France went through four revolutions in 100 years. This blog discusses the last of the four, known in history as the Franco-Prussian War, from July 19, 1870 to May 10, 1871.
In 1871, after going through several governments – republics, radical revolutionary assemblies, empires, and restored monarchies – the Empire of Napoleon III moved once again to restore France’s place in the European Balance of Power. Their chief rival in this quest was the Empire of Prussia, led by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
In 1867, a few years before the war, Sister Alix Merceret, originally a native of Nantes, France who grew up in Baltimore, was missioned as corresponding secretary for the English-language world at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Charity in Paris. When the War began, she wrote back to the United States with updates of the War, the German siege of the city, and the Paris Commune of 1871, when the people of France, for the final time, deposed a monarch.
The French military was on the retreat from the very start of the war. Her first update on the movement of Prussian troops came on August 31, 1870; two days later, Napoleon III surrendered and was taken prisoner. A new Government of National Defense was proclaimed in Paris under a republican system, and on September 19 they began to face their task of defending the city from the Prussian siege. The bombardment that Paris faced was one of the largest in world history prior to World War I. The French government sued for armistice on January 26, 1871, facing the threat of starvation.
On February 2, Sister Alix wrote to Mother Euphemia Blenkinsop in the United States of their state:
Her next letter described how she had taken up a temporary position at the military hospital, as well as the state of the Daughters in Paris:
She goes on to describe life under siege:
In the armistice agreements, the Prussians were allowed their brief days to parade in triumph through the city, beginning on March 1. Writing on the 3rd:
On March 18, the Revolution of disgruntled soldiers and working-class Paris occurred and the Paris Commune declared, which would govern the city until its destruction by the regular army ten weeks later. The memories of the martyred Daughters during the first French Revolution and the resurgence in anti-religious sentiment did not endear Sister Alix to their cause:
The final week of May 1871 is simply referred to in the French history books as “Bloody Week,” when the military fought with brutality, executions, and fires, and the revolutionaries fought with their own summary executions, including of the Archbishop of Paris himself. Sister Alix on June 10:
In spite of all this, including the anti-religious sentiment, Sister Alix’s letter on July 10 also contains this telling line, pointing to a future for the French Daughters, just as there had been after three prior revolutions:
The Treaty of Frankfurt, which ended the original Franco-Prussian War, was signed 150 years ago today on May 10, 1871. One of the spoils of war for the new German Empire was the handing over of the states of Alsace and Lorraine, a key point in the leadup to two more wars between the nations. On the final day of 1872, Sister Alix talks about her present view of the issue and seems to telegraph the future, always with an eye toward service to others:
The archives contain nearly 100 surviving pieces of correspondence, plus extensive detail of her final visit to the United States in 1900. Ten of the letters were written between 1870 and 1872.