Remembering the Franco-Prussian War Dead: Setting Precedents for the First World War

  • Franco-Prussian War was the first widely-commemorated conflict in Europe
  • First time soldiers given permanent graves and military cemeteries
  • War memorials at the centre of a cult of the war dead

Fig. 18 Ossuary at Bazeilles

The Franco-Prussian War was the first widely-commemorated conflict in Europe. For the first time, ordinary soldiers were granted permanent resting-places, war memorials were erected in their honour, and each year, communities gathered to commemorate their deaths. The rituals, language, creation of sacred places, and objects that developed through the commemoration of the Franco-Prussian War helped to lay the foundations for the practices of remembrance for the First World War.

Having been so shattered in the Franco-Prussian War, the catastrophes of 1870-1871 produced a new cult of the war dead. The Revolutionary Wars changed the experience of combat, making soldiers out of citizens and transforming the relationship between armies and nations. With soldiers carrying a political stake in the nation, they had greater motivation to fight; at the same time, however, their increased value as individuals made them less dispensable. Thus the Revolution of 1789 at once gave men a reason to fight and a reason not to die. The nation therefore needed to be redefined in terms that would inspire loyalty, while patriotism needed to be configured such that it would demand sacrifice. In consequence, new concepts of nationalism came to represent death on the battlefield as the fulfilment of life, giving it meaning as the ultimate act of patriotic devotion. The fear of losing loved ones, and declining faith in the reassurance of an afterlife also made a reconfiguration of patriotic self-sacrifice imperative.

Burying the War Dead

A new approach towards those who had died on the battlefields of 1870-71 began because of concerns about public health. From the outset, both sides suffered heavy casualties and in the blazing heat of early August, it became imperative to bury the dead as quickly as possible. The French and German governments recognized the importance of the task and, where absolutely necessary, negotiated a cease-fire to enable corpses scattered across the front lines to be cleared.[1] Usually, however, burying parties moved in the day after battle. The urgency of the work meant that it was carried out with seemingly brutal haste, and it was often difficult to salvage any dignity for the dead. In the rush to clear the corpses, many were not buried deeply enough. Around Sedan, rotting corpses which had been inadequately buried began to spread disease, forcing the German occupation authorities to have to exhume and then burn the dead.[2]

Military Cemetery at Floing

Military Cemetery at Floing

With the pressures of war meaning that soldiers were often buried in a rather chaotic manner, civilians began to intervene to try and reclaim some dignity for the dead, making small, crudely-improvised crosses to mark the sites of graves.[3] Visiting Sedan in November 1870, J. W. McMichael noticed that names had been written on fragments of paper and attached to crosses with sealing wax.[4] Some of the dead received funerals which were attended by entire villages, just as deaths in the community had always been.[5] The German writer, Theodor Fontane, a prisoner of war in November 1870, recorded that the same respect was sometimes even extended to the enemy. Hostilities were suspended at Nogent-le-Rotrou as the funeral cortège for two Bavarian soldiers travelled through town to a church packed with French and German mourners.[6] Near Metz, meanwhile, the inscription on a soldier’s grave reading, ‘Here rest friends and foes together’, had the word ‘foes’ scratched out by a compassionate passer-by.[7]

Such concern for the war dead of 1870-71 stood in marked contrast with earlier practices. As late as the Italian wars of unification, an ignominious fate still awaited France’s soldiers. Those killed at Solferino in 1859 were often left to rot for several days, being robbed of their clothing and attacked by birds of prey before they were eventually buried in unmarked mass graves.[8] Yet developments in the Franco-Prussian War were in many respects a manifestation of a much wider cultural evolution in attitudes towards death in war, where the loss of young men had come to represent at once the loss of a valued citizen and a human tragedy. The democratization of death in combat may be traced back to the Revolutionary Wars, when the call to mobilize the nation in arms transformed the nature of armies across Europe. Armies were no longer drawn from the ranks of the criminal classes, but became filled with citizens who claimed democratic rights in return for risking their lives for their country.

