Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871

After the Austrian defeat in the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, the North German Confederation was formed, with Otto von Bismarck as the federal chancellor. The confederation stretched from the French border to the Russian border and brought together 22 German states under the hegemony of the Kingdom of Prussia, ruled by King William I. With a modern, robust army and an efficient administration, Prussia (and the confederation in general) became a formidable European power.

La version française de cet article: Guerre franco-prussienne de 1870

Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 - Foreign Volunteers - Foreign Legion - History

On the other hand, in 1870, the Second French Empire of Emperor Napoleon III found itself isolated in Europe due to its military expedition to Mexico (1863-1867), its support of the Polish revolt against Russia, and the opposition of European sovereigns to Napoleon‘s desire to buy the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which led to the 1867 Luxembourg Crisis that opposed France and Prussia. There were also political tensions within the Empire, not to mention the rapidly deteriorating health of the emperor. As for the French army, after the failure of the Mexican campaign, it was diminished and partially demoralized.

It was in these circumstances that a small diplomatic quarrel between the North German Confederation and the Second Empire – the “Ems Dispatch,” concerning the preservation of the neutrality of the Spanish throne – provoked the French government on July 19, 1870, to sign a hasty declaration of war, despite Napoleon III, seeking a diplomatic settlement. France thus took responsibility for the hostilities, which pleased Bismarck and King William.


First phase of the conflict and the fall of the Empire

As of July 1870, the Prussian army was well organized and well trained. It counted a solid amount of men and equipment (including the Krupp cannon, with a rate of fire and range significantly higher than that of French cannons), and had an effective military strategy, which was developed during the conflicts against Denmark and Austria in 1864 and 1866, respectively.

The only French advantage in 1870 was their Chassepot rifle, the first rifle in the French army to use breech-loading instead of muzzle-loading. Adopted in 1866, it was of much better quality than the Prussian Dreyse and the Bavarian Werder rifles. Unfortunately, the lack of ammunition supply significantly limited this French strategic advantage.

In early August 1870, the French army – known as the Army of the Rhine – was ready to fight on the eastern front, led by the emperor himself. The North German Confederation, represented primarily by the Prussian army, was reinforced by southern German states, namely the Kingdom of Bavaria, the Kingdom of Württemberg, the Grand Duchy of Baden, and the Grand Duchy of Hesse, which formed together a military alliance. In other words, at the beginning of the conflict, about 250,000 French soldiers faced more than 500,000 Germans.

It was therefore no surprise that the French were severely defeated in the first three battles that took place from August 4 to 6 in Alsace, on the border of the southern German states. Napoleon III then ceded command of the Army of the Rhine to Marshal Bazaine, a former non-commissioned officer, then an officer with the Foreign Legion who had proven himself in Spain, Algeria, the Crimea, Italy and Mexico.

A second French army – the Army of Châlons – was formed on August 17, under the command of Marshal MacMahon, a former lieutenant colonel with the Foreign Legion from 1843-1845, whose family was of Irish origin.

Two tactical victories occurred under Bazaine‘s command, at Borny-Colombey and Mars-la-Tour, but the general failure of the French army was only a matter of time. The Army of the Rhine was besieged in Metz on August 20. The end came on September 2 at Sedan, where a decisive victory was won by the Prussian forces under Feld-Marschall Helmuth von Moltke, accompanied by King William of Prussia and the chancellor Otto von Bismarck. As a result, MacMahon’s Army of Châlons capitulated and Napoleon III was taken prisoner.


French Emperor Napoleon III
French Emperor Napoleon III, in 1868. Portrait by Adolphe Yvon.

Prussian King William I - Federal chancellor Otto von Bismarck
William I, King of Prussia, and Otto von Bismarck, Federal chancellor of the North German Confederation (engraving by Evert A. Duykinck).
Chassepot rifle
Chassepot rifle, the first rifle in the French army to use breech-loading. Adopted in 1866, it was of much better quality than the Prussian Dreyse and the Bavarian Werder rifles. Unfortunately, the lack of ammunition supply significantly limited this French strategic advantage during the war of 1870-1871.
Chassepot rifle
French Emperor Napoleon III, taken prisoner, and Otto von Bismarck after the Battle of Sedan. Painting by Wilhelm Camphausen.


