The Franco-Prussian War or Franco-German War ( often referred to in France as the War of 1870 (19 July 1870 – 10 May 1871), was a significant conflict pitting theSecond French Empireagainst the Kingdom of Prussia and its allies in the North German Confederation, as well as the South German states of Baden,Württemberg, Bavariaand Hesse-Darmstadt.
The conflict emerged from tensions regarding the German unification. A war against France was deemed necessary to unite the North German Confederation and the independent southern German states, while France was preoccupied by the emergence of a powerful Prussia.Napoleon III seized on a supposed insult in theEms Dispatch to declare war, which most French leaders expected to win.
The German coalition quickly took charge. Its forces were superior, due to much better training and leadership, and more effective use of modern technology.A series of swift Prussian and German victories in eastern France culminating in the Battle of Sedan, saw Napoleon III and his whole army captured on 2 September. Yet this did not end the war, as the Third Republic was declared in Paris on 4 September 1870 and French resistance continued under the Government of National Defence andAdolphe Thiers. Over a five-month campaign, the German forces defeated the newly recruited French armies in a series of battles fought across northern France. Following a prolonged siege, Paris fell on 28 January 1871. The German states proclaimed their union as the German Empire under the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, uniting Germany as a nation-state. The final Treaty of Frankfurt of 10 May 1871 gave Germany most of Alsace and some parts of Lorraine which became the Imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine.
Following defeat, a left-wing revolt broke out in Paris against the new French republic. Known as the Paris Commune, it was a landmark event in the revolutionary seizure of power by the masses, but it was harshly crushed by Adolphe Thiers. The unification of Germany into an empire in its own right, with the new industrializationof the nation, shifted the European balance of power and Otto von Bismarckmaintained great authority in international affairs for two decades. France's determination to regain Alsace-Lorraine would subsequently be a major factor in France's involvement in World War I.
The Schlieffen Plan was the German General Staff's early-20th-century overall strategic plan for victory in a possible future war in which the German Empire might find itself fighting on two fronts: France to the west and Russia to the east. The First World War later became such a war, with both aWestern and an Eastern Front.
The plan took advantage of Russia's slowness and expected differences in the three countries' speed in preparing for war. In short, it was the German plan to avoid a two-front war by concentrating troops in the West and quickly defeating the French and then, if necessary, rushing those troops by rail to the East to face the Russians before they had time to mobilize fully. The Schlieffen Plan was created by Count Alfred von Schlieffen and modified by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger after Schlieffen's retirement; it was Moltke who actually implemented the plan at the outset of World War I. In modified form, it was executed to near victory in the first month of the war. However, the modifications to the original plan, stronger than expected resistance from the Belgians (whose neutrality had been violated as a result of the plan) and surprisingly speedy Russian offensives contributed to the plan's eventual failure. The plan ultimately collapsed when a French counterattack on the outskirts of Paris (the Battle of the Marne) ended the German offensive and resulted in years of trench warfare. The Schlieffen Plan has been the subject of intense debate among historians and military scholars ever since. Schlieffen's last words were "remember to keep the right flank strong," which was significant in that Moltke strengthened the left flank in his modification.
Although the Belgian army was only a tenth of the size of the German army, it still delayed the Germans for nearly a month by defending fortresses and cities. The Germans used their "Big Bertha" artillery to destroy Belgian forts in Liège, Namur, and Antwerp, but the Belgians still fought back, creating a constant threat to German supply lines in the north. In addition, the German attack on neutral Belgium and reports and propaganda about German atrocities there turned public opinion in many neutral countries against Germany and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Belgian king flooded the country to slow down the German's invasion. Still, despite stiff Belgian resistance, the timetable for the Schlieffen Plan was going according to schedule before it was halted in France.
German underestimation of the British-Belgian alliance
Britain and Belgium had an alliance due to the London Treaty of 1839. Germany hoped that Britain, which was wary of making alliances due to its wish to remain neutral, would not honour the treaty and would not rush to the aid of Belgium. To Germany's dismay, Britain kept to the terms of the treaty and responded to German aggression against Belgium by declaring war on Germany. When Edward Goschen, the British ambassador to Germany, informed German chancellorTheobald von Bethmann-Hollweg that the two countries were now at war, Bethmann-Hollweg famously replied, "The Britons will go to war for a mere scrap of paper?"
However, an alternative point of view holds that in light the Entente Cordiale, Germany's leaders had concluded that in the event of a conflict between Germany and France, Britain would declare war on Germany regardless of how the Germans prosecuted the war in the West. Under such a conclusion, the fact that an invasion of Belgium would give Britain a convenient casus belli to declare war would have been irrelevant to Germany's leaders.
Regardless of what the Germans thought of the alliance between Britain and Belgium, what is more clear is that they thought Britain's small, all-volunteer army to be extremely weak and that any British forces that attempted to intervene would be easily overpowered. The Germans only expected the British to land small numbers of troops, which would be easily slaughtered, as by this time the Germans anticipated that they would have captured the French sea ports (Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne), thereby preventing the British from crossing in large numbers.
On the other hand, Schlieffen realized that the Russia-first strategy advocated by Moltke the Elder would have taken time to execute. Under such a view, there is little reason to believe that Germany's leaders would not have expected the British to immediately recruit a large army from its vast Empire (if not quickly resort to conscriprion) if they were given the time to do so. Under such a scenario, Germany's leaders would have had to consider the likely prospect of being severely outnumbered by the French and British on their western border before they would have had time to force Russia's capitulation, especially if a conflict started in late summer as actually took place in 1914. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that, all things considered, Schlieffen may have regarded the continuation of Moltke the Elder's strategy as fool-hardy, and reasonable to assume that Schlieffen would have considered betting on a quick German victory in the West to be a better gamble as opposed to pursuing a strategy whose success would have been utterly dependent on British goodwill.