Zurück Hoch Vorwärts

Chapter 13: The Franco-German war

THE year 1870 opened with no premonition of the tremendous events it was to bring forth:

Princess Victoria had been born on the eve of the Austrian War in 1866, and now, on the eve of this yet greater struggle, on June 14, 1870, the Crown Princess gave birth to her third daughter, Princess Sophia Dorothea Ulrica Alice, who was destined to become Queen of the Hellenes. The candidature of Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen for the throne of Spain was announced on July 4, and after fruitless attempts at intervention by the Crown Princess's old friend, Lord Granville, then the British Foreign Minister, war was declared between France and Prussia on July 15.

At the time of the little Princess's christening, which took place at the New Palace on July 25, there were few present at the ceremony who were not under orders for the front, and most of the men were already in their campaigning uniform. Emotion, anxiety, and excitement made the even then old King William feel unequal to the task of holding his little granddaughter at the baptismal font according to his wont, and this duty was performed for him by Queen Augusta. The fact that the Kings of Würtemberg and Bavaria were the child's godfathers marked the decision of those States, with Baden and Hesse-Darmstadt, to throw in their lot with Prussia in the war, as the deputies of the North-German Confederation had also done.

The christening was one of special splendour and solemnity, the two outstanding figures in the congregation being Bismarck, in his uniform of major of dragoons, and Field-Marshal Wrangel, now in his eighty-ninth year. Among the guests at the christening were Lord Ronald Gower and "Billy" Russell, the famous war correspondent. Two or three days before, they had been received by the Crown Princess at the New Palace, and Lord Ronald writes: "The Princess expressed almost terror at the idea of the war, and was deeply affected at the sufferings it must bring with it. She feared the brutality of Bazaine and his soldiers, should they invade Germany."

After the christening, King William and Queen Augusta held a kind of informal court in the curious hall known as the Hall of the Shells, full of memories of Frederick the Great. Early the next morning the Crown Prince slipped away out of the palace to spare his wife the agony of parting.

Even at such a moment as this, the Crown Princess's private and personal anxieties were embittered by circumstances which she was unable to modify or affect. Although England was not only ignorant, but was to remain, like the rest of the world, in ignorance for many years, of the falsification of the famous Ems telegram, sympathy with Germany as the supposed injured party in the quarrel was by no means universal.

It is true that on the morrow of the declaration of war the Times described it as "unjust but premeditated - the greatest national crime that we have had the pain of recording since the days of the first French Revolution." Nevertheless, France by no means lacked sympathisers in England - indeed, the Crown Princess was much distressed at the way in which her native country interpreted the obligation of neutrality. The Prussian Government considered that the exportation of coal and arms to France was a breach of neutrality; and the attitude of England during the Danish War was still remembered and resented in Germany.

Bismarck, with what Europe has now become aware was gross hypocrisy, observed to Lord Augustus Loftus, the British Ambassador in Berlin, that "Great Britain should have forbidden France to enter on war. She was in a position to do so, and her interests and those of Europe demanded it of her," a sufficiently cynical observation on the part of a man who, as we now know, had himself forced on the conflict at the eleventh hour.

To Queen Victoria the Crown Princess confided her troubles: "The English are more hated at this moment than the French, and Lord Granville more than Benedetti. Of course, cela a rejailli on my poor innocent head. I have fought many a battle about Lord Granville, indignant at hearing my old friend so attacked, but all parties agree in making him out French. I picked a quarrel about it on the day of the christening, tired and miserable as I was. I sent for Bismarck up into my room on purpose to say my say about Lord Granville, but he would not believe me, and said with a smile, 'But his acts prove it.' Many other people have told me the same. Lord A. Loftus knows it quite well. Fritz, of course, does not believe it, but I think the King and Queen do."

