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Chapter XVIII

  • After MacMAHONahon
  • -- the battle at Beaumont -- the French surprised -- the marching of the German soldiers -- the battle of Sedan -- gallant cavalry charges -- defeat of the French -- the surrender of Napoleon -- Bismarck and the King -- Decorating the soldiers.

All night long the forced march of the army went on through Cler-

Cmont, and when I turned out, just after daylight, the columns were still pressing forward, the men looking tired and much bedraggled, as indeed they had reason to be, for from recent rains the roads were very sloppy. Notwithstanding this, however, the troops were pushed ahead with all possible vigor to intercept MacMahon and force a battle before he could withdraw from his faulty movement, for which it has since been ascertained he was not at all responsible. Indeed, those at the royal headquarters seemed to think of nothing else than to strike MacMahon, for, feeling pretty confident that Metz could not be relieved, they manifested not the slightest anxiety on that score.

By 8 o'clock, the skies having cleared, the headquarters set out for Grand Pre, which place we reached early in the afternoon, and that evening I again had the pleasure of dining with the King. The conversation at table was almost wholly devoted to the situation, of course, everybody expressing surprise at the maneuver of the French at this time, their march along the Belgian frontier being credited entirely to Napoleon. Up to bed-time there was still much uncertainty as to the exact positions of the French, but next morning intelligence being received which denoted the probability of a battle, we drove about ten miles, to Buzancy, and there mounting our horses, rode to the front.

The French were posted not far from Buzancy in a strong position, their right resting near Stonne and the left extending over into the woods beyond Beaumont. About 10 o'clock the Crown Prince of Saxony advanced against this line, and while a part of his army turned the [508] French right, compelling it to fall back rapidly, the German centre and right attacked with great vigor and much skill, surprising one of the divisions of General De Failly's corps while the men were in the act of cooking their breakfast, The French fled precipitately, leaving behind their tents and other camp equipage, and on inspecting the ground which they had abandoned so hastily, I noticed on all sides ample evidence that not even the most ordinary precautions had been taken to secure the division from surprise. The artillery horses had not been harnessed, and many of them had been shot down at the picket-rope where they had been haltered the night before, while numbers of men were lying dead with loaves of bread or other food instead of their muskets in their hands.

Some three thousand prisoners and nearly all the artillery and mitrailleuses of the division were captured, while the fugitives were pursued till they found shelter behind Douay's corps and the rest of De Failly's beyond Beaumont. The same afternoon there were several other severe combats along the Meuse, but I had no chance of witnessing any of them, and just before night-fall I started back to Buzancy, to which place the King's headquarters had been brought during the day.

The morning of the 31st the King moved to Vendresse. First sending our carriage back to Grand Pre for our trunks, Forsyth and I mounted our horses and rode to the battle-field accompanied by an English nobleman, the Duke of Manchester. The part of the field we traversed was still thickly strewn with the dead of both armies, though all the wounded had been collected in the hospitals. In the village of Beaumont, we stopped to take a look at several thousand French prisoners, whose worn clothing and evident dejection told that they had been doing a deal of severe marching under great discouragements.

The King reached the village shortly after, and we all continued on to Chemery, just beyond where his Majesty alighted from his carriage to observe his son's troops file past as they came in from the direction of Stonne. This delay caused us to be as late as 9 o'clock before we got shelter that night, but as it afforded me the best opportunity I had yet had for seeing the German soldiers on the march, I did not begrudge the time. They moved in a somewhat open and irregular column of fours, the intervals between files being especially intended to give room for a peculiar swinging gait, with which the men seemed to urge themselves over the ground with ease and rapidity. There was little or no straggling, and being strong, lusty young fellows, and lightly equippedthey carried only needle-guns, ammunition, a very small knapsack, a water-bottle, and a haversack — they strode by with an elastic step, covering at least three miles an hour. [509]

It having been definitely ascertained that the demoralized French were retiring to Sedan, on the evening of August 31 the German army began the work of hemming them in there, so disposing the different corps as to cover the ground from Donchery around by Raucourt to Carignan. The next morning this line was to be drawn in closer on Sedan; and the Crown Prince of Saxony was therefore ordered to take up a position to the north of Bazeilles, beyond the right bank of the Meuse, while the Crown Prince of Prussia was to cross his right wing over the Meuse at Remilly, to move on Bazeilles, his centre meantime marching against a number of little hamlets still held by the French between there and Donchery. At this last-mentioned place strong reserves were to be held, and from it the Eleventh Corps, followed by the Fifth and a division of cavalry, was to march on St. Menges.

