1870: Bismarck’s Great Victory at Sedan

The war between France and Prussia in 1870-1871 can be seen as the clash that came to define a whole era of European politics. It not only gave rise to a unified, and fiercely militaristic state of Germany, but France’s defeat and loss of territory was a bitter legacy that exploded in World War 1, and her retribution in 1919 would create the sense of injustice that became Hitler’s rallying cry. The decisive clash of the war came at Sedan on the 1st September 1870, where an entire French army – and the Emperor Napoleon III – was forced to surrender after a bruising defeat.

The conflict was the culmination of a decade of political and military maneuvering between France’s Emperor, the nephew of the great Napoleon I, and Prussia’s Minister-President Otto von Bismarck. In that time, the balance of power had decisively shifted, after Prussia’s successful war against Austria in 1866 and a disastrous French exhibition in Mexico. Bismarck had also got closer than any man in history to unifying the various nation-states of modern Germany, by creating a strong North German Confederation. Now only the southern states – such as the old Catholic kingdom of Bavaria, remained outside his control, and he knew that the best way to get them in line was through antagonism with their historic enemy – France. In the end, events played into his hands perfectly. A succession crisis in France’s southern neighbour Spain lead to proposal that a Hohenzollern – the ancient ruling family of Prussia – should succeed the Spanish throne. Napoleon interpreted this as an aggressive Prussian move to encircle France, and sent a message to the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm I attempting to block the move through diplomacy. Wilhelm’s polite but firm reply, which became known as the infamous Ems telegram, reached Bismarck before it reached the French, and he pulled one of his most Machiavellian moves by altering its text – transforming it from a rebuff into an inflammatory near-declaration of war. When this altered version was leaked to the French press, the reaction of the public was exactly what Bismarck would have wanted. After a huge crowd marched through Paris demanding war, it was duly declared on the North German Confederation on the 19th July 1870. In response, the southern German states joined Bismarck, promising that Germany would fight as a united nation for the first time in history.

Bismarck around 1870 – despite a pretty unspectacular military career, he enjoyed dressing in uniform

On paper, the two sides were roughly equal. The Germans could muster as many as a million men, with a formidable body of artillery, but the French soldiers were veterans of a number of recent conflicts going back to the Crimean War, and possessed state of the art Chassepot rifles and the Mitrailleuse, one of the first machine guns used in war. In practice, however, revolutionary Prussian tactics gave them an advantage. While the overall responsibility for French war planning rested with the erratic figure of Napoleon, the Prussians had a totally novel general staff system, lead by the great military innovator Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. Moltke’s tactics were based on encirclement – inspired by Hannibal’s victory at Cannae – and the use of railways for lightning troop movements, and he had already used these tactics to great effect during the earlier war against Austria. The French war plans, meanwhile, were overly defensive, and totally underestimated the swiftness of Prussian mobilisation.

Under pressure from the general population however, the French attempted a feeble stab into German territory, only to find that the Prussian armies were far closer than they had anticipated. Their slightly panicked withdrawal was followed by a series of frontier battles, in which they came off worse, despite the superior range of their rifles causing problems for the attackers. After the huge, bloody, and tightly-fought battle of Gravelotte, the remains of the French border armies were forced to retreat to the fortress city of Metz, where they quickly fell under siege from over 150,000 Prussian troops. Upon learning of this defeat and perilous new situation, Napoleon III and his Marshal MacMahon formed a new army de Chalons, and marched towards Metz in order to relieve the siege and link the scattered French forces. On their way, however, they found themselves blocked by Von Moltke’s Prussian Third Army, After coming off worse in a minor battle at Beaumont, they were forced to withdraw to the town of Sedan, which offered Moltke a perfect chance to achieved his encirclement strategy.

