The Battle of Sedan took place between August 31 and September 2, 1870; it was the decisive clash of the second phase of the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870-May 10, 1871) and ended with the total encirclement and surrender of the French army “of Châlons” under the command initially of Marshal of France Patrice de Mac-Mahon, and, after the latter”s wounding, of Generals Ducrot and de Wimpffen.
Emperor Napoleon III, who was present on the battlefield with his troops, was forced to capitulate on September 2, along with the remnants of the army, in the face of the overwhelming superiority of the Prussian army led by the able Field Marshal von Moltke. Because of the catastrophe, the deposition of the emperor and the end of the Second Empire was quickly decided in Paris (on September 4).
By mid-August 1870, after the first defeats on the Alsace-Lorraine frontier, the French army was divided into two main corps: the Army of Châlons, led by Marshal of France Patrice de Mac-Mahon and concentrated from August 16 precisely in the town of the same name on the Marne, where Emperor Napoleon III was also present, and the Army of the Rhine, led by another Marshal of France, François Achille Bazaine.
Marshal Bazaine, engaged against the main part of the Prussian army (I and II armies), having repulsed an initial attempt at a German outflanking maneuver on August 16 (Battle of Mars-la-Tour), had failed to counterattack and take advantage of the favorable moment, retreating to the stronghold of Metz. In the decisive Battle of Gravelotte on August 18, the marshal, while inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, again missed a number of favorable opportunities, did not employ the entirety of his troops, and was eventually beaten and repulsed, although he still had very large forces (155,000 men), in a strictly defensive position in the stronghold of Metz (Siege of Metz, Sept. 3-Oct. 23, 1870), surrounded by the Prussian 2nd Army, under the command of Prince Frederick Charles of Prussia and 168,000 strong.
While Marshal Bazaine was fighting these battles to try, in vain, to escape the German enveloping maneuver and fall back across the Meuse, the three French army corps (I, V and VII) engaged further south, having themselves been beaten in the bitter battles of Wissembourg and Froeschwiller, had instead precipitously fallen back, under the leadership of Marshal Mac-Mahon, westward, eluding the troops of the German III Army of the Crown Prince of Prussia and managing to reach Châlons, where additional French reserve troops were in the process of being rushed to reconstitute a new mass of maneuver to protect the Paris region.
The French Army of Châlons, consisting of about 130. 000 men and equipped with 423 cannons, was formed by the union of the I corps (General Ducrot), the V corps (General de Failly), the VII corps (General Félix Douay), all veterans of the defeats in Alsace, and, finally, by the XII corps (first under the command of General Trochu and then General Lebrun), hastily formed after the beginning of the war with a marine infantry division (initially intended to land on the German coast), some regular units and numerous recruits. Some regiments of the Garde mobile, initially assigned to reinforce the army, deemed treacherous and unfit for combat, were withdrawn and sent to Paris.
At the camp at Châlons had arrived Napoleon III (suffering greatly from a serious neoplastic disease of his own), who, having ceded supreme command of the army to Bazaine since August 12, had left the Army of the Rhine together with the crown prince on August 14 and reached, escorted by his mounted guards, Verdun on the 16th, then joined Mac-Mahon”s army in the evening of the same day in a railroad car. The emperor, having delegated political power to his consort Empress Eugenia de Montijo and command of the army to Marshal Bazaine, in fact, no longer held any decision-making power either military or political.
The army, in the absence of a link with Marshal Bazaine”s forces remaining in Metz, was not of sufficient size to hope to repel any German advance on Paris and, indeed, it appeared that Mac-Mahon was, rather, of the opinion to concentrate within the capital”s fortifications, reinforcing the city garrison, to give time to the new general mobilization under way throughout France.
