Battle of Sedan - German Victory and Fall of the French Empire (Franco-Prussian War)

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This week on Glory and Defeat: the dramatic Battle of Sedan destroys an army and an empire, and brings the birth of a new republic:

Last week the Germans besieged half of the French army in Metz, Marshal MacMahon moved to rescue them, and German 3rd Army made the Great Right Turn to stay on his heels. The reckoning comes this week at Sedan.

The German 3rd Army and MacMahon’s Army of Chalons have been marching parallel to each other for weeks, but that changed when the French turn east to relieve Metz. On August 29th though, a German vanguard intercepts them at the battle of Nouart. On the 30th, they clash again at Beaumont. French General Failly’s V Corps is encamped after retreating from Nouart, but he fails to post troops around the camp to protect it. He’s already shown his incompetence at Woerth and Spichern on August 6, and now his negligence will cost the French again.
The Prussian and Bavarian troops can hardly believe their eyes, and take the French completely by surprise. Reportedly, Failly is still at the dinner table when the German attack begins. Artillery shells crash into the camp and throw it into chaos, but the French troops mount a stubborn defense for the whole day until the Germans finally prevail. About 5000 French soldiers are killed or wounded, and 3000 made prisoner. The Germans lose about 3300 killed and wounded.
Bavarian soldier Florian Kühnhauser takes in the carnage:
"Nearby two dead Frenchmen lay in a pool of their own blood in the gutter. One was a Turco [...] the other was a younger, beardless man […] his face distorted with pain and partly covered in blood. […] The fires cast an otherworldly, ghostly light on them that made the scene even more hideous. The look of this unlucky pair deeply impressed me; years after their gruesome figures still visited me in my dreams." (Kühnhauser 59)
Mac Mahon hopes to regroup his forces at the town of Sedan, but discipline is starting to crack. Lieutenant Jean Guinaudeau of the 46e Régiment de Ligne struggles to control his men: "With a few men, persuasion is enough; with many more, it is necessary to use threats and, more than once, we have been obliged to raise our canes or to show the muzzle of our revolvers to disobedient men." (Milza, 83)

Mac Mahon’s attempt to relieve Metz fails, and a belated breakout attempt from the pocket by Bazaine also fails at the Battle of Noisseville on August 31 and September 1. Mac Mahon telegraphs Empress Eugénie that he has no choice but to fall back to Sedan.

On August 31, after the German victory at Beaumont, Mac Mahon’s French army turns towards Sedan, still accompanied by Emperor Napoleon III. The German 3rd Army’s pivot a few days before means it’s not far behind, and the German 4th Army are closing in as well. General von Moltke could not be more pleased:

"Now we have them in the mousetrap after all. Nun haben wir sie doch in der Mausefalle." (Herre, 292)

The old fortress town of Sedan near the Belgian border is home to 18,000 residents. The soon-to-be battlefield is characterized by the Meuse river, which runs through the city, as well as several villages and streams around a triangular plateau. Most importantly, a series of wooded ridges allow any force on top of them to fire down on exposed positions below.

General Ducrot reportedly sees the problem this way:
"Nous sommes dans un pot de chambre, et nous y serons emmerdés. We are in a chamber pot, and in it we shall be shit upon." (Howard 208)
On September 1, some French units are in Sedan, but most are on the plateau and north of town. The German 3rd and 4th Armies approach from the east and the southwest – two corps march west of Sedan, bypassing the French positions and cutting them off. The Germans have moved far quicker than the French expected, and now Napoleon III and his army of 120,000 men are trapped by a German force of 250,000. The Germans plan to fully encircle Sedan, and smash the helpless French below with artillery fire.

At 4:00AM, the I Bavarian Corps attacks French forces in the village of Bazeilles. The Bavarians attack ahead of schedule before reinforcements arrive, and now they’re locked in battle with elite French marines. Extremely bitter house-to-house fighting goes on for hours. In one house, the French fight on until they run out of ammunition – an event which becomes the subject of the famous painting "Les dernières cartouches" - "The Last Cartridges."

Bazeilles is in flames, and the Germans send in reinforcements. The fighting is so fierce that both sides commit war crimes. Non-uniformed French civilians fire from houses on German soldiers and wounded. French civilians and German soldiers even report after the battle that villagers throw wounded Germans into burning houses. Bavarian soldiers later say that they react by executing suspected franc-tireurs, and setting fire to houses. 39 civilian men, women and children are shot, killed in the crossfire, or die in the flames.

By 10:00AM, Bazeilles is in Bavarian hands and the Germans move on to Balan.
Almost as soon as the Battle of Sedan starts, the French command realizes they have no chance if they stay on the defensive. So MacMahon orders a breakout at Bazeilles, in the hopes of then retreating to Metz. He refuses to withdraw towards Belgium, since he sees it as dishonorable. But at 6:15AM MacMahon is severely wounded by a shell splinter and hands over command to General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot. Ducrot realizes that a breakout via Bazeilles is impossible, so he orders a fighting retreat through Illy, the last opening in the German ring. If his plan succeeds, the army can take shelter at the fortified town of Mezières 20km away.

