Around the borders of the trap,
The German host, with sardonic grin,
Shoot at the hapless French within—
Until resistance, bound to snap,
At last gives up to those iron shod
Who came to snatch this ground of God.
In the latter part of August, 1870, during the Franco-German War, Marshal MacMahon set out from Chalons with the purpose of effecting the relief of Metz, where Bazaine had been locked up by the German forces, after the series of engagements terminating with the battle of Gravelotte.
MacMahon was at the head of the Second Army Corps, but was really the acting commander-in-chief of the French forces, in association with Emperor Napoleon. He was now sixty-three years old—an age not too far advanced for activity of mind and body, yet sufficiently so for a wide range and variety of valuable experience. He had served with distinction in Algeria, and had acquired a brilliant name in Crimea, although it was in the Italian war of 1859 that he finally established his reputation as one of the ablest commanders of the time.
Even before the declaration of war, Prussia had begun to mobilize her troops, and to make other preparations for the conflict—a condition of affairs not unlike her movements in the late World War, showing the same degree of extensive cunning, planning and conditioning, from which it is easy to guess she knew what was coming before her adversaries ever dreamed of it. In the Franco-German War she had brought to the front, within less than three weeks after declaration of hostilities, as many as half a million highly-trained soldiers, and back of them was one of the most perfect military organizations of directors, under Count von Moltke and Count Bismarck, that the world had ever known. The Third and Fourth German armies, by forced marches, succeeded in barring the way to Metz, and pressed the French northward towards the Belgian frontier, which it was a part of the German plan to compel them to cross. Mac-Mahon, however, after several days' fighting, chose the alternative of throwing himself into the fortress of Sedan, and occupied the heights which surrounded the fortress on the east, north, and west.
The early dawn of Thursday, September 1st, therefore, found Marshal MacMahon in his position of defense, confronted by enormous masses of the enemy, who opened a vigorous fire shortly after daylight.
During the night the Prussians had received reinforcements which occupied the heights of Frencheval. The French also had been strengthened by some fresh corps, but even then they were greatly outnumbered by the enemy, who had at his command nearly two hundred and forty thou-sand men, with nearly seven hundred guns.
It was now the plan of the Germans to have the Crown Prince of Saxony turn the extreme left of the French, to assail their front at the same time, and when these operations should have been crowned with success, to send a force around to the rear, which, meeting a detachment from the German Third Army, was to close upon the shattered and reeling lines of the adversary. At the same time, the Crown Prince of Prussia was to attack the right center of MacMahon at the projecting points of Bazeilles and Balan, to overwhelm the French right wing and to effect a junction with the Crown Prince of Saxony to the north.
To ensure the success of these movements the whole of the 31st of August had been devoted to placing the various corps in the necessary positions: those of the Crown Prince of Saxony along the course of the Chiers, and those of the Crown Prince of Prussia beyond Rémilly in the direction of the Meuse, with supports in other positions where they would be required to cooper-ate in the great turning movement that was to be the leading feature of the climax. When the French, in the early morning of the following day, found themselves attacked by the Germans, they must have seen how desperate was their situation. Partly by their own rashness, and partly by the admirable plans of the enemy, they found themselves trapped—driven into a corner of the country where there was no retreat open to them except into a foreign land.
Under cover of a thick fog, the advanced guard of the Crown Prince of Saxony crossed the Chiers, while the Bavarians, who had already crossed the Meuse, came into line with his left wing, and prepare to attack Bazeilles. By an extraordinary and culpable oversight, the French had neglected to break down the bridges over the Chiers, so that the advance of the Germans met with no obstacles. The forces of the Saxon Crown Prince proceeded towards Givonne, while the Bavarians simultaneously advanced upon Bazeilles.
The action did not fully commence until six o'clock A. M. By nine, a furious artillery fight at close range was going on along the whole line. The troops stationed at Givonne were panic-stricken at the approach of the Germans. Hastily they gave way, their adversaries, after a brief combat, having no trouble in turning the French left wing, as planned. The beaten troops fled in disorder into the woods, or fell back upon the center, which they incommoded and discouraged by their precipitate appearance on a part of the field where they were not wanted.