Over the next few days there were frantic discussions and war councils to decide the best use of the force under Mac-Mahon”s command. At the important conference on August 17, Napoleon, Mac-Mahon, Trochu (the influential commander of the XII Corps), and Prince Napoleon Jerome decided, mainly on the advice of Prince Jerome, to give up the march on Metz and instead organize the fall back to Paris. But this decision was quickly revoked by the emperor, after the arrival of an optimistic message from Bazaine (written after the battle of Mars-la-Tour) and after the intervention of the head of the government Cousin-Montauban, both of whom were in favor (as was Empress Eugenie) of a bold advance to rush to the aid of the forces stranded in Metz. This change in strategy was motivated by the fear of violent political upheavals in Paris as a consequence of a defeat in the field by the emperor…
Mac-Mahon, completely unaware of Bazaine”s plans, maintained great reservations about these offensive plans; in an August 21 conversation with Senate President Eugène Rouher, who had visited him, the marshal said he was convinced that an eastward march would inevitably result in a rout; in the absence of news from Bazaine by August 23, the marshal guaranteed that he would proceed to retreat on Paris.
Everything depended, then, on news about the fate of Bazaine and the Army of the Rhine. Mac-Mahon chose to gain time and on August 21 moved on Reims, a position from which he estimated he could assist Bazaine, should the latter leave Metz, and which at the same time allowed him to fall back relatively undisturbed on Paris.
What finally induced him to move on Metz was a telegram from Bazaine, which arrived on August 21 but was sent a few days earlier, on August 19, the day after the Battle of Gravelotte and preceding the day on which the Prussians cut off telegraph communications. The message assured, “I still count on moving toward Châlons via Montmedy … that is, via Sedan, or even Mezieres.” Mac-Mahon and Napoleon III, further urged to act by a message from Cousin-Montauban on August 22, therefore wanted to believe that Bazaine had already left Metz and decided to join him on the Montmedy road, crossing the Meuse at Stenay.
The decision, reached after much tergiversation and second-guessing and based on military, but also and above all political arguments, would have resulted in disaster. An eventual retreat to Paris by the defeated emperor and army and the abandonment of Bazaine”s large forces in Metz could have triggered catastrophic revolutionary developments for the Second Empire. It then became inevitable for the military and the royal house to play all out by continuing the original plan to reunite the two French armies. Urged to rush to Bazaine”s aid and misled by the contradictory messages coming from the Army of the Rhine about the latter”s offensive ambitions, Mac-Mahon and Napoleon III”s army would have to march toward Metz, relying above all on the ability and willingness of the marshal stuck in the fortress to open the way north.
The French advance and the Prussian envelopment maneuver
The Army of Châlons then left its positions at Reims on August 23 and began its march northeastward, in the direction of Montmédy and toward the borders of Belgium: it hoped to advance at great speed to avoid being engaged by the Prussians before rejoining Bazaine”s army to the south. The disorganization, unpreparedness, and poor coordination of the army made the movement, nonetheless, particularly confusing and slow: shortages in supplies forced the troops to obtain supplies from local resources; Mac-Mahon was even forced to divert north momentarily to facilitate the arrival by rail of more provisions; it was not until August 26 that the French returned east again to march toward the Meuse.
The Prussians, after the successful encirclement of the French Army of the Rhine around the fortress of Metz, had energetically continued their advance toward the heart of France, marching in the direction of the Marne and Paris, divided into two separate masses: to the south, along the Meuse at Commercy, the 3rd Army of the Royal Prince of Prussia, consisting of the I (General von der Tann) and II Bavarian Corps (General von Hartmann), the V Prussian Corps (further north the new IV Army-also called the Maasarmee, Army of the Meuse)-of the Royal Prince of Saxony, newly formed with the Prussian IV Corps (General Gustav von Alvensleben), the Saxon XII Corps (Prince George of Saxony) and the prestigious Prussian Royal Guard (fresh from heavy losses at Gravelotte, again under the command of Prince Augustus of Württemberg), formations detached from Prince Frederick Charles”s II Army that remained on the Metz front. The two armies numbered 240,000 men and 700 cannons. The armies were appropriately preceded by the screen of German cavalry placed as a vanguard with the purpose of engaging the enemy, who was assumed to be deployed in defense of the capital, and pinpointing its position and intentions.
