By N.S. ‘Tank’ Nash

Pen & Sword Books. 294 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-52679-029-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

For many people the Siege of Paris may simply be a story of people hunting down cats and rats for food, and dining, if they were lucky and could afford it, on meat from the elephants and other animals in the Zoo. It is, of course, a much more complicated issue than that, and the Siege was just one aspect of a longer and bloodier encounter that involved Frenchmen fighting Germans and, ultimately, Frenchmen fighting each other.

It all started in July, 1870, when Louis Napoleon, Emperor of France, decided to declare war on Prussia, then the most powerful of the German states and, under Bismarck’s guidance, working to bring together all the various principalities into one to form what became known as Germany. The reasons for France’s truculence might be best summed up by saying they included French alarm at the rise of a unified German nation, French fears about the possible ascendancy to the throne of Spain by a Prussian prince, and a degree of arrogance on the part of the French. They assumed that, as the major European country, they had the political authority and military might that would assure them of a quick and decisive victory. The defeat of the Austrians in 1866 ought to have alerted France to the fact that it might not be all that easy to take on the Prussians and their allies. But it doesn’t appear to have done so.

Once the war started it became apparent that there were severe shortcomings in the French military forces. Commitments in Algeria and elsewhere meant that the number of experienced troops that could be put into the field was restricted. There were large numbers of reservists and the Garde Nationale (GN), but their training was not of the highest quality and they were not equipped for extended periods of active service. By contrast the Prussians could muster a large army of regulars and well-trained reservists. It was also a fact that the Prussians were better prepared in terms of the support services they could provide to the front-line soldiers. Reading N.S. Nash’s accounts of the often-chaotic French systems for supplying ammunition, clothing, food, and medical aid, it seems obvious that little serious attention had been paid to such matters.  For example, no-one appears to have taken note of what had happened during the Crimean War when soldiers were wounded or fell ill due to disease and unsanitary conditions.

There were other factors, such as the calibre of the officer corps in the two armies. Nash says, “France’s generals were all second-rate; they had established their reputations in colonial conflicts, such as those in Algeria. These generals had not confronted a modern European army since the Crimean War (1853-56) and the brief and unpopular foray against Italy in 1859”. On the other hand, the “education, training and commitment of soldiers in the Prussian Army was, in all respects, superior to that of the French”. And in Moltke it had a “military thinker who deduced that the key to military success was efficient planning, administrative excellence and total discipline”. His creation of a “General Staff” led the way in the idea of “a body of professional officers with disparate skills and experience who, when trained, would provide cohesive, timely and accurate advice to their commander”. The French military attaché in Berlin reported these developments, but his superiors didn’t bother to take note of them.

Once the fighting started in earnest there were minor French successes, but the final outcome was never in doubt. Metz was besieged and, when the French Army was defeated at Sedan and the Emperor captured, it was only a matter of time before the Prussians reached Paris. Nash notes that in the French army “Bad behaviour was rampant. One officer commented, ‘Our troops need severe discipline, far too many are pillards (looters) or trainards (stragglers), they sneak out of camp and have begun to defy their NCOs, complaining that they lack orders, food, wine or ammunition’ ”.

The effect of the Prussian successes on the population of Paris was devastating. Opposition to Louis Napoleon that had always been there, but suppressed, came to the fore. A Republic was declared and figures on the extreme Left of the political spectrum began to assert themselves. The GN, in particular, was a source of disaffection. There were hopes that the Prussian siege would be short-lived. Not all of France had collapsed and there were substantial numbers of troops theoretically available to be in a position to move towards Paris, break the siege, and link up with the army there.

However, within the city the forces available to Major-General Trochu “were a mixture ranging from the professionally competent to the untrained, ill-disciplined, and criminal”. Trochu, incidentally, had in 1867 written a book which took a highly-critical look at the French Army and in which he referred to, among other things, “chronic ill-discipline, unrestricted drinking and abysmal training standards”. It wasn’t popular with the establishment, military and civilian, and, as a kind of punishment, brought about his “removal from the War Office and further employment on half pay”.

