1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sedan
SEDAN, a town of northern France, capital of an arrondissement in the department of Ardennes, on the right bank of the Meuse, 12 m. E.S.E. of Mézières by rail. Pop. (1906) town 16,014; commune 19,599. Sedan is built on the right bank of the Meuse round a bend in the river forming a peninsula. On the left bank stands the suburb of Torcy, situated partly within the bend, partly beyond the canal which cuts across the neck of the peninsula. There is a statue of Turenne (born at Sedan in 1611), remains of a castle of the 15th century and a Protestant temple dating from 1593. Sedan is the seat of a sub-prefect and has a municipal school of weaving. The manufacture of ine black cloth established in the middle of the 17th century by Cardinal Mazarin, held its place as the staple industry of the town till towards the end of the 19th century. A large variety of woollen fabrics are produced, and there are flour mills and factories for industrial machinery, boilers and heavy iron goods, chocolate, &c.
Sedan was in the 14th century a dependency of the abbey of Mouzon, the possession of which was disputed by the bishops of Liége and Reims. United to the crown of France by Charles V., it was ceded by Charles VI. to Guillaume de Braquemont, whose son sold it to his brother-in-law Evrard de la Marck. For two centuries this family continued masters of the place in spite of the bishops of Liége and the dukes of Burgundy and Lorraine; and Henri Robert adopted the title “ prince of Sedan.” In the 16th century the town was an asylum for many Protestant refugees, who laid the basis of its industrial prosperity, and it became the seat of a Protestant seminary. Robert I. de la Marck (d. 1489) was lord of Sedan when he acquired Bouillon. His grandson, Robert III., seigneur of Fleurange and Sedan (d. 1537), was marshal of France and left interesting memoirs. Robert IV. de la Marck (d. 1556), also marshal of France, erected Sedan on his own authority into an independent principality. By the marriage of his granddaughter Charlotte with Henry I. de la Tour d'Auvergne, the duchy of Bouillon and the principality of Sedan passed to the house of Turenne. When the new duke attempted to maintain his independence, Henry IV. captured Sedan in three days; and the second duke Frédéric Maurice de la Tour d'Auvergne, eldest brother of the great marshal, who had several times revolted against Louis XIII., was, after his share in the conspiracy of Cinq-Mars, obliged to surrender his principality. Sedan thus became part of the royal domain in 1642. On the 1st of September 1870 the fortress was the centre of the most disastrous conflict of the Franco-German War (see below). The village of Bazeilles, 3 m. S.E. of Sedan, contains the great ossuary. The house, rendered famous by Neuville's paintings, “ Les Dernières Cartouches,” now contains objects found on the battlefield. At Donchery, 3½ m. to the west of Sedan, is the chateau of Bellevue, where Napoleon III. surrendered his sword and where the terms of capitulation of Sedan were agreed upon. Battle of Sedan (September 1st, 1870).—During the course of the 31st of August (see Franco-German War) the retreating French army (1st, 5th, 7th and 12th corps) under Marshal MacMahon assembled in and around Sedan, watched throughout the day by the German cavalry but not severely pushed by them. Sedan is a small old-fashioned fortress, lying in a depression between two ridges which converge in the plateau of Illy about 2½ m. north-east of the town. The only part which its defences played, or might have played, in the ensuing battle lay in the strategic possibilities contained in the fine and roomy bridge-head of Torcy, covering an elbow bend of the Meuse whence the whole French army might have been hurled into the gap between the German III. and Meuse armies, had there been a Napoleon to conceive and to execute this plan. But MacMahon seems to have been too despondent to contemplate anything further than a battle for the honour of the army, and though communications with Mézières, where Vinoy's corps (13th) was gathering, lay open throughout the day, he neither sent orders to it nor made any arrangements to meet the coming danger.