Third Republic and the continuation of the war

Following the defeat at Sedan, the surrender of the Army of Châlons, and the capture of Napoleon III on September 2, 1870, a crowd in Paris invaded the Palais Bourbon, seat of the Corps législatif (France’s lower legislative chamber). Léon Gambetta – a republican opposition deputy from Paris – proclaimed the fall of the Empire and the establishment of the Republic. Shortly after, the Government of National Defense was constituted.

This new republican government declared its will to continue the struggle against the North German Confederation. Marshal Bazaine‘s Army of the Rhine was still resisting in the besieged city of Metz. The capital would also be besieged by the enemy beginning on September 17. To reorganize the defense in France, Gambetta, the newly appointed Minister of War and the Interior, left Paris by balloon on October 7 and joined the governmental branch that had been set up in Tours, a town located 150 miles (240 km) southwest of the capital. There, Gambetta reconstituted three new armies: the Army of the Loire, the Army of the North, and the Army of the East. The war continued…


Foreign Legion in the Franco-Prussian War

At the time of the declaration of war on Prussia, the Foreign Legion was serving in Algeria (North Africa) under the title of Foreign Regiment (in fact, ex-2nd Foreign Regiment, 2e REI now). Like other French units, the regiment was reduced following the Mexican campaign, where the legionnaires distinguished themselves during the Battle of Camerone. Thus, in mid-July 1870, the whole Legion comprised only 117 officers and 2,457 non-commissioned officers and men. Divided into four battalions, they maintained order in the west of Algeria occupied by France since 1830. In view of the law passed on March 9, 1831, the legionnaires were only permitted to intervene outside metropolitan France.

Therefore, men had to be sought as soon as possible for the upcoming conflict. Since military service was only partially compulsory in France at that time, an imperial law issued on July 17 authorized voluntary wartime service enlistment in the French army (the so-called EVDG, engagements volontaires pour la durée de la guerre). These engagements applied to capable individuals of all ages, replacing the voluntary engagement of at least two years previously set for young men in peacetime. Nevertheless, unlike the conclusions of other historical events, this law did not concern foreign volunteers in a significant way, as would later be seen in 1914 and in 1939. An example: In August 1870, more than 25,000 wartime service volunteers were recruited into the French infantry. But among them, we can find only 557 foreigners (i.e. 2%).


Foreign Regiment - 1870 - Captain - Legionnaire
Foreign Regiment, 1870. A captain by Cpl Ponomarev; a legionnaire by Daniel Lordey. Note the legionnaire’s kepi with a red star.


5th Battalion of the Foreign Regiment

To integrate these foreign volunteers who wanted to serve under the French flag, an imperial decree dated August 22 authorized the creation of the 5th Battalion of the Foreign Regiment in France. The battalion was to be organized in Tours, which had already been designated in July as the future “depot for all foreign deserters.” In October, by a curious coincidence, this city also became the headquarters of Léon Gambetta and his governmental branch.

Moreover, a circular sent out by the new government on September 5 instructed that all Prussians and citizens of the northern and southern German states should be refused enlistment. Therefore, deserters and concerned volunteers who had already enlisted were to be sent to Algeria.

The new battalion consisted of some 1,250 men, divided into eight companies. The unit was made up mostly of Austrians, Belgians, Swiss, Poles, Italians and Spaniards, commanded by Major Victor Arago, who had come from the 86th Line Regiment. Among the battalion’s officers was a certain Second Lieutenant Kara George. This was in fact the Serbian prince Karageorgevitch, who in 1903 became King Peter I of Serbia.

The 5th Battalion was assigned to the 1st Brigade of the 2nd Division of General de La Motte-Rouge‘s 15th Army Corps, which was part of the Army of the Loire, one of the three new armies.

On September 30, the battalion left Tours for Orléans, about 120 kilometers south of Paris. It arrived there on October 10.

