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

Reception in England of the News of the Battles round Metz - Associations for the Relief of the Sick and Wounded. - The Army of Chalons - Palikao's Plan - Noble bearing of the Empress - Mac- Mahon prefers another Plan - His indecision and slow progress - The 13th Corps - Battle of Beaumont - The French concentrate on Sedan - General Vinoy's Narrative - His Emissary in Sedan. - State of Paris - Trochu appointed Governor - Measures of Defence - Strength of the Forces within Paris - Expulsion of the German Residents - Speech of Thiers in the Corps Legislative - Trochu does not hope for success. - Disposition of the German Armies round Sedan - Battle of Sedan - Atrocities at Bazeilles - MacMahon wounded - General Wimpffen assumes the command - The French Army driven into Sedan - Capitulation - Letter of Napoleon to the King of Prussia - Interview of the Emperor with Count Bismark: and with the King - Napoleon is removed as a Prisoner to Wilhelmshöhe.
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The intelligence of the great battles fought near Metz reached England in various conflicting forms. We have seen how the King of Prussia, in a letter recalling the Napoleonic bulletins of the old war, represented the battle of Gravelotte as a great victory for the German arms. Another version, derived from a communication made by the Count de Palikao to the French Chamber, was that, so far from the Germans having won a victory, the success had been with the French, and that Bazaine had driven three Prussian corps "into the quarries of Jaumont." What this stupendous operation meant, and what the three corps did in the quarries after having been driven into them, was never explained; nor does Count Palikao, in his work on his short administration, throw any light on the subject. But it was clear that a French army was cooped up in Metz; that thousands of men were lying, disabled by sickness or wounds, in hospitals, many of which were of a provisional and inadequate character; and that great distress must infallibly fall upon the poor inhabitants of the northeast region of France, which formed the theatre of war. The reckless way in which the French Government began the war had aroused feelings of deep and indignant disapproval among all classes and parties. in this country; but now that it was a question of human suffering to be alleviated, human needs to be supplied, the warm hearts of Englishmen and Englishwomen forgot all but the urgency and the duty of charity. Associations for the relief of the sick and wounded were formed in every direction, and received overflowing support; and numbers both of men and women volunteered to tend the wounded of both armies under the protection of the red cross of the Geneva Convention. The German authorities, whose arrangements in view of these and other accidents of war admitted of little improvement, declined to avail themselves of the zeal of foreign volunteers; but by the French, whom overwhelming misfortune had surprised in a state of unreadiness which only brings out the rashness of their Government into stronger relief, all such services were thankfully accepted. Later on, a very useful organisation was set on foot by the Daily News newspaper, for the special purpose of relieving the wants of the peasantry and others in the country round Sedan, whom the devastating fury of the war had left houseless and penniless.

As soon as a clear notion of what had occurred near Metz was obtained by the French Government, it became a matter of very anxious deliberation what course should be adopted. For some days Marshal MacMahon had been actively engaged in forming a new army at the camp of Chalons out of the heterogeneous materials which he had at his disposal. Of the seven original corps with which France began the war, three, the 1st, the 5th, and the 7th, commanded respectively by Generals Ducrot, De Failly, and Douay, were now concentrated at Chalons. But the Dumesnit division of the 7th Corps had, as we have seen, participated in the disaster of Wörth, and had been dispersed and fearfully demoralised after the battle. The same may be said of a considerable part of the 1st Corps; while one division of the 5th Corps had been cut off from the main body by the German advance, and was now shut up in Metz. The gaps thus made in the ranks of these three corps were supplied in various ways, partly from the Mobiles, partly by recruiting; but the new soldiers were raw and untrained, and the defeats which the trained veterans of France had sustained did not tend to raise their spirits, or make them eager for the fray. A new corps, the 12th (Lebrun), very recently formed, was also at the camp, besides several divisions of cavalry. Altogether, a force had been collected of 135,000 men. What was to be done with it? Made wise by the event, critics and historians without number have condemned MacMahon's flank march through the Argonne for the purpose of relieving Bazaine, and have written as if it was absurd and incapable of achievement from the first. Then, as it must have been undertaken from some motive, they have seen in the enterprise the reckless and desperate resolve of the Government of the Emperor to sacrifice the interests of France, which would have dictated MacMahon's retirement towards Paris, to the interests of the dynasty, and stake everything on the success of a most hazardous combination, the failure of which, while it was fatal to the Empire, involved France also in its ruin. The Empress and Palikao, so it is commonly said, forced MacMahon to march towards Sedan against his better judgment, they being influenced by purely dynastic considerations.

