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New Glory & Defeat Episode: German Artillery Shells Paris Into Submission

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the German guns turn their fire on hungry Paris, and the German Reich arrives in time for the New Year – if Bavaria agrees. https://youtu.be/9ciAgd2Vua4

Last week French and Germans celebrated a cold and miserable wartime Christmas as fighting in the north and west continued. This week they celebrate a cold and miserable New Year 1871, as shells crash down on the Paris forts and the German Empire is born – almost.

In the last days of 1870, the German leadership at Versailles is on edge, as they are still arguing about whether to bombard besieged Paris or just let hunger do its work. Prussian Chief of General Staff Helmuth von Moltke is against a bombardment, and reasons that shelling a city as large as Paris won’t bring any military benefit. North German Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck worries that if the war doesn’t end soon, neutral states might intervene and stop his plans for annexing Alsace and Lorraine and creating a German empire. He thinks the sooner the sheeling begins, the sooner the war will end – and he’s not worried about humanitarian concerns or Germany’s image abroad.
As usual, Bismarck gets his way. Although he wears a uniform and holds an honorary rank, he is not a soldier and he does not accept his generals’ explanations that bombarding Paris effectively required more guns and ammunition than the Germans had. He also ignores their warnings that the logistical situation and the weather won’t allow for enough shelling to force a surrender. On December 26, an annoyed Bismarck writes to his wife Johanna:
"Here, I hope, we will celebrate your birthday with the first achievements of the artillery. It was not God's will that it went according to mine." (N.N., 71)
On December 27, Moltke gives in and agrees to begin bombarding the French fort on Mont Avron, a 110m high hill outside Paris. 76 guns begin to pour down shells, which forces the French to abandon the position on the 29th. Bismarck also wants to shell civilian quarters in Paris, but that is still opposed by other German leaders – for now.

While the German artillerymen serve their guns, French opposition to the Government of National Defense grows, and Parisians continue to starve - but they starve differently depending on their social class.

As 1870 comes to an end, most of Paris is freezing and starving – and its politicians are locked in conflict. Since the hasty revolution and formation of the Government of National Defense in September, there are some French republicans who have grown frustrated. The government’s incompetent handling of the military situation, culminating in this month’s failure to break the Paris siege, now adds serious weight to the domestic opposition. More and more French politicians, like Adolphe Thiers and Jules Grévy, also oppose Interior Minister Gambetta’s fanatic prosecution of the war, and they slowly begin to form a peace party. The French peace party is also suspicious of President Trochu’s government’s democratic principles, and some accuse it of sliding dictatorial tendencies. Liberal Albert de Broglie expresses these fears: "Might the Government of National Defense be primarily a method of keeping power in the hands of the madmen who seized it?” (Bourguinat/Vogt 109)

While French leaders are divided, the people of Paris are united in their suffering. On December 29, Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm reports that he’s heard that the cavalry horses are being eaten in the capital, but this is an understatement. For working-class Parisians, food and fuel are hardly to be found, and far too expensive at black market prices. Anglo-French diarist Henry Labouchère notes in his diary that table wine is running out, and the poor rely on it to make their staple wine and bread soup.

For the wealthy, money can still save them from the worst privations. For the right price, the zoo animals of the Jardin des Plantes can be eaten. The two elephants, Castor and Pollux, were slaughtered some time ago but provide soup and blood sausage for weeks at the Café Voisin – it turns out the prime cut is the trunk. According to the Comte D’Herisson the elephants fetched 27,000 francs. For food and profit, poor Castor suffers terribly, since no one knows how to kill an elephant humanely. Herisson reports that the hungry Frenchmen first shot the elephant in the body, but that was just the beginning of its suffering:

"The animal, accustomed to continuous care, seemed to be convinced that the wound was due to an accident, and lent itself with the greatest docility to what its executioners demanded of it. A conical bullet with a steel point was [then] fired into his brain with a Chassepot. Castor fell, but it took a third bullet to finish him off." (Hérisson, 257)

When it comes time to slaughter Pollux, the butchers have learned their lesson and dispatch him quickly with a shot behind the ear. Henry Labouchère, however, does not find elephant meat to his liking:
"Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner. […] It was tough, coarse, and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton. […] Although French cooks can do wonders with very poor materials, when they are called upon [because of the fuel shortage] to cook an elephant with a spirit lamp the thing is almost beyond their ingenuity." (Labouchere 105)

The grim realities of the siege and the unending war cause many French and Germans to reflect with melancholy and anger as the new year arrives.

The Prussian Crown Prince has a disappointing New Year. He wants to hold the proclamation of the new Empire on January 1st, but his father insists on waiting until the Bavarians formally agree. So the frustrated and angry Crown Prince instead suggests January 18, which coincides with the Prussian coronation in 1701.
Aside from anger, the Crown Prince also reflects on the year that was, and shows a far-sightedness and empathy that few contemporaries share. He yearns for peace but worries it is still far off:
"Perhaps the governments of both countries are to blame for this: they have conjured up spirits which they are now unable to control […] It is almost impossible for us today to renounce the possession of Alsace and Lorraine, even if we have to tell ourselves that the gain is a precarious one and hardly worth the rivers of blood that have flowed because of it […] Bismarck made us great and powerful, but he robbed us of our friends, the sympathies of the world and - our good conscience. Bismarck hat uns groß und mächtig gemacht, aber er raubte uns unsere Freunde, die Sympathien der Welt und – unser gutes Gewissen." (Meisner, 300-301)
The German Empire officially comes into existence on January 1, 1871 with the accession of the south German states into the North German Confederation – subject to Bavarian approval set for January 4. This makes the empire’s status somewhat unclear, and the Crown Prince reports with some irritation that many Germans at Versailles are asking themselves whether the emperor and empire really are established today or not – it seems no one quite knows for sure. Friedrich Wilhelm also sees challenges ahead for the new Reich, and hopes that German power should bring peace and culture – but he also worries their triumph will lead to “blind worship of brute force.”
Just as a new German empire is created, the ruler of a former empire rings in the New Year as well. Napoleon III is still in German captivity in Kassel, and provides a surreal scene at his New Year’s reception. He presents himself as though he were still the ruler of a great empire, and receives military officers and former courtiers wearing a tailcoat and the Grand Order of the Legion d’honneur. His spirits are brightened by letters from the Kings of Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as a greeting signed by 1500 of his former officers.

While the high and mighty make or mourn their empires, regular soldiers and their families spend a very uncertain New Year’s. Marcel Jozon, a captain in the 3rd French 'Régiment du Génie' confides his sadness to his diary: "I'm spending my New Year's Eve […] rather sadly, among strangers, in a hotel room. It's still cold, and the snow is still covering the land. Il continue à faire froid, et la neige couvre toujours la terre. " (Allorant, 117).

Friederike Böhme, wife of Albert Böhme of the 92nd Braunschweig Infantry Regiment expresses the heartfelt longing of many wives in a letter to her husband. She is anxious for him to return and meet their son Karl, who was born after Albert left for the front:
"Dear Albert, I congratulate you warmly on the new year and wish […] that we will see each other again soon. […] I greet and kiss you many thousand times your wife Friederike and your little son Karl (...)." (Schikorsky, 121)

This week, German guns begin their assault on the Paris forts, the German Empire waits on Bavaria to bring its constitution to life, and French and Germans find little cheer with the coming of the new year. The Prussian Crown Prince – and millions of others – wonder how long the hunger, the suffering, and the death will go on before peace finally comes. The answer is no clearer next week.

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