Sunday, October 07, 2012

Decisive Battles: Sedan 1870

Sedan Dates: 1 SEP 1870
Forces Engaged: Le Second Empire Français (French "Second Empire")

L'Armee de Chalons; an ad-hoc formation composed of four army corps, three of which had originally formed part of the Armee de la Rhin which was at the time encircled at Metz.
A French Army Corps of 1870 was typically composed of four infantry divisions, a cavalry division, and corps assets including artillery and engineers. Both infantry and cavalry divisions were so-called "square", each composed of two infantry brigades of two infantry regiments each. At this time French infantry were still divided into "line" battalions and "light" units (called chasseur battalions); although tactical order had already moved away from the old close linear formations for the heavy infantry the lights retained their specialized training for reconnaissance and screening.
These corps (1st, 5th, and 7th) were joined by the 12th Corps to make up a force of roughly 130,000 infantry and cavalry (200-odd battalions and 80-some squadrons) and somewhere between 400 and 500 cannon of all calibers.

But the simple numbers don't really tell the story of the ill-fated Army of Chalons.

First, the three regular army corps had been badly mishandled at the battles along the frontier in August. A contemporary observer is quoted in Howard (1969) describing the lot as " inert crowd...scarcely moving even if you kicked them, grumbling at being disturbed in their weary sleep." Many of the troops of 1st and 7th Corps had lost their rucksacks on the Frontiers campaign and had nothing but their weapons and the clothing and equipment they were wearing.

The 12th Corps was a hastily assembled odd lot consisting of a division of Marines, a regular division posted up from the Spanish border, and a third division of raw conscripts.

Eighteen battalions of the Gardes Mobile de la Seine were thrown into this over-egged souffle'; this bunch were the gawdawful bastard children of the polarization between Left and Right that was already afflicting French politics; a supposed reserve that was poorly armed and trained, neither a genuine nation-in-arms or a professional force. At Sedan they are described as responding to the traditional cry of "Long live the Emperor!" with a derisive "One! Two! Three! SHIT!"
This bordelique ambulant was notionally commanded by Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte as the Emperor of France Napoleon III, but in fact was run by Marshal Marie Edme Patrice Maurice de Mac-Mahon, 1st Duke of Magenta, the titular commander of the II Corps.

Forces of Prussia and her allies (Norddeutscher Bund and the then-independent south German states of Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria) - We in the Western hemisphere tend to forget, now that Germany has been a unified state for more than 140 years, that the old regional distinctions - Hessian, Bavarian, East Prussian, Badener - really meant something in 1870. A young soldier from Leipzig marching west in the XII Armeekorps in that eventful summer would likely to have considered himself a Saxon first, then a "German", but might well have thought that his Austrian Czech neighbor was less alien than the damn half-Danes from Schleswig-Holstein.

Which - and we'll get to that in a bit - was really the single biggest point to the human trainwreck that was the Franco-Prussian War; to make Germans German by pointing the armies of the separate German principalities at their oldest common enemy, France, and using the deaths of thousands to forge a nation.

Call it cynical, bloodyminded, and inhumane. It was all that.

But it worked.

Sorry; I have a hard time with the ruthless opportunism of this entire goddamn war. I'll try to stay on task hereafter.

At any rate, the forces that met the Armee de Chalons at Sedan consisted of two German armies, identified to history as 3rd Army and 4th Army.

The 3rd Army had crossed the frontier in August, and consisted of 12 infantry divisions in six armeekorps (V, VI, XI, I Bavarian, II Bavarian, and a combined Württemberg-Baden corps) and two cavalry corps and the usual corps odds-and-sods.
While the individual armeekorps was smaller than its French equivalent, the German infantry divisions were very similar; two brigades each of two regiments, often with a light infantry unit (Jäger-Bataillon), a cavalry squadron, and divisional artillery.
The other unit, however, was also a temporary formation, culled from the units of the German 1st and 2nd Armies, to go after the Frenchmen assembling around Chalons.

This outfit is identified as the 4th Army or Maasarmee (Army of the Meuse) and consisted of the Prussian Guard corps, VI, and XII Armeekorps of 2nd Army. The two numbered corps were fairly standard (though XII was pretty much the entire little Saxon Royal Army) but the Gardekorps was a monster; effectively a little army in itself, it included two oversize infantry divisions, a cavalry and artillery division, and its own combat trains, engineers, and other support elements.

