Front Page Titles (by Subject) VIII: THE WAR OF 1870 - Historical Essays and Studies
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VIII: THE WAR OF 1870 - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies 
Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).
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THE WAR OF 18701
Opus adgredior opimum casibus, atrox proeliis, discors seditionibus, ipsa etiam pace saevum.—Tacitus,Hist. i. 2.
To exhibit a coherent chain of causes in the revolution of the last nine months, which has shifted the landmarks of European politics, and has given new leaders to the world, is still an impossible task. Many links remain concealed; and the very questions which most excite curiosity are those which cannot yet be solved. The communications that passed through private or official channels between Marshal Prim and the Governments of France and Prussia; the nature of the understanding between the Russian Emperor and King William; the consultations in which Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern spent six days before refusing to be the cause of war; the motives that paralysed the splendid army of Bazaine; the real object of the Germans in bombarding Paris, and the immediate reason of its capitulation,—these are the things on which it is not safe to pronounce with certainty, and I must be content to leave them unexplained. Whenever these gaps are filled up, and the secrets of recent history come to be declared, it is probable that the events I am going to relate will appeal in a different connection and an altered light.
The storm that burst last summer had hung for four years over Europe. The war of 1866, which destroyed the Germanic Confederation, had enlarged Prussia, but had diminished Germany; Austria was cast out, and the Southern States retained their connection with the North only by military and commercial treaties. The vital problem of policy for Prussia was to reconstruct Germany by bringing the eight millions of Southerners into the compact Confederation of the North. It was a fixed maxim with the Emperor Napoleon and the majority of French politicians, that the progress of Germany towards unity and strength must be interrupted by war unless France could obtain some territorial equivalent as the price of her consent. The Emperor tempted Prussia during more than a year with subtle schemes for compensation. Count Bismarck continued to put him off with vague words and indefinite suggestions, tending to divert his ambition from German territory to Switzerland and Belgium, where he would have to deal with England; and the Emperor, deluded with false hopes of a profitable bargain, resisted the pressure of his friends and enemies at home, to avenge the defeat of Austria and restore the preponderance of France. Finding that he lost credit with the nation, and that nothing was to be wrung from Prussia by peaceful arts, he began gradually and methodically to prepare for war. His health was declining, and his prestige, impaired by the Mexican expedition and the formidable development of Prussian power, was insufficient to maintain his family on the throne. If he died without the glory of new victories, his dynasty would perish with him. As his influence sank, and his grasp on France relaxed, he turned for support to the Constitutional party, and formed a Liberal Ministry. Its chief, M. Ollivier, had frankly said that France had no right to interfere with the internal changes of Germany, that she had no just reason to be jealous of German unity, and could not hope to prevent its accomplishment. In entering on his office, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Count Daru, became aware that schemes were set on foot for a Russian alliance against Germany, and he required that they should be broken off. But in the spring of 1870 the Emperor submitted the new institutions to a vote by the whole people, thereby stultifying the principle of government by representation, and Daru resigned. He was succeeded by the Duke de Gramont, a man of less temperate judgment, and less inaccessible to the solicitations of the war party at Court.
No part of the German people desired war with France, except the Prussian officers, who had advised it as early as 1867, not only from professional zeal, but as the one infallible means of completing the national unity. Count Bismarck was firm in resisting their counsels, and he even incurred some loss of reputation by his moderation, and, as many thought, his want of spirit, in the Luxemburg compromise. He believed that, if he could remain at peace during the life of Napoleon, he would not have to fight at all. And he was in no hurry to admit the Southern States. He feared the large increase of the democratic and of the Catholic element; and he rebuked, with some ostentation, the eagerness of Baden to be absorbed. He knew that he was safe as long as he did not provoke war by meddling with the independence of the South, and raising a quarrel in which France could ally herself with the offended patriotism of Bavaria and Wirtemberg. If Prussia was attacked on any other ground, the military alliance ensured the co-operation of the Southern forces—ensured, in other words, the establishment of German unity by brotherhood of arms on the field of battle. Count Bismarck waited, scrupulous to avoid every demonstration of hostility, but quite ready to accept a challenge, and disturbed by no doubts as to the result of any conflict with France alone.
The extraordinary vigour of the Prussian State and the efficiency of its armies are due not to any innate superiority of the race, but to the perfection of a system which aims at subduing the common impediments of tradition, locality, and custom, in order to bring all the moral and physical resources of the nation under the dominion of mind. The Government is so enlightened, the clearness of intellect is so apparent in its operations, that the people, educated and thoughtful as they are, consent to barter away some of the political privileges which the inhabitants of more free but less well governed countries cherish more than life. Other commonwealths have submitted sometimes to the fascination of eloquence. The spell that holds Prussia captive is the charm of a good administration. The re-modelled military system has been fatal to the Constitution. In its new developed form it is a creation of the present reign. During the generation that succeeded the great wars, Prussia neglected her army and allowed her political influence to decline, while she obtained the supremacy in literature. The maxim that knowledge is better than power prevailed for many years before it yielded to the discovery that knowledge is power. The intellect of the country did not control its affairs, until the accession of the remarkable triumvirate whose union has raised it to such a height of greatness. In 1858 Moltke was appointed chief of the staff. And it is a signal instance of the power of scientific thought that this mighty soldier was almost entirely without practical experience of warfare until he was sixty-three years old. The reorganisation of the army was carried out by General Roon, the Minister of War; and Count Bismarck made it law, in defiance of Parliament and with a contempt for Constitutional obstacles that Strafford could not have surpassed. The new army was tested in 1864 and 1866; and since then it had been almost doubled. General Roon was able, in three weeks, to place 500,000 men in France; and when that was done, 500,000 more were waiting orders to march. Officers in all kinds of disguises had taken plans and measurements and photographs in France. The width of the rivers at the points where they had to be crossed on the march to Paris had been accurately measured, and iron bridges of the necessary length were ready to follow the army. The French had batteries of mitrailleuses, their rifles were better than the needle gun, and their infantry, when under fire, could hardly be excelled. But in numbers, in artillery, in organisation, foresight, and military capacity, the Germans were so far superior that little was left to chance. The appointment of the Liberal Ministry in January 1870 was hailed in Prussia as an assurance of peace. But the plébiscite in May, and the appearance of Gramont at the Foreign Office, were a warning to make ready, and Bismarck, hushed in grim repose, waited till the Emperor made the mistake of attacking him.
On 5th July it became known that the young Prince of Hohenzollern had consented to be put in nomination for the crown of Spain. On the same day the French Government informed the North German Ambassador, Baron Werther, that they would prevent the election, if necessary, by war: and on the 6th, amid general applause, they repeated the same declaration in Parliament. The project had once before been put forward, opposed by France, and withdrawn. Various circumstances combined to make it unwelcome, especially at that moment. The settlement of the Spanish throne was the point at which the interests of France and those of the Emperor went furthest asunder. For there was a French Pretender, the Duke de Montpensier, in whose behalf, partly, the revolution of Cadiz had been accomplished, and who might already have occupied the throne, had not the Emperor peremptorily refused to tolerate the elevation of a prince of the House of Orleans. The dynastic interests of Napoleon had prolonged the vacancy, and it was for the sake of the Empire, and not of France, that the question which was about to drag her into war was kept open. The exclusion of the only French candidate was a trial for French patriotism. But if the Emperor, having excluded the Frenchman for dynastic reasons, now sanctioned the German, it would have appeared that the safety of the Empire was purchased by the humiliation of France. He himself had just brought forward another claimant. He had induced the deposed Queen of Spain to make over her rights to her son, and he hoped to make him king. Almost immediately after, he learnt that a rival had been preferred, a rival manifestly favoured by Prussia, and that the Prussian party had foiled the plans of his friends in Spain. The fact that Prince Leopold was only distantly connected with the royal family of Hohenzollern, and was much more nearly related to the Emperor of the French, did not make his nomination less mortifying. It was not the Prussian prince so much as the Prussian subject, and the representative of Prussian influence, whose success was so bitterly resented. The actual disadvantage to France would have been slight. Indeed, there had been thoughts at one time of adopting one of the young Hohenzollerns as the avowed candidate of France. As things were, the repulse to the Emperor’s influence was serious.
The European Governments, startled by the sudden vehemence of the French Ministers, exerted themselves to remove the cause of anger. They thought that France would not be justified in opposing the election by force, but they also thought that Spain ought not to insist on having a king who would cost so much blood. The Spaniards maintained a strict reserve, waiting for the course things would take in Germany. The Ministry in Berlin ignored the whole affair; they said that it did not concern the North German States, and that it was not their business to permit or to prevent the accession of any prince the Spaniards might choose. The Prussian press, well trained in the native discipline of the country, took the hint, and met the fury of the Paris journalists with uncommon prudence. As there was nothing to be got at Berlin, the French Ambassador, Count Benedetti, travelled to the baths of Ems, and addressed himself to the King, who informed him that he had approved the acceptance of the Prince, and would not withdraw the approval he had given. Meantime, however, the Duke de Gramont had stated that a voluntary renunciation by Prince Leopold would be a satisfactory solution of the question. The Prince was out of the way, and several anxious days were spent in secret negotiation. It appeared that Spain was not going to fight for the monarch of her choice, and that South Germany felt no deeper interest in so remote a question than Spain herself. On 12th July Prince Leopold revoked his acceptance. M. Ollivier immediately proclaimed that France had got what she wanted, that she had gained a brilliant and bloodless victory, and that the dispute was at an end. The success, indeed, was great, for it had been gained by threats, and Prussia seemed to have quailed before the danger. Her ascendency in Germany was imperilled. Her enemies in the South raised a storm of derision at the retirement of Hohenzollern. For twenty-four hours her friends were in a distressing perplexity.