Von Moltke, the capable and well-prepared chief of staff of the Prussian Army, issued detailed orders for the reorganization of the army and for the march in the direction of the Marne on August 21; the maneuver would begin on the 23rd. However, the situation remained perilous: Bazaine was still solidly deployed around Metz with his troops and kept substantial Prussian forces engaged, while the direction of movement of MacMahon”s new French army, like the marshal”s plans, remained unclear.
Until the evening of August 25, Moltke thus continued to push his deployment cautiously westward, while the cavalry, thrown far ahead, promptly signaled French movement toward Reims. But eventually more accurate news came about the enemy”s intentions. A dispatch from London, based on sources from the Parisian press, clearly revealed Mac-Mahon”s intentions, revealing the direction of his movement directed at trying to rush to the aid of Marshal Bazaine. Moltke, while not underestimating the possibilities of the misleading nature of these sources, made his decision on the night of August 25: all the Germanic forces engaged in the direction of the Marne would make a northward movement; the Maasarmee would march across the Argonne, while the bulk of the 3rd Army (despite some conflicts with General Blumenthal, the army”s chief of staff) would in turn veer to the right toward Suippes and Sainte-Menehould, maintaining contact with the left flank of the Army of the Meuse. The cavalry would proceed forward to engage the enemy, which was believed to be located roughly between Vouziers and Buzancy.
The difficult change of direction was carried out successfully, despite the poor weather conditions; there was no shortage of episodes of confusion and disorder, but on the whole the two German armies managed to concentrate and make rapid progress northward, and as early as August 26 the cavalry of the 12th Saxon corps made first contact with the French between Vouziers and Grandpré. This was the French VII Corps cavalry protecting the right side of the army marching toward the Meuse.
The first clashes
Mac-Mahon”s army, despite great supply difficulties, had continued laboriously eastward, counting on crossing the Meuse and then marching on Montmédy. Mac-Mahon, alarmed by reports of Prussian cavalry on his right flank, initially had the I Corps converge on Vouziers as well, fearing a general battle. On August 27, the German cavalry had a new confrontation with the French V corps, at Bouzancy, while the bulk of the Saxon XII corps, deployed on the right of the Maasarmee, successfully emerged from the Argonne forest, crossed the Meuse without any problems at Stenay and Dun-sur-Meuse, thus positioning itself on the right bank of the river and barring the way to Montmedy and Metz.
Mac-Mahon, installed at Le Chesne, learned of the dangerous developments in the situation, on the night of the 27th, understood the risk he was taking and halted the eastward march, planning to head north and also sending a message to Bazaine, soliciting his cooperation and warning him of his probable retreat to Mézières. On the night of August 28, however, a peremptory message from the chief of government, Cousin-Montauban, urged, with optimistic statements, a resumption of the maneuver in Bazaine”s direction and again required the demoralized Mac-Mahon to resume the grueling eastward movement.
The marshal was also reassured by Paris about the alleged low morale and great confusion present among the Germans. He was also evidently unaware of the concentration on his right flank, and partly also in front, of the Maasarmee, which had already crossed the Meuse precisely at Stenay where the marshal counted on having his troops converge before continuing on to Metz. Thus, on August 28, the French march resumed, hampered and impeded on the right flank by the enemy cavalry, which quickly occupied Vouziers and Bouzancy, which had just been abandoned by the V and VII corps; now aware of the impossibility of marching directly on Stenay, Mac-Mahon decided on August 29 to cross the Meuse further north at Remilly and Mouzon, where he immediately directed the two French corps that were more northerly (I and XII) and less pressed by the German cavalry.
While the northern French corps found shelter north of the Meuse, the VII Corps still had a major confrontation with the enemy at La Besace, before falling back in turn to Mouzon; in contrast, the V Corps (General De Failly), ill-informed about the new northward movement of the army, continued eastward at first and soon after was engaged by Saxon cavalry. Finally, after being delayed, it encamped for the night of August 30 west of the Meuse, near Beumont.
