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  • James Houser

September 1, 1870 - The Franco-Prussian War and the Battle of Sedan

Updated: Aug 8, 2021

September 1, 1870. Smoke and flame fade and guns go silent around the fortress city of Sedan as the Prussians and their allies accept the surrender of the trapped French army. After only a month of blistering, bloody battles, the Franco-Prussian War is effectively over. The blood and iron of Sedan will give birth to a new nation, one never before seen on the face of the earth. It will be called Germany.

You see, there was no Germany. At least not yet. There was a region of Europe referred to as “the Germanies,” and a group of people who spoke German. There’s a fun little scene in the TV show Outlander where time traveler Claire Randall (who has traveled from 1945 to 1743 Scotland) says that she’s visited Germany, only to get a bunch of blank stares and stammer out “Um…I mean Prussia.” No Germany. No place on the map that says “here be Germans.”

Before 1806, there had been the Holy Roman Empire: basically a loose confederation of over 300 sovereign states held together under an “Emperor” that really had no control over them. For hundreds of years, the Austrian Habsburg family had held this title. The HRE’s constituent states ranged from big boys (Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony) to tiny little fiefdoms that you could walk across in a couple of hours or independent cities. The city of Hamburg, for instance, was its own country. The Holy Roman Empire, though, went into the dustbin of history in 1806 when Napoleon kicked Austria apart like a bully running over a sandcastle on the beach and forced its abolition.

After Napoleon was finally overthrown for good in 1815, and the rest of Europe was finished catching their breath and bandaging their boo-boos, everyone met at the big Congress of Vienna to hammer out what future Europe would look like. Even the Austrians realized that the Holy Roman Empire was dead, dead, dead, and no one was super jonesing to bring it back. In its place, a new German Confederation was born, consisting of the 39 states that had emerged from the wreckage of Napoleonic Europe, led jointly by Austria and Prussia. Since Austria and Prussia were NOT friends, of course, this would eventually lead to conflict.

There are three big milestones in the unification of the Germanies into “Germany." The first was 1848. The Napoleonic Wars and the struggle to defeat the French had roused nationalist ambitions among German liberals – to be a German nationalist in the 1830s and 1840s was to be a liberal, and vice versa. These were radical visionaries who dreamed of overthrowing the petty states and dynasties and forming a united nation of Germany. In the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848, this faction had tried to convince the King of Prussia to accept the crown of a new constitutional monarchy, a federalized Kingdom of Germany. (1848 is chaos, don’t get me to try and explain it, there’s like twenty different revolutions and everything is nuts.) King of Prussia said no – he would not accept a “crown from the gutter,” basically if he was going to be a monarch he was going to be an absolute one – and the 1848 German revolution collapsed.

The upshot of the 1848 debacle was that when Germany DID unify, it would not be on liberal idealist terms. There would be no federalism, no republic, no German Parliament with civil liberties and yada yada yada. Instead, Germany would be unified at the point of a sword. It would come together through blood and iron in 1866 – the second milestone in German unification.

If you’ve been reading my posts religiously, you may recognize that "blood and iron" phrase. Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who basically ran Prussia and then Germany from 1861 to 1890, had a vision of a united Germany, but his was a different vision than the romantic liberal one. He dreamed of turning the Prussian King into a German Emperor, and he wasn’t about to deal with a bunch of namby-pamby idealists to make it happen. Thus his famous “blood and iron” speech: “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 —but by iron and blood.”

Bismarck had his tools of iron and blood at hand and ready to go. Thanks to radical reforms, the adoption of new technology, and thoroughly modern organizational practices, the Prussian Army had become the war machine of Europe. Its revolutionary use of railroads and high-tech weaponry for military purposes was outweighed by the General Staff organization of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the Prussian Army’s Chief of Staff. It was this military machine that Bismarck relied upon when he engineered a conflict with Austria in 1866. The subsequent “Six Weeks War” was a sweeping Prussian victory, climaxing at Koniggratz on July 3. This was my post for July 3 and I have much more detail about it on my page.

Either way, the upshot of Austria’s defeat was that Prussia disbanded the German Confederation. Several of the German states were annexed directly into Prussia, while the rest were coerced into a new North German Confederation with Prussia as the explicit leader. This was close to, but not quite, unification. So Germany has not been born YET, but it’s the third trimester, Mama is grouchy, and Dad needs to find a way to induce labor. In this case, Dad is Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and the best way to bring Germany into the world is to…start another war. And he knew JUST the target.

