These two accounts of the battle of Sedan in 1870 have been combined for good value to enable readers to gain a balanced overview of the action from different perspectives. What makes these accounts particularly interesting is that they were written not only by authors who were able to view the events without the impediment of national bias, but because both were present on the field of battle itself. So this excellent book offers the reader a history, an analysis, first-hand eyewitness accounts, the accounts and views of other witnesses and participants and a number of anecdotes including those concerning General Sheridan. This most significant of battles of the Franco-Prussian War came about as the numerically superior French Army under MacMahon attempted to relieve the siege of Metz. That attempt failed as the French were defeated at Beaumont. Moltke, Bismarck and the king, Wilhelm I, subsequently cornered the French at Sedan and surrounded them. The Emperor, Napoleon III, was with the French forces and, unable to escape, suffered the humiliation of both defeat and personal capture. This battle typified the pattern of the Franco-Prussian War which, following the lessons of the American Civil War, took armed conflict on its first steps into the industrial age. All of those lessons had been learnt by the Prussians and very few of them by the French, whose view of warfare and especially of the Prussians remained, to their cost, rooted in the experiences of another Napoleon and entirely different French and Prussian Armies in the days of the First Empire. Times had changed—the French had been out-planned, out-organised, out-manoeuvred and out-gunned.
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In five minutes they came back again, this time in greater force, but still terribly inferior to the huge French columns. ‘Good heavens! the French Cuirassiers are going to charge them,’ said General Sheridan; and sure enough the regiment of Cuirassiers, their helmets and breast-plates flashing in the September sun, form up in sections of squadrons, and dash down on the Prussian scattered skirmishers. Without deigning to form line—squares are never used by the Prussians—the infantry received the Cuirassiers with a most tremendous ‘schnell-feuer’ (quick fire), at about 108 yards, loading and firing as fast as possible into the dense squadrons.<br>
Over went men and horses by hundreds, and the regiment was compelled to retire much faster, it seemed to me, than it came. The moment the Cuirassiers turned bridle the plucky Prussians actually dashed in hot pursuit after them at the double. Such a thing has not often been recorded in the annals of war. The French infantry then came forward in turn and attacked the Prussians, who waited quietly under a most rapid firing of chassepots, until their enemies got within about 100 yards, when they gave them such a dose of lead that the infantry soon followed the cavalry to the ‘place from which they came’—that is, behind a ridge some 600 yards on the way to Sedan, where the tirailleurs could not hit them.<br>
The great object of the Prussians was gained, as they were not dispossessed of the crest of the hill, and it was fair betting that they would do all that in them lay to get some artillery up to help them before Napoleon III. was much nearer his deposition. ‘There will be a h— of a fight for that crest,’ says Sheridan, peering through his field-glass at the hill, which was not three miles from where we stood, with the full fire on it from behind us. At half-past one the French cavalry, this time I fancy a regiment of Carabineers, made another attempt to dislodge the Prussians, who were being reinforced every minute. But they met with the same fate as their brethren in the iron jackets, and were sent with heavy loss to the right-about, the Prussians taking advantage of their flight to advance their line a couple of hundred yards nearer the French infantry.<br>
Suddenly they split into two bodies, leaving a break of a hundred yards in their line. We were not long in seeing the object of this movement, for the little white puffs from the crest behind the skirmishers, followed by a commotion in the dense French masses, show us that ‘ces diables de Prussiens’ have contrived, Heaven only knows how, to get a couple of 4-pounders up the steep ground, and have opened on the French. Something must have at this point been very wrong with the French infantry, for instead of attacking the Prussians—whom they still outnumbered by at least two to one—they remained in column on the lull, seeing their only hope of retrieving the day vanishing from before their eyes, without stirring.<br>
The cavalry then tried to do a little Balaklava business, but without the success of the immortal six hundred. We took the guns in the Balaklava valley. Down came the Cuirassiers once more, this time riding straight for the two field-pieces. But before they had got within 200 yards of the guns the Prussians formed line as if on parade, and, waiting till they were within fifty yards, gave them a volley which seemed to us to destroy almost the whole of the leading squadron, and so actually block up the way to the guns for the next ones following.<br>
After this last charge, which was as complete a failure—although most gallantly conceived and executed—as the two preceding ones, the infantry fell back rapidly towards Sedan, and in an instant the whole hill was covered by swarms of Prussian tirailleurs, who appeared to rise from the ground. After the last desperate charge of the French cavalry. General Sheridan remarked to me, ‘I never saw anything so reckless, so utterly foolish, as that last charge—it was sheer murder.’<br>
The Prussians, after the French infantry fell back, advanced rapidly, so much so that the retreating squadrons of French cavalry turned suddenly round and charged desperately once again. But it was all no use. The days of breaking squares or even lines are over, and the ‘thin blue line’ soon stopped the Gallic onset. It was most extraordinary that the French had neither artillery nor mitrailleurs—especially these latter—on the hill to support their infantry. The position was a most important one, and certainly worth straining every nerve to defend. One thing was clear enough, that the French infantry, after once meeting the Prussians, declined to try conclusions with them again, and that the cavalry were trying to encourage them by their example. About two, more Prussian reinforcements came over the long-disputed hill between Torcy and Sedan, to reinforce the regiments already established there.