Forsyth and I started early next morning, September 1, and in a thick fog-which, however, subsequently gave place to bright sunshinewe drove to the village of Chevenges, where, mounting our horses, we rode in a northeasterly direction to the heights of Frenois and Wadelincourt, bordering the river Meuse on the left bank, where from the crest we had a good view of the town of Sedan with its circling fortifications, which, though extensive, were not so formidable as those around Metz. The King and his staff were already established on these heights, and at a point so well chosen that his Majesty could observe the movements of both armies immediately east and south of Sedan, and also to the northwest toward Floing and the Belgian frontier.

The battle was begun to the east and northeast of Sedan as early as half-past 4 o'clock by the German right wing--the fighting being desultory-and near the same hour the Bavarians attacked Bazeilles. This village, some two miles southeast of Sedan, being of importance, was defended with great obstinacy, the French contesting from street to street and house to house the attack of the Bavarians till near 10 o'clock, when, almost every building being knocked to pieces, they were compelled to relinquish the place. The possession of this village gave the Germans to the east of Sedan a continuous line, extending from the Meuse northward through La Moncelle and Daigny to Givonne, and almost to the Belgian frontier.

While the German centre and right were thus engaged, the left had moved in accordance with the prescribed plan. Indeed, some of these troops had crossed the Meuse the night before, and now, at a little after 6 o'clock, their advance could be seen just north of the village of Floing. Thus far these columns, under the immediate eye of the Crown Prince of Prussia, had met with no opposition to their march, and as soon as they got to the high ground above the village they began [510] extending to the east, to connect with the Army of the Meuse. This juncture was effected at Illy without difficulty, and the French army was now completely encompassed.

After a severe fight, the Crown Prince drove the French through Floing, and as the ground between this village and Sedan is an undulating, open plain, everywhere visible, there was then offered a rare opportunity for seeing the final conflict preceding the surrender. Presently up out of the little valley where Floing is located came the Germans, deploying just on the rim of the plateau a very heavy skirmish-line, supported by a line of battle at close distance. When these skirmishers appeared, the French infantry had withdrawn within its intrenched lines, but a strong body of their cavalry, already formed in a depression to the right of the Floing road, now rode at the Germans in gallant style, going clear through the dispersed skirmishers to the main line of battle. Here the slaughter of the French was awful, for in addition to the deadly volleys from the solid battalions of their enemies, the skirmishers, who had rallied in knots at advantageous places, were now delivering a severe and effective fire. The gallant horsemen, therefore, had to retire precipitately, but re-forming in the depression, they again undertook the hopeless task of breaking the German infantry, making in all four successive charges. Their ardor and pluck were of no avail, however, for the Germans, growing stronger every minute by the accession of troops from Floing, met the fourth attack in such large force that, even before coming in contact with their adversaries, the French broke and retreated to the protection of the intrenchments, where, from the beginning of the combat, had been lying plenty of idle infantry, some of which at least, it seemed plain to me, ought to have been thrown into the fight. This action was the last one of consequence around Sedan, for, though with the contraction of the German lines their batteries kept cannonading more or less, and the rattle of musketry continued to be heard here and there, yet the hard fighting of the day practically ended on the plateau of Floing.

By 3 o'clock, the French being in a desperate and hopeless situation, the King ordered the firing to be stopped, and at once despatched one of his staff-Colonel von Bronsart--with a demand for a surrender. Just as this officer was starting off, I remarked to Bismarck that Napoleon himself would likely be one of the prizes, but the Count, incredulous, replied, “Oh no; the old fox is too cunning to be caught in such a trap; he has doubtless slipped off to Paris” --a belief which I found to prevail pretty generally about headquarters.

