Prussian Army Besieges Paris Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the leaders of the French Third Republic rejected Prussia’s cease-fire terms during the Franco-Prussian War, the city of Paris became the focus for a new round of fighting. The French capital endured a siege of more than four months before the defending garrison finally capitulated. The city’s fall ended the conflict and confirmed Prussia’s status as the dominant military power on the Continent.

Summary of Event

The surrender of Emperor Napoleon III’s army—and of Napoleon himself—at Sedan Sedan, Battle of (1870) on September 1, 1870, was initially believed to be the final act of the Franco-Prussian War. However, events in the war abruptly spun out of the control of politicians and diplomats alike. On September 4, in reaction to the news of the imperial capitulation at Sedan, a swift, bloodless uprising overthrew Napoleon’s regime and proclaimed, for the third time, a French republic. Paris;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];Siege of Paris Paris;Prussian siege of Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Trochu, Louis Jules [kw]Prussian Army Besieges Paris (Sept. 20, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871) [kw]Army Besieges Paris, Prussian (Sept. 20, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871) [kw]Besieges Paris, Prussian Army (Sept. 20, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871) [kw]Paris, Prussian Army Besieges (Sept. 20, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871) Paris;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];Siege of Paris Paris;Prussian siege of Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Trochu, Louis Jules [g]France;Sept. 20, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871: Prussian Army Besieges Paris[4460] [g]Germany;Sept. 20, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871: Prussian Army Besieges Paris[4460] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 20, 1870-Jan. 28, 1871: Prussian Army Besieges Paris[4460] Ducrot, Auguste Favre, Jules Frederick III Gambetta, Léon Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Thiers, Adolphe [p]Thiers, Adolphe;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Vinoy, Joseph William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War]

The republic’s initial government was makeshift in many respects; General Louis Jules Trochu, who had been named military governor of Paris on August 17, was elevated to the post of president in the newly created Government of National Defense. Jules Favre Favre, Jules , a veteran politician, took up the posts of vice president and foreign minister; a radical firebrand named Léon Gambetta Gambetta, Léon assumed control of the Ministries of War and the Interior. Seventy-three-year-old Adolphe Thiers Thiers, Adolphe [p]Thiers, Adolphe;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] , a former prime minister under King Louis Philippe, served, without portfolio, as a special, roving ambassador. Uncertain of which direction the new French regime might take, Prussian chief of staff General Helmuth von Moltke Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] ordered German units westward with the intent of gradually encircling Paris. The united German army was nominally under the command of Prussian king William I William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] , but for all practical purposes it was von Moltke and Prussian prime minister Otto von Bismarck who set the military and political agendas.

Bismarck demanded that France cede the entire province of Alsace and the northern portion of the province of Lorraine, including the city of Metz. His terms were indignantly rejected by Favre Favre, Jules . All the while, German troops took position around Paris between September 17 and 18, the army of Prussian crown prince Frederick William Frederick III swung south and west to complete the entrapment, and his father, King William I, established a military headquarters at Versailles. Trochu had been prudently deploying forces at his disposal in case it became necessary to defend the capital. This eventuality came to pass on September 20, after negotiations had totally collapsed and the Siege of Paris officially began. Trochu’s tenure was controversial, in that his focus was purely defensive; to some, he appeared to have ruled out the possibility of victory and seemed to be playing for time, in the hope that German resolve might flag. Others believed he acted out of a sense of honor that obligated him to offer at least a measure of resistance to the invaders.

Trochu’s halfhearted defense contrasted sharply, however, with the energy shown by his military and ministerial colleagues. General Auguste Ducrot Ducrot, Auguste , Trochu’s second in command, was outspoken, defiant, and aggressive, consistently pushing for attacks upon German positions. On October 7, Gambetta Gambetta, Léon dramatically lifted off in a hot air balloon, which was the only way personnel and dispatches could travel to and from the world outside the besieged Paris. His mission was to rouse the countryside, recruit new armies, and send them to the relief of the capital. The elderly Thiers Thiers, Adolphe [p]Thiers, Adolphe;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] had slipped out in time and traveled from country to country, trying to kindle sympathy from foreign governments and perhaps secure aid or intervention. Unfortunately for Thiers, Napoleon III had alienated many potential allies over various issues prior to the Franco-Prussian War; in the end, only the United States expressed a desire to render assistance, and this offer proved to be too little, too late.

