Trench Warfare at Sedan Begins
by Jeff Provine
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By September 1st 1870,
the Franco-Prussian war had gone as a disaster for the French. Prussia and
its allies in the North German Confederation as well as Baden, Bavaria,
and Wurttenberg had been hardened in the Austro-Prussian War a few years
before while French troops were newly recruited. The most seasoned troops
to be had were newly defeated and expelled from ambitions of empire in
After the diplomatic fiasco of the Ems Dispatch being given to the press
with what appeared as King Wilhelm insulting French demands, the French
had to save face in a Europe that was leaving them behind. Napoleon III
had begun the war with an incursion into the Rhineland, but the Germans
countered with three massive armies marching into the north of France.
Battles were nearly continual defeats for France at Wissembourg, Wörth,
and Mars-la-Tour. Gravelotte had been a victory, but the Prussians out-maneuvered
the army and began the Siege of Metz. Approximately 190,000 French troops
were pinned within German lines, and their attempt at breaking out by
Noisseville did not seem promising. Instead, Napoleon III ordered Marshal
MacMahon to lift the siege with the 120,000 men of the Army of Chãlons.
The emperor accompanied the army, which was quickly pursued by the
Prussian Third Army, itself accompanied by King Wilhelm as well as
Chancellor Otto von Bismark.
The two armies met at Beaumont-en-Argonne, which became another defeat for
France, losing 5,000 men and 40 cannon. They withdrew to Sedan, where the
Germans again encircled them. Napoleon III (pictured) found his army meant
to lift a siege under siege itself.
He had been warned not to try the Prussians in the open field, where their
modern army could routinely outflank the French; Napoleon had ignored the
advice. His initial reaction was to return to battle and break the siege
with an advance, but he was stopped by a thought of his uncle, the first
emperor Napoleon. Napoleon I had won his desperate victories being expert
in artillery, the new weapon of the day. While French rifles were superior
to those of the Germans, the Krupp-made artillery routinely served as the
basis for French defeat. War had changed, a thing he had seen with Crimea
and other engagements. Napoleon decided that instead of simply leading his
troops in a charge to break out, it was time to find a new way to fight.
Just after midnight on September 1, Napoleon gathered several young
commanders who had worked their way up through the ranks, just like his
uncle. Taking their advice, he gave the order to organize thick
battlements to avoid the German artillery and rely on the superior French
rifle. By two in the morning, the sounds of shovels digging trenches rang
"It could have been done. Nappy Three was IMO in no
shape to be out on the battlefield...he was an ill man and past his best.
There were some veteran generals from the US Civil War in France as
observers (Sheridan, for one)...imagine putting Sheridan in charge of the
French cavalry! That would have given the Prussians a whole bunch of nasty
surprises. Of course, how to do it would be difficult, but I think they
could have done it...maybe have the French cavalry generals realize that
they had a real talented foreigner around, and have him _unofficially_
doing the thinking while they echo his ideas as orders?" - reader's
commentBavarian General Baron von der Tann attacked across the
river on pontoon bridges, leading to the first engagements. The French
held their ground, and more brigades surged into the half-prepared
earthworks. Fighting continued on into the morning, even though the
Germans were unable to bring up their artillery. Marshall MacMahon was
wounded, passing command to General August Ducrot, who followed Napoleon's
order to dig in. By the time German artillery arrived at nine o'clock with
additional Prussian troops, the French were holding ground in long
trenches outside of the town and harsh urban warfare in the southern
By nightfall, the Prussians ended their advances. They had tried to break
past the French defenses, but it only led to the deaths of hundreds of
troops. Even with artillery, the Prussians could not advance except under
fire of their own guns. That night, Wilhelm ordered more assaults, but
each resulted in French driving their opponents back across the field.
Where the Germans nearly broke through, French cavalry was quick to
reinforce, and reserves followed soon behind.
In the morning, it became clear that the siege was a stalemate. Battles at
Metz were similar, and Napoleon's order to dig in followed suit there.