In the lull that succeeded, the King invited many of those about him to luncheon, a caterer having provided from some source or other [511] a substantial meal of good bread, chops and peas, with a bountiful supply of red and sherry wines. Among those present were Prince Carl, Bismarck, Von Moltke, Von Roon, the Duke of Weimar, the Duke of Coburg, the Grand-Duke of Mecklenburg, Count Hatzfeldt, Colonel Walker, of the English army, Genera] Forsyth, and I. The King was agreeable and gracious at all times, but on this occasion he was particularly so, being naturally in a happy frame of mind because this day the war had reached a crisis which presaged for the near future the complete vanquishment of the French.

Between 4 and 5 o'clock Colonel von Bronsart returned from his mission to Sedan, bringing word to the King that the commanding officer there, General Wimpffen, wished to know, in order that the further effusion of blood might be spared, upon what terms he might surrender. The Colonel brought the intelligence also that the French Emperor was in the town. Soon after Von Bronsart's arrival, a French officer approached from Sedan, preceded by a white flag and two German officers. Coming up the road till within a few hundred yards of us, they halted; then one of the Germans rode forward to say that the French officer was Napoleon's adjutant, bearing an autograph letter from the Emperor to the King of Prussia. At this the King, followed by Bismarck, Von Moltke, and Von Roon, walked out to the front a little distance and halted, his Majesty still in advance, the rest of us meanwhile forming in a line some twenty paces to the rear of the group. The envoy then approached, at first on horseback, but when within about a hundred yards he dismounted, and uncovering, came the remaining distance on foot, bearing high up in his right hand the despatch from Napoleon. The bearer proved to be General Reille, and as he handed the Emperor's letter to the King, his MaJesty saluted him with the utmost formality and precision. Napoleon's letter was the since famous one, running so characteristically, thus: “Not having been able to die in the midst of my troops, there is nothing left me but to place my sword in your Majesty's hands.” The reading finished, the King returned to his former post, and after a conference with Bismarck, Von Moltke, and Von Roon, dictated an answer accepting Napoleon's surrender, and requesting him to designate an officer with power to treat for the capitulation of the army, himself naming Von Moltke to represent the Germans. The King then started for Vendresse, to pass the night.

It was after 7 o'clock now, and hence too late to arrange anything more where we were, so further negotiations were deferred till later in the evening; and I, wishing to be conveniently near Bismarck, resolved to take up quarters in Donchery. On our way thither we were met by the Count's nephew, who assuring us that it would be impossible to [512] find shelter there in the village, as all the houses were filled with wounded, Forsyth and I decided to continue on to Chevenge. On the other hand, Bismarck-Bohlen bore with him one great comfort-some excellent brandy. Offering the flask to his uncle, he said: “You've had a hard day of it; won't you refresh yourself?” The Chancellor, without wasting time to answer, raised the bottle to his lips, exclaiming: “Here's to the unification of Germany!” which sentiment the gurgling of an astonishingly long drink seemed to emphasize. The Count then handed the bottle back to his nephew, who, shaking it, ejaculated, “Why, we can't pledge you in return — there is nothing left!” to which came the waggish response, “I beg pardon; it was so dark I couldn't see” ; nevertheless there was a little remaining, as I myself can aver.

Having left our carriage at Chevenge, Forsyth and I stopped there to get it, but a long search proving fruitless, we took lodging in the village at the house of the cure, resolved to continue the hunt in the morning. But then we had no better success, so concluding that our vehicle had been pressed into the hospital service, we at an early hour on the 2d of September resumed the search, continuing on down the road in the direction of Sedan. Near the gate of the city we came on the German picket-line, and one of the officers, recognizing our uniforms-he having served in the war of the rebellion-stepped forward and addressed me in good English. We naturally fell into conversation, and in the midst of it there came out through the gate an open carriage, or landau, containing two men, one of whom, in the uniform of a general and smoking a cigarette, we recognized, when the conveyance drew near, as the Emperor Louis Napoleon. The landau went on toward Donchery at a leisurely pace, and we, inferring that there was something more important at hand just then than the recovery of our trap, followed at a respectful distance. Not quite a mile from Donchery is a cluster of three or four cottages, and at the first of these the landau stopped to await, as we afterward ascertained, Count Bismarck, with whom the diplomatic negotiations were to be settled. Some minutes elapsed before he came, Napoleon remaining seated in his carriage meantime, still smoking, and accepting with nonchalance the staring of a group of German soldiers near by