New Glory & Defeat Episode: How Soldiers and Civilians Celebrated Christmas During the Franco-Prussian War 1870

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: it’s a war weary Christmas for everyone. It's Christmas 1870 on the frozen battlefields of France.

Last week the German princes and parliament asked the Prussian King to become German Emperor. This week a solar eclipse darkens the sky and the spirits of many on both sides who see it as a bad omen for the future. It is Christmas, but blood is still being shed on the battlefields.

On December 23 and 24 the Battle of Hallue takes place near the Somme river in northern France. 22,000 Germans along with 108 guns and 2300 horse under General Edwin von Manteuffel defeat the French Army of the North, which fielded twice as many men under General Louis Faidherbe. The French lose 1000 men and retreat towards the town of Arras. It’s yet another triumph of German arms, but another costly victory on a cold, obscure French battlefield is a hard sell for the home front in the German Confederation.
Just north of Paris fighting rages on as well. The French had previously taken and lost the village of Le Bourget and now launch another senseless attack to recapture it. This might make sense if the Army of the North were closer to Paris, but once again Parisian commanders don’t know Faidherbe is so far away. After an artillery bombardment from armored railway cars, French volunteers and Franc-tireurs advance with mitrailleuse support against the Prussian Guard. Both attackers and defenders are a sight to be seen – their non-regulation winter clothing like knit caps, sheepskin vests, and improvised overcoats actually hinder the fighting. In the end, the Prussians hold on, but the village is destroyed, as a Prussian officer recalls:
"The whole long street was covered with stones and bricks; one could hardly get over the piles of rubble. There was not a window left whole, not a house without one or two shells in it; one literally waded up to one's ankles in debris and shell splinters. (...) Fortunately for us, at least we were not destined to celebrate Christmas Eve in it as well. " (Fontane, 576)

As the fighting continues, Christmas 1870 brings little joy.

This week the Germans set about chopping down thousands of trees for Christmas – clearing many of the parks and forests near Paris of conifers. There are Christmas trees in the trenches, dugouts, hospitals, artillery positions and earthworks. Relatives back home send candles in care packages, and on the 24th, the whole German siege ring around Paris glows with their light. German Catholics and Protestants hold services, sometimes in ruined churches, and the singing can be heard across the front. The field chaplains give mostly patriotic sermons, but most of the men are thinking about home and loved ones – and perhaps about things they have seen and done in this war that do not fit the Christmas message.
One group of German soldiers standing around a Christmas tree near Choisy-le-roi is killed by French guns bombarding the siege ring.
Assimilated German Jewish soldier Sigismund Samuel also celebrates Christmas with his comrades of the Westphalian Fusilier Regiment No. 37, as he writes his sister:

"In each and every one of us our minds were more inclined to homesickness than usual. Why? I don’t know. Christmas, as a family celebration, has grown on all of us. The Christmas tree, which burns in the richest palace as in the poorest hut, is a symbol of a warm and safe home, and it’s difficult for us to do without it. And we did not do without it, not even at outposts. It was almost touching to see how people picked small fir branches, lit them and dreamed of home." (Schmidt, 144)

Samuel also organizes a Christmas Eve celebration for his comrades, which they spend in a cramped, freezing room while dining on pea soup, goose, and omelettes. The fact that a Jewish non-commissioned officer organizes Christmas celebrations for his Christian comrades recalls the peaceful celebration of Yom Kippur a few months ago at Metz. These moments show that mutual acceptance might be made possible only by the strains of war, but also that the catastrophes of the 20th century are by no means predetermined in 1870.

Franz Plitt, a soldier in the 3rd Kurhessian Infantry Regiment No. 83, spends Christmas on the Loire in a French home where he is quartered. It’s so cold his wine freezes in his cantine, and he is filled with sadness when he attends mass:
"After the sermon, the organ began again and the choir began to sing our regimental music. I was overcome by an unspeakable sorrow from all the misery and the experiences, and like me, probably all the officers and enlisted men had a moist eye, which had probably not known tears for a long time." (Plitt, 101)
French Captain Paul Jozon feels equally introspective this Christmas, as he writes to his wife Maris by balloon from Paris:
"We spent [Christmas] evening with the Lauth family. We witnessed the joy of his son two of the neighbor’s children when they saw the Christmas tree, shining with candles and baubles. These children were hardly thinking about Prussians, whom they nearly caused us to forget. Ces enfants ne pensaient guère aux Prussiens, qu'ils nous avaeint presque fait oublier. " (Allorant 177)
Brunswick soldier Albert Böhme is also thinking about a child at Christmas – his newborn son whom he has never met. A letter from his wife Friederike reaches him on Christmas Day:
"Dear Albert, we have never had such a sad Christmas as this year, we wish that next year it may be better dear Albert, on Christmas Day our little prince is to be christened (...)." (Schikorsky, 114f.)
Albert replies the same day:
"Dear Friederike, it hurts me to see my heart swimming in tears when I think of how you are now and how you are getting along (...) I only wish that God will grant […] that I can embrace you all in my arms, which is my only longing and desire, and that I will also meet my little prince, and would like to know his name. und wißen möchte [ich] wie er Heißt (...). " (Schikorsky, 118f.)
For the Böhme family, as for many in France and the German Confederation, the Christmas celebration is less an occasion for joy than for pain.
Block 3: Christmas in Paris and Versailles
Parisians also celebrate Christmas as best they can under siege conditions. Actress Sarah Bernhardt organizes festivities in her private hospital, and both French and German wounded sing hymns together and share a meal of brioches and sausage.

