Opening Battles of the Franco-Prussian War - Saarbrücken, Wissembourg, Wörth, Spichern I GLORY & DEFEAT Week 4

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This week on Glory and Defeat: after weeks of preparations, the French and German armies are ready to fight: but who will win the battles on the border?

Last week the French and German armies completed their concentration along the border. The real war starts this week.

The first battle of the Franco-Prussian War begins on August 2. Napoleon III hopes his armies can roll through the Rhineland and on to Berlin, and divide the North German Confederation from its South German allies. He orders Marshal Bazaine to advance on the Prussian town of Saarbrücken to start the offensive, but there’s no real plan. Bazaine thinks the attack is useless, since his army lacks supplies, and thousands of soldiers still haven’t located their units due to the chaotic mobilization. Some have even deserted. Extra French units are on the way from North Africa and Rome, where they’ve been protecting the Pope, but they haven’t arrived yet.

The Emperor’s illness and indecisiveness have undermined his authority, so Bazaine changes his orders. The Marshal only sends three divisions under General Frossard across the Saar river. They attack a small German outpost west of Saarbücken defended by a Fusilier Regiment and a squadron of Uhlan cavalry belonging to the 1st German Army. After a three-hour firefight, the French are victorious, and the Germans leave behind 8 dead and 68 wounded. 23 French guns then bombard Saarbrücken even though the Germans have already left and declared it an open city. The German press is outraged, but the French press couldn’t be happier. The newspaper “Le Gaulois” reports breathlessly about 14-year-old Prince Lulu firing off one of the guns:
"Louis has just received his baptism of fire; he was admirably cool and was unimpressed by the danger, as befits his name. Son sang-froid devant le danger a été digne du nom qu’il porte." (Le Gaulois, August 4, No. 760)
After the bombardment, 1000 French troops enter Saarbrücken, but they withdraw on August 5. In his post-war memoirs, Bazaine is very critical of his orders:
"Operations are useless if one does not also seek to assert the captured points when hostilities begin, especially one such as Saarbrücken." (Bazaine, 13).

This insignificant battle at Saarbrücken will be the only engagement on German soil in the entire war.

The same day the French attack at Saarbrücken, King Wilhelm I takes supreme command of the three German armies. He also sums up the German case for war:

"To the army! All of Germany stands united in arms against a neighboring state that has declared war on us surprisingly and without reason. It is a matter of defending the threatened fatherland, our honor, our own hearth and home. (...) The Lord God will be with our just cause. Gott, der Herr, wird mit unserer gerechten Sache sein." (Gall, n.d.)

Just as the French abandon Saarbrücken in the north, the first major battle of the war begins in the south. The Germans realize that the big French offensive is not coming, so they attack.

The town of Wissembourg, or Weißenburg, is a key railway hub at the junction between Bazaine’s northern and Mac Mahon’s southern French forces. The sous-préfet of the town has begged for protection, so Mac-Mahon obliges – but now these units are without clear orders in a position where neighboring forces can’t support them. If the German 3rd Army can take Wissembourg, they’ll dominate the local railways and split the French army in two. 40,000 Prussians and Bavarians are ready to cross the border and attack the 5,000 French infantry and Tirailleurs algériens defending the town.

On a rainy and stormy August 4, the German attack begins with a bombardment by Bavarian artillery. When German troops reach Wissembourg, they report they surprise the French over their morning coffee. There’s fierce hand-to-hand fighting as the Algerians defend the train station, and German troops capture the Gaisberg hill and take Wissembourg by storm. French General Abel Douay is killed when a nearby mitrailleuse explodes. His body is left behind by the fleeing French units, and the Battle of Wissembourg is over by 1:30 in the afternoon. German losses are 1500 killed, wounded and missing; the French lose 2300 men and 700 prisoners (Engel 107; Le Faure)

The Germans have won the battle, but have taken heavy losses at the Gaisberg, a pattern that will repeat itself in the coming weeks. Time and again, the French entrench themselves on the high ground and wait for the Germans to come into range of their Chassepot rifles. (Tabatiere)
Since the German Dreyse rifles can’t shoot as far, they’re forced to attack just to get in range. German commanders reckon with up to 50% losses before their men can come into direct contact with the enemy. Prussian officers in particular try to lead by example and as a result suffer extremely heavy casualties at the head of their units. 3rd Army commander Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm writes of the problem in his diary:

"[We] lost a conspicuously large number of officers and enlisted men, whose impetuous desire to get at the enemy simply caused them to refrain from taking the necessary precautions.“ (Meisner, 26).

