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Franco-Prussian War

The Course of the War

Partly because they believed France the aggressor, the states of S Germany enthusiastically joined the North German Confederation—just as Bismarck had hoped. The military conduct of the war was, for the Germans, in the hands of Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke, a military genius. On the French side, Napoleon III took active command, but it soon devolved on Marshal Bazaine.

On Aug. 4, 1870, the Germans crossed the border into Alsace. They defeated the French at Wissembourg, pushed the French under Marshal MacMahon to Châlons-en-Champagne, and forced a wedge between MacMahon's forces and those of Bazaine, centered on Metz. Bazaine, attempting to join MacMahon, was defeated at Vionville (Aug. 16) and Gravelotte (Aug. 18) and returned to Metz. The Germans began their march on Paris, and on Sept. 1 the attempt of Napoleon III and MacMahon to rescue Bazaine led to disaster at Sedan. The emperor and 100,000 of his men were captured.

When the news of Sedan reached Paris a bloodless revolution occurred. Napoleon was deposed, and a provisional government of national defense was formed under General Trochu, Léon Gambetta, and Jules Favre. Paris was surrounded by the Germans on Sept. 19, and a grueling siege began. Gambetta escaped from Paris in a balloon to organize resistance in the provinces. Faidherbe made a gallant stand on the Loire, Chanzy in the north, and Bourbaki in the east, but the surrender (Oct. 27) of Bazaine, with a garrison of 180,000 men, made such resistance useless. Paris, however, held out until Jan. 28, 1871, suffering several months of famine. Though Bismarck and Adolphe Thiers signed an armistice on the same day, the fortress of Belfort resisted until Feb. 16.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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