Bismark became increasingly agitated, worried that the larger nation of
France would regroup if the war stretched longer than a few month. He
pleaded with Wilhelm to break the siege and head toward Paris, forcing the
French back into the open field where they could be again defeated. After
three days of inconsequential assaults and counter-assaults, Wilhelm
ordered Field Marshall Moltke to withdraw.
When the siege lifted, the French began to pursue the Germans as they
disengaged, but artillery kept the French from carrying out a rout. For
the rest of September, the Germans would carry out maneuvers in the north
of France, but each would be blocked by French. As the fall turned to
winter, the Germans arranged their own lines and dug trenches. Through the
winter, only minor engagements would follow, and, in the spring, the war
would return as the Germans made pushes toward Paris. By this time, the
French had improved their artillery and continued trench defense. When the
German allies of Prussia began to question the leading state, Bismark
suggested a peace treaty be formed. Wilhelm agreed and sent notice to
Napoleon, who received them at Versailles.
"the franco-prussian war that is a huge historic
file.france and prussia had a history and we all remember when the
prussian army with the allies they declare war on napoleon bonaparte." -
reader's commentThe terms of the Treaty of Versailles 1871
practically set back political powers to what they were the year before,
except that Prussia would pay war indemnities. While the war was
essentially a draw, the plan of a unified Germany had been halted. Bismark
had suggested that Germany be a united nation-state by the treaty, but
Napoleon refused to recognize such a move by Prussia. With the return to
Prussia, Bismark dedicated the rest of his diplomatic career to the
unification of German, though he was only able to solidify rule for
Wilhelm in what had been the North German Confederation. Luitpold, the
Prince Regent of Bavaria, led the states disgusted with the Prussian
failure to defeat France in creating the South German Confederation.
Meanwhile, the French Empire would continue as Napoleon IV succeeded his
father in 1873, whose dying words were, "We were brave at Sedan.
In 1890, Bismark was fired by the new king, Wilhelm II, and German
diplomacy fell to war over trade disputes. Even while Bismark was forced
out of office, his legacy continued: a military machine developed with the
intent of breaking trench defenses. The "kampfwagen" ("battle wagon") was
an armored motorized transport powered by steam. In the German Civil War,
Prussian kampfwagene stormed Bavaria and finally united the Germans under
Wilhelm's rule as a "Kaiser".
"Ishmael Holmes Trench warfare began in the 1850's
in the crimea" - reader's commentInternational spirits frowned upon
the war as well as the growing strength of a new power in central Europe.
The Kaiser's government tried to find allies where it could, eventually
taking up agreements with Italy, another young European state, and
Austria-Hungary, which recognized the importance of empire. The French and
the Russians had a long-standing alliance, as did Russia and Britain. With
nationalistic furor, it was only a matter of time before war broke out,
which it did in 1904 when Bavarian rebels were pursued into France,
breaking German military jurisdiction. When France counter-invaded, Europe
erupted into the Great War.
New diesel-powered kampfwagene stormed France, conquering Paris in a
matter of weeks. The French Empire disintegrated, and Russia sued for
peace as it was losing another war against the Japanese. With the
upper-hand, Wilhelm gave demands the Czar could not meet, and Russia
descended into civil war in 1905. Continuing war with Britain, the Germans
were unable to defeat the military might of the British Navy, featuring
its new massive Dreadnaught class of destroyer. Peace was mediated by
American president Theodore Roosevelt in 1907.
With great gains seized from the French, whose republic evolved into a
fascist supremacist socialism, and Russia, which became a loose
confederation ruled by the Duma of Boyars, Germany took its place as the
principle power of Europe, continuing the grand tradition of European
emperors controlling vast lands across the world.
says in reality, Napoleon III ordered several attempts at breaching the
German siege at Sedan. By September 2, when it became obvious that they were
trapped, Napoleon surrendered himself and his massive army. The French
Empire collapsed, and the resulting Treaty of Frankfurt would unify Germany
under the rule of Wilhelm. Napoleon III would be exiled to London, where he
would die in 1873 with his last words, "We were not cowards at Sedan, were
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