Drawings of the Franco-German war of 1870-71: a new acquisition at Cambridge University Library

Last year Cambridge University Special Collections acquired, with the help of the Friends of the Library, a notebook of 47 drawings, probably produced by an unidentified soldier towards the end of the 19th century (MS Add. 10300). This acquisition adds to the library’s holdings of primary material relating to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, which ranges from bound volumes of contemporary caricatures (KF.3.9-14, see the earlier blogpost) to directories of caricaturists and their work (such as Berleux’s La caricature politique en France pendant la guerre, le siège de Paris et la Commune, 1870-1871, Lib.5.89.27 and Gallica) and facsimiles of posters produced during the Paris Commune (See Les murailles politiques francaises and Les affiches de la Commune). The interest of the notebook does not lie in the artistic talent of its creator, but rather in the examination of his visual culture, through the identification of the illustrations from contemporary books and prints which inspired his own drawings. The investigation of the sources he used reveals the kind of illustrated material he had access to, which is also key for the dating of the manuscript.


CUL, MS Add. 10300

Most drawings, penned in black ink and painted in watercolour, are of battle scenes and military events involving the engagements of the French army throughout the 19th century. Several illustrations thus reproduce the chromolithographic plates used as covers for a series of 4-page pamphlets entitled Nos Frontières et Nos Forteresses, printed with the motto “Honneur et Patrie” by the Photogravure et typographie des Papeteries des Châtelles. The illustrated pamphlets were produced in the 1890s at Raon-L’Etape (in the Vosges, in eastern France, a key territory during the Franco-German war in the autumn of 1870) as a demonstration of patriotism, a celebration of French military heroism since the Middle Ages, and an appraisal of the recent remilitarisation of the new eastern French border.


The preface of the first pamphlet in the series starts with a reference to the Treaty of Frankfurt (10 May 1871), which ended the Franco-Prussian war and included ceding the border territories of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. It concedes “on croyait la France ruinée”, “on croyait la France mutilée et incapable, par sa frontière ouverte, de résister aux nouvelles attaques que méditait son vainqueur”, but finishes with the ominous words:

Si jamais une nouvelle guerre devait avoir lieu, la France pourrait, à l’abri de son nouveau système de défense, effectuer sa mobilisation et montrer aux nations que ses soldats sont toujours les premiers du monde…

003defense toula

The « Défense de Toul » [2 in the list below] shows the resistance of the French army to German bombings during the siege of the strategic fortress and train hub which was besieged by the Germans between 16 August and 23 September 1870. The source image bears the signatures of Louis Geisler, son of the founder of the papeteries des Châtelles, and inventor of the trichromophotogravure technique, and Lucien Sergent, a French academic painter specialising in military art and creator of a number of paintings depicting the Franco-Prussian war (see Combat de Bagneux, 13 octobre 1870, 1874).

004defense toul IMG_1993a

CUL, MS Add. 10300

The scene is entirely viewed from the perspective of the besieged: while a dead French soldier in blue uniform lies in the foreground, his close colleagues, under enemy fire, are in the process of adding a wheel to a canon in order to counter-attack. The manuscript drawing sheds light on the manoeuvre through which the soldiers finish setting up their canon. The use of red and of a cloud of blue smoke to render the effect of the nearby explosion highlights their military heroism, while the body of their deceased comrade is only partially visible.


The illustration « Reprise de Dijon par Garibaldi (26 novembre 1870) » [29] refers to the help offered by the Italian General to the new French republican government and the French army after the defeat of Napoleon III at Sedan on 1st September. The title may be misleading in that after a victory at Châtillon on 14 November, the attempt to recapture Dijon was eventually a failure.

006dijon IMG_3216a

CUL, MS Add. 10300

The illustration shows a dramatic view with the cathedral in the background. At the forefront, the “Army of the Vosges”, made up in great part of international volunteers, is under attack from the canons of the Prussian army established below. The image is signed by Louis Geisler and Georges Dascher, a painter and prolific illustrator of books for children.

Another chromolithographic illustration relating to the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 copied by the creator of the notebook is « Les Cuirassiers de Reichshoffen [traversant Morsbronn] » [41], after Fredrich / Frédéric Theodore Lix, an Alsatian painter and illustrator of historical works. It refers to the battle which took place at Frœschwiller-Wœrth on 6 August 1870, and commemorates the desperate charge of the French cuirassiers (cavalry equipped with traditional cuirass armour and firearms) against their Bavarian opponents. Reichshoffen is the village at the back of the battlefield from which the cuirassiers led their (unsuccessful) counter-attack. The triangular composition of the scene serves the dynamism of the image, showing through a main street of the village of Morsbronn the quick but fateful advance of the French cavalry, under fire from German soldiers hiding in the neighbouring houses. The helmet and sword in the foreground anticipate the ultimate failure of the heroic action.

G. Bruno, Le tour de la France par deux enfants : devoir et patrie. Livre de lecture courante, avec plus de 200 gravures instructives pour les leçons de choses. 250e éd., Paris, Belin, 1890. (1890.7.2191)

The Franco-German war is also present in slightly more subtle ways in the notebook. “Porte fortifiée (Remparts de Phalsbourg)” [22], is the first of the 212 black and white engravings created by the French illustrator Perot for the Tour de la France par deux enfants, written in 1877 by Augustine Fouillée under the pseudonym of G. Bruno. This work was a huge popular success and circulated widely. The creator of the drawings, with his interest in the Franco-Prussian war and France’s eastern border, must have been attracted both to the starting point of the narrative and its representation of a Vauban fortress in the now German Lorraine region, with two gates called “porte de France” and “porte d’Allemagne”.