Between October 10 and 11, the 5th Battalion helped defend Orléans. The Prussians and Bavarians, under General Von der Tann, joined behind the backs of the French and invaded the main street extending across the Bannier quarter. The street fight started in the early morning of October 11, around 2:00 a.m. (02:00), and lasted all day, among countless phenomena of valor and daring. The legionnaires literally fought from house to house, from garden to garden. A Belgian sergeant, Joseph Féront, distinguished himself as an excellent marksman and shot down 80 enemies with his rifle.

At 5:00 p.m. (17:00), Major Arago was killed. He was replaced by Captain Morancy. At the same time, the French retreat was sounded. But the legionnaires responded with the cry “Forward” and continued to defend the square. They only obeyed the third call and finally withdrew.

The 5th Battalion lost two-thirds of its strength in this battle, with 600 dead or wounded and 200 to 300 taken as prisoners. Out of the 25 officers, six were killed, seven wounded and six imprisoned.

The courage of the men of the 5th Battalion was admired by the enemy.


5th Battalion’s officers killed on 11 October 1870
  • Major ARAGO Victor – battalion commander
  • Captain CHARNAUX François
  • Second Lieutenant KACZKOWSKI Stanislas
  • Second Lieutenant FAY H.-J.
  • Second Lieutenant YUNG DE CRISTOFEU
  • Second Lieutenant KURNEWITCH


5th Battalion, Foreign Regiment - Battle of Orleans - 11 October 1870
5th Battalion, Foreign Regiment and 39th Line Regiment during the Battle of Orleans, 11 October 1870, by Quesnay de Beaurepaire.
5th Battalion, Foreign Regiment - Battle of Orleans - 11 October 1870
5,000 French fought against 40,000 Germans.” War Memorial to pay homage to those who defended Bannier quarter in Orleans, on October 11, 1870.
Major Victor Arago - 5th Battalion - 1870
Major Victor Arago, the commander of the 5th Battalion, Foreign Regiment. He was killed on October 11, 1870, during the Battle of Orleans.
Serbian Prince Karageorgevitch - France - 1866
Serbian Prince Karageorgevitch, as a cadet of the prestigious Saint-Cyr Military Academy (1864-1866) in France. In 1870, he joined the 5th Battalion under a false name Kara George. Sergeant, he was promoted to second lieutenant on September 25. In 1903, he became King Peter I of Serbia.


Provisional Foreign Regiment

On September 22, 1870, Colonel Deplanque – then the head of the Foreign Regiment based in Algeria – received an order to send to France two volunteer battalions, from which German legionnaires of all ranks would be removed and left in Africa. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were chosen. Raised to eight companies each, they landed in France on October 11. Their total strength was 60 officers and 1,457 men, commanded by their colonel. On the 19th, in the Orléans region, the two battalions were joined by the considerably reduced 5th Battalion, then under Major Béchet. The whole group formed the Provisional Foreign Regiment, a reduced unit of no more than 2,000 men.

The regiment remained within the 15th Army Corps, composed of troops recalled from Algeria, soldiers from depots, and reserves. Their mission (and that of the whole Army of the Loire) was to stop the progression of the German troops towards Paris, which was already besieged by the Prussians.

On October 27, the former Army of the Rhine led by Marshal Bazaine (150,000 men), which had been under siege in Metz since the end of August, surrendered. This surrender was a serious blow to France.

On November 9, the Provisional Foreign Regiment partook in the Battle of Coulmiers to the west of Orléans, chasing away the Bavarians. The legionnaires then recaptured Orléans, which they had lost in October. This battle was the most important victory won by the French army during the 1870-1871 war. But snow and rain were already falling heavily, and the soldiers’ movements across the landscape became very difficult.

A few days later, Colonel Deplanque was appointed general. He was replaced at the head of the regiment by Colonel de Curten, who had come from Algeria, but was appointed general himself two weeks later. It was the newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel Canat who finally took command of the Provisional Foreign Regiment and held it until the end of the campaign.

On December 3, the legionnaires distinguished themselves at the Croix-Briquet, north of Orléans, with their splendid attitude against the Bavarians of General Von der Tann. The next day, a battle between Cercottes and Chevilly occured. With bayonets fixed, the legionnaires charged and forced the enemy to withdraw. However, the Germans regained the initiative thanks to the number of troops at their disposal. The 15th Army Corps was ordered to retreat. Eventually, on December 5, the forces of the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg recaptured Orléans.


