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Chapter XXXVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2


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We will leave the two armies encamped round Sedan on the night of the 31st August, the one already half enveloped in the toils of the other, in order to return to Paris, and see what had happened there since the date of the operations round Metz. General Trochu, a Breton, born in 1815, the favourite aide-de-camp of Marshal Bugeaud in Africa, severely wounded in the Crimea, and distinguished for his gallantry and conduct at Solferino, had fallen into the background since the Italian campaign; and had not, of course, increased his popularity at head-quarters by the publication, in 1867, of his celebrated book on " L'Armée Française." Yet, as he was preeminently and undeniably the one man in all France best fitted for the post, Count Palikao had appointed him, on the 17th August, Governor of Paris - a post which in the course of the war could not but become one of the highest distinction and importance. By this appointment of a man out of favour at the Imperial Court, Palikao gave creditable proof of an intention to break away from the corruptions and hollowness of the Imperial regime. Trochu announced his acceptance of the office in a proclamation, placarded through all the streets of Paris. It ended with the words, " And to complete my task, which done, I shall, I assure you, retire again into the obscurity from which I have emerged, I take one of the old devices of the province of Brittany where I was born - 4 "With the help of God, for our country.'" The proclamation contained no allusion to the Emperor, whose name was now seldom heard in Paris; his very existence seemed to be ignored. With Trochu was associated a Committee of Defence, on which, after much contention between the opposition and the majority in the Chamber, three members of the Corps Legislative were appointed to serve, on the nomination of the Government.

Little had hitherto been done to place Paris in a state of defence, but now General Trochu began the task with the greatest zeal. The works which he introduced were - (1) the arming of the fortifications; (2) the arming of the artillery; (3) providing living forces; (4) provisioning; (5) instituting measures for internal safety.

" Paris, which had become in 1841 a gigantic fortress, the like of which does not now exist elsewhere, nor has been seen since the days of Babylon and Nineveh, required immense labour to render it presentable as such to the enemy.... The ramparts in the detached forts, as well as in the principal enceinte, required to be levelled for the reception of guns and men, banquettes had to be marked out, embrasures cut, and the thickness of the parapets regulated. Ditches had to be excavated before the various gates, drawbridges constructed, and cover provided. The entrances of the eight railways into the town had also to be secured. The exits of the canals of St. Denis and of De l'Ourcq were strongly bridged over, and parapets raised upon this bridging; the ditches of the main enceinte were filled with water; the entrance and the exit of the Seine were secured by new works; a flotilla of gun-boats was formed upon the river; and then the construction of well-covered powder magazines in the enceinte, which were altogether wanting, was taken in hand; and, lastly, the system of detached forts was to be completed by the erection of new works. These tasks required time for their execution; but they were all at least begun by the first days of September, and time was gained for the completion of the most important."

With regard to the garrison of Paris, its nucleus was the 13th Corps, which, though it was sent to Mezieres, yet extricated itself, as we shall see, from the disastrous rout of Sedan, and made its way back to the capital. By calling up the 4th or depot battalions of various line regiments, and by completing them with men of the reserve, and with recruits, it was thought that it would be possible to form another Army Corps; so that the regular troops in Paris would amount to about 60,000 men. The service of manning the detached forts was chiefly in the hands of a body of 12,000 sailors, brought up from the sea-ports, and united in a marine division under the command of Vice-Admiral la Roucière de Noury. It was thought that the heavy guns of the forts could be worked by none so effectually as by sailors, and experience confirmed this anticipation. Then there was the Municipal Guard of Paris, infantry and cavalry, 100,000 men of the Garde Mobile, drawn in from the provinces, and the National Guard of Paris, which was to be brought up to a strength of at least 200,000 men. All these forces together would make a total for the garrison of Paris of about 400,000 men.

With regard to food, all was done that could be done; numerous trains, full of corn, rice, and salt provisions, arrived in Paris, in the third and fourth weeks of August, from Nantes, Havre, and Rouen; a large paddock for cattle was formed in the Bois de Boulogne, and many new mills were erected. It was hoped to provision Paris sufficiently to enable it to stand a siege of six months; but to accumulate a stock of comestibles capable of supporting the lives of 1,800,000 persons during so long a period was not found to be practicable.