On the other hand the victors, by ten o'clock, were getting far to the rear of the whole French position. Shortly afterwards, as a consequence, the junction with the Prussian Crown Prince was accomplished.
Equal success for the Germans was obtained in other directions. The French center began to recede, although the contest was still prolonged with desperate tenacity, the weaker side fiercely disputing every hill-slope and other point of vantage, and inflicting as well as sustaining tremendous losses.
Bazeilles and Balan were the two great scenes of carnage; for the French knew the importance of holding those places, and clung to them as long as it was possible to hold an inch of ground. This was done for a time despite the murderous cross-fire which the Bavarians poured in from their supporting batteries. Headed by the Emperor himself, who in the heat of battle exposed himself recklessly and was the acme of energy, the French at one time succeeded in driving back the enemy, and it seemed as if they might possibly win.
Meanwhile the French right was as hotly engaged. A railway bridge which crosses the Meuse had been broken down by MacMahon; but in the early morning the Crown Prince of Prussia had moved a division over the river on pontoon bridges. This was effected at the loop made by the Meuse in the rear of Sedan, and it enabled the prince to plant his batteries on the crest of a hill which overlooks Floing and the surrounding country.
The French, suddenly attacked in the rear, were astonished at their position. But they bravely confronted the enemy with all their available strength, and maintained a prolonged and heroic resistance. Their musketry fire was poured in with such deadliness and determination, that it was heard even above the deeper, dry, shrieking notes of the mitrailleuses, which were now playing with terrible results upon the Germans.
By noon, however, the Prussian battery of six guns on the slope above the broken bridge over the Meuse, near La Villette, had silenced two batteries of French guns near the village of Floing. And in another ten minutes the French infantry were compelled to retire from that position. At twelve-thirty, twelve large bodies of French were seen on the hill between Floing and Sedan, their ranks shelled by a Prussian battery in front of St. Menges.
At ten minutes to one, another French column appeared in full retreat to the right of Sedan, on the road leading from Bazeilles to the wood of La Garenne. Then a third French column was observed moving up a broad grassy road immediately above Sedan. It seemed designed for the support of the troops defending the ravine of Bazeilles, to the northeast of the town.
About one o'clock the French batteries on the edge of this wood and above it opened up a most terrific fire on the Prussian columns of the Third Corps, advancing with a view to gaining possession of the hill northwest of La Garenne. The batteries created so much havoc among these regiments that they were obliged to keep shifting their ground till ready for the final rush.
Soon the French forced the Germans down the hill. But at the bottom they were strongly rein-forced, though still inferior in numbers to the French. The French cuirassiers now dashed for-ward to charge the scattered ranks that began to stagger up the slope, heartened by the fresh assistance.
Squares, it seems, are not used by the Prussians. On this occasion they did not even form line, but received the cavalry with a fearful fire at a distance of not more than a hundred yards. Men and horses fell by the score. The survivors turned and fled, and the Prussians dashed after them at double-quick.
It was now the turn of the French infantry to advance. They threw into the Germans a heavy fire with their chassepots. They were allowed to come on within ninety yards, whereupon the Germans replied so vigorously that the infantry, like the cavalry, retired behind a ridge on the road to Sedan.
A little later another regiment of French infantry made a renewed attempt to dislodge the enemy, who was now being reinforced every minute. This effort was quite as unsuccessful as its predecessor, and shortly afterwards it became apparent that the Prussians, by some extraordinary effort, had gotten a couple of four-pounders up the steep elevation, for they began to use them with telling results.
Although still outnumbering their opponents, the French infantry seemed paralyzed. They stood still most of the time, doing nothing. Further cavalry charges followed, however, but even these, executed with dash and bravery, were productive of no effect, the Prussians coolly standing their ground, and killing many with their destructive volleys.
Now giving up the position for lost, the French rapidly fell back. By two o'clock the Prussians' reinforcements were such that there was little further likelihood of the hill being taken away from them.
The closing of the German line on the French rear, which took place about one o'clock in the afternoon, cut off all chance for retreat. A little after three the Bavarians managed to get inside the fortifications of Sedan, and to maintain them-selves there. At four the ridge above Bazeilles was carried by the attacking force, and Sedan was swept on all sides by the German cannon.