In 1870, France was ruled by a Bonaparte again. Napoleon had lost his throne after Waterloo, but his nephew Louis-Napoleon wormed his way back into French politics after the Revolutions of 1848, and in 1852 was crowned Napoleon III. (Again with the 1848, it’s complicated, I’m not getting into it.) The Second French Empire, though, was a shadow of the First that had conquered Europe, and Napoleon III was a shadow of his famous uncle. He did his best to return France to its central place in the world, sponsoring multiple military campaigns from the Crimea to Italy to Mexico, but never quite managed to return Imperial France to his uncle’s grandeur.

During the Austro-Prussian War, Napoleon III had stayed neutral in return for Bismarck’s vague promises of reward. Napoleon learned a valuable lesson: always get promises in writing. France hoped to regain territory in the Rhineland, but after the war was over and Prussia victorious, Bismarck reneged on his promises and refused to support French ambitions, even blocking a set of territorial purchases that Prussia had nothing to do with. Bismarck convinced British diplomats that France was trying to expand into Belgium, killing a budding trade deal. Finally, Bismarck forced the North German Confederation into a new military organization that could be directed at nobody but France.

So was Bismarck trying to piss off Napoleon III on purpose? Yes. Yes he was. King Wilhelm I of Prussia did not WANT a war with France, and made sure Bismarck was aware of this, but Bismarck went ahead anyway. The final straw came during a dispute over the Spanish throne, when Bismarck tampered with a diplomatic telegram to make it look like Napoleon had insulted King Wilhelm. Furious, Wilhelm withdrew his ambassador to Paris, provoking French public opinion to the point that they were eager for war. Napoleon III complied, hoping to shore up his crumbling regime with a quick victory over these Prussian upstarts. The war officially began on July 19, 1870.

Immediately, the Prussian military swung into action. The expert planners of General von Moltke’s general staff mobilized rapidly using intricate railway planning, and the new defense treaties brought the other German states along for the ride. In less than three weeks, Prussia and the Germanies had assembled half a million men on the frontier – more than France would muster throughout the entire war. France’s mobilization, stuck back in Napoleonic mindsets in this new age of railroads and rifles, was totally disorganized. French soldiers arrived at the front at random times and badly equipped.

The soldiers on each side were outfitted with the very best of modern military technology. Compared to the American Civil War, which had only ended five years previously, weaponry had taken a great leap forward. Each infantryman carried a breech-loading, bolt-action single-shot rifle that could dish out a devastating rate of fire compared to the old muzzle-loaders in the average Union or Confederate soldier’s hands. The Prussians had dominated Austria with their Dreyse Needle-Gun, but the French had the Chassepot, a step up over *that* weapon that would give the French rifleman a decided advantage. Prussia, though, had rebuilt its artillery arm, and the Krupp guns of the Prussian artillery batteries were unequalled by anything the French had. It was the Prussian artillery that would be the real killer in the battles to come. More than anything, though, it would be Moltke and his General Staff – experts at organization, planning, and maneuver – that would decide the outcome.

On July 30, 1870, four French corps advanced from the border against the Prussian forces. First contact was on August 2, when the French easily scattered the force defending the industrial town of Saarbrucken. It would be one of the very few bright spots in the campaign. The Prussians had already started their own attack to the south. The first week of August saw three battles (Wissembourg on August 4, and Worth and Spicheren on August 6) that repeated a familiar pattern. The advancing Prussian and allied infantry would be cut up by French riflemen fighting from good defensive positions – at first. Then the Prussian artillery would come into play, and the superior Prussian organization and staff system would maneuver their troops through the flanks and around the gaps of the French lines, causing them to become unhinged and forcing their retreat.

Cavalry in breastplates and plumes clashed amidst the vast formations of riflemen and the booms of quick-firing artillery. The battlefields were filled with smoke, confusion, and flying steel in every direction. Primitive French machine guns called mitrailleuses cut down Prussian guardsmen, but the Krupp shells blew apart French cavalry units. These were horrifically bloody battles, worse even than the American Civil War. At Worth, Patrice MacMahon’s French corps lost 20,000 out of its 50,000 – a loss rate of 40%, worse than Lee’s army at Gettysburg.

The end result of this first series of battles was a rapid French demoralization and retreat. Napoleon III was utterly lost in this bewildering, rapid series of campaigns; he was NOT his uncle, and having pretended to be “the heir of Napoleon” for so long, he had his chance and he blew it. Napoleon had been reluctant to go to war in the first place; he lost all heart, and the feeling spread through the ranks. Knowing he could not lead the army and did not earn its love, he conceded command to Marshal Francois Bazaine. Napoleon himself raced back to Paris to raise another army to come – hopefully – save the day.

