Wednesday, September 1, 2010

September 1, 1870 – Trench Warfare at Sedan Begins

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 Mexico. 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 Châlons. 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 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 through Sedan.

Bavarian 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 quarter.

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 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.”

International 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.

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 we?"


  1. Dream on,the frogs would still lose,it's in their blood!

  2. we reverse this scenario on the Today in Alternate History web site in our article September 1, 1870 - Relief of Sedan: what if the Austrians had intervened in the Franco-Prussian War? collaboratively developed with Jeff Provine.


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