At Paris opinion was at first divided. Many rejoiced with the ingenuous Ollivier, and several of his colleagues believed that the war clouds were dispersed. But the position had not been made quite clear. The retirement of the Prince had been first announced by an anonymous telegram, stating that he retired in order to leave to Spain the right of a free initiative. There was a suspicion of hidden meaning in these ambiguous words. They did not imply unconditional renunciation, and did not shut the door against a renewal of the offer. Another despatch of the same date said that the Prince made his candidature depend on the consent of Spain to join Prussia in case of war. This might mean that he would resume it whenever Prussia and Spain had come to an understanding. It may be that these telegrams, however unauthorised, confirmed the French Government in the belief that the Prince’s renunciation might be a profound manœuvre, and not a final settlement. The warlike portion of the Ministry was encouraged not to rest content with this solution by the motion of Duvernois, a deputy and journalist, thought to be more trusted by the Emperor than Ollivier himself, who demanded that Prussia should be made to give security that nothing of the kind should occur again. On the 13th Gramont felt the pulse of the Chamber by saying that he had no positive information to give, but that the dispute was not yet over. His speech was received in a way which showed that he would be strenuously supported if he carried matters with a high hand and strove to inflict humiliation on Prussia.
The Prussian ambassador at Paris, having visited the King at Ems, returned to his post on the 12th, and was closeted with Gramont when the telegram of the Prince of Hohenzollern was put into his hands. The Duke intimated that the withdrawal was perhaps due to the influence of the King. Baron Werther denied it, and assured him that the Prince had judged and acted for himself. Then the Duke de Gramont perceived that Prussia was eluding his pressure altogether, and that he had won only a shadowy and impalpable triumph. It was not yet clear that the King, who had approved the act which France resented, now approved the concession which had been made to her demand. Irritated by the dexterity of Prussia, and encouraged by her seeming moderation, and by the violence of the French Imperial press, which designated the Government a Ministry of shame, Gramont proceeded to ask for further satisfaction. He said that the Prince would never have been allowed to ascend the throne, so that his retirement was a matter of course, and could not allay the excitement in the country. Baron Werther had informed him that the King had not imagined that the affair of the Spanish crown would be taken as an insult to France. The Duke proposed that King William should repeat this declaration in a letter to the Emperor. He said that if the King explained his good intentions, and expressed a hope that all ground of future quarrel would be removed by his assent to the Prince’s retirement, the publication of such a letter would have an excellent effect in France. He also required that the King should forbid the Prince to retract his renunciation at any future time.
If the French Ministers had contented themselves with the concession of their original demand, it is probable that their moderation would have come too late to avert the war. But it was this fatal determination to make the King acknowledge his error that brought overwhelming calamities on France, by depriving her of all sympathy among the nations, and by uniting the whole of Germany under the standard of the discreet and wary Prussians.
Although the Duke de Gramont’s new demands were insulting, there was yet one thing which Prussia might concede, not for the sake of peace only, but to make her own position unassailable. England advised that the King, having sanctioned the Hohenzollern candidature, should now declare that he also approved its withdrawal. Count Bismarck indignantly rejected the proposal, and refused to submit it to the King. Meanwhile the King, acting at a distance from his Minister, had already done what the English Government recommended. On the 13th he met Count Benedetti on the promenade at Ems, and pulling out a newspaper with the Hohenzollern telegram, declared that he approved it, and rejoiced that the question was at an end. The Ambassador replied that he was instructed to ask for a promise that should secure France against the danger of its revival. The Duke de Gramont avowed to Lord Lyons that they did not want the King to prevent, but only to prohibit the renewal of the candidature. In fact he was trying to bind not Prince Leopold, but King William, and seeking not so much a practical security for the future as the exaction of a penalty for the past. But Count Benedetti went further and demanded, if the Prince was hereafter tempted to resume the project, that the King should compel him to forsake it. King William having unreservedly adopted and confirmed the renunciation, and deeming that it was honestly made, refused to entertain the proposal of a more explicit pledge. The conversation ended on friendly terms. In the afternoon the King sent word to the Ambassador that he had just received a letter from the father of Prince Leopold confirming the report, and that he looked upon it as settling the question. Count Benedetti had also received despatches from Paris containing further considerations to be submitted to the King, with a view to modify the determination he had expressed in the morning. He formally requested an audience for the purpose. The King sent his aide-decamp to tell him that he had given his final answer, that he declined to reopen the question, and left it for the future in the hands of his Ministers. On the following day the Ambassador paid his respects to the King at the station. There had been no breach of the forms of diplomatic courtesy. King William travelled to Berlin through towns tumultuous with the enthusiasm of war; and a paper which a man waved in his hand, trying vainly to stop the train, near Potsdam, contained a message from Paris which was the death-warrant of 100,000 men. A great change had happened on the night of the 13th.
Whilst Benedetti was arguing at Ems, the Prussian Ministers had strictly maintained their attitude of indifference to the Spanish question, and were unmoved by the threats and taunts of France. On the 11th a council, presided over by the Minister of War, decided that there was no occasion for measures of defence, as the system was perfect enough to do its work after war was declared. On the following day Count Bismarck arrived at Berlin from the country. The Hohenzollern question was out of the way, and the time for the waiting game was over. Prussia was delivered from the imputation of making a dynastic war. If she was now involved in a struggle for the safety and dignity of the country, she could expect the moral support of Europe and the armed assistance of the South—that is, the coveted union of all Germany. What had seemed to many an excess of caution and conciliation, and had for a moment threatened the popularity of the Government, had rectified their position and indefinitely strengthened their hands. On the 13th Count Bismarck informed the British Ambassador that he did not mean to let matters rest where they stood, and that even if France professed herself satisfied he should not be satisfied. He allowed Lord Augustus Loftus to perceive that he regretted the conciliatory disposition shown at Ems to Benedetti, and declared that he would never speak to him until Gramont had revoked his insulting words. He was determined to ask for an explanation of the French armaments, and for some security against the recurrence of similar quarrels. He wished for an opportunity of turning the tables and assuming the diplomatic offensive. If the French, faithful to their declarations, had been content with their first success, they would have received a counter-challenge, and being no longer the immediate aggressors, they would not have brought upon themselves the unanimous reprobation of Europe. But their persistency in demanding apologetic pledges from the King supplied Count Bismarck with the desired opportunity of soothing the disturbed and angry spirit of his countrymen. A few hours after he had betrayed to Lord Augustus Loftus that Prussia was about to abandon her patient and pacific attitude, and after the same thing had been said in his official organ, news came of the scenes that had just occurred at Ems. At nine that night the newsboys filled the streets of Berlin, crying a special edition of the North German Gazette. It contained a telegram stating that the King had refused to receive the French Ambassador, and had sent an aide-de-camp to say that he had nothing more to communicate to him. The statement was literally true, but the absence of particulars made it appear that the King had broken off intercourse with Benedetti, and that the dignity of France had been wounded in the person of her representative. The report was immediately sent by Bismarck to the diplomatic agents of Prussia, to show, as he said, that his tone was firmer than had been supposed. At Berlin it was received with a passionate outburst of applause. Many people learnt for the first time that France, by raising her demands, had placed herself so irretrievably in the wrong that no sophistry could now avail to prevent the union of the Germans. The whole country was persuaded that Benedetti, by his personal importunity, had affronted the King, and had been justly punished for his insolence. And the story continues to be told in pictures and in print how the Prussian aide-de-camp showed the door to the Ambassador of France. Germany, on the whole, had borne the trial with fortitude; the sudden explosion of national resentment and pride showed that the trial had been severe. Baron Werther, who had transmitted the invitation of Gramont that the King should make a public profession of regret, was compelled to quit the service. When King William reached Berlin on the night of the 15th nothing remained to be done but to put the army in the field.
Up to the morning of the 14th the peace party at Paris had not relinquished hope, and the most influential journals held that the quarrel ended with the Hohenzollern affair. But the Ems telegram, interpreted in France as it had been interpreted in Germany, roused an irritation that threatened to sweep away the Ministry. Even then, opinions were so nearly balanced in the final council that the choice of war was made by a majority of a single vote. Marshal Lebœuf answered that in case of peace he could not answer for the army. The Empress too had thrown her influence into the scale, and Ollivier himself voted at last for war. One of the Ministers drew his watch. It was four o’clock. A solemn hour, he exclaimed, in the history of the world. On the 15th the Ministers announced their decision to the Chambers, and asked for supplies. They stated that their demand of a guarantee from the King of Prussia against his enterprising kinsman had never been made as an ultimatum, and that they continued negotiating after its rejection. Even the refusal of an audience had not been received as an irreparable breach. But Prussia had informed foreign Powers of the repulse of Benedetti, and had recalled her Ambassador. So much stress was laid on a communication from Count Bismarck to other Powers touching the scene at Ems that the opposition asked to see the note in which it was made. Ollivier refused to produce it. There was a question of honour, he said, not a question of texts. It was afterwards discovered that he had nothing to produce except the telegram from Ems. France declared war not because the King refused the required guarantee; not because of his treatment of Benedetti; not even because a misleading account of it had been published, but because a substantially correct report had been sent to the North German envoys at several Courts. The declaration of war reached Berlin on the 19th.