The troops received food and ammunition, the disorders consequent on the successive days' fighting in retreat were remedied, and the men themselves got what they needed most of all, an almost unbroken day's rest. Locally their positions were strong, particularly to the east, where the stream flowing through the Fond du Givonne, though fordable, presented a serious obstacle to the tactical handling of the German infantry. But as a whole it was far too cramped for the numbers crowded into it; it could be completely overlooked from the heights of Frénois, where the king of Prussia's headquarters took their stand, and whence in the afternoon the German artillery fire began to cross over the town itself. At nightfall on the 31st the leading German infantry were approaching. The Army of the Meuse on the right bank of the river, with the II. Bavarians moving towards Bazeilles to reinforce it, and the III. Army, consisting of the V. and XI. corps with the Württemberg division, was heading for Donchéry to cut off the French from Mézières, and only a weak cavalry screen closed the gap between them.
During the night of the 31st of August the Bavarians threw a pontoon bridge across the Meuse below Rémilly, and soon after daybreak, in a fog which lay thickly over the whole country, they began their advance towards Bazeilles, held by Vassoigne's division of the 12th corps and fairl prepared for defence. The firing called all troops within reach of the sound to arms, and before 5 A.M the Meuse Army was marching to the battle-field, the Guards on the northern road via Villers-Arnay, the Saxons and IVth corps to the south along the river.
Vassoigne's division contained a number of Marine battalions, and their stubborn resistance completely disconcerted the Bavarians. Deprived of all artillery co-operation owing to the fog, the latter spent themselves in fruitless and disconnected efforts in the gardens and streets of the village, and reinforcements were soon urgently needed. About 6 A.M. the fog lifted, and German batteries atonce took part 1n the struggle. One of the first shells wounded Marshal MacMahon. The next senior officer, General Ducrot, at once assumed command (7 A.M). But it happened that General Wimpffen, who had only joined the army from Algiers on the night of the 30th, brought with him a secret commission to assume command in the event of the death or disablement of MacMahon.
Of this power he did not at first avail himself, since he was a stranger both to the army and the country, whilst Ducrot possessed the confidence of the one and the knowledge of the other in the highest degree. But when about 9 A.M. he learnt that Ducrot proposed to move the whole army under cover of rearguards to the west towards Mezières, he produced his commission and countermanded the movement, being himself convinced that eastward towards Bazaine at Metz lay the road to salvation. Orders once issued on a battle-field are not easily recalled, and the result of this change of command was dire confusion. The French troops northward of Bazeilles, along the Fond du Givonne, were already commencing their withdrawal, when the leading troops of the Saxon XII. corps began to arrive about Daigny, and being only opposed by a weak rearguard, easily carried the ridge south of the Givonne-Sedan road, thus threatening the retreat of Vassoigne's division in and about Bazeilles, which then fell into the hands of the Bavarians between 10 and 11 A.M. At the same moment the Guard corps had begun to form up between Daigny and Givonne, and there being no serious force of the enemy in front of them, the artillery was deploying along the western heights above the valley of Givonne, covered only by weak advanced guards of infantry, when suddenly a great column of French infantry, some 6000 strong, moving west in pursuance of Wimpffen's orders, came over the eastern border of the valley and charged down at full speed towards the guns. Then followed one of the most dramatic spectacles of the entire war. The whole of the corps artillery of the Guard turned upon these devoted men, and tore the column in half, shrouding it in dense clouds of dust and smoke from the bursting shells, above which could be seen the trunks and limbs of men flung upwards by their explosion. The head of the column, perhaps 2000 strong, nevertheless kept on its way, but under the combined fire of the Guard rifle battalion and the flanking fire from other guns its impetus died out and its débris disappeared by degrees under convenient cover. The German Guards were now free to stretch out their right towards the Belgian frontier (where the scouts of the III. Army were already moving) and prepare with all deliberation for the attack on the Bois de la Garenne.
The III. Army had moved off as early as 2.30 A.M., and by 4 A.M. was already crossing the Meuse at Donchéry, aided by several pontoon and trestle bridges thrown over during the night. Their right was covered from sight by the peninsula formed by a bend of the river, and the march of the several columns was unopposed till, clearing its northern extremity, they began to deploy to their right between St Menges and Floing. Here they encountered French outposts, which fell back on their main position on the ridge, to the south of the Floing-Illy road. Against this position the German artillery now pressed forward, and seeing their exposed position, General Gallifet brought forward his brigade of Chasseurs d'Afrique and delivered a most dashing charge. But being unsupported he was compelled to withdraw again behind the cover of the Cazal-Illy ridge.
