Bernay 1870/71 – the Franco-Prussian War

Bernay lies at the train line from Paris via Évreux in direction of the English channel. The train station was inaugurated in 1855. It was important for the transport of soldiers and ammunition.

The village of Broglie lies in the south of Bernay. It was the domicile of duke Albert de Broglie, an Orléanist, who was collaborating during the Franco-Prussian war with the German invaders. The Germans supported him by means of special taxes for the cities and villages that voted for republicans.

He wasn’t the only nobleman who supported the Germans. Most of the high-ranking officers belonged to the nobility and some of them refused to attack the Germans and advised the cities and villages to surrender. Under these conditions it was impossible for France to win the war. The first election after the war was accordingly.

Result of the first election of the Third Republic: 416 Royalists (thereof 214 Orléanists) versus 150 Republicans and 72 Liberals. French 19th century Republicans can’t be compared with nowadays Republicans in the USA. The French Republicans wanted a republic. The Royalists wanted a king. It’s a miracle, that the Third Republic could persist until 1940. I guess the 3 different kinds of Royalists just couldn’t agree about a new king. Diagram by @lanakazame, licence: CC by-SA/ Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic

Progress of events

Sergeant of the Garde nationale, photograph of 1870, unknown author, licence: public domain

On September 4, 1870 the inhabitants of Bernay came to know, the emperor Napoléon III. (1808-1873) had been captured and the French army had surrendered at Sedan. Many inhabitants gathered at the town hall and waited for news. Travellers reported in the evening, the Third Republic had been proclaimed in Paris. In the following days Bernay deployed its Garde Nationale of 1200 men. On September 18 the telegraph line collapsed and the train service to Paris was suspended. There were no elections because of the war. The first government of the Third Republic was the temporary Gouvernement de la Défense Nationale.

Franc-tireurs took positions at Serquigny. To confuse the Germans the people took down the road signs and buried the milestones. Only 50 soldiers of the Garde Nationale of Bernay stayed in the city. The rest went to defend Évreux, the prefecture of the departement.

On October 30 the news of the capitulation of Metz was officially confirmed. The people of Bernay demonstrated at the town hall and demanded the death of the general François-Achille Bazaine.

On November 21 1870 the train with Charles Denis Bourbaki passed Bernay on its way to Nevers.

The Franc-Tireurs of Bernay took position in the forest of Beaumesnil in the south of Bernay. After December 6, 1870 no newspapers were released, not even the messenger of Brionne reached Bernay.

Franc-tireurs, contemporary illustration, 1870 or 1871, unknown artist, licence: public domain

The Prefecture of Eure moved to Bernay. On December 12 the prefect gave the order to the troops to withdraw to Lisieux in the Basse-Normandie. The inhabitants of the city revolted and set the building of the Subprefecture on fire.

Photograph of a Franc-tireur by G. Touzery (Orléans) (1865-1870). licence: public domain

On December 13, 1870 the Germans attacked Serquigny for the first time. 60 German soldiers damaged the rails. Most of them were killed. On the next day 200 German soldiers with 2 cannons stuck in the mud of Nassandres. The commanding officer of Bernay didn’t allow his Garde Nationale to take advantage of the awkward situation the Germans were in. He ran away some days later. And the French General Guilhermy ordered Bernay to surrender to the Germans. The inhabitants were furious, they tried to capture him and someone shot him in his hand.

In the following days the Germans withdrew to Bourgtheroulde-Infreville and Le Neubourg. The Prefecture returned to Évreux. Food became very expensive and the bakers didn’t bake the traditional Galette des Rois for Epiphany. They gave out bread for the poor instead. In January the snow was thawing and the Charentonne had burst its banks.

On January 21 1871 the German troops marched from the south on Bernay. On the next morning the Germans, lead by Frederick Francis II, Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, conquered the city. They shot the prisoners, occupied the post office and destroyed the telegraph. It was forbidden under penalty of death to send letters.

The German avant-garde near Bernay, contemporary illustration, unknown artist, licence: public domain

German officers went through the streets and marked on every door with chalk the number of German soldiers that would live from now on with the French inhabitants. Shops were closed. The Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin stayed with his good friend, the Duke of Broglie.

The armistice of January 28, 1871 was officially confirmed on February 4. On February 23 the post office was opened again. Travellers to Paris still had to take a carriage to Conches-en-Ouche. On March 6 the last Germans left Bernay, the city sighed with relief and the French administration started to work again.


Alex Gardin: La guerre de 1870–1871 à Bernay. Published at: Les Éditions Page de Garde in Saint-Aubin-les-Elbeuf 1997, ISBN=2-84340-037-6 (French) reprint, original of 1898


5 thoughts on “Bernay 1870/71 – the Franco-Prussian War

  1. I enjoy reading about history here… you have such a way with observation and humor. Thank you

  2. What a great article. I’m forwarding your post to my brother who will enjoy it. Sounds like the townsfolk were getting well fed up with the nobility who were in league with the ever meddling Germans.

    • Yes, the people in the cities were quite fed up. The people in the small villages went to arms very late, they were royalistic in the beginning, but changed their mind because of the war. But they’ve been more fed up during the French Revolution that’s for sure. Napoléon III had been a good king, before he was so stupid to start the war with Germany. The Bonapartists were the smallest group of the Royalists though. Best example for cities being tired of nobility and the like was Paris. In 1871 the Paris Commune tried to rule Paris in a socialistic way. Didn’t work out though.

      • thank you for more information. I’m not too knowledgeable about this period of European history. It was glossed over in High School and College history classes. Thanks!!! 🙂

  3. […] towns in the vicinity, like Bernay and Pont-Audemer, were attacked in 1590, either by the Catholics or by the Huguenots. (The result […]

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