New Glory & Defeat Episode: French Ragtag Army's Desperate Winter Battles 1871

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the Germans target civilians in Paris, and there’s a bloody battle in the east.

Last week, the Germans began shelling the forts outside Paris, and the German Empire officially came into existence pending Bavarian approval. This week, Parisian civilians come under fire and the war rages on all fronts.

The New Year brings new attempts to gain success on the battlefield by both sides. The French high command turns its attention to the besieged fortress of Belfort in the east, which has been holding out for two months. General Bourbaki’s part of the Loire Army is now reinforced with Franc-tireurs, Garibaldians, and new recruits and re-baptised the Armee de l’Est. On January 9, this motley crew runs into Prussian units of General von Werder’s corps at the village of Villersexel . Fighting rages between Bourbaki’s mixed units and von Weder’s mainly older reservists in -20 degree Celsius. From 9am to 3am the next morning, they fight hand-to-hand in every house and cellar as the village changes hands several times. A furious 9-hour night battle for control of the castle sees the Germans set it on fire, a scene later described by Theodor Fontane:

"The castle blaze had raged on throughout the night battle. The collapsing rubble buried not only the bodies of the fallen, but also the wounded of both friend and foe." (Fontane, 669)

The French eventually force the Prussians to evacuate the town and retreat, but they need to re-group before they can pursue the outnumbered Germans. Staff officer Wilhelm Dinesen, a Dane serving with the French, witnesses the horrors of war:

"Someone was lying next to me, or rather: he was leaning on his arms with his hands in the snow, as if on a pair of stilts; both his legs were shot to pieces. His head was mangled: his nose and cheeks were gone, his eyes hung down to his chin; he sat still, motionless. Now and then he murmured: 'protégez moi, mon Dieu!'" (Buk-Swienty, 304)

The next morning he rides across the devastated battlefield:
"The splendid castle had been largely burnt down; the sooty ruins were still smoking […] at the top of a few beams […] hung a few Prussians, black and half-charred. Bodies rested in [the pure snow] a hundredfold, singly or in heaps, and between them rifles, knapsacks, canteens and cartridge-bags. The warm blood had bored dark funnels into the snow, puddles and bright streaks in all directions, where the wounded had tried to get to safety [...] The icy cold had frozen limbs contorted in agony." (Buk-Swienty, 305 f)

Dinesen also reports that the poorly-equipped Frenchmen strip the dead Prussians of their boots to replace their own tattered footwear.

On the Loire, the Germans hope to press their advantage following their recent victories with a final push. Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm expects another victory, as he confides to his diary on January 5:
"Prince Friedrich Karl will be able to thoroughly defeat the Western [French] Army , which is still being formed there and which has already been defeated, (...) in the next few days near Le Mans". (Meisner, 314)

One of the men who is expected to contribute to the thorough victory is foot soldier Karl Zeitz of the 2nd Thuringian Infantry Regiment No. 32. He has long since run out of patience with French peasants who don’t want German troops to stay in their homes, but on January 5 he empathizes. Zeitz and his men are soaked and freezing when they arrive at the village of Happonvillers near Le Mans, but a French family does not want to let them in:

"The poor people could hardly answer because they were crying and sobbing. I could only roughly gather from their words that they could not leave the front room to us. But that had to be! We were soaked to the skin. [...] We entered a parlour. […] With a cry [the family] sank to their knees. I took off my helmet; deeply moved, I saw the picture of mourning. A bier surrounded by lights stood before us. A young girl, probably aged 17-18, lay on it, still in the most radiant colours, as if she were only asleep (...)." (Zeitz, 282)

Zeitz insists on he and his men using the room for the night, but promises to guard the young woman’s sleep as if they are mourning her themselves.

As the war rages in the provinces and Belfort continues to hold out, French soldiers and civilians in besieged Paris now face the wrath of the German guns.

German leaders have finally decided, after much debate, to shell the civilian districts of Paris as well as the forts. On 5 January, 1871, at eight o'clock in the morning German gunners start firing 15 to 20 shells into the city every minute. For Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, it is about time. He is full of malice towards the French, and is prepared to accept civilian casualties if it means bringing the war to an end.

