The Franco-Prussian War: 1870-1871

In 1870 tensions developed between France (Second Empire) and Prussia. Napoleon III felt insulted by William I, and declared war against Prussia. For Chancellor Bismarck, a war against France constituted a way of finalising German unification. The fighting lasted from 19 July 1870 to 19 January 1871.

The defeat was a quick affair. Following surrender by the Emperor in Sedan on 2 September 1870, the Republican National Defence government was established which, shortly afterward, requested an armistice: the treaty was signed in Frankfurt on 10 May 1871.

After this defeat the whole German empire was united under the Prussian crown. Germany also decided to annex Alsace and Lorraine, which remained German until the end of the First World War.

The pontifical Zouaves

As an indirect consequence of the war, the Papal States, no longer under French protection, were annexed by Italy on 20 September 1870. In doing so it completed its unification.

After the fall of Rome, the pontifical Zouaves who defended the Holy See were dismissed. 600 Frenchmen from among them went to Toulon with the aim of serving the French government, and formed the Volontaires de l’Ouest (Volunteers of the West) corps.

The pontifical Zouaves were secretly warmly welcomed by the leaders of the army, and an end was put to political and religious quarrels in order to enrol these hardened soldiers.

These men paid for their own equipment. Since there was nothing left in the army’s warehouses, the Zouaves were allowed to keep their uniform.

The war on the plains of Beauce

After the Emperor surrendered in Sedan, the Republic was declared in Paris on 4 September 1870. The National Defence government was formed and decided to continue the war. In reaction to this the Germans held a siege against Paris from 20 September.

In the rest of the country outside the city, assistance armies were formed to liberate Paris, including the Army of the Loire. In spite of this new adversary the Prussians occupied Orléans (11 October), Châteaudun (18 October) and Chartres (21 October). On 9 November 1870 the Army of the Loire won in Coulmiers (Loiret). Orléans was thus taken back from the Prussians.

Boosted by this initial success, the government ordered the offensive to be continued towards Paris. On 1st December the Château of Villepion was taken back from the Prussians, and on the morning of 2 December, the Army of the Loire faced the Prussian and Bavarian troops at Loigny.

The fighting in Loigny

On the morning of 2 December 1870, Loigny was occupied by a part of the French troops, but very quickly the Germans took the village back. The battlefield was churned up under a powerful artillery.

After the failure of the 51st regiment of foot soldiers, the Army of the Loire was under threat. In the face of this danger, General de Sonis led a charge by 800 men (including 300 pontifical Zouaves) towards Loigny. Deployed under the banner of the Sacred Heart, General de Sonis’s men showed heroic courage.

The enemy troops temporarily withdrew before reorganising and taking back the initiative. The French fell back in retreat, and the village and battle of Loigny were definitively lost.

On 4 December the Prussians took back Orléans. Paris was never rescued.

Terrible human loss

On the morning of 3 December a large number of wounded soldiers, including de Sonis and Charette, and thousands of dead bodies lay on the frozen ground of the town. 9000 men in total were killed or wounded during the battle, which was fought in icy temperatures of – 20° C.

Civilians returned to a partially destroyed village and were confronted with the harsh reality of assisting the injured and the loss of fortune.

The heroic charge had been in vain. The wounded de Sonis spent 40 days in convalescence in the village’s former vicarage after amputation. Charette was also wounded and then taken prisoner, but soon escaped.