Colonel Deplanque - Foreign Regiment - 1870
Colonel Louis Deplanque, the head of the Foreign Regiment in Algeria from 1867-1870. In October 1870, he moved with two of his battalions to France to form Provisional Foreign Regiment. In November, he was promoted to general and left the Legion.


The retreat continued under heavy snow towards Bourges, the former depot of both the 5th Battalion and the Provisional Foreign Regiment. The men were exhausted from cold, hunger and fatigue. Morale fell rapidly. Considerably reduced by the fighting, the regiment now formed a combined battalion of only about 900 men. A company of Irishmen joined them.

Between December 18 and 23, some 2,000 young recruits from the depots of eight line regiments (the 7th, 12th, 21st, 48th, 68th, 69th, 70th, and 71st), mostly Bretons without basic training, reinforced the regiment and increased its strength to about 3,000 men. It now had three eight-company battalions and a reconnaissance company.

On January 7, 1871, the Provisional Foreign Regiment left Bourges and headed for the Army of the East of General Bourbaki. The cold was so intense that many men suffered frostbite during the march. Upon their arrival in Montbéliard on January 15, the legionnaires set up camp west of the town, which was located near the Swiss border. On the 20th, after a few skirmishes with the Prussians of General Von Werder, the regiment withdrew westward towards Besançon. On January 25 and 26, its battalions were heavily engaged.

On January 28, 1871, the Franco-German armistice was signed. But the Army of the East, sheltering at the Swiss border, was not included in the conditions of the armistice. General Bourbaki then handed over command to General Clinchant, his deputy. The latter negotiated the internment of the Army of the East in Switzerland so that it would not fall into captivity. On February 1, the army’s almost 90,000 men started to cross the border.

On the other hand, the Provisional Foreign Regiment was still stationed near Besançon, opposite the Prussians. Finally, on February 15, the general armistice intervened and allowed the men to rest. The unfortunate war was finally over.

But soon after the fighting with the Germans ended, the French began to fight among themselves. France was in turmoil and during the following wretched weeks, they would suppress an uprising in the capital, known as the Paris Commune. By order of the new government, the three battalions of the Provisional Foreign Regiment would actively participate in this affair. Ironically, this was during the very first deployment of the Legion in France. This still rather sensitive topic will be the subject of its own article in the future.

On June 15, 1871, the three battalions finally left France for Algeria. A week later, the legionnaires joined the headquarters of the Foreign Regiment, then based in Mascara.


Battle of Coulmiers - 9 November 1870
French troops during the Battle of Coulmiers, November 9, 1870, by Rousset. This battle was the most important victory won by the French army during the 1870-1871 war. The Provisional Foreign Regiment actively participated.


Other units of the Foreign Legion during the War of 1870

Official works published by the Foreign Legion, as well as most historical studies concerned with the Legion’s activities in France during the Franco-Prussian War, deal only with the three battalions mentioned above. However, here we have the rare opportunity to present all of the units that were formed or intended to be formed between 1870 and 1871 to join the war in France, and which would probably have been administered by the Foreign Regiment’s HQ in Algeria.


2nd “Irish” Foreign Regiment and Irish Company

Just as had been done in 1855, during the Crimean War, Emperor Napoleon III ordered the formation of a second Legion, or more precisely a second Foreign Regiment. And if the Second Foreign Legion of 1855 was to be composed only of the Swiss, the second Foreign Regiment of 1870 was to be composed only of the Irish.

Thus, an imperial decree on September 1, 1870 ordered the formation of a Second Foreign Regiment in France, to be organized at Cherbourg and Caen in Normandy by a certain James MacAdaras, of Irish origin. Posing as a former British army officer, he was appointed as a French lieutenant colonel. The new Irish regiment was to be divided into five battalions with eight companies each. As for the 5th Battalion already created in France, it remained administratively assigned to the Foreign Regiment in Algeria, the latter of which had been renamed the 1st Foreign Regiment by the same decree.