As the French army laboriously fell back to the northeast, German forces systematically converged on the enemy: by August 29, Moltke had completed his maneuver and was able to make the contact march with the French army: the Maasarme, already east of the river, was directed on Beaumont with the XII Saxon Corps and the Prussian IV Corps, while the Prussian Guard was left in reserve; the III Army, concentrated between Sommerance and Monthois, would advance on Bouzancy and Le Chesne, then directing the Bavarian Corps on Beuamont and the Prussian V Corps on Stonne. The tired soldiers of the French V Corps, camped and asleep near Beaumont, were about to be attacked in force by the approaching enemy.
Battle of Beaumont
On Aug. 30, German forces that were rapidly converging on Mac-Mahon”s army, which was retreating northeast to seek shelter across the Meuse, intercepted at Beaumont, southeast of Mouzon, the forces of the Fifth Corps (General de Failly) that had been lingering on the left bank of the Meuse, exhausted after the exhausting march. These were taken by surprise in the night (3:30 a.m.) of August 30 by the sudden appearance of enemy troops. On Beaumont were concentrated from the west wards of the two Bavarian army corps, from the southeast elements of the 12th Saxon corps (which was already partly on the east bank of the Meuse after crossing at Stenay since August 27) and, above all, from the south the bulk of the Prussian IV Corps (General Alvensleben).
Taken completely unawares, the French tried unsuccessfully to hold out before gradually retreating northward. The V Corps was partly supported by the XII Corps (General Lebrun), which was already largely on the north bank of the Meuse and covered the retreat northward. After several hours of battle and valiant French resistance, the Prussian IV Corps ended up routing the enemy (6 p.m.), who confusingly retreated across the Meuse to Mouzon, while the Germans of the III and IV Corps (Prussians, Bavarians and Saxons) gathered victoriously on the battlefield.
At the end of the clash, the remnants of the French V Corps and XII Corps, which had lost nearly 7,500 men and 40 cannons (against about 3,500 men on the Prussians” side), then fell back to the stronghold of Sedan, in the Ardennes just a few kilometers from the Belgian border, where the other more northerly corps (I and VII), which had been able to cross the Meuse since August 29 at Mouzon and Remilly, had already converged. Mac-Mahon counted at last, with his forces concentrated north of the Meuse, to give the army a rest, refresh and resupply it, and then, to retreat, hopefully, on Paris.After the events of Beaumont, aware of the proximity of the enemy, in fact, the marshal no longer counted on concrete collaboration with Marshal Bazaine”s forces, about which he had no more certain news, and he now considered it impossible to continue the march south to relieve the stronghold of Metz.
Siege of Metz
As the situation of Marshal Mac-Mahon”s army became more and more desperate, Marshal Bazaine in Metz, uncertain, undecided and pessimistic about the possibilities of effective collaboration between the two separate masses of the French army, had preferred, despite repeated and ambiguous assurances communicated to his colleague Mac-Mahon, to safeguard his troops first and foremost, without exposing them in risky offensives to try to break the Germanic circle around his positions. On Aug. 26, after lengthy discussions with his subordinates, he had abandoned an initial sortie plan of his own, and it was not until Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, while the battle was in progress at Sedan, that the marshal launched a full-strength attack (employing four army corps) on Noisseville, with the aim of achieving decisive success and overcoming the German defenses in the northeastern sector of the encirclement front.
After a notable initial success on the afternoon of August 31 against General von Manteuffel”s Prussian I Corps, which was attacked by the preponderant French forces of III and IV Corps, Bazaine, despite his clear numerical superiority, did not renew his attempt on September 1 and was counterattacked by the Prussian reserves that promptly rushed in, quickly deciding to suspend the attack and begin the retreat. While Châlons”s army was destroyed or captured at Sedan, at the same time Bazaine”s Rhine Army returned demoralized to its defensive positions at Metz, permanently condemned to suffer the enemy”s siege, with no chance to intervene in support of comrades encircled further north.
