Battle of Sedan : Fall of the 2nd French Empire

Battle of Sedan : Fall of the 2nd French Empire

Map of the battle

“The streets, the squares, the gates, were choked with carts, carriages, guns, the impedimenta and debris of a routed army. Bands of soldiers, without arms or knapsacks, streamed in every moment and hurried into the houses and churches. At the gates, many were trodden to death..”

• General Auguste Ducrot, commanding officer of I Corps, Army of Châlons.

During August 1870, the combined armies of the North German Confederation had broken through the French frontier, while at the fortress town of Metz, a French Army, made out of five of the Empire’s best fighting corps, was surrounded and besieged by two German Armies. Disorganized and understrength, due to poor mobilization planning, lacking a firm goal, due to indecisive commanders, and beaten hard by a determined enemy, the Army of Metz, under Marshal Bazaine, was trapped and in need of relief.

Far to the west of the surrounded army, the Army of Châlons, under Marshal MacMahon, was left to resolve a crucial dilemma. The Purssian led German armies had entered France and now the Imperial capital of Paris was left vulnerable to attack. Due to the vulnerability of the capital, and due to the outnumbered state of the Army of Châlons, it seemed like the best option for MacMahon was to fall back and set up a defensive line at Paris. However, politics prevented the decision from being simple.

The failure of the military campaign had brought Imperial control to the brink of collapse, as the population was starting to look unfavorably at the government and the war it had brought upon the country. If the Army of Châlons were to retreat back to Paris and abandon the Army of Metz to its fate, then it was feared that the people would interpret it as a sign of defeat and would thus rebel against the Imperial Government, whom they thought had failed them. Due to this political tension brewing at the capital, a simple retreat to Paris would have repercussions that might result in more problems.

This then left MacMahon with his second option, which was to march to the aid of the Army of Metz and combine forces with them. With political turmoil at the capital, a threat of rebellion if failure was to occur, and German armies determined to engage and defeat them, the Army of Châlons soon made its choice and decided to take the gamble and reconnect with the Army of Metz.

However, the journey to Metz was a difficult one, as two German armies marched on against them. The first force chasing after them was the Third Army, and was made out of V Corps, XI Corps, two Bavarian Corps, a Badanese Division, and a Württemberg Division, while the second force was the Army of Meuse, made out of the XII Royal Saxon Corps, IV Corps, and the Prussian Guard. All in all, the two armies numbered around two hundred twenty-seven thousand men, all of which were well-armed, well-drilled, and well-organized.

The Prussian Guards at the battle

Armed with the Prussian Dreyse needle gun, the average German soldier was thus equipped with a battle-tested breech-loading rifle, which had been used by the Prussian Army in its wars against Austria and Denmark. However, the rifle was old and outmatched by the time of the war. Although having a rate of fire faster than the previous muzzle-loaded rifles, the Dreyse needle gun only had an effective range of six hundred meters, which was only half the range of its opponents rifle.

Despite their rifles being outclassed, the German Armies still had a major advantage when it came to artillery. Equipped with the excellent breech-loading rifled artillery manufactured by Krupp, the German batteries were thus armed with some of Europe’s best guns. The main artillery pieces used by their armies at the time were the 80 mm caliber and the 90 mm caliber field guns, both of which were able to launch percussion-fused shells to three thousand meters.

But it was the far larger siege artillery the Prussian Army was more famous for, with the 210 mm caliber siege gun capable of launching shells to a range of four thousand to two thousand meters away.

When it came to tactics, the German Armies applied a plan of encirclement, where they would surround their enemies and force them to break out. In such a tactic, the enemy would thus have to face their firepower and strength in an attempt to escape the encirclement. However, when it came to attacking enemy forces, German infantry found themselves vulnerable, due to the shorter range of their rifles. Because of this, an aggressive strategy of closing in against the enemy was applied, but often brought heavy casualties. When closing the distance failed, superior firepower was then applied, as artillery batteries made use of their longer range to bombard enemy defensive positions.

The Army of Châlons, on the other hand, was made out of the I Corps, V Corps, VII Corps, the hastily organized XII Corps, and was supported by two cavalry divisions. The Army of Châlons thus had around one hundred twenty thousand men. Due to a chaotic mobilization, many of the units were disorganized and understrength, while also lacking proper supplies and equipment. 