The faults of the triumphant war party had isolated France. She was without allies; but it was confidently expected that South Germany could be detached from the Northern Confederation. The French agents held out no such prospect. They wrote black, but their Government would read nothing but white. France had done nothing involving offence to the South Germans, and would not believe that they would spend their blood and treasure in a quarrel which was not their own. The opposition to Prussia was strong in the South. But the Bavarian Government declared that to shrink from their engagement at a time when Prussia was attacked would be a shameful breach of faith. The Prime Minister, Count Bray, had signed the treaty of alliance himself in 1866. He told the Chamber that they might turn him out of office, but that he would never consent to betray his conviction or to deny his signature. After a close struggle the proposal of neutrality was defeated; and the day after the declaration of war was delivered at Berlin, 38,000,000 of Germans were united to meet it. The adherence of the South added 150,000 men, brave but not highly disciplined, to the armies of Prussia. It added infinitely more to her moral force, for it closed the door against French influence beyond the Rhine. Among the greater Powers England alone wished to favour neither of the combatants. Austria was the natural ally of France, for she wished her defeat in 1866 to be avenged, and Prussia at first set an army to watch the Bohemian frontier. But Russia calculated on deriving relief for her Eastern policy from the defeat of the French, and made it known from the first that she would ensure the neutrality of Austria. The Emperor Napoleon invited succour from Italy, by recalling his troops from Rome; and he drew encouragement from the warlike tone of Victor Emmanuel. There was a French party at Florence, who thought that the interference of South Germany for a recent enemy justified Italy in redressing the balance in favour of an old ally. Count Bismarck thought the danger so serious that he offered a great price for the neutrality of the Italians. He was ready to pledge himself, if Italy abstained from war, to sign no peace that did not make her mistress of Nice, Savoy, and Rome. The Italians declined to enter into an ungrateful conspiracy against France. In August, Prince Napoleon came to Florence. The King was eager for the fray. The sword of Savoy, he said, used not to rust in its sheath when there was fighting to be done. But the Ministers, supported by the leading statesmen of the country, restrained him.
War had been declared a week when Count Bismarck isolated France more completely by publishing the draft of a treaty which he had extracted from Count Benedetti in 1867, in which France was to have the aid of Prussia for the conquest of Belgium. The immediate effect of the publication was to show that Europe had much to dread from a French victory, and to make the Emperor Napoleon a sort of international outlaw. England invited Germany and France to enter into new engagements for the independence of Belgium. As the proposal was suggestive of the suspicion of perfidy which the secret treaty had aroused, the French signed it with a bad grace. This startling revelation did not increase the sympathy for Prussia as much as it damaged France. If the draft had been communicated to England early in the Hohenzollern controversy, the language of this country might have been more cogent in striving to restrain the impetuosity of France. Lord Lyons had assured the Duke de Gramont that his course of action in forcing on the war was not of a kind that could diminish the friendly feeling of England. The tone of his remonstrances might have been less comforting if we had had proof of the plot against Belgium. By keeping back the document until war had broken out, Count Bismarck had been suppressing one of the chances of peace.
Having made himself safe against the armed interference of Europe, he endeavoured to fortify himself against the interposition of diplomacy to rob Germany of the full profit and enjoyment of victory. He affirmed that he had reason to believe that Napoleon, after the first collision, would be willing to treat for peace at the expense of Belgium. The object was to make the neutrals suspicious of premature negotiations after the butchery had begun. The Power whose pacific intervention was most generally expected was Great Britain. By at once raising a dispute about the exportation of arms, which led to much excitement in Germany, Count Bismarck endeavoured to create the belief that our mediation would not be welcomed as that of a friendly Power.
The latter part of July was spent in bringing up the armies to the frontier. The Germans proceeded methodically, waiting until each army corps was ready in its appointed province before they sent any portion to the front. Napoleon intended to invade Germany from Strasburg, in the direction of Frankfort, so as to separate the North and South, and break up their alliance. He was not ready in time. But for a week the German frontier was almost unprotected, and it was expected that the struggle would begin on German soil. On 28th July the Prussian Staff made known that the interval of danger was over, and that they were ready to carry the war into the enemy’s country. Three roads lie before a German army invading France. Near the Swiss frontier the gap that separates the Jura from the Vosges is guarded by the fortress of Belfort, which ultimately became the scene of the least brilliant operations of the Germans. North of Belfort the Vosges mountains bound the valley of the Rhine and separate the nations. They are crossed by the great road from Strasburg to Nancy, Châlons, and Paris. At the northern end of the Vosges, wide valleys, running east and west, lead from the German stronghold of Mentz on the Rhine, to Metz, the bulwark of France, on the Moselle. The armies of Southern Germany, led by the Crown Prince of Prussia and General Blumenthal, were gathered near the lines of Weissenburg, the advanced point of French territory, where it receded from the Rhine. They were to make for the Strasburg route. To the right, the two armies of Prince Frederick Charles and Steinmetz approached the frontier on the roads that lead to Metz. Moltke himself has pointed out the vice of this arrangement, and attributes to the division of command the Austrian reverses in 1859. In the Prussian army the waste of time and power was counteracted by the diligent use of the wires, which followed every corps as fast as it marched, and kept every separate command in daily communication with Moltke, who never left the King, and controlled the movements of all the armies. This is the reason why the strategy of the Germans was so superior to their tactics, and, while some of their actions were fought clumsily, and won by hideous slaughter, all the larger combinations were executed with a precision and ability never surpassed in war. Napoleon stood at the head of 300,000 men, on a line 100 miles long, from Metz to Strasburg. Three men principally excited expectation in the French army. Marshal MacMahon, the conqueror of the Malakoff and the victor of Magenta, stood highest in public esteem. When the idea of invading Central Germany was abandoned, he was left with 50,000 men in the neighbourhood of Strasburg. Marshal Bazaine, who commanded on the left, near Metz, was said to have greater experience of war than any living Frenchman, but the stupendous failure of Mexico overshadowed his reputation, and his authority was not equal to his ability. A general who has kept in the background, and almost in disgrace, was commonly reputed the most accomplished officer in France. Trochu had made himself illustrious in the Crimea and in Lombardy, but he had written a singularly candid and clever book on the defects of the army, and he was odious to the Court. He was popular with the Opposition, and when it became necessary to conciliate the malcontents, the Emperor reluctantly appointed him Governor of Paris.
Hostilities began on the 2nd of August. Napoleon came to the front and shelled Saarbrücken, a frontier town at the junction of the Prussian railways. The Prussians, who were not in force, evacuated the place. It was at once reported that the French had burnt a defenceless town, and the indignation caused by the rumour did its work in Germany before it was ascertained that Saarbrücken had suffered little. The French, finding that the Germans, who were concealed in the forests, declined their challenge, did not pursue their success, but established themselves on the heights overlooking the valley of the Saar. They were not prepared to take a real initiative, and the Germans at once returned the blow and invaded France. On the 4th the Crown Prince surprised the French under Douay at the exposed position of Weissenburg. MacMahon hurried up from Strasburg with 40,000 men to defend the passage of the Vosges. The Crown Prince, with a vastly superior force, defeated him, on the 6th, between Wörth and Reichshofen, where the famous regiment of Zouaves, and the Cuirassiers, charging for the first time since Waterloo, were cut to pieces. Some of the troops fled in disorder to Strasburg, which was soon after besieged by the Germans. The rest of the French right wing, including Failly, who had not been in the battle, and Felix Douay, who was called up in haste from Belfort, fell back 150 miles; and the Crown Prince was able to advance half-way to Paris without encountering an enemy. The results of this battle, out of all proportion with its apparent importance, suddenly revealed the weakness and the peril of France. It relieved Prussia from the apprehension of a landing on the coast, and set many thousand men free for the invasion, and it chilled the warlike dispositions of those neutrals whose wishes were for France. The Emperor, announcing the disaster in desponding telegrams, declared that all might yet be retrieved. This language threw Paris into a ferment. The Ministry that had begun the war was overthrown by the news of the first battle, with the Emperor’s full connivance. The Empire was in imminent danger, and resorted to the thorough-going Imperialists for protection. The head of the new Ministry, General Montauban, named Count of Palikao for his victories in China, was a soldier of undoubted capacity. His mission was to call out the resources of the country, and to keep down the enemy most feared and hated by the Bonapartes,—the democracy of Paris. The Empire crumbled to pieces in his hands, and largely through his fault.
Whilst the Crown Prince was engaged with MacMahon on the left of the German line, Steinmetz, on the right, stormed the heights of Spicheren above Saarbrücken. The French fell back on Metz, where the Emperor stood with 190,000 men. But in France the Sovereign, not his Ministers, was responsible, and public opinion was not content with the change of Ministry; for it was the Emperor who had mismanaged the opening of the campaign and brought the enemy into the country. Ollivier fell on the 9th, and on the 11th Napoleon made over the supreme command to Bazaine. The new commander-in-chief objected to the presence of the Emperor in his camp; and from the moment of his departure from Metz until the surrender at Sedan, he ceased to influence the destinies of France.