On the 25th August, General Trochu, availing himself of the more earnest mood which approaching peril had spread among the population, caused a raid to be made on the quarters inhabited by females of loose life and conversation, and expelled a great number of them, together with their friends, from Paris. Colonel Rüstow remarks that among the latter were found an extraordinary number of foreigners, and that the fact is worthy of notice, as a certain party in Germany are always discoursing, with virtuous indignation, on the immorality of the French. On the 28th a far more questionable measure was put in force; all foreigners, being subjects of states at war with France, were ordered to leave Paris within three days. Under this proclamation, it is said that 80,000 natives of Germany were compelled to leave, of whom some had married French women, while great numbers had been engaged in various industrial or professional employments for many years, had broken the ties which bound them to their native country, and saw all their temporal prospects ruined by the order of expulsion. There was, however, much truth in the declaration of General Trochu, that it was for the good of the Germans themselves that they should depart. Some of them had been rash and malicious enough to triumph openly in the successes of their countrymen. This had led to riots and ill-blood; and, considering the furious excitement to which the Parisian population were worked up before the conclusion of the siege, it was probably for the interest of these unfortunate Germans themselves to be out of the way.

Three members of the Corps Legislative had been nominated members, as has been already mentioned, of the Committee of Defence. The opposition in the Chamber made strenuous efforts to gain a preponderating influence in the Committee, bringing forward motions for this purpose, which Count Palikao denounced as " unconstitutional." Thiers made a remarkable speech in reply. "I most earnestly beg," he said, "that no one will let such an argument have place in this assembly. We all know why France is fighting at this moment; she is fighting for her independence; she is fighting for her greatness, for her glory, for the inviolability of her territory. We all know it - the Left, the Centre, and the Right; this truth is clear as day, and all our hearts beat in unison when you speak of these great, these sublime interests of the nation. But speak not to us of institutions;... you cut us to the heart by reminding us of those institutions which, in my conviction, are the principal cause, more than the men themselves, of the calamities of France."

But General Trochu, although he laboured with unflagging self-devotion and great ability to organise the means and perfect the plan of defence, was personally no sharer in the confidence with which he strove to inspire the Parisians. Like the melancholy Persian in the army of Xerxes, whose dark forebodings of the fate of the expedition are described by Herodotus, Trochu, thoroughly conversant with the military system of France from end to end, did not flatter himself with the hope that one man's, or many men's, self-sacrifice could avert from his country the chastisement which her vanity and folly had deserved. In a conversation of two hours, held on the 21st August, with Jules Favre and several other members of the Opposition, the Governor of Paris unfolded to them, in eloquent and appropriate words, his ideas on the exact nature of the situation. With a secret horror they heard him calmly declare that he had no hope of a successful issue. After having long expatiated on the rottenness and hollowness of the whole military system of France, such as the Empire had made it, he added, " As for Paris, its defence can be no more than an heroic madness. I know it, but I devote myself to its cause." In the old Roman spirit, but with the faith and fervour of a Christian martyr, the Breton soldier accepted the humiliations which he knew the future would bring, trusting that out of them the regeneration of his country would arise. It was not merely that -

