A friend in need – An Irishman’s Diary on Ireland and the Franco-Prussian War

Ireland’s first halting attempt to alleviate distress abroad took place 150 years ago during the Franco-Prussian War.

In 1870, the Second French Empire and the North German Confederation dominated by Prussia were uneasy neighbours, suspicious of each other's intentions.

When the French learned on July 9th that the Spanish government planned to place Leopold von Hohenzollern, a member of the extended Prussian royal family, on the throne in Madrid, they suspected a plot to extend German influence and disrupt the European equilibrium.

Leopold rejected the offer but the French sent their ambassador, Vincent Benedetti, to the king of Prussia, Wilhelm I, to seek assurances that no other member of the family would accept the crown of Spain.


Benedetti approached Wilhelm on July 13th while he was walking in the public gardens at Ems, a spa town near Coblenz. The king declined to give guarantees and sent an account of the meeting to the chancellor, Otto von Bismarck.

Bismarck then issued a circular, known later as the Ems Dispatch, which suggested a breakdown in relations, and France declared war on July 19th, "having been unable to view the prospect of placing a Prussian prince on the Spanish throne other than as an action directed against the security of the territories of France".

The United Kingdom remained neutral, but in nationalist Ireland sympathy with France was widespread

In truth, both countries wanted war, the Germans in the hope of motivating the states south of the Main river to join the confederation and the French in the hope of weakening the power of Prussia.

Hostilities began with three German victories on the frontier in early August. After winning a major battle at Gravelotte in Lorraine on August 18th, the Germans surrounded Metz, the provincial capital, trapping a large French army. Then, when another army led by the ailing emperor, Napoleon III, went to raise the siege, it was defeated at Sedan on September 1st. Napoleon was taken prisoner and a new Government of National Defence in Paris declared the overthrow of the Empire and the establishment of the Third French Republic.

But the war continued and on September 19th the German army blockaded the French capital. The minster of the interior, Léon Gambetta, then escaped in a balloon and organised a number of armies, including the Army of the Loire, that continued to fight across northern France until an armistice was declared on January 28th, 1871.

The United Kingdom remained neutral, but in nationalist Ireland sympathy with France was widespread. Demonstrations took place throughout August and September in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway and in towns including Dundalk, Kilrush and Ennis. Donations poured in to Adolphe Lesage, a French print-seller in Dublin, and he approached a number of well-known figures, including A M Sullivan, the editor of The Nation, and John Martin, the former Young Irelander and future home rule MP, to form a committee to disburse the money.

A bank draft was sent to the Empress Eugénie in Paris and, following a discussion with a French organisation established to assist casualties, the committee also decided to form an ambulance corps. It was organised by a Cork businessman, James Fitzgerald Lombard, the father-in-law of William Martin Murphy, and surgeons, medical students and field staff were recruited. Supplies including wagons, tents, bedding, medicines, and uniforms marked with red crosses were purchased, and on October 9th, the party, led by a chief surgeon, Charles Baxter, and including four assistant surgeons, 40 students and 200 attendants, sailed from Kingstown to Le Havre.

When they disembarked, the French authorities decided that only 80 of the attendants should be employed and the others were offered the option of returning home or joining the army.

The war was a disaster for France. Up to 140,000 soldiers and civilians died, including 40,000 in Paris during the siege

The reduced corps was sent south to liaise with the Army of the Loire and was based mainly in the towns of Chateaudun and Evereux. During the next three months, it assisted more than 1,000 wounded men from both sides and a gruesome report described the surgeons up to their elbows in blood, cutting and amputating with “business-like celerity”.

Following the armistice, most members decided to return to Ireland but some stayed on to continue to care for the wounded.

The war was a disaster for France. Up to 140,000 soldiers and civilians died, including 40,000 in Paris during the siege, and most of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine had to be surrendered to the new German Empire, proclaimed at Versailles on January 18th, which now included the southern German states.

On August 17th, 1871, a delegation including Count Flavingy, the president of the French Sick and Wounded Association, and Ferdinand de Lesseps, the developer of the Suez Canal, came to Ireland to express their thanks.

They were ignored by the authorities but they were welcomed at Kingstown by Sullivan and his colleagues and cheered by crowds all the way to the Shelbourne Hotel before travelling south to Killarney by train, and being greeted at every stop.

While in Dublin, they attended the final meeting of the Committee and accepted the residue of the £7,500 which it had collected.

A decade later, French people contributed £20,000 to Irish famine relief.