Count Palikao has replied to these critics in a book from which we have already quoted, and it is impossible to deny that his assertions seem to be of great weight. In the first place, he declares that the bearing and behaviour of the Empress, all through these melancholy days between Gravelotte and Sedan, were in the highest degree dignified and patriotic. More than once she used to him these or similar words: " Save France, and do not trouble yourself what becomes of us " - that is, of the dynasty. He proceeds to maintain that to send MacMahon to effect a junction with Bazaine was a wise, practicable, and even hopeful project. What could have been the advantage, he asks, of bringing the Army of Chalons back to Paris? It was not wanted there; the garrison of Paris was amply sufficient for its defence; and it would only have trenched on the supplies, the shortness of which, and not the arms of the enemy, produced the fall of the capital. Field armies are not organised that they may skulk under the guns of fortresses, but that they may attack and defeat the enemy in the field. But was the scheme practicable? Count Palikao maintains that it was; and Colonel Rüstow, an independent witness, appears to be of the same opinion. The Count exhibits, with great clearness, by means of an elaborate map, the plan which he proposed to MacMahon. Formed in three columns - the right, the centre, and the left - the Army of Chalons, setting out from the camp on the 21st and the 22nd instant, would, under this plan, have marched by different routes, with considerable intervals between the columns, through the defiles and forests of the Argonne, and have re-united their forces on the 26th in the neighbourhood of Verdun. It was of the highest importance that the entire operation should be kept as long as possible from the knowledge of the Crown Prince of Prussia, who was marching from Nancy, by Toul, on Vitry and Chalons - that is, by the direct road to Paris - lest, wheeling to the right, he should fall on the right flank of the relieving army. A fictitious telegram was therefore concerted, purporting to be from Marshal MacMahon to the Count Palikao, and stating that the former intended to march from the camp on Paris by Rheims. This was allowed to fall into the hands of the Crown Prince. The ruse was, in fact, so far successful, that it was not till the evening of the 25th, at Vitry-sur-Marne, that the Crown Prince received authentic information as to the real direction of MacMahon's march. MacMahon, therefore, having left the camp on the 21st, had a clear start of at least four days. Pushing on resolutely to Verdun, which he might have reached, in the Count's opinion, on the 26th inst., with at least 115,000 men out of the 135,000 with which lie started, MacMahon would have found himself face to face with the Fourth German Army, under the Crown Prince of Saxony, which had made an ineffectual attempt on Verdun on the 23rd August. A battle would have to be fought with this army somewhere about Etain, north-east of Verdun. Now, reasoned Palikao, one of two things would happen. Either Prince Frederic Charles would march away from Metz to the assistance of the Crown Prince of Saxony, in which case Bazaine would have issued out of Metz with the Army of the Rhine, and placed the Prussians between two fires; or, if Prince Frederic Charles had continued where he was, the Saxon Crown Prince would probably have received a severe defeat, and MacMahon, pressing on to Metz at the head of a victorious army, would, seconded as he would certainly have been by the utmost efforts of Bazaine, have succeeded in putting an end to the investment. Then, by the union of the Army of Chalons with the Army of the Rhine, a mass of troops would have been concentrated able to cope in some degree with the enormous hosts which Germany had sent into the field; and the fatal error which had been committed at the outset of the war, of dispersing the French forces, and so exposing them to the risk of being overpowered in detail, would be effectually repaired.

