Siege of Paris (1870–1871)

gigatos | December 11, 2021


The Siege of Paris lasted from September 19, 1870 to January 28, 1871. It ended the Franco-Prussian War and led to the establishment of the German Empire.

By mid-August 1870, the German 3rd Army was already advancing on Paris. On the orders of Chief of Staff General Moltke, this army then had to swing northward to push Mac-Mahon”s French army, which also included – without command – Emperor Napoléon III, toward the Belgian border. King William I, who personally led the German troops, was able to defeat this army in the Battle of Sedan on September 1 and force it to surrender on the morning of September 2.

In Paris, under popular pressure, the Empire was abolished on September 4, 1870, and the Third Republic was proclaimed; General Louis Jules Trochu became the first president of the Council of Ministers Government of National Defense (Gouvernement de la Défense nationale). Trochu was also governor general of Paris and commander-in-chief of the armed forces there.

The German armies of the Crown Prince of Prussia and the Crown Prince of Saxony, which had been released at Sedan, marched on toward Paris in order to be able to end the war by quickly taking the French capital. The VI Army Corps under General von Tümpling was already in Rheims as the vanguard of the 3rd Army, and the road to Paris was clear.

General Louis Jules Trochu had been appointed military governor of Paris and head of the defense of Paris while Napoleon was still in power, and was confirmed in this position by the new government. The French 13th Corps (French: 13e corps d”armée) under General Joseph Vinoy had escaped the disaster of Sedan and with its core troops defended the southern front of the city between Créteil via Sceaux to Meudon. Together with the newly formed 14th Corps of General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot, which secured behind the western bend of the Seine between Mont Valérien – Saint Germain, the line troops were about 90,000 strong. Furthermore, to secure the northern part of the city from Saint Denis through Le Bourget to Champigny, 115,000 Mobile Guards, 14,000 Marines and 130 battalions of more unreliable National Guards were assembled. These troops had a combined approximate strength of 350,000 men, of which about 5,000 were cavalry.

After the enclosure, the government charged Léon Gambetta, the previous Minister of the Interior and now Minister of the Interior and War, who, along with several other ministers, formed the government”s delegation in Tours and Bordeaux, respectively, with organizing the entire national defense outside Paris against the advancing German armies. Gambetta considered the successful continuation of the war possible, since France still had well over two million able-bodied men, considerable quantities of arms and ammunition, and open seaports.Thus, on the Loire, the formation of the Loire Army under General Aurelle was begun; it would later attempt to seize besieged Paris from the south.

By September 10, the bulk of the German 3rd Army under Crown Prince Frederick William of Prussia had reached the Dormans-Sézanne line, and the advanced VI Corps had crossed the Marne at Château-Thierry. Corps crossed the Marne at Château-Thierry. On 16 September the army of Crown Prince Albert of Saxony was at Nanteuil (46 km northeast of Paris), the 5th Cavalry Division had Beaumont (German headquarters was advanced to Meaux. The II Corps, subordinated to the 3rd Army. Bavarian Corps under General Jakob von Hartmann crossed the Seine at Corbeil-Essonnes (the railroad between Paris and Orléans was interrupted. Crown Prince Albert of Saxony, advancing on the northern outskirts of the city with the XII. Army Corps under Prince George of Saxony Claye, with the Guard Corps under Prince August of Württemberg Mitry and the IV Army Corps under Gustav von Alvensleben Dammartin, the advancing cavalry crossed the Oise at Pontoise.

The 3rd Army, marching south from Paris, was attacked as early as September 18 by Vinoy”s troops near Villeneuve Saint Georges to protect the supply depot there, but they were driven back by artillery fire from the Prussian V Army Corps. General Hugo von Kirchbach occupied Versailles on September 19 after the battle at Sceaux. The Bavarian II Corps, which was closing in on the same height, reached Longjumeau. Korps reached Longjumeau and set up on the Bicêtre plateau on the southern front in the following days; on the east near Villers, the VI Corps occupied both banks of the Seine for the time being. The approaching Württemberg field division under General Hugo von Obernitz secured the Marne crossings at Lagny and Gounay in the east for the time being. The army of Crown Prince Albert of Saxony closed Paris in the north and east, the troops of the Crown Prince of Prussia in the south and west. The Seine formed the dividing line of both armies, which enclosed Paris with a total of six corps.