Battery after battery was opposed to the advancing armies; charge after charge was frantic-ally directed against the German ranks. But the French were steadilly pressed back, until, losing all order and restraint, they were driven head-long into Sedan, under a most scathing shower of artillery fire.
The Germans had completed their circle of investment. The French found themselves hemmed in on all sides—held in a grip of iron—placed beyond all hope of escape.
Very sultry is the day. Low the smoke clouds hang over the Meuse, as if the sea of early mist had disintegrated and gathered in martial array above the beleaguered town—great, soft, billowy balls which awaited only some mysterious signal of the heavens to drop down and crush the hamlet hopelessly.
Through the interstices of sky-blue and cloud-gray, a brazen sun glitters down upon the cuirasses of a Prussian regiment that trots along to support a battery of Bavarian guns. A second—and a third—regiment of cavalry follows, with a great jingling of thin steel and clatter of hoof. Dark clusters of horsemen and footmen, bearing the heavy brow of the Teutonic soldier, seem to have sprung up everywhere around Sedan. These clusters are close together—almost blending—but ever in one gigantic circle about the little town, girdling it with a relentless hoop of steel which continually vomits out its wrath in nauseating powder puffs, missiles of death, and fagots of destructive flame.
After the Battle of Sedan—First meeting of Napoleon III and Bismarck.
Meanwhile the state of things within Sedan was terrible beyond the power of words to express. Huddled up in cellars, pits, corners here and there, the civilians,—mostly old men, women and children,—did their best to protect their bodies; but scores of them were slain as solid shot tore great gaps in their refuges and other balls from the German guns on the heights caught them fleeing to other shelters. Soon, too, buildings in the town and in nearby villages, were fired by hot-shot, and many were burned to death while the survivors were kept frantically at work to subdue the flames before the conflagration should get beyond control and sweep all buildings before it.
In the fortress conditions were not much better. Here the soldiers were better protected, of course, but all were weary from the hard fighting on the outskirts the day before, many were suffering from thirst, many were ill and wounded, and so crowded was the place that the well were made so weak they could hardly stand.
The most frightful incident of the day was the burning of the village of Bazeilles by the Bavarians. This dreadful atrocity alone would be sufficient to cast disgrace upon the German arms; but, although the greatest of that period, it was far from the only instance of a ferocious spirit of. revenge manifested by the invaders of France.
There had been a desperate conflict in the streets, in the course of which the Germans had suffered severely. At last, gaining the upper hand of the inhabitants, they set the place on fire, and not content with this destruction of property, added to it the wanton sacrifice of innocent lives, burning the greater number of the people alive.
As an extenuating circumstance, the Germans claimed afterwards that they had been treacherously fired on from the houses, and that the inhabitants had acted with horrible cruelty to some wounded Bavarian soldiers whom they had seized. But the villagers most emphatically denied this, and subsequent investigations proved that the excuse was a myth, just as similar stories to alleviate their inhuman practices in many instances in the late Great War have proven the Hun a resourceful fabricator.
Indeed, a correspondent of a London paper, whose sympathies at the time were with the Germans, and who was loth to believe that they could have been guilty of the foul conduct claimed by the French, found that conditions had been even worse than told him, when he looked into the matter. Many were dragged from cellars and ruthlessly shot down. Others were tied to planks, then cast upon bonfires. The sick and infirm were bayoneted in their beds. Two infants were thrown alive out of an upstairs window, the house fired, and cast back inside again through a lower window. In short, this skeptical correspondent found that acts had been committed which, in their utter depravity and horror, he had never known to be surpassed in the remote ages, much less equaled in a civilized era. Out of a population of over two thousand, less than fifty of these poor French people had escaped with their lives.
As the day came to a close and there was no sign of Pazaine, who had been expected with reinforcements, all hope of relief departed among the defenders of Sedan. A council of war was called by the Emperor. In this it was almost unanimously decided that there was no alternative but to submit to surrender. The town was completely surrounded by the enemy; batteries, planted on all the hilltops dominated the place, and could lay it in ashes before another sunset; the Germans were intoxicated with the degree of their success thus far; and the French troops were in a state of disheartenment which must soon develop into dissolution, if not indeed mutiny itself.