Meanwhile, France was complaining bitterly of Lord Granville's "cold, very cold" attitude. Then suddenly, on July 25, the Times published a draft secret treaty which had been proposed by the Emperor Napoleon to Prussia in 1866. The terms were - (1) that the Emperor should recognise Prussia's acquisitions in the late war; (2) the King of Prussia should promise to facilitate the acquisition of Luxemburg by France; (3) the Emperor should not oppose a federal union of the Northern and Southern German States, excluding Austria; (4) the King of Prussia, in case the Emperor should enter and conquer Belgium, should support him in arms against any opposing Power; and (5) France and Prussia should enter into an offensive and defensive alliance.

This disclosure caused an enormous sensation, and Queen Victoria was much shocked at the apparent revelation of French greed and duplicity. Writing to the Queen, the Crown Princess observed: "Count Bismarck may say the wildest things, but he never acts in a foolish way," - an interesting pronouncement when one remembers how keen had been and was to be the struggle between these two powerful and determined natures.

As a matter of fact, Bismarck did not hesitate to admit that the document was authentic, but he insisted that he had never seriously entertained the proposal, which came entirely from the Emperor. Not long afterwards, on the day of the battle of Wörth, the game of "revelations " was taken up by General Turr, who disclosed proposals made by Bismarck in 1866 and 1867 for the annexation of Luxemburg and Belgium by France.

But already all such recriminations and discussions seemed merely of academic interest; already everything was swept from the mind of the Crown Princess save the necessity for hard work and intelligent organisation. With an ardour natural to her generous and sympathetic temperament she threw herself into everything that could mitigate the sufferings and promote the welfare of both combatants and non-combatants. Prussia's two former wars had given her an amount of experience which she was now able to turn to the best account. Spontaneously, without any advice or prompting from others, she wrote the following letter to the whole of the German world, her desire being to touch the hearts, not only of those Germans at home, but also of those who had settled overseas, in America and elsewhere:

"Once more has Germany called her sons to take arms for her most sacred possessions, her honour, and her independence. A foe, whom we have not molested, begrudges us the fruits of our victories, the development of our national industries by our peaceful labour. Insulted and injured in all that is most dear to them, our German people - for they it is who are our army - have grasped their well-tried arms, and have gone forth to protect hearth, and home, and family. For months past, thousands of women and children have been deprived of their bread-winners. We cannot cure the sickness of their hearts, but at least we can try to preserve them from bodily want. During the last war, which was brought to so speedy, and so fortunate, a conclusion, Germans in every quarter of the globe responded nobly when called upon to prove their love of the Fatherland by helping to relieve the suffering. Let us join hands once more, and prove that we are able and willing to succour the families of those brave men who are ready to sacrifice life and limb for us! Let us give freely, promptly, that the men who are fighting for our sacred rights may go into battle with the comforting assurance that at least the destinies of those who are dearest to them are confided to faithful hands.
"VICTORIA CROWN PRINCESS."

This eloquent appeal met with the splendid response which it deserved, and although practically every German Princess of the time took a more or less active part in the care of the wounded and of the families of the soldiers, it was soon realised that the Crown Princess was the master mind to whom all must look for their orders.

Queen Augusta supervised the ambulance and hospital services in Berlin, while the Crown Princess moved to Homburg and started on the organisation of a series of field-lazareths, being most efficiently helped in her labours by her sister, Princess Alice, who herself organised and actively supervised four field hospitals in Darmstadt itself.

The Crown Princess began by turning the old military barracks at Homburg into a hospital, the existing hospital being set aside for the use of wounded French prisoners. She also built at her own expense two magnificent wards, and they - doubtless partly because they were new buildings - showed far more satisfactory results in lower death-rate and shorter convalescence than did the wards in any other of the German military hospitals.

The Victoria Barrack, as the new wards were called, was built of wood on a brick foundation. In addition to the wards, the building contained a good ;store-room, lined with glass cupboards, in which was kept a quantity of old linen which Queen Victoria had sent for the wounded. Each ward contained twenty-four beds. A feature which the German doctors and nurses regarded with decidedly mixed feelings was a system of ventilation which enabled the whole building to be opened from end to end when required.

