Why France Did Not Surrender After Sedan - Empress Eugénie Flees The Country I Franco-Prussian War

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This week on Glory and Defeat: Third French republic continues the war, the Empress escapes, and the battlefields need cleaning up. https://youtu.be/_OsIW3ufZ6I

Last week, the Germans defeated the French at Sedan, took the Army of Châlons and the Emperor prisoner, and the Third French Republic was proclaimed. The fragile new Republican regime wants to continue the struggle against the German alliance, but it is already in grave danger. Since peace negotiations after Sedan have failed, the German 3rd and 4th Armies advance towards Paris, while the German 1st and 2nd Armies continue the siege of Metz. What French forces remain rush towards the capital, including 100,000 Mobile Guardsmen from the Chalons camp.

The Third Republic that is desperately trying to defend itself is largely the creation of liberal and left-wing intellectuals who see the capture of Napoleon III at Sedan as a historic opportunity. After the revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848 all eventually resulted in monarchy, they are determined that this time France will remain a republic for good.
Moderate liberal Foreign Minister Jules Favre and leftist lawyer Interior Minister Léon Gambetta are the two most prominent figures in the new Government of National Defense. The first priority this week is indeed military necessity: on September 9 preparations for the defense of Paris begin, and on the 11th, a delegation arrives in Tours to coordinate the war effort in the countryside. This week the government also starts to raise a new citizen army on the model of the 1793 'levée en masse.'
Gambetta pushes verbally brutal anti-German propaganda that foreshadows the venomous language of the 20th century with slogans like this: "We must kill everything, we must murder, strangle, shoot from windows and cellar holes. If we have no guns, we take pitchforks, sabers and pikes; no matter how, it is only a matter of killing." (Arand, 399)
Many Germans express their animosity privately and in milder terms, like General Staff officer Julius Verdy du Vernois: "“[The French] must be made to feel what it means to challenge a peaceful neighbor to a struggle for life or death. The whole French nation must be made sick of fighting, no matter whether a Napoleon reigns, or an Orléans or a Bourbon or anything else." ” (Howard 228)
In September 1870, the Third Republic is the first state to attempt to activate all economic, industrial, and intellectual resources of society for the fight against an external and dehumanized enemy, a concept later known as total war.
Not all French citizens support the republic. Upper class and conservative writer Edmond de Goncourt is bitterly against last week’s Paris riots and the regime change they helped bring about. His diary is full of insults directed at the revolutionaries:
"“It seems to me that among this lewd rabble the first good men of the old Marseillaise are not to be found. It seems to me there are only sceptical thugs whose politics is smashing things. They haven’t got anything under their left nipple with which to make grand sacrifices for la patrie.”" (Goncourt 23)
Goncourt’s criticism is not surprising given the social class difference between him and the revolutionaries. But Goncourt overlooks the fact that the Second Empire’s crushing defeats in recent weeks laid bare the corruption and nepotism of a hollow system. The social problems that drove working class people onto the streets last week are only hearsay to Goncourt.

While the Republic is being founded, the main figures of the imperial regime are either in German captivity, like the Emperor and Marshal MacMahon, or flee abroad. The most prominent fugitive is former Empress Eugénie.

The Empress had gotten the war she wanted back in July, but instead of stabilizing the Imperial regime and her son’s succession, it led to defeat. When she learns of Napoleon III’s capture on September 3, she is desperate and furious:
"Non, un Napoléon ne capitule pas. No, a Napoleon does not surrender. [...] Why didn't he get himself killed? [...] Didn't he feel that he was dishonoring himself? " “ (Milza, 119)
After a fit of screaming, Eugénie regains her composure and summons her ministers to work out a plan to save the empire, but it’s too late. The surrender at Sedan now puts her in danger. The republic is proclaimed as crowds march through to the Imperial palace demanding the death of ‘the Spaniard’ – and Eugénie de Montijo is Spanish-born. The crowds also destroy symbols of empire like the large golden letter N which was all over the city, and there are even a few red flags raised.
The Empress does not want to suffer the same fate as Marie-Antoinette, who was beheaded in 1793. She flees the palace dressed in simple clothes and hidden in a carriage – without even packing a suitcase. Her priceless collection of clothes, jewelry and ornaments remains in the palace. She manages to get through the crowds without being recognized with a few close confidants in tow.
The group’s first stop is the home of Eugenie’s longtime dentist, American Thomas W. Evans. On September 5, Evans, the Empress, and a few others leave Paris in another carriage for the English Channel. The exhausted party changes horses and companions, and end up in a farm wagon on their way to the coast. They stay the night in a cheap flophouse and miraculously, no one recognizes them.
On September 6, filthy and drenched from the constant rain, the ex-Empress reaches Deauville, where she embarks for England the next day. She sails on a small yacht called the “Gazelle” which is caught in a storm but stays afloat. On September 8, a seasick, exhausted Eugénie on the verge of a nervous breakdown reaches the safety of English shores. The same day she reunites with her son Loulou, who ironically has just landed at Hastings.