The Germans advanced slowly. The Crown Prince had the mountains to cross. Steinmetz was held back on the right, to lull the French in Metz, whilst Prince Frederick Charles, in the centre, preceded by that immense force of cavalry which has become so characteristic of all the German movements, pushed forward to prevent the junction of MacMahon and Bazaine. The French generals were very reluctant to retire from Metz, and to bring the unbroken army of the Rhine back into the heart of France; and the notion that their right place was at Metz, where they could hold fast great part of the invading armies while a stubborn resistance was organised with the inexhaustible resources of the country, was so strong among them that it interfered with the execution of the opposite plan, which was preferred. On the 13th Bazaine gave orders to retreat by Verdun on Châlons, where MacMahon was to form a new army with reinforcements sent from Paris. The Germans were out of sight when the retreat began on the morning of the 14th, but they detected the movement, and the same day Steinmetz threw himself on the French rearguard outside the forts of Metz. The French held their own that evening, but the retreat was interrupted, half a day was lost, and Prince Frederick Charles had time to get across the Moselle with part of his army. Bazaine marched by two roads, which part a few miles west of Metz, at Gravelotte, and unite at Verdun. On the 16th the Germans overtook him on the southern road, near Mars-la-Tour. They were greatly outnumbered, for the bulk of their force was many miles to the rear, and the French divisions that were following the northern road came up in time. They gained their object with a loss which, in proportion to the numbers they brought into action, is almost unexampled in European warfare,—a loss of 17,000 men. That night an Englishman seeking a drink of water for the wounded in a stream that crossed the battlefield, found it so dark with blood that he was obliged to walk three miles to fill his bucket. Bazaine had been stopped, but not actually defeated, and the northern road was still open to him. But the shock of the great battle made him lose a day. He feared to be cut off from Metz, and resolved to give battle under cover of the fortress, in a position which would force the Germans to fight with their backs to Paris, and their line of retreat interrupted by the Moselle. His movements after the battle converted what was no more than a repulse into a gigantic disaster. The Germans on the following day did not know the extent of their good fortune. They brought together more than 200,000 men, and early on the 18th they set out to look for Bazaine on the northern road to Verdun. They found him in a strong position near Gravelotte, immovable, leaning on the outworks of Metz, with a force less by 60,000 men than their own. Wheeling round to their right they began the attack about the middle of the day, and at nightfall Bazaine retired behind the forts. The Prussians had again suffered terribly and had won scarcely any trophies. But the object for which they had sacrificed 35,000 men in five days was completely gained, and Bazaine, with an army equal to the largest the great Napoleon ever handled in action, was finally locked up in Metz. Prince Frederick Charles, with the victors of Gravelotte, sat down to wait his surrender, the Saxons were detached to watch for any offensive movements on the part of MacMahon, and the Crown Prince advanced towards Châlons. MacMahon, with an ill-appointed army of more than 100,000 men, proposed to fall back on Paris and to prevent the siege. Trochu believed that without the help of a large regular army the defence would be impossible. But the news from Bazaine frightened the Government. The state of Paris was such that they dared not confess the truth, and they believed that the reappearance of the Emperor would be followed by his deposition. After the battles round Metz the Empire was only preserved by a system of fiction and concealment that could not last long, and the Emperor himself seemed to be forgotten by the advisers of the Regent. They required that an attempt should be made to pass the Crown Prince and deliver Metz. MacMahon and the Emperor fell back from the camp of Châlons as the Crown Prince approached. Instead of retreating on Paris they went north to Rheims, leaving the Germans to continue their march. For three whole days the Germans were ignorant of MacMahon’s movements, and by dint of great rapidity he might have reached Metz before the Crown Prince could come up with him, but the audacious plan which Palikao had imposed on the obedient Marshal was spoilt by delay. On the 26th the Crown Prince and the Saxons faced north, and MacMahon informed the Government that they were intercepting his march, and that he must give up the attempt to reach Metz, and return towards Paris. Palikao replied that a revolution would break out if they abandoned Bazaine. MacMahon felt that the enterprise was desperate, but attempted it, as the last chance for the Empire. Late on 31st August, after three days’ fighting, he was driven back to Sedan.
Prince Frederick Charles had drawn off part of his force from the investment of Metz, in order to meet MacMahon if he should force his way through the two armies that had been sent against him, and the Germans were listening to the cannonade sixty miles off when the French, led by Canrobert and the old Orleanist Changarnier, burst out of Metz. The German positions were taken, and Bazaine had only to pursue his success with real vigour to be free once more. But Manteuffel brought up fresh troops in the night, and early on 1st September the French were driven back into their lines. This was the battle of Noisseville, one of the most hard-fought actions of the war. It proved that it was the fault of the French if they did not escape. Either Bazaine did not know how to handle large masses of men, or he hesitated to face the difficulties that would begin when he got out into the open. That day MacMahon gave battle at Sedan to forces double his own. He was disabled by a frightful wound early in the morning. By two o’clock the French were completely surrounded. Every road was occupied by the Germans, every crest was crowned with their batteries, and the French infantry, when their generals appealed to them for one more effort, refused to move. Then, in spite of protests from the unfortunate general who had succeeded the wounded marshal, Napoleon displayed the white flag on the ramparts, and sent an officer to the King of Prussia announcing his surrender. He went into captivity with 84,000 men.
After the decisive victory of Sedan, France had no longer an army in the field, and the Germans believed that their toils were over. The Regency must needs make peace; or, if the Regency fell, no other Government would be willing to take up the game where the Emperor left it. Orders were sent to Berlin to countermand the multiplying of the maps of France; and it was proposed that the Germans should abandon the offensive, and take up impregnable positions in the territory already conquered. But although the Regency instantly resolved to conclude peace, it no longer had the power. It had expelled the German residents in Paris, and had filled the prisons as fast as news came from the seat of war, and the discontent became troublesome. Before treating for peace it would have become necessary to arrest the leaders of the Opposition; and this could not be done, for the Opposition was supported by General Trochu. All the available soldiers had been sent to MacMahon; the National Guards were masters of Paris, and Trochu was master of the National Guard. The regular army is the State in arms; the National Guard is the people in arms. It is the force that obeys, not authority, but opinion. Its function is to preserve order against anarchy, and freedom against oppression. A Government may be constitutional in its forms, and may be founded on popular election, but if it has the control of a large standing army it is virtually absolute. The National Guard is the check upon this absolutism. It supplies aid to a popular Government, and a hostile control to an unpopular Government. Therefore the sceptre passed away from the Empire when it was forced to commit the defence of the capital to the National Guard. During the twenty-four hours after the news came from Sedan, Trochu held in his hands the destinies of his country. At the morning sitting of the Legislative Assembly, on Saturday, 3rd September, the facts were but imperfectly known, and Jules Favre’s proposal that Trochu should be Dictator was repelled with indignation. In the course of the evening the intelligence spread through the city. Trochu and Gambetta addressed large crowds, promising decisive action for the morrow; late at night the Chamber was again summoned. Palikao had been fetched out of bed, and he was not prepared for action. In the midst of a significant silence on the benches, from which interruptions used to pour on his grave stern eloquence, Favre asked the Chamber to declare that the Bonapartes had ceased to reign, and to put Trochu at the head of the State. The discussion of this motion, which meant the Republic, was adjourned to the next afternoon. The Imperialists were by this time conscious that there was no longer an Empire. Its existence was not in debate on that fatal Sunday. The option was between a Republic and a provisional Government, compatible with the future advent of monarchy; the question was whether the Liberal party throughout France or the Revolutionists of Paris should inherit the power and the misfortunes of the fallen Empire. The Liberals of the left centre, led by Thiers, Daru, and Buffet, wished to institute by a parliamentary vote a new executive that should possess the sanction of law and the requisite authority to keep down insurrection and to conclude peace. They pressed the Empress-Regent to abdicate, in order that the validity of the new Government might be undisputed by the masses that had sustained the old. “Ah!” she exclaimed, “in France it will not do to be unfortunate.” But although she was unable to resist by force, she refused to damage by abdication the prospects of her son. She was ready to give up the reality of power, provided the nominal sovereignty of her family was preserved. The Ministry accordingly proposed that the Chamber should commit the defence of the country to a Directory of Five, to be controlled by Palikao. Favre repeated his motion of the night before; and Thiers, supported by the moderate party, proposed a provisional Government, which, without prejudging the final question, would have given to him and his friends the supreme conduct of affairs. The supremacy of the moderate Liberals was the thing most feared by the Republicans, who form the mass of the people of Paris. They saw in the proposal of Thiers a plot for the perpetuation of monarchy and the restoration of the House of Orleans. They were resolved not to miss the opportunity of recovering what they had lost by the coup d’état of 1851. Early on the Sunday morning emissaries went round summoning the Republicans to assemble before the Legislative body at noon, for the purpose of supporting their deputies. They came in tens of thousands, headed by National Guards, who claimed that it was their privilege to guard the Assembly. The Assembly was guarded by all the troops Palikao could muster. They were but few, and when the sitting commenced things looked so threatening that people hurried to the Governor of Paris, and besought him to come and prevent bloodshed. Trochu refused. He could not act, he said, with such a man as Palikao; he would not interfere unless the Chamber sent for him. The absence of Trochu decided the defeat of the Liberals and the triumph of the Republic. The Commission appointed to report on the three schemes adopted the scheme of Thiers, and it was about to be voted by the majority of deputies when the people and National Guards forced their way in. The Assembly dispersed without act or vote, and at three o’clock Jules Favre and his friends proclaimed the Republic at the Hôtel de Ville. When the people were pulling down the eagles, and were about to break into the Chamber, the Prefect of Police appeared at the Tuileries, and informed the Empress that all was over. She quietly bade farewell to her attendants, changed her dress, and fled, almost alone. This was the fall of the second Empire, ruined by the overthrow of its armies. It fell between the enervation of its friends and the contemptuous moderation of its enemies. In eighteen years it had failed to plant in the hearts of the Parisians the strength for one hour of resistance. Not a shot was fired, not a drop of blood was spilt, to save it. No act of vengeance stained the hands of the liberated people.