Withdrawal on Sedan
Châlons”s French army, although discouraged by the defeat at Beaumont and tried by the lack of supplies, managed to fall back in fair order to Sedan, totally unaware of developments at Metz and the position of Marshal Bazaine”s forces. By the morning of August 31, the entire army (except for a cavalry corps that arrived only in the evening) was deployed around the Ardennes city: I corps (Ducrot) held the Givonne line to the east, XII corps (Lebrun) occupied positions on the Meuse to the south (hinging on the defenses of the village of Bazeilles), while VII corps (Douay) was positioned north of the city and occupied the important centers of Fleigneux, Floing and Illy, linking up on the right with General Ducrot”s forces; finally, the remnants of V corps, badly beaten at Beaumont, remained in reserve in the vicinity of the fortress.
Marshal Mac-Mahon, with a hard-pressed and tired army, therefore decided to pause on the positions he had reached and postpone the start of the northward march until noon on September 1. The position, moreover, appeared solid, covered to the south and east by the Meuse and the Givonne, northeast of the Belgian frontier, while to the northwest the road to Mézières appeared free and safe.It is difficult to say what the reasons were for this dangerous halt. Certainly the marshal had little and inaccurate information about the enemy”s forces and movements; in particular, he calculated the forces in front of him at about 70,000 men (thus far outnumbering his army) and had no news of the other German troops already present east of the Meuse and, above all, of the Prussian march north of the Meuse that endangered the retreat route to Mezieres.
It seems that at first the opinion of Napoleon III, who had wanted to follow the army to Sedan, was to try to fall back immediately to the north, but the emperor was now ill, depressed and without real power and did not impose his decision, preferring to delegate all authority to the marshal. It is probable that also laying in favor of the halt at Sedan was the prospect of an easy retreat to the very close Belgian frontier in case the tactical situation worsened. Moreover, the general state of discouragement and fatigue of the army and its commanders must be taken into account. Mac-Mahon himself, in a famous order of the day addressed to the troops in the evening of August 31, arranged (evidently reassured about the strength and position of the enemy) for September 1, even a day of general rest and refreshment, The marshal was far from imagining the catastrophic developments of the situation that would occur the next day.
Nor were adequate defensive measures prepared, and the order to destroy all bridges over the Meuse between Sedan and Mézières (the predetermined place of the retreat, where General Vinoy”s 13th Army Corps was already present and a compulsory stop on the way to the capital) was not attended to with sufficient attention, in order to secure the road of retreat: the Donchery Bridge, moreover, remained intact. Marshal Mac-Mahon did not even provide adequate defense of the many fords on the Meuse, thus opening wide gaps for the Prussian forces to pass through.
The Prussian encirclement
Von Moltke was still in search of a decisive “battle of destruction”: a magnificent opportunity now presented itself for the German command to organize and fight a kesselschlacht (literally “cauldron battle,” in Prussian army terminology, a battle of encirclement, also referred to as zirkelschlacht, “circular battle”). Faced with the enemy”s immobility around Sedan, the field marshal could thus proceed to complete his maneuver: after the victorious clash at Beaumont, the Meuse line was now solidly occupied, while the Maasarmee corps, already east of the river, could continue undisturbed northward along the Belgian border. On the German left wing, the 5th and 11th Corps of the 3rd Army pushed northward, finding the bridge over the Meuse at Donchery surprisingly intact and undefended, which enabled these forces to cross over to the northern bank on August 31 and thus bar the enemy”s retreat northward as well.
Meanwhile, also on August 31, the right wing of the Third Army (south of Sedan), finding the Remilly bridge destroyed, crossed the river further south, partly by ford and partly, after a hard fight, by taking advantage of the railroad bridge at Bazeilles: in the evening the vanguards of the Bavarian I Corps had a first clash with the marine infantry division of the French XII Corps, led by General Vassoigne, and were repulsed without being able to take the town. The actions of August 31, however, had enabled the Germans to secure, in addition to the all-important Donchery Bridge, numerous crossing points over the Meuse, also equipped with pontoon bridges, and thus to gain a decisive strategic advantage over an enemy now completely unfit for any attempt at evasion.