This project would have revived the long tradition of Irish regiments serving France, as had previously happened between 1690 and 1792. However, in August 1870, in order to remain neutral in the upcoming war, the Parliament of the United Kingdom established a law forbidding its inhabitants to enlist in a foreign army.

Therefore, the “Irish” 2nd Foreign Regiment was never really formed. The unit was disbanded ten weeks later, on November 16, while still in the process of activation, with a strength of less than three hundred men. A single combat company was finally established under Captain Martin Waters Kirwan, an Irish military man and journalist from Galway. Apart from the captain, the company consisted of three lieutenants (including a medical lieutenant), 6 non-commissioned officers, a bugler, 8 corporals and 76 men. It was sent to the Provisional Foreign Regiment and, on December 11, became the 5th Battalion’s 8th Company formant corps (an autonomous unit that was administered separately). Known as the “Irish Company”, the men received their baptism by fire in January 1871, at Montbéliard. Two months later, when the fighting was over, they returned home. However, Lieutenant Cotter of the Irish Company chose to stay with the Legion and move to Algeria.


James MacAdaras - 2nd Foreign Regiment - 1870
James MacAdaras. An adventurer and a French politician of Irish origin. He promised the French leadership that he would raise an entire regiment of the Irish. But eventually, only three hundred men were available.


Foreign Legion Company of the Brittany Division

In late September 1870, a company of the Foreign Regiment’s 5th Battalion, composed of two officers and approximately 190 insufficiently trained men, left Tours for Brittany, the homeland of the Celtic Bretons in western France. The unit moved to Brest, a city located at the western edge of the country which had been the second largest military port in France since 1865. The company stayed there from October 1 to November 6, when they left for the Conlie camp, not far from Le Mans. It was to this camp that thousands of Breton volunteers were taken at the time of the war.

There, the cadres were completed. The company was then assigned to the Brittany Division (officially the 4th Division of the 21st Corps), a single active part of a new reserve army, the Army of Brittany under General de Kératry. In December, the Brittany Division would reinforce the Second Army of the Loire, formed by splitting the original army.

In the orders of battle, the company is mentioned as the “Foreign Legion Company.”

The unit, whose men’s nationality is not indicated in any known source, was often used as a guerrilla troop. One hypothesis suggests the possibility that it could have been a disciplinary company.

In January 1871, the Foreign Legion Company took part in the bayonet charge during the Battle of Le Mans against the troops of Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia, and protected the division’s artillery and convoys during the subsequent retreat. During these battles, the company suffered considerable losses. It was then sent, along with the entire division, to defend Brittany. There, in Rennes, this little-known unit was disbanded.


6th Battalion of the Foreign Regiment

This battalion is not mentioned in any official Foreign Legion source, nor in most historical works. Here is a first chance to discover more about this forgotten unit.

At the end of December 1870, the Government of National Defense decided to raise a new battalion within the Foreign Regiment, this time in northern France. Thus, on January 12, 1871, they signed a decree ordering the creation of the 6th Battalion, which was to have six companies and be administered separately. The battalion’s depot had been set up a few days prior in Saint-Omer, a small town between Lille and Calais. Also, as early as January 4, Major Charles Gache from the 49th Line Regiment was appointed commander. Called the “6th Foreign Battalion” or “Foreign Battalion of Saint-Omer,” this unit would be assigned to General Faidherbe‘s recently formed Army of the North.

The majority of the recruits were French and Belgians, although there were some Dutchmen and men of other nationalities, too. Among the first seven officers of the battalion were two Belgian second lieutenants, Bayet and Herber, and Second Lieutenant Turno-Przybylski, of Polish origin. It is interesting that all three officers came from ordinary French units rather than from the Foreign Regiment. It follows that a number of foreigners served in French metropolitan units during the 1870 war without being transferred to the Foreign Legion.

Despite the freezing weather and desperate course of the war on the French side, recruitment increased quite rapidly. In early February 1871, the total strength of the battalion was 12 officers and 215 men. Four weeks later, it already comprised 16 officers and 324 men, divided into an HQ, an HQ platoon, four active companies and a depot company (the 6th, under Captain Fouchet). However, the armistice marked the end of the fighting in France and made it impossible for this unit to join the fight. In April, the battalion left Saint-Omer for North Africa. There, its official traces stop.