CUL, MS Add. 10300

The drawing differs from the original both in its larger format and by the use of colour. It amends the position of the two non-military characters by the gate, fitting to the narrative in which André, aged 14, and his brother Julien, aged 7, now orphans, leave the fortress by the “porte de France” at the beginning of the text. The story of their departure reflects how some of the population was driven out of their home in Alsace-Lorraine, as a consequence of the defeat by the Germans:

On se trouvait alors en 1871, peu de temps après la dernière guerre avec la Prusse. A la suite de cette guerre l’Alsace et une partie de la Lorraine, y compris la ville de Phalsbourg, étaient devenues allemandes; les habitants qui voulaient rester Français étaient obligés de quitter leurs villes natales pour aller s’établir dans la vieille France…

G. Bruno, Le tour de la France par deux enfants. (1890.7.2191)

French patriotism, in a military context, is at the core of another illustration copied from the Tour de la France (although the first part of its caption, “Les marins illustres” [23] is reminiscent of the work first published by Léon Guérin in 1845). The indication “Jean Bart menace les Anglais de mettre le feu aux poudres, s’ils veulent le retenir prisonnier”, is a summary of the longer explanation accompanying the original illustration. In the Tour de la France, the visit of the children to Dunkirk is the reason for inserting an illustration and account of an heroic anecdote in the life of the 17th century naval commander and privateer from this city.


CUL, MS Add. 10300

Despite this strong focus on the Franco-German war and more generally French military actions, there is no overall scheme of organisation in the notebook, with sudden jumps in subject matter, chronology and geography. The creator also copied and put into colour other kinds of images, such as those relating to colonial exploration narratives, some of which will be the subject of a later blog post. The use of a wide range of popular and widely available visual sources, many of which still need investigation, leaves a wide scope for future research.

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi

Full list of the illustrations contained in the notebook:

1             L’armée de l’Est.  Coup de main de Vaucouleurs.
2             Défense de Toul – 1870. Un bastion pendant le bombardement.
3             Les prisonniers de Strasbourg.  Puis tous, rangés entre une double haie de                     soldats ennemis, se mettent en marche par la route qui conduit vers                               l’Allemagne.
4             Siège de Constantine.  1837.  L’assaut du 9 octobre.
5             Conquête d’Alger.  Débarquement des Français à Sidi-Terruch,  1er juin 1830.
6             Les Prussiens forçaient les paysans à construire les épaulements à l’abri                         desquels ils bombarderaient Strasbourg.
7             Charge des dragons français.  Vionville, 16 août 1870.
8             ‘Les prisonniers étaient parqués sur la terre nue, sans tentes et sans un abri,                  comme des bêtes’.  Sedan, 1870.
9             Une patrouille fouillant une ferme.
10           Combat de Beni-Mered (1842). ‘Tiens, dit Blandan, voilà comme nous nous                      rendons!’
11           Combat de Beni-Mered.  Fin du combat.
12           Le sergent Bobillot est blessé sur les remparts de Tuyen-Quan.
13           Episode de la conquête de l’Algérie.
14           François Debergue.
15           Le vanneau huppé.
16           Chassé par un lion.
17           Livingstone terrassé par un lion.
18           Chasse au yak.
19           ‘Je vois une lionne qui s’avançait à pas lents vers le cheval abandonné’.                          (Bombonnel, le tueur de panthères).
20           Les maraudeurs de potirons (Bombonnel, le tueur de panthères)
21           Combats autour de Champigny.  (1870).
22           Porte fortifiée. Remparts de Phalsbourg.
23           Les marins illustres.  Jean Bart menace les Anglais de mettre le feu aux                           poudres, s’ils veulent le retenir prisonnier.
24           Guerre d’Espagne, 1808.  Guérillas attaquant un envoi français.
25           Chevert à Prague, 1741, ‘Tu monteras le premier, camarade?’ ‘Oui, mon                         colonel.’
26           Episode du siège de Namur, 1692. ‘Il alla poser son quatrième galion’.
27           L’armée de la Loire.  Le 3e Zouave de marche à l’attaque de Beaune-la-                         Rolande.  1870
28           Siège de Paris.  Attaque du Bourget—21 décembre 1870.
29           Reprise de Dijon par Garibaldi, 26 novembre 1870.
30           Les Zouaves pontificaux au combat d’Orléans, 11 octobre 1870.
31           Après la bataille (accompanied by the poem of the same name by Victor                         Hugo)
32           L’armée de la Loire.  La prise d’Origny par trois compagnies des mobiles du                   Lot.
33           Chasse au rhinocéros.  Sauve qui peut!
34           Morses attaquant une barque.
35           Chasse à l’ours gris.
36           Chassé par un éléphant.
37           Combat de buffle et de tigre.
38           Défense de Châteaudun, 18 octobre 1870.
39           Retraite de Russie.
40           Retraite de l’armée de la Loire, 1870.  Les hommes se réunissent, ils                               allument un grand feu.
41           Les cuirassiers de Reichshoffen traversant Morsbronn, 1870.
42           Les Turcos à Wissembourg, 1870.
43           Episode des guerres en Vendée.
44           Francs-tireurs se renseignant sur le passage d’une troupe de Uhlans, 1870.
45           Les Bavarois devant la maison Bourgerie.  Bazeilles, 1870.
46           La guerre d’embuscade, 1870.
47           Retraite de Constantine, 1836. 300 Français repoussent 6000 Arabes.
48           Combat de Sidi-Brahim.  La défense du marabout, 1845.

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