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Chapter 6


This disaster of Sedan was easy of avoidance by any other man, but
impossible of avoidance for Louis Bonaparte. He avoided it so little
that he sought it. _Lex fati_.

Our army seemed expressly arranged for the catastrophe. The soldier was
uneasy, ignorant of his whereabouts, famished. On the 31st of August, in
the streets of Sedan, soldiers were seeking their regiments, and going
from door to door asking for bread. We have seen the Emperor's order
announcing the next day, September 1st, as a day of rest. In truth the
army was worn out with fatigue. And yet it had only marched by short
stages. The soldier was almost losing the habit of marching. One corps,
the 1st, for example, only accomplished two leagues per day (on the 29th
of August from Stonne to Raucourt).

During that time the German army, inexorably commanded and driven at the
stick's end like the army of the Xerxes, achieved marches of fourteen
leagues in fifteen hours, which enabled it to arrive unexpectedly, and
to surround the French army while asleep. It was customary to allow
oneself to be surprised. General Failly allowed himself to be surprised
at Beaumont; during the day the soldiers took their guns to pieces to
clean them, at night they slept, without even cutting the bridges which
delivered them to the enemy; thus they neglected to blow up the bridges
of Mouzon and Bazeilles. On September 1st, daylight had not yet
appeared, when an advance guard of seven battalions, commanded by
General Schultz, captured La Rulle, and insured the junction of the army
of the Meuse with the Royal Guard. Almost at the same minute, with
German precision, the Wurtemburgers seized the bridge of La Platinerie,
and hidden by the Chevalier Wood, the Saxon battalions, spread out into
company columns, occupied the whole of the road from La Moncelle to
Villers-Cernay.

Thus, as we have seen, the awakening of the French Army was horrible. At
Bazeilles a fog was added to the smoke. Our soldiers, attacked in this
gloom, knew not what death required of them; they fought from room to
room and from house to house.[39]

It was in vain that the Reboul brigade came to support the Martin des
Pallières brigade; they were obliged to yield. At the same time Ducrot
was compelled to concentrate his forces in the Garenne Wood, before the
Calvary of Illy; Douay, shattered, fell back; Lebrun alone stood firm on
the plateau of Stenay. Our troops occupied a line of five kilomètres;
the front of the French army faced the east, the left faced the north,
the extreme left (the Guyomar brigade) faced the west; but they did not
know whether they faced the enemy, they did not see him; annihilation
struck without showing itself; they had to deal with a masked Medusa.
Our cavalry was excellent, but useless. The field of battle, obstructed
by a large wood, cut up by clumps of trees, by houses and by farms and
by enclosure walls, was excellent for artillery and infantry, but bad
for cavalry. The rivulet of Givonne, which flows at the bottom of the
valley and crosses it, for three days ran with more blood than water.
Among other places of carnage, Saint-Menges was appalling. For a moment
it appeared possible to cut a way out by Carignan towards Montmédy, and
then this outlet reclosed. This refuge only remained, Sedan; Sedan
encumbered with carts, with wagons, with carriages, with hospital huts;
a heap of combustible matter. This dying agony of heroes lasted ten
hours. They refused to surrender, they grew indignant, they wished to
complete their death, so bravely begun. They were delivered up to it.

As we have said, three men, three dauntless soldiers, had succeeded each
other in the command, MacMahon, Ducrot, Wimpfen; MacMahon had only time
to be wounded, Ducrot had only time to commit a blunder, Wimpfen had
only time to conceive an heroic idea, and he conceived it; but MacMahon
is not responsible for his wound, Ducrot is not responsible for his
blunder, and Wimpfen is not responsible for the impossibility of his
suggestion to cut their way out. The shell which struck MacMahon
withdrew him from the catastrophe; Ducrot's blunder, the inopportune
order to retreat given to General Lebrun, is explained by the confused
horror of the situation, and is rather an error than a fault. Wimpfen,
desperate, needed 20,000 soldiers to cut his way out, and could only get
together 2000. History exculpates these three men; in this disaster of
Sedan there was but one sole and fatal general, the Emperor. That which
was knitted together on the 2d December, 1851, came apart on the 2d
September, 1870; the carnage on the Boulevard Montmartre, and the
capitulation of Sedan are, we maintain, the two parts of a syllogism;
logic and justice have the same balance; it was Louis Bonaparte's dismal
destiny to begin with the black flag of massacres and to end with the
white flag of disgrace.


[39] "The French were literally awakened from sleep by our attack."
--Helvic.

Victor Hugo