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New Glory & Defeat Episode: The Battles of Amiens and Beaune-La-Rolande 1870

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the Loire Army strikes again, Bismarck bribes a king, and a united Germany is born. https://youtu.be/VZ0woxnEzkc


Last week Baden and Hesse joined the German Confederation, and Spain finally got a king. This week, the French armies attack in the west and the north, while at Versailles the last two south German states agree to join a united Germany.

The last week of November 1870 is a bloody one on the battlefields of western and northern France. The German 1st Army is moving west after the fall of Metz, so the Armée du Nord prepares to block it and keep alive the hope of relieving Paris. About 25,000 French troops clash with 30,000 Germans at the Battle of Amiens on the 27th. The French put up fierce resistance but the Germans force them to retreat and abandon Amiens, which the Germans occupy the next day. The Germans lose about 1300 men, and the French about 1100.
In the west, the French high command debates how to use their large but poor-quality forces against the stretched-out German lines. There’s political pressure to attack, but General d’Aurelle de Paladines is worried about his forces and warns the government:
"It would be dangerous to trust in the deceptive mirages of figures on paper and take them for reality." (Howard 305)
In the end the political imperative wins out, and Gambetta issues clear orders to the army:
"You are today on the road to Paris. Never forget that Paris is waiting for us and honor demands that we should wrest it from the grasp of the barbarians who are threatening it with pillage and fire." Howard 304)
So, the Armée de la Loire attacks again on November 28 at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande. 200,000 French troops face the 45,000 Germans of General Konstantin von Voigts-Rhetz X Corps. Despite the advantage of numbers, the inexperienced French forces committed to the battle fail to break through. German losses are 900 men, the French lose 1300 and 1800 prisoners.
German Major Hans von Kretschman is very critical of the French Mobile Guards in a letter to his wife Jenn: "The mobiles were very mobile backwards; they ran quite well. [...] Now it will probably soon be over. I think Paris will now realize that no help is possible." (Braun, 230)
The French failure has been described by one historian as a "débâcle des armées de province. – a debacle of the provincial armies." (Gouttman, 365) – a disaster that leaves Paris surrounded and the army demoralized. There’s even more bad news for the French this week as well: the besieged fortresses at Thionville and La Fère surrender, which cuts the Reims-Paris railway, and Garibaldi’s forces loses a skirmish near Dijon.
The fighting along the Loire has been going on for weeks now and is putting catastrophic strain on the civilians and soldiers from both sides. German troops plunder farms and brutally punish villagers for real or imaginary franc-tireurs. The cold and wet are also a problem for German troops, especially the Bavarians, whose poor-quality boots are often falling apart. Many German troops are barely recognizable as soldiers since their tattered uniforms are now mixed with winter clothing they steal from French civilians.
Bavarian Florian Kühnhauser admits he’s at the end of his rope this week: "My strength also left me and, completely exhausted and worn out, I sank down unconscious. I was carried along on a two-wheeled cart for an hour on bumpy roads." (Kühnhauser, 150) He also describes the suffering of the French farmers whom he and his fellow soldiers rob, and later reflects on his actions and criticism from home:
"Whoever did not take care of himself and his health [by seizing food] during the grueling days of November was at the mercy of the rough weather. Of course, some readers will say to themselves, we were the purest gang of robbers. Yes, [we were]. He who has his coffee in the morning, a morning pint at eleven, a decent table at noon and […] coffee again in the afternoon and is still impatient because the waitress is so bad, he has much to say. For such people a campaign lasting only one month would be the most effective cure for fatness." (Kühnhauser, 149)

While German armies win more victories on the cold and muddy battlefields of France, Bismarck is busy winning political battles at Versailles.

