Date: 1887

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The Franco-German War



The First French Defeats


It was on July 28, 1870, that the emperor left the palace of St.-Cloud, to take command of the army in person. A gentleman belonging to the court, who was present at the moment of departure, recounted to me that the occasion was a most solemn one, and that even then there was a prescience that the emperor was leaving Paris never to return. By a decree, the empress was made regent during the absence of the emperor. She remained at the palace of St.-Cloud. Before the emperor left for the army, he issued a proclamation to the French people, the first paragraph of which was as follows: "Frenchmen! there are in the lives of people solemn moments, where national honor, violently excited, imposes itself as an irresistible force, dominates all interests, and takes in hand the direction of the destinies of the country. One of these decisive hours has just sounded for France."

The emperor having reached the French headquarters, there was a skirmish at Saarbrücken, on the morning of August 2. And there was shed the first blood in the stupendous contest. The emperor and the prince imperial1 were present at the engagement. Napoleon magnified that little affair into an episode, and sent an account back to Paris which only excited ridicule; particularly, that part of it in which he stated that Louis had received "le baptˆme de feu."2 These proclamations did not disturb the Germans, and they soon put an end to those grotesque fanfaronades.

On August 4 took place the first great battle of the war, at Weissenburg, in which the brave General Douay was killed on the field, and the French were very badly defeated. They here fought with great courage and desperation, and the luster and the traditional glory of French arms were upheld, but they were crushed by the overwhelming German forces. . . .

When these events were in progress, the two nations were in full war, and blood was flowing like water on both sides, yet the people of Paris could get no trustworthy information from the seat of war, though in New York and London the particulars of the battle of Weissenburg were published by the newspapers the next day.

The feeling of suspense and the excitement in Paris were something most painful and extraordinary at this time, and everybody was on the qui vive in search of news. It was not until the London Times of August 5 arrived that anybody in Paris had any particulars of the battle which had taken place at Weissenburg. Between twelve and one o’clock of that day, a very brief and unsatisfactory notice of the affair was communicated to the press by the French authorites. The suppression of the intelligence for so long a time excited a good deal of indignation among the public, and the Parisian newspapers were particularly indignant that the London Times should have published the news six or eight hours before it was given out to them. There was great uneasiness and discontent all over the city, and the people were prepared for anything.

At about noon on the next day, Saturday, one of the most remarkable and extraordinary events took place. It showed how easily large masses of people could be deceived. There was assembled, as usual at that hour, a great crowd of people in front of the Bourse.1 It was then that a man in the uniform of a courier, or messenger, rode up in front of the Bourse and delivered into the hands of a person, who was evidently his confederate, what he pretended was an official dispatch, and which gave an account of a great battle having been fought, in which the French had been victorious, taking forty guns and twenty-five thousand prisoners, among whom was the crown prince. A spark of fire falling upon a magazine could hardly have produced a greater explosion. The assembled multitude broke out into the wildest shouts, and the contents of the dispatch were repeated from mouth to mouth, and men ran in every direction communicating the joyful intelligence. The people rushed into the streets; the tricolor was everywhere displayed; men embraced and kissed each other, shedding tears of joy; shouts, vociferations, and oaths filled the air, and such a delirium has been seldom witnessed. The Rue de Richelieu, the Boulevards Montmartre and des Italiens, and the Rue de la Paix were filled with people singing the Marseillaise. Everybody declared that the news was true; the official report had been seen and closely scanned, and there could be no doubt of its correctness. Madame Sass, a distinguished opera singer, was found in the street, and the crowd insisted upon her singing the Marseillaise from her carriage, which she did three times amid shouts of enthusiasm. In another part of the street the multitude forced another distinguished singer to mount to the top of an omnibus, also to sing the Marseillaise. Soon the furor of enthusiasm began to abate, and some persons were wise enough to suggest that it would be well to inquire more particularly into the news, and to see whether or not it could be confirmed. The result was, that it was found to be a stupendous hoax. The songs at once ceased, the flags were taken in, and the victims of the canard began to feel indignant. As the affair originated at the Bourse, the cry was raised in the crowd "à la Bourse," and away the people went, breathing vengeance against the money-changers and speculators who, it was alleged, had taken advantage of the false report to get the benefit of a rise of about four per cent in the stocks. Never were money-changers more summarily driven out of their temples. In a few moments, all persons in the Bourse were expelled, some of whom, it was said, were thrown head and heels out of the windows and doors. About half-past three o’clock in the afternoon, the crowd, greatly exasperated at having been made victims of so cruel a hoax, started from the Bourse and directed themselves toward the Place Vendôme, halting under the windows of the Ministry of Justice. There they shouted for Émile Ollivier, the minister of justice, and demanded of him the closing of the Bourse from which the false news had emanated. M. Ollivier responded in a short and well-turned speech, closing by asking them to disperse, which they did. But still there was great excitement all over the city, and there was intense indignation at so easily being made the victims of a vile canard. . . .

