On the 18th January 1871, Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed the first German Emperor. The creation of the federal Empire made Wilhelm the head of state and president of the federated monarchies that made up the 27 constituent territories.
Wilhelm had been made the President of the North German Confederation on its formation in 1867, and during the Franco-Prussian War took a leading role in the command of the German forces. With patriotic fervour as a result of the enormously successful German advance, in November 1870 the remaining states south of the river Main joined the North German Confederation.
The next month, on the 10th December, the Reichstag of the Confederation renamed itself the German Empire. Wilhelm was formally declared the German Emperor in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles on the 18th January. The title was accepted grudgingly by Wilhelm who would have preferred “Emperor of Germany” rather than “German Emperor”, but Bismarck warned that this would be dangerous as it suggested he had a claim to other Germanic lands such as Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland. He also refused to be titled “Emperor of the Germans”, since this would have suggested he ruled with permission from the German people rather than by “the grace of God”. As a believer in divine right, this suggestion was unacceptable to him.
Three months later, on the 14th April, the Reichstag adopted the German Constitution. This stated that the King of Prussia would be the permanent President of the confederation of states that formed the Empire. Therefore, the role of Emperor was directly tied to the Prussian crown.
The Battle of Monte Cassino began when Allied forces launched the first of four attacks against the Gustav Line in Italy.
The Gustav Line, which together with the Bernhardt and Hitler lines formed a series of defences known as the Winter Line, had been established by the Germans and Italians to defend Rome from a northern advance by the Allies. The Allied forces had secured a foothold in Italy in Operation Avalanche the previous September, having first captured Sicily.
By early January 1944 the Allies had advanced a long way north, but their progress had been stopped by poor weather that forced them to approach Rome along Highway 6 that ran from Naples through the Liri valley. The southern entrance to the valley was dominated by the town of Cassino and overlooked by the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino.
Although the German army did not position defensive units in the abbey itself, the natural topography gave them a notable advantage over the Allies. Combined with minefields that had been laid in advance, the strong German position withstood the first assault that lasted for two and a half weeks and involved troops under British, American and French command attacking the position from three sides.
German forces finally withdrew on 17 May, and the following morning soldiers from the Polish 12th Podolian Cavalry Regiment raised a Polish flag over the ruins. The four assaults that made up the Battle of Monte Cassino had led to 55,000 Allied casualities and destroyed the ancient abbey. The treasures it contained had been evacuated to Rome in November 1943.
On the 14th January 1943, the Casablanca Conference began in Morocco. Primarily a military meeting between the USA and Britain, the conference resulted in a declaration of the doctrine of “unconditional surrender”.
The conference saw the Combined Chiefs of Staff join American President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to discuss the future strategy for fighting the Second World War. Representing the Free French forces, Generals Charles de Gaulle, and Henri Giraud were also in attendance. Roosevelt’s attendance at the conference marked the first time a President had left American soil during wartime. Meanwhile the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin declined his invitation as he felt his presence was needed at home during the ongoing Battle of Stalingrad.
The conference saw the leaders agree to invade Sicily after the North African Campaign, as a way to pull Axis forces away from mainland Europe and weaken the German defence ahead of a later Allied invasion of France. In return, Churchill agreed to send more troops to the Pacific in order to help the American forces continue their fight against the Japanese. Meanwhile, they agreed to launch combined bombing missions against Germany and to destroy German U-boats in the Atlantic.
Details of the conference were kept from the public until the participants left Casablanca. However, a number of journalists were invited for a press conference on the 24th January where vague details of the discussions were announced by Roosevelt. He did, however, announce his demand for the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers – an approach that had been discussed at the conference, but was not fully embraced by Churchill.
On the 8th January 1918, United States President Woodrow Wilson made a speech to Congress in which he outlined his principles for world peace, known as the Fourteen Points. Keen to distance the United States from nationalistic disputes that fuelled European rivalries, he sought a lasting peace by securing terms that avoided selfish ambitions of the victors.
Three days earlier, on the 5th January, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had outlined British war aims at the Caxton Hall conference of the Trades Union Congress. It was the first time any of the Allies had shared their post-war intentions and, as a result Woodrow Wilson considered abandoning his own speech since many of the points were similar. However, he was persuaded to deliver the speech anyway.