By the Crown Princess's orders, the very simplest and plainest appliances compatible with health and comfort were used. Thus the necessary furniture was all of varnished deal. By her wish, too, a great effort was made to give a bright and home-like appearance to each ward, and this, like the special ventilation, was quite a new idea to both German patients and German doctors. In the corners of each ward stood large evergreen shrubs, and on every table were placed cut flowers in glasses. Whenever the Crown Princess received a personal gift of flowers, she immediately sent it off to the hospital, often bringing a bouquet and arranging it herself. Nothing in the Victoria Barrack was used which could conceal any dirt; for instance, the crockery was white and the glass plain.

The Crown Princess attended the military hospitals daily. She went through every ward, and spoke to every patient; and she was quite as regular in her attendance on the wards containing the French prisoners as she was on those where the German soldiers lay. In this way she came into personal association with ordinary people of a class of whom Princesses see as a rule little or nothing. With many of the soldiers who were then tended under her supervision and care she kept in touch long after the war was ended - indeed, she was always eager to help in after life any of those whom she had known at Homburg, or who had fought under her husband's orders.

But the Crown Princess did far more than the work associated with her name at Homburg. It was owing to her promptness and her energy that a long line of military hospitals was rapidly organised along the whole of the Rhine Valley.

At the end of the campaign of 1866 the Crown Prince and Princess had founded the National Institution for Disabled Soldiers, and by the special order of the King it was given the name of the Victoria Institution, because the Crown Princess had suggested and instigated its creation. At the close of 1871, this Institution, again at her suggestion, was placed upon a wider footing, and applied to the whole of Germany instead of only to Prussia.

There is no need here to describe the course of the war itself. A vast literature, both technical and general, has grown up round it, and there are many people by no means yet old who remember vividly that immense and sanguinary struggle. To the Crown Prince was assigned the command of the Third Army, in which nearly every State of both North and South Germany was represented, including the Bavarian Corps and the Divisions of Würtemberg and Baden. Once more the Prince proved his fitness for high command, perhaps most notably at the battle of Wörth, when his admirable dispositions and his unhesitating resolve that even the last man must if necessary be staked were the main causes of the victory. Yet the Crown Prince said to the great German writer, Freytag, who was with him in this early part of the war:

"I hate this slaughter. I have never desired the honours of war, and would gladly have left such glory to others. Nevertheless, it is my hard fate to go from battlefield to battlefield, from one war to another, before ascending the throne of my ancestors."

Much as he hated war, the Crown Prince never hesitated, as weak commanders have always done, to pay the necessary price of victory in human lives. Among the troops, "Unser Fritz," as they called him, quickly became extraordinarily popular - indeed, their devotion to their leader formed a strong and politically useful link between men who had actually fought against one another so recently as the Austrian War.

Throughout the campaign, the Crown Prince and Princess corresponded daily. The siege of Paris had begun on September 15, and the Crown Prince was at Versailles on his birthday, on October 18, almost the first birthday he had spent away from his wife since their marriage. When he woke in the morning he found on his table a small pocket-pistol, and a housewife, filled with articles for daily use, from the Crown Princess.

There is a very interesting glimpse of the Crown Princess in December 1870, that is, during the middle of the war, in Prince Hohenlohe's Memoirs. He was asked to lunch with her, and they had a long talk about public affairs. The Princess was very dissatisfied concerning the proposed Convention with Bavaria, and it seemed to the statesman that both she and Princess Alice were enthusiastic for the idea of a united Empire without any exception, and that neither sister liked the proposal of federation. The Crown Princess listened attentively, however, to Hohenlohe's defence of the special nature and justification of the Bavarian claims, but it is evident that she agreed with her husband on the question of coercing the Bavarians, if it should be necessary.