It was now about 11 A.M., and, whether moved by the belated impulse of Ducrot's orders or attracted by the apparent weakness of the Prussians within sight, the French infantry now made a brilliant counter-attack out of their position in their usual manner. But German reinforcements coming suddenly into view, and their élan having spent itself, they fell back again, holding only to Floing, whence it required nearly two hours more to expel them.
About noon Wimpffen rode up to General Douay and asked him whether he could hold on to his position. The latter, possibly elated by the success of his recent attack, replied in the affirmative, pointing out only the importance of maintaining the Calvaire d'Illy to the north. De Wimpffen promised him support from the 1st corps on the right rear, part of which, hidden in the Bois de la Garenne, had as yet been little engaged, and then rode south to Balan, Where he found the 12th corps fighting desperately. He then sent back to Douay for reinforcements, and the latter dispatched all he could spare. These, marching south, crossed the troops of the 1st corps sent to Douay's assistance. The Prussian shells were already crashing into the woods from all sides, and countless stragglers and riderless horses caused most serious delay. To gain time, Margueritte's division was ordered to charge. Margueritte was killed as he rode forward to reconnoitre, and Gallifet took command. “ For the next half-hour,” says the Prussian official account, “ the scene defies description. Gallifet and his squadrons covered themselves with glory, but he had not 2000 sabres at his disposal. Under the storm of shell and over the broken ground manoeuvring was impossible. But a series of isolated charges were delivered with results which convinced well-nigh every survivor that the day of cavalry, in sufficient numbers and properly handled on the battle-field, was by no means spent.” About an hour after the cavalry charges, between 3 and 4 P.M., the Germans at length gathered weight enough to attempt the assault of the French main position, and moved by a common instinct, lines of men almost 2 m. in extent, pressed on, gaining cover from the convex slope of the hill, till at length they were able to storm the stubbornly-defended ridge. Meanwhile, Wimpffen had initiated a fresh counter-stroke from the Fond du Givonne against Balan and Bazeilles. Carried out with magnificent courage, it swept the Bavarians out of both villages, and for a moment the road seemed open for escape, but Wimpffen did not know that the IV. Prussian corps stood waiting behind the gap.
Riding back to the town to seek the emperor and implore him to place himself at the head of all available reinforcements, he saw a white flag break out from the steeple of the church tower, but almost instantaneously disappear. He did indeed reach the emperor, but, delayed by the appalling confusion, was too late. The flag had gone up again and he knew that further resistance was hopeless. The fighting did not cease at once. The troops he had directed to make the final effort, their eyes fixed on the enemy in front of them, never saw the flag; and until 6 P.M. a series of isolated attempts were made to break the iron circle with which the Germans had surrounded them. The emperor, who during the early hours of the day had fearlessly courted death, at length overcome by extreme physical pain and exhaustion, had ridden back to the town, and about 4 P.M., seeing no hope of success, had sent a parlementaire conveying his personal surrender to the king of Prussia, at the same time ordering the white flag to be hoisted. It was torn down by a Colonel Fauve, but was hoisted again half an hour later, when Prussian troops from Cazal were almost at the western gates of Sedan. It only remained for Wimpffen to make terms for the army, and after a long and gallant effort to avert the inevitable, he at length signed an unconditional surrender, with the sole alleviation (introduced as a tribute of respect for the gallantry shown by his men) that all officers were to retain their swords.
Thus passed into captivity 82,000 men, 558 guns and stores to an immense amount. The price to the victors for this result was in round numbers 9000. The French killed and wounded numbered about 17,000. It is indicative of the demoralization in the French army that this figure is 1000 less than the cost of the victory to the Germans at Worth, although on that occasion the French troops actually engaged numbered one half those available at Sedan. The duration of the fighting was the same in both cases. (F. N. M.)