In the evening the remnant of the Assembly, chiefly Liberals of the Left Centre, met to deliberate. Jules Favre appeared, and, without pretending to care much about it, exhorted them to ratify what had been done. Several members expressed their indignation at the violation of the Legislative Assembly, and wished to record a protest. Thiers, who presided, induced them to hold themselves neutral. They could not recognise a Government founded on the destruction of the only popular authority in France, nor resist men who were about to conduct the defence of the country. Thus the Liberal party, representing the wealthier classes, separated itself definitely from the new Government, and left the Republic to administer with its own resources the disastrous legacy of the Empire.
The Government of National Defence was formed of the deputies of the capital. It was evident that the next and vital stage of the war would be the siege of Paris, and there was propriety in committing its defence to the men whom it had trusted. There was no time to obtain a legal title by consulting the nation. Paris, which had always opposed the Empire, and had been kept down by means of the country voters, resumed its lost supremacy. It was only theoretically a government by Parisian deputies. Thiers, the most eminent of their number, preferred to wait for the restoration of peace, and Trochu, the commander-in-chief, was neither a Parisian nor a deputy. Except Picard, their financier, they appear to have been without administrators; and much of the real work was done, subsequently, by two outsiders, Dorian, the Minister of Commerce, and Laurier, Secretary-General of the Interior. By the defect of its origin the new Government had not authority to govern France, to keep down the mobs of Paris that had created it, or to give the enemy guarantees for peace. It had sprung, not from revolution, or even insurrection, but from a street riot, and was liable to end as it began. There was nothing to inspire the invaders with confidence in its power or in its stability. The only remedy was the immediate convocation of a National Assembly. The foreign Republics and the States of Latin Europe recognised the Government of National Defence, but the great European Powers, Russia, Austria, and Great Britain, waited until the French people at large should pronounce. One great advantage belonged to the new Government. Most of its leading members had been among the ten courageous deputies who, on the 15th of July, had voted against war. Jules Favre especially was one of the very few men, almost the only public man in France, who had consistently condemned, not only this, but all wars of ambition, even that of 1859. While the Liberals, by their sarcasms and declamations, were goading the Emperor to grasp the Rhine, Favre had risked his popularity by resisting them. He seized, with great effect, the advantage which belonged to his position. In a circular, written with a rare eloquence, dignity, and grace, and impressive from the honourable consistency of the writer, he proclaimed the guilt of France, and the justice of the ordeal which had crowned the Germans with the glory of stupendous victories. He was ready to sue for peace, and to pay as indemnity all the money that could be raised in France. The funds, which had fallen seven per cent, immediately rose more than two per cent. And yet this grand State paper has cost more lives than the wrath of Achilles, for it contained the memorable words—“We mean to surrender not one stone of our fortresses, not one inch of our soil.”
M. Favre immediately requested England to intervene in favour of peace, and by the mediation of our Government, Favre and Bismarck met on the day when the investment of Paris was completed. Count Bismarck had made known before the end of August the terms he meant to offer to the defeated Empire. He wanted no territory, but he would take the fortresses of Strasburg and Metz, as a sort of twin Gibraltar for the protection of Germany. In the middle of September, after the ruin of the Empire, and when he was preparing for his interview with Favre, he raised his terms, and claimed the whole of Alsace and part of Lorraine, or a strip of territory about thirty miles in width along the whole line that separates France and Germany. These were the same terms to which the French submitted four months later. The Germans could scarcely bring themselves to treat with the Government of National Defence. They distrusted it, both for its revolutionary origin and for its democratic character. Monarchy, as understood in Germany, is not, as we understand it, the condition under which a nation secures self-government; it is not government by law, but government by authority. It is antagonistic to Republicanism, not in form only, but in its essential spirit. The establishment of a French Republic was not only an offence to the aristocratic feudalism of Prussia, but an actual danger, by encouraging the elements of popular resistance in Germany. Therefore the Germans were tempted to underrate its vitality, and to look for signs of hope for the Empire. Political sympathies helped to betray them into a grievous error. They persuaded themselves that the new Government would be speedily overthrown, and they were ignorant of the impulse which a Republic defending the integrity of France would give to the slumbering forces of the land. They drew their lines round Paris in the belief that popular tumult would come to their aid. But, apart from this mistake, they had full reason to doubt the use of negotiations with a Power too recent to give good security for indemnity, and too dependent on momentary favour to yield up territory. When the two statesmen met it was at once apparent that the terms of peace would be such as only a National Assembly was competent to entertain. The only practical question between them was the armistice necessary for elections throughout France. At their final meeting Count Bismarck was not punctual to his appointment. He had been detained by a conference with a Bonapartist agent. The appearance of this voluntary, unaccredited negotiator was welcomed as a sign that the Imperialists were stirring. For the Empire still possessed a great army under three marshals at Metz, whereas it was not certain that the Republic had the command of any efficient force. Whatever terms the Empire accepted might be enforced by Bazaine. It was the beginning of a mysterious intrigue whose object was to employ the army of Metz to restore the Regency, and to impose on France the conditions to be dictated by the Germans. The prospect thus opened of wringing a mighty ransom out of an exiled Empress and an imprisoned army made Count Bismarck rigid in his tone to M. Favre. The armistice would be so injurious to the military position of the Germans that it could not be granted without an equivalent; and the equivalent he wished to obtain was the surrender of the fortresses that interfered with the communications, which were Strasburg, Toul, and one other place. As Toul and Strasburg were then on the point of falling, and were taken, the one in three days, the other in eight days after the interview, this stipulation was hardly exorbitant. But when Favre was asked to give up the garrison that had been defending Strasburg for a month, and had already become the legendary idol of the populace of Paris, he lost his self-control and broke off the conference. He was oppressed by the knowledge of the ulterior conditions which were to be demanded for making peace. Beyond the loss of Strasburg he saw the annexation of Alsace, and the darker terrors in the background disturbed his vision. M. Favre had gone out secretly, without even the sanction of his colleagues. When it was discovered that he was in the enemy’s camp suing for peace Paris was furious, and the leaders of the Red Republic became instantaneously formidable. But when it was known that he had indignantly rejected the proffered terms, and had proclaimed war to the end, he became the hero of the hour. It was pretended that Bismarck had demanded not only Toul, Verdun, and Strasburg, but the fort that commands Paris, and Metz, with the army of Bazaine. When Favre reported to his colleagues the failure of his mission, there were some who listened with a secret joy, for they were willing that the Republic should have a chance of retrieving the disasters which had crushed the Empire. “We may have to submit to the abuse of force,” said Favre, “but not to a voluntary degradation.” They were not very sanguine of success. But the deeper resources of the country and the vitality of the Republic were still untried. It behoved them to show what could be done by the enthusiasm of an armed people where the professional soldiers had failed. The Empire had fought for preponderance, and had been justly punished. France had now to defend her territory, the citizenship of her people, and her newly recovered freedom. An heroic struggle ending in a disastrous peace would be less surely fatal to the Republic than the immediate acceptance of the best terms that could be got. The majority of the Government did not wish for peace, and no Government at that time could have ventured to admit the surrender of the Eastern Departments.
The moral position of France before the world was much improved when she continued the war on the ground that a State owes a duty to its citizens not to forsake them while it has a million of men to call into the field. On the other hand, the position of Germany was unchanged. Count Bismarck, adopting the inflexible requirements of the Staff, insisted on acquiring a frontier that should protect Germany against attack; and having stated these conditions in September, he did not raise them after all the fortresses had fallen and all the armies had been dispersed. Conquest is a precarious foundation for rights; but Europe had never held that conquest is in itself a wrong. Whole States were violently incorporated by Prussia in 1866, and the world looked on unmoved. Of all civilised communities France was the one least able to contend with decency that compulsory annexation is a crime. For the most intense desire of almost all Frenchmen has been for the acquisition of territory not their own. Liberals and Republicans shared with Imperialists this diseased and guilty longing, and urged the Government to enlarge the Eastern boundary. “Let Napoleon take the Rhine,” said Montalembert, “and I shall not quarrel with him again.” It is only in the last few years that popular and able writers, like the novelists Erckmann-Chatrian, and the historian Lanfrey, have created a reaction against this, the besetting sin of their countrymen. Both the English and the American Governments expressed the opinion that it is becoming to bear with manful courage the common penalties of defeat.
