The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71

If your ancestors lived in France 150 years ago, their lives have inevitably been impacted by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. It was a short war – it lasted less than a year – but it had many consequences in France and Germany.

Military mobilization in 1870

The war started 150 years ago, on the 19th of July 1870. All the young men who were doing their military service at the time were mobilized.

The fighting started only a few days later in the North-Eastern part of France: mostly in Alsace and Lorraine.

Positions of French and Prussian armies in August 1870
Positions of French and Prussian armies in August 1870

After a few weeks of war, the French government mobilized additional soldiers: all the men under 35 who had already completed their military service and the single men under 40 who were in the National Guard.

However, most of the fighting ended up in French defeats. The most famous is the defeat of Sedan, resulting in the surrender, capture and abdication of the French Emperor Napoleon III. This event resulted in the creation of the Third Republic of France.

Civilian life during the war

However, the war wasn’t over. The fighting went on, and approached Paris. The Siege of Paris started on the 19th of September 1870. At the same time, the fighting continued in many regions, and the French citadels surrendered one after another.

In besieged cities, civilians suffered many restrictions and shortages. As all communications were cut with the outside, many food products like meat started lacking.

The inhabitants of Paris had to eat all the available animals: cats, dogs, horses, rats. Even the animals from the Jardin des Plantes (a botanical garden in Paris) were killed and eaten in fancy restaurants for Christmas Eve dinner in 1870…

Finally, on the 28th of January 1871, Paris surrendered. This led to the end of the war.

Consequences in Alsace-Lorraine

At the end of the war, the Treaty of Frankfurt led to the annexation of the territory of Alsace-Lorraine. This territory was composed of almost all the region of Alsace and a part of the départements of Moselle and Meurthe, which are now the 3 départements of Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin and Moselle.

Départements of Alsace-Lorraine before and after 1871
Départements of Alsace-Lorraine before and after 1871

After the Treaty of Frankfurt, the inhabitants of these regions had to “opt” for a citizenship. In other words, they had to make a choice:

  • Either stay and become German citizens;
  • Or keep French citizenship, and emigrate, leaving their homes behind them.

Around 161,000 people opted for French citizenship, but only around 50,000 of them actually emigrated.

Those who stayed officially became German citizens. The official language of these départements became German.

That’s why, if you have ancestors in this part of France, you will find records in German from 1872 to 1919. Alsace-Lorraine indeed returned to France as a result of the First World War.

Beginning of a death record from 1873 in Bas-Rhin
Beginning of a death record from 1873 in Bas-Rhin

Consequences in the rest of France

Occupation of France by German troops after 1871
Occupation of France by German troops after 1871

The Franco-Prussian war also had consequences in the rest of France. A large part of the Northern half of France was occupied by German troops from 1871 to 1873.

Most of the German troops stayed in citadels and garrison towns. In these cities, the inhabitants had to provide for the accommodation and the supply of troops. So they had to endure a lot of restrictions and shortages of food and other supplies. This also caused outbreaks of typhoid fever and dysentery in some places.

During the war and sieges, revolts among workers also arose in different cities such as Paris and Lyon. These protests led to the Paris Commune, a revolutionary government that ruled Paris for two months, from March to May 1871.

The most lasting change was the creation of the French Third Republic, which lasted until the beginning of the Second World War.

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1 thought on “The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71

  1. This is a nice summary for people who do not know their French history. Unfortunately, my ancestors were greatly impacted by the Germanic victory. La famille Dell had deep roots in Rouffach, but my great great grandfather choose to leave rather than live under domination. First, he alone went to America to see if it was suitable for him and his large family. He returned and decided instead to move everyone to a small commune in the Territoire de Belfort. Consequently, my grandmother was born there in 1887.

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