The Franco-Prussian War Primer

A history of the war for the Rhine frontier
Camphausen, Wilhelm. Napoleon III at the Battle of Sedan. 1883.

The Fall of an Empire

With the surrender of Emperor Napoleon III and his hundred-thousand-man army, it would only seem natural for Germany to view Sedan as a decisive victory. In fact, there was much celebration in Germany when the citizenry learned of the victory and thought that such a victory meant the war was clearly over. Even some officers in the German military felt optimistic, with one staff officer after the Battle of Sedan asking Otto von Bismarck if the war was over.[1] However, German leadership understood that the situation was not quite so simple when it came to Paris.[2] For one, Napoleon III was their planned negotiation partner to end the war, and with his capture, the situation became much more complicated. Bismarck and Wilhelm had hoped that a rational Napoleon III, who had started the war and faced defeats on the battlefield, would understand that he was losing and accept a negotiated peace. However, the humiliation of his capture brought into question if the imprisoned Emperor would even be able to speak for France in a negotiation. Would the French citizenry even accept terms made by an emperor that allowed himself to be captured? These questions became quickly answered when news of his capture reached Paris.[3]

News of the surrender of Napoleon III at Sedan caused a wave of unrest in Paris. Members of the French National Assembly, like Leon Gambetta and Jules Favre, saw the writing on the wall and tried to moderate the transition to a republic, which became impossible in the face of the popular uprising. The angry Parisian public marched into a meeting of the National Assembly and demanded an immediate declaration of a new republic. Leon Gambetta and other members of the Assembly partly fulfilled the demands of the uprising by declaring the Fourth Republic, with an interim Government of National Defense in charge for the remainder of the war.[4] With the Emperor declared deposed, General Trochu was now president of the new government, Jules Favre the minister of foreign affairs, and Gambetta minister of the interior.[5] Naturally, being a French revolution, the angry public then chose to march on the palace, but Empress Eugenie had been forewarned of this action and escaped before the mob broke into Versailles. The revolution that brought the Fourth Republic into being was a quick and uncharacteristically bloodless one for France.[6] While all of this was going on, the German army recovered from the battle of Sedan while their leaders wondered about the temperament of the new government in Paris and its feelings towards negotiations.

[1] Wawro, The Franco-Prussian War, P.230, 235-236

[2] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.255

[3] Wawro, The Franco-Prussian War, P.234-236

[4] Washburne, Elihu Benjamin, Recollections of a minister to France, 1869-1877, Volume 1, New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1887, P.99-107

[5] Pim, Bedford, War chronicle, with memoirs of the emperor Napoleon III, the emperor-King William I, London: Provost & Co, 1873, P.56-57

[6] Rüstow, The War for the Rhine Frontier Volume 2, P.106-109