For weaponry, the average French soldier would be equipped with an effective and long ranged Chassepot rifle. Like the Dreyse needle-gun, the Chassepot was a breech-loader. However, when it came to range, the Chassepot could effectively hit a target one thousand five hundred meters away. This meant that French infantry often outgunned their German counterparts.

In terms of artillery, the French forces were at a disadvantage. The French Army was still equipped with slow muzzle-loading guns. Its main fieldpiece was the rifled 1858 Pattern 4-Pdr, which had a range of three thousand three hundred meters. Meanwhile, the siege batteries were armed with the larger, yet smoothbore, 1839 Pattern 12-Pdr siege gun, which had a range of five thousand six hundred meters. Both of these guns still made use of time-fused shells, as the French military still lacked decent numbers of percussion shells. French artillery batteries did, however, have machine gun-like weapons called the Mitrailleuse, which were weapons that could fire one hundred twenty-five shots per minute at a range of two thousand five-hundred meters.

When it came to tactics, the French Army made use of a more defensive style. Locating the best defendable position, commanders would often have their men occupy them and entrench themselves in the area, as they made use of their superior rifle range to outgun enemy infantry who approached their strong lines of defense. This proved effective against frontal attack by infantry, but such fixed defensive positions were vulnerable to heavy German artillery, which the French batteries had difficulty countering.

Aside from their disadvantage in terms of artillery, MacMahon’s army was also outnumbered by the chasing German Armies. Not only that, even if he managed to slip past them, he still had to deal with the one hundred seventy thousand men of the Prussian First and Second Army, which surrounded Metz. The path ahead was thus very difficult, but with no other option left available, MacMahon had to proceed.

Also accompanying MacMahon’s army was the Emperor of France, Napoleon III. However, when it came to the grand strategy and planning of things, the Emperor proved to be unhelpful, and for the mostpart he was nothing more than a bystander throughout many of the important events.

First aiming for Rheims, which was north-west from the army’s initial camp at Châlons, MacMahon had hoped to resupply and restock his men before the upcoming operation. However, to his great disappointment, the needed supplies for his ill-equipped men were lacking, as there was not enough to provide the badly sought after shoes and uniform for his men.

Despite this MacMahon had to continue, and so on August 23 the Army of Châlons set off once more, this time heading to Rethel, near the River Aisne. From there, MacMahon moved towards an north-eastern direction and headed towards Montmédy. Before the operation had begun, dispatches from the trapped Bazaine had assured him that the Army of Metz would attempt a breakthrough and march north-west from Metz. Because of this, MacMahon had hoped to meet Bazaine at Montmédy.

The movement had the ultimate goal of linking the two armies, but was risky, as it meant that it would cut through the countryside and march fright in front of the two chasing German armies, before cornering itself between them and France’s border with Belgium. 

This possibility was not lost to the Prussian commanders of the German Armies, as they soon realized the opportunity given to them. Learning of the movement of the Army of Châlons, Chief of Staff of the German Armies, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, ordered the Third Army and the Army of the Meuse to march northward and intercept the Army of Châlons, which by then was moving eastward. By then the German Armies had crossed the Meuse and were heading westward, with the Third Army having already occupied the previous French camp at Châlons on August 24. Now, however, the force had to reorient itself and march northwards.

By August 26, the cavalry scouts of the Army of Châlons began sighting the XII Royal Saxon Corps of the Army of the Meuse. Because of the German presence, MacMahon feared an attack and ordered two of his corps to move southward and prepare against one. However, no engagement occurred, and so MacMahon soon continued his march, but he did so with apprehension.

News from Metz was not encouraging, as MacMahon soon learnt that Bazaine’s attempts to breakout had been met with failure. Because of this, the Marshall was tempted to give up any attempts to join Bazaine and began dispatching orders for his army to move north. However, before any significant movement could be conducted, the War Minister, the Comte de Palikao, sent urgent dispatches stating that no attempt to retreat to Paris should be made, and that the army should instead unite with the Army of Metz. It was also added that any abandonment of the Metz force would lead to revolution. Because of this, MacMahon had to give up any northward movement and once more continue to head east. On August 28, the French force was still far from the River Meuse, which they needed to cross in order to reach Montmédy.

However, the German forces did everything they could to stop the French forces and engage them. Hoping to prevent the linking of the two French Armies, the XII Royal Saxon Corps of the Army of the Meuse was sent ahead and was able to successfully reach the bridges of the Meuse River, thus blocking the Army of Châlons’ crossing point. Having successfully prevented the French force’s eastward movement, the rest of the Army of the Meuse, with the Third Army behind it, then pushed on northward and towards the Army of Châlons. To further trap the French force, Prussian cavalry was sent to Rheims, thus cutting off any possible line of retreat to Paris. 