A curious situation had developed in that the authorities in Paris had made overtures towards peace negotiations with the Prussians, but not everyone in France generally felt that they were entitled to speak on their behalf. As noted earlier, there were sufficient troops available in the country to face up to the enemy and perhaps even defeat them. In the city, meanwhile, food and fuel became scarce, with the poor feeling the effects most of all. The rich, and others with access to restaurants where meals could still be obtained at a price, managed to eat reasonably well, even if they might have been surprised at what they were eating,

There were attempts to conduct sorties against the Prussians, but they tended to collapse because of bad organisation and an overall lack of equipment. In November 1870 a major French attack on the besiegers failed partly because the plans were known to the Prussians. They had been circulating in the city for days before the sortie. In addition, despite the weather being bad, the troops were ordered not to take their blankets with them: “The decision not to take blankets was seen for its absurdity as freezing French soldiers huddled together in the darkness dreading the morn”. When it came it brought chaos as the French struggled to retreat into Paris. A British journalist, Tommy Bowles, observed what happened: “Every moment the mob increased, and with every moment the panic became greater and the struggle to get through fiercer. They fought with each other…. Trampled even on their wounded comrades….It was not an army that was retreating. It was not even a respectable mob”.   

As conditions in Paris continued to deteriorate, it became clear that, despite occasional small victories, the French armies in the country generally would not be capable of beating the Prussians. Some sort of armistice would have to be agreed. A defeat at Le Mans in January, 1871, perhaps summed up the parlous state of the French Army: “The French losses were huge: 6200 killed and wounded, 18,000 captured, but, critically, 20,000 deserted”. And when, a few days later, there was another disastrous sortie from Paris, conducted, Nash says, by the Army “with its extraordinary capacity for calamity and fiasco”, an armistice became inevitable. When negotiations started it was obvious that the Prussians were not inclined to be generous in the terms they demanded. They wanted the territory of Alsace and a large part of Lorraine to be ceded to Germany, reparations of 200 million francs, and some other conditions relating to disarming the GN and similar military matters. And they insisted on parading in triumph through Paris.

The signing of the Armistice, and the terms it stipulated, brought matters to a head in Paris. It had been agreed that the GN would be allowed to keep its arms, and they were, on the face of it, a potent force for opposing the new French government that came into being following national elections in February. That government, headed by Adolph Thiers, had moved to Versailles and was busy forming a strong military force, not to oppose the Prussians but to deal with the revolutionary elements in Paris who had seized the reins of power and declared the Commune. The siege of Paris would continue with the French    Army ringing the city, while the Prussians stood to one side and provided some assistance by blocking possible supply and escape routes into and out of the Paris.  

The story of the short-lived Paris Commune has been told in detail in other books, and Nash doesn’t attempt to do more than provide a limited outline of events. But he does get across the mixture of high ideals and low behaviour that characterised the two months when the Commune existed. It has been romanticised in some ways, especially by those with Left-wing sympathies, but anyone looking at the facts dispassionately must surely accept that the whole venture was doomed to failure from its inception. A national government could not, as Thiers made clear, allow any part of the country, and particularly its capital, to effectively secede. It had to assert its authority. And that would necessarily be by the use of military force.

The leaders of the Commune may have felt confident that the GN could form a strong-enough force to oppose the Versailles troops, but if they did they were deluding themselves. The GN were badly-trained, poorly led, and not inclined to function in a disciplined manner. When the Army moved into Paris in May, 1871, they did so through unguarded gates. I’m necessarily summarising but though there were courageous actions by some of the defenders, and die-hard elements fought to the end, many members of the GN disposed of their guns and uniforms and disappeared in an attempt to escape the retribution that the Army brought. Prisoners were usually shot. Nash is not in favour of the brutal way the Commune was suppressed, though he does question the figures that have often been quoted in relation to the number of Communards (and sometimes their families), killed. He thinks that 25,000 or thereabouts is far too high, and refers to research by Professor Robert Tombs which suggested that “the death toll was 5,700 to 7,400”.

Did the Siege of Paris change the world? The Franco-Prussian War certainly shifted the balance of power in Europe. France lost its role as the dominant country and the new Germany which came into existence at the time took on a wider significance. There were certainly people in Britain who viewed the rise of Germany as a major European country with some alarm.

In military terms the war highlighted a number of important aspects. Nash says that it was the first European “Railway War” and demonstrated that “logistic superiority, in purely material terms, is irrelevant unless there are the means of transport and distribution”. The Germans used their railway network to greater effect. He refers to Rommel who commented: “An adequate supply system ……the essential condition for any army to be able to stand successfully the strains of battle. Before the fighting proper, the battle is fought and decided by the Quartermaster”. As Nash notes, many of those in command of the French Army did not seem to acknowledge “the tedious but vital business of supply”. There were, too, lessons to be learned about the decline in the usefulness and importance of cavalry, the need to avoid massed infantry attacks as machine-guns were developed (sadly, this lesson hadn’t sunk in by 1914), and the effective use of artillery.

The Siege That Changed the World is a brisk account of events leading up to the Siege, the Siege itself, and what happened when the Commune flourished for a brief spell. There are plenty of notes, appropriate illustrations, and a useful bibliography.