The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 was brutal. Depicted here in a painting by Alphonse de Neuville.
The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 was brutal. Depicted here in a painting by Alphonse de Neuville. Wikimedia

Between the lines

In 1871, two Swiss men were sent on a mission, rushing to the aid of Swiss citizens trapped in Paris. To do so they had to cross the Prussian siege line, and talk their way past the French.

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier

Christophe Vuilleumier is a historian and board member of the Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Geschichte (Swiss Historical Society). He has published a number of articles on 17th and 20th century Swiss history.

As a result of the war between France and Prussia that broke out in July 1870, Bismarck’s armies invaded France. They were victorious in Sedan, and then surrounded Paris. From 20 September, the two million inhabitants of the capital city were trapped, surrounded by 400,000 soldiers. With the number of besiegers growing almost daily, escape was impossible, and from November 1870 heavy artillery pieces were brought in to bombard the French metropolis. The Prussians were aiming to wear down Paris and bring the city to the point of starvation in order to force a capitulation. While a number of battles raged outside the city walls, within a few weeks those trapped inside had to learn to deal with the terror of the bombardments, strict food rationing and the freezing winter. Soon, food, wood and coal prices were subject to inflation. People ate cats, dogs and rats. The streets were no longer illuminated at night, and the stoves in the houses remained cold. In the midst of this misery there were also numerous Swiss people, such as the well-known Geneva statesman James Fazy, who had fled after the unrest during the cantonal elections in 1864. He had been in Paris for several years and had established a small Swiss colony in the French capital.
Paris after the German bombardment.
Paris after the German bombardment. Wikimedia
The Prussian heavy artillery is aimed at Paris.
The Prussian heavy artillery is aimed at Paris. Wikimedia

Mission to Paris

The Swiss authorities were concerned about the fate of their compatriots, and early in 1871 the Council dispatched Geneva State Councillor Arthur Chenevière and Appenzell doctor Arnold Roth, secretary of the Eidgenössische Politische Departement, the federal department of foreign affairs, on a mission to assist Swiss citizens caught up in the siege. On 28 January, Chenevière received a telegram from Federal President Karl Schenk: Mission to Paris. So the Genevan and the man from Appenzell set out for the French capital.  They travelled through Doubs and past Héricourt, where the fighting had been going on just a few weeks earlier. They crossed the rivers using fords, as the bridges had been destroyed. In the burnt-out villages, the two Swiss men saw the full horror of the war. After a stop in Besançon, Arthur Chenevière and Arnold Roth were able to cross the Prussian lines thanks to a pass negotiated by the Federal Council. It was at this point that they learned that General Charles Bourbaki and his 80,000 soldiers had crossed the border into Switzerland. Whether it was a retreat, or a cynical military manoeuvre designed to drag their country into the conflict, the two had no idea.
Portrait of Arthur Chenevière.
Portrait of Arthur Chenevière. Bibliothèque de Genève

30,000 francs from Switzerland

Arthur Chenevière and Arnold Roth found getting into Paris much more difficult than crossing the Prussian lines, because the French were worried about spies. However, news of the hospitable treatment Switzerland had given Bourbaki’s soldiers had spread to the capital. That helped open the city gates to the Swiss envoys. They were soon welcomed by the Swiss ambassador in Paris, Johann Konrad Kern, and the people of the Swiss colony. Chenevière and Roth brought their fellow countrymen and women substantial material assistance to the tune of around 30,000 francs, collected by the cantonal aid committees and the federal government. The Helvetian treasure was entrusted to the Swiss embassy, whose task it was to distribute it to the neediest among the Swiss citizenry in Paris.
Portrait of Johann Konrad Kern, around 1850.
Portrait of Johann Konrad Kern, around 1850. Swiss National Museum
Arthur Chenevière and Arnold Roth stayed only briefly in Paris and quickly returned to Switzerland to report to the Federal Council on their mission. They turned their backs on the torments of a war in which German troops would symbolically occupy the Champs-Elysées from 1-3 March and there would be a second siege: this time by the regular French armed forces against the Paris Commune. The federal authorities owed the two men a debt of gratitude; they achieved glory not only in Bern, but also in Geneva and Appenzell. Chenevière and Roth received recognition from Paris as well. Many Swiss people wrote and thanked them for their mission.

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