The entire outfit comprised roughly 200,000 infantry and artillery and over 700 artillery pieces of various calibers, under the direct command of Feldmarshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, known to history as "Moltke the Elder".
The Campaign: The story of Sedan is really the story of the end of the "maneuver phase" of the Franco-Prussian War. Everything after that is the Siege of Paris and the fall of the Commune and, really, that whole episode makes me sick at the sight of one group of Frenchmen killing another with an invader at the gate.

(A Brief Note on The Causes of the War): And I should add that in the long history of humans killing other humans the Franco-Prussian War must go down as perhaps one of the most cynical and idiotic concatenation of causes ever devised.

To make a very long story short the whole nasty business was, fundamentally, ginned up by a coterie of "greater German" ministers - led by Otto Bismarck - in order to create a modern state out of the old chaos of the German principalities. "I knew that a Franco-Prussian War must take place before a united Germany was formed." said Otto, and he got what he wanted on both scores.

But the French "leadership" was little better. There was no real gain for the average Frenchman in fighting the German states, any more than for the average German in fighting France. But the Bonapartist faction wanted some bread and circuses for the masses to distract from the fact that the Emperor and his clique were steadily suppressing any degree of republican reforms. Their ridiculous and sordid bit of colonial farce in Mexico had ended in a dusty field in Queretaro three years earlier. Perhaps the truly risible part of the war is that the people who were least capable of fighting and winning it wanted it as much or more than those who had planned it to the last millimeter.

We in the populist 21st Century speak of "cabinet wars" as shorthand for the sort of venal little conflicts fought in Europe during the Era of Monarchs; this one might well stand for all of them. No gain was to be had for Jacques Saque-de-Dejeunier and Hans Mittagessen-sacke; theirs was to pay the price in blood, pain, and suffering while the ambitious men who led them to those miserable fates were, at worst, humiliated and exiled.

It truly was a wretched little war.)

The "public reason" for the conflict centered around a series of diplomatic caprioles performed to attempt to seat a Prussian Hohenzollern prince on the throne of Spain. But the two powers had been snarling at each other for some time; France chafing and pushing against the limits set on it after the first Napoleon's fall, Germany (and the Bismarck clique) seeing a successful conflict with the old Champion of Europe as a way to make the bones of a new, Prussian-led German state.

In early July of 1870 the then caudillo of Spain offered the Spanish throne to one Leopold Stephan Karl Anton Gustav Eduard Tassilo Fürst von Hohenzollern, a minor princeling of the Prussian royal lineage. Here he is, by the way. Nice beaver, eh?

The French press and public about had a fit, and what didn't help was that the Emperor was doubled over at the moment by an acute attack of his bladder stones caused by the clap (odd, those things that history hinges on, isn't it?) and his wife Eugénie, who was something of a hardass and Spanish in the bargain was in charge and inclined to take no prisoners.

One wonders if Nappie's clap had something to do with this.


The French foreign ministry (in the person of its ambassador to Berlin, a mook named Benedetti) was instructed to give the word to the King of Prussia.

This took place at the spa at Ems, where the German king was "taking the waters", i.e. having a bit of a vacation.
The King of Prussia, Wilhelm Hohenzollern, first of that name, was perfectly willing to tell Cousin Leo that he wasn't going to be crowned in Madrid. Bismarck despaired, France celebrated, and both the French and Prussian warlovers wah-wahed like sad trombones.

"The country will be disappointed, but what can we do?" whined the French Emperor in mid-July. But when on 11 JUL 1870 Benedetti turned up again and demanded that Willy NEVER allow his relative to be King of Spain the Prussian sniffed and walked away.

