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Chapter XXXVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3


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General Wimpffen did not at first think the situation desperate; probably he underrated the real force of the Germans; and he stopped the movement of retreat northwards which Ducrot had commenced. At the same time, he sent no orders to the corps commanders: all that they knew was that they were expected to hold their positions as long as they could. Meantime the left wing of the Germans had been making alarming progress. The 11th Corps, having reached Vigne aux Bois at 7 a.m., was ordered by the Crown Prince of Prussia to wheel round to its right and attack St. Menges. This village lies a little to the east of the extremity of the great horse-shoe bend of the Meuse, nearly due north of Sedan. Following the 11th, the 5th Corps also passed round the head of the bend, and took ground to the eastward of Bose. Then turning southwards and deploying into line, both corps advanced against the 7th French Corps, which occupied the hilly ground between Floing and Illy. Distant onlookers from the hills behind Donchery could see the work of death going on here for several hours; lines of blue figures advancing from the north, in apparently irresistible numbers, then suddenly a band of devoted horsemen, with swords gleaming: in the sunlight, attacking them in flank and routing them; these horsemen again received with a withering fire by lines standing firm in rear of those that had been broken, and hurled back, with many a horse and rider missing, to the position whence they had come; - such were the scenes that succeeded each other with rapid alternation during the forenoon on the hills of Floing. The bravery of the French cavalry was conspicuous on this day; but still the numbers and steady courage of the German masses, always directed with skill and valour by the officers, caused them gradually to gain ground. Before one o'clock, the ring of encircling fire had been so closed in that an interval of not more than 4,000 paces separated the left of the 5th Corps from the right of the Guards.

The Wurtemberger division, which had been posted to the west of Donchery, to watch the road from Mezieres, repulsed without difficulty a weak reconnaissance made from that direction by a portion of the 13th Corps. Vinoy had as yet only one division at his disposal, and of that had sent away detachments to execute important reconnaissances on the previous day; it was not, therefore, in his power to operate on the left flank of the Germans to any effect.

Balan, the village between Bazeilles and Sedan, was taken and held by the Bavarians and the 4th Corps about two o'clock. About 4 p.m., the French troops about Balan were ordered to fall back upon Sedan. General Wimpffen proposed to the Emperor to make a supreme effort to break through in the direction of Carignan, in order to rescue his person. The Emperor declined the offer; nevertheless, Wimpffen, joined by Lebrun, led forward the troops that he could draw together to the attack. Part of Balan was cleared of the enemy; but under the incessant hail of small arms and artillery the French could penetrate no farther. About three o'clock, the 1st Corps (Ducrot) was driven by the pressure of overwhelming numbers from the hills west of Daigny, and soon afterwards commenced to retreat upon Sedan. The 7th Corps had already been pressed back from Floing and Illy in the direction of the town. Some thousands, indeed, had escaped between the intervals of the Prussian corps, and had directed their flight partly towards Belgium, partly upon Mezieres, but they were a mere undisciplined mob; numbers of them had thrown away their arms and accoutrements, and their countenances bore the marks of terror and despair. Upwards of 10,000 of such fugitives - Zouaves, Turcos, linesmen, and artillerymen, all mingled pell-mell together - came within Vinoy's lines at Mezieres on the evening of that disastrous day.

At 5 p.m., the heads of all the German columns pushed forwards, and commenced to bombard Sedan with field- pieces. It is a small town of 15,000 inhabitants, without detached forts, and powerless to resist the artillery of the present day. The whole French army being now pent up within its walls, a scene of indescribable confusion arose. Shells fell and exploded upon houses, and in the streets; the shrieks and groans of the wounded, the execrations of the infuriated soldiers, the cries of the miserable inhabitants, the helpless clamour and hubbub which reigned everywhere, must have formed together a picture such as only a Virgil or a Dante could paint.

Crudelis ubique Luctus, ubique pavor; et plurima mortis imago.

Wimpffen desired to resign his command into the Emperor's hands; but to this Napoleon naturally would not consent. However, the Emperor himself caused a flag of truce to be hoisted over the gates of Sedan. To this it had come; and the sun of France, as the first military power in Europe, set - for how long, one knows not - on that fatal day.

The King of Prussia, perceiving from the heights of Frénois that Sedan had been set on fire by the bombardment, ordered it to cease, and sent an officer of his staff with a flag of truce towards the fortress. The officer learnt on his way that the white flag was hanging over the gate; he therefore proceeded on his mission, was admitted, and obtained an audience of the Emperor. The envoy began to speak of capitulation, but Napoleon answered that he could not dispose of the fate of the army; on that subject he must speak to General Wimpffen. The Emperor desired to surrender his own person into the hands of the King of Prussia, and sent to the latter, by General Reille, who accompanied the German envoy on his return, a letter thus expressed: -

"Monsieur, mon Frère, - N'ayant pas pu mourir au milieu de mes troupes, il ne me reste qu'à remettre mon épée entre les mains de votre Majesté. Je suis de votre Majesté le bon frère, Napoleon."

[Translation.'] "Sire, my Brother, - Not having been able to die in the midst of my troops, nothing remains for me but to place my sword in the hands of your Majesty."

