Battle of Sedan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In one of the initial battles of the Franco-Prussian War, Prussian forces surrounded the city of Sedan and encircled a French army, which included French emperor Napoleon III. After a day of failed breakout attempts, Napoleon surrendered; the French army capitulated and effectively was wiped out. French citizens would soon depose the government and create the Third Republic. A subsequent Prussian siege of Paris ended in France’s defeat and the creation of a new German state dominated by Prussia.

Summary of Event

The French declaration of war against Prussia and its allies was orchestrated by Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck Bismarck, Otto von [p]Bismarck, Otto von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] as a way to persuade the independent states within the German geographic area to work together to defend one another under Prussian leadership. The French emperor, Napoleon III—Emperor Napoleon I’s nephew—saw war as a way to stifle internal discontent through heightened patriotism. At the time, military and political observers saw France as a great power with a long and glorious military heritage. Prussia was seen as a second-tier power that, although growing, was incapable of defeating France on its own. Sedan, Battle of (1870) Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];Battle of Sedan Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] MacMahon, Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de Bazaine, Achille-François [kw]Battle of Sedan (Sept. 1, 1870) [kw]Sedan, Battle of (Sept. 1, 1870) Sedan, Battle of (1870) Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];Battle of Sedan Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] MacMahon, Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de Bazaine, Achille-François [g]Germany;Sept. 1, 1870: Battle of Sedan[4450] [g]France;Sept. 1, 1870: Battle of Sedan[4450] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 1, 1870: Battle of Sedan[4450] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 1, 1870: Battle of Sedan[4450] Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] Ducrot, Auguste

In reality, the French and Prussian militaries were not evenly matched. Although France had a large, well-trained, and well-equipped army, it was a force riddled with weaknesses. Command at the higher levels was based primarily on seniority, so average French field commanders were often ten to thirty years older than their Prussian counterparts. The social divide between enlisted men and their officers meant that the men were often treated as the dregs of society and not encouraged to rise in the ranks. The French army lacked an established staff system for prewar planning and training officers. Technologically the French had an exceptionally fine service rifle, the chassepot, but their muzzle-loading brass artillery pieces were outranged and outperformed by Prussian breech-loading cannon.

In contrast, Prussian society lionized military service and invested respect in soldiers of all ranks. Universal conscription Conscription;Prussian ensured that able-bodied men received training and could be rapidly mobilized in a time of war. When war was declared, Prussia’s 300,000-man army was reinforced with more than 900,000 reservists and militiamen known as the Landwehr. The Prussian general staff system trained officers and promoted on the basis of merit rather than seniority or social origin. During years of peace, staff officers planned for future operations against potential enemies, so that any given war would begin with war plans in hand. The staff officers also effectively integrated into their operations new technologies such as the railroads and the telegraph. The result was that the staff could operate the Prussian army at a faster tempo than the French anticipated. Finally, although the Prussian needle rifle was outranged by the French chassepot, Prussian artillerists had adopted modern Krupp-made breech-loading guns that had more range, a greater rate of fire, and more lethality than the French artillery pieces.

For France the only hope for victory was speed, for in the opening days of the war the French outnumbered the Prussians by 400,000 to 300,000. Unfortunately, this advantage was wasted by the lack of prewar plans and divisions among the French high command. Napoleon III proved more skillful as a dogged politician than as a decisive commander. In the 1830’s and 1840’s he had been involved in failed coups, and not until after the revolutions of 1848 was he successful in claiming the mantle of emperor. His successes were sustained by opportunism and good fortune rather than by decisive leadership.

During the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon proved to be indecisive in the field, and his dithering contributed significantly to what appeared to be a paralysis of the high command. His personal failings were highlighted by his inability to select or promote skilled military leaders. France’s premier marshal was Achille-François Bazaine, but because of Napoleon’s mistrust and political need to be associated with military glory like his uncle, Bazaine was initially given only a secondary role in operations.

France’s primary force was called the Army of the Rhine. The sluggish pace of French mobilization contrasted unfavorably with Prussia’s rapid mobilization. The chief of the Prussian general staff, General Helmuth von Moltke Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] , seized and maintained the initiative. Throughout July and August, the French and Prussian forces fought a series of battles that resulted in Prussian advances. Bazaine, apparently unhappy with his limited role and never before having commanded such large forces, proved hesitant in the field. After the major battles of Mars-la-Tour and Gravelotte-St. Privat, Bazaine retreated into the fortress city of Metz.

French troops in retreat at Sedan.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The pace of the Prussian advance intimidated Napoleon III, who suddenly gave Bazaine command of the Army of the Rhine and then departed for the interior of France. While there, Napoleon III joined with Marshal Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de MacMahon, who was vested with the command of the Army of Chalons. This force was to march on Metz and end the Prussian siege. MacMahon took a northerly route with the intent of encircling the Prussians, but these plans were reported in French newspapers. Faster-moving Prussian columns intercepted the Army of Chalons, and MacMahon beat a hasty retreat toward the Belgian border. Von Moltke Moltke, Helmuth von [p]Moltke, Helmuth von;and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] maintained the Siege of Metz while moving with other Prussian forces against MacMahon.

