RLMH News: Early photographs from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871

Sedan coverA rare book found in the RUSI Library of Military History reveals early photographs depicting scenes and the aftermath of the Battle of Sedan.

By Carlo Dumontet, Associate Library Fellow


This month, as we continue to catalogue and restore our rare books in the RUSI Library of Military History, we highlight an interesting work on the Battle of Sedan, Captain George W. A. Fitz-George's Plan of the Battle of Sedan, accompanied by a short memoir (London: Edward Stanford, 1871).

The battle was fought on 1 September 1870. The French army under Marshal Patrice de Mac-Mahon failed to break the siege of Metz and was encircled at Sedan by the Prussians, under Field-Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. The defeat of the French army sealed the fate of the war. Napoleon III was captured but permitted to reach England in exile. The new French Third Republic continued the fight until the fall of Paris on 28 January 1871. The Franco-Prussian War led to the creation of the German Empire and the French Commune.

MiltrailleusesFitz-George's Memoir was published only months after the event, but what makes this work noteworthy is the fact that it is illustrated by six photographs (albumen prints) pasted onto the leaves, depicting key scenes of the battle.

Albumen prints were invented in 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard (Lille, 1802-1872), and were the first commercial method of producing a photographic print on paper from a negative. They are called albumen prints because the paper was coated with egg white before being immersed in a solution of silver nitrate to make it sensitive to light.

Albumen prints tend to fade and become yellowish over time if exposed to too much light. The prints in this book unfortunately have suffered in this sense, but they are still readable.

A short film on the history of the albumen print is available from the George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, New York.

A slightly longer video on how to make an albumen print is available from St Pauls Photography.

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