Victrix causa Deis placuit, sed victa Catoni; but, looking more deeply into the future than the Roman Stoic, Trochu saw that even the defeat of a cause might sometimes be accompanied by the favour of Heaven. We must now return to the operations of the armies round Sedan. The dispositions made by MacMahon on the 31st have been already described. On the evening of the 30th, orders had been sent from the royal headquarters that the Army of the Meuse, occupying the right wing, should prevent the French left from escaping to the eastward, between the Meuse and the Belgian frontier; while the Third Army continued its march northwards, and attacked the enemy wherever he was fallen in with. These orders had been complied with, and the 11th Corps had been pushed across the Meuse at Donchery during the night of the 31st, so that on the morning of the 1st September seven German corps and a half, together with cavalry and artillery, forming a force of upwards of 200,000 men, with from 600 to 700 guns, were already posted in such positions as to leave no way of escape for the French, except across the Belgian frontier. On the extreme right were the Prussian Guards, facing the French left across the valley of the stream that runs by Givonne and joins the Meuse at Bazeilles, and continually extending and advancing their right as the battle proceeded, so as to preclude the possibility of a retreat of the French into Belgium. The Saxons of the 12th Corps, under their Crown Prince, were on the left of the Guards, and pressed forward against that part of the valley just mentioned which lies between Daigny and Moncelle. To the left of the Saxons was the 1st Bavarian Corps, under Von der Tann, to whom the duty of capturing the village of Bazeilles had been assigned. Across the Meuse, near Wadelincourt, between their countrymen of the 1st Corps and the 5th North German Corps, and within supporting distance of either, was the 2nd Bavarian Corps. Then came the 5th Corps, massed near Donchery, and the 11th, which advanced from the neighbourhood of that place soon after daybreak, to cut the road to Mezieres, and complete the investment of the French position.

Two independent armies being on the field, the commander of neither of which could properly take orders from the other, the King of Prussia came upon the scene, as he had done before the day of Königgrätz, and assumed supreme command. During the greater part of the day he was posted on a hill between Frénois and Wadelincourt.

The battle began very early on the morning of the 1st September, while the summer haze still covered the low grounds, with the attack of the Bavarians on Bazeilles. Persons who visited the ruins of Bazeilles after the battle said that it must have been " something more than a prosperous village; it must have been a flourishing town emerging into importance, with substantial stone houses, numerous wide streets, hotels, churches, many factories, and several large public buildings." The Bavarians had shelled and set fire to a part of the town on the previous day, in order to prevent the houses near the river from affording cover for French marksmen; and some of the inhabitants, who had taken refuge in the cellars of these houses, lost their lives. It is said that exasperation on this account led to the inhabitants exercising those acts of hostility against the Bavarians during the battle of the 1st, which were so horribly avenged. The assailants obtained a footing with little difficulty in the lower part of the village; but it was not till after many vicissitudes of success and defeat, lasting over several hours, in which they were frequently driven back by the men of Lebrun's corps, and after terrible hand-to-hand fighting in the streets and houses, that Bazeilles (about 10 A.M.) remained finally in the hands of the Bavarians. The latter allege that, while the contest was raging, many of the inhabitants, including women, fired upon them, and that they even threw, or tried to throw, some of their wounded into the flames of burning houses. A M. Hermann Voget wrote to a German newspaper the narrative of what he had himself seen; how a tall woman, with striking features, her grey hair wildly falling about her face, confronted a party of soldiers who broke into her house, - how she had fired two shots already, and with fatal effect, - how she cried, "Vous avez assassiné mon mari; vous avez assassiné mes deux fils," - and how, upon her again raising the double-barrel gun which she held in her hand, the Bavarian soldiers shot her dead. After losing, as they alleged, some fifty of their number killed and wounded from the fire of the inhabitants, and after having seized and shot several of the latter without effect, the Bavarians were ordered by their officers to set the town systematically on fire from one end to the other. This was done by placing masses of straw in a number of houses and setting it on fire. The destruction was complete; and an English artillery officer, who visited the place three weeks afterwards, declared that the ruins were, even then, smoking.

At an early period of the fighting for Bazeilles, Marshal MacMahon, who had come up to the front on hearing the firing, was struck down and dangerously wounded on the thigh by the splinter of a shell. He fell into the ditch by the side of the road leading from Sedan to Bazeilles; here he was found, placed in a litter, and carried to the rear. The command of the French army now - it was about half-past seven in the morning - devolved upon Ducrot, the commander of the 1st Corps. Ducrot, whom we shall meet again when we come to speak of the siege of Paris, thought of causing the army to fall back to the plateau of Illy, north of Sedan, so as, at least, to keep open the line of retreat across the Belgian frontier. But General Wimpffen, whom Count Palikao had just summoned from Africa, had arrived at Sedan the day before, and now asserted his right, as the senior officer, to take the command. This Ducrot accordingly gave over to him at 9 a.m.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 2

View of Metz
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Fortification of Paris
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The surprise at Beaumont
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View of Sedan
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