He then cabled his government in Berlin thusly:
"Count Benedetti spoke to me on the promenade, in order to demand from me, finally in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself for all future time never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. I refused at last somewhat sternly, as it is neither right nor possible to undertake engagements of this kind à tout jamais. Naturally I told him that I had as yet received no news, and as he was earlier informed about Paris and Madrid than myself, he could clearly see that my government once more had no hand in the matter. His Majesty has since received a letter from the Prince. His Majesty having told Count Benedetti that he was awaiting news from the Prince, has decided with reference to the above demand, upon the representation of Count Eulenburg and myself, not to receive Count Benedetti again, but only to let him be informed through an aide-de-camp that his Majesty had now received from the Prince confirmation of the news which Benedetti had already received from Paris, and had nothing further to say to the ambassador. His Majesty leaves it to your Excellency whether Benedetti's fresh demand and its rejection should not be at once communicated both to our ambassadors and to the press."
Which our boy Bismarck undertook to...ummm...improve a little before releasing it to the public press. When he did, this is what it said:
"Count Benedetti spoke to me on the promenade, in order to demand from me, finally in a very importunate manner, that I should authorize him to telegraph at once that I bound myself for all future time never again to give my consent if the Hohenzollerns should renew their candidature. His Majesty has decided not to receive Count Benedetti again, but only to let him be informed through an aide-de-camp that his Majesty and had nothing further to say to the ambassador."
See the difference?
This little gem is now referred to as the "Ems Dispatch", and was issued to the inky scribblers on 13 JUL. It worked like a charm; it pissed off the French because it made it sound like Willy had flipped off their ambassador, and it pissed of the Germans because it made it sound like the little Franco-Italian had been rude and snotty to their prince.

The French press, public, and the war party led by Nappie and his missus promptly went utterly batshit. The French declaration of war was delivered on 19 JUL 1870.

The first six weeks of war were a perfect disaster for France.

France's army was a full-time professional force of about 400,000. The Prussian/North German active forces were smaller but were backed up by the successor to the Napoleonic "Krumper System" that could field over 1 million troops within weeks of mobilization, and did.

By contrast, the French mobilization was a mess of poor planning and poor execution, hampered by regional division, political infighting, and pure incompetence.
The two sides met first at the Battle of Wörth on 6 AUG 1870 and Marshal MacMahon, who commanded the right wing of the Army of the Rhine fell back to the south and west, having taken, and given, about 4,000 casualties.

But worst was happening to the French left, posted along the border between Sierck and Spicheren. Four corps; II, III, IV, and VI, met the full weight of both German 1st and 2nd Armies at Spicheren on the same day and were slammed backward towards Metz.

Although both sides also lost about 4,000 lives Marshal Achille Bazaine, the commander of the French left, seemed to completely lose his composure and his command. The retreat west was not so much a retreat as a shamble, and when the German forces slipped behind the French mob the movement stopped; Mars-la-Tour on 16 AUG and Gravelotte-St. Privat on 18 AUG effectively penned Baziane's troops inside fortified Metz.
The bulk of the French forces were beaten and surrounded.
McMahon's I and V Corps continued southwest to the Meuse, and from there northwest to Chalons, where we met them earlier.

Meanwhile the German 1st and 2nd Armies invested Sedan while the 3rd pursed MacMahon to Luneville and then turned northwest down the valley of the Meurthe, through Nancy, and west across the Meuse to Bar-le-Duc.

So in the last couple of weeks of August the situation was roughly:

The French Army of the Rhine was pinned inside Metz by the German 1st and part of the 2nd Army.

The force that would become the Army of Chalons was, Chalons.

Therethe Emperor Napoleon III met with his commanders in Chalons on 17 AUG. This conference, in which the sick, dispirited ruler played little part, MacMahon, GEN Trochu of XII Corps, the commander of the Gardes Mobiles GEN Berthaut, and Napoleon's cousin Joseph (known to history by his ridiculous nickname "Plon-plon") devised a plan in which the Army of Chalons would march west and took up defensive positions east of Paris.

With this in mind GEN Trochu was appointed to command the Paris garrison and shipped out to prepare the capital for the arrival of its ruler and its last field army.

But here the very resistible force of the Emperor and his commanders ran into an immovable object: the Empress Eugénie.

She had been designated Napoleon's regent in Paris when he left to join the troops, and she was insistent; the Emperor would not enter the capital while she could deter him. "The Army of Chalons will make its junction with the Army of Metz!" she declared.

This delusion was fostered by a message from Bazaine received by the Army of Chalons on 22 AUG, stating that after a short respite to reorganize the Army of the Rhine would break out to the west and fight its way by way of either Montmedy or Sedan to join the Emperor's forces at Chalons.