On September 19, 1870, Paris was completely surrounded and the siege began. General Moltke kept his troops out of range of the fortress artillery and drew on his reserve – the XI Army Corps – in the Versailles area because rearward attacks by enemy forces forming on the Loire River had to be expected. General Trochu had little confidence in the capabilities of the National Guard, which made up half of the troops assigned to the city”s defense. Instead of anticipating the German attack, he hoped that the initiative would come from Moltke. However, Moltke made no move to attack Paris. Trochu changed his plan and allowed Vinoy to attempt a sortie from the southern front. Vinoy attacked Chevilly with 20,000 troops on September 30, but was repulsed by the VI Corps of the 3rd Army.

The Palace of Versailles served as the new headquarters for King William, the German General Staff, and the staff of the 3rd Army of the Crown Prince of Prussia from October 6. Prussian Prime Minister Bismarck proposed shelling Paris with artillery to force a quick surrender of the city, but for the time being he could not prevail with this against numerous oppositions, despite the support of Roon, Saxon Crown Prince Albert, Stosch, Royal Wing Adjutant Waldersee and others: While King William and especially Crown Prince Frederick William cited the psychological and political impact in third countries such as England against the proposal, Moltke pointed out the logistical problems: The siege park originally set up had already been deployed in front of the eastern French fortresses; moreover, the rail link was still interrupted at that time (Toul and the blown-up tunnel at Nontuei-sur-Marne). The siege park for Paris, which had to be rebuilt in Germany, would have further aggravated the already strained supply situation and, had the siege had to be lifted because of French offensives, would have been lost. It was also feared that a quick French surrender would leave the fresh French troops undefeated, giving the French the opportunity to instigate a new war soon. The French troops would first have to be destroyed and Paris starved. Moltke therefore advocated to the king the later bringing in of the siege equipment for the destruction of the city and meanwhile organized the enclosure with still insufficient means. With the fall of Toul on September 23 and Strasbourg on September 28, much of the material needed for the siege of Paris became available; moreover, the distance to be covered by horse-drawn vehicles was reduced to about 25 km. However, stronger efforts to bring the siege guns, including some 2,500 tons of ammunition, to the positions outside Paris were not made until early December, after the king had entrusted Roon with transportation.

On October 7, some representatives of the Republic managed to leave besieged Paris with two balloons. Among them was Leon Gambetta, who in the following period raised new troops to lead relief attacks on Paris.

On October 13, the II Bavarian Corps was driven out of Châtillon. However, the French were forced to withdraw due to Bavarian and Prussian artillery fire and a German counterattack. Between October 10 and 16, the German confinement line received significant reinforcements. The 17th Division under General Gustav von Schimmelmann, freed after the fall of Fort Toul, was inserted between the Bavarians and the V Corps at Meudon, and General von Löen”s Guards-Landwehr Division, relieved before Strasbourg, moved into the front at St. Germain.General Carrey de Bellemare commanded the defenses in the northern section of the city at Saint-Denis. On October 29, without having received orders to do so, he attacked the Prussian Guards at Le Bourget and captured the town. However, General Rudolph von Budritzki”s 2nd Guard Division had little interest in retaking its positions in the village. Nevertheless, Crown Prince Albert ordered to take the village. In the Battle of Le Bourget, Prussian troops succeeded in recapturing it and taking about 1,200 French prisoners. After learning of the French surrender at Metz and the defeat at Le Bourget, the morale of the Parisian population began to decline.

The population began to suffer the effects of the German blockade. With the aim of boosting morale, Trochu launched the largest attack from Paris on November 30, although he had little hope of a breakthrough. Nevertheless, he sent General Ducrot with 80,000 men against the Prussians at Champigny-sur-Marne, Créteil, and Villiers-sur-Marne. He concentrated on overcoming the siege ring to the southeast of the city in order to break through on Fontainebleau. A successful advance would also have cut off all German troops south and west of Paris from their only rail line for supplies via Lagny. Without this rail line, it would have been virtually impossible for the Germans to continue the siege. In the Battle of Villiers, the French managed to capture and hold positions at Créteil and Champigny. On December 2, the Württemberg Division repulsed Ducrot”s troops behind the defensive lines and ended this battle victoriously the following day.