However, in his correspondence from 1880, Major Gache points out that “… when the armistice came, my Battalion had just been incorporated into the Foreign Regiment. I led it urgently to Algeria, where the great insurrection of 1871 had just broken out. My Battalion operated in the Sahel, the country situated between Miliana and Cherchell, and finally in December, in the south of the Oran province.

And this is true. We know that since late May 1871 onwards, “a detachment of the Foreign Regiment, composed of 12 officers and 585 men under Major Gache” formed part of the columns of Colonels Désandré (May-June), Goursaud (June-July) and Nicot (July-September) in the region between Miliana and Cherchell, located about sixty miles (100 km) southwest of Algiers. That means tree months of fierce fighting with Berber rebels for a forgotten battalion coming from northern France.

In December 1871, by order of the Minister of War, the French and wartime volunteers of the 5th and 6th Battalions were discharged; the Foreign Regiment thus lost around 1,200 men. As for the foreigners serving in these units, they were transferred to the remaining battalions.


6th Battalion, Foreign Regiment - documents - 1871
A letter sent from the Army of the North’s HQ to the Depot of the “6th Foreign Battalion” in Saint-Omer, late January 1871. Collection of the author.

6th Battalion, Foreign Regiment - documents - 1871
One of the documents of the 6th Battalion, Foreign Regiment (transfers, punishments), late February 1871. Collection of the author.
6th Battalion, Foreign Regiment - documents - 1871
Nominal list of officers of the 6th Battalion, Foreign Regiment. As we can see, Captain Saint-Martin (deputy commander) joined the battalion already on 5 January 1871, while the unit was officially created a week later. Collection of the author.
6th Battalion, Foreign Regiment - documents - 1871
A letter from early March 1871, signed by Major Gache, the commander of the still autonomous “6th Foreign Battalion.” Collection of the author.


Hanoverian Company

A decree from January 5, 1871 authorized the formation of an infantry company, composed of Hanoverian elements who had taken refuge in North Africa, for the wartime service in Algeria. These men were former soldiers of the Hanoverian Legion (also called the “Guelphic Legion”) of King George V of the former Kingdom of Hanover, a state in northwestern Germany. The state was annexed by Prussia after the 1866 war with Austria. Having survived in France since 1868, the Hanoverian Legion was finally dissolved in April 1870. Three months later, following the declaration of war, King George V asked Napoleon to reconstitute this Legion, but in vain.

The new unit was not formed until January 1871 in Oran, Algeria. Called the “Hanoverian Auxiliary Company,” it was commanded by Captain Petitjean, who came from an African light infantry battalion. He was accompanied by Lieutenant Kreis and Second Lieutenant Liberti, former members of the Hanoverian Legion. In terms of pay, benefits and uniform, the company was organized like French infantry units. About 160 men strong (in January), it generally played no military role, and would be disarmed and disbanded after the peace treaty was signed.

It is very likely that this unit was administratively attached to the headquarters of the Foreign Regiment in Mascara, located in the same Oran province. Also very likely is that numerous cadres were drawn from Hanoverian elements of the Foreign Regiment remaining with the other Germans in North Africa.


Hanoverian Legion - Guelphic Legion - officers - 1868
Officers of the Hanoverian Legion (called also Guelphic Legion) in 1868.


Other foreign volunteer units in the 1870 war

During the Franco-Prussian War, a number of military units composed of foreigners were formed in France outside the administration of the Foreign Legion. These units were considered to be corps francs (free corps), i.e. irregular military partisan units attached to regular army formations, to harass the German army’s rear. The corps francs were the third and final incarnation of the improvised forces at the time of the war, authorized by the new republican government. Numerous corps francs were created both by French departments and by foreign volunteers. Here, we present the most famous of them.


Army of the Vosges

The Army of the Vosges is the largest and best-known formation on the French side representing foreign volunteers in the corps francs in the Franco-Prussian War. It was formed in October 1870 by Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian republican revolutionary and a strong opponent of the French Empire of Napoleon III. He was happy to offer his services to Gambetta‘s new republican administration. Gambetta gave him command of all the corps francs in the Vosges area, located in eastern France, between Strasbourg and Paris.