Meanwhile MacMahon had marched his force northwest to Rheims, still hoping for authorization to turn west to Paris.

In fact the Army of the Rhine was immobilized, and when the the Army of Chalons marched out of Rheims on 23 AUG it was in pursuit of a phantasm, a illusion as hollow as the Emperor Napoleon, the man who Bismarck had dismissed as "a sphinx without a riddle."

The French Army of Chalons was moving north with the idea of slipping around the German right, down the Franco-Belgian border and catching the besiegers of Metz like the coyote did the farmer's wife; by surprise and from behind.

Here's where Moltke showed his mettle.

To most of the German officers in the field marshal's staff the idea that the Army of Chalons might be farkling about northeastern France was unthinkable. These guys thought of war as a science, and the notion of maneuvering based on a combination of hope and wishful thinking was...well, unscientific. And suicidal.

On 24 AUG the Stabschef learned - from of all things, a London Times article - that MacMahon did, indeed, plan to attempt to break Bazaine out of Metz. The following day, when reports began to filter in from cavalry recon patrols that a French force was moving northeast in the vicinity of Sedan, Moltke ordered the German 3rd and the new 4th Army to wheel right and march north towards Grand-Pre' just east of MacMahon's new force.
The weather that summer was poor; cold, and wet. The roads north from Chalons were poor, and you recall that the troops of I and V Corps were not in good shape to begin with. Straggling was endemic, march and camp discipline was poor.

I suspect that aggressive patrolling was an early casualty; tired troops are not motivated to scout well or keep good security. So it doesn't surprise me that the first engagement of Sedan consisted of a German force surprising the French Vth Corps on 30 AUG and giving them a round ass-kicking.

The German outfit was all 4th Army and a perfectly heterogeneous pre-unification mob of various deutschvolk; Saxons from XII. Armeekorps, the VI. Armeekorps with guys from Anhalt, Prussian Saxony and Freistaat Thüringen, and the southerners of I. Königlich Bayerisches Armee-Korps.

Both sides in this war had learned the hard lessons of the previous decade; they didn't try marching into rifle fire in close order as the German and Austrian troops had in 1866 and their American cousins had done in 1865. Open order was the rule, with artillery to provide covering fire.

But some lessons were still to be learned. The notion of fire-and-movement, with small units dividing into troops moving and others firing, was in its early stages. Coordination between larger units was impossible, and between infantry and artillery spare at best.

The French infantry was armed with a relatively modern weapon, the Fusil modèle 1866 better known as the chassepot after its inventor.
To a modern soldier it is an awkward-looking transition from the muzzle-loading rifles of the 1860s and the brass cartridge firing rifles of WW1. It fired an 11mm - almost half an inch diameter - lead slug wrapped with its black powder charge in a paper cartridge. But no fumbling with percussion caps - it had an internal primer that was set off by a firing pin.

The chassepot combined with the French adoption of the rifle pit and the trench made French infantry deadly at long ranges, well-protected at short ranges, and hard to overrun. The German landser had a similar but older weapon, the leichtes Perkussionsgewehr Model 1841 better known as the
Zündnadelgewehr or "needle-gun" for the way the skinny firing pin looked like a needle to the troopers of the 1840s. The shortcomings of this older breechloader - poor reliability and short range - were badly exposed in 1870, and the German guys paid for it in lives.

So even though the tired poilus of Vth Corps were jumped in their fartsacks at Beaumont they traded about even-up casualties from rifle fire.

It was the artillery that broke them.

The French Army of 1870 was still using the same weapons their grandfathers had in 1815; brass or steel muzzle-loading wooden-carriage 12-pounder cannon firing solid ball, shrapnel, and case or canister shot for close range.
The German armies, however, were equipped with the all-steel Krupp ordnance, primarily the 80mm 6-Pfünder-Feldkanone C/64 firing a contact-fuzed shell. This enabled the gunners to stand off of the infantry and hammer them, which the German kannoniere did at every engagement in 1870.

Beaumont was no exception, and the German arty smashed Vth Corps and sent it reeling north.

7,500 Frenchmen never left Beaumont.