While Eugénie flees France for England, the battlefields of the war she helped to start are still covered in corpses – and her former subjects are the ones doing the cleaning up.

The fields around Sedan are strewn with dead Frenchmen, Germans, and horses, but so are the sites of the great battles of August. The princes may have started the war, but the people living near the battlefields are the ones who are doing the gruesome work of clearing away the carnage.
Alsatian Pastor Karl Klein lists just some of the items that litter the battlefield next to his home: "“[…] broken wagons, rifles, bayonets, sabres, torn and bloody clothes, tents, chakos, knapsacks, prayer books, photographs, half-eaten animal carcasses, dead chickens, spilt food, cooking utensils, barrels, and sacks – in short, everything an army can have and lose. The dead [men] lie one by one, and in heaps, already bloated and swollen [...] The sons of both nations lie thick in some places […] mown down in the strength and flower of life. dahingemäht in der Kraft und Blüte des Lebens." (Arand/Bunnenberg 249f)
When the armies move on, the locals, with some help from the German army, have to bury the dead. Usually they place 60-80 bodies in a mass grave in two layers. Sometimes, like at Sedan, the bodies of men and horses are also burned to prevent disease.
Prussian Friedrich Nietzsche, who is a professor and a volunteer medic, helps out clearing the battlefield at Wörth at the end of August. His task is to find the grave of a Bavarian officer who is to be exhumed and brought home, which was a common practice for families who could afford it. Repatriating the fallen is not pretty, as Major Hans von Kretschman describes:
"Frau von Roeder has asked the King for the body of her fallen husband [...] The bodies were only buried two or three feet deep, and were badly decomposed because of the rain. All the pioneers contracted typhus from the work, and some died [...]. Incidentally, consider that there are often several in one grave, so one can no longer recognize a man’s features. We must then carry out an investigation of the worst kind." (Braun 127)
Even veteran war correspondent William Howard Russell is shocked by the battlefield at Sedan: "I do not remember ever having passed through so horrible a place, having beheld so much that was disgusting and hideous.The stench was terrible. Truly, a place for vultures." (Russell 336 f)

This week, the new French republic prepares for total war, Empress Eugénie and the Prince Imperial flee to England, and the gruesome cleanup of the battlefields continues. The republic is committed to waging war with far greater tenacity and brutality than the corrupt empire it has replaced, but the task will not be easy. On September 12, the last day of this week, the first German cavalry scouts are sighted near Paris.


  • Arand, Tobias: 1870/71. Der Deutsch-Französische Krieg erzählt in Einzelschicksalen. Hamburg 2018
  • Arand, Tobias/Bunnenberg, Christian (Hrsg.): Karl Klein. Die Fröschweiler Chronik. Hamburg 2021
  • Herre, Franz: Eugénie. Kaiserin der Franzosen. München 2000
  • Howard, Michael: The Franco-Prussian War. London 1961
  • Milza, Pierre: L’année terrible. La guerre franco-prussienne. Septembre 1870 – mars 1871. Paris 2009


  • Braun, Lily (Hrsg.): Kriegsbriefe aus den Jahren 1870/71 von Hans v. Kretschman. Berlin 1911
  • Hérisson, Maurice Graf d’: Journal d’un officier d’ordonannce. Juillet 1870 – Février 1871. Paris 1885
  • Goncourt, Edmond de: Journal des Goncourt. Memoire de la vie litteraire. 2.1. 1870-1871. Paris 1890
  • Russell, William Howard: Meine sieben Kriege. Die ersten Reportagen von den Schlachtfeldern des 19. Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt a. M. 2000

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