General Wimpffen, who had succeeded Marshal MacMahon as active leader of the French since the latter's injury early in the morning, at first strongly opposed the capitulation. He declared he would sooner die than sign it, and argued that the situation was not so desperate as the other staff officers represented. But maps were brought out, and the positions and force of the enemy (of which he was scarcely aware, owing to his recent arrival) were pointed out.
Bitter as was his mortification, General Wimpffen had no choice but to give way. "And now," he added, "my name will go down linked with a humiliating capitulation for all time." It was the irony of fate that he who had not committed the fault should thus have to bear the bur-den of shame, but there seemed no help for it.
Night closed in upon Sedan with gloom and menace. Watch-fires were lighted in every direction, and the heavens reflected a crimson glow beneath which the threatened fortress lay black and still, a supplicating, gaunt specter. And during those short hours of darkness, an eternity of emotion must have passed through the troubled mind of Napoleon III.
When the French statesman surveyed the situation early on the morning of the 2nd of September, it must have appeared still more obvious than on the previous night that further resistance was useless. Dense bodies of German troops were to be seen on the heights above the Meuse; the elevations bristled with guns in a threatening position; the plains were covered, as far as the eye could reach, with regiment upon regiment of the enemy.
The Emperor dispatched a colonel of his staff to King William to ask for the latter's terms of surrender. The King and Count von Moltke consulted a while, and the messenger was told that, in a matter so important as the surrender of a great army and a strong fortress, an officer of higher rank should have been sent.
"You are therefore to return to Sedan," said the King, imperiously, "and tell the commandant of the town to report himself immediately to the King of Prussia. If he does not arrive within an hour, our guns will open up again. You will also tell him that it is useless to attempt to obtain other terms than an unconditional surrender."
Without waiting for word from this message, King William a little later sent Lieutenant-Colonel von Broussart, of his general staff, with a flag of truce, to demand the capitulation of the fortress and the army.
On being admitted into Sedan, and asking for the commander-in-chief Colonel von Broussart was unexpectedly brought into the presence of the Emperor of France himself. Napoleon asked Colonel Broussart what his message was, and on being informed, referred him to General Wimpffen, who had undertaken the command in place of Marshal MacMahon. Just before the arrival of the officer from the Prussians, Napoleon had written a letter to the King, and this he now gave to his adjutant-general, Reille, with orders to deliver it at once.
But Colonel von Broussart arrived in the Prussian camp a little ahead of General Reille, and through his own messenger the King first learned with certainty of the presence in Sedan of Emperor Napoleon. Barely had this information been delivered, when General Reille came up. Springing from his horse, he handed to the King the letter from his own sovereign, with the words: "Sire, I have no other orders from Napoleon than these."
"But I demanded as the first condition that your army lay down its arms," said King William to Reille, before opening the communication. Evidently he jumped at the conclusion, from the Frenchman's manner and words, that Napoleon had sent a highly conditional message, if a surrender at all.
As General Reille stood mute, the King irritably opened the message. It was a memorable letter—one of the most remarkable, considered with reference to the events to which it referred, and the issue to which it led, in all history. It commenced with these words: "Not being able to die at the head of my army, I lay my sword at the feet of your majesty." All arrangements of the surrender were left to the King!
In answer to this surprising letter, King William wrote a brief reply, in which he deplored the manner of his meeting with the Emperor, and begged that a plenipotentiary might be sent, with whom the capitulation might be concluded.
The effect on the field of battle, as the fighting men began to sense a probable surrender, was most extraordinary. The opening of one of the gates of Sedan, to permit the exit of the officer originally dispatched to the King, gave the first impression of an approaching capitulation. This had gradually gained strength, until it acquired all the force of actual knowledge. Then ringing cheers and gleeful antics went all along the German lines. Shakos, helmets, bayonets and sabers were flourished and thrown high into the air, and the vast army of King William swayed to and fro in the excitement of a stupendous, easily-won triumph. Even the dying shared in the general enthusiasm. An officer told Dr. Russel, of the London Times, that he saw a huge Prussian who had been lying in mortal agony, with his hand at his wounded side, rise suddenly to his feet as he comprehended the meaning of the cries, utter a choking "Hurrah!" wave his hands once on high, and then, as the blood rushed from his injury, fall dead across a Frenchman at his feet.