On Aug. 31, Field Marshal von Moltke, aware of the strategic advantages gained from the successful pincer maneuver and the desperate condition of the French position, worked out the tactical details of the battle plan directed at completely encircling the Châlons Army, also cutting off the road to Belgium. The maneuver called for the right wing, consisting of the Maasarmee corps and already passed to the east of the river after crossing at Stenay on August 27, to march resolutely northward, conquering La Chapelle and then Illy, while the left wing, consisting of the III Army, would launch an attack from the south with the two army corps of the Bavarian army, attacking Bazeilles. Two other army corps (5th and 11th), which were already on the north bank of the Meuse at Donchery, would march northeast trying to rejoin the German columns of the right wing at Illy, closing the circle around the enemy forces.
The initial clashes in Bazeilles
In the early morning fog (4. 00), Bazeilles was stormed by the pugnacious Bavarian infantry of General von der Tann”s I Corps (apparently in advance of Moltke”s initial plans), but the French navy infantrymen of the XII Corps (belonging to the so-called division bleue), who were defending the village, had fortified themselves well and fought bravely for hours, organizing a fierce defense inside the town that inflicted great losses on the enemy; famous was the tenacious resistance of a group of French soldiers in a fortified building in the town, the famous “last cartridge house.”
The French soldiers were also supported by the population and received some reinforcements to strengthen the defense. The Bavarian soldiers, exasperated by the losses (the most severe suffered by the Germanic army) and the ferocity of the fighting, applied particularly brutal techniques of warfare, burning houses and summarily passing prisoners, including several dozen civilians, deemed to be frank tirers (for the stifling of the tireurs phenomenon there were ad hoc provisions issued by the Prussian high command that laid down the repressive methods). At 9:30 a.m., the French troops, despite the valor they had shown, began to lose ground and finally had to abandon Bazeilles into the hands of the Bavarians, partly as a result of retreat orders from General Ducrot.
Meanwhile, the battle had also flared up further east, in the sector of the right bank of the Meuse, defended by the French I Corps, where the Saxon XII Corps was advancing (the Saxons made progress toward the Givonne and by mid-morning occupied La Moncelle and aimed at Daigny (which was to fall at 10 a.m.). Still farther northeast the Prussian Royal Guard was already on the march with the aim of reaching La Chapelle and preventing the Belgian frontier from being crossed. In the course of fighting in the La Moncelle sector (as early as 6:30 a.m.) an artillery barrage seriously wounded Marshal Mac-Mahon, commander-in-chief of the French army.
Confusion in the French command
At 6:30 a.m. the marshal transmitted the command to General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot (commander of the I Corps). The latter, aware of the danger that the French army was in of being pinned down by the German pincer maneuver, decided to organize an immediate retreat northward, after regrouping his forces on the Illy Plateau and abandoning Bazeilles. The army was then supposed to fall back toward Mézières, where General Vinoy”s XIII Corps was positioned; however, Ducrot, who although he rightly understood the desperate French situation, was unaware that two Prussian corps (V and XI) of the German III Army had already crossed the Meuse at Donchery and was unaware that these were already north of the river and were able to intercept the retreat route to Mezieres.
Around 9 a.m., General Wimpffen, who had arrived from Africa the previous day, presented a ministerial order appointing him commander in case of Mac-Mahon”s absence and assumed command. Ducrot”s orders, considered difficult to execute and overly pessimistic, were cancelled, and Wimpffen, very confident about the tactical situation on the ground, decided instead to organize a powerful counterattack southward to break the Bavarian front and open the way to Carignan. The army was then ordered to retake (with the XII Corps reinforced with reserve troops and a division taken from the VII Corps) Bazeilles.