At the time when the second period of the war began, although the ultimate issue was hardly doubted by any soldier, the position of France was not so desperate as to require that she should submit to degradation. M. Thiers started on a journey to the neutral capitals, asking for intervention in behalf of the balance of power, and of a Government which had injured nobody, had not sought war, and was now fervent in its desire for peace. His diplomatic mission was not auspicious; but there was reasonable hope of some military success, as long as 200,000 Germans were made unavailable by the tenacity of Bazaine. The Germans had surrounded Paris without attempting to force an entrance. On the day when their lines closed round the city the garrison went out to meet them, and the Zouaves were routed and came back in such disorder that Paris expected to see the Germans already within the gates. Trochu had said to a friend—“The Prussians will enter Paris when they like, and as they like; there is not an educated officer that is not aware of it.” Thiers himself, the originator of the fortifications, talked of the possibility of resisting for a week. When it was seen that Moltke, like the allies at Sebastopol, thought the defences more formidable than the defenders knew them to be, the chances of the Republic rose. If Prince Frederick Charles could be kept inactive until an army was formed strong enough to fall upon the rear of the besiegers, Paris would be delivered. A branch of the Government was fixed at Tours, beyond the Loire, to draw new armies from the untouched districts of the South and West. Early in October the Minister of the Interior, Gambetta, escaped from Paris in a balloon, and set about raising the Provinces. He was a young advocate, recently made conspicuous by the violence of his language in opposition. He had voted for war. He had great energy both of work and speech, but little political instruction, and his impetuous arbitrary temper made him a dangerous defender of liberty. He prevented the convocation of a National Assembly, dissolved the centres of local self-government, and, surrounded by a club of coffee-house politicians, obtained an undisputed dictatorship. The nation rose at his call. The generals whom he appointed and dismissed at will obeyed him. He gave a command to Garibaldi in the East, and to the Colonel of Papal Zouaves, Charette, in the West. Arms and ammunition were brought over from England and America, and enormous armies were set on foot. The German officers doubted whether their own country, after such defeats, would have been capable of such an effort. But the new levies were badly officered, and, compared with the Imperial legions, they were of so poor a quality that Moltke, who had been careful to have numbers on his side against MacMahon and Bazaine, provided for their defeat with very inferior forces. The later victories of Prince Frederick Charles, Göben, and Werder were gained when the French were two, and sometimes even three, to one, and were gained at comparatively small cost. The whole loss of the Germans in the battles of January, against Chanzy, Bourbaki, and Faidherbe, amounted to less than their loss on a single day at Gravelotte, to less by 7000 men than their loss at Mars-la-Tour.
But the character of these later struggles brought on a loss of another kind—a decline of the chivalry of war. The success of the Germans was not more due to valour than to the assiduity of the officers, the hearty respect for the principle of authority. For the Prussian ranks are filled, like those of our Volunteers, from all classes of society. They entered France with the order and discipline of troops on parade. The ripe grapes were being gathered as they passed the vineyards of Champagne, and not a soldier trespassed. No French women were insulted by the invaders. A hungry English gentleman having picked an onion in a garden was very much surprised to find himself marched off under arrest. Another well-known Englishman took charge of a church which was filled with wounded from Metz, and immediately ordered the woodwork of the seats to be used for beds. The Prussian officers were horrified at this interference with the rights of property. My friend replied that Church property was fitly employed for the comfort of dying men; but the Prussians would not hear of it. In the country houses they occupied round Metz they hung up at the door of each room an inventory of the objects within. But most of the facts which English and American observers have recorded in testimony of the splendid discipline of the Germans come to us from the army of Prince Frederick Charles. The presence of men not belonging to the North German Confederation, unaccustomed to the rigour of the Prussian system, or drawn from populations less highly cultivated, made the task of the Crown Prince more delicate. That proud perfection of discipline which brought the Germans so much true fame at first, did not pass unscathed through the trials and temptations of the winter campaign. Their temper was sorely tried by the conduct of the peasantry in some of the battles. At Wörth a wounded German was found with his eyes put out. Near Metz an officer lying unconscious on the field was brought to himself by a new sharp pain, and found a woman hacking his fingers to get at his rings. It was found that she had a bag full of rings got in the same way. At Bazeilles the inhabitants picked up wounded Bavarians in the street and burned them alive; and the Bavarians in consequence set fire to the town. The Germans were soon driven to an awful severity in retaliation. The country people went out with rifles and fired at small detachments, so that it became hard to tell a peaceful citizen from a disguised soldier, and a peaceful village from a military position. Death was decreed against every civilian taken in the act of fighting, and against the free-shooters. An officer who in the course of the war had ordered more than sixty of these for execution, said that very many of these were men of position. At last the number of free-shooters taken was so great that the rigour was relaxed, and they were sent to Germany. It came to be assumed that the owner of an empty house was out with a rifle in his hand, and the house was liable to pillage. Many country houses were devastated in this way, sometimes in the presence of their owners. At times the railway system broke down, and as supplies failed, the requisitions degenerated into plunder. Unfortunately, the Germans had been led by the early events of the war to lose respect for their opponents. They knew that many thousands of their countrymen gaining their livelihood at Paris had been brutally expelled, and that prisoners were sometimes treated by the French with ferocious insolence. The citadel of Laon, having surrendered, was blown up at the moment when the Germans entered it, and the generality of the French press celebrated this as a glorious and heroic act. And there was a pitiful boastfulness in the midst of defeat which a generous warrior would despise. A popular French writer, after describing the retreat from Wörth, exclaimed, “And now, who will say that the French army has been conquered, or does anybody suppose that it can be, with such soldiers, commanded by a man like MacMahon?” and Victor Hugo, the first of imaginative writers living, published a letter to the Germans after Sedan, in which he says, “You have had the victory, and we have had the glory!” Contempt for the character of an enemy is always demoralising, and acts were committed by several corps—acts not only of ruthless severity, but of lawless violence—which will long rankle in the memories of the best and most thoughtful men in France.
During the whole of September Prince Frederick Charles was patiently starving out the French at Metz. Steinmetz was gone. That gloomy veteran had learnt too much of the ancient ways of war under Blucher in his youth to adapt himself, when past seventy, to the calculating science of Moltke. The intelligent officers of the new school who served under him were often startled by his orders, for he tried to do by brute force what could be better done by brains. After the wasteful slaughter at Gravelotte he disappeared from the army. Bazaine was not molested with cannon, but whenever he attempted to break out, he found the Prussians too strong for him. After his defeat at Naisseville and the capitulation of Sedan, he remained quiet during some valuable weeks, and then, learning from Prince Frederick Charles that the Republic was not accepted by the whole country, he involved himself in the Bonapartist intrigue. He was surrounded by men personally attached to the dynasty—Lebœuf, who knew that the Republic would ask him to account for so much ruin; Frossard, the governor of the Prince Imperial, the Imperial Staff, and the Imperial Guard. He knew that the Germans distrusted the new Government and preferred the old, and he believed that Paris could not long prevent the discussion of peace. They would then be glad to treat with the commander of the only remaining army in France, and to place the new Government, whether a Regency or a National Assembly, under the protection of his sword. He could not hope to be delivered; and after his troops began to eat the horses he could not escape. He tried to profit by the political position to rescue himself from the military position. He sent first Bourbaki and then Boyer to sound the Empress. Count Bismarck sent her word that she might return to the Tuileries if she would consent to his conditions; and the Empire might have been restored in October on better terms, at least in respect of the indemnity, than those which the Republic accepted in March. Among the exiled Bonapartists in England there was much impatience at the coldness with which the Empress received the overtures from Versailles and Metz. But neither Bismarck nor Bazaine bound himself with pledges definite enough for security, and the Empress refused the terms. Bazaine, whose men for a whole week had declined to fight, and whose provisions were running short, so that two leeches were sold for £7, capitulated on the 27th of October with 173,000 men. It was not easy to prove why so large and so brave an army should have been unable to pierce the lines of an enemy scarcely superior in numbers, and divided by a river. It was supposed that Bazaine had been dazzled by the hope of serving the Empire, that the Germans had made skilful use of his delusion, and that political motives had barred his defence. Gambetta, whose plans were ruined by the fall of Metz, proclaimed him a traitor.
When it became known that he was in communication with the Germans the alarm was great at Tours, and the Government became very urgent for neutral intervention. Just then M. Thiers returned from his mission, and announced that all hope of armed assistance must be abandoned. Russia had maintained her resolution to prevent Austria from joining the war, and Austria still submitted, not very reluctantly, to the restraint. In Italy the position had been altered since the Empire fell, and Thiers was able to bring severe pressure to bear on the Italian Ministers. On 20th September, with the consent of the French, they had taken Rome, and overthrown the Papal Power. M. Thiers warned them to make friends with France in her need, lest they should hereafter have another Roman expedition, and a French army besieging their new capital. He asked for 100,000 men. The sword of Victor Emmanuel again rattled in its scabbard; but Thiers obtained only Garibaldi and a handful of volunteers. He came back convinced that resistance was useless, and that an armistice for the election of a National Assembly ought to be obtained at once. He got permission to cross the German lines and to bring his dismal news to Paris. Then he repaired to Versailles, hoping that Count Bismarck would prove more propitious than he had been to Favre. The German Chancellor was desirous that a legal Government should be created by the suffrages of the people, with undisputed authority to conclude peace. The Bonapartist combination was at an end, and the surrender of Bazaine was sure to influence the negotiations favourably. Thiers further stipulated that supplies of food should be permitted to enter Paris, in proportion to the number of days that the armistice was to last, so that when it ended the inhabitants should be no worse off than when it began. Count Bismarck would have been inclined to yield this point. The siege train was far from being ready, and the bombardment was still so remote that the armistice could cause no delay. But the demand was peremptorily rejected by Moltke. The King and his staff were averse to bombarding Paris, and wished to reduce it, like Metz, by famine. They already computed that it would have exhausted its provisions by the end of January. To admit food for a month, as was proposed, would carry the siege on to the end of February, and keep the army for four winter months in the dreary lines. On the other hand, Paris was so well supplied that it risked nothing by giving up the proposed condition. If the provinces could not raise the siege in three months, they could not raise it at all. But the Government of National Defence refused to entertain the notion of an armistice without revictualling Paris, and thus ended the last attempt to terminate the war before the extreme of misery had befallen the people of France.
