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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 6 page 09

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Napoleon III starts a war

Briefly, French emperor Napoleon III, head of France’s vainglorious Second Empire and nephew of the great Napoleon I, declared war on King Wilhelm of Prussia in August 1870, but the Prussians and their German allies handily repulsed the French and launched a devastating counter-invasion. They captured the emperor himself at Sedan then marched on the capital, Paris. The capital, however, with its defensive walls and an outer ring of forts, was impregnable. Paris had 2,700 canons and over 400,000 men in arms. That represented the one military plan the French got right, or almost right. The enemy — Crémazie usually refers to them as Prussians, sometimes as Germans — would not dare try to take Paris by storm. But they could starve it out.

Crémazie initially viewed the war thru a religio-racial lens: the war was about Germanic Protestant barbarians over-running Latin Catholic civilization. (It was a mere technicality, apparently, that the French had initiated the war by attempting to invade a Protestant state.) He recited the inevitable atrocity stories featuring Germans massacring priests and nuns, and he tended, at first, to accept the rosy accounts of French military prowess provided by French official reports.

Just over three weeks from the start of the siege, Crémazie took his one and only trip outside the city walls at the invitation of an artillery lieutenant who acted as guide. Tho Paris was surrounded, there was plenty maneuvring space between the opposing forces. There were still fields and villages within the defence perimeter. Crémazie’s journal entry has a faintly pastoral air:

The countryside before us was very beautiful. The dark foliage of the Meudon and Clamart woods, against which a few white houses stood out, formed the background of the tableau. With my companion’s telescope I saw shells launched from our forts explode on the Châtillon plateau where the Prussian infantry was massed, though a curtain of trees concealed them from us. A few shells exploded before reaching their target, casting a reddish hue on the hills in front of us. In this grandiose duet, the thunder from the forts was the basso cantante and the rifle fire, with its sharp notes, played the role of tenor. It was all very picturesque and poetic. Unfortunately, the human cost of this epic spectacle is too high, for the time comes when we have to count the dead and wounded. At four o’clock, we returned thru the defence walls and took the railroad home. From the upper level of the coach from Auteuil to La Villette we saw a glow from the palace of Saint-Cloud. The canons of Fort Mont-Valérien had set fire to this chateau, the one preferred by the Napoleon family above all other imperial residences, and which the Prussian general staff had been using as an observation post for the past month.

Note that nostalgic nod toward the “Napoleon family.”

Crémazie was full of excuses for Napoleon III, who had placed France in this military mess — excuses that maybe we wouldn't find very reassuring today, such as that the emperor was in poor health therefore his brain wasn’t working. Meanwhile, Crémazie considered France’s new self-appointed provisional government no better than a pack of incompetents — mere lawyers and rhetoricians, he said, skilled at finding spots for their pals. Most of all he detested the third major category on the political scene — the radicals (socialist, communist, and other), who even with the city under siege seemed intent on pitching the proletariat into a revolt against the ruling classes.

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