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The Weird And Only Naval Battle of The Franco-Prussian War

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the French are victorious at Coulmiers, and the only naval battle of the war takes place – off Cuba: https://youtu.be/NVzypWlv4hY

Last week the battlefields were quiet but peace negotiations between Bismarck and Adolphe Thiers failed. This week, French and German guns are firing again on land and at sea.

The second week of November 1870, sees renewed fighting in the area around the city of Orléans. After the Germans captured it on October 11, they station about 26,000 men and 110 guns in the area, mostly Bavarian units under General von der Thann. French General Louis d'Aurelle de Paladines’ Armee de la Loire now advances on Orleans again. The French hope to defeat the isolated Bavarians, recapture the city, and use it as a base to relieve Paris. Thanks to a steady stream of volunteers, the Loire Army has grown to 200,000 men – but only 75,000 men and 160 guns are combat-ready. The rest are still untrained, and there is a serious lack of officers and NCOs. But German cavalry notice the French on November 7, and evacuate Orleans on the 8th. They deploy in a defensive stance on a road passing through the town of Coulmiers.
The French attack begins early on November 9 – first contact is on the French right, but the fighting in the center of the line begins at about 1:30pm. The French infantry nearly overruns the Bavarian lines until the German artillery moves up and stops the attack. The French try again at 3:00pm, but they’re uncoordinated and the Germans are able to send in reinforcements at the decisive points in time to hold the line.
The French Mobile Guards retreat in disorder, and their officers can only get them back under control with the help of regular army units. Eventually French troops storm Coulmiers and force the Germans back. Von der Thann orders a retreat to avoid being surrounded, and the French enter Orleans . They take 800-1000 wounded Germans prisoner and free 2000 French prisoners. The Battle of Coulmiers is the first clear French victory of the war – and it costs 1300 German and 1500 French casualties.
The French government portrays the victory at Coulmiers and the recapture of Orleans as a turning point in the war. Foreign Minister Favre issues an exuberant proclamation to Parisians on November 14:
"Thanks to the valor of our soldiers, fortune has returned to us, and your courage will retain it. Soon we will join hands with our brothers from the [provinces] and, with them, deliver the soil of la patrie. Vive la République! Vive la France!" (Gouttman, 363)
Interior Minister Gambetta has completely unrealistic expectations. He writes a letter to Aurelle de Paladines that reveals a less-than-competent assessment of the relatively minor success at Coulmiers:
"Paris is hungry and waiting for you. Paris a faim et vous attend." (Roux, 209).
German high command is not pleased with the defeat, and hurries the westward march of the 2nd Army. Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm is irritated, as he notes in his diary on November 10:
"According to a telegram, yesterday von der Tann fought for seven hours at Coulmiers, then [deliberately] broke off the battle [...]. This sounds as if he putting the best face on […] a disadvantageous skirmish." (Meisner, 208) The very next day though the Crown Prince decides that Von der Tann had done a good job, and he attaches little importance to the loss of Orleans and a few German guns.
As French arms triumph at Coulmiers, two more French towns fall in the east. On November 10, Neu-Breisach surrenders, two days after the capitulation of the fortress city of Verdun. Verdun, which has been surrounded since August, is historically symbolic since it was there that the 9th century Frankish empire was divided into three kingdoms, which became the basis for the German and French medieval states. Like Strasbourg, King Louis XIV had claimed Verdun in the 17th century. But unlike in 1916, Verdun’s historic symbolism has little political resonance in 1870. The German official dispatch this week is laconic: "Verdun has surrendered. Verdun hat kapituliert." (Kürschner, sp. 908)
For the 8000 civilians, and troops on both sides, the siege and fall of Verdun is more than a one-liner. French and German artillery had duelled for weeks, and French sallies destroyed several German batteries on the hills around the town. As the Germans brought up more men and guns freed by the fall of Metz, the outcome is not in doubt. The Third Republic will later investigate the surrender, and finds that General Guérin resisted bravely but surrendered too quickly. In his history of the siege, Verdun clergyman Abbe Gabriel reflects on the defeat:
"Today we no longer besiege cities according to the rules of the ancient military art; we are satisfied with bombarding them from afar. Given that today the assault is no longer in style for our enemies, just as the arquebus à rouet passed out of style under Francois I, can we blame the commander of a [besieged town] for not having repelled an assault before surrendering?" (Gabriel 313)

While there are French successes on the Loire and Verdun falls, the war on the high seas reaches the Caribbean.