However, Gambetta’s charisma and oratorical talents bore some fruit, and a large though ill-trained army was formed at Tours and won a victory at Coulmiers on November 9. Inside Paris, a “grand sortie” was planned to coordinate with this army’s advance, and on November 28, Ducrot was to launch his offensive. All went awry: Trochu and Gambetta were only vaguely aware of each other’s movements, so they were never able to coordinate their efforts. The crown prince was able to discern the intentions of the French, and he anticipated the attack. Meanwhile, flooding on the River Marne delayed operations for one crucial day. On November 29, Ducrot’s Ducrot, Auguste sortie achieved initial success but faltered in the face of withering fire from a well-entrenched enemy; it had failed by nightfall. Meanwhile, Gambetta’s Gambetta, Léon army had been halted and thrown back beyond the city of Orléans.

The sortie of late November marked the last serious attempt by France to lift the siege of its capital. Thereafter, it became a matter of waiting for events that never materialized. Shortages within the beleaguered capital became acute. Nearly all the animals in the Paris Zoo were devoured, and meat from dogs, horses, cats, and even rats became regular fare displayed in butcher shops. Deaths from malnutrition, disease, and (as winter commenced) the elements rose dramatically—particularly among children. Nonetheless, by January, 1871, the dynamics of the situation were beginning to work against Germany. News of the privations of the citizens of Paris was starting to capture the sympathy of the outside world, and the Germans were increasingly perceived as heavy-handed and brutal.

To forestall imminent intervention by Great Britain, Russia, and the United States by speedily breaking down Parisian resistance, Bismarck ordered massive deliberate artillery bombing of civilians. Although internationally condemned, the bombardment had the desired effect. On January 22, 1871, the largely moribund Trochu, who seemed intent on enduring the siege regardless of the circumstances, was replaced by General Joseph Vinoy Vinoy, Joseph of the French Third Army. Negotiations between Favre Favre, Jules and Bismarck led to the city’s formal capitulation on January 28, 1871, and the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt. Germany acquired Alsace and northern Lorraine, and France paid two million francs in reparations, having to endure the presence of German occupation forces until the balance was delivered. William I William I (king of Prussia) [p]William I (king of Prussia)[William 01 (king of Prussia)];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] was declared emperor of a freshly united Germany, of which Bismarck became chancellor.

Significance

Otto von Bismarck (left), Adolphe Thiers (center), and Jules Favre negotiating peace terms.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The bloody, exhausting Siege of Paris and the resulting humiliation of France left in its wake a climate of anger and recrimination and set the stage for the horrific Communard Revolution in Paris that spring. In the long term, though, the heroic defense of the French capital redeemed much of the shame arising out of the debacle of Sedan Sedan, Battle of (1870) and ultimately buttressed the fledgling Third Republic through its early years against attacks from legitimist, Orléanist, Bonapartist, and radical elements. Gambetta Gambetta, Léon , in particular, was to attain legendary status. The memories of the civilian bombardment also added another bone of contention to the political culture of revanche (revenge) in France, which factored into the coming of World War I.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Badsey, Stephen. The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871. London: Osprey, 2003. This study of the Franco-Prussian War is succinct and accessible to lay readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Becker, George J., ed. Paris Under Siege, 1870-1871: From the Goncourt Journal. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969. Edited version of one of the best-known and most lucidly written firsthand accounts of the siege.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bury, J. P. T. Gambetta and the National Defense: A Republican Dictatorship in France. New York: Howard Fertig, 1970. Analytical study of the political figure who most energetically contributed to the anti-German resistance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Christiansen, Rupert. Paris Babylon: The Story of the Paris Commune. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Although this volume concerns itself more with the Paris Commune, it nonetheless contains as background one hundred pages of useful information on the Siege of Paris.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horne, Alistair. The Fall of Paris: The Siege and the Commune. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. The most thorough rendition of the diplomatic and political maneuverings relating to the siege, which are effectively tied into the military action. Bismarck is depicted in a less-than-creditable light.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kranzberg, Melvin. The Siege of Paris, 1870-1871: A Political and Social History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. A more succinct account than that of Horne, but one that is equally insightful and judicious in its use of sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stone, David J. A. “First Reich”: Inside the German Army During the War with France, 1870-1871. London: Brassey’s, 2002. Studies the Franco-Prussian War and the Siege of Paris from the point of view of the German soldiers investing the capital.

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte Becomes Emperor of France

North German Confederation Is Formed

Franco-Prussian War

Battle of Sedan

German States Unite Within German Empire

Third French Republic Is Established

Paris Commune

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Otto von Bismarck; Léon Gambetta; Napoleon III; Adolphe Thiers. Paris;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];Siege of Paris Paris;Prussian siege of Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Trochu, Louis Jules

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