Meanwhile, the Germanic forces of the Fifth and Eleventh Corps, which had crossed the Meuse at Donchery, had continued, almost undisturbed, their march, diverting eastward to try to complete the encirclement of the French army; the villages of Fleigneux, Illy and Floing, tenaciously defended by the French VII Corps (General Felix Douay), were captured around 1 p.m., throwing the enemy”s entire northern array into crisis and threatening to push it dangerously close to Sedan. Starting at 2 p.m., General Margueritte”s French cavalry launched three desperate attacks toward the nearby village of Floing in an attempt to recapture its positions; the valiant attempts were all repulsed with heavy losses, and Margueritte himself was seriously wounded. After being replaced by General Gallifet, he would die in Belgium a few days later.
At the end of several bloody battles, other German forces from the east (Saxons of the XII Corps and the Prussian Guard) forced the large French forces of the I Corps to abandon the line of the Givonne River and fall back into the Garenne Woods (Bois de la Garenne). Finally, the V Corps (General von Kirchbach), coming from the northwest, took possession of the Calvaire d”Illy, a key position to maintain the cohesion of the positions of the French I and VII Corps.
The forest of the Garenne was then systematically targeted by Prussian artillery, deployed mainly to the north and east of the territory around Sedan, decimating the demoralized French troops (mainly I Corps) who had gathered there after abandoning, in the face of overwhelming enemy fire superiority, the line of the Givonne. Only around 2:30 p.m. did Prince Augustus of Württemberg”s Prussian Guard move to attack from the east, while the V Corps (Silesians), after occupying the key position of the Calvaire d”Illy (perhaps left undefended by mistake), advanced from the north. The Prussian Guard penetrated into the Garenne Woods finding only sporadic and weak resistance; the French units surrendered in large numbers and the Prussians quickly conquered the entire area joining other German forces from the north (V Corps) and west (General von Bose”s Hessian XI Corps).
Meanwhile, to the southwest the Bavarian II Corps had firmly held its positions on the west bank of the Meuse between Frenois and Wadelincourt, while to the south the Bavarian I Corps, after repelling counterattacks on Balan and Bazeilles, advanced further north in connection on its right, with the Prussian IV Corps and the Saxon XII Corps, finally closing the circle around the demoralized and exhausted French army corps commanded by Wimpffen, Lebrun, Douay and Ducrot, which were clamped between the river, the Garenne forest and the fortress of Sedan. The surviving French troops flowed totally disorganized back toward Sedan to seek shelter behind the fortress ramparts.
In the early afternoon, General Wimpffen, after rallying, with the help of General Lebrun a few thousand still fighting soldiers and inviting the emperor to take personal command of the troops, launched a final attack on Balan and Bazeilles: after a fleeting success even this desperate attempt was easily repulsed by the overwhelming enemy forces.
Throughout the battle, the French forces had been regularly subjected to the pounding fire of the powerful Prussian artillery deployed on all the strategic heights around Sedan (particularly deadly was the fire from the batteries positioned on the left bank of the Meuse, between Frenois and the bois de la Marfee). Thus installed, it was free to dominate the battle scenario and devastate the enemy”s precarious defensive positions. Mac-Mahon”s initial decision to place the French corps in a completely uncovered defensive triangle around Sedan contributed to exposing the troops to the enemy”s gunfire, which played a key role in decimating the French forces, frustrating their counteroffensive attempts and lowering their morale. The Prussians, after the heavy losses they had suffered in previous battles, during frontal attacks launched in deep columns, conveniently decided to rely on the firepower of their own artillery to weaken the enemy”s defenses, even before moving on to the infantry attack, conducted, this time, in less close order.
The entire day”s fighting had been witnessed, from high ground near the village of Frénois, with the advantage of a perfect view of the battlefield, by King William, Chancellor Bismarck, Chief of Staff von Moltke and Minister of War Roon, accompanied by a retinue of Allied rulers, dignitaries, officials and military representatives of foreign states (including the famous U.S. General Philip Henry Sheridan).