Garibaldi established his headquarters in Dole and divided the Army of the Vosges into four brigades. Two were commanded by his two sons, Ricciotti and Menotti, two others by Cristiano Lobbia, an Italian officer, and Jozef Bossak-Hauké, a Polish general.

At the time of the armistice, the total number of troops in the Army of the Vosges would be between 10,000 and 24,000 men (on paper), including French corps francs and foreign volunteers: mostly Italians and Spaniards. Besides, there were also volunteers from South America, specifically Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil, who were gathered within the Légion Franco-Montévidéenne,” the Légion Franco-Argentine and the Corps francs de Rio de Janeiro and represented three hundred men altogether. There were even Greek and Egyptian volunteers.

In November, while fighting north of Dijon, Ricciotti Garibaldi‘s brigade took 200 German prisoners and seized weapons and ammunition.

In late January 1871, Giuseppe Garibaldi moved with his army to Dijon. On January 21, 22 and 23, 1871, the city was attacked by 4,000 Prussians, but Garibaldi‘s troops were victorious. Moreover, they seized a flag of a German regiment, supposedly one of only two flags taken from the enemy during the war.

Nevertheless, there was also criticism of Garibaldi. After the end of hostilities, part of the National Assembly, as well as high military authorities, accused Garibaldi of acting as a political general and a revolutionary traitor who disobeyed orders and did not help General Bourbaki‘s Army of the East, which led to the final defeat.

In 1914, during World War I, new Garibaldian volunteers formed the 4th Regiment Combat Team (“Garibaldian Legion”) of the 1st Foreign Regiment. The unit, led by Giuseppe Garibaldi‘s grandson, Peppino, distinguished itself in the Argonne during the winter of 1914-1915.


Giuseppe Garibaldi - 1866
Giuseppe Garibaldi. An Italian general, revolutionary and republican, one of Italy’s “fathers of the fatherland.” In October 1870, he moved to France and took over the Army of the Vosges.

Army of the Vosges - Giuseppe Garibaldi - General Staff
General Staff of the Army of the Vosges, with Garibaldi and his sons in the middle.


Carabiniers of the 11th arrondissement

This unit was a corps franc composed of foreign volunteers, mostly Dutchmen and Belgians, from the 11th arrondissement of Paris, located on the right bank of the Seine between the Places de la Nation, de la République and de la Bastille. The unit was already active on September 1, 1870. Composed of 160 men, commanded by Captain Othon, it was assigned to the mayor of the district.

In September, this company was sent north of the capital, to Senlis. The “carabiniers” took part in operations to stop the enemy, alongside the French cavalry. Back in Paris, the Carabiniers of the 11th arrondissement were placed at the disposal of the commander of the Saint-Denis square. With only two officers (Othon and Vithmann) and 66 men, the unit was deactivated on October 23.


Legion of Volunteers from France

A project of General Heidenrich-Kruck, the legion was officially created in Paris on September 7, 1870. Formed mainly of Polish volunteers living in the capital, the unit was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Cailloué. The strength of the Legion of Volunteers from France was set at 17 officers and 259 men. Consisting of two companies and a squadron (4 officers and 83 cavalrymen commanded by Mr. Fould and Captain d’Estampes), the unit took part in the first siege of Paris.


Legion of Friends of France

Another corps franc organized in Paris and composed of foreign volunteers. Led by an old Belgian officer, General Van der Meeren, it had been in formation since September 9, 1870. Placed in the garden of the Palais-Royal, opposite the Louvre, the unit was composed mostly of Belgians and the Swiss. This was followed by Americans, the English, Russians, then Spaniards and Italians, but it also included other nationalities. Most of them were former servicemen. Recognized by the new government a few days after its creation, the unit obtained 300 British Snider-Enfield rifles. Consisting of three companies, the Legion of Friends of France numbered 18 officers and 236 men. Their uniform was dark brown, without any metallic ornaments; the rank insignia and chevrons were black. They wore chestnut brown kepi. The well-disciplined legion was placed at the disposal of General Achille d’Exéa-Doumerc, one of the leaders of the defense of Paris. Serving as scouts in the forward posts, the “legionnaires” took part in the fighting at Bouget, Groslay, or Brie-sur-Marne and Villiers-sur-Marne.


