismarck make light of the issue with his wife Emilie:
"I am plagued by the princes with their busyness and also my Most Gracious King with all the little difficulties that arise from his princely prejudices and trifles in the very simple Kaiser question." (N.N., 67)
On November 30, King Ludwig II of Bavaria sends the Kaiser letter to Wilhelm, officially asking him to become Emperor of Germany. The fact that Bismarck has written the letter and may have bribed Ludwig to do it are not mentioned. Wilhelm receives the request on December 3, but in reality the Kaiser question is by no means a trifle.
The new empire is to be a confederation of princes under the Prussian king, and so a hereditary imperial throne belonging to the Hohenzollerns is a delicate issue. For one thing, the other kings and grand dukes are anxious to retain as much of their status and formal sovereignty as possible. For Wilhelm, unlike many other Germans, the problem is not that Germany might be Prussianized, but that purity of Prussian identity and his kingship might be diluted.
Wilhelm accepts that he will be emperor, but stubbornly insists on the title Emperor of Germany, which expresses his claim to exclusive leadership of the state. This is unacceptable to the other princes and Bismarck, and the Prussian Chancellor and King argue bitterly. The king even compares the weaker title German Emperor to the symbolic rank of Charaktermajor given to retired Prussian captains. Bismarck responds with fits of rage or tears, or feigns illness to try change the king’s mind. But at the end of this week, the Kaiser question remains unanswered.

While Bismarck and Wilhelm I are arguing over titles, writer Theodor Fontane’s time as a prisoner of war comes to an end.

German writer Theodor Fontane has been in French custody for nearly two months when he learns last week that he will soon be free. What he doesn’t know is that Prussian Minister for War Albrecht von Roon is the one who has arranged for an end to his captivity. Von Roon has three French civilians arrested, which the Germans offer to set free in exchange for Fontane’s release and safe passage back to Prussia.
On November 29, the French allow Fontane to leave the Atlantic fortress island of Oléron on account of the three hostages. He has spent the past weeks recording his conversations with fellow German prisoners, which he will soon turn into a book called Prisoner of War. Fontane is happy to be on his way home, but also feels sentimental about leaving the other prisoners, his guards, and his batman Rasumofsky.
Fontane is free, but since he doesn’t know his safe passage has been guaranteed with the imprisonment of three Frenchmen, he’s quite anxious about the return trip. His route is a long detour along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts to avoid the combat zone and reduce the chance of him running into trouble again. He later writes of his fears:
"[I had] no other protection besides a feuille de route in my pocket. In all the cities I had to pass through, public order was hanging by a thread. What could my passport, written indistinctly in a scribbled hand, mean to a red republican workers' mob running the show in Bordeaux, Toulouse, [or] Lyon? ‚A la lanterne!‘ [string him up from a lamp post!]“ (Fontane, Kriegsgefangen, 201)
Fontane reaches Berlin safely on December 5 and just days later starts talks with a publishing house for his book about his adventures in France. The war of 1870/71 deeply affected Fontane, and he makes it a constant theme of his famous social novels in later years.

This week, a massive French offensive to free Paris fails, Bismarck and King Wilhelm Imperial protocol, and Theodor Fontane’s odyssey is finally over. The odyssey of millions of others caught up in the war, on the other hand, continues next week.

1870 Glory & Defeat

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