The failure was not felt at first to be so disastrous, either at Paris or at Tours. During the conferences at Versailles there had been an abortive revolution against Trochu and Favre. The siege had lasted six weeks with an exasperating tranquillity. The Germans made no attempt to get in, nor the French to get out. Although the garrison was twice as numerous as the besiegers, Trochu did not esteem it capable of raising the siege by winning a pitched battle; and he waited the moment for a combined attack when an army should come up from the provinces. His troops, seeing that he would not face the enemy, began to share his despondency. The inaction of Trochu, and the departure of Gambetta, who was popular in the streets, caused the Government to lose ground with the advanced democracy. The municipal elections had been promised and then postponed. The Government, which had not the sanction of the popular vote, dreaded the presence of a body sprung from universal suffrage, and the Red Republicans knew that the election of the Municipality would give the supreme power to them. The Emperor had taken the power out of the hands of the people, and exercised it for his own independent purposes, and not in the interest of any section of society. His merit in the eyes of France had been that he suspended the conflict between property and labour, between class and class, which had raged so furiously after the fall of Louis Philippe. An absolute democracy where the theory of political equality is contrasted with the fact of an extreme social inequality is either a government by property or a government by poverty; labour will expect to be sacrificed to wealth unless it can make wealth subject to the interests of labour. In France the balance could only be maintained by an authority indifferent to their antagonism. When the power which was above the parties and restrained them was removed, their strife was renewed. And thus it happened that Socialism, which had slumbered under absolute monarchy, rose up in arms against the Republic. One of the traditions of the great French Revolution was the institution of a permanent and irresponsible body holding the power of insurrection, and using it for the purpose of controlling the organised authorities. Analogous instances of a secret despotism, veiled by constitutional forms, have occurred many times in history. At Paris this office was discharged by the Commune, or Corporation, a body that had no defined department in the Government, but was able to bind or loose the turbulence of the masses. It was by the restoration of this institution, and by allying themselves with the Jacobins, who upheld it as an essential principle of Government, that the Socialists hoped to make themselves masters of Paris and of France. And we have seen the prodigious power they acquired when, in addition to their own especial motives, Paris was infuriated at the peace, at the triumph of the reaction at Bordeaux, and at the transfer of the Parliamentary capital to Versailles. At the end of October the news that Bazaine and all his forces were prisoners of war filled Paris with consternation. Just at this moment the garrison had obtained a first success at Le Bourget, which had been followed by a smart defeat. At the same time Thiers appeared at Paris, and it was known that negotiations were on foot, negotiations apparently prompted by despair at the loss of Metz. On 31st October an armed mob burst into the room where the Government of National Defence was sitting, and took them prisoners. Somebody told Trochu to escape, or he would be shot. “Sir,” he replied, “I am a soldier, and mean to die at my post.” For many hours Trochu, Favre, and several of their colleagues were as helpless as Louis XVI. in the hands of the populace. The list of a new Government was handed about, which was to call the Municipality into existence, and in which Dorian, the Minister who had become known to the people, because he was active in setting in motion great factories of warlike munitions, was to have been Dictator. In the middle of the night a few faithful battalions rescued the captive Government. There had been no bloodshed. It was but the prelude to the terrible explosions that were to come. The Government immediately appealed to the people, and was confirmed in office by an overwhelming majority of votes. The consequence of their deep humiliation was to confer upon them a moral authority they had never before enjoyed.
But while Favre and Trochu were suffering the vicissitudes of popular favour at Paris, Gambetta ruled France with unresisted sway. He had sent carrier pigeons to warn Favre against the armistice, for he knew that a National Assembly would speedily depose him, and would bring to power those Moderate Liberals who had been betrayed on 4th September and had never been reconciled to the Government of National Defence. He had nearly succeeded in equipping an army fit to take the field when the fall of Metz released the victorious forces of Prince Frederick Charles. His preparations were so secret, and the exaggerations of his language were received with so little credulity, that the Germans did not take alarm at the really formidable army that was being welded together by strict disciplinarians behind the curtain of the Loire. They divided the army that had captured Metz. Part overran the north of France, while Prince Frederick Charles advanced towards the centre and the south. The Bavarians, who occupied the post of danger at Orleans, received no supports. Although the army of the Loire was not yet fully organised, there was time to deliver a blow before the Germans could provide for their defence. On 10th November the French, under Aurelle de Paladines, entered Orleans after a battle in which they had forced the Bavarians to retreat. They were not only numerous and brave, but they were commanded with real ability, and France hoped for a moment that the Germans were not only outnumbered but out-generalled. The week that followed the recapture of Orleans was their hour of peril. Aurelle was slow and cautious in pursuing his success. But on the 15th it was believed that he had got past the covering armies, and was about to take the besiegers in the rear. The baggage was packed at headquarters, and everything was held in readiness to raise the siege in a moment. Prince Frederick Charles was called up to combat the army of the Loire. But Aurelle fell back on the following day to a fortified position before Orleans, and the gleam of hope was quenched. During the elation caused by his first successful advance, an event happened in the political world which might have afforded France a chance of forcing Europe into war. When Metz had fallen, and things were looking at their worst, Russia announced that she held herself no longer bound to observe the neutrality of the Black Sea, which she had been made to consent to by the Crimean war. Prussia, though she had signed the Treaty of Paris, had been always indifferent to its objects; and connivance at the repudiation of one of its clauses was a moderate price to pay for the support of Russia in the present war. But for England and Austria the Russian declaration was a hostile and unwarranted act, and the feelings of the old Western alliance for the protection of Turkey began to stir again. If French diplomacy had not been at a standstill by the exclusion of all the most experienced statesmen from public affairs, there would have been good materials for embroiling the neutrals. It was a conjuncture which brought home to them forcibly the value of France in the European system, and the danger which would come from her eclipse. But the French failed to derive any present benefit from the threatening revival of the Eastern Question. At the end of November, Aurelle, having made his arrangements with Trochu, advanced from the Loire with the flower of the Republican armies, whilst Ducrot and Vinoy went out to meet him. They carried several villages on the Marne, and inflicted great loss on the Saxons and Wirtembergers. For two days it seemed that they were going to break through. But Moltke gave orders that the lost positions should be retaken at any cost, and the French were stopped; but they kept part of the conquered ground, and built an advanced fort on Mont Avron that seriously vexed the besiegers. While Ducrot was repulsed on the Marne, the army of the Loire came upon Prince Frederick Charles and met with a series of reverses, ending in a decisive defeat at Orleans on 4th December.
After the defeat of the army of the Loire, the failure of the great sortie, and the arrival of Prince Frederick Charles upon the scene, the deliverance of Paris became a military impossibility, and the continuation of the war was prompted by illusions. There was only the dreadful choice between fire and famine. It was simply a question of more or less suffering to be borne by women and children. Therefore on the day after the fall of Orleans the Germans summoned Paris. Moltke informed Trochu that his last hope, the army of the Loire, was defeated, and invited him to send out an officer to verify the fact. Trochu declined the offer. The capital was in no humour to capitulate. The classes whose turbulence is its standing danger were taken into the pay of the State as its National Guards, and easily resigned themselves to a condition of things in which idleness was as remunerative as toil. The inhabitants had not yet suffered severe privations; but they were prepared for them. They were calm and patient. The disorders which are the disgrace of the city in happier times were banished, and crime had almost disappeared. A system of charity admirably organised relieved the poor. The dignity of sacrifice had transformed the city. Even in the worst extremity, when an appalling death-rate proclaimed the approaching agony, and the wailing of mothers was in every house, there were no serious bread riots. The Red Republicans, fed on extravagant fictions and willing to be deceived, were on the watch for signs of weakness in the Government. Long after a courageous journalist had announced that Paris was virtually lost already, and that the Government knew it well, Trochu was obliged to promise that he would never surrender. Every soldier knew that the promise was nothing but a melancholy boast; but the hand of the Red Republicans was heavy on their rulers, and none had the courage to give way, while the people waited for the end with an heroic sadness.