MacMahon must have been stunned; he had no idea that there was an angry German within a dozen grid squares of his force and here were the damn sausage-gobblers kicking in the door.

He pulled his forces in to the fortified city of Sedan over the night of 30 AUG/1 SEP to attempt to assess the situation and before he could attempt anything more the German armies were upon him.

The ring was closing around the last Emperor, and the last Imperial Army, of France.

The Sources: Since the invention of the "war correspondant" in the mid-1850's we have an outside source to augment the usual state papers and official records. In this case the contemporary reporting was particularly vivid, this being the latest and largest of a series of wars that disturbed central Europe in the latter part of the 19th Century.
Primary sources are numerous, and accessible.

Several sources are readily available to the English-speaking Internet browser. The Wikipedia entry for the battle is brief and somewhat confusing; for example, the identity and origin of the German "Army of the Meuse" is never discussed, and the actual conduct of the battle is rather poorly laid out. The website Franco-Prussian War does a rather nice job of discussing the entire conflict but the page for Sedan echoes the Wiki confusion.

There is a wealth of printed material on the Franco-Prussian War, although the earliest I can find appears to be George Hooper's 1887 work The Campaign of Sedan. This work proved durable, going through several editions through the Teens, and has even been reproduced again this year. I was unable to obtain a copy but reviewers consider it a solid and reliable account of the campaign.

Douglas Fermer produced a study of the war focusing on Sedan in 2008. Sedan 1870: The Eclipse of France seems to be worth the effort for a student of the battle and the larger war in general. Geoffrey Wawro's 2003 Franco-Prussian War is another fine work, as is Micheal Howard's 1961 The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871
Unfortunately the people at Osprey have neglected this engagement, although the little volume covering Gravelotte and St. Privat are among the most concise and useful for the student of the purely military aspects of the war. (And someone named John Hamil has done a nice little webpage on this engagement, complete with panoramic photos of the battlefield today. Well worth a look...)

The Engagement: On 1 SEP the dispositions of the Army of Chalons looked something like this:
The Meuse River formed a barrier to the southwest that appears to have been defended by the remnants of V Corps and the Sedan garrison troops.

To the east XII Corps was dug in stretching roughly three miles along the little valley of the Givonne stream, a tributary of the Meuse. The Marines held the weakest point, the little town of Bazeilles at the junction of the watercourses.

I Corps held the northeastern perimeter, from the Givonne (and the village of Givonne) to to the village of Itly north of Sedan. VII Corps completed the ring, holding the northwest from Itly down another stream valley past the village of Floing to the Meuse.

The German 3. Armee spanned the length of the Meuse, with two Bavarian corps south of the city, while the Saxons of 6 Armeekorps crossed the Meuse south of the junction of the Chiers River and moved on Bazeilles and the town of La Moncelle to the north.

The remaining two units of 3. Armee (5. and 11. Armeekorps) were freed up by the larger number of attackers to cross the Meuse unopposed at Donchery and from there north to the village of Vrigne-aux-Bois in preparation to descending on the French left.

The Maasarmee units closed on the perimeter from the east; the 12. Armeekorps just to the right of the Saxons, and the Prussian Guard from due east through Frencheval and Villiers Cernay.

On both sides those more perceptive than others immediately appreciated the relative positions of the French and German armies.

"Now we have them in a mousetrap!" chuckled Moltke, looking over the situation map at 3. Armee on 30 AUG, while from the heights of the southwest bank of the Meuse GEN Ducrot had a little more picturesque take on the upcoming fight;
"We're in the crapper, and they're going to shit on us."

Rather surprisingly, the engagement opened with the surrounded French attacking in a thick fog.

I Corps attacked eastwards from Givonne, but the main effort was by XII Corps around La Moncelle and Bazeilles. Here the Marines were met by the Bavarian troops of 1. König. Bay. Armeekorps and the Saxons of VI Armeekorps at the unearthly hour of 0400.
From Bazeilles the fighting spread northeast along the valley of the Givonne, where, again, the German artillery was indeed the King of Battle; "an avalanche of iron" according to GEN Lebrun. Here MacMahon was wounded not long after dawn while riding out to recon the first contact.