MacMahon’s forces retreated into the area around Sedan. Napoleon, vacillating as usual, left planning the battle to MacMahon. Even though pursued by the speedy Prussian columns, MacMahon decided to give his troops a day of rest. This gave the Prussians enough time to encircle the city. On August 30 and 31 the two forces began skirmishing, and on September 1, MacMahon was wounded. Thus, the French began the battle without clear leadership because Napoleon had ceded control of the battle to MacMahon. Because of his wounds, however, MacMahon was replaced by General Auguste Ducrot Ducrot, Auguste . Command was further muddled with the arrival from Paris of General Emmanuel de Wimpffen, who had been appointed by the French minister of war as MacMahon’s replacement should MacMahon fall.

Throughout the day numerous French units launched attacks to break through the Prussian encirclement. Without a coherent command structure, however, these attacks were uncoordinated. The Prussians seized the high ground surrounding Sedan and concentrated large numbers of artillery pieces in batteries overlooking the critical spots on the battlefield. Superior Prussian logistics provided ample stocks of ammunition, and throughout the day French units were deluged by accurate artillery fire from guns sited outside the range of their own ordnance. Well-coordinated Prussian infantry counter-attacks, made under covering fire from the Prussian batteries, were launched along decisive points in the French perimeter.

Formal French capitulation at Sedan.

(P. F. Collier and Son)

Napoleon, Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];capture of acting as an individual rather than as a commander, courted a battlefield death as he rode around dispiritedly from French attack to French attack, but he remained unwounded. By late afternoon, heavy casualties and despair over lackluster leadership drove some French units to disintegration, and a despairing Napoleon contacted the Prussians to ask for terms of surrender.

While Napoleon would later claim that he offered to surrender himself only, in effect his surrender allowed the entire army to capitulate. The battle was a major humiliation for France. While the Prussians saw some nine thousand soldiers either killed, wounded, or missing, the French casualties included more than seventeen thousand soldiers dead or wounded and twenty-one thousand captured during the battle. Napoleon’s surrender led eighty-three thousand more French soldiers into captivity.

With Napoleon captured, the Prussians marched onto Paris. When the people of Paris heard about the debacle, they immediately deposed Napoleon and declared the Third Republic. France continued to fight the Prussians, and popular fury over the incompetence of Napoleon and his generals fueled a burst of patriotism that prolonged the war and caused considerable destruction and bitterness. The defeat of the Army of Chalons compelled Bazaine to surrender. The capitulation of these two armies—which had constituted the bulk of France’s organized and equipped forces—virtually ensured that French resistance would be unable to defeat the Prussians.

Significance

The day-long struggle around Sedan was dominated by superior Prussian military organization, logistics, morale, artillery, and leadership. Napoleon III’s surrender at Sedan ended both his career and the Second Empire. From the ashes of defeat, the Third Republic arose, and popular patriotism reinvigorated the nation.

Despite its defeat in 1870-1871, the Third Republic would last until 1945. For Prussia, victory confirmed its skill and leadership and provided the impetus for the creation of a unified German state under the aegis of the king of Prussia and his selected subordinates. The new Germany would be a major power in world affairs until 1945 and the end of World War II.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Badsey, Stephen. Essential Histories: The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871. London: Osprey, 2003. This volume in the Osprey Essential Histories series provides a short, yet detailed, look at the origins and events of the war as well as the weapons and tactics used in the major battles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howard, Michael. The Franco-Prussian War: The German Invasion of France, 1870-1871. New York: Routledge, 1988. The classic work on the war upon which all other related works have depended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Price, Roger. The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Chronicles Napoleon’s political career, examining how he devised a coup to establish the Second Empire and used the empire’s power to wage the disastrous war against Prussia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wawro, Geoffrey. The Franco-Prussian War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Provides clear insights into how the different armies were raised, organized, equipped, and led. Wawro offers a first-rate analysis of commanders and the war’s individual battles.

North German Confederation Is Formed

Franco-Prussian War

Prussian Army Besieges Paris

German States Unite Within German Empire

Third French Republic Is Established

Paris Commune

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Otto von Bismarck; Léon Gambetta; Napoleon III; Adolphe Thiers. Sedan, Battle of (1870) Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)[Franco Prussian War (1870-1871)];Battle of Sedan Napoleon III [p]Napoleon III[Napoleon 03];and Franco-Prussian War[Franco Prussian War] MacMahon, Marie-Edme-Patrice-Maurice de Bazaine, Achille-François

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