Nevertheless, it took many decades for changing attitudes towards the value of soldiers to translate into improved treatment of the dead. Throughout the nineteenth century, men continued to be buried in mass unmarked graves, their heroic sacrifices not honoured in any specific, meaningful manner. In the initial period after the revolution, a proposal to name every fallen soldier in recognition of their equal status as citizens was put forward but never implemented by the fledgling First Republic, although it was adopted by Prussia. The Arc de Triomphe may have been dedicated to the heroic Grande Armée, but it privileged generals over rank and file soldiers. And the bas-relief of the Vendôme Column may have paid tribute to the nation’s combatants, but fallen soldiers remained an unrecognized mass. It took the Crimean War to trigger efforts by France, Russia, and Britain to provide permanent resting-places for their war dead. Seventeen large ossuaries were constructed by France to house the remains of its officers and soldiers in Sebastopol. For Germany, it was perhaps the Prussian Wars of Liberation that had the greatest effect upon relationships between soldiers, the army, and the nation.[9] In consequence, it was not republican France but imperial Germany that pushed for a comprehensive project to bury every officer and soldier who had died in the Franco-Prussian War. Article 16 of the Treaty of Frankfurt of 1871 set the tone and established the framework for this new development, stating that, ‘The French and German governments reciprocally agree to respect and maintain the tombs of soldiers buried on their respective territories.’ Since most of the dead lay on French soil, the article can be interpreted as having been primarily motivated by concerns for the safety of German graves after the army withdrew from occupation. In other words, France owed the protection of its fallen soldiers to its wartime enemy.

Obligations under the Treaty of Frankfurt

While the German legislation of 2 February 1872 concerning war graves in Alsace-Lorraine established a set of practices in the annexed territories, it was essentially left up to the French government to decide how to implement its treaty obligations.[10] It soon emerged that one of the greatest problems would be balancing German demands with those of French landowners. With many of the dead having fallen on private land, it was not long before farmers unable to sow their crops began to issue demands for compensation. There were also recurring concerns about the threat of disease, and indeed one landowner in Belfort sued the War Ministry in 1872 for the contamination of his water supply by soldiers’ rotting corpses.[11] The commission charged with drafting French legislation on the implementation of Article 16 thus proposed exhuming and relocating the dead to public land. The Treaty did not specify whether graves should be temporary or permanent, but following a German memorandum relating to Alsace-Lorraine, the commission resolved that all soldiers should be laid to rest in perpetuity.[12] The Treaty also failed to deal with religion and issues of compliance with the law of 23 Prairial XII (1804) which established the division of French cemeteries according to faith or denomination.[13] The commission ruled that privately-constructed graves bearing religious emblems would be preserved, while those constructed by the state would be largely secular in style in order to circumvent questions of religious difference.[14]

French obligations under Article 16 of the Treaty of Frankfurt were laid out in the law on military tombs of 4 April 1873. Implementation involved constructing 25 large ossuaries and burying 37,859 French soldiers, 21,876 German soldiers, and 27,661 soldiers whose nationality was unknown at a total cost of 2,287,896 francs. When the project was presented to the National Assembly on 20 March 1873, deputies were informed that as a matter of diplomatic imperative the state would be assuming sole responsibility for the work.[15] Thus the law of 4 April 1873 established that the state would purchase any land where soldiers were buried, along with the land necessary to allow public access. Where there were several individual graves in one location, the land would be occupied temporarily, and the bodies would be exhumed and transferred into common graves following the statutory delay of six years. Wherever more than one soldier was buried, railings were to be erected carrying the inscription, ‘Tombes militaires; loi du 4 avril 1873’. In cases where large numbers of soldiers were interred, the state undertook to construct a vault or ossuary and to erect a funerary monument. The state also pledged to maintain graves and monuments on land purchased by families or committees.[16]

Ossuary at Père Lachaise Cemetery

Ossuary at Père Lachaise Cemetery

Changing Attitudes Towards Death

Government policy on burying the war dead must be viewed in the context of changing attitudes towards death in nineteenth-century France. Reforms introduced under Napoleon I establishing the right for individuals to be buried in separate graves symbolized an enduring and increasing attachment towards the dead, even if most people continued to be buried in mass graves. Yet while Annette Becker argues that in granting all the war dead a permanent resting-place the state was recognizing the worth of individual soldiers, the reality was that the vast majority of men were placed in common graves and none of the monuments erected by the state listed the names of the dead.[17] Burying soldiers of every rank together may have accorded with republican notions that all should be equal in death, but this was largely a by-product of necessity. Unlike their German counterparts, French soldiers were not issued with any identification so they could not be identified if killed in action. By the time soldiers came to be exhumed and reburied in 1878, it had been impossible to determine even the nationality of over one third of the dead. Thus enemies on the battlefields were often laid to rest together.

If initial responses to Germany’s dead had been sympathetic, that soon ended with the stories of wartime atrocities, the occupation, and harsh peace terms. Instead, the obligation to maintain German war graves turned into a major diplomatic headache for the French authorities. Even before the occupying troops withdrew, communities in northern and eastern France began to use war graves to settle their scores with the German enemy. They attacked memorials, smashed up headstones, and scrawled over inscriptions, leaving the government to pick up the bill. The German Empire never failed to call the French Republic to account over any assault on the sacred memory of its war dead. The most minor act of vandalism went to the very top of government. Thus in January 1875, the French Foreign Minister was called upon to placate an incensed German Ambassador over reports that the Prussian regimental monument at Habouville (Territoire de Belfort) had been vandalized.[18] In February 1879, meanwhile, the French Foreign and Interior Ministers were forced to intervene over complaints from the German Ambassador that the Prussian memorial at Giromagny (Territoire de Belfort) had been mutilated.[19] The cost of repairing the damaged monument was around 600 francs.[20] The cost of repairing damaged diplomatic relations was significantly higher.