Command fell to GEN Ducrot, who recognized that the eastern flank was a mere amusement and foresaw the arrival of 3. Armee on the western flank; he ordered an immediate disengagement and withdrawal to the west, brushing aside the 5. and 11. Armeekorps en route to Mezieres.

Had Ducrot been able to execute his retreat at least a portion of the army might have escaped the trap, but Fate arrived in the person of GEN de Wimpffen, who had joined the Army of Chalons just three days before.

This guy was a real piece of work; he has been described as "(a)rrogant, overbearing, and fairly bristling with contempt" (Bierman, 1988) for his fellow officers, de Wimpffen snarled "We need a victory!" to Ducrot as he issued orders for a renewed attacks.

("You will be very lucky if by this evening you even have a retreat." was Ducrot's acid reply.)

Pulling battalions from the other three corps he threw these at the Saxons near La Moncelle and the Bavarians around Bazeilles.
This held the line for several hours, but Prussian reinforcements and the damned German artillery continued to hammer at the French infantry.

And by 1100 hours the 3. Armee had shaken out their attack lines against the weakened VII Corps to the northwest, the Prussian Guard were pushing in at Givonne, and the French defenses began to give way all along the perimeter.

In perhaps the saddest moment of a very grim day the French cavalry led by GEN Margueritte attacked 11. Armeekorps around Floing in the best Napoleonic fashion.
The four bedraggled regiments of Chasseurs d'Afrique regiments launched three desperate attacks. Here's how Micheal Howard describes it:
While the squadrons collected in a hollow above Cazal, sorting themselves out under shellfire into two massive lines, Margueritte rode out to reconnoitre the slopes towards Floing and the Meuse down which the charge was to be made.

He was hit: a bullet passed through his face, mangling his jaw and tongue, and his appalled squadrons saw the figure of their general returning over the crest, supported by his two aides, with enough strength only to raise one arm to point towards the enemy before he collapsed.

An angry murmur came from the ranks - "Vengez-le! ["Avenge him!"]" and the whole mass of horsemen moved up over the crest, past the disorganised lines of their infantry, to increase speed slowly from to trot to canter to gallop until they were thundering down the slope in an avalanche which it seemed that no human power could arrest. But as at Morsbach, as at Vionville, it was shown that when faced with resolute men armed with breech-loading rifles all the anachronistic splendour and courage of French chivalry was impotent.

The German skirmishing lines were overrun, but the supporting formations stood immovable and poured their volleys into the advancing mass. At no point was German line broken. The cavalry torrent divided and swept by it to either side, northwards towards Illy to return to their own ranks, southward to crash into the quarries of Gaulier or to be rounded up in the valley towards Glaire, leaving the carcasses of horses and the bodies of their riders lying thick in front of the German lines.

As the survivors of the charge rallied, Ducrot sought out their [new] commander, General de Gallifet, and asked him whether they could try again. "As often as you like, mon général," replied Gallifet cheerfully, "so long as there's one of us left." So the scattered squadrons were rallied and once more the watchers above Frénois saw them plunging down the hill to certain destruction. King Wilhem was stirred to exclaim at their courage in words still carved on their memorial above Floing: "Ah! Les braves gens!" but it was not for him to lament that it was courage tragically wasted.
Here's another description, this one from historian Geoffry Wawro:
The Prussians stared in disbelief; they had two entire infantry corps with 144 guns deployed along this face of the triangle, all within range of the French attack and with perfect visibility.

Fusiliers ran back to the shelter of their rifle companies and formed lines. While the Prussian artillery gunned shrapnel and canister into the French horse, the Prussian infantry delivered three aimed salvos, each bringing down a wave of cavalry, and then shifted to Schnellfeuer, individual rapid fire. Colonel [actually General] Gaston de Gallifet led his 3rd Chasseurs d'Afrique and the remains of the Division in a second and third attacks, these too were shattered, the last at 3 p.m.

By the end, the French horses did not so much charge as pick their way gingerly over the piles of fallen mounts and men. Watching from Frénois, King Wilhem sighed: "Ah, les braves gens." Closer to the slaughter, sergeant Oskar Becher of the Prussian 94th saw only senseless butchery: "There were heaped up bodies everywhere, yet one looked in vain for a single intact, undamaged corpse; the men had been mutilated by the fire..."
By midday the French Army as an army had been destroyed.