British and American ambulances

To dutifully conclude the topic of foreign volunteers during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, we must not forget the British and American volunteers in the medical assistance units who treated wounded French soldiers during the conflict.

Although the United Kingdom and the United States remained neutral during the Franco-Prussian War, their citizens provided ambulances and other forms of medical assistance to combatants and civilians affected by the war. Three main units of this type were established: the Ambulance Anglaise (“English Ambulance”) of Richard Wallace, an English resident of Paris; the Anglo-American Ambulance of James Marion Sims, an American doctor who served as the surgeon to Empress Eugenie between 1863 and 1866; and finally, the Ambulance Irlandaise (“Franco-Irish Ambulance”) of Charles P. Baxter, a British military surgeon. The latter was composed of about 180 men who did not join the Irish Company of the Foreign Regiment.

The ambulances and their detachments served with the Armies of the North and the Loire, as well as during the siege of Paris, until the signing of the armistice in late January 1871.


Legion of Volunteers from France - Captain Okolowicz
Authorization for Captain Okolowicz, of Polish origins, to serve as a commander of the 2nd Company, Legion of Volunteers from France. In 1871, he would join the Paris Commune and become a general.

Legion of Friends of France - article
An article from La Petite presse dedicated to the Legion of Friends of France, late November 1870.
James Marion Sims
James Marion Sims. An American physician known as the “father of modern gynecology” and the surgeon to French Empress Eugenie, he established the Anglo-American Ambulance in 1870 to treat wounded soldiers.
Franco-Irish Ambulance - 1870
Members of the Franco-Irish Ambulance in 1870. In fact, these were men sent to France to form the 2nd “Irish” Foreign Regiment, and who refused to join the Irish Company of Captain Kirwan.



The Franco-Prussian War was a tragic and above all unnecessary conflict. It deeply shook French society and the self-esteem of the French. In addition to its defeat, France lost Alsace-Lorraine, annexed in May 1871 by the newly-created German Empire.

As for the war itself, this would be the first time that “wartime service enlisted volunteers” (EVDG) appeared. However, ultimately those men were mainly French and not foreigners, as we know from the two world wars. Another interesting fact is that many of these foreign volunteers on the French side enlisted in military units that had no connections to the Foreign Legion.

Finally, the Franco-Prussian war resulted in a ban on German candidates for the Legion for several more years, except for those coming from Alsace-Lorraine. This decision considerably affected the composition of nationalities and the character of the Legion until 1914.



Main information sources:
Képi blanc magazines (1959, 1961)
by Collective: La Guerre de 1870-71 – La Défense Nationale En Province (R. Chapelot et Cie, 1911)
by Collective: La Guerre de 1870-71 – Campagne de l’Armee du Nord – IV – Saint-Quentin (R. Chapelot et Cie, 1904)
Aristide Martinien: La Guerre de 1870-1871 – La Mobilistation de l’Armee – Mouvements des dépots (L. Fournier, 1912)
Ferdinand Lecomte: Guerre franco-allemande en 1870-1871 – Tome III (Genève et Bale, 1872)
Alexandre Dupont: Les volontaires espagnols dans la guerre franco-allemande de 1870-1871 (Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez Nº 45, 2015)
Amédée Le Faure: Histoire de la guerre franco-allemande 1870-71 – Tome I (Garnier frères, 1875)
Gustave Schelle: Œuvres de Turgot – Tome III (Librairie Félix Alcan, 1919)
La Liberté daily (Septembre 1870)
La Petite Presse daily (Novembre 1870)
Le Rappel daily (Novembre 1870)
L’armée de la Loire 1870-1871 (Fr)


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More from the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1908 Forthassa Disaster
Foreign Legion in the Balkans: 1915-1919
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1976 Djibouti helicopter crash



The page was updated on: June 30, 2021


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