MacMahon, however, when, after long resistance, he acceded to the policy of endeavouring to relieve Bazaine, considered that he would be exposing his right flank too much if he were to lead his army on the line indicated by Palikao; he preferred a more circuitous course, which would take his army close to the Belgian frontier, and bring it by way of Montmédy and Briey upon Metz. Even by this route he had sufficient start, in the opinion of Palikao, to have outmarched the Crown Prince, had he given way to no indecision, and made long marches every day, without troubling himself about the number of stragglers whom he might leave behind him. He might, it is said, have reached Montmédy on the 25th August, on the evening of which day, it will be remembered, the Crown Prince of Prussia first heard of his northward march. " On the 29th, or, at the latest, on the 30th, he could have united with Bazaine before Metz - that is, if the latter broke through the investing lines - and have fought a battle with Prince Frederic Charles, who would then have been no longer able to oppose him with equal forces." But instead of this, the head of MacMahon's army only reached Mouzon on the 28th August, and he was therefore unable to bring his whole army across the Meuse before it was struck by the Crown Prince.

MacMahon was at first opposed to any operation of the kind; he was for leading back his army to the neighbourhood of Paris, to assist in the defence of the city. When, therefore, he broke up from the camp of Chalons, on the 21st inst., he marched in a north-westerly direction to Rheims. The Government of the Regency desired, on the contrary, that he should march to the relief of Bazaine. Accordingly, M. Rouher, leaving Paris on the 20th, travelled to the camp; not finding the army there, he followed it to Rheims, and at the village of Courcelles obtained an interview with the Marshal, at which the Emperor was also present, in which he strongly urged upon MacMahon the views of the Government. Public opinion, he said, demanded that Bazaine should not be sacrificed without a strenuous effort being made for his relief. The Emperor supported the arguments of Rouher; but MacMahon stood firm, and as he was responsible for the safety of the army, nothing more could be done. But on the morning of the next day, the 22nd, MacMahon received a message from Bazaine, saying that he still reckoned upon breaking through the investing lines, " taking the direction of the north." MacMahon's decision, already shaken perhaps by the arguments of Rouher, was completely altered by the receipt of this intelligence. He now resolved to march by the route near the frontier which has been already indicated. But his progress was slow, and his strategic plan does not seem to have been thoroughly thought out beforehand. The delay of two days (the 25th and 26th) at Rethel bespoke a wavering mind that had no genuine faith in the wisdom or the success of what it was engaged in.

In order to protect MacMahon's communications with Paris, and support his left wing, Count Palikao ordered the division d'Exea of the 13th Corps, just formed at Paris under General Vinoy, to proceed to Rheims, and the remainder of the corps to move by rail to Mezieres, a town close to the Belgian frontier, about ten miles from Sedan. Thus to denude Paris of troops was not, the Count remarks, the act of a Government with which dynastic considerations were paramount to all others.