Bavarian Ossuary, Alsace

Bavarian Ossuary, Alsace

The comprehensive burial of the war dead was thus largely determined by the requirements of the Treaty of Frankfurt and by continuing diplomatic obligations towards Germany. While the efforts of local communities to mark the graves of the fallen indicated a shift in attitudes, it should be observed that this was the first time that French soldiers had died at the hands of a foreign enemy on native soil since the Napoleonic Wars. Attacks against German war graves and memorials on French territory suggest that the losses on the battlefield were read in patriotic terms and that for some communities at least, hostility towards the enemy overrode feelings of sympathy towards the dead. In the post-1870 discourse, however, French soldiers’ sacrifices were characterized in terms of their political consequence for the nation. With all sides seeking to interpret the collapse in their own terms, defining what kind of France soldiers had been fighting for became a question of fundamental political significance.

For more on the memory of the Franco-Prussian War, see Karine Varley, Under the Shadow of Defeat: The War of 1870-1871 in French Memory (Palgrave, 2008)

Franco-Prussian War memory


[1] J. d’Arsac, Les Frères des écoles chrétiennes pendant la guerre de 1870-1871 (Paris: J. Grillot, 1892), p. 91.

[2] J. Claretie, Cinq ans après. L’Alsace et la Lorraine depuis l’annexion (Paris: Georges Decaux, 1876), p. 279.

[3] British Red Cross, Red Cross Operations in the North of France 1870-1872 (London: Spottiswoode & Co., 1872), pp. 87, 106; C. E. Ryan, With an Ambulance During the Franco-German War. Personal Experiences and Adventures with Both Armies 1870-1871 (London: John Murray, 1896), pp. 64-5.

[4] J. W. McMichael, Sedan, Bazeilles, and Metz, Being an Account of a Visit to those Places in November 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War (London: C. A. Bartleet, 1871), p. 25.

[5] See, for instance the funeral for two soldiers in Autrecourt (Ardennes) in Chanoine Cerf, L’invasion allemande en Champagne (Lille: Société de Saint-Augustin, 1899), p. 188.

[6] T. Fontane, Souvenirs d’un prisonnier de guerre allemand en 1870 (Paris: Perrin et Cie, 1892), pp. 219-21.

[7] H. Rundle, With the Red Cross in the Franco-German War AD 1870-1871 (London: Werner Laurie, 1911), p. 31.

[8] H. Dunant, The Origin of the Red Cross, trans. Mrs D. H. Wright (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1911), pp. 17-22.

[9] C. Clark, ‘The Wars of Liberation in Prussian Memory: Reflections on the Memorialization of War in Early Nineteenth Century Germany’, The Journal of Modern History, 68 (1996) 550-578.

[10] Département de l’Intérieur, Exécution de la loi du 4 avril 1873 relative aux tombes des militaires morts pendant la guerre de 1870-1871. Rapport présenté au Président de la République, par M. de Marcère, Ministre Secrétaire d’Etat au Département de l’Intérieur (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1878), 303-304.

[11] Archives Nationales F9 1404, Report on the trial of Jacques Gaspard versus the War Ministry, Civil Tribunal of Belfort, 5 December 1872.

[12] AN C 2817, Commission chargée d’examiner le projet de loi relatif à la conservation de tombes des soldats morts pendant la dernière guerre, 20, 24 January 1873.

[13] A. Ben-Amos, Funerals, Politics, and Memory in Modern France, 1789-1996 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 148.

[14] Département, Exécution, 31-2.

[15] Anon., Recueil des traités, conventions, lois, décrets et autres actes relatifs à la paix avec l’Allemagne (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1879), p. 477.

[16] Département, Exécution, 32, 33, 299, 305.

[17] A. ‘Monuments aux morts après la guerre de sécession et la guerre de 1870-1: Un legs de la guerre nationale?’, Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains, 167 (1992), 27. Memorials erected by public subscriptions, municipal councils, departments and private committees did, by contrast, often bear the names of the dead.

[18] Archives du Territoire de Belfort 2R 6, Letter from the Interior Minister to the Administrator, 18 January 1875.

[19] ATB 2R 6, Letter from the Interior Minister to the Administrator, 28 February 1879.

[20] ATB 2R 6, Letter from the Administrator to the Interior Minister, 12 June 1879.

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