French troops arrange a cannon into position. Their more old-fashioned artillery still had to be loaded through the barrel a major disadvantage against breech-loading German guns

By the morning of the 1st September, Moltke had divided his army into three parts and completely cut off the French escape from Sedan, commenting that now Napoleon’s men would have to fight where they stood. For MacMahon, who had been ordered to break out by his emperor, only one escape route offered itself – the area around La Mocelle, a small fortified town in the outskirts of Sedan . The Prussians also saw this as the place where the attack would come from, and placed some of their finest troops to plug the gap. The fighting started, however, with the Germans on the attack. At 4 A.M General Von der Tann lead a brigade across pontoon bridges into the satellite town of Bazeilles on the French right flank and the vicious fighting started. Even at this early stage it was clear that this would be no walkover for Moltke’s forces, von der Tann was only able to gain a foothold on the town’s southernmost reaches, and five hours later, when the world-famous German artillery was brought in support, the action was still undecided.

It was at La Moncelle, however, where the battle would be won or lost, and the German high command had anticipated the attempted French breakout by ordering an attack by thousands of Bavarian troops. Here MacMahon was wounded in the opening exchanges, and his command passed to Auguste Ducrot – another experienced veteran – amidst the confusion. Ducrot, seeing the situation unfolding, was on the verge of ordering a retreat when Emmanuel de Wimpffen, another high-ranking general – produced a commission from Napoleon’s government which stated that he was under orders to take over should MacMahon be incapacitated. Once Ducrot backed down, de Wimpffen ordered that all the French troops at his disposal launch themselves against the Saxons and Bavarians at La Moncelle. Quickly, the attack began to gain impetus and the waves of French infantry drove back the attackers and their guns. Simultaneously, however, Bazeilles finally fell under von der Tann’s assault, and fresh waves of Prussian soldiers began to descend on La Moncelle.

Posing Prussian soldiers, made distinctive by the spiked helmets that the united German soldiers would still wear at the beginning of World War 1

With the French counterattack now wilting, they were able to train their guns back onto the enemy, and de Wimpffen’s men around Sedan began to suffer from a brutal barrage of shells. Now the Prussian net began to close, and by midday the entirety of MacMahon’s army was surrounded, with no means of escape possible. One gloriously foolish attempt to break out by the cavalry General Jean Auguste Margueritte was doomed to failure, and Mergueritte was killed in the opening moments of the first charge. As another French General, Pierre Bosquet, said watching the charge of the light brigade 16 years earlier, “it is magnificent, but it is not war, it is madness.” Ducrot – who would escape Prussian captivity to fight again in the siege of Paris, came up with a memorable phrase of his own, as the last hopes of escape died away. “We are in the chamber pot and about to be shat upon.”

By the end of the day, Napoleon, who had been present throughout the day, reached agreement with his generals that the position was hopeless. The French had lost 17000 men to 8000 Prussian, and now it was time to surrender or be slaughtered. On the 2nd, Napoleon approached Moltke, Bismarck and the Prussian King Wilhelm I bearing a white flag, and surrendered himself and his entire army. Defeated and bereft, he was left to talk sadly with the Prussian chancellor, a moment imagined in a famous painting by Wilhelm Camphausen. With him gone, his empire collapsed in a bloodless revolution two days later, though the new Provisional Govenrment opted to continue the war with Prussia. In truth, however, with the first and second armies still holed up in Metz and the army of Chalons lead away from Sedan as prisoners, the war as a contest was over. Napoleon was allowed to flee to England, and the Prussian armies continued remorselessly onto Paris, which fell in January 1871, an event that preceded the announcement of full German Unification in the palace of Versailles. The impact of Sedan was deeply felt. A hammer blow for French prestige, their loss of territory to the Prussians left a legacy of lasting bitterness that would manifest itself in the summer of 1914. As for the Germans, who would celebrate Sedantag until 1919, the success of their military adventures lead to an aggressive tradition of militarism. The opening salvoes of World War 1 were planned by none other than the nephew of von Moltke, a man depserate to emulate his uncle’s achievements and bring glory to the new nation of Germany through military victory.

A defeated Napoleon sits with Bismarck in Camphausen’s painting