This week on Glory and Defeat: sewer rat is on the menu in Paris, and the Prussian King agrees to become a German Emperor. https://youtu.be/yFus5922qt4
Last week the Germans defeated the French on the Loire front at Beaugency, and the French government fled from Tours to Bordeaux. This week, the Germans continue their empire-building and still more blood is shed along the Loire.
By mid-December all German states have agreed to join a united Germany, and the North German legislatures have decided the Prussian King who will preside over the new state will be called Deutscher Kaiser, or German Emperor. King Wilhelm is still unhappy with the title German Emperor, since he prefers Emperor of Germany. Before the title can be legally given to Wilhelm I, both houses of parliament still have to approve its bestowal, accept the southern German states into the confederation, and approve the transformation of the confederation into an empire.
A clear majority of parliamentarians vote in favor of the empire, but Danish, Polish, and Hanoverian-Welsh MPs vote against it, foreshadowing decades of difficult relations with minorities. Social Democratic MP Wilhelm Liebknecht points out another flaw of the coming empire by recalling the King’s role in crushing the revolution of 1848/49. There are also a few Germans who oppose Wilhelm as emperor based on old political feuds.
On 11 December an Imperial delegation travels to Versailles to present parliament’s decision to the king in person. The group is led by German-Jewish MP and accomplished lawyer Eduard von Simson, who in April 1849 led the delegation of the 'Frankfurt National Assembly' that tried and failed to offer the imperial crown to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. But the king only receives the parliamentary delegation on the 18th, after the German princes have answered the Bavarian king’s request to ask the Prussian King to become emperor. In fact Wilhelm doesn’t even want to deal with the elected representatives, but bows to pressure from Bismarck and promises to accept the title his brother rejected in 1848. It won’t be official until a grand proclamation, which will take some time.
Writer and painter Ludwig Pietsch is on hand for the Imperial delegation, but he gets there late. He ends up stuck in the crowd of German soldiers and French civilians outside the palace and makes some irreverent observations:
"We Germans, however, […] as deeply, honestly and joyfully as we might feel the greatness of this moment […] could not help but notice with a mixture of amusement and regret, of the unintentional humor added to the delegation’s departure by the only carriages available to it. Most of them might have been standing at a post office yesterday […] some were equipped with gigantic parcel containers at the rear and on top […] As for the horses, most of them had clearly seen several months of army transport service, so their present role as the Aurora steeds of Germany's new dawn (as a patriot-poet friend described it) must have contrasted wondrously with their actual appearance." (Pietsch, 330f.)
Some contemporaries see the plain stagecoaches provided to the deputation as an intentional humiliation of the parliamentarians and, unlike Pietsch, are by no means amused.
The Prussian Crown Prince also reflects on the coming German empire in his diary:
"My father will probably only enjoy the honor of it for his golden years; but to me and mine arises the task of providing a steady hand for the mighty expansion in a genuinely German sense, and to do so with contemporary, unprejudiced principles". (Meisner, 254)
From Bismarck's point of view, however, the question of peace is as important as the future Germany. He and Chief of the General Staff von Moltke are still arguing about how to end the war as quickly as possible, so Bismarck turns to the King. He suggests cracking down on occupied France in violation of international law: hostage-taking, theft, and demanding money. He cynically presents these ideas to the king as an act of humanity to end the war sooner and ultimately reduce suffering – but in the end these policies are not adopted.
While German diplomatic pomp and circumstance fill the palace at Versailles, just a few kilometers away in Paris, the situation is desperate.
December 19 marks three months of siege for the French capital, and soldiers and civilians are reaching breaking point. The commander of the Paris National Guard, General Jacques Louis Clément-Thomas, reports on discipline problems on the 16th:
"The 200th battalion left Paris today to move into the outposts at Créteuil. I receive the following despatch from the commander-in-chief of Vincennes: 'The chief of the 200th Battalion drunk! At least half the crew drunk! It is impossible to go on duty with them. They had to be relieved from their posts. Under the circumstances, the National Guard is a joke and a danger'." (Kürschner, sp. 1003)
As for the civilians, they are now reduced to eating whatever they can get, including zoo animals, dogs, cats and even rats. Reserve officer the Comte d’Hérisson reports:
"Dog and cat butchers have set up shop. Rat patties have also appeared […] Young, fat dog makes for tolerable eating […] "As for the rat, the big and fat sewer rat, except for a little musky smell, approximates, with a lot of pepper and nutmeg, a not too inferior duck in a crust. [le rat] double, avec beaucoup de poivre et muscade, sans trop d’infériorité, le canard dans une croûte." (Hérisson, 254f.)
It is of course possible that Hérisson is being ironic in his claims about rat meat. His poorer compatriots, however, are not penning literary jokes about rat that tastes like duck – they are starving and freezing to death from a lack of fuel.
As the Germans talk in Versailles and Parisians starve in the capital, the fighting on the Loire and in the east continues.
On December 15, the Battle of Vendôme began on the Loire front near Le Mans. On the first day fighting brings no result and is broken off as darkness fell, but the day after the troops of the German X Corps prevail, and enter Vendôme. The French lose about 1000 dead and some supply wagons, while the Germans record just 129 killed. German soldier Albert Böhme writes about his experience to his wife Friederike, who has just given birth to their son:
"[The shells] hit next to us and in front of us and behind us and we went into this terrible Mitralljösenfäuer […] God heard my plea and led me out again, [but] many stayed behind […] here lay a leg and there an arm may God have mercy [so] this misery and wretchedness may end soon [...]. One sergeant had both legs taken off and one was shot three times […] one man had his head torn off by a shell and couldn't be found again. Dear Friederike, that's how it is in France. Liebe Friederike so geht es her in Frankreich." (Schikorsky, 116)
In the east, French forces are still resisting in besieged Belfort, while German troops have been in Dijon since the end of October. This week, on December 14, French troops move into the small town of Nuits-St. Georges and its important rail station. Four days later, 10,500 Baden troops with 36 guns respond under General Adolf von Glümer. They attack General Camille Crémer’s 10,000 French, which include Mobile Guards and Franc-Tireurs and have 20 guns. Around 2 in the afternoon the fighting reaches its peak, as the Badeners attack a railway embankment near the Mezinbach stream – and they suffer heavy losses from Chassepot fire. Across the railway line at Nuits, the French and Badeners exchange fire at 800 paces, but the French start to retreat when reinforcements under Prince Wilhelm of Baden arrive. Both the Prince and General Gluemer are wounded, but the Badeners prevail and take Nuits at 5pm. They capture weapons and ammunition, but at a high cost: 950 Badeners are dead or wounded. The French lose 1050 men and 650 prisoners.
The battle at Nuits is small, but very important for the Grand Duchy of Baden. After the war will be at the center of Baden’s commemorations of 1870/71, and even today a monument to the battle stands in the middle of Freiburg. Another interesting from the battle is that the French commander, General Crémer, was captured at Sedan but like many French officers, breaks his word of honor that he would not fight again after his release.
This week, diplomatic and legal maneuvers bring the German Empire close to completion, starving Parisians dine on rat rather than duck, and the Grand Duchy of Baden receives its trial by fire near Dijon. The Prussian King allows Eduard von Simson and the 1848 revolutionaries some measure of symbolic redemption, but it’s still tinged with humiliation. But symbolism and power structures are far from the minds of most in France next week.
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