This French General Saved Strasbourg From Total Destruction During the Franco-Prussian War 1870

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the symbolic city of Strasbourg falls, the French try to break the siege of Paris, and a famous German writer arrives at the front.

Last week Italian nationalist forces took advantage of the crisis in France to capture Rome, and the siege of Marshal Bazaine’s army in Metz dragged on. Metz is not the only French city cut off by German forces – Paris and Strasbourg are also under siege, for now.

Many cities in eastern France have been encircled by German forces since their advance in August. Toul surrendered last week on September 23, but others are still holding out. These include Strasbourg and its garrison of about 18,000 troops alongside 80,000 civilians. The Germans have about 50,000 men and made preparations to take Strasbourg by storm earlier this month, but they want to avoid a costly attack and hope to starve and shell the city into surrender.
The French garrison tries several times to destroy the Germans’ parallels, or jumping off trenches, outside the city walls, but without success. The French do manage to flood the southern apron defenses and deny the Germans this potential avenue of attack.

German General von Werder stops the bombardment of the city itself with its historic buildings, because he’s keenly aware of its symbolic importance back home, and because of the international condemnation of the initial shelling. But Prussian siege mortar fire does gradually destroy parts of the fortress walls, bastions, and lunette fortifications. The shelling and the starvation of French troops and civilians in Strasbourg is effective from the German point of view. On September 11, Red Cross delegates from Switzerland evacuate the elderly, sick, and wounded. Only now do the people in Strasbourg learn about the defeat at Sedan, the capture of the Emperor, and the Third Republic.

French commander General Jean-Jacques Uhrich now knows that there’s no hope for relief. 8000 people have been made homeless by the shelling, which has destroyed 500 houses. The destitute live on the streets, huts, holes in the ground, schools and churches. But Uhrich does not want to surrender and refuses to negotiate with the Germans. On the 23rd Grand Duke Friedrich I of Baden writes to Uhrich imploring him to surrender on humanitarian grounds:
"Mon général, you no longer have a legal government to which you are responsible; you have only one responsibility, the one before God – celle devant Dieu." (Du Casse, 69).

The Germans have resigned themselves to an eventual assault when, on September 27, Strasbourg suddenly surrenders. The city walls are breached in numerous places from the shelling and Uhrich decides after all that he wants to spare bloody streetfighting the French are bound to lose. He informs Paris of his decision, and then writes to General Werder:

"La résistance de Strasbourg est arrivée à son terme. The resistance of Strasbourg has come to an end. [...] I will ask for the gentlest possible treatment for the city, which has already been so cruelly tested [...]." (Du Casse, 66).
The next day, Uhrich informs the city of his decision: "Let us close our eyes, if we can, on the sad and painful present and turn them to the future: there we will find the support of the unfortunate: hope! l’espérance!" (N.N., 204)
Uhrich sacrifices his personal gloire to spare unnecessary death and suffering, a courageous act which will later cause him to be accused of treason by the Republic.

On September 30, the 189th anniversary of King Louis XIV’s disputed incorporation of Strasbourg into France, and the birthday of the Prussian Queen Augusta, the Germans enter the historic city. General von Werder and his staff enter the town on foot, rather than on horseback, to show their respect for Uhrich’s determined defense, and Werder embraces his defeated enemy to console him.

The siege of Strasbourg costs the French 562 dead and 17,000 prisoners, along with 1277 artillery pieces, 140,000 rifles, and 50 locomotives. 341 civilians die and up to 2000 are wounded in the bombardment. The Germans lose 177 men killed, 715 wounded, 44 missing, and 78 horses.
In all the German states, people take to the streets to celebrate and light bonfires. Prussian Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm confides his joy and his concerns to his diary:
"I told everyone in the streets, the troops on drill, and everywhere else there were cheers. The surrender of Straßburg is an extremely weighty success [...] In my opinion, we must immediately provide proof that we want to make up for the destruction that was unfortunately unavoidable during the war. In this way one achieves moral conquests. Auf solche Weise erzielt man moralische Eroberungen." (Meisner, 142-143)

Strasbourg has fallen to the Germans, and General von Werder’s troops now move on to reduce other French fortresses threatening the German communication lines in the east. Meanwhile, outside besieged Paris, French forces make another attempt to break the siege at Chevilly.

Since September 20, German headquarters are located at Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles to direct the siege of the capital. The French desperately want to smash through the German ring around the city, but their weaker forces face long odds.