By late afternoon of September 1, the entire French army was encircled. The route to Belgium closed. The situation was now so compromised that German artillery was able to open fire directly on the town of Sedan, in which an indistinct crowd of mostly wounded or demoralized soldiers now wandered, seeking escape. The French had lost over 17,000 men, dead and wounded; 21,000 had been taken prisoner. The Germans counted 2,320 soldiers dead, 5,980 wounded and 700 missing (a total of about 9,000 men, including more than 4,000 Bavarians).
At 4:15 p.m., with no more reinforcement troops, Napoleon III, who had previously, at around 2 p.m., tried to suspend the unequal fighting by having a white flag flown on the walls of the fortress of Sedan, took the initiative and ordered the now futile resistance to cease, despite the violent protests of General Wimpffen. To hasten the end of the fighting, the emperor resolved, after the arrival of two war parliamentarians, to send General Reille, an officer attached to the Imperial Household, at 6:30 p.m. directly to King William on the hills of Frenois with a personal letter of his own to request an end to the fighting and the opening of negotiations for the surrender of the French army. The short missive read:
The contents of the surrender were personally negotiated overnight in Donchery by Generals Wimpffen (who had initially tried to avoid the painful assignment) and de Castelneau, together with Moltke and the Prussian General Staff, with Bismarck also present. The discussion was heated and Wimpffen tried desperately to wrest some concessions; faced with Moltke”s ruthless ultimatum and the hopeless situation, the general finally had to give in. Even a final attempt by the emperor to gain some advantage during a private talk with Bismarck was to no avail. Finally, on September 2 at 11 a.m., the terms of capitulation were accepted by Wimpffen at Château de Bellevue: they provided for unconditional surrender, the surrender of all equipment, and the imprisonment of the entire encircled army at Sedan. Napoleon surrendered to von Moltke with the surviving 83,000 men (only a few cavalry divisions had previously managed to escape the trap and find refuge across the Belgian border.
Napoleon III, taken prisoner, was taken for a brief captivity to Wilhelmshoehe, near Kassel, from where he would proceed to his exile in England, where he would die on January 9, 1873 (even before the start of the war Napoleon III was already suffering from prostate cancer, which also haunted him during the battle itself). Captured French troops were, instead, destined for miserable internment in the assembly camps improvised by the Prussians in the bend of the Meuse around Iges: this was the infamous camp de la misère, where the soldiers, exposed to the elements, spent weeks of suffering, deprivation and starvation.
Meanwhile, bereft of the Emperor, the government in Paris lost all authority and was easily overthrown by a bloodless republican revolution as early as September 4. The Provisional Government of the newly formed Republic, eager to continue the war, led a strenuous defense of Paris and organized new armies, which were employed in an attempt to break the encirclement of the capital or to beat back the invaders in the field and drive them out. Despite all the efforts of the new republican government, the war, studded with fresh defeats, would end with the French defeat and the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt on May 10, 1871. The Prussian victory would be sealed by the proclamation of the German Empire at Versailles on January 18, 1871.
The Prussians made September 2 the national holiday of the newly formed Second German Empire (the Sedantag). The enormity of the French defeat at Sedan had a decisive influence on the subsequent events of the conflict and marked the fortunes of the nations involved and the dynamics of European history until 1918, causing the momentary decline of France and transforming the newly reunified Germany into the most important political and military power on the continent. It represented a key player in European diplomacy and the politics of alliances among the Great Powers for more than 40 years.
From the point of view of military strategy, the Battle of Sedan remains a classic example of the perfect battle of annihilation, concluded with the total encirclement and destruction of the enemy army. Although aided by the grave errors of the French command and German numerical superiority, the victory, masterfully achieved thanks to the skillful maneuvers of Field Marshal von Moltke and the efficiency of the German troops, stands alongside other classic “battles of destruction” in military history, such as Canne, Ulma, Vicksburg, Tannenberg, Kiev and Stalingrad.
An indirect consequence of the fall of Napoleon III”s Empire and the proclamation of the French Third Republic was, within days of September 2, 1870, the attack by the army of the Kingdom of Italy on the Papal States and the subsequent Taking of Rome.