Paris Fights Back - The French Battle Against German Encirclement I Franco-Prussian War 1870

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This week on Glory and Defeat: the German Army reaches the gates of Paris, the new French armies are thrown into battle, and negotiations for a unified German Reich begin.

Last week Empress Eugenie and her son reached safety in England, and the French Republican government decided to wage a guerre à outrance. But France’s only experienced army is still besieged far behind the lines in Metz, and the Germans within sight of Paris.

By the middle of September 1870, German forces have been marching towards Paris for two weeks. Inside the city, General, President of the Government of National Defense General Louis Jules Trochu organizes the city’s defense. He has the XIII Corps, which escaped the disaster at Sedan, as well as General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot’s new XIV Corps. Ducrot had been released by the Germans after Sedan, and has now broken his word of honor not to fight them again. There’s also a mixed force of Mobile Guards, elite Marines, and unreliable National Guards.

Meanwhile, starting on September 16, the German 3rd and 4th Armies arrive and begin to stretch a 48-km long siege ring around the city.
300,000 German troops are facing about 450,000 French soldiers, but many of the French units are poorly trained and inexperienced new conscripts, or irregular armed civilian Franc-tireurs. The French also have 3,000 guns to defend Paris and its two million civilians who are now at risk of being trapped in a siege.

The Germans now have several options: they can try to take Paris by storm, but this would certainly be costly because the of the strength of French fortifications, and it might even fail. They could also bombard the city into submission, but this would cause heavy civilian casualties of the kind that previously earned international condemnation at Strasbourg. They might also starve the city into surrender – but Chief of the General Staff von Moltke thinks Paris will quickly give in. King Wilhelm is much more skeptical and tells von Moltke: "Just wait, now the war is just beginning." (Haselhorst 108)
Whatever option the Germans choose to take Paris, they still need to wait for the heavy guns to arrive. The armies have moved faster than the siege artillery, and German troops only occupy one suitable hill at Châtillon – and even this position is 8km away from the city centre.

As the Germans surround Paris with superior forces, the French make a desperate to stave off encirclement southwest of the city, at the Battle of Sceaux.

On September 18, the Germans have not yet completely surrounded Paris. To stop the Germans from closing the ring, General Ducrot’s corps launches an attack on Sceaux before the German 3rd Army can take up its positions. But Ducrot’s 30,000 to 40,000 men are mostly Mobile Guardsmen, new drafts, and inadequately trained volunteers. Many of the soldiers were only conscripted earlier this week, and there’s a shortage of weapons and uniforms.
Despite these problems, the French assault begins at 5:00am the next day from Viry- Châtillon. Their artillery shells two Prussian regiments entrenched in the forest before the infantry engages in close combat. Losses are heavy on both sides, and the Prussians hold the line. Once the French retreat, several Bavarian regiments arrive, bringing German numbers up to about 15,000 – but they’re still outnumbered by more than two to one. The Germans move their artillery into position on the French left flank and open fire with explosive shells. By 9:00am, Ducrot’s forces are in retreat or flight, and the battle of Sceaux, also known as the Battle of Chatillon, is over. The German ring around Paris closes, and the siege of the City of Lights begins.
The day after the battle, Irish war correspondent William Howard Russell visits the battlefield with Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm. His observations reflect his depressed mood after observing weeks of slaughter:
"To be obliged to direct my horse carefully through the turnip-fields outside Paris lest he should trample on a dead Frenchman causes me some natural dégoût. Why will not people stay at home, and not go out of their own country to kill each other? It is [because of] that French mania for 'La Gloire' […] that the sedate German is now […] on the road to Versailles, […] concocting noble vengeances for what the ancestor of his fallen foes did to his grandfather, if not his grandmother." (Russell, 297)
French writer Edmond de Goncourt is shocked to see the defeated French troops fleeing from Sceaux at the Point-de-Jour gate in Paris: "Another platoon of Zouaves near the Madeleine [church]. One of them, laughing nervously, told me that 'there was no battle... that it was immediately sauve qui peut [every man for himself]… he did not fire a round'." (Goncourt 48) Goncourt also notices the mounting tension in a city that knows it is now under siege. Nervous crowds in the streets are quick to panic or violently turn on alleged thieves or spies based on nothing more than rumors – the people of Paris are afraid.

The German victory at Sceaux marks the encirclement of Paris and allows the German Army to occupy the French royal palace at Versailles. German wounded are treated in the famous Hall of Mirrors, while their leaders begin to discuss a future German Reich.

Although Bavarians, Württembergers, Hessians, Badeners, and the members of the North German Confederation are fighting side by side in this war, German political unity is still far off. Otto von Bismarck wants to transform the Prussian-dominated North German Confederation into a Prussian-dominated German Empire by adding the South German states. Initial talks had taken place back in August, but have started to gain momentum after the victory at Sedan two weeks ago. Bismarck has the complicated task of overseeing the war and trying to create a new empire, but he is helped by President of the Chancellery of the North German Confederation Rudolf von Delbrück. Another difficulty is that many Prussians look down on their southern allies – including Bismarck, according to Saxon writer Moritz Busch:

"In German papers one reads that Boss [Bismarck] said that at the Battle of Sedan Prussia’s allies performed best. He actually said that they helped as best they could." (Busch 151)

The southern states are definitely the weaker partner in these talks. Baden had been close to Prussia since 1848/49 and wants to join the Confederation. Hesse also agrees to join as it is too small and weak to resist the political pressure. In the larger kingdoms of Württemberg and Bavaria, the ruling groups realize that they cannot preserve their independence. The German patriotism fired by wartime victories and common sacrifice is too strong to resist, and the two kingdoms now hope to get special rights in exchange for joining a new empire.
On September 12 Bavaria rejects a simple accession to the Confederation, and asks to begin negotiations about special rights, probably to avoid appearing pushed into things by Prussia.

The next day, Delbrück presents the southern states with a program approved by Bismarck.
The proposal goes a long way towards meeting the demands of the southerners, especially Bavaria. The new Reich would be a federal union based on the North German constitution, which the southern Germans would join while keeping their formal independence. The emperor, however, would always be the King of Prussia. A conference on the future constitution is scheduled for next week in Munich.

Bismarck also has his hands full on other diplomatic fronts this week. He is trying to stop his generals from deliberately humiliating the French, and he’s also engaged in difficult negotiations with French Foreign Minister Jules Favre. On September 19, Bismarck informs Favre that Alsace and Lorraine must be given to Germany as part of a peace deal. Favre refuses, and insists that the French Republic is not responsible for the war started by the former Empire, but Bismarck is unmoved. The French also suffer a diplomatic setback as newspapers report that British attempts at mediating a common position for peace talks have failed. The French press also publishes German preconditions for armistice talks: the surrender of besieged fortresses, Strasbourg’s garrison to be made prisoner, and giving up a key fort outside Paris. The Journal officiel is outraged: "Que l’Europe soit juge! May Europe be the judge! For us, the enemy has revealed himself: he forces us to choose between duty and dishonor. Our choice is made." (Gouttman 315)

This week the Germans defeat the French at the Battle of Sceaux, the siege of Paris begins, and the German states begin to discuss a future Empire.
The Battle at Sceaux reveals the dark side of the people’s war proclaimed by the young French republic: inexperienced amateur troops without properly trained officers have little chance against the battle-hardened and well-led Germans. The result is not a glorious liberation but brutal defeat and heavy casualties. Paris now awaits its fate while German leaders forge a plan for a new Empire outside its walls.


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