The only naval battle of the Franco-Prussian War takes place this week on November 9 – of all places, off the coast of Cuba. The Prussian gunboat Meteor is in Havana harbour when the French aviso Bouvet arrives on the 7th. The Prussian sailors are so happy for the break from their dull routine at port that they cheer the French vessel as it arrives. The Spanish make the rules clear: combat must be in international waters, and the ships must leave port 24 hours apart. Captains Knorr and Franquet prepare for combat: the 700-ton Bouvet has one 16cm and two 12cm guns, while the 400-ton Meteor has one 15cm and two 12cm guns, which are far more powerful than the French ones.

The Battle of Havana lasts for two-and-a-half-hours, and is largely a pro-forma affair for the sake of honor. Two Spanish ships and Havana residents standing on the city walls observe the exchange of gunfire, turning maneuvers, and even rifle fire. The Bouvet eventually rams the Meteor, which damages two masts, and gets Meteor’s rigging caught in the ship’s screw. But the Prussian gunners score a direct hit on the Bouvet’s boiler. Bouvet hoists her sails and makes for neutral Spanish waters before the Meteor can finish her off, but it’s the Spanish who end the battle:

"At the edge of the neutral waters, a signal shot of a Spanish warship [...] put an end to the battle at about 5 o'clock in the afternoon." (Generalstab 431)
A handful of sailors are killed or wounded, and though the Meteor claims victory, the battle has no impact on the course of the war – but German businessmen in Havana do arrange a banquet for the Meteor’s officers.

The same day as the Meteor and Bouvet clash off Havana, on the other side of the Atlantic German writer Theodor Fontane arrives at the coast.

Following his imprisonment in Besancon on espionage charges, French authorities move Fontane to the island of Oléron. He arrives on November 9, and the good news for Fontane is that the charges have been dropped and he is no longer in danger of being executed or caught up in the fighting around Besancon.
Fontane’s German and French friends and his wife Emilie have been lobbying Bismarck for weeks, so the Chancellor puts a plan in motion to force the French to let the writer go. In the meantime. the French give Fontane the symbolic rank of ‘officier supérieur’ in the hopes that they could exchange him for French officers held by the Germans, but that never happens. His new status as an officer-on-paper entitles Fontane to a private cell, he gets his own batman, and he can enter and exit the Oléron fortress with relative freedom.
On Oléron, Fontane has long chats with his fellow prisoners, and he later publishes their stories in his 1871 book “Kriegsgefangen.” These include the story of the capture of his batman Rasumovsky on the Loire:
"Rasumofsky […] came under fire and shot the franc-tireur who had missed him. […] As if from a beehive, the enemy riflemen swarmed, a hundred bullets whistled around him, one tore off his boot heel and smashed the stirrup to pieces, but he was unscathed [...] and the next moment he was surrounded and trapped. A young [French] officer who spoke German [...] jumped on him: 'Why did you shoot?' 'What do I have my carbine for? We get the guns to use them.' The officer laughed. 'What will become of you now?' [he asked] 'Well, I'll be shot.' 'Don't be a fool; you are a good hussar, and not a hair on your head shall be harmed.'" (Fontane, 138)

This, the French are victorious at Coulmiers, Verdun surrenders, the war at sea reaches its unimpressive climax, and Theodor Fontane’s odyssey takes him to Oléron island. Coulmiers shows that the Germans are not unbeatable, though the French government and German high command draw very different conclusions that will play out in the weeks to come.

1870 Glory & Defeat

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