Marshal Bazaine was cautious, vacillating, and lost at sea in this modern age of quick, decisive warfare. He was at home on the parade ground, not in command of a French army. He ordered the French army to retreat towards the fortress city of Metz. Moltke and the Prussian-Allied army followed with speed, moving so fast that by the time Bazaine had entered Metz the Prussians threatened to cut him off from Paris. Two more battles followed at Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte. The last battle was the bloodiest of the war, a horrific maelstrom that saw the Prussian Guards Corps impale itself on the massed rifle fire of the French Army. The upshot, though, was that Bazaine and the French army were trapped inside Metz, surrounded by the Prussian-Allied army. All hope now lay with…*sigh* Napoleon the Third. Soon to be Napoleon the Last.

Napoleon and General MacMahon set out from Paris on August 21 with 130,000 men to break through and relieve the French army trapped at Metz. The army was little more than a mob, made up largely of refugees from Parisian jails – the actual French Army was trapped inside Metz. Moltke got wind of Napoleon’s approach, and cordoned off Metz with a skeleton crew while the bulk of the army turned to intercept the French. The result was a pathetic show, as the French army tried desperately to slip around the Prussians, only to be confronted by Moltke in northeastern France.

When the two armies squared off on August 30, MacMahon (in actual command) ordered a retreat into the town of Sedan, which seemed like a good place to hunker down, reorganize, and launch a new attack. In reality, Sedan would become a trap. The French deployed in a triangle around the town, digging in on the high ground. Moltke quickly marched his forces all the way around the town, cutting it off from any outside help. Unfortunately for the French, the Prussians managed to find even better ground, and began lobbing artillery shells into the fortress.

Early on September 1, 1870, Napoleon III decided that it was time for death or glory. Suffering badly from kidney stones and gout – his intemperate lifestyle had led him to be overweight and indolent – he mounted his horse and rode out to encourage his men. It is hard to cheer up your soldiers, though, when you obviously don’t have your heart in the fight, and even though Napoleon rode around courting danger and possible death, the situation soon became hopeless.

The Battle of Sedan raged throughout the day, beginning with a massive Prussian cannonade and a surge of rifle fire as the French tried to break out. When MacMahon was wounded, though, the command confusion led to a series of countermanding orders, untimely retreats, and even more untimely advances. The French army at Sedan became unhinged as the Prussians closed in. Soon the whole disorganized rabble was streaming back towards Sedan itself, trying desperately to flee the victorious Prussians, and Napoleon knew the fight was over. At 1630, the Emperor of the French ordered that a white flag be raised. The two Prussian officers who approached under their own white banner were astonished to see Napoleon; up until now, they had no hint the Emperor was even in the city.

The formal surrender did not take place until the next day, September 2. 100,000 men, 6,000 horses, and over 400 cannon fell into Prussian hands – along with Emperor Napoleon III of France, who personally surrendered to King Wilhelm I of Prussia as Bismarck and Moltke looked on. Napoleon spent a few months captive in Prussia, then went to exile in England. He didn’t even bother trying to fight for his regime; it was done, and he knew it.

The victory at Sedan did not end the war. Bazaine’s army at Metz held out until October, and the French government launched a massive guerrilla war that kept the fight going until January 1871. Nevertheless, Sedan decided the issue. With one army surrendered and another trapped, France had no hope of winning the war. On January 19, 1871, the French finally capitulated. In the process, they overthrew the remnants of Napoleon’s Second Empire and ushered in the Third Republic, which would govern France until the Nazi invasion of 1940. France never forgot their humiliation by the Germans, and began rapidly rearming – there would be a rematch.

As one Empire fell, another began. Forged in the blood and iron of the Franco-Prussian War, Germany finally came to life on January 18, 1871, when the German states united into a German Empire, with King Wilhelm I of Prussia becoming Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany. Bismarck – of course – became Chancellor of Germany, and together they imposed a harsh peace deal on France with a massive reparations bill and the cession of two valuable border provinces: Alsace and Lorraine.

Prussia, now Germany, emerged from the Franco-Prussian War as the dominant power of Europe, with an unbeatable army and an industrial base to rival Great Britain. Germany had been born – but the nature of its birth was inherently poisonous. Borne from blood and iron, not liberty and equality, the golden dream of 1848 gave way to the steel glory of 1871. It would be an increasingly militarized, autocratic Germany that loomed over Europe, seeking to dominate but never being quite strong enough to do so.

The Germany that was born from blood and iron in 1871 drowned in the same poisons in 1945.

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