Franco-Prussian War: Siege of Paris

Siege of Paris
Le siège de Paris by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. Public Domain

The Siege of Paris was fought September 19, 1870 to January 28, 1871 and was a key battle of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). With the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, French forces suffered a string of serious reverses at the hands of the Prussians. Following their decisive victory at the Battle of Sedan on September 1, the Prussians quickly advanced on Paris and encircled the city.

Laying siege to city, the invaders were able to contain Paris' garrison and defeated several attempted breakout attempts. Seeking to reach a decision, the Prussians began shelling the city in January 1871. Three days later the Paris surrendered. The Prussian triumph effectively ended the conflict and led to the unification of Germany.


Following their triumph over the French at the Battle of Sedan on September 1, 1870, Prussian forces began marching on Paris. Moving swiftly, the Prussian 3rd Army along with the Army of Meuse encountered little resistance as they neared the city. Personally guided by King Wilhelm I and his chief of staff, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, Prussian troops began encircling the city. Within Paris, the city's governor, General Louis Jules Trochu, had massed around 400,000 soldiers, half of which were untested National Guardsmen.

Count Helmuth von Moltke. Photograph Source: Public Domain

As the pincers closed, a French force under General Joseph Vinoy attacked Crown Prince Frederick's troops south of the city at Villeneuve Saint Georges on September 17. Attempting to save a supply dump in the area, Vinoy's men were driven back by massed artillery fire. The following day the railroad to Orleans was cut and Versailles occupied by the 3rd Army. By the 19th, the Prussians had completely encircled the city beginning the siege. In the Prussian headquarters a debate was had over how best to take the city.

Siege of Paris

  • Conflict: Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)
  • Dates: September 19, 1870-January 28, 1871
  • Armies & Commanders:
  • Prussia
  • Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke
  • Field Marshal Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal
  • 240,000 men
  • France
  • Governor Louis Jules Trochu
  • General Joseph Vinoy
  • approx. 200,000 regulars
  • approx. 200,000 militia
  • Casualties:
  • Prussians: 24,000 dead and wounded, 146,000 captured, approximately 47,000 civilian casualties
  • French: 12,000 killed and wounded

The Siege Begins

Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck argued in favor of immediately shelling the city into submission. This was countered by the siege's commander, Field Marshal Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal who believed shelling the city to be inhumane and against the rules of war. He also argued that a quick victory would lead to peace before the remaining French field armies could be destroyed. With these in place, it was likely that the war would be renewed in a short time. After hearing arguments from both sides, William elected to allow Blumenthal to proceed with the siege as planned.

Within the city, Trochu remained on the defensive. Lacking faith in his National Guardsmen, he hoped that the Prussians would attack allowing his men to fight from within the city's defenses. As it quickly became apparent that the Prussians were not going to attempt to storm the city, Trochu was forced to reconsider his plans. On September 30, he ordered Vinoy to demonstrate and test the Prussian lines west of the city at Chevilly. Striking the Prussian VI Corps with 20,000 men, Vinoy was easily repulsed. Two weeks later, on October 13, another attack was made at Châtillon.

Siege of Paris
St-Cloud after the fighting at Châtillon, October 1870. Public Domain 

French Efforts to Break the Siege

Though French troops succeeded in taking the town from the Bavarian II Corps, they were eventually driven back by Prussian artillery. On October 27, General Carey de Bellemare, commander of the fort at Saint Denis, attacked the town of Le Bourget. Though he had no orders from Trochu to move forward, his attack was successful and French troops occupied the town. Though it was of little value, Crown Prince Albert ordered it retaken and Prussian forces drove the French out on the 30th. With morale in Paris low and made worse by news of the French defeat at Metz, Trochu planned a large sortie for November 30.

Consisting of 80,000 men, led by General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot, the attack struck at Champigny, Creteil and Villiers. In the resulting Battle of Villiers, Ducrot succeeded in driving back the Prussians and taking Champigny and Creteil. Pressing across the Marne River towards Villiers, Ducrot was unable to breakthrough the last lines of Prussian defenses. Having suffered over 9,000 casualties, he was forced to withdraw to Paris by December 3. With food supplies low and communication with the outside world reduced to sending letters by balloon, Trochu planned a final breakout attempt.

Siege of Paris
Prussian troops outside of Paris, 1870.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H26707 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The City Falls

On January 19, 1871, a day after William had been crowned kaiser (emperor) at Versailles, Trochu assaulted the Prussian positions at Buzenval. Though Trochu took the village of St. Cloud, his supporting attacks failed, leaving his position isolated. At the end of the day Trochu was forced to fall back having taken 4,000 casualties. As a result of the failure, he resigned as governor and turned command over to Vinoy.

Though they had contained the French, many in the Prussian high command were becoming impatient with the siege and the increasing duration of the war. With the war adversely affecting the Prussian economy and disease beginning to break out on the siege lines, William ordered that a solution be found. On January 25, he directed von Moltke to consult with Bismarck on all military operations. After doing so, Bismarck immediately ordered that Paris be shelled with the army's heavy Krupp siege guns. Following three days of bombardment, and with the city's population starving, Vinoy surrendered the city.


In the fighting for Paris, the French suffered 24,000 dead and wounded, 146,000 captured, as well as approximately 47,000 civilian casualties. Prussian losses were around 12,000 dead and wounded. The fall of Paris effectively ended the Franco-Prussian War as French forces were ordered to cease fighting following the city's surrender. The Government of National Defense signed the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871, officially ending the war. The war itself had completed the unification of Germany and resulted in the transfer of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Franco-Prussian War: Siege of Paris." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Franco-Prussian War: Siege of Paris. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Franco-Prussian War: Siege of Paris." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).