On the 30th August, the 5th Corps (De Failly) was at Beaumont near the Meuse. They had arrived there only that morning, after a fatiguing march; the soldiers were engaged in cooking; and the scouting and outpost duties appear to have been shamefully neglected. While engaged in the multifarious avocations of a camp, and dreaming of no danger, the doomed men were startled by the bursting of shells among them, fired by a battery belonging to the 1st Bavarian Corps (Yonder Tann) which had advanced unperceived through the woods. Von der Tann was presently supported by the 4th Corps (Alvensleben II.) and the 12th Corps (Saxons). Surprised and outnumbered, the French made a feeble resistance, and were driven in confusion from the field, with the loss of their camp, twenty-three guns, eleven mitrailleuses, and nearly 3,000 prisoners. Of the beaten troops, some succeeded in crossing the Meuse, others fled northward in the direction of Sedan. MacMahon was deeply distressed on hearing of the ill conduct of the 5th Corps - of the negligence which had allowed it to be surprised, and the ease with which it had suffered itself to be dispersed and demoralised. A portion of the beaten troops had been, as we have seen, cut off from the Meuse, and thrown back in the direction of Sedan; it was this probably, as well as the knowledge that the head of Vinoy's column was at Mezieres, which induced MacMahon - although the 1st and 12th Corps had already crossed the Meuse and were marching upon Montmédy, and the 7th Corps crossed it at Villers below Mouzon in the course of the 30th - to give orders on the evening of that day for the abandonment of his former line of march, and the concentration of all the forces under his command upon the heights surrounding the fortress of Sedan and on the right bank of the Meuse above the town. In the course of the 31st this movement was effected. The 7th Corps, forming the extreme left, was posted from the village of St. Menges to that of Illy; to its right, and partly in its rear, stood the 1st Corps, guarding the valley of Givonne; the 12th Corps was massed on the low ground about the villages of Balan and Bazeilles; and the 5th Corps was held in reserve in the entrenched camp of Sedan.

General Vinoy, commanding the 13th Corps, has published a highly interesting narrative of the share which he took in these events, marked by the clearness and masculine simplicity which characterise the true soldier. Ordered by Count Palikao to proceed with the main body of his corps to Mezieres, he arrived at that place, with the head-quarters and the division Blanchard, late in the night between the 30th and 31st August. On the following morning he sent a captain to Sedan by train to obtain an interview if possible with MacMahon, inform him of all needful particulars respecting the movements of the 13th Corps, and ascertain what were the Marshal's intentions and hopes for the future. After leaving Donchery, the train was fired at by a Prussian battery posted on the opposite, or southern, bank of the Meuse; the Zouaves who were in the train immediately jumped out and began firing their Chassepots in all directions, though, as the General drily remarks, the shots fired by half of them, on the off side of the train, could not have done much execution. On entering the town, the Captain found the streets crowded with men who had come down without leave from their regiments posted on the surrounding hills; everything was hubbub and confusion. Making his way to the Sub-Prefecture, he obtained an interview about 10 a.m. with the Emperor, who had just arrived in Sedan, having travelled all night from Mouzon, whence on the previous day he had prudently sent the Prince Imperial - who, poor boy, had already had his fill of campaigning - into Belgium. The Captain, whom the proximity of the Prussians on the left bank of the Meuso had alarmed for the safety of his own corps, induced the Emperor to write an order to Vinoy, directing him to concentrate all the troops under his command on Mezieres. Napoleon gave him the order, but at the same time told him that he held no real command, and only did so because of the difficulty of finding MacMahon. The Emperor added that the Marshal's intention was to fall back on Mezieres. Leaving the Emperor, the Captain had the good fortune soon afterwards to fall in with Marshal MacMahon, and introduced himself to him. The Marshal received him kindly, and expressed his approval of the Emperor's order, and confirmed the statement that he intended to retire upon Mezieres - a movement, to which neither he nor the Emperor at that time supposed that the enemy could offer any opposition. Speaking of the action at Beaumont, the Marshal expressed his sentiments in the manner that we have already described. But shortly after this interview the Captain understood that the Marshal had changed his mind with regard to retreating on Mezieres, and that he was now resolved to accept battle where he stood. Yet common prudence, it would seem, might have suggested that the possibility at least of a retreat on Mezieres should have been sedulously preserved, by preventing the enemy from crossing in force to the right bank of the Meuse below Sedan. So long as Sedan was not beset on the western side, the Army of Chalons, though defeated, might have made good its escape to Mezieres, and thence to Laon and Paris. But by some unaccountable negligence the 11th German Corps (Bose) was allowed by the French to throw two pontoon bridges, apparently without opposition, across the Meuse at Donchery, over which the whole 11th Corps was transported to the right bank by the morning of the 1st September, and was shortly after followed by the 5th Corps. By this operation the doom of the French army was sealed.

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