This painting by Anton von Werner shows German Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm contemplating the corpse of French General Abel Douay, on the first day of the Franco-Prussian War in August 1870.
When the French declared war on Prussia in 1870, they were overconfident. They assumed an easy victory and seriously underestimated the strength and experience of the Prussian military…a well-oiled military machine that only 4 years earlier inflicted a crushing defeat on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. French leaders actually expected that Austria would join them in a revenge war against Prussia. Instead, the Austro-Hungarians treaded carefully before stating that they would only commit to France’s cause if the southern German states viewed the French positively. This did not materialize…instead the German states of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden came to Prussia’s aid and mobilized their armies against France.
The Prussian army was led by King Wilhelm but it was controlled by a General Staff, under Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. The Prussian army was unique in Europe for having the only such organization in existence, whose purpose in peacetime was to prepare the overall war strategy, and in wartime to direct operational movement, organize logistics and control communications. The officers of the General Staff were hand-picked from graduates of the Prussian Kriegsakademie (War Academy). Beyond these advantages, Moltke also embraced new technology, particularly the railroad and telegraph, to coordinate and accelerate mobilization of large forces.
On the first day of the War, General Abel Douay, who was President of the French Military Academy at Saint-Cyr and a holder of the French Legion of Honor, led the first attack of the War. French intelligence had characterized the Prussians’ border positions as weak and unready and Abel Douay’s superiors felt confident that he could seize the town of Wissembourg, along with its stores of food and resources. However, the town was a flat lowland place that faced a thickly wooded countryside full of Prussian artillery guns. These woods held a much larger than anticipated Prussian force that began pummelling the French position. Abel Douay attempted a defensive posture, but the German advantage of surprise was devastating. Already by mid-morning Abel Douay was busy organizing a withdrawal, when he was suddenly killed by shrapnel from the burst of an artillery shell.
The French General’s death… on the first day, of the first battle of the Franco-Prussian War… was a deeply demoralizing blow to the whole French Army. It also shocked the French nation at large. Few, however, were as shocked as Napoleon III, who immediately issued a flurry of new orders reconstituting the army’s command structure and strategic guidelines. However, this new awareness of reality was too late… by the end of the month, a crushing German victory at the Battle of Sedan eliminated French General Mac-Mahon’s entire army. Napoleon III was captured by Prussians and the French Empire collapsed.
It was an overwhelming victory for the Prussians, for they not only captured an entire French army, but the leader of France as well…and all done in one month of warfare.
The defeat of the French at Sedan decided the war in Prussia’s favor. After Sedan, most of the French standing army was either besieged in Metz or prisoners of the Germans, who hoped for an armistice and an end to the quick war.
Unfortunately, a Government of National Defense declared the Third Republic in Paris on September 4th and continued the war. For another five months German forces fought and defeated new French armies in northern France and then besieged Paris, which surrendered on January 28th 1871.
The Prussian Army, under the terms of the armistice, held a brief victory parade in Paris on February 17th, during which the city was silent and draped with black. Bismarck honored the armistice, by allowing train loads of food into Paris and withdrew Prussian forces to the east of the city. France agreed to return Alsace-Lorraine to Germany and to pay a five billion franc war indemnity. The indemnity was proportioned, according to population, to be the exact equivalent to the indemnity imposed by Napoleon on Prussia in 1807.
In the aftermath, Prussia used the French Versailles Palace to declare the creation of a unified German Empire…the Second Reich… to replace the German Empire that was ended by the French in 1806. Germany became the major power in continental Europe and possessed the most powerful and professional army in the world. Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck, as the Iron Chancellor of Germany, used the new balance of power to maintain a peace in Europe that would last 43 years… a golden era of growth and prosperity in Germany
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