<br><br>************<br><br>The first sign of active and immediate war was the block of prisoners at Donchéry. There they were, of all arms of the service, the dark-faced Turco and the young boyish conscript, collected in a mass, ready to be marched away. The plain beyond Donchéry was covered with slightly-wounded men wandering to the rear. French and German, friend and foe, it mattered not; they went amicably along, the common suffering making them friends. No one seemed to dream of further violence and farther fighting. The battle was over, and they were glad to creep together to the rear, with little civilities exchanged in the way of pipe-lights and sips of brandy, and with no more hostile feeling than two patients already in an hospital.<br>
We passed hundreds of them as we went round the bend of the stream and came upon the first signs of the conflict of the day before. There was a dead horse, a cuirass, a heap of broken weapons. In this cottage were several wounded Frenchmen, taking some soup with a wounded Prussian, who seemed almost too much hurt to eat. Behind the garden wall was a dead cuirassier, his hands clutching the grass in the agony of death, his face stern and determined. No one noticed him any more than if he were a dead horse. In quiet England whole districts will turn out to see a murdered family, and here on a battlefield the same murdered family would be trampled into the mud without being noticed. This meadow on the hill-side is full of mangled horses and dead cuirassiers.<br>
It was here that they made a frantic attempt to break through, and were mowed down by the Prussian fusillade. You must have been on several battlefields to understand the signs of what has taken place by the look of the spot next morning. This group of dead horses, with a helmet or two and a dozen cuirasses, with a broken trumpet and three dead cuirassiers, means serious work. The dark stains on the ground are where the wounded have lain and been removed. The little heap of swords under that hedge is where some dismounted troopers were forced to surrender. Then we come to Prussian helmets crushed and trampled. Some are marked by shell or bullet, and have blood upon them. They tell of loss to the regiment to which they belonged.<br>
Others have no particular trace of violence, and may either be signs of wounded men, or of men who have simply thrown their helmets away in the heat of action, and put on their forage caps to march more lightly. These dark stains, surrounded by knapsack and rifle, by greatcoat and cooking-tin, are where men have lain who have been badly wounded, or even killed, but whose friends have made them as comfortable as could be under the difficulties of the time. One has a little shelter of twigs and branches put to keep off the sun; another has had a blanket propped on two rifles, and his knapsack for a pillow. But he has died in the night, and is left with his cloak over his face until the burying party shall come round.<br>
See yonder drums and knapsacks, stains of blood, and dead men lying on their faces. It is where a blow has been struck at some infantry regiment The men have fallen under a musketry fire, and the line of dead shows where the ground was held. Come a few steps further to the rear. You perceive a few more dead men, shot whilst in flight, and a number of bright, well-cleaned rifles scattered on the turf. This is where the regiment broke and fled, where some perished with their backs to the foe and others threw down their arms. We might gather the minutest details of the loss on either side if only human strength and energy sufficed to traverse this immense tract in a single morning. When another day has passed, and the dead are buried and the arms collected, it is difficult to judge of the fight by seeing the ground; whilst on the third or fourth day, the dead horses become so much decayed that, until they are removed, it is well-nigh impossible to move about where they have fallen.