The Journal Officiel of the next day (Sunday) contained a dispatch of two lines, dated at Metz, at eleven o’clock the evening before (Saturday). Here is the text of the dispatch: "The corps of General Frossard is in retreat. There are no details." This and nothing more. And it is not to be wondered that such a dispatch inspired the greatest uneasiness and anxiety. It gave no indication of where the battle was fought or what was the extent of the losses, and naturally the great Paris public was tormented with fear and suspense. A proclamation of the empress and her ministry appeared at noon in the second edition of the Journal Officiel. This proclamation contained a bulletin from the emperor, dated at Metz, at half-past twelve o’clock Sunday morning, announcing that Marshal MacMahon had lost a battle and that General Frossard had been obliged to retreat. Another bulletin from the emperor, dated at Metz, three hours later, announced that his communication with Marshal MacMahon was interrupted, and that he had had no news of him since the day before; and still another dispatch, one hour later, from headquarters at Metz, both of which were also contained in the proclamation of the minister of the interior, giving a brief account of the battles of MacMahon and Frossard, but it said that the details were wanting. It further stated that the troops were full of élan, and that the situation was not compromised, but that the enemy was on French territory and a serious effort was necessary.

A decree of the empress-regent convoked the Senate and the Corps Législatif for Thursday the 11th of August. Another decree by her Majesty placed the department of the Seine in a state of siege. No person not in Paris at the time could have any adequate idea of the state of feeling which the extraordinary news from the battlefield had created, to which was added the declaration of the siege of Paris and the convocation of the Corps Législatif. Never had Paris seen such a day since the time of the first revolution. . . .

It is hard to imagine the excitement and indignation among the people of Paris upon the reception of the news of the first disastrous battle. After the declaration of war, they seemed to have convinced themselves that the French army would go straight forward, conquering and to conquer, and that Berlin would be at their feet "en huit jours."1

The trifling affair at Saarbrücken, having been unwarrantably exaggerated, had given the people great hopes. While waiting with confidence reports of new victories, the unquestioned defeats at Weissenburg, Reichshoffen, and Forbach produced the most stunning effect. They had been most completely humbugged by the canard in regard to the pretended victory by MacMahon. Like all people who have been deceived and humbugged, they became very much exasperated. The empress-regent had come to the Tuileries and had issued her proclamation, all of which tended to increase the excitement.

1 E. B. Washburne, . 2 vols. New York, 1887. Charles Scribner’s Sons.

2 Washburne, , vol. i, pp. 55–56, 58–62, 64–68.

1 Eugène Louis Jean Joseph, son of Napoleon III and Eugénie de Montijo, was born in 1856.

2 "The baptism of fire."

1 The Stock Exchange and financial center of Paris.

1 "In eight days."


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Chicago: "The First French Defeats," Recollections in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 346–349. Original Sources, accessed June 19, 2024,

MLA: . "The First French Defeats." Recollections, Vol. i, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 346–349. Original Sources. 19 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: , 'The First French Defeats' in Recollections. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.346–349. Original Sources, retrieved 19 June 2024, from