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France: The Second Empire page 3

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In truth, the country was becoming tired of his government. It was said he had grown old and ineffective. His rule was very expensive - more so than any republic, or monarchy, or empire which France had ever known. His foreign policy had brought mainly disgrace; his plots had all been found out, his intrigues had all been baffled. Even the good which he had done became a fault. Thiers and the liberals reproached him that he had helped to make Italy great. France now demanded that he should mar the threatening greatness of Germany, and perpetuate her enfeebling divisions. Probably he would not have undertaken the task if he dared shun it. But the voice of France was for war. The chambers were unanimous; Paris was enthusiastic; the provinces blindly acquiesced. Prance, with shameful unanimity, sanctioned the great crime which the emperor, not without reluctance, consented to commit. Six weeks later, when his career had closed, and he was a prisoner in the hands of the Germans, he assured Count Bismarck that he himself had not wished for war, but had been compelled to wage it by the pressure of public opinion.

The emperor joined the army at Metz, prepared to lead his eager troops across the Rhine and on to Berlin. Expressions, loud if not deep, of devotion to his person and enthusiastic approbation of the war were showered upon him at every stage of his journey. But there met him at the very outset discoveries fitted not merely to disappoint but also to alarm. He should have found himself at the head of four hundred thousand men, perfectly disciplined and equipped. To his dismay there were no more than two hundred and twenty thousand. The men of the reserve, not breathing the general enthusiasm, "took an infinite time," as the emperor mourns, "to rejoin their corps." Moreover, it quickly appeared, when they came, that many of them had not been drilled in the use of the breech-loading musket, and their education had now to be commenced in this perilous hour when the highest accomplishment in the use of weapons was so indispensable. The officers who were familiar with the mitrailleuse had been carelessly drafted off to other duties, and this formidable weapon was of necessity intrusted to men who were strangers to its qualities. Supplies of every description, even of money and food, were awanting. Vast accumulations were piled up in two or three great depots, whence they could not be rapidly delivered. The transport-waggons were stored at one point, their wheels lay elsewhere at a distance, and weeks elapsed before the inopportunely scattered members of those wagons could "be recombined. The artillery were without horses until they borrowed from the cavalry. The only maps which were provided were maps of Germany.

It was the intention of the emperor to cross the Rhine before the Germans could gather strength to prevent him. But he quickly perceived that the incompleteness of his own preparations rendered this impossible. He concentrated his troops for an advance into the valley of the Saar. At Saarbruck (It was at Saarbruck the Prince Imperial received his "baptism of fire." The emperor writing, in exile, regarding this incident, expresses himself thus: - "In this affair the Prince Imperial displayed a coolness beyond his age, but indiscreet friends having exaggerated the merit of his behaviour, the malevolent turned into ridicule that which in reality was worthy of praise.") there lay a small force of Germans who, adventurously, disputed with him the passage of the river. They were driven away and the river secured. But no use could be made of the success. The emperor was not to enter German territory till four or five weeks had passed; and then he was to enter it as a prisoner. His army lay inactive for two days, and then fell back towards Metz. Already the idea of invasion was seen to be hopeless. For, almost from the day that war was declared the armed manhood of Germany had been hurrying to the frontier - admirable in discipline, marvellously complete in organization, guided by the highest military genius of the age. Internal divisions yielded to the first pressure of a common danger, and the states of the south marched with their countrymen of the north. By day and night railway trains followed each other at brief intervals, laden with soldiers, horses, and artillery. Fourteen days sufficed to place four hundred and fifty thousand perfectly equipped Germans face to face with the rash and ill-prepared armament of France.

The Germans lost no time in beginning the invasion of French territory. The crown prince crossed the Lauter - at that point the boundary which divides the two countries – and at Weissenburg, with a,n overwhelming force, fell upon the French and defeated them. The victorious Germans passed immediately southwards towards Worth, where Marshal Macmahon was striving to draw his scattered forces together. The French kept careless watch, and it was a painful surprise to the marshal to be attacked in early morning by a force which here, as elsewhere, largely outnumbered his own. Macmahon had every advantage of position, and his troops fought with desperate courage. But they failed to hold their ground against their assailants. Both sides endured heavy loss, and the French, beaten and disordered, fled from the field. Nor was this the only calamity which befell France on that unhappy day. At Speichern the French, under General Frossard, occupied heights which were deemed almost impregnable. But the Germans, after hours of heavy fighting, scaled the heights and drove the French away, with lamentable slaughter on both sides.

