Danger of war on the Swiss border


At the end of January 1871, the signs on the Swiss border point to war. But the state government doesn’t seem to care. Federal Councilor Welti prefers to use the red pencil instead of reinforcing the troops as required by the top of the army.

February 1, 1871: Swiss soldiers take the arms of fleeing troops of the French Bourbaki army. The picture shows a painting by the Neuchâtel painter Auguste Bachelin.

February 1, 1871: Swiss soldiers take the arms of fleeing troops of the French Bourbaki army. The picture shows a painting by the Neuchatel painter Auguste Bachelin.

Lucerne Art Museum

One could have recognized the impending danger if one had carefully read the daily front reports of the newspapers in the Bundeshaus. On January 13, 1871, an alarming report from a Swiss army commander arrived in the Bernese Jura at the military department: At Montbeliard, just 30 kilometers from Pruntrut, a 150,000-strong French army and the XIV Corps of the Prussians were facing each other.

It can be assumed that the fighting in the Franco-Prussian War could soon shift to the Swiss border. So what?

The answer is clear. “The border occupation forces would no longer suffice if a larger French corps were pushed over by the Germans to Swiss territory,” says the minutes of the following Federal Council meeting with reference to this military report. The same applies in the event that the French attacked Prussia and wanted to march across Swiss soil.

The war is getting closer

The state government has also been informed of this threatening scenario. The commander in Pruntrut urges reinforcements. At least one additional division should be set up.

But in Bern you don’t get upset. Federal Councilor Emil Welti, the head of the military department, who is as power-conscious as he is cost-conscious, dictates his ideas to the committee. Instead of a division, only an infantry brigade with militia officers from Zurich and three other Swiss-German cantons had to be deployed. The army therefore has to make do with just under a third of the troops required. It will also take several days for the soldiers to arrive in the border region from far away Zurich.

The war between France and Prussia and its allies, however, takes no account of complicated decision-making processes and slow preparations for an emergency in Switzerland. For three days, the French army under General Charles Denis Bourbaki tried to break the resistance of the outnumbered Prussians – to no avail.

Then the French pull back south-east along the Swiss border. The danger has not yet been averted, especially since the Bourbaki army near Pontarlier is threatened to be encircled by German troops coming from two sides. From there, the French had only one way out: across to the nearby Val de Travers in Neuchatel and in the Vaud Jura.

Who actually leads the army?

Meanwhile, the Federal Council is meeting in Bern for another meeting. Again Welti informs his ministerial colleagues about the demands of the top of the army. Once again, it is the military chief who straightens these wishes by pointing out that each additional unit is jeopardizing the tight budget of the federal government and who asserts himself on the basis of his personality – after all, the deployment of troops is the responsibility of the Federal Council and not of the military leadership.

But then Federal President Karl Schenk raises a question that has been debating in politics and the public for weeks: What about the commander-in-chief of the army? Is Hans Herzog general or not?

Herzog, the former artillery inspector, was elected commander-in-chief by the Federal Assembly when the war broke out in July 1870. But fighting is mostly far away, in northern Alsace, in Lorraine and near Paris. At the end of August, before the Germans won at Sedan and the French Emperor Napoleon III abdicated, Welti ordered all standing troops to be released. General Herzog is given leave of absence, that is to say from his command, but not from office.

The strong man in the Federal Palace considers the war to be decided. Finally, Welti believes, he can turn to rail policy again, an area that interests him much more than troublesome military issues.

«A situation that borders on nonsense!»

Herzog remains skeptical. He knows that the fronts in France can quickly move back to Switzerland. However, he lacks the strength to measure his strength with his superior in the first few months of the arms trade. Instead, at the end of November he submits an unflattering report on the formation of troops in the summer and at the same time submits an application for resignation – which Welti, however, deliberately ignores.

In December Herzog renewed his request for resignation, this time by writing to the President of the National Council. But the parliament also does not want to know anything about the general’s resignation. Herzog has no choice but to “submit to the wish of the high Federal Assembly,” as he writes, and to remain in office.

The professional soldier clearly suffers from the dominant position of Bundesrat Welti. The commander-in-chief continues in bitter words: «The feeling of immense responsibility is a truly embarrassing one, even more so since the general is deprived of all and every direct influence on the organization and preparation of the army in an emergency – a situation that is nonsensical borders. ”

The general prevails

On January 20, 1871, Herzog was back in command. And he gets to deal with his manager right away. Welti quotes the general after Olten. However, the commander-in-chief gave the floor in this interview, and one thing was clear: the soldiers still held back by the Federal Council were to be made ready for march immediately and to be moved to the Jura. There could be little more doubt about the intentions of the Germans: they wanted to throw the Bourbakis into Switzerland and thereby make them harmless. It is important to be ready for that!

Welti has an understanding that the division requested can finally be deployed.

A week later, 19500 men are ready in the Val de Travers and in the Vaud Jura. On the other side of the border, ready-to-fight Prussian troops and the Bourbaki army, shrinking significantly, exhausted and demoralized by defeat, retreat and freezing temperatures, but still an army of 87,000 men.

What will happen now? Will the Germans Attack? Will the retreating French then invade neutral Switzerland and try to fight their way to the rescuing Lyon in Vaud?

On 29 January, news of the fact that the warring parties in Versailles had agreed on a ceasefire caused additional confusion in this tense situation. All fighting should be stopped. Emil Welti also found out about it. The shrewd military chief promptly prompted the Federal Council to demand that the general release the soldiers who had just been called up. The border occupation should be reduced to a few troops as soon as possible.

But Herzog, who was already in the Neuchatel border town of Les Verrieres at the time, refused. He cannot accept the state government’s position “as long as the risk of border violations is as great as it is today,” he cables back to Bern.

«Black of powder and dirt, lean, miserable»

The general has every reason to be upset because he is better informed than the state government. The Germans continue the fighting, because unlike the Federal Council and the Bourbaki troops, the ceasefire does not apply to this area. The situation of the surrounded French is hopeless.

On the night of February 1, a French officer asked the Swiss commander-in-chief to negotiate the border crossing of the Bourbaki army. An agreement is quickly reached: the soldiers must surrender their weapons as soon as they step on Swiss soil. This ensures that the Germans do not pursue them across the border.

The defeated French move into Switzerland in 48 hours. The Val de Travers presents a sad picture. “The team, black with powder and dirt, lean, miserable, hardly looks any stronger than their horses,” writes the NZZ correspondent. The Bourbakis are later brought inland for internment.

In his final report on the border occupation, General Herzog cannot help but thank everyone involved for coping with the crisis and welcoming the French: his officers and soldiers, the local volunteers, the governments and the people of the cantons. He leaves Federal Councilor Welti unmentioned.

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