Finding himself encircled, MacMahon decided to look for another way across the river. To do this, he moved his army north, where he hoped to find another crossing. However, such a movement proved difficult, as Prussian cavalry began to attack and slowed down his force. To make matters worse, the terrible conditions of the road network meant that the whole army had difficulty traversing the land.

Seeing the desperate situation of the French force, the German Corps thus began attacking and probing the French Army. On August 29, the Army of Châlons’ V Corps engaged with the Army of the Meuse’s XII Royal Saxon Corps at Nourant. However, a bigger engagement  occurred on August 30 at Beaumont.

At dawn of that day, the German forces made their attack, while their powerful artillery supported their main thrusts. This time, the two Bavarian Corps of the Third Army, and IV Corps of the Army of the Meuse led the attack. Striking hard, they caused heavy casualties for the French force, with V Corps taking the brunt of most of the attacks. However, the Germans were unable to prevent the French from crossing the bridges at Mouzon and Villers, and so the Army of Châlons was able to escape complete destruction. 

Now across on the northern side of the Meuse River, MacMahon then ordered his army to move towards the fortified town of Sedan. Once there, he decided to rest his battered army, as he contemplated his next move. Not fully realizing the total danger his army was in, it seemed like MacMahon was still planning to find a way to get to Metz and, if unable to do so, march west to the town of Mézières, where a new army corps, XIII Corps, was said to be forming. 

The Prussian commanders chasing after him, however, did not sit idly by. By August 31, the combined German Corps began capturing the various crossings across the Meuse River. Soon enough, the German forces would have the French surrounded from the west and east, trapping them at Sedan, as there was no escape to the north, due to the French-Belgian border which could not be crossed. To prevent the French from crossing the river once more and retreating south, the II Bavarian Corps took up positions by the river, thus blocking that route. Waiting in their positions, the German Corps only needed the order to cross in order to completely encircle the French force.

Seeing the situation, and both disbelieving and satisfied with what was about to happen, Field Marshal von Moltke couldn’t help but comment: “Now we have them in a mousetrap.” It astonished the Prussian commander that the French Army would fight a battle in such disadvatageous ground, but they were not going to let the opportunity given to them slip away.

For MacMahon, the situation was dire. Forming his army in a defensive triangle, he placed I Corps and XII Corps on the eastern sector, where the Givonne River was, VII Corps on the north-west sector, and V Corps as a reserve force.

The battle began at dawn on September 1. Crossing the Meuse River through a railway bridge at four o’clock in the morning, the 2nd Division, of the I Bavarian Crops, soon marched towards the village of Bazeilles. Commanding I Bavarian Corps was General Ludwig von der Tann. As he marched men forward, he did so at a time earlier than planned. Feeling his and his men’s pride was at stake, due to the poor performance of his soldiers during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Ludwig was said to be determined to prove that his men were capable fighters.

Facing Ludwig’s force was the French XII Corps, under the command of General Barthelemy Lebrun. With a division garrisoning the village, the French force split-up to small sections, which occupied, fortified, and fiercely held various buildings within the village. Determined to hold their ground, they fought hard and stubbornly against the Bavarians. Unaccustomed to close-quarter house to house fighting, the men of I Bavarian Corps found themselves in a terrible time. All around them, the sharp shot of the Chassepot rung in the air, as French soldiers peered out of windows and attacked them from all sides, as they Bavarians did their best to advance through the narrow village streets. Making things worse was the French artillery, who fired shot after shot from the nearby village of Balan, north-west of Bazeilles.

The Brandenburg Gate lit up on ‘Sedantag‘ in 1898. In English, the sign reads “What a change through God’s guidance”

The fighting in the village ended up becoming intense and bloody, as the French soldiers resisted hard and prevented their enemies from advancing further. Attack after attack was repulsed by the French XII Corps, but the Bavarians were persistent and fought on hard. 

Due to the haze of fighting, war violations from both sides occured. It was said that French civilians took up arms to fight the Bavarians, while the Bavarians retaliated by executing those who they believed were hostile against them.

As the fighting at Bazeilles raged on, more German Corps were sent across the river to attack the French lines. Soon, the XII Royal Saxon Corps was sent on line and struck the more northern portions of the eastern defenses of the French. Meeting this attack was I Corps, commanded by General Auguste Ducrot.

