Paris Annals
Siege of Paris: 1870
The Franco-Prussian War

5 Francs Republique Francais: Paris Mint

Paris Annals page...Paris home page ... Siege of Paris page ...  Site home page
Previous page ... Next page

This was not a good year for Paris. Napoleon III had been losing his popular support for some time and in an effort to regain it he launched a military misadventure that brought about the end of his reign.

This year the Spanish crown was vacant, and Leopold of Hohenzollern was invited by the Spanish to assume the crown. This suggestion found favor with Bismarck but the French were put off by the idea of having German princes on two sides – NE and S. Their adverse reaction led to the withdrawal of the Hohenzollern candidacy. Rather than leaving it there, the French continued to press the issue and sent an emissary to King Wilhelm asking him to make a permanent renunciation of the idea of a Hohenzollern candidacy. Horne describes the French as very aggressive about this and the Germans nonplused. However, in the face of French importuning, the king refused to give a permanent guarantee of the Hohenzollern withdrawal. The French took this refusal as a ‘casus belli’ and used it as a pretext to declare war on Prussia. This happened July 15.

In spite of the assurances of the French military, the results were not what was anticipated. Bismarck was able to mobilize a force of over 1,000,000 troops within weeks. Napoleon III led his troops and was faced with a series of defeats. He was captured at Sedan when the French army surrendered to the Germans.

This triggered a revolt in France and he was effectively overthrown and replaced by a Republic (the third one). The Empress Eugenie fled to England and many of the rest of the royal court fled to Brussels. The moderate Republicans that took control of Paris were led by General Trochu. By September, as the war continued, Paris was in for a four month siege. By the end of September the Prussians succeeded in surrounding Paris.

For the first two months the city was well supplied and the siege not characterized by efforts on either side to solve the issue by force of arms. The French made two efforts to break out, neither successful. One of the interesting efforts, one by and large successful in maintaining communication with the rest of France, including the government now centered in Tours, was the use of balloons. There were numerous balloon flights out of the city, carrying dispatches and people, but traffic in was not possible. The result was that there was no coordination between French forces in the city and those beyond the Prussian barrier. The French developed microphotography to increase the volume of material that could be carried by the balloons, and later by carrier pigeons. The balloon image is from Almanach Francais.

After two months hunger set in. All the cattle and sheep in the city were gone, and the Parisians turned to cats, dogs and rats. Horne cites an estimate of 65,000 horses eaten during the siege, 5000 cats, 1200 dogs but only 300 rats. Basically, by December hunger was becoming a serious problem. This was aggravated by shelling that began early in January 1871. Several hundred shells a day fell at random throughout the city, not specifically targeting military targets, but hitting civilian targets as well. This painting, Le venteur des rats pendant le siege de Paris, is by Narcisse Chailou. It is 64 x 47 cm and is in musee Carnavalet.

This painting, Cantine municipale pendant le siege de Paris, by Charles-Henri Piulle (65x81cm, Carnavalet), shows Parisians lining up for food supplies during the siege. The deteriorating situation in Paris led the Reds in the city to threaten revolt. It was the combination of external and internal threats that finally led Trochu to seek negotiations with the Germans. Paris capitulated and France had to pay a high price for the conflict. France lost Alsace and Lorraine and had to pay a large indemnity. Bismarck required the French to allow a German triumphal march down the Champs Elysees.

Not so incidentally, Bismarck used the war as a mechanism to unite Germany, hence the linguistic switch from Prussia to Germany over this explanation.


Left: A view of the Arc de Triomphe from avenue Ilena (as it is named today), 8th arrondissement.  Right: blvd. St. Michel near St. Germain, 1870, border of the 5th and 6th arrondissements. Charles Marville is the photographer, and the book, Le Nouveau Paris is edited by Philippe Mellot.

Some other war related events: (AF)

August 6th: French defeats at Reichshoffen, Forbach and Froeschwiller.

August 18: French defeat at Gravelotte.

August 30/Sept 2: French defeat at Sedan, Napoleon captured.

September 4: Republic declared.

September 28: Strasbourg falls.

November 9: Verdun falls.

November 27: Amiens occupied.

Etc.: a continued string of French defeats throughout the rest of the year into 1871.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir,  La Promenade, 1870, J. Paul Getty Museum.

The 25 franc note is introduced. This is the last year for Napoleon III's coinage. (AF)

Haussmann's finances are investigated. Whatever corruption went on during all the reconstruction, Haussmann was not a beneficiary, in spite of being in an ideal position to self aggrandizement. He was an honest man.

The magasin Samaritaine, another grand shopping store, is opened. It is founded by Ernest Cognacq. It is located on the Seine in the 1st arrondissement.