Depressed writer Edmond de Goncourt spends Christmas wandering the city searching for food and observing the generalized starvation. On the 25th he writes in his diary with sadness and a keen eye for the almost comical details of siege life in the formerly radiant city:

"It is Christmas. I'm waiting for a soldier to say: 'Actually, Christmas Eve; we had five men frozen under the canvas!‘ […] What a singular transmutation of shops, and what a bizarre transfiguration of shops! A jeweller in the Rue de Clichy now displays, in jewellery boxes, fresh eggs wrapped in cotton wool." (Goncourt, 163)

Famine in Paris has reached the point that zoo animals are being eaten. The zoo’s two elephants, Castor and Pollux, are slaughtered and turned into sausage and soup. But the exotic zoo creatures aren’t used to feed the poor; instead they end up on the menus of the well-to-do. The Christmas day menu of the Café Voisin includes: Consommé d’Eléphant (…) Civet de Kangourou (…) Chameau rôti a l’anglaise (…) Côtes d’Ours rôties Sauce Poivrade and Terrine d’Antilope aux truffes“ (Speisekarte, o. S.) The menu also flippantly notes for its wealthy patrons that the 25th marks 99 days of siege.
Things are much different for the German notables and diplomats at Versailles. It’s freezing cold, but they are well-housed and well-fed. Like many officers and men, the Crown Prince buys Christmas presents at Versailles shops. He records his experience in his diary on Christmas eve:
"The French could not conceal their astonishment at the behavior of these Nordic barbarians, for even while shopping in the shops and meeting in the streets they could see in our faces that all of us were filled with friendship and the desire to give pleasure to others." (Meisner, 290).
The Crown Prince also holds a raffle for his staff and servants. Over punch, gingerbread, nuts and apples, 160 prizes are given out, and wounded soldiers are also invited to the party. But he is also in a somber mood:
"Next to my own at home, I am thinking today especially of the unhappy widows and orphans. For thousands this Christmas will be a true festival of mourning […] It sounds almost like irony to hear the salvation message of Christmas […] in the days that speak only of the death and destruction of enemies. 'Peace on earth and goodwill to men'. Christianity is truly still far from acting according to the meaning of those words." (Meisner, 289, 291)
Irish journalist William Howard Russell also celebrates Christmas at Versailles with British journalists and diplomats. The celebration is interrupted by artillery fire, and a German surgeon is forced to leave the celebration and perform several amputations before returning to his Christmas dinner.

This week brings more German victories in the north and near Paris, and for Germans and French, civilians and soldiers, Christmas 1870 is a somber one. Writer Theodor Fontane, now far from the front in Berlin after his release from French captivity, is filled with sadness. He writes of his despair to his sister Elise:
"When will this end? This afternoon ten [train] cars full of [reservists] passed us by. They sang. It is still the best thing that they can sing, this indestructible frivolity - Have a happy holiday. Habe frohe Festtage." (Fontane, Kriegsgefangen, 257)
Christmas 1870 has come and gone, but the war has not.


  • Arand, Tobias: 1870/71. Der Deutsch-Französische Krieg erzählt in Einzelschicksalen. Hamburg 2018
  • Gouttman, Alain: La grande défaite. 1870-1871. Paris 2015
  • Hahn, Joachim: Jüdisches Leben in Ludwigsburg. Geschichte, Quellen, Dokumentation. Karlsruhe 1998


  • Allorant, Salomé u.a. (Hrsg.): La République au défi de la guerre. Lettres et carnet de l'Année terrible (1870-1871). Amiens 2015
  • Bernardt, Sarah: Ma double vie. Mémoires. Paris 1907
  • Fontane, Theodor: Der Krieg gegen Frankreich. Bd. 3. Berlin 1875
  • Fontane, Theodor: Kriegsgefangen. Erlebtes 1870. Briefe 1870/71. Berlin (Ost) 1984
  • Goncourt, Edmond de: Journals des Goncourt. Mémoires de la vie litteraire. Vol. 4. Paris 1890
  • Kriegsgeschichtliche Abteilung des Großen Generalstabs (Hrsg.): Der deutsch-französische Krieg 1870-71. 2.2. Berlin 1880
  • Meisner, Heinrich Otto (Hrsg.): Kaiser Friedrich III. Das Kriegstagebuch von 1870/71. Berlin, Leipzig 1926
  • Plitt, Franz: Rückerinnerungen eines Dreiundachtzigers. Kassel 1903
  • Russell, William Howard: My diary during the last great war. London 1874
  • Schikorsky, Isa (Hrsg.): ‚Wenn doch dies Elend ein Ende hätte‘. Ein Briefwechsel aus dem Deutsch-Französischen Krieg 1870/71. Köln, Weimar, Wien 1999
  • Schmidt, Erna (Hrsg.): Briefe aus den Feldzügen 1866 und 1870/71. Berlin 1908
  • Speisekarte des Café Voisin Paris vom 25.12.1870

← Older Post Newer Post →