Siege of Paris (1870–71)

For other sieges with this name, see Siege of Paris (disambiguation).
Siege of Paris
Part of the Franco-Prussian War

The Siege of Paris by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Oil on canvas.
Date19 September 1870 – 28 January 1871
LocationParis, France
Result Decisive German victory
(later  German Empire)
France France
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of Prussia Wilhelm I of Prussia
Kingdom of Prussia Helmuth von Moltke
France Louis Jules Trochu
France Joseph Vinoy (POW)
240,000 regulars 200,000 regulars
200,000 militia and sailors
Casualties and losses
12,000 dead or wounded 24,000 dead or wounded
146,000 captured
47,000 civilian casualties

The Siege of Paris, lasting from 19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871, and the consequent capture of the city by Prussian forces, led to French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the establishment of the German Empire as well as the Paris Commune.


As early as August 1870 the Prussian 3rd Army led by Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (the future Emperor Frederick III) had been marching towards Paris, but was recalled to deal with French forces accompanied by Napoleon III. These forces were crushed at the Battle of Sedan, and the road to Paris was left open. Personally leading the Prussian forces, King William I of Prussia, along with his chief of staff Helmuth von Moltke, took the 3rd Army and the new Prussian Army of the Meuse under Crown Prince Albert of Saxony, and marched on Paris virtually unopposed. In Paris, the Governor and commander-in-chief of the city's defenses, General Louis Jules Trochu, assembled a force of 60,000 regular soldiers who had managed to escape from Sedan under Joseph Vinoy or who were gathered from depot troops. Together with 90,000 Mobiles (Territorials), a brigade of 13,000 naval seamen and 350,000 National Guards, the potential defenders of Paris totalled around 513,000 personnel.[1] The compulsorily enrolled National Guards were however untrained.


The Prussian armies quickly reached Paris, and on 15 September Moltke issued orders for the investment of the city. Crown Prince Albert's army closed in on Paris from the north unopposed, while Crown Prince Frederick moved in from the south. On 17 September a force under Vinoy attacked Frederick's army near Villeneuve-Saint-Georges in an effort to save a supply depot there, but it was eventually driven back by artillery fire. The railroad to Orléans was cut, and on the 18th Versailles was taken, and then served as the 3rd Army's and eventually Wilhelm's headquarters. By 19 September the encirclement was complete, and the siege officially began. Responsible for the direction of the siege was General (later Field Marshal) von Blumenthal.

Prussia's chancellor Otto von Bismarck suggested shelling Paris to ensure the city's quick surrender and render all French efforts to free the city pointless, but the German high command, headed by the king of Prussia, turned down the proposal on the insistence of General von Blumenthal, on the grounds that a bombardment would affect civilians, violate the rules of engagement, and turn the opinion of third parties against the Germans, without speeding up the final victory. It was also contended that a quick French surrender would leave the new French armies undefeated and allow France to renew the war shortly after. The new French armies would have to be annihilated first, and Paris would have to be starved into surrender.

A company of the French National Guards

Trochu had little faith in the ability of the National Guards, which made up half the force defending the city. So instead of making any significant attempt to prevent the investment by the Germans, Trochu hoped that Moltke would attempt to take the city by storm, and the French could then rely on the city's defenses. These consisted of the 33 km (21 mi) Thiers wall and a ring of sixteen detached forts, all of which had been built in the 1840s.[2] Moltke never had any intention of attacking the city and this became clear shortly after the siege began. Trochu changed his plan and allowed Vinoy to make a demonstration against the Prussians west of the Seine. On 30 September Vinoy attacked Chevilly with 20,000 soldiers and was soundly repulsed by the 3rd Army. Then on 13 October the II Bavarian Corps was driven from Châtillon but the French were forced to retire in face of Prussian artillery.

"The War: Defence of Paris—Students Going to Man the Fortifications". From the Illustrated London News of 1 October 1870. Perhaps one of the more iconic scenes from the Franco-Prussian War.

General Carey de Bellemare commanded the strongest fortress north of Paris at Saint Denis. On 29 October de Bellemare attacked the Prussian Guard at Le Bourget without orders, and took the town. The Guard actually had little interest in recapturing their positions at Le Bourget, but Crown Prince Albert ordered the city retaken anyway. In the battle of Le Bourget the Prussian Guards succeeded in retaking the city and captured 1,200 French soldiers. Upon hearing of the French surrender at Metz and the defeat at Le Bourget, morale in Paris began to sink. The people of Paris were beginning to suffer from the effects of the German blockade. Hoping to boost morale Trochu launched the largest attack from Paris on November 30 even though he had little hope of achieving a breakthrough. Nevertheless, he sent Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot with 80,000 soldiers against the Prussians at Champigny, Créteil and Villiers. In what became known as the battle of Villiers the French succeeded in capturing and holding a position at Créteil and Champigny. By 2 December the Württemberg Corps had driven Ducrot back into the defenses and the battle was over by 3 December.

