The War Started By A Telegram

The War That Set The Stage For World War One

The War Started By A Telegram
On September 2, 1870, two of Europe's most powerful men met and made an agreement that would change the course of European history and set the stage for World War 1.
One of them had just suffered a humiliating defeat from which he would never recover. For the other, the meeting was the culmination of years of patient, cunning political manoeuvring to unite his country, making it the most dominant in Europe.  
The first man was Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and Emperor of France; the second was the brilliant statesman Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, effectively the Prime Minister of Prussia, and engineer of the war that had just caused Napoleon's downfall.
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Napoleon III (left) meets with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (right) at Sedan on September 2nd, 1870
It's ironic that a war between France and what would become Germany, was sparked by a question of Spanish succession.
In 1868, Queen Isabella II of Spain had been ejected from the throne and, following an interlude with no monarch, was to be replaced two years later.
Wilhelm I of Prussia - at that point, the largest and most powerful state in a region that would soon become Germany - stood to benefit from a succession that went to a German royal.
He'd nominated Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a Prussian prince.
But France, fearing encirclement, had a thing or two to say about that.
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Leopold (left) and Wilhelm I (right) might have encircled Napoleon III (centre) and France 
France had suffered no end of political upheaval since the revolution of 1789, aspiring to republicanism but descending into terror and chaos, then transitioning back into imperialism and monarchy under Napoleon.
A republic was restored following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, but his nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, had been elected as a popular President of the Republic from 1848 to 1852.
Unfortunately, he proved not to be the best republican, staging a coup in 1851 when the French Parliament and constitutional rules blocked him from serving a second term as President.
Emperor Napoleon III, as he became, was still on the throne in 1870 when the question of Spanish succession came up.
He instructed the King of Prussia, through his diplomat Count Vincente Benedetti, that Leopold was not to ascend to the Spanish throne.
For his part, Wilhelm I, who had a cordial relationship with Benetti, did not press matters too firmly and was more than willing to back down.
But Napoleon insisted that the Prussian king also guarantee that Leopold never accept the Spanish throne, and that he, Wilhelm, apologise to France for having tried to influence Spanish succession in the first place.
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Wilhelm I (centre) in Bad Ems, where he received French diplomat Vincente Benedetti 
Wilhelm politely declined to do this, and, since things had now been wrapped up, also ended further official contact with Benedetti before seeing him onto his train home. 
He dispatched an account of this polite meeting to Bismarck who, in what today might be described as spin, immediately published his own version of what had happened in the newspapers: 
"His Majesty the King thereupon refused to receive the ambassador again and through his adjutant informed the ambassador that he had nothing further to say". 
The story had the effect he’d planned, landing in Paris newspapers on Bastille Day, inflaming public opinion there against Prussia over this ‘insult’, and likewise angering many a Berliner who'd read it in their own newspapers. 
France subsequently declared war on Prussia - Bismarck had sprung a trap that was intended to bring Prussia's southern neighbours into a larger German fold, with Prussia at the helm.
Germany was not officially a country until 1871.
Up until that point, it had always been a region, much as 'Europe' is today.
The area that now comprises Germany, Austria, and northern Italy was known as the Holy Roman Empire in the early Middle Ages (and was known as the First Reich to the Germans).
The Austrians came to have more authority and influence over the 300+ individual states that existed in the region, but when this began to wane in the 1700s, the area was soon contested by Prussia and France. The latter forced Austria back as Napoleon took over more and more territory, officially ending the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, these 300 German states were reduced to 39.
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Member states of the German Empire in peach, with Prussia in blue
Following these changes, Prussia, under Wilhelm I and his Chancellor and Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, embarked on a series of wars with territorial rivals Denmark, Austria, and then France in 1870.
War was brought about with France by a trap that was set (if, indeed, that was Bismarck's intention, which is still debated by historians) at the end of the war with Austria in 1866.
By this point, Prussia and her allies had formed The Northern German Federation, an arrangement that dominated, and no doubt intimidated, southern German neighbours such as Bavaria.
They were soon convinced to sign a secret military alliance for 'mutual protection' in the future.
It was this alliance that was activated in 1870. 
Following the furore over the way the Ems Dispatch was communicated to the press by Bismarck, France - and the alliance of German states led by Prussia - lumbered into war.
Both sides wrestled with problems of logistics: how to move vast armies by rail, then by horse and foot; how to supply food and fodder; and how to maintain command and control over what would be the largest continental armies to take to the field that century.
The result was a messy learning period, but it was the Germans who proved to be more organised, having dedicated the years prior to the war to expanding and professionalising their army staff - precisely so that it could grapple with these kinds of problems.
From French Army 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War (1)
French troops from the period (image from 'French Army 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War (1)' by Stephen Shann and Louis Delperier © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Meanwhile, the French experienced a much steeper learning curve.