All day the French Emperor had exposed himself to the German shellfire in what history has chosen to interpret as a conscious decision to find death on the battlefield. He failed, although several of his aides were killed around him. He, at least, had begun to recognize the hopelessness of his army's position. The lunatic de Wimpffen, on the other hand, continued to send him mad promises of victory; "Your Majesty may be quite at ease; within two hours I shall have driven your enemies into the Meuse."

By midafternoon Ducrot rode into the city of Sedan to find the ruins of the army being slaughtered.
"The streets, the squares, the gates were choked with carts, carriages, guns, the impedimentia and debris of a routed army. Bands of soldiers, without arms or knapsacks, streamed in every moment and hurried into houses and churches. At the gates, many were trampled to death."
Still the relentless Krupp fieldpieces thundered on.
Napoleon III insisted on capitulation but his generals would not agree who should bear the ignominy of raising the white flag. Finally the remorseless shelling overwhelmed even the amour-propre of the defeated officers. When Napoleon ordered the capitulation a second time his commanders did not refuse.

The tricolor was replaced by the white flag, the German Emperor dispatched an envoy to find his opposite number (the German command and staff had not known that Napoleon was with the Army of Chalons) writing a formal request for an armistice and before dusk on the first day of September the cannon finally coughed to silence and the killing was, for the moment, ended.
The Outcome: Decisive German victory
The Impact The defeat of Sedan spelled the end of the Second Empire; the defeat in the larger war (and the subsequent bloody suppression of the Paris Commune) laid out, in large part, the fissures and divisions in France that would lead, eventually, to the disasters of 1940.
The Second Empire was in many ways the embodiment of the worst of France; vainglorious, slipshod, venal, false, and corrupt. Its approach to warmaking was likewise fatally flawed; the officer corps referred to "Système D" - the disorganized chaos and "muddling through" that characterized the Second Empire military and especially the logistic and mobilization processes that failed so badly in 1870.

The Emperor himself, that riddle-less sphinx, lived another three years in agony from his bladder-stone, but his widow became a bizarre fixture in the post-imperial twilight. The death of their son the Prince Imperial in Zululand in 1879 was perhaps the most peculiar feature of that sordid little bit of imperialism. The defeat at Sedan haunted Louis-Napoleon for the remainder of his life. His dying words were "Etiez-vous à Sedan?" - "Were you at Sedan?"

The capture of the enemy's king meant that the remainder of the war was merely a struggle for terms, and after a grim winter siege of Paris (which was prolonged by the German Army's initial unwillingness to use their war-winner and shell the city, ensuring that thousands of Frenchwomen and children starved and froze to death) the French bowed to the inevitable and surrendered. Culminating Bismarck's plans Wilhelm of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor of Germany in Versailles in 1871.
Bismarck's triumph eventually turned to ashes in his mouth. The Treaty of Frankfurt required France to cede Alsace and part of Lorraine. This was demanded by the Army - Moltke and his generals were concerned about the likelihood of a vengeful France across the Rhine from Baden and Bavaria, two south German polities not all that thrilled about fighting for Prussian and north German ambitions.

Bismarck warned that this land-grab would rouse a sleeping French giant and fill it with a terrible resolve and so it did; the march to war forty-three years later was driven in large part by the drum of revanche for L'Annee Terrible.
And, of course, there were the dead, and the maimed, the women and children starved and shelled in Paris over the frightful winter of 1870-1871 and then massacred by their own soldiers that spring. The grief and the wounds of 1870 went deep into the soul of France, and those scars were reopened in 1914 and again in 1940. The French, once the Huns of Europe, have never really recovered their joy of battle; the furor Gallicus is still vanished today as though it had never been.

An American reader, pausing in his unscarred innocence to fleer at the cheese-eating surrender monkeys, might take a moment to reflect that he, and his nation, have never known - and it is to be hoped, never will know - the burden of those wounds, and that sorrow.

Touchline Tattles: I wish I had some lighthearted or silly anecdote about Sedan or the Franco-Prussian War. I don't. When I look at it I see just another step towards the massive collisions of 1914 and 1939 that devastated Europe, and overthrew all the precious strategies that Bismarck, Louis-Napoleon, and their successors so tenderly nurtured and ruthlessly deployed that bore such bitter poisonous fruit.
"This said, the story of the Battle of Sedan has been told.

