The Siege that Changed the World – Paris 1870-1871, NS ‘Tank’ Nash

The Siege that Changed the World – Paris 1870-1871, NS ‘Tank’ Nash

The siege of Paris of 1870-71 was the climax of the Franco-Prussian War, a result of the crushing defeat of the French field armies at the start of the war, and the scene of much drama, including the formal creation of the German Empire at Versailles, the creation of the French Third Republic, and the expansion of the political divisions within Paris that would eventually lead to the Commune and it’s violent suppression by the reformed French army.

We start with a good introduction to the two sides in the war, and the political maneuvers that saw Bismarck essentially trick Napoleon III into declaring war. This is followed by a look at the initial campaign, which ended with one French army besieged at Metz, another captured at Sedan, and Napoleon himself taken into captivity in Germany. We then move onto the siege itself, looking at events inside and outside Paris, as well as the wider war.

For me the biggest problem with this book is that the author’s political opinions come to the fore far too often. This includes digs at the EU, a clear dislike of left wing politics, and a repeated assumption that professional military men would have done better than the ‘amateurs’ who took part of the lead during the siege (the truly terribly performance of France’s professionally led army in the build up to the siege certainly doesn’t provide any evidence for that view!). I hadn’t read the author’s biography before reading the book, but I wasn’t surprised to discover that he was ex-military – there is also a tendancy to cast the current professionalism of the British Army and use it to critisise the performance of the French army of this period. However many of the current British methods that he describes were clearly absent from the contemporary British army of this period – at point a particular French attack from Paris is critisised for not following the modern methods of assigning a clear purpose to an attack, clear lines of command, allocating the correct forces etc, with the suggestion that proper professionals wouldn’t have done the same. I would suggest that an examination of the British army’s performance in the Crimea doesn’t justify such smugness, nor would a look at most Napoleonic campaigns that didn’t involve Wellington.

However these are irritants rather than serious flaws. The author clearly understands the dangers of giving military leaders all authority during wartime, making the point that Moltke may have been an outstanding military leader, but he was so focused on the mechanics of the campaign that he lost track of its purpose (a comment one could also make about Napoleon). This became an issue during the siege itself, where Moltke and Bismarck fell out badly over how to proceed. The poor performances of several key French commanders as well as at least one senior German officer are acknowledged, and on occasions have an opinionated author does make for a more entertaining read.

The author does a good job of weaving together the various elements of this story. The first part of the war was fairly simple, with the Prussians outmaneuvering the French before defeated one half of the main French army at Sedan and besieging the other half at Metz. However once the siege began there are four strands to deal with – life inside the besieged city, the actions of the German armies outside the city, the sieges of isolated French garrisons in the east, and the attempts of newly formed French armies to help raise the siege. The end result is an excellent (if sometimes rather opinionated) study of one of the most important conflicts of the late 19th century, and one that cast a shadow well into the 20th Century.

1 – On Sieges…
2 – The Background: Hubris and the Great Exposition
3 – The Protagonists – The French
4 – The Protagonists – The Prussians
5 - … and So, To War
6 – Wissembourg, Spicheren and Froeschwiller, 4-6 August 1870
7 – Prussia Invades, Mtez Invested
8 – Beaumont and Sedan: 29 August-27 October
9 – Sedan: The Aftermath
10 – September: Investment of Paris and the Fall of Strasbourg
11 – October: Civil Disorder and the Fall of Metz
12 – November: Coulmierse and La Grande Sortie
13 – December: Belfort, Amiens, Orleans
14 – January: A New German Empire
15 – January: Bombardment – Ethics and Practicality
16 – January: Chanzy, Faidherbe, Bourbaki and Armistice
17 – February: Election, Peace and Reparations – The Gathering Storm
18 – March: Rise of the Commune
19 – March: Thirteen Important Days
20 – April: Civil War
21 – May: Rossel and the Fall of Fort Issy
22 – May: Bloody Week
23 – Retribution
24 – Did the Siege of Paris Change the World?

Author: NS ‘Tank’ Nash
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2021

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