Accompanied by a few of his staff, Napoleon started from Sedan about five o'clock in the morning, and proceeded along the road to Donchery, where the negotiations for the capitulation were to take place. When the carriage of the Emperor had gotten among the Germans, Napoleon put his head out of the window, and asked some Uhlans in their own language where Count Bismarck was, as he must see him at once. It was replied that Donchery was the most likely place in which to find Bismarck. The carriage therefore continued on its way towards the little town.
Count Bismarck was still in bed in Donchery when an officer entered in hot haste and advised him that the Emperor of France was near and wished to see him and the King. Hurriedly dressing, the Count rode off to meet his distinguished guest. He encountered the royal equipage and its attendants just outside of town.
The Emperor alighted, and Count Bismarck, uncovering his head, stood respectfully, with his cap in his hand. Napoleon requested him to resume the cap, to which Bismarck replied, with fine deference, "Sire, I receive your majesty as I would my own royal master."
Together they went on towards Donchery. At a small weaver's cottage by the wayside they halted, tempted by the inviting surroundings and bright morning. Chairs were brought out on a little flat esplanade in front of the house, and the two illustrious negotiators sat down, while their staff officers occupied the grassy slope of the grounds just out of earshot.
Napoleon,—who wore the undress uniform of a general, with a decoration on his breast, and the usual kepi,—looked anxious and careworn, though he was not ill in health. Count Bismarck, on the contrary, was fresh and vigorous in appearance—as, indeed, he might have been expected to be—he, the minister of a great and victorious power which had lost little and gained much.
Napoleon opened the discussion by saying that he placed himself at King William's disposal, but added that he could not enter into any engagements of a political character by which he might hamper the French people or the government of the Empress Regent. He went on to state, in answer to remarks of Bismarck, that he had no power to negotiate a general state of peace; that he could not give orders to Marshal Bazaine, and that the Empress and her ministers must decide the future policy of the State.
At this Count Bismarck coldly declared that it would be of no avail to hold any further conversation on political matters.
"Then I would like to see the King himself," said Napoleon, rising.
"That you cannot do, sire," was the decided answer. "It would be useless to see His Majesty. The capitulation must be signed first. After that the King will arrange terms with your generals."
At this, Napoleon went to consult with his staff, while Count Bismarck sought out his sovereign, to report matters.
"It was a stupendous moment," writes Dr. Russel. "The garrison of Sedan was furious at the idea of capitulation. But there, in grim, black lines, on every bluff and knoll, on every ridge above the Meuse, on all the heights around, were drawn up the batteries which would rain a hail of fire on the little town. Some six hundred guns would burst in a sheet of red-hot iron against every house. The town, with a few old guns on the walls, with the French field artillery utterly crushed, could offer no real resistance. The troops outside the fortress would simply have been turned into a mass of shattered bones and torn flesh in such a shambles as history has never recorded in its pages of horrors."
Count von Moltke so clearly explained his plans to General Wimpffen, and made it so evident that nothing but a frightful massacre could result from any attempt to further opposition, that the French commander reluctantly agreed to sign the act of capitulation as the only resource left.
The discussion took place, and the document was executed, at Frenois, a little village not far from Donchery. It was dated September 2, 1870, and was signed "Von Moltke, Wimpffen." The articles provided that the French troops should give themselves up as prisoners of war; that all officers who pledged their word of honor not to bear arms again till the close of the existing war, should be privileged to retain their side arms and personal effects; that all regular arms, flags, war appurtenances, etc., should be delivered to a German military commission, and that the town and fortified works of Sedan should be given up not later than the evening of September 2nd.
The Emperor of France expressed a wish—a most pathetic one it was, since only three years before he had been at the zenith of his power—not to be paraded before his troops, and to pass as little as possible through French territory. These points were conceded by his captors. He was allowed to take with him his personal luggage, his servants, his carriages, and a few of the officers of his household. A German military escort accompanied him and his party, by way of Belgium, to his place of captivity in Wilhelmshohe. A sad procession it was for the French of the party, and the limited French who witnessed it. Along the way Napoleon, pale and worn but well-groomed, smoked his everlasting cigarette, and pulled at his waxed mustache. At last he reached his destination, and became a prisoner in the same palace which his uncle had formerly occupied as a King.