I should have wished to stop there. But I cannot. Whatever horror the
historian may feel, History is a duty, and this duty must be fulfilled.
There is no incline more inexorable than this: to tell the truth; he who
ventures on it rolls to the very bottom. It must be so. The guardian of
Justice is doomed to justice.

The Battle of Sedan is more than a battle which has been fought; it is a
syllogism which is completed; a formidable premeditation of destiny.
Destiny never hurries, but it always comes. At its hour, there it is. It
allows years to pass by, and at the moment when men are least thinking
of it, it appears. Of this character is the fatal, the unexpected
catastrophe named Sedan. From time to time in History, Divine logic
makes an onslaught. Sedan is one of those onslaughts.

Thus on the 1st of September, at five o'clock in the morning the world
awoke under the sun, and the French army under the thunderbolt."

~ Victor Hugo, L'Annee Terrible


Leon said...

Excellent post, as always.

FDChief said...

Ta. Glad you liked it.

I was looking for a quote from Bismarck that summed up the whole business for me. It wasn't about this war but the 1866 dust-up with Austria, and it's this pious little homily about how the honest German son-of-toil is such a brave and self-sacrificing fellow it humbles the Iron Chancellor how he marches forward and dies for the Noble German Cause.

It makes me want to retch; easy for you, you cynical sonofabitch.

Not that Louis-Napoleon or Eugenie or any of his French opposite numbers were any better; they were just worse at it than he was.

What a dire little war.

Don Francisco said...

Another great post. I can see why it was a bit of a labour to write, a story that deserves telling but so empty of any quirky points or particular strategic/tactical lesson. A lumbering & badly led French force coming up against a calculating Bismark, and being utterly destroyed. The destruction of the commune. The promise of future, even worse conflicts to come.

Leon said...

That's pretty much all you need to do in war to succeed. Not be the best, just be better than your opponents.

The Prussians sacrificed huge chunks of their army in battles (I think at Gravelotte-St. Privat they lost 50% of their guard division) but still overwhelmingly won.

FDChief said...

Leon: The thing that gets overlooked a lot is the degree to which the German infantry got hosed in 1870.

What's odd is that the big secret weapon was supposed to be the mitrailleuse, a machinegunish sort of thing that the French Army put great faith in but which turned out to be fairly worthless; short-ranged, inaccurate, and (because to keep it a Big Secret the army hadn't trained more than a small cadre of gunners) easy to knock out.

But the big killer on each side was the French infantry rifle and the German artillery, and neither side had figured out a sane approach to the other's style of slaughter. The German commanders threw ranks of infantry at dug-in infantry who shot them down at far beyond their older rifle's range, while the French artillery was completely helpless before the German redlegs (and even the German infantry, whose rifles almost outranged their old-school 19th Century cannons) who then cut the French infantry to ribbons.

Dramatic proof (if anyone needed it) that as bad a bitch as the Queen of Battle may be that when the King shows up somebody's going down hard, and it ain't gonna be the Old Man...

mike said...

Nice post Chief!

I believe you are right in your comment about Mexico. Bismarck or Moltke was probably very interested in that little adventure and took the results into consideration.

PS - who is the painter of that pic "panic in the classroom"? My eyes are old and the signature gets pretty much bit-mapped and unintelligible when I expand the pic.

Leon said...

Hey Chief,

So what's the ranking system? Is there an ace of the battlefield? A joker? And if artillery is the Queen, who's the king? Armour? Infantry? Air?

And is there a jack? And is their a queen of spades who always screws you in hearts?

FDChief said...

mike: The pixit looks to me like "Machent" or "Marchent", but I tried a brief on-line search and got nothing. My suspicion is that this was a popular print and the artist was one of the staff artists for Le Match or something like that.

Leon: Not sure outside Infantry and Artillery. My guess is that Intel would be the Joker, but beyond that no clue.

And the whole "Queen of Battle" thing is a peculiar affectation to the U.S. Army. I think it goes back to the chessboard, where the Queen is the most powerful single piece; the implication is that the Infantry is the decisive force on the battlefield...