When Trochu’s reply to Moltke made known that the resistance was to be prolonged beyond the limits of reasonable hope, a great dispute broke out at the headquarters of the Germans. Count Bismarck declared that the moment had arrived to bring the population of Paris under the influence of terror. He thought that much purposeless and wanton havoc might be averted, and many lives of soldiers and non-combatants preserved, if the Government of Paris could be emancipated from the tyranny of an excited populace; and he could urge with justice that to bombard a city is less cruel than to starve it. Moltke opposed the bombardment. There had been a feud between these men ever since they conquered the Austrians together in 1866, and it is possible that the Crown Prince, looking to the future and disliking Bismarck, might think that he would be a too powerful and unmanageable subject if, in addition to his immense prestige, he had the cordial support of the army and its glorious chiefs. Count Bismarck had opposed the march to Paris, and believed that the siege was a blunder, and that the defences might have been forced at once. But he was not admitted to the military councils, and he shut himself up in disgust, and gave out that he was ill. He set the obedient press to work to agitate opinion at home in favour of the bombardment until the impatience caught the army. The whole of December was spent in bringing up heavy artillery, and it was Christmas before the guns were ready to pour their fire on the forts.
At that time a new enemy was giving trouble in the north. An army had been formed under Faidherbe, drawing its supplies from the sea, resting on the stronghold of Lille, and provided with a powerful artillery. Faidherbe understood the art of war, and the force opposed to him was small; but it was led by Göben, reputed in the German camp one of the most consummate officers in Europe, and Faidherbe could not make his way to Paris. The army of the Loire had been cut in two at Orleans; and one half retired by the left bank of the river towards Bourges, where it spent some weeks in inaction; while the stronger half, under Chanzy, closely pursued by the Duke of Mecklenburg, turned towards the west. Chanzy proved the hardest hitter among the generals of the Republic. His troops fought day by day, losing ground but not losing courage, until the Bavarians, who had seen so much of the roughest work of the campaign, had almost melted away. Defeated at Beaugency, Chanzy retreated slowly towards Brittany, and established himself at Le Mans, to the west of Paris; while the Tours Government, having no army to protect it, retired to Bordeaux. The defeat of Aurelle and Chanzy on the Loire made it clear that the armies charged with the duty of covering the siege of Paris were equal to their task, and the French turned their thoughts in another direction. In the east of France Garibaldi had not answered the expectations of Gambetta, and his Italian soldiers had sometimes fought better than their French brothers in arms. His campaign in Burgundy had not served the prestige either of France or of the Republic, while the loyal and religious men of La Vendée had shared the laurels of Chanzy. Gambetta raised the army of Bourges to 130,000 men, gave the command to Bourbaki, the General of the Imperial Guard, and leaving the western army of the Loire to its fate, sent him to raise the siege of Belfort and threaten Germany. Prince Frederick Charles, who had kept watch at Orleans, seeing no enemy in his front, marched against Chanzy, defeated him at Le Mans on 12th January, and drove him into the west. Meantime Bourbaki fell upon Werder near Belfort, and was compelled to retreat after three days’ fighting. Werder, with only 40,000 men, was too weak for a vigorous pursuit. But as soon as the nature of Bourbaki’s expedition was ascertained, Moltke had sent Manteuffel and Fransecky across France to intercept him, and quietly announced at Versailles that the Germans had got too many prisoners, and that Bourbaki would be driven over the frontier and disarmed by the Swiss. Every movement was so well planned and conducted that Bourbaki, seeing that all was lost, attempted suicide, and 80,000 of his troops laid down their arms in Switzerland.
While these things were passing amid the snows of the Jura, Paris had already fallen. The Germans, having detached all the men they could spare to put an end to the resistance in the provinces, proceeded to batter the defences. The southern forts proved too strong for their siege artillery; but it was ascertained that their guns carried right into the heart of Paris, and the bombardment commenced in earnest. It did little damage, for Paris, rebuilt by the Emperor of stone and iron, is the least combustible of cities, and the loss of life was small. The inhabitants bore this trial well, but they could not bear the inaction of their defenders. At last, on 19th January, when the bombardment had lasted a fortnight, and the mortality among non-combatants from disease and want of nourishment exceeded the usual rate by 500 deaths a day, when the remnants of the relieving armies under Bourbaki and Chanzy were in full retreat, and while Göben, at St. Quentin, was gaining the last pitched battle of the war, Trochu led 100,000 men against the Germans in the direction of Versailles. It was the last effort of the besieged, and when it failed, Trochu took no pains to disguise the magnitude of the disaster. On the next day the irretrievable defeat of Chanzy was made public. Riots broke out, bread ran short, and Trochu resigned his command, while the Germans opened an overwhelming fire to the north, on the weakest point of the fortifications. The Government appealed to all the officers successively down to the rank of Captain. Not one was willing to take on himself the task of prolonging the defence. The fort of St. Denis was about to fall, and then the populous regions of Paris would be commanded by the Prussian guns. On 24th January Favre went out to Versailles, and after four days’ discussion an armistice was concluded. The defence had long ceased to be justified by the rules and purposes of military science. But the Parisians were persuaded that they were yielding only to famine, and had persevered up to the verge of starvation. It was reported that the Government had miscalculated the duration of the supplies by a week, and that there was imminent danger. The Germans, on the contrary, believed that Paris yielded to force, that the bombardment had hastened the end by a month, and that provisions would have lasted, with the cruel economy practised in many famous sieges, far into February. They offered six millions of rations, but they were not sent for. They brought large supplies of flour, but it was left untouched for many days. The omnibuses were still running in Paris, and of the horses that were private property very few had been killed.
Favre had no real authority over the rest of France, and there was doubt whether the armistice he had signed would be accepted at Bordeaux in the name of the provinces. Favre, acting under false impressions, and hoping to save Bourbaki, had excluded him from the range of the armistice; and as the rout of his army speedily followed, Gambetta reviled the Paris Government and denounced their act. He submitted, however, and prepared for the inevitable election of a National Assembly in such a way as to make it serve his purpose of renewing the war, which Chanzy alone among the leading generals was ready to conduct. The elections occurring at the moment when the efforts of the Republic had brought the country lower than the Empire had left it, were sure to be reactionary. The restoration of Monarchy under the House of Orleans, through the instrumentality of Thiers, seemed near at hand. Gambetta decreed that all men should be ineligible who had held any office under the Empire. Under the appearance of excluding the Imperialists, who were no longer feared, this was a blow aimed at the friends of Constitutional Monarchy, and it was immediately annulled by Jules Favre as an audacious infraction of the principles of liberty. Gambetta resigned, and the triumph of the Moderate and Peace party was secured.
Paris elected a long list of illustrious writers, together with the chief revolutionary leaders. The long seclusion of the capital had estranged it from the rest of France. Its influence had been too long suspended to be easily recovered. There was no sympathy between the city that had cost such sacrifices and the provinces that had made them in vain. The temper of the Assembly was so hostile and intolerant to the war party, that Victor Hugo and some other Paris deputies quitted it. Garibaldi also resigned, but attempted afterwards to speak. The majority marked their abhorrence of the party he represented by refusing to hear him. Thiers, who was elected in more than twenty constituencies, and had received a million and a half of votes, was put at the head of the State, that he might quickly come to terms with the conquerors, and then curb the revolutionary movement. He is a considerable writer, an admirable speaker, and the cleverest talker in France. As a statesman he had shown boldness and fertility of expedients, but he was growing old, and his action since the beginning of the war had not sustained his fame. He has exulted so much over French conquests, and so often flattered with ingenious sophistry the vainer and more selfish patriotism of his country, that he could not adopt the lofty though fatal declarations of Jules Favre about the integrity of the national soil. He courageously accepted the consequences of such tremendous reverses. He had left Versailles in November, believing that the Germans would have restored Metz, on condition of levelling the works, and would have been content with taking £120,000,000. Three months of war had doubled the indemnity, and the generals would not hear of losing Metz. It is remarkable that M. Thiers appealed to England for aid in reducing not the demand for territory, but the demand for money. A telegram from Count Bernstorff arrived at the critical moment, and £40,000,000 sterling were struck off the indemnity.
The end of war is peace; but in France the proclamation of the peace was the signal for civil war. The conspirators who control the fierce democracy of Paris repudiated a Government which was imposed on the artisans of cities by the peasant proprietors of France. Two months after the last Prussian gun had been discharged, Thiers was battering down the walls which he himself had built, and Favre was throwing shells into the city in which he had so lately learnt the terrors of bombardment. The provinces, which had failed to deliver the capital from the German armies, were striving to reconquer it from the Revolution. But the victory of the lawful Government over the dreaded enemy who must always remain within the walls and cannot be got rid of, cannot end in a settlement compatible with freedom. No absolute republic can reconcile the conflict between wealth and labour in arms, for it must lead to the domination of one class of society and the economic subjugation of the other. The Revolution is destroying the Republic, and France is once more drifting on a resistless current towards Monarchy. The House of Orleans has not stood above the parties, but was identified with that dominion of the middle class which is the main cause of Socialism. This has produced the unexpected influence of the Legitimists, of that party whose monarch claims the crown on abstract principle, and not by virtue of any positive interests, and causes thousands who are not Legitimists to wish for the restoration of the head of the House of Bourbon, guarded by the able and politic princes of the younger branch.
The events which have dissolved society in France have consolidated Germany. For the first time since Frederick Barbarossa was drowned in the Crusade, it has become a powerful Empire, under a National Emperor. While the centrifugal forces make France their prey, the danger of the Germans lies in the immense preponderance of the Prussian Crown. But a Federation between Sovereign States is perhaps of all forms of government the one that promises to provide, in the long-run, the strongest and safest securities for the liberty and progress of the world.
[1 ] A lecture delivered at the Bridgnorth Literary and Scientific Institution on the 25th of April 1871.