However, the Saxons were followed up by the Prussian IV Corps, which moved forward to join in the fighting. Placing heavy pressure on the French line along the Givonne River, the Germans were able to inflict heavy casualties to the French forces. Despite this, the French fought bravely, as counter-attack after counter-attack was sent forward, preventing the Germans from consolidating their gains. 

Back at Bazeilles, the men of XII Corps fought fiercely, as French soldiers let loose volley after volley of fire, till there was no more ammunition left to shoot. Then, unable to hold their position, they were forced to fall back towards the fortified town of Sedan.

Far towards the west, at the river crossings at Donchery, two more German Corps, this time XI Corps and V Corps, moved north and then followed the river towards Sedan. These corps would soon fall upon the north-west sector of French defences, blocking any French escape route to the west.

With his eastern sector engaged heavily, and the whole line being assaulted fiercely, MacMahon moved down to review the situation. Moving towards Bazeilles, where the fighting was most intense, the Marshal was soon struck by an exploding artillery shell, which sent shrapnel flying and hitting his leg.

Now unable to lead, MacMahon then placed command of the army to General Ducrot. Having assessed the situation, and realizing that the German attacks along the Givonne River were merely a diversion to keep them pinned, Ducrot soon concluded that they would soon be encircled and end up in a similar situation the Army of Metz was currently encountering. Knowing that to be trapped meant an end for the army, Ducrot started taking action and sent out orders for the army to attempt a movement on the north-east sector, where he hoped to march the army and escape.

However, General Emmanuel de Wimpffen prevented these orders from being carried out. Formerly the Military Governor of Oran, de Wimpffen had been sent to the Army of Châlons in order to command V Corps. However, he also had authorization from the Comte de Palikao to assume command of the army if ever MacMahon was taken out of action. With the Marshall now injured, de Wimpffen thus assumed a position he believed was rightfully his.

With both Ducrot and de Wimpffen making their claims for leadership of the army, a conflict thus occurred within the Army of Châlons’ command system, thus paralyzing it. Spending more time arguing with one another, they were unable to attend to the battle that raged, and therefore left the army without a plan.

By noon time the army had not moved an inch from position, while the German Corps completed their encirclement. Taking up positions north of Sedan, the Prussian V Corps and XI Corps moved down to block the north-western escape route. This force soon linked up with the Prussian Guard, which had been advancing from the east, thus closing the circle around the French forces.

Now without any potential routes of escape, the Army of Châlons thus ended up having the same fate as the Army of Metz. 

With the French trapped, the German artillery batteries began training their guns at the French positions, before opening up a tremendous barrage. With five hundred guns arrayed, they began the bombardment of the French defenses and the fortified town.

As their guns pummeled the French lines, the rest of the German force began tightening the noose around the French force. Making advances on the north, they managed to capture the vital high ground in the area, which they could later on use as artillery positions.

Realizing the danger they were in, and knowing the escape was the only option that would ensure survival, the Army of Châlons made a desperate attempt to puncture the northern line of the German forces. Targeting the village of Floing, which was north-west of Sedan, the French cavalry force was chosen to make the important attack. Making their charge, it was hoped that they could open a corridor that would last long enough for the army to slip through. 

However, the French cavalry was met by a strong Prussian defense, and were thus unable to break through. Not giving up, the cavalry made constant attempts to puncture a hole, but achieved nothing but mass casualties.

Intensifying their bombardment, the German artillery began dropping more and more shells on the French forces. Seeking cover, the French soldiers trapped with the defenses of Sedan did their best to keep themselves safe from the constant artillery fire. 

Among those who had to endure the bombardment was Emperor Napoleon III, who throughout all the marches and battles had barely made his presence known or contributed to the plans of the army. Now, however, he rode around the fortified town of Sedan, before meeting with de Wimpffen, who assured him that the army would find a way to get out of their predicament.

Arrogantly, de Wimpffen proclaimed: “Within two hours I shall have driven your enemies into the Meuse.”

At around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, de Wimpffen then informed the Emperor that he planned to assault the eastern German forces with I Corps and XII Corps, while also telling him that he should prepare to use the remaining corps to force an opening and escape. 