This accumulation of disaster filled the emperor with dismay. He was at Metz, vainly endeavouring to hasten the concentration of his whole force, but frustrated at every point by this terrible flood of armed Germans who overran his country and dashed all his combinations into hopeless ruin. He already thought of returning to Paris to resume the reins of government. But the empress counselled him to delay his return until he should have gained an important success, and he remained. His military reputation, as he himself states, was not sufficiently established to resist evil fortune, and the confidence of his troops diminished. He made over the command of the army at Metz to Marshal Bazaine. Henceforth he was borne helplessly along, scarcely regarded either by his government or his soldiers - "condemned to impotence while he saw his armies and his government on the road to destruction." To the evils of this sad position it has to be added that he was suffering physical pain, constant and often intense, from the disease which ultimately proved fatal.

It was yet only eleven days since the first blow had been struck, and already the war was lost beyond hope of recovery. During the first week of August the cry of Paris was still, " On to Berlin." So sudden was the collapse of these vain hopes, that during the second week the concern of Paris was for her own defence. The Parisians, who so lately urged their government into war, now assailed those in its direction, overthrew a ministry, and assumed an attitude threateningly hostile to the throne. It was determined that Macmahon, who had withdrawn to Chalons, where the emperor had joined him, should retreat in the direction of Paris, for the protection of the capital. But next day brought a new policy. Bazaine had been left at Metz surrounded by the enemy, and government "feared the worst" in Paris if he should be abandoned to his fate. Macmahon must therefore hasten to his relief. The marshal hesitated, for he knew the enterprise to be impossible. His troops - one hundred and forty thousand in number - were not all of the best quality; they were exhausted by toilsome marches, discouraged by defeat, and insufficiently provided with the most indispensable supplies. Their flank must be exposed during their long march of one hundred and ten miles to the attack of an enemy of unknown strength, of whose energy they had already had terrible experience. Confidence in their leaders was gone; and the gloom which forebodes and invites disaster was in every heart and on every face. But the fear of revolution in Paris overruled all other considerations, and the marshal set out on a march which he scarcely hoped could end elsewhere than in ruin.

Meanwhile Bazaine had suffered fierce attack from the Germans. He vainly attempted to escape from Metz. He fought two bloody and indecisive battles at Rezonville and Gravelotte. He found it impossible to break through the German lines, and he drew back his disheartened troops to the shelter of the forts.

Tidings of Macmahon's movement were immediately carried to the Prussian camp. His purpose could at first only be guessed; but it was rightly guessed, and prompt measures were taken for its frustration. Two German armies, numbering one hundred and sixty thousand men, were sufficiently strong to shut in Bazaine till hunger forced his surrender. The other two armies - the third and fourth - with a strength of two hundred and thirty thousand, were available for service elsewhere. It was possible for this great force to fall upon Macmahon while still on his march and before he could receive help from Bazaine. The two armies were immediately turned northwards.

As the French drew near the little town of Stenay, where they proposed to cross the river Meuse, the Germans had approached them closely, and in overwhelming numbers were concentrating on their flank. The country was densely wooded; the watch of the French was, as usual, careless. At Beaumont a German force, issuing from forest roads, burst upon the unexpectant French occupied in cooking. In the engagement which followed, the French were forced aside from the advance which would have led them to Metz and were driven northwards towards Sedan. About midnight the wearied men set out on this dismal journey. The night was dark; heavy rains had made the roads difficult; the confusion which prevailed was extreme. All night the men toiled forward, and reached Sedan at nine next morning. The emperor had gone to the little town of Carignan to rest for the night. A message from Macmahon told him of the enforced change of route, and required him to repair to Sedan. He arrived there late at night, without baggage or escort, and walked almost alone from the railway-station into the little town where the crowning agony of his career was to be endured. His advisers urged him to go further and save himself, but he refused.