The two sisters were together as much as was possible during those terrible months of hard work and anxiety. Princess Alice spent half of the December of 1870 in Berlin, and wrote to her mother: "It is a great comfort to be with dear Vicky. We spend the evenings alone together, talking or writing our letters. It is nearly five months since Louis left, and we lead such single existences that a sister is inexpressibly dear when all closer intercourse is so wanting!"

On Christmas Eve there arrived at the house at Versailles where the Crown Prince was then living a huge chest, and he asked his hostess and her family to share his Christmas cake, "for," said he, "this cake was baked by my wife, and you will much oblige me by tasting it." He then chatted to them about the Christmas festival in his own happy household, and translated the letters of the Crown Princess and of his two elder children. Long afterwards this lady wrote to a friend a letter which has since been published

"In those fateful days we learnt to know the good and open heart of the late Emperor. We were fortunate indeed to be under the protection of that stately and friendly gentleman, who appeared to us, as we now think of him, to have been a good genius who warded off mischief from our household."

The Crown Princess was accused of having interfered to prevent the bombardment of Paris. Thus Busch writes on December 24, 1870:

"Bucher told us at lunch he had heard from Berlin that the Queen and the Crown Princess had become very unpopular, owing to their intervention on behalf of Paris; and that the Princess, in the course of a conversation with Putbus, struck the table and exclaimed: 'For all that, Paris shall not be bombarded!'"

As a matter of fact, though both Moltke and the Crown Prince considered that the right tactics would be to starve out Paris by a strict investment, the bombardment, which was urged by Bismarck for political reasons, was delayed, not by any slackness on the part of the Third Army, but simply by insufficient preparation of the siege-train in Berlin. The Crown Princess suffered bitterly from Bismarck. She knew well that he was indispensable, the man of the hour, but he would never trust her. He often held back important political news from the Crown Prince for fear it should leak out through the Crown Princess to England. In this he did her an injustice so gross that it could not be atoned for by his own tardy acknowledgment of the fact in Thoughts and Remembrances.

On January 25, 1871, we learn from Busch that Bismarck said of the English who wanted to send a gunboat up the Seine to remove the English families there:

"They merely want to ascertain if we have laid down torpedoes and then to let the French ships follow them. What swine! They are full of vexation and envy because we have fought great battles here - and won them. They cannot bear to think that shabby little Prussia should prosper so. The Prussians are a people who should merely exist in order to carry on war for them in their pay. This is the view taken by all the upper classes in England. They have never been well disposed towards us, and have always done their utmost to immure us. The Crown Princess herself is an incarnation of this way of thinking. She is full of her own great condescension in marrying into our country. I remember her once telling me that two or three merchant families in Liverpool had more silver-plate than the entire Prussian nobility. 'Yes,' I replied, 'that is possibly true, your Royal Highness, but we value ourselves for other things besides silver.'"

After the capitulation of Sedan, the Crown Prince issued from Rheims an appeal for the wounded soldiers and the relatives of the killed and wounded. In it he spoke of his happiness in commanding in the field an army in which Prussians fought side by side with Bavarians, Würtembergers, and men of Baden, and declared that the war had created one German Army and had also unified the nation.

Later on, when the German armies sat down before Paris, the Crown Prince allotted some of the large rooms of the Palace of Versailles for a hospital, and himself supervised the arrangements. All through the war, indeed, he showed the keenest interest in the hospital service, and was constant in his visits to the wounded soldiers. Here we may trace the influence of his wife, who eagerly awaited all that he could tell her in his letters about the poor men to whom her woman's heart went out with such ardent sympathy. The Crown Prince took pains to supply the patients with interesting reading, and at his suggestion the editor of a Berlin Liberal paper sent many hundreds of copies of it daily to the military hospitals. This, however, was not approved at headquarters, and an order was actually issued by von Roon, forbidding the distribution of the paper.

