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The Siege of Paris: sundry papers

The Siege of Paris, which took place from 19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871 was an engagement of the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871 (known in France as 'The War of 1870'). After the defeat at the Battle of the Sedan, where French emperor Napoleon III surrendered, the new French Third Republic was not ready to accept Prussian peace terms. To end the Franco-Prussian War, the Prussians besieged Paris. As ambassador to Paris, Otto von Bismarck had stayed on numerous occasions at the Château de Ferrières, the sumptuous palais of James de Rothschild (1792-1868) on the outskirts of Paris; as Chancellor of Prussia, he persuaded the Prussian King to make the Château his headquarters during the invasion. The Prussian high command rejected the idea of a bombardment of the city, and resolved to starve Paris into surrender. Due to the severe shortage of food, Parisians were forced to slaughter whatever animals were at hand. Rats, dogs, cats, and horses were the first to be slaughtered and became regular fare on restaurant menus. Once the supply of those animals ran low, the citizens of Paris turned on the zoo animals residing at Jardin des plantes. Even Castor and Pollux, the only pair of elephants in Paris, were slaughtered for their meat. 

During the siege, the only head of diplomatic mission from a major power who remained in Paris was United States Minister to France, Elihu B. Washburne. As a representative of a neutral country, Washburne became one of the few channels of communication into and out of the city for much of the siege. He also led the way in providing humanitarian relief to foreign nationals. In London, N M Rothschild & Sons used their network of trusted suppliers, agents and couriers to secure much-needed relief. Bills of Lading (a detailed list of a ship's cargo in the form of a receipt given by the master of the ship to the person consigning the goods) survive in the Archive for food supplies sent to Paris by N M Rothschild & Sons; in July 1870, the firm sent 1000 barrels of prime salt pork, 1000 barrels of American flour and 700,000 lbs of preserved boiled mutton in tins to Paris as well as supporting firms such as the biscuit manufacturers Peek Freans & Co. Ltd in the production of supplies. See 'Affaires' Correspondence, XI/4/28, Provisions shipped to France during the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871.

Wilhelm I was proclaimed Prussian Emperor on 18 January 1871 at the Palace of Versailles. Secret armistice discussions began on 23 January 1871 and continued at Versailles. The length of the siege helped to salve French pride, but also left bitter political divisions; the siege ended in the capture of the city by Prussian forces, culminating in France's defeat and the establishment of both the Prussian Empire and the Paris Commune. The final terms agreed on were that the French regular troops (less one division) would be disarmed, Paris would pay an indemnity of two hundred million francs, and the fortifications around the perimeter of the city would be surrendered. The final peace treaty, the Treaty of Frankfurt, was signed on 10 May 1871.

Cheque drawn on M M de Rothschild Frères for the indemnity imposed upon Paris after the Franco-Prussian War (the 'Bleichröder cheque'), 1871

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The French Third Republic paid an indemnity to the German Empire after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. This cheque dated 12 February 1871, drawn on the bank of M M de Rothschild Frères, is for the payment of one million Prussian thalers from the account of the City of Paris to S. Bleichröder, Berlin, being the indemnity imposed upon the City of Paris following its capitulation on 28 January 1871.

An armistice was concluded on 28 January 1871 to allow elections to the French National Assembly. A preliminary peace was signed on 26 February with the final peace treaty, the Treaty of Frankfurt signed on 10 May. The Prussian State Ministry on 8 February recommended an indemnity of 1 billion thaler (3 billion francs) from France, 95% of which would be paid to the army. The Prussian Finance Minister Otto von Camphausen said: "The German nation had after all suffered so many additional losses in blood and material goods which are beyond all accounting that it is entirely justified to assess the price of the war generously and in addition to the estimated sum to demand an appropriate surcharge for the incalculable damages." The Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck sent his personal banker Gerson von Bleichröder to negotiate between the French government and French financial circles. Adolphe Thiers, the head of the French provisional government, offered an indemnity of 1.5 billion francs and claimed that France would be unable to pay 3 billion. Bismarck responded by saying that the Prussian Army would occupy France. The French National Assembly ratified the terms by 546 votes to 107. The last payment of the indemnity was paid in early September 1873, two years before the deadline, and the German army of occupation was withdrawn in mid-September. It was generally assumed at the time that the indemnity would cripple France for thirty or fifty years. However, the Third Republic that emerged after the war embarked on an ambitious programme of reforms: it introduced banks, built schools (reducing illiteracy), improved roads, increased railways into rural areas, encouraged industry and promoted French national identity rather than regional identities. France also reformed the army, adopting conscription. In Germany the swift payment of the indemnity caused a stock market boom, along with an asset bubble in the form of a property boom. [Note: this item is on deposit with the Archive from a private collection].

The Siege of Paris: commemorative medallion, 'Pigeon Post Medal for French Military Communications', 1871

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The Siege of Paris, which took place from 19 September 1870 to 28 January 1871 was an engagement of the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871 (known in France as 'The War of 1870'). 

Commemorative silver medallion, 'Pigeon Post Medal for French Military Communications'. The medallion was designed by Charles Jean Marie Degeorge, Paris, as a commemorative piece at the request of the Ministèrre de la Guerre [the French War Ministry] in December 1871, after the final peace treaty, the Treaty of Frankfurt had been signed earlier that year. The medallion depicts a pigeon being released by the Paris city goddess Lutetia sitting on a cannon. In the background, a hot air balloon carrying homing pigeons can be seen, with the words 'Paris 1870-1871', 'Ministèrre de la Guerre' and 'Communications Aériennes'; on the reverse, pigeons flying over the city walls, and a pigeon loft.

During the siege, balloon mail was the only means by which communications from the besieged city could reach the rest of France. The first balloon launch was carried out on 23 September 1870, using the Neptune, and carried 276 lb of mail in addition to the pilot. After a three-hour flight, it landed at Craconville, 52 miles from Paris. Following this success a regular mail service was established, with a rate of 20 centimes per letter. Two workshops to manufacture balloons were set up, and around 66 balloon flights were made, including one that accidentally set a world distance record by ending up in Norway. The vast majority of these succeeded: only five were captured by the Prussians, and three went missing, presumably coming down in the Atlantic or Irish Sea. The number of letters carried has been estimated at around 2.5 million. Some balloons also carried passengers in addition to mail, most notably Léon Gambetta, the Minister for War in the new government, who was flown out of Paris on 7 October 1870. The balloons also regularly carried homing pigeons, for use in 'pigeon post'. One of the pigeons carried by a balloon was always released as soon as the balloon landed so that Paris could be appraised of its safe passage over the Prussian lines.

The Siege of Paris, 1870-1871: ‘Souvenirs du Siége de Paris, les Défenseurs de la Capitale’ , 1871-1872

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Portfolio volume Souvenirs du Siége de Paris, les Défenseurs de la Capitale, Renard Jules Draner (Au Bureau de L'Eclipse (impr. Coulboeuf), Paris 1871-1872). This volume, originally from the collections of the Viennese Rothschild family, contains  hand-tinted lithographs with gold blocked edges loosely laid in a contemporary half morocco album, entitled ‘Souvenirs du Siége de Paris, les Défenseurs de la Capitale'. The volume comprises a title page and 30 plates making up Draner's 'Au Bureau de l'Eclipse' portfolio, together with 24 plates in his ‘Les Soldats de la République’ series, and 28 plates in his ‘Paris Assiégé’ series. Jules Renard (1833-1926), was a Belgian artist, Draner being an anagram of Renard.