In his book on the war, Stephen Badsey describes their mobilisation as degenerating into chaos:

"Regiments were recruited from across France and reservists might live anywhere, meaning that formations would take about a month to reach full strength. But given the urgency of the situation, French plans combined mobilisation with concentration, so that regiments departed for their frontier concentration areas understrength, leaving the rest of their men and equipment to follow. "

"About 2,000 separate contingents, each of 50–300 reservists, gathered together at towns throughout France, travelled first to their regimental depots, and then on to join their regiments.

"Stories became rife after the war of reservists living almost on the frontier with Germany, journeying to their depots in southern France, Algeria or Corsica, and then back to their regiments on the frontier, only to arrive too late [for battle]".

But it wasn't an easy process for the Germans either - the 'fog of war' certainly affected both sides, with neither one being familiar with the other, and with both happening to wear similar uniforms both consisting of dark blue tunics - a coincidence that resulted in confusion in the early stages, with many of the antagonists unable to recognise each other when they stumbled into battle.

European history
German soldiers of various units (image from 'German Armies 1870 - 71 (1)' by Michael Solka © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The industrial developments that had been seeping into the battlefield throughout the 19th century also played out in different ways on either side, giving the French a far superior infantry rifle, and the Germans better artillery.

The two sides engaged in a number of random battles as they moved through the shifting frontier - blind to each other's movements because of a shortage of scouts, a situation born out of the belief by both sides that technology had made cavalry obsolete.

Yet, on August 18th, the two sides finally met for the first engagement of full-strength field armies: The Battle of Gravelotte-St Privat.

European history
German Jager-Bataillon Nr. 9 advances at Gravelotte - the Jager were elite infantry

Unfortunately for the French soldiers, the battle went very badly - their command was, for all intents and purposes, negligent.

Marshal Bazaine, head of III Corps, issued barely any orders for the battle, and it's claimed that his staff at headquarters spent most of the day discussing awards and promotions coming out of the previous battle at Mars-la-Tour.

Despite this, the battle started with heavy Prussian losses as they hurled themselves on the French defenders and found them to be stronger than they'd expected.

In the north, at the village of St Privat, a staffing mix-up also caused a blundered advance for the Prussians, followed by a long-distance shootout between the Prussian Guard and the French, who outmatched their foes with their superior long-ranged Chassepot rifles.

European history
The Chasspot Rifle, with bayonet - a single-shot breech-loading bolt action rifle that was superior in range to the Prussian Dreyse needle gun (image: Rama)

Eventually, the Germans brought their artillery advantage into play, raining shells down on the French, forcing them into a panicked retreat that became a rout.

They were forced to fall back to their forts at Metz, where they planned to fight on, and were, in fact, besieged until the end of major hostilities.

The fleeing Napoleon III had gone into despair by this point, saying 'I seem to have abdicated' as he became increasingly disengaged.

Franco Prussian War
Napoleon III (pictured) left the minister of war and Empress Eugenie (right), in Paris, to issue contradictory advice and orders that the French high command struggled to reconcile

After a few more weeks of cat and mouse between the Prussians and himself, the retreating Emperor ended up with what was left of his forces at Sedan, not far from the Belgian border. 

Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm I and his army chiefs, and some visiting dignitaries, appeared on the heights above and watched their forces surround and engulf the French with superior numbers and materials.

Wilhelm is said to have felt admiration for the enemy soldiers who fought bravely on despite the overwhelming odds.