Discussions between the German states about a united Empire have been dragging on since the summer, but in November there is finally significant progress. Last week, the smaller Grand Duchies of Baden and Hesse agreed to join the Prussian-controlled North German Confederation, which is renamed the German Confederation. But the larger and more confident Kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg have been holding out for special privileges called 'reserve rights'. At one point the Württemberg delegation theatrically leaves Versailles and returns to Stuttgart, and Bavaria’s eccentric King Ludwig drags his feet. Both kingdoms use the contributions of their armies to the war as leverage. The talks are so difficult that Bismarck suffers nervous breakdowns and gall bladder problems.
This week, however, the two hesitant royal governments give in to Prussian power, and to pressure from their own educated publics in favor of union. On November 23 and 25, first Bavaria and then Württemberg sign accession agreements known as “The November Treaties.” Bavaria is allowed to retain its own foreign embassies, its own postal system, and sovereignty over its army in peacetime. Württemberg’s reserve rights are more modest, and its army will be absorbed into the united armed forces.

Most of the educated classes in Baden, Hesse, and Württemberg react positively to the November Treaties. Some Württembergers are envious of Bavaria’s extra rights, and some Prussians feel that Bismarck has conceded too much to Bavaria, but overall the tone in the press, beer halls and parlors is one of joy and relief. Only socialists and democrats who were involved in the failed revolutions of 1848/49 see this form of German unity for what it is: a top-down monarchical construct that is achieved with the blood of regular people who have no say in shaping it. Bismarck’s new Germany is made “from above” as a counter-model to the attempt to unite Germany “from below” in 1848/49.

All German states except Austria have now accepted the constitution of the German Confederation, which is to come into effect on January 1, 1871. Before it does, the parliaments of the southern states and the North German Reichstag still have to approve. The new Germany will be a federal state presided over by the King of Prussia, and it will be characterized by Prussian economic, political, and military dominance.

The November Treaties have set the stage for a united Germany, but the question of whether it would remain a confederation or be a full-fledged Empire is still not settled.

This week Bismarck achieved his main goal of German unity with the November Treaties. But for the moment the German state was still a Bund, or confederation, and not a Kaiserreich, or empire. For Bismarck, only an empire can be the legitimate successor to the Holy Roman Empire which ended in 1806, and only an empire can ensure the character of the new state in opposition to the democratic spirit of 1848/49.
Not all Germans agree. Democrats and leftists are opposed to empire of course, but many conservatives and monarchists are skeptical as well. One of the skeptics is Bavarian King Ludwig II. According to Bismarck’s plan, Ludwig, on behalf of all the German princes, would ask the King of Prussia to become German emperor. Theoretically the Prussian King-Emperor would simply be first among equals, but in practice the empire would end centuries of south German independence. This would amount a symbolic act of submission, something Ludwig does not want to do.
Allegedly, Bismarck now makes Ludwig an offer he can’t refuse. Ludwig has been on an extravagant building spree and is badly in need of cash. Bismarck supposedly proposes to give Ludwig secret payments from money that Prussia had seized from Hannover after the 1866 war, and Ludwig changes his mind. Or so the story goes – it’s never been fully proven by historians.
In any case, Bismarck drafts the Kaiserbrief, or Imperial Letter for Ludwig to present to King Wilhelm I of Prussia. The letter is pure political theater – with Bismarck’s words in Ludwig’s mouth:
"I have therefore turned to the German princes with the proposal that they join me in suggesting to Your Majesty that the exercise of the presidential rights of the Federation be combined with the title of German Emperor". (Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte, o.S.)
Prussia's leading role on the battlefield is also cemented in the structure of the new state. Southern resistance is finally broken, and Ludwig will soon be free to continue his vanity construction projects like the famous Neuschwanstein castle.

This week, the Germans defeat the French at Amiens and Beaune-la-Rolande, and Germany is created – on paper, for now. For one man in France, at least, there is good news – imprisoned German writer Theodor Fontane swears he will not say, write, or do anything against France. In return, The French promise to release him – though for millions in France, release from suffering is nowhere in sight.

1870 Glory & Defeat

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