During the night of September 29-30, General Joseph Vinoy's French XIII Corps prepares for an assault south of Paris with about 20, 000 men against General Wilhelm von Tümpling’s Silesian VI Corps and parts of V Corps – who have about 60,000. The French attack begins at dawn, and in the center of the line they run into Prussian troops entrenched in a walled farming area in the hamlet of Chevilly. The strong walls and thick lime trees offer excellent protection for the Prussians, and they are able to hold their positions without significant losses. By the time the French withdraw, Chevilly is destroyed, and 2120 French soldiers are killed, wounded, or captured, along with 441 Germans.

For the Germans, the French sally out of Paris is a minor affair. Bismarck press chief and propagandist Moritz Busch’s diary entry is matter-of-fact:
"Man will aus der Gegend von Paris her wieder Schüsse gehört haben - Shots are said to have been heard again around Paris, and in the evening the chief has me telegraph this with the addition that a sortie has taken place, and that the French have been driven back into the city with heavy loss and in wild flight." (Busch, 215)

As Strasbourg falls and the noose around Paris tightens, the German literary and artistic interpretation of the war has already begun. Painters, journalists, and writers are already with the German 3rd Army to sing its praises, but now a well-known Berlin author decides to join them.

Theodor Fontane is a well-known Prussian theater critic and journalist. He hasn’t written his most famous novels yet in 1870, and is working on a history of the 1866 Austro-Prussian War when the war with France begins in July. His publisher at the Königlich Geheime Oberhofdruckerei, which is also responsible for publishing Prussian casualty lists, asks him switch his writing efforts to the current war. He somewhat reluctantly agrees, not knowing that this time his life would be in danger.

On September 27, he takes the train to France to see the battlefields for himself. On the 29th he arrives in Wissembourg and visits the destroyed train station and Gaisberg hill. On the 30th, he stops in Wörth-Fröschweiler and stands on the hill from which the Crown Prince had directed German troops. A few days later he shares his impressions with his wife Emilie:
"The whole trip [...] is instructive, interesting, and downright uplifting to the highest degree. Everything is full of character. [Our advance] is an organized migration of peoples. Ever new masses flood the country, whose population is amazed and shakes its head, but is unbroken in its conceit, [...and] in its childish hope for victory." (Fontane, Kriegsgefangen, 224).

On October 3, Fontane visits the recently surrendered fortress of Toul, where his son Georges had been part of the besieging army. On the train to Toul, Fontane meets a hussar who knows Georges and tells him that his son is safe – even though Fontane himself won’t be safe for long.

This week the Germans accept the surrender of Strasbourg, the French fail to crack German lines at Chevilly, and Theodor Fontane arrives in France. With the fall of Strasbourg, the Germans have won a politically symbolic victory. Curious German tourists begin to arrive in the city, which is in German hands again after nearly two centuries. As for the citizens of Paris, the failure of their army at Chevilly is a sign to come for the hard months ahead.


  • Arand, Tobias: Gestorben für ‚Vaterland‘ und ‚Patrie‘. Die toten Krieger aus dem Feldzug von 1870/71 auf dem ‚Alten Friedhof‘ in Ludwigsburg. Ludwigsburg 2012
  • Ders.: 1870/71. Der Deutsch-Französische Krieg erzählt in Einzelschicksalen. Hamburg 2018
  • Chrastil, Rachel: The Siege of Strasbourg. Cambridge, 2014


  • Busch, Moritz: Graf Bismarck und seine Leute vor Paris. Bd. 1. Leipzig 1878
  • Du Casse, Albert: Journal authentique du Siège de Straßbourg. Paris 1871
  • Fischbach, Gustave: Le siège et le bombardement de Strasbourg, Paris, 1871
  • Fontane, Theodor: Der Krieg gegen Frankreich 1870-1871. Bd. 2. Berlin 1874
  • Kriegsgeschichtliche Abtheilung des Großen Generalstabs (Hrsg.): Der deutsch-französische Krieg 1870-71. II.1. Berlin 1878
  • Meisner, Heinrich Otto (Hrsg.): Kaiser Friedrich III. Das Kriegstagebuch von 1870/71. Berlin, Leipzig 1926
  • N.N. Straßbourg. Paris 1874
  • N.N. (Hrsg.): Theodor Fontane. Kriegsgefangen – Erlebtes 1870. Briefe 1870/71. Berlin (0st) 1984
1870 Glory & Defeat

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