Balloons escaped from the Siege of Paris

On 19 January a final breakout attempt was aimed at the Château of Buzenval in Rueil-Malmaison near the Prussian Headquarters, west of Paris. The Crown Prince easily repulsed the attack inflicting over 4,000 casualties while suffering just over 600 himself. Trochu resigned as governor and left General Joseph Vinoy with 146,000 defenders.

During the winter, tensions began to arise in the Prussian high command. Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke and General Leonhard, Count von Blumenthal who commanded the siege (seen in the illustration on this page behind Bismarck's right shoulder) were primarily concerned with a methodical siege that would destroy the detached forts around the city and slowly strangle the defending forces with a minimum of German casualties.

Prussian artillery during the siege

But as time wore on, there was growing concern that a prolonged war was placing too much strain on the German economy and that an extended siege would convince the French Government of National Defense that Prussia could still be beaten. A prolonged campaign would also allow France time to reconstitute a new army and convince neutral powers to enter the war against Prussia. To Bismarck, Paris was the key to breaking the power of the intransigent republican leaders of France, ending the war in a timely manner, and securing peace terms favourable to Prussia. Moltke was also worried that insufficient winter supplies were reaching the German armies investing the city, as diseases such as tuberculosis were breaking out amongst the besieging soldiers. In addition, the siege operations competed with the demands of the ongoing Loire Campaign against the remaining French field armies.

In January, on Bismarck's advice, the Germans fired some 12,000 shells into the city over 23 nights in an attempt to break Parisian morale. About 400 perished or were wounded by the bombardment, which "had little effect on the spirit of resistance in Paris."[3] Delescluze declared, "The Frenchmen of 1870 are the sons of those Gauls for whom battles were holidays." Due to a severe shortage of food, Parisians were forced to slaughter whatever animals at hand. Rats, dogs, cats, and horses were regular fare on restaurant menus. Even Castor and Pollux, the only pair of elephants in Paris, were not spared.

A Christmas menu, 99th day of the siege. Unusual dishes include stuffed donkey's head, elephant consommé, roast camel, kangaroo stew, antelope terrine, bear ribs, cat with rats, and wolf haunch in deer sauce.

A Latin Quarter menu contemporary with the siege reads in part:

* Consommé de cheval au millet. (horse)
* Brochettes de foie de chien à la maître d'hôtel. (dog)
* Emincé de rable de chat. Sauce mayonnaise. (cat)
* Epaules et filets de chien braisés. Sauce aux tomates. (dog)
* Civet de chat aux champignons. (cat)
* Côtelettes de chien aux petits pois. (dog)
* Salamis de rats. Sauce Robert. (rats)
* Gigots de chien flanqués de ratons. Sauce poivrade. (dog, rats)
* Begonias au jus. (flowers)
* Plum-pudding au rhum et à la Moelle de Cheval. (horse)

Air medical transport is often stated to have first occurred in 1870 during the Siege of Paris when 160 wounded French soldiers were evacuated from the city by hot-air balloon, but this myth has been definitively disproven by full review of the crew and passenger records of each balloon which left Paris during the siege.[4]

Elihu B. Washburne

During the siege, the only head of diplomatic mission from a major power who remained in Paris was United States Minister to France, Elihu B. Washburne. As a representative of a neutral country, Washburne was able to play a unique role in the conflict, becoming one of the few channels of communication into and out of the city for much of the siege. He also led the way in providing humanitarian relief to foreign nationals, including ethnic Germans.[5]

On 25 January 1871, Wilhelm I overruled Moltke and ordered the field-marshal to consult with Bismarck for all future operations. Bismarck immediately ordered the city to be bombarded with large-caliber Krupp siege guns. This prompted the city's surrender on 28 January 1871. Paris sustained more damage in the 1870–1871 siege than in any other conflict.

The Prussian Army held a brief victory parade in Paris on 17 February 1871 and Bismarck honored the armistice by sending train-loads of food into Paris and withdrawing Prussian forces to the east of the city, to be withdrawn from there as well as soon as France paid the agreed war indemnity.

Mail service by balloon and pigeon

The Dove by Puvis de Chavannes. The companion painting in the Musée d'Orsay depicts a balloon.

Balloon mail was the only means by which communications from the besieged city could reach the rest of France. The use of balloons to carry mail was first proposed by the photographer and balloonist Felix Nadar, who had established the grandiosely titled No. 1 Compagnie des Aérostatiers, with a single balloon, the Neptune, at its disposal, to perform tethered ascents for observation purposes. However the Prussian encirclement of the city made this pointless, and on 17 September Nadar wrote to the Council for the Defence of Paris proposing the use of balloons for communication with the outside world: a similar proposal had also been made by the balloonist Eugène Godard.