Bavarian infantryman Florian Kühnhauser’s description is far more vivid:
"There were often whole rows of corpses, already giving off an unbearable smell, and thousands of flies were busied themselves with the blood, which had already (...) turned black." (Kühnhauser, 28)

The German victory at Wissembourg carries the war onto French soil and splits the French army in two. Just two days later, the Germans attack again – twice.

The next target of the German offensive is the town of Wörth. It’s defended by Mac Mahon’s army of 50,000 men, including the survivors from Wissembourg, who dig in on the hills west of town. After heavy rain on the night of the 5th, 88,000 men of the 3rd German Army attack on the 6th. French soldier Saint-Genest describes his experience under fire from German artillery:

“[…] C’est une tempête de feu, les houblonnières se remplissent de cadavres. It’s a storm of fire, the hops fields fill with corpses. […] When I can at last see clearly, I settle down and look...not an enemy on the horizon! It’s just like before: tall dark fir trees and still poplars.” (Bourguinat/Vogt 114)

Bavarians, Prussians and Württembergers storm the heights from three sides. Attacking uphill yet again the Germans suffer heavy losses but successfully drive the French from the hilltop villages of Elsasshausen and Fröschweiler. The Württembergische Feldbrigade has orders to cut off the French retreat, but Generalmajor Gustav Freiherr von Starkloff decides instead to join the attack on Fröschweiler, which is already won. His decision to ignore orders causes some on the General Staff to question the reliability of the South Germans, and will be hotly debated after the war.

Von Starkloff’s mistake and German exhaustion allow French cavalry launch a desperate charge to cover the infantry’s confused retreat. French officer Gustave de Boissieo from the Douay Division describes the bleak mood:
"In our poor twice-mauled division, only our battalion, which escaped the demoralization of defeat, maintained sufficient order and poise." (Milza, 77)

MacMahon telegraphs news of the defeat to Paris from his headquarters in Reichshoffen, which is why the battle is known as Woerth-Reichshoffen in French but Woerth-Fröschweiler in German. German losses are 10,500; the French lose 10,000 killed and wounded and 6000 prisoners from their much smaller force. To make matters even worse for the French, General Pierre de Failly’s V Corps is stationed only 40km away at Bitche, but for reasons that are still unclear he fails to march on Woerth despite his orders.

On the German side, the battle is celebrated since it marks the first time Prussians, Bavarians and Württembergers all fought side by side. This symbolism was not lost on local pro-German Pastor Karl Klein: "[Wörth-Fröschweiler is where] North and South German brotherhood of arms was cemented in blood." (Klein, VIII)

As the Germans charge up the heights west of Wörth, another bloody battle is raging further north at Spicheren. 25,000 French troops under General Frossard are entrenched on the ridges north of the village following their retreat from Saarbrücken. The Roterberg hill is a nearly impregnable fortress on the high ground, and French troops there begin to fire down on the 20,000 advancing Prussians below.
Prussian General von Kameke mistakenly believes the hill is weakly held, so he orders a direct attack, which turns out to be a near suicide mission. The cliffs are so steep that German soldiers remove their boots so their feet can better grip the rock. Despite being a tactical mistake, the attack succeeds because German commanders don’t hesitate to sacrifice their men. It also succeeds because of the absence of De Failly’s French V Corps, which is also within 40km of this battle but does not intervene here either.

The attack on the Roterberg will later be lionized in Germany, but many German officers are horrified by this week’s tactical mistakes. 4866 Germans are killed, wounded or missing at Spichern, along with about 4000 French. General Konstantin von Voigts-Rhetz describes Kameke’s attack as "unbelievable" and "appalling" and criticizes his fellow general for dispersing his men and needlessly widening the attack (Arand, 275). French soldier and future historian Arthur Chuquet will also criticize German tactics after the war: "Despite their contradictory efforts, and although the action was haphazardly carried out with no plan (…) the Germans had the advantage thanks to their audacity, martial confidence, and their selfless camaraderie." (Chuquet, 46)
The Prussian dead covering the slopes near Spicheren are buried in mass graves at the foot of the Roterberg to save time and effort. This now-overgrown cemetery can still be visited today.

Despite these problems, the German armies are victorious in every major battle this week. General Trochu reports on the state of the French troops: "Four days sufficed to lower the morale of our troops, to proportionately increase the confidence of the enemy, [and] to unsettle the Emperor (...)." (Milza, 79)

This week the French abort their offensive, and the Germans are victorious in three major battles. When the news reaches Paris on August 7 writer Edmond de Goncourt notes in his diary, "[There’s] a terrifying silence […] and on the horizon a Paris where noise seems to have died away." (Goncourt, 139) The French armies are divided, demoralized and in retreat, but they’re not defeated yet, and the guns will break Goncourt’s silence again next week.


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