The Fourteen Points were greeted with some reluctance from France in particular. Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, is said to have remarked that, “The good Lord only had ten!” as a comparison to the Ten Commandments. However, the Fourteen Points speech became an instrument of propaganda that was widely circulated within Germany. Consequently it later served as a basis for the German armistice that was signed later that year.
However, France’s vastly different intentions meant that, when the time the Paris Peace Conference began on the 18th January 1919, there was significant tension between the negotiators. The fact that Wilson himself was physically ill meant that he was less able to argue for peace terms that reflected the Fourteen Points against Clemenceau – the Tiger – and his demands to cripple Germany. Consequently many Germans felt incredible anger over the final terms of the Treaty.
The first aerial crossing of the English Channel was conducted by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American John Jeffries in a gas-filled balloon.
Born to a peasant family in Normandy, Blanchard fled to Paris as a teenager. Here he developed an interest in science and, following the Montgolfier brothers’ successful flight of a hot air balloon in 1783, turned his attention to the new craze. On 2 March the following year Blanchard made his first successful flight at the Champs de Mars in Paris using a hydrogen-filled balloon.
Desperate to achieve fame and fortune, Blanchard moved to London in August 1784 where the population had not yet become caught up in ‘balloonomania’. Blanchard quickly convinced a group of financiers to support him and, alongside the wealthy Dr John Jeffries, Blanchard planned the first aerial crossing of the Channel.
Having provided the necessary funds, Jeffries insisted that he should accompany Blanchard on the flight from Dover to Calais. Unwilling to share the certain fame Blanchard concealed lead weights in his clothes in an attempt to persuade Jeffries that the balloon would be too heavy to carry both of them, but the American discovered the deception and was able to take his place on board.
Soon after departing England, the pair were forced to throw out their ballast and cargo. This included a propeller and a set of oars with which they had hoped to ‘row’ through the air. Barely skimming the tops of the waves, they later urinated over the side in an attempt to reduce the weight before opting to discard their clothes. When they touched down in a forest near Calais, they were wearing nothing but their underwear and the cork life jackets that they had brought in case they crashed into the sea.
The origin for the scandal lay in the discovery of a ripped-up letter in a waste basket at the German Embassy in Paris. Having been handed by the cleaner who found it to French counter-espionage, it was found to contain French military secrets and was determined to have been leaked by someone within the General Staff.
Alfred Dreyfus, who had been born into a Jewish family in the Alsace region before its annexation by Germany, had been promoted to the rank of captain by 1889. He joined the General Staff in 1893 but, following the discovery of the letter known as the bordereau, was arrested after his handwriting was compared to that in the letter.
Dreyfus’ trial began on 19 December, but was preceded by weeks of anti-Semitic articles in the right-wing press. The trial itself was conducted in a closed court, where the seven judges unanimously found him guilty of treason after being handed a secret dossier during their deliberations. They declared their verdict on 22 December, and sentenced him to life imprisonment preceded by military degradation. This involved the insignia being torn from his uniform and his sword broken, before being paraded in front of a crowd stirred up by the press shouting, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”
Dreyfus was transported to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, but in France new evidence began to emerge that another officer was the real traitor. With support from the Dreyfusards including the novelist Emile Zola, a retrial in 1899 reduced the sentence while the President of the Republic granted a pardon. However, it wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus was finally exonerated and readmitted to the army.
French aristocrat Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat set the world’s first officially recognised land speed record.
Chasseloup-Laubat’s older brother, the 5th Marquis of Chasseloup-Laubat, was one of the first members of the Automobile Club de France and bought an electric car from the French manufacturer Jeantaud sometime around 1893. The younger sibling was immediately fascinated with the chain-driven vehicle, and he became his brother’s driver.
The first recorded motoring competition took place in 1894 and saw a range of vehicles undertake the route from Paris to Rouen. Focus turned to the raw speed of a vehicle a few years later when the French automobile magazine La France Automobile organised a competition in the commune of Acheres in the Yvelines department in north-central France. Situated less than 15 miles outside Paris, the long straight road on the outskirts of the village was deemed the perfect place to conduct a time trial. As a keen advocate of the electric car, Chasseloup-Laubat took the Jeantaud along to compete.
