The Battle of Orléans 1870 - French Raw Recruits vs. Experienced German Soldiers

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This week on Glory and Defeat: the 3rd Republic’s teenaged soldiers face battle-hardened Bavarians at the Battle of Orléans.

Last week, French Interior Minister Leon Gambetta escaped ­­­­Paris in a hot air balloon, Franc-tireurs ambushed the Germans at the village of Ablis, which the Germans burned in revenge.

By the second week of October, 1870, it’s clear that German hopes for an end to the war after Sedan are pipe dreams. Paris is besieged but resisting, and in Tours Gambetta is rapidly raising new French armies in the provinces: the Armée de la Loire in the west, the Armée du Nord in the north, and another force in the east. The French plan is for the fresh armies on the Loire and in the north to relieve Paris in conjunction with a breakout by the besieged garrison.

But these are a far cry from the professional forces of the Second Empire. The new armies’ weapons are obsolete or British and American imports, the troops are raw and many are teenagers. The eastern army also includes 4000 international volunteers under Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi. His optimistically-named Armée des Vosges has fighters from France, the US, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Spain, all united in their hatred for Protestant monarchical Prussia.

The Armée de la Loire wastes no time in moving on Paris to break the narrow German ring surrounding the city. The Germans realise the danger, so they send a The Bavarians get the better of the French, whose army was still in the process of organizing, and 3000 French troops are made prisoner.

Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm confides his impressions to his diary:

"Among the [French] prisoners are youths of 16 and 17 who sobbed when they were brought in; such forced recruits are found among the line troops as well as the Franc-tireurs. What a pity! Es ist zum Erbarmen!" (Meisner, 159)

The Germans occupy Orleans, and throw a bridgehead across the Loire river to spoil any further French plans. But the victorious German troops are by no means comfortable. Bavarian infantryman Florian Kühnhauser recalls his first thoughts when entering Orleans:

"Jetzt kam die Magenfrage - Now came the stomach question, because it had been neglected for two whole days. But where to find something edible when faced with empty streets and closed doors? Necessity and hunger make one resourceful. Everyone knew enough French to figure out which shops stocked food, so there we knocked and made a ruckus until the door was opened voluntarily. If it wasn’t the store was often broken into by force, followed by a firesale at the expense of the owners." (Kühnhauser, 118)

Prussian and Bavarian units not needed to hold Orleans now make their way back towards Paris, clearing the route of snipers and Mobile Guard stragglers who the German command  sees to be threatening the rear of the armies besieging Paris.

Meanwhile the heavy guns in the many large forts surrounding Paris are firing on German positions. Fort Mont Valerien has been shelling the Prussian and Bavarian troops stationed in St. Cloud since October 12, and on October 13 Napoleon III’s private castle in the town burns to the ground. This shelling is in support of an attempted French breakout. The French at first push back the II Bavarian Corps, but the Germans recover and hold the line.

 The French attempt to push to Paris from the west had been defeated at Orleans, but the situation in and around the city was far from quiet.

As conditions in the French capital continue to deteriorate after three weeks of siege, foreign diplomats gradually leave the city – though politics is still alive and well at German headquarters in Versailles. Former French Prime Minister

Prussia’s answers aren’t so simple in the negotiations between Bismarck and the south German states on the unification of the empire. This week, Bavaria and Württemberg continue to try to get the best possible deal, but the Grand Duchy of Baden’s pro-Prussian position prevents the southerners from adopting a united front. In fact the Badeners already asked to join the North German Confederation two weeks ago,

The Germans also can’t agree on what to do about Paris. Bismarck wants the war to end as soon as possible, so he argues in favor of

Two of his key commanders disagree. Moltke opposes bombardment on military grounds, and the Crown Prince rejects the idea for humanitarian reasons, and because he fears that shelling civilians and cultural monuments like Notre Dame Cathedral would damage German prestige. King Wilhelm, who is formally the commander-in-chief, wavers between the two sides. The fact is, the Germans still don’t have enough fortress artillery to carry out a decisive bombardment, but Bismarck, who is not a professional soldier, refuses to believe it. Instead he gets his press agent Moritz Busch to stir up German newspapers in support of shelling Paris.

Negotiations between the Germans and the French also continue this week, including through an American intermediary. He makes the journey from Paris to Versailles in a rowboat since the bridge at Sèvres has been destroyed, but his efforts bring no results.

The Comte d'Hérisson also crosses the river as he accompanies French emissaries to Versailles. He records the procedure at the checkpoint, where signal horns announce the arrival of the negotiation parties:

"The two bells could be heard from a great distance in the pauses between the shooting, for there reigned in these parts an extraordinary, solemn, mournful silence; in some supernatural way, the silence of death, the silence that came before the appearance of life on earth. Between the advanced sentinels posted on the two banks, one could have heard a pin drop, and it seemed that the Seine itself, sliding slowly through this desolate landscape, had smothered the murmur of these waters. la Seine elle-même, glissant lentement dans ce paysage désolé, avait assourdi le murmure des ces eaux." (Hérisson, 175)

While the Germans negotiate their future empire and peace talks are going nowhere at Versailles, a Prussian writer and history buff accidentally gets himself into a world of trouble.

Prussian journalist Theodor Fontane arrived in German-occupied France last week on a fact-finding mission for his book on the war. Since he’s a keen student of history, he decides to travel from Toul to Domrémy to visit the birthplace of Joan of Arc on October 5. But he doesn’t realize that Domrémy is still in French hands, and as soon as he arrives Franc-tireurs arrest him as a spy. This week he’s transferred to a prison at Besançon and the French threaten to execute him. Fontane looks down on the Franc-tireurs, but unlike many other Germans he also feels sympathy for them:

"Many had a sense of how pretty they looked and never walked past the large mirror in the waiting room without glancing at themselves with satisfaction. All ages were represented and next to rosy-cheeked youths […] there were white heads, old troupiers, who were obviously glad for a break from boring daily life [...]. There was no thought of hatred or scorn for the 'Prussian' they saw in me; they were too good-natured for that, and perhaps too busy with themselves." (Fontane 80)

His French captors allow Fontane to write to his wife Emilie, which he does on October 14:

"I am hoping for the best. Soon my complete innocence will be proven. [...] but for someone like me, who has so far been 'pampered' by luck, it remains a very difficult situation. O Joan of Arc! I must pay dearly for you. Ich muß teuer für dich zahlen."

(Arand 451)

This week the Germans defeat the French at the Battle of Orleans and maintain the ring around Paris, and peace negotiations remain deadlocked. The French Republic’s plan to pursue all-out war has brought no results so far, and the Germans are secure enough to be able to spend time haggling over the shape of their future empire. As Theodor Fontane awaits his fate in his prison cell, he is not the only one who will fear for his life in the coming weeks.

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