Such incidents illustrate the difficulties with which both the Crown Prince and the Princess had to contend. The presence at Versailles, not only of the King and Bismarck, but of a cohort of German princes with their retinues, as well as numerous diplomatists, Ministers, and other official personages, did not make the Crown Prince's position easier. He had been raised after the fall of Metz to the highest rank in the army, that of General Field-Marshal, the promotion being communicated to him in a letter from his father bearing grateful testimony to his brilliant successes in the field, notably the strategic advance by which he covered the left of the main army and enabled it to overcome Bazaine's forces. But this elevation in rank does not appear to have been of much practical value to him.

Naturally both the Crown Prince and the Crown Princess took the keenest interest in the question of the Imperial title.

By the end of November, 1870, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt, Würtemberg, and Bavaria had all joined the North-German Confederation by treaty. Early in December, the King of Bavaria, in a letter to the King of Saxony which was really written by Bismarck, nominated the King of Prussia as Emperor of Germany, and the North-German Parliament, after voting large supplies for the continuance of the war, adopted by an overwhelming majority an address requesting the King to become Emperor. His brother and predecessor had refused the Imperial crown proffered him by the Frankfort Parliament, on the ground that the legal title was insufficient, but now that the dignity was tendered by the Sovereigns and the people of Germany, it was not possible for the King to refuse.

Neither the King himself, however, nor the older Prussian nobility liked the change, which, it was feared, might transform the almost parsimonious austerity of the Prussian Court into something like the pomp and extravagance with which other sovereigns had surrounded themselves. Bismarck, who considered all such matters as titles and heraldic pomp to be only important because they influence men's minds, was disposed to agree with his Sovereign's feeling, but it was the corner-stone of his policy to conciliate the South German States.

To the Crown Prince, on the other hand, with his strongly idealist nature and his highly developed historical imagination, the conception of the Empire won by the sword made an irresistible appeal. He was ready to see in it a revival of the old Empire, by which the King of Prussia should be, not first among his peers, but the overlord of all Germany.

It is significant, however, that King William was proclaimed, in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, not Emperor of Germany, but German Emperor. This was on January 18, 1871, the anniversary of the day on which the first King of Prussia had crowned himself at Königsberg. The Crown Prince supervised all the arrangements for the ceremony, and it was his idea to form a kind of trophy of the colours of the regiments which had won glory at Wörth and Weissenburg, Mars-la-Tour, Gravelotte, and Sedan. Before this trophy the King pronounced the establishment of the German Empire. On the same day by Imperial rescript the new Emperor conferred on the Crown Prince and on his successors as heir apparent the title of Imperial Highness.

The preliminaries of peace were not signed till February 26, and we have, in a letter written two days later by his friend, Herr Abeken, an interesting glimpse of the feelings with which the Crown Prince regarded these great events, and also the reliance which he placed on the aid of his wife. The Crown Prince told Abeken that he was fully conscious of the tremendous responsibility now incumbent on him. It was thrice as great as that which lay on him as Crown Prince of Prussia, but he did not shrink from it. God had already given him a blessed help and support in his wife, by whose assistance he hoped to fulfil his great work.

The Crown Prince had the satisfaction of leaving behind him in France as friendly feelings towards him personally as could well be entertained by the vanquished for a victorious foe. He had distinguished himself among the German leaders by his moderation in victory, by his stern repression of excesses, and by his chivalrous tributes to the bravery of his enemies.

The Crown Princess, absorbed in her labours among the suffering soldiers, was scarcely aware at the time of the venomous feelings still cherished against her in Prussia, and it was with an exultant heart - as "German" as her most captious and suspicious critics could have wished - that she welcomed the conclusion of the great conflict.

Berlin was reached on March 17, 1871, and though no official reception then took place, the Royal carriage in which the new Emperor and the Crown Prince were to be seen side by side could only proceed at a foot's pace through the dense masses who crowded the streets.

Later, in response to the call of the great crowd who thronged about his palace, a window opened, and the Crown Prince was seen in the midst of his family beside the Crown Princess, with his youngest child, the little Princess who had been born at the beginning of the war, in his arms.

Zurück Hoch Vorwärts