The Franco-Prussian War Primer

A history of the war for the Rhine frontier

The Army of Chalons

The French government and public opinion gave a doomed task to MacMahon, fighting through the Germans and rescuing Bazaine and his army, which led to their interception at Beaumont and the major defeat and surrender at Sedan. The surrounded and besieged army at Metz spurred the French Empire into forming the Army of Châlons. This hastily formed army comprised remnants of the Army of the Rhine as well as newly created formations, composed of four Corps, with over 100,000 infantrymen, 14,000 cavalry, and 450 pieces of artillery; Emperor Napoleon III himself also accompanied it. The Army of Châlons attempted a wide maneuver that brought it near the Belgian border on their way to Metz. However, though surprised by the maneuver, the Germans were still prepared to react and caught the army not even halfway through the journey and before they could cross the Meuse.[1] On August 30th, Marshal MacMahon ordered his army to attempt to cross the Meuse River near the town of Beaumont. However, the German Third and Fourth armies intercepted the vanguard of the Army of Châlons near the town of Beaumont on August 30th. German cavalry shadowed the French army, as the French were well aware, and the royal headquarters gave the order to attack the French before they could cross the river.

Forces from the German Fifth corps began the action by striking the unprepared French Seventh corps at Oches.[2] The German Fourth corps attacked the unprepared French Fifth Corps, resting and preparing breakfast near Beaumont with little precautions before setting up camp.[3] The larger French force went on the attack, but it was soon repelled and driven through Beaumont by more arriving German forces.[4] Throughout all of the infantry fighting during this battle, major artillery combat also occurred when a long line of German artillery advanced in echelon while combatting French infantry and artillery. The Second Bavarian Corps found itself in combat near La Thibaudine against an unfortunate French division that was still following its original order to cross the Meuse.[5] French artillery on the hastily fortified hilltop Mont de Brune gave the Germans a great deal of trouble during the later stages of the battle. Late in the afternoon, multiple German units conducted a coordinated assault to successfully take this hill that had command of the nearby lowlands.[6] Once taken, these same German units advanced to Mouzon, but they received a desperate and unsuccessful cavalry charge on the way.[7] More German units gathered to combat the mass of French forces at Mouzon. The Germans quickly set up their artillery and began to rain down on the French soldiers before assaulting the town and driving out the French.[8] The German Twelfth Corps attacked the last remaining organized resistance at the Bois de Givodeau just before night fell and the battle ended. Dead, wounded, or captured for the Germans amounted to roughly 3,500 soldiers and 4,800 for the French.[9]

The Army of Châlons retreated to Sedan, where Napoleon III and MacMahon hoped to give the spent army time to rest.[10] However, the Germans saw the need to strike at the French army and prevent them from retreating further.[11] The action began with the German vanguard’s, under General Von der Tann, assault on Bazeilles, which turned into a fierce house-to-house battle in the barricaded and fortified town.[12] Meanwhile, south of Bazeilles, the German Thirteenth Corps of Prince George of Saxony had driven the French from Moncelle and advanced towards Daigny.[13] During the fighting for Moncelle, a German artillery shell wounded Marshal MacMahon. He named general Ducrot as his successor, which created problems later because Ducrot was not the most senior French officer under MacMahon.

Additionally, the French Minister of War had previously commissioned General de Wimpfeen and empowered him to assume command should MacMahon be incapacitated. When General Ducrot began to issue orders to prepare for a retreat, General de Wimpfreen pressed his power and assumed command with no dispute from Ducrot.[14] General de Wimpfreen hoped to go on the attack to break through the German lines to the east.[15] Meanwhile, the Prussian Crown Prince, whose third army had been working to the northwest of Sedan to cut off their retreat, heard the fighting and began to order forces towards Sedan. At around nine in the morning, these German reinforcements arrived, which helped stop any progress from General de Wimpfreen’s offensive.[16] The vanguard of the Third army quickly took St. Menges and soon after took Floing, which the French fought hard to recapture. They also began to advance on Illy and its heights.

A French cavalry charge, led by General Gallifet, attempted to push back German forces around Illy, but it was fended off by German infantry and artillery.[17] At ten in the morning, German forces began to march on Fleigneux to close the circle around Sedan.[18] By noon, German forces had taken Bazeille and marched on Balan after reorganizing. At one in the afternoon, French forces launched a counter-attack on Balan that drove back the Germans. Still, German reinforcements soon arrived that pushed back the French counter-attack and took Balan at five in the afternoon.[19] French forces began to retreat from Illy at around one in the afternoon, and Germans repulsed an attempted French breakthrough at Floing. By this point, General de Wimpffen realized the danger and significance of the northern German force and issued orders to transfer troops over to face them. However, confusion appeared as units marched in different directions, all while artillery fell on them.[20]

With reinforcements arriving, French general Douay retook the heights near Illy but was driven back by infantry and heavy artillery roughly an hour later. A mass of German troops assaulted the heights north of Casal, but a daring French cavalry charge led by General Margueritte struck them. Before being repulsed, the charge made significant progress, and General Margueritte died in the fighting. After fierce fighting, German forces resumed their assault and took the heights by three in the afternoon.[21] At three in the afternoon, poorly transmitted orders led to many confused encounters in the east between Saxon and French forces, which quickly led to fierce infantry and artillery combat.[22] Soon after, German forces moved on the Bois de Garrene, the forest where many French forces operated and sought refuge from artillery fire. After much fierce fighting, the German forces finally had control of the forest at five in the afternoon.[23]

French columns began to make their way to the fortress at Sedan to seek refuge from German artillery at its walls. As German forces prepared to strike at the fortress gate, they began to see white flags. Napoleon III had ordered General de Wimpfenn to surrender. French General Reille appeared before the German king and offered a letter from Napoleon III and his sword in personal surrender.[24] However, a general with full powers needed to meet with General von Moltke to discuss the surrender of the entire army. That duty fell on General de Wimpfenn, who had only gained control of the army mid-battle; clearly, General Ducrot had dodged the proverbial bullet. The negotiations were held overnight at Donchery. After almost calling it off, General de Wimpfenn finally accepted German terms and signed the Capitulation at one in the morning on September 2nd. The German forces lost roughly 9,000 men killed and wounded and the French lost roughly 17,000 and the 104,000 taken prisoner.[25]

[1] Sheridan, Philip Henry, Personal Memoirs of P.H. Sheridan, Volume 2, New York: Charles L. Webster & Company, 1888, P.395-396

[2] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.77

[3] Sheridan, Memoirs, P.396-397

[4] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.78

[5] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.225-226

[6] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.80

[7] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier Volume 2, P.41

[8] Hozier, Adams, The Franco-Prussian War, P.414

[9] Moltke, Franco-German war, P.82

[10] General Staff School, Franco-German War, P.34

[11] Blumenthal, Journals, P.110

[12] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier Volume 2, P.52-53

[13] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.240

[14] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.88-89

[15] General Staff School, Franco-German War, P.36

[16] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier Volume 2, P.58

[17] Forbes, Archibald, My experiences of the war between France and Germany, Volume 1, Copyright ed. Leipzig: B. Tauchnitz, 1871, P.191

[18] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier Volume 2, P.58

[19] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.240

[20] Moltke, The Franco-German War, P.94-95

[21] Pflugk-Harttung, The Franco-German War, P.248-250

[22] Rustow, War for the Rhine Frontier Volume 2, P.64

[23] Moltke, Franco-German war, P.97-98

[24] Hozier, Adams, The Franco-Prussian War, P.432-433

[25] Moltke, Franco-German war, P.98-100