However, such a move was nearly impossible. When informed of the plan, and told that he should protect the army’s fear with his VII Corps, General Felix Douay said that, after all the intense fighting, his corps was nothing more than three brigades, with little ammunition and lacking artillery for support. If he were to hold the line and cover the retreat, then he could not guarantee that he would be able to hold the Germans back long enough for the army to escape.

Other corps did not fare any better, with many of their divisions severely demoralized, depleted of men, and lacking ammunition,

The Emperor also did not agree with de Wimpffen;s plan, as Napoleon III would instead, at around five o’clock in the afternoon, order a white flag be raised over the fortifications of Sedan. A little while later, the Emperor consulted with Ducrot and had a letter written up ordering for a cease fire. However, refusing to sign the letter, it was then forwarded to de Wimpffen, who reacted negatively to it. Ordering the white flag to be hauled down, he then gathered whatever men he could for one final counter-attack.

Managing to assemble around one thousand two hundred men, he had them formed up and urged them on with the cry: “Bazaine approaches! Bazaine approaches!” 

The force then marched towards the village of Balan, where they encountered the men of a Bavarian Corps. For a moment there was some success, as they managed to push back their enemy. However, once the momentum was lost, they were soon forced back by their enemy.

After this last attack, the German artillery opened up once more, this time coming down with a heavier torrent, in order to convince the French that resistance was futile at that point.

As shells landed near his position, the sick and tired Emperor ordered the white flag to be brought up once more. Then, thirty minutes past six o’clock, a message of surrender was sent to Kaiser Wilhelm I, the Prussian King who had been watching the battle unfold from a position across the Meuse. In the message, Napoleon III stated: “My brother, having been unable to die among my troops, there is nothing left for me but to place my sword into the hands of Your majesty.”

Later on, de Wimpffen would formally negotiate the Army of Châlons’ surrender. By the next day, September 2, Napoleon III signed the documents that officially surrendered the force. This thus resulted in the capture of one hundred and four thousand French soldiers. 

The battle resulted in three thousand two hundred and twenty killed, fourteen thousand eight hundred and eleven wounded, and one hundred and four thousand captured for the French soldiers.

Thomas Jones Barker, Riderless Horses after the Battle of Sedan, 1873, Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery. Oil on canvas, 90 x 136 cm.

The French Army also lost one eagle, two flags, four hundred and nineteen field artillery guns, one hundred and thirty nine siege artillery guns, and sixty-six thousand rifles. The Germans, on the other hand, lost eight thousand nine hundred and twenty-four thousand killed and wounded were inflicted on the German forces. 

Otto von Bismarck escorts Emperor Napoleon III

However, the battle didn’t just result in the end of the last field army for the French Empire, as it also meant the end of the Empire itself. When news of the defeat reached Paris on September 4, the loss of another army, and the capture of the Emperor, finally lit the flames of revolution in the capital. 

A mural painted in 1884 by Carl Steffeck depicts General Reille delivering Napoleon III‘s letter of surrender to King William I at the Battle of Sedan on 1 September 1870. It was kept at the former Ruhmeshalle in Berlin, before being destroyed by bombs during World War II.

With the Paris National Guard taking arms against the government, Empress Eugénie de Montijo was evicted from the capital, and a Third Republic was formed to replace the Imperial Government. Taking the lead was General Trochu, who became President of the new government. 

Because of the change of the French government, and because no complete French surrender had occurred yet, the German forces still had not achieved total victory. Although the battle of Sedan was a magnificent victory, it failed to fully capitulate France. After the Third Republic refused to surrender French territory during the peace negotiations, Field Marshal von Moltke set his sights on Paris, ordering the Third Army and the Army of the Meuse to converge upon it. 

Napoleon III conversing with Otto von Bismarck after being captured in the Battle of Sedan (1878 painting by Wilhelm Camphausen)

It was clear that the war was far from over. In Metz, the last French Army still stood defiant, while in Paris, the new Republic prepared to make a stand. Although the large field armies were gone or trapped, there was still the newly formed XIII Corps and the thousand upon thousands of men of the Garde Mobile and the Paris National Guard. 

The Second French Empire may have fallen, but the Third Republic had now risen to take its place and finish the war.

Written by Justin Rojo

Written by Justin Rojo

See more pieces by Justin:

Day 1 – Battle of Gettysburg

Gettysburg : Day 2

Day 3 : Gettysburg

The Fighting Filipinos of WW2 : 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment of The US Army

Battle of Sedan : Fall of the 2nd French Empire

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Battle of Sedan : Fall of the 2nd French Empire