But not all German leaders are in favor. Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm, who objects on political and humanitarian grounds, complains to his diary:
"Now the wise men in Berlin will probably triumph and expect that tonight the surrender will already take place. But what will they say if after a fortnight everything has still remained the same?" (Meisner, 313).

The Crown Prince also notes more reports of French guns shelling German dressing stations. There are too many reports of such incidents in 1870-71 to be dismissed as pure propaganda. It’s impossible to say today to what extent these attacks were a deliberate breach of the first 'Geneva Convention' of 1864 and what role might have been played by the fog of war.

Ironically, at first the bombardment doesn’t seem to bother most Parisians that much. The elderly Adelaide de Montgolfier even writes to a friend that she’d heard a French soldier say the shells’ bark was worse than their bite – "plus de bruit que de besogne." Writer Edmond de Goncourt notes his surprise in his diary on the 6th: "I constantly hear the whistling of shells, like the howling of a great autumn wind. Since yesterday this seems so natural to the population that no one takes any notice of it. In the garden next to mine, two little children stop playing at each shell burst and shout [...]: ‘It’s exploded!’ Then they start to play again. " (Goncourt, 181f.)

Engineering Captain Paul Jozon writes nonchalantly to his wife: "[The bombardment] is much less terrible up close than from afar. […] At night, [the shells] fall in greater numbers and the inhabitants take refuge in the cellars. It's annoying, but we don't lose many people, five or six a day. […] Given the immensity of Paris, it would take a month of shelling to have any appreciable effect." (Allorant, 178)

Far worse than the German shells is the lack of food – even the basics are now gone, as Goncourt reports:
" In the absence of meat, it is not possible to fall back on vegetables: a small turnip sells for eight sous, and one must give seven francs for a litre of onions. But there is no more talk of butter, and even fat […] has disappeared. […] Cheese is a memory, and potatoes need protection to be obtained at twenty francs a bushel. Coffee, wine, [and] bread: this is the food of most of Paris." (Goncourt, 183)

The unequal suffering in Paris is increasing the tensions and hatred between those who can afford to eat and heat and those who can’t – a sign of that violent social conflict might be on the horizon.

This week, German guns turn their fire onto starving Paris civilians, and the French Armee de l’Est moves to relieve Belfort. Millions in France and Germany are asking themselves why the war is still going on. Militarily, it is essentially decided, as all French attempts to free Paris have failed, and only extremists like Gambetta still believe in a miraculous French victory. The war must end at some point – the question is, will it be next week?


  • Arand, Tobias: 1870/71. Der Deutsch-Französische Krieg erzählt in Einzelschicksalen. Hamburg 2018
  • Buk-Swienty, Tom: Schlachtbank Düppel. 18. April 1864. Die Geschichte einer Schlacht. Berlin 2011


  • Klein, Karl: Fröschweiler Chronik. Arand, Tobias/Bunnenberg, Christian (Hrsg.).Hamburg 2021.
  • Allorant, Salomé u.a. (Hrsg.): La République au défi de la guerre. Lettres et carnet de l’Année terrible (1870-1871). Amiens 2015
  • Fontane, Theodor: Der Krieg gegen Frankreich. Bd. 4. Berlin 1876
  • Goncourt, Edmond de: Journal des Goncourts. II.1. 1870-1871. Paris 1890
  • Meisner, Heinrich Otto (Hrsg.): Kaiser Friedrich III. Das Kriegstagebuch von 1870/71. Berlin, Leipzig 1926
  • N. N. (Hrsg.): Bismarcks Briefe an seine Gattin aus dem Kriege 1870/71. Stuttgart, Berlin 1903
  • Pflugk-Harttung, Julius: Krieg und Sieg 1870-71. Berlin 1896
  • Sheridan, Philip H.: Von Gravelotte nach Paris. Erinnerungen aus dem deutsch-französischem Kriege. Leipzig 1889
  • Zeitz, Karl: Kriegserinnerungen eines Feldzugsfreiwilligen aus den Jahren 1870 und 1871. Altenburg 1905

← Older Post Newer Post →