But, despite their best efforts, it was clear that the battle was over before it had started.

The French leadership surrendered at the end of the day on September 1st, commencing talks about the terms the following day.

European history
Napoleon III sent General Reille to deliver his letter of surrender to Kaiser Wilhelm I (centre; Bismarck is directly behind his Kaiser)


Although Napoleon III's surrender at Sedan on September 2nd marked the end of the war in real terms for the Germans, their forces stayed on in France until the defeat of the revolutionary government that had risen up in response to the fall of the Emperor, in May 1871.

France never recovered as the dominant military power in Europe, with that mantle now passing to the newly-unified Germany, which continued to industrialise more quickly than its rival.

Meanwhile, Britain became the continent's key financial and naval power, and foreign investor.

Franco Prussian War
Kaiser Wilhelm I is crowned emperor of a newly-unified Germany in Versailles; war reparations were imposed on the French at the end of the Franco-Prussian War - likewise, allied nations would impose peace terms/reparations on Germany Versailles after WW1

After the war, Napoleon III was exiled in Britain and died a broken man in 1873. His son joined the British Army but was killed fighting the Zulus in 1879, while the Empress lived until 1920, long enough to see the Germans defeated in the First World War.

The German high command, meanwhile, continued to prepare for the wars of the future.

'Moltke the Elder', who'd done the military planning for the war, was given this namesake precisely because his nephew, 'the Younger', succeeded him as Chief of the German General Staff and played a key role in World War 1, the opening moves of which were meant to replicate the rapid success of 1870, so that the bulk of German forces could then turn and take on the Russian steamroller.

But fate intervened, and the subsequent war of attrition became the western end of World War 1.

The King of Prussia became the Emperor of all of Germany upon his coronation in 1871, and thus the German Empire, or Second Reich, was started, and lasted until 1918 (the Nazis proclaimed the start of the 'Third Reich' when they came to power).

Germany Prussia
A portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm I

Kaiser Wilhelm I died in 1888, and after a few months under Kaiser Frederick III, Kaiser Wilhelm II ascended to the throne.

Bismarck had got everything he wanted - the 1870 war had been the final stage of his grand project to unite all of Germany, a process completed using the 'political capital' the victory of 1870 had generated, uniting all German peoples against their 'common enemies' like France.

But ultimately, he too would suffer a defeat of sorts.

Having done so much to engineer the war he needed to help cement Germany together, he settled into a new role as careful arbiter of the peace once this work was done.

He counselled the new German ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, not to antagonise their European neighbours with any more expansionism, colonialism, or militarism, lest Germany end up surrounded by enemies.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, the new ruler of Germany, and an aging Bismarck in 1888 - they did not have a good relationship

Wilhelm II sent the Chancellor into retirement in 1890, and Germany was eventually sandwiched between an alliance of Britain, France, and Russia - a reaction to his belligerent policies and posturing.

Anger in France was also a result of the war, particularly over the loss of territories taken by the Germans as part of the terms of surrender.

And Marshal Bazaine, infamous for the debacle at Gravelotte-St-Privat, was scapegoated and imprisoned.

Franco Prussian War
A French school teacher shows his students Alsace-Lorraine, the territory taken from France by Germany as part of the terms at the end of the Franco-Prussian War - this became a major source of resentment towards Germany, helping fuel World War 1

The Franco-Prussian War can be seen, then, as the first in a series of dominoes to fall on the continent.

German planners either intended for the war, or used the war, to galvanise a shared German identity and cement their allies into a single German state.

But the war also inflamed French passions and, with the ascension of Kaiser Wilhelm to the throne, Germany started down the path towards another war with France and her allies.

World War 1, and then World War 2, were just around the corner.

For more about the Franco-Prussian War, read 'The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 by Stephen Badsey' or 'German Armies 1870 - 71 (1): Prussia' by Michael Solka and 'French Army 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War (1): Imperial Troops' by Stephen Shann & Louis Delperier. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Anton von Werner's 1894 painting Im Etappenquartier vor Paris (A Billet Outside Paris) depicts German soldiers making themselves at home in a requisitioned French house
A painting depicting German soldiers billeted in a house outside Paris

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