During the winter months, tensions began to rise at Prussian headquarters. For Bismarck, possession of Paris was the key to breaking the power of France”s republican leaders, ending the war in a reasonable time, and securing Prussia”s peaceful relations with the neutral states. Helmuth von Moltke worried about supplies as diseases such as tuberculosis broke out among the besieging troops. In addition, the fighting of the Loire Campaign against the newly formed French Loire Army also continued. Moltke and the 3rd Army Chief of Staff, General Leonhard von Blumenthal, were primarily concerned with an orderly siege, slowly nuking the lone forts around the city, but accomplishing this with minimal German losses. Over time, however, fears arose that an unnecessarily protracted war would put too great a strain on the German economy; a prolonged siege might give the French Ministry of Defense hope that Germany could still be defeated, and also allow France to restore its army and convince neutral third countries to go to war against Prussia. After the artillery was fully deployed, the shelling of the forts in front of Paris (Thiers”s city fortifications) began, on the eastern front (Mont Avron in front of Fort de Rosny) at 07:45 on 27 December 1870 at the command of Emil Körner with 76 guns, and on the southern front on 5 January 1871 with 98 guns. Although the forts on the southern front had 402 guns, while those on the eastern front had 191, the siege artillery managed to gradually knock down the forts, allowing the German outposts and also part of the batteries to advance further. Then also began the shelling of the urban area with 300 to 400 shells per day.

On January 19, 1871, some 90,000 men in three columns under Trochu”s command made a final breakthrough attempt near Prussian headquarters west of Paris. At the Battle of Buzenval, the Crown Prince of Prussia easily repulsed the attack from the fort at Mont Valérien. More than 4,000 soldiers fell on the French side and only 600 on the German side. Trochu resigned as military governor and gave command of the 146,000-strong garrison to General Joseph Vinoy.

Another attack was planned for January 20. The French therefore retreated only as far as Fort Mont Valérien and gathered there for another attack. However, this was not carried out, probably because by this time the destruction of the Loire Army had become known and the strategic goal of unification could no longer be achieved. From 3:00 p.m. on January 20, the government consulted with the 20 arrondissement mayors on the situation, and from noon on the 21st with the military leaders. The latter stated that a new sortie would only lead to a new defeat and should therefore not be undertaken. On January 22, there was an uprising of some battalions of the National Guard, supported by parts of the population. At the same time, it became known that flour supplies for the population would not last until February 1, as previously calculated, but only until January 24.

This overall situation prompted the government – under information but without further coordination with the delegation in Bordeaux – to request a cease-fire from the Germans. Jules Favre sent a letter to this effect to Bismarck on the evening of January 23. The following day, he appeared in person at Versailles in the afternoon and negotiated the terms of the armistice with Bismarck. On January 26, the bombardment ceased, and on January 28, 1871, the armistice treaty was signed, which came into force for Paris the following day.

German troops won the Franco-Prussian War. On January 18, 1871, Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor at the Palace of Versailles. At the same time, the German Empire was founded: The four southern German states of Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden and Hesse (-Darmstadt) were united with the states of the North German Confederation under the leadership of Prussia to form the newly founded German Empire, as had already been decided in the November Treaties.

A French National Assembly was elected on February 8; it met four days later in Bordeaux and elected Adolphe Thiers as the new head of government on February 17. Thiers, together with Favre, the old and new foreign minister, negotiated a peace treaty at Versailles beginning on February 21. A preliminary peace was signed there on February 26, and the final peace treaty was signed in Frankfurt on May 10, 1871. One condition provided for the brief entry of the victors into the city on March 1, another for the stationing of a German garrison. Bismarck renounced a prolonged occupation of Paris, but obtained from the French Republic the cession of Alsace-Lorraine to the German Empire.

During the siege by the Prussian army, the Parisian population grew increasingly resentful of the French government, and on March 18, 1871, an uprising broke out on the model of the French Revolution. Paris was ruled by the Paris Commune for about 3 months.


  1. Belagerung von Paris (1870–1871)
  2. Siege of Paris (1870–1871)
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