But once again, the command system and the political culture of the Second Empire fail. Eugenié protegé General Emanuel Felix von Wimpffen insists that he should be in command based on seniority, and starts issuing counterorders. In the middle of the battle that will decide the fate of the Empire, with German artillery shells crashing down around them, the two generals argue – and the sick Emperor does little. At 9:00AM Wimpffen takes over. He thinks the situation can still be saved, and orders withdrawing units to turn around. The Emperor, who has predicted defeat since late July, resigns himself to his fate.

Three commanders and three battle plans on the same day simply hasten the French defeat. All around Sedan, German troops are on the attack. Saxon troops, along with the Prussian Guard, advance through the woods towards the Givonne brook. XI and V Corps swing to the north to fully seal off the town, and attack the French between Floing and Illy. Around noon, the Germans close the ring around Sedan. 500 German guns fire relentlessly on the completely defenseless French from all directions. Prussian Guard artillery officer Prince Krafft zu Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen watches as French artillery attempts to respond:

"A battery horsed entirely with greys trotted up […] and tried to take up its position between [Givonne] and the Bois de la Garenne. As soon as it appeared on the hill, [our] three batteries […] opened fire on it. It fell to pieces, as it were, and its ruins remained where they fell. It did not fire a single shot. A second and a third battery met with the same fate." (Barry 288)

The outcome is no longer in doubt, but the French cavalry repeatedly charges the Germans near Floing. Journalist William Howard Russell watches the scene unfold:

"Never can I forget the sort of agony with which I witnessed [the Prussians] who first came out on the plateau raising their heads and looking round for an enemy […] suddenly
the first block of [French] horse […] in beautiful order, rushed up the slope. […] The Prussians were caught en flagrant délit [and] were swept away. But
the impetuosity of the charge could not be stayed. [French]men and horses came
tumbling down into the road, where they were disposed of by the Prussian [infantry hidden] in the gardens." (Barry 306)

Around 2:00PM, the French army starts to disintegrate. Some soldiers throw down their rifles and flee to the relative protection of the fortress, while others continue the unequal fight. In the late afternoon, Napoleon III orders the white flag to be raised to spare the lives of his men.
Observing the battle from a nearby hill King Wilhelm also decides to stop the bloodshed and orders a cease fire at 6:00PM. He sends a messenger to Sedan, who returns with French General André Reille, who hands King Wilhelm the Emperor’s handwritten note:
"Monsieur mon frère, Not having been able to die in the midst of my troops, I have only to place my sword in Your Majesty’s hands. il ne me reste qu’à remettre mon épée entre les mains de Votre Majesté." (Bourguinat/Vogt, 74)

Sedan is another costly battle. 3000 French soldiers are killed and 14,000 are wounded. The Germans suffer 1600 killed, 6500 wounded, and nearly 900 missing. Napoleon III and his army enter German captivity on September 2, 1870. Bismarck rides out to meet him, and the two chat in front of a cottage by the side of the road. King Wilhelm also meets with Napoleon, and expresses his sympathy before the Emperor heads off for a comfortable captivity in a German chateau.

The fate of the Emperor’s 80,000 soldiers is not as comfortable. Once their commanders accept the German terms, they spend days outdoors in terrible conditions before the Germans gradually transport them east. French Corporal Louis Oberhausen helps other starving soldiers slaughter their horses: "[Killing them] was doing the beasts a favor, since they were even hungrier than the men." (Buorguinat/Vogt 74)

The Battle of Sedan is a crushing victory for the Germans. King Wilhelm’s officers are overcome with joy because they think the war is over – but they are mistaken.

Peace negotiations begin right after Sedan, but they don’t get far. The Germans demand Alsace and part of Lorraine, which the French generals refuse. So German troops begin to advance towards Paris on September 3, and there’s precious little to stop them.

Back in Paris, news of the catastrophe at Sedan and the capture of the Emperor unleashes the political tensions of the Second Empire. Tens of thousands take to the streets in passionate and violent demonstrations in favor of a return to a republic, and the imperial regime collapses. Some opposition politicians set aside their differences and declare the 3rd Republic on September 4, 1870:

"Citizens of Paris! The Republic is proclaimed! […] The government calls on citizens to remain calm – the people must remember that it is in the presence of the enemy. The government is above all a government of national defense." (Gouttman 297)

The Government of National Defense has three key members: Paris military governor and orléaniste General Jules Trochu is the President of the Council of Ministers, moderate liberal Jules Favre is Foreign Minister, and leftist lawyer Léon Gambetta is Minister of the Interior.

Favre and Gambetta are political opposites, but they’re also the driving force behind the creation of the republic. If they want to consolidate the fragile young republic and silence its many critics, they’ll have to end the war while avoiding a dishonorable peace. Since German demands are unacceptable to them and the old French army has been destroyed, this means carrying on the war in a new way. Until now, the war has been more of a Cabinet War between princes than a war of extermination between nations. That is about to change, because the nationalist government of the 3rd republic is prepared to fight the hated German enemy by any means necessary. Gambetta announces la guerre à outrance – all-out war.

This week, the Germans deal the French a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Sedan, the Emperor is captured, and France becomes a republic. When Empress Eugenie learns her husband has been captured, she faints. For her, the situation is hopeless: most of the French army has been destroyed or captured, and the republicans are now in control. Her only chance is to attempt a daring escape.


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1870 Glory & Defeat

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