Life was little worth saving then. He would stay with his army and share the fate which no power could now avert.

Next day the French busied themselves in restoring some measure of order in their ranks, and in making such preparation as they found possible for the approaching conflict. All that day the German advance continued. When night fell their two armies had gathered themselves around the French so closely and in such strength that resistance was hopeless, and escape, in the event of defeat, impossible.

The French occupied a range of heights which overlook Sedan and the valley of the Meuse. Before daybreak the indefatigable Germans advanced to the attack. Their coming was not expected at so early an hour, but the French stood their ground. The marshal, hastening to the front, was struck down and disabled by a fragment of a bursting shell. As they bore him from the field he was met by the emperor, who spoke some kind words and rode onward to the battle (In his own words, "with the conviction that either his life or his death was, on this fatal day, equally useless for the public safety, he rode on to the field of battle with that frigid resignation which faces danger without weakness, but also without enthusiasm."). It was their final parting - tragical and mournful as few partings have been.

No one understood the position of the two armies, or knew anything of the marshal's plans - if indeed he had any plan beyond a resolution to fight stubbornly to the last. He made over the command to General Ducrot, who began to order certain new dispositions. But an hour or two later the command was claimed by General Wimpffen, who had just arrived from Africa, and who bore a commission from the minister of war. This new leader at once reversed the arrangements of Ducrot. The manifest vacillation in command destroyed confidence among the troops and accelerated the now inevitable ruin. For many hours, however, they maintained with heroic courage the hopeless struggle - enduring and inflicting lamentable slaughter of brave men. The fortune of war was so decisively adverse, that the utmost hope of the general was to hold his ground till nightfall, and then to break through and escape.

The Germans attacked the Trench positions and carried them one by one, along the whole line four or five miles in length. They established artillery on the heights, until at the close there were five hundred pieces whose fire commanded every foot of ground on which a Frenchman stood. By four o'clock resistance ceased. The French had been driven into Sedan, or scattered or captured. Sedan was a prey to the wildest confusion. The streets were crowded with soldiers, many of whom had cast away their arms, and now, regardless of authority, sought only for food and for shelter from the withering fire of the German guns. Through these crowds mounted men and panic-stricken waggoners forced their desperate way heedless of the wretches whom they trampled down. Loud imprecations rose on every side against the leaders who were responsible for these disastrous results. And over all rose the thunder of the German guns, which, converging their fire upon Sedan, sent an incessant storm of shells among the discomfited troops. The miserable emperor, worn by fatigue and sorrow and physical pain, had vainly exposed himself, seeking death in the midst of his soldiers. Now he ordered a flag of truce to be hung out; he surrendered himself to the king, and sent General Wimpffen to make what terms he could for the army.

The German chiefs were all before Sedan. The king, his son the crown prince, Count Bismarck, Count Moltke, Yon Eoon the minister-at-Avar, were present to drink the delight of this marvellous triumph. Late at night the general of the defeated French met at Donchery with the officers empowered by the king to negotiate. He pled earnestly that his beaten soldiers should be allowed to pass the Belgian frontier-only seven miles away - and there be disarmed. Generous terms, he said, would awaken the gratitude of France; rather than submit to disgrace he would renew the fight, and Germany would be guilty of the blood which would be vainly shed. Count Moltke showed him that eighty thousand Frenchmen, with food for only twenty-four hours, were surrounded by two hundred and forty thousand Germans, and under fire of five hundred guns, which would utterly destroy them in a few hours; that the suggestion of renewing the fight need not, therefore, be discussed. Bismarck treated contemptuously the idea of national gratitude, and intimated with perfect frankness that, having France now in their power, they intended to provide for their future security. With much reluctance General Wimpffen consented to an unconditional surrender, and eighty-three thousand Frenchmen laid down their arms. No such shame had ever before fallen upon the arms of France.

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