The King sent a courteous reply, in which he prayed the Emperor to nominate an officer of rank to negotiate with the officer whom he had named on his side, General Moltke, for the capitulation of the French army. Wimpffen undertook the sad and humiliating duty, and met Moltke at the Prussian head-quarters, in the village of Donchery. The Frenchman tried hard to obtain terms that fell short of an unconditional surrender. But the logic of facts was against him, and Moltke, calm as fate and cold as the grave, unfolded to him with pitiless accuracy the full horror of his situation. Taking down a map, he pointed out upon it the positions of the several German corps, and of their batteries; and observed, that even if the French army resolved upon trying once more the chance of arms, it could not, cooped up as it was in Sedan, deploy into line, except after issuing through the gates - an operation which, considering the position of the German guns, could only result in the useless butchery of brave men. Wimpffen still argued and protested, but all to no purpose; and Moltke informed him that unless the capitulation were concluded before nine o'clock the next morning, the German guns would recommence their fire. Nothing remained but to submit. The terms of surrender were settled at six o'clock on the morning of the 2nd September, and being ratified by the King soon after, came into force. The French army became prisoners of war, and all arms and material of war, whether belonging to the army or to the fortress, were to be handed over by a French to a German commission; the officers were to retain their freedom, their arms, and their personal property, on giving their word of honour not to servo against Germany during the continuance of the war. There were many officers, however, who preferred the nobler part of sharing captivity with the men rather than renounce the right of bearing arms against Germany so long as the war lasted. The wild excitement, rage, and grief which seized upon the soldiers, when they knew that they were to surrender their arms and go into captivity, surpass the power of description. By batches of about 10,000 at a time, they were transported, during several days, by rail, to Saarbrück, and thence to various parts of Germany.

The number of French who became prisoners of war by the capitulation of Sedan amounted to 83,000, including 4,000 officers. We have the explicit testimony of Vinoy to the fact that 10,000 fugitives made their way to his lines, and 15,000 more are said to have escaped into Belgium. In the action of Beaumont there must have been a loss sustained of nearly 5,000 men, and the killed and wounded in the battle of Sedan amounted to about 15,000. These numbers added together make up 128,000. Now we know that MacMahon started on his march from the camp of Chalons, on the 21st, with 135,000 men; of whom it is reasonable to suppose that at least 3,000 or 4,000 had abandoned the colours in the course of the marching since that date. This leaves a margin of only a few thousands for prisoners taken during the battle; it seems, therefore, that the German accounts, claiming to have made 25,000 such prisoners, must have been greatly exaggerated.

General Wimpffen, though in no jesting spirit, wrote to Count Palikao, " Je puis dire: Je suis venu, j'ai vu, et j'ai été battu " (" I may say: I came, I saw, and I was conquered "). He added that both he and the Count were in a state of great ignorance as to the state of MacMahon's army, and the serious inconvenience of the presence of a sovereign there; otherwise neither would he (Wimpffen) have desired to join it, nor would Palikao have pressed him to do so.

Seeing the terrible struggle which it had cost Wimpffen to agree to the terms proposed, Napoleon thought that could he see Bismark, he might perhaps obtain from him some alleviation of their rigour. About six in the morning, therefore, of the 2nd September, he set out in a carriage towards Donchery, having sent forward a messenger to inform Count Bismark of his desire for an interview. Bismark was still in bed, but immediately rose, and rode out to meet the Emperor. He met the carriage a little distance on the Sedan side of the Donchery bridge, and dismounting, respectfully approached it, and asked His Majesty's commands. Napoleon said that he wished to speak with the King, whom he imagined to be at Donchery; but Bismark replied that the King of Prussia was then at Vendresse, some fourteen miles away. The party then proceeded towards Donchery, but stopped, in compliance with a suggestion from the Emperor, at a mean house, belonging to a working man, which stood by the roadside a hundred yards from the Sedan end of the bridge. Here, partly in the little shabby sitting-room of the house (like the " worst inn's worst room " which witnessed the close of the life of the brilliant Villiers), partly under the verandah outside, a conversation, lasting about an hour, took place between Bismark and the fallen Emperor. Napoleon first broached the subject of the capitulation, but Bismark declined to discuss it, on the ground that the military aspects of the position had been referred for decision to Moltke and Wimpffen. Bismark in his turn, desiring to ascertain whether any political use might be made of the astonishing success of the German arms, said to the Emperor that he was ready to discuss the situation of affairs with him with a view to the conclusion of peace. To this the Emperor replied that he had no power to bind the country; the government being vested absolutely and entirely in the hands of the Regency at Paris. Bismark then perceived, and did not conceal from the Emperor, that the practical question, now not less than on the previous day, was purely a military one; and on this he had already declined to enter.

Later in the day a meeting was arranged between the Emperor and King at a country house near Donchery, called the Château de Bellevue. A brief note from the King to Queen Augusta, written on the same day, enables us to realise the scene. "What a thrilling moment," writes His Majesty, "that of my meeting with Napoleon! He was cast down, but dignified in his bearing and resigned. I gave him Wilhelmshöhe, near Cassel, as the place where he will stay. Our meeting took place in a small chateau in front of the western glacis of Sedan. From there I rode through the ranks of our army round Sedan. The reception by the troops - thou canst imagine it - indescribable! " The Emperor showed much anxiety to be spared being brought in contact with French troops or a French population during the process of his removal; and for this purpose it was agreed that leave should be obtained from the Belgian Government for his travelling via Bouillon and Liege, instead of through French territory. After his interview with the King, Napoleon conversed for a few minutes with the Crown Prince; and while alluding to the kind and courteous reception which he had met with from his father, was much agitated, and, indeed, overcome.

The Emperor quitted the Chateau de Bellevue on the morning of the 3rd September, and proceeded in a close carriage (it was raining heavily) to the Belgian town of Bouillon. A troop of Black Hussars escorted the carriage, but gave up their charge to one of Belgian Chasseurs on crossing the frontier. The road was encumbered by Prussian columns, trains of wagons, and captured French guns, and many hours were spent in accomplishing the short journey to Bouillon. Thence escorted by rail to Liege, and entering Prussian territory at Verviers, the illustrious prisoner reached Wilhelmshöhe on the evening of the 5th September, where suitable preparations had been made for his reception.

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Pictures for Chapter XXXVI, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9 page 3

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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