The 1870 defeat at Sedan led to the fall of the French Empire. What was the true role played by the Emperor in this ill-fated campaign? Or rather, what was the influence that his illness could have had on the unfolding of the events?
The symptoms are particularly painful. All those close to the Emperor can attest to that. The stone acts like a foreign body and is therefore responsible for the alteration and the inflamation of the organ in which it resides. At the origin of nephretic colics, it can constitute an obstacle to the normal flow of the organ’s secretions. In this case, urine.
The phenomenon of lithiasis, this formation of concretions, manifests itself, for renal lithiasis, by the appearance of sand in the urine. These minuscule pieces of gravel formed in the kidney become little stones after their passage into the bladder. Inside this organ, the stone can grow. The size of Napoleon III’s stone causes the consulted doctors to advise an operation in 1870. The Emperor will have this catheterism only in 1873.
In a letter written from Candem Place, Chislehurst, on 8 January 1873, to Madame Cornu, the Empress makes it known that her “dear patient” has just been examined by Sir Henry Thompson and W. Girle, and that the practitioners have recognized the existence of a stone the size “of a chestnut”. They are very surprised that Napoleon had been able to remain on horseback for five hours on the day of Sedan with it; they cannot believe it. She then talks about the horrible suffering stoically endured by the patient. Sir Henry Thompson is supposed to have exclaimed:
“The Emperor must have been a thousand times heroic to have remained on horseback during the Battle of Sedan: the agony must have been constant and I have never known anything like it.”
Nonetheless, on 19 July 1870, France declares war on Prussia. Everyone wanted this war: Bismarck, Empress Eugenie, public opinion. But did the Emperor want it?
The antagonism between France and Prussia appears in 1866. On 3 July, Prussia crushes Austria at Sadowa. Napoleon III lets Bismarck unify Northern Germany but wants, in compensation, the Rhine and the Alps, so as to give back to France its natural borders. But Bismarck and King Wilhelm I of Prussia refuse any territorial concessions. After this refusal, and to avoid war, Napoleon III asks for some territories outside Germany; he is in fact thinking of annexing Luxembourg which, from 1815 to 1866, is part of the German Confederation. But Prussia feels strong enough not to negotiate with France. The talks fail. If Bismarck has no need of France’s support, it is because he has assured the neutrality of the British Government and obtained that Russia would prevent the intervention of Austria in the case of a Franco-Prussian conflict. In fact, despite the friendship which unites Franz-Josef and Napoleon III, Austria will remain prudently neutral during the conflict.
The Emperor, who is seriously ill at this decisive moment, prefers not to take the decision and lets events follow their course. At this epoch, public opinion is hostile to war. But the situation changes in 1870 and a War Party begins to manifest itself for, since 1866, the French People is having trouble accepting Prussia’s impunity. At Court, Empress Eugenie is in favour of war; as is the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Duke de Gramont. For them, war should calm the Republican Opposition and gild the Empire’s prestige.
So, in Summer 1870, the French want war while the country is isolated diplomatically and possesses a completely disorganized army, in the aftermath of the Mexican campaign. Opposite them, Bismarck is ready.
It is undeniable that the illness endured by the Emperor is one of the causes of incoherent politics. But in what measure do these pains engender the war disaster? Firstly, let us attempt to see if the officialisation of the illness had any repercussions on the Emperor’s politics. Here are witness statements gathered from the key players still alive at the time of Doctor Cabanes’ investigation.
“(1) The Emperor had, in 1870, such a stone that physical, intellectual and even moral activity were completely paralyzed: which explains the defeats at the beginning of the campaign.
“(2) Prince Napoleon claimed that the Empress had known about the consultation; she denies it. I have no personal opinion.
“(3) Knowledge of the consultation would probably not have prevented the war, which was the obligatory response to a premeditated outrage, but it would certainly have changed the conditions in which it was done and the distribution of the Commands.
“(4) The Empress never said: ‘This war is my war.’
The same opinion was given by Monsieur Alfred Duquet, the most official historiographer of the 1870 war.
“As for the medical consultation of 1st July 1870, I think that the Council of Ministers kept it secret. And, it is a fact that the divulgation of the scholarly professors’ opinion would have been of supreme political imprudence.
“There remains the famous words of the Empress: ‘It is my war.’ It is true that these words have been often quoted, written many, many times, cursed by mothers and by good French people. Only, did she say them? I am not afraid to clearly answer: no.
“In this, I am not influenced by my feelings toward Empress Eugenie, for whom I have always had antipathy because of her frivolity, her futility; but I am unfortunate, in these times of about-face and of compromissions, to never hide the truth, even against my own interest, my own desires, and I confess not having had before my eyes a serious written proof or a decisive oral affirmation on the subject of this abominable declaration. Unless there are new elements of conviction, this is the thesis that I shall uphold when I recount the origins of the 1870-1871 war, after having finished the account of the bloody combats and the gigantic capitulations of that terrible year.
So, Mr Duquet and Emile Ollivier, that is to say two men living at opposite ends of the political poles, agree in declaring that the Empress did not pronounce the ill-fated words that have been attributed to her; words probably apocryphal and invented afterwards, like so many other so-called historical words.
To be continued.