The first balloon launch was carried out on 23 September, using the Neptune, and carried 125 kg (276 lb) of mail in addition to the pilot. After a three-hour flight it landed at Craconville 83 km (52 mi) from Paris.[6] Following this success a regular mail service was established, with a rate of 20 centimes per letter. Two workshops to manufacture balloons were set up, one under the direction of Nadar in the Elysềe-Montmartre dance-hall (later moved to the Gare du Nord),[7] and the other under the direction of Godard in the Gare d'Orleans. Around 66 balloon flights were made, including one that accidentally set a world distance record by ending up in Norway.[8] The vast majority of these succeeded: only five were captured by the Prussians, and three went missing, presumably coming down in the Atlantic or Irish Sea. The number of letters carried has been estimated at around 2.5 million.[9]

The departure of Leon Gambetta

Some balloons also carried passengers in addition to the cargo of mail, most notably Léon Gambetta, the minister for War in the new government, who was flown out of Paris on 7 October. The balloons also carried homing pigeons out of Paris to be used for a pigeon post. This was the only means by which communications from the rest of France could reach the besieged city. A specially laid telegraph cable on the bed of the Seine had been discovered and cut by the Prussians on 27 September,[10] couriers attempting to make their way through the German lines were almost all intercepted and although other methods were tried including attempts to use balloons, dogs and message canisters floated down the Seine, these were all unsuccessful. The pigeons were taken to their base, first at Tours and later at Poitiers, and when they had been fed and rested were ready for the return journey. Tours lies some 200 km from Paris and Poitiers some 300 km. Before release, they were loaded with their dispatches. Initially the pigeon post was only used for official communications but on 4 November the government announced that members of the public could send messages, these being limited to twenty words at a charge of 50 centimes per word.[11]

These were then copied onto sheets of cardboard and photographed by a M. Barreswille, a photographer based in Tours. Each sheet contained 150 messages and was reproduced as a print about 40 x 55 mm (1.5 x 2.25 in) in size: each pigeon could carry nine of these. The photographic process was further refined by René Dagron to allow more to be carried: Dagron, with his equipment, was flown out of Paris on 12 November in the aptly named Niépce, narrowly escaping capture by the Prussians. The photographic process allowed multiple copies of the messages to be sent, so that although only 57 of the 360 pigeons released reached Paris more than 60,000 of the 95,000 messages sent were delivered.[12][13] (some sources give a considerably higher figure of around 150,000 official and 1 million private communications,[14] but this figure is arrived at by counting all copies of each message.)


On 18 January 1871 the German Empire is proclaimed in the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles, painted by Anton von Werner.

After the Prussians had secured victory in war Wilhelm I was proclaimed German Emperor on 18 January 1871 at the Palace of Versailles. The kingdoms of Bavaria, Württemberg, Saxony, the states of Baden and Hesse, and the free cities of Hamburg and Bremen were unified with the North German Confederation to create the German Empire. The preliminary peace treaty was signed at Versailles and the final peace treaty, the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on 10 May 1871. Otto von Bismarck was able to secure Alsace-Lorraine as part of the German Empire.

Another stipulation of the treaty was that a German garrison was left in Paris. This continued presence of German troops angered Parisian residents. Further resentment arose against the current French government and from April–May 1871 Parisian workers and National Guards rebelled and established the Paris Commune.

In Popular Culture

Empires of Sand by David W. Ball (Bantam Dell, 1999) is a novel in two parts, the first of which is set during the Franco-Prussian war, more particularly the Siege of Paris during the winter of 1870-71. Key elements of the Siege, including the hot-air balloons used for reconnaissance and messages, the tunnels beneath the city, the starvation and the cold, combine to render a vivid impression of war-time Paris before its surrender.

The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett is a novel which follows the fortunes of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines. The latter runs away to make a disastrous marriage in France, where after being abandoned by her husband, she lives through the siege of Paris and the Commune.

Elusive Liberty is a novel by Glen Davies. It follows the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, Major Auguste Bartholdi, who fought against the German invaders as an aide-de-camp to General Garibaldi and is in Paris during the Siege.[15]

The King in Yellow, a short story collection by Robert W. Chambers, published in 1895, includes a story titled "The Street of the First Shell" which takes place over a few days of the Siege.[16]

The Master, a 2012 film by Paul Thomas Anderson, alludes to The Siege whereby Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tells Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) that they both were part of the pigeon post.


  1. Page 62, "The Fall of Paris", Alistair Horne, Messrs MacMillan & Co Ltd 1967
  2. Michael Howard and Michael Eliot Howard, The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871, Routledge 2001, ISBN 0-415-26671-8 (p.318)
  3. Cobban (1961), p. 204
  4. Lam DM, "To Pop A Balloon -- Air Evacuation During The Siege of Paris, 1870"; Aviation, Space, & Environmental Medicine, 59(10): 988-991, October 1988.
  5. David McCullough, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, Simon & Schuster, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4165-7176-6
  6. Holmes 2013, p.268
  7. Fisher 1965, p.45
  9. Holmes 2013, pp. 292-3
  10. Fisher 1965, p. 22
  11. Fisher 1964, p.70
  12. Holmes 2013, p.286
  13. Lawrence, Ashley. "A Message brought to Paris by Pigeon Post in 1870-71". Microscopy UK. Retrieved 18 July 2014.
  14. Levi, Wendell (1977). The Pigeon. Sumter, South Carolina: Levi Publishing Co, Inc. ISBN 0-85390-013-2.


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