The day was cold and wet, but this didn’t stop Chasseloup-Laubat from completing a single flying 1 kilometre run in 57 seconds. The time-keepers calculated that this gave him an average speed of 63.13 km/h or 39.24 mph, and this is universally recognised as the first official automobile land speed record. While this record was in turn broken by the Belgian driver Camille Jenatzy a month later on 17 January 1899, Chasseloup-Laubat regained the title later that day in the same car with which he had set the original record.
The current world land speed record is held by British Royal Air Force fighter pilot Andy Green, who broke the sound barrier in ThrustSSC.
It is estimated that up to a quarter of a million different units of measurement were in use throughout France at eve of the Revolution in 1789, and that these differed not only from trade to trade but also from town to town. The difficulties in trade, science and taxation that arose from these inconsistent systems prompted the French Academy of Sciences to investigate the reform of weights and measurements, although scientists across both Europe and America had discussed the advantages of a universal system of measurement for over a century.
Having decided that units in the new decimal system should be based on the natural world, the Academy defined the metre as one ten millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator. However, since this distance had never been calculated, the astronomers Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain led an expedition to measure the length of the meridian arc between Dunkirk and Barcelona as a basis for it. They completed their survey in 1798 and presented their findings the following year, having created both a reference metre and kilogram from platinum. The latter was calculated as the mass of a cube of water at 4°C, where each side of the cube measured 0.1 metres. This volume was also defined as a litre.
Although France was the first country to adopt the new metric system, it was abolished by Napoleon in 1812. By the time it was reinstated in 1840, however, numerous other countries had begun to adopt the system and its universal units soon spread to become the dominant form of measurement around the world.
On the 3rd December 1910, the first neon light went on show at the Paris Motor Show. Invented by Frenchman Georges Claude, the first neon lights were simply 35m long tubes. However, by 1912 he had begun to create advertising signs using the new technology with the first apparently being sold to a Parisian barber.
Claude’s neon lighting at the Paris Motor Show was used simply to light the front of the large exhibition space at the Grand Palais with red lighting. Frustrated that the red light meant his invention couldn’t be used to replace conventional home lighting, Claude was persuaded by his friend and associate, Jacques Fonseque, to use it for advertising. After the first successful sign was sold to the barber, a large sign for the alcoholic drink Cinzano became the first use of neon to actively advertise a product.
Claude patented his invention in 1915, which gave him a virtual monopoly over the production of neon lights for the first few years of their existence. However, it wasn’t until he sold the first neon lights to a Los Angeles-based car dealer in 1923 that he really began to take advantage of his creation. The new ‘liquid fire’ signs as some people referred to them became – in some places – even more popular than the businesses they were advertising, with signs such as Vegas Vic at Las Vegas’ Pioneer Club becoming cultural icons.
Neon lighting is still a popular form of advertising in the 21st Century, but has also made its way into many homes: the technology forms the basis of plasma televisions.
On the 15th November 1917, Georges Clemenceau was appointed Prime Minister of France for the second time. His appointment was something of a surprise, especially as it was made by President Raymond Poincare with whom he had a particularly frosty relationship. Clemenceau had previously held the position until 1909, after which he spent much of his time criticising the government in his own radical newspaper. However, within the first three years of the war three separate Prime Ministers had served and Poincare recognised that Clemenceau’s desire to defeat Germany made him the best replacement.
As 1917 wore on, the French government had become increasingly divided over whether to negotiate peace with Germany. Clemenceau was a fierce critic of this approach, having held a deep-seated hatred of Germany since France’s loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War five years before he was first elected to parliament. His appointment therefore heralded a marked change in government as he sought to consolidate French support behind its troops.
In a speech three days after his appointment, Clemenceau declared, “Nothing but the war. Our armies will not be caught between fire from two sides. Justice will be done. The country will know that it is defended.” This coincided with a clampdown on pacifist opponents and suspected traitors, and he continued to speak in favour of ‘war until the end’ until Germany’s surrender in November 1918. Victory was a double-edged sword: he now needed to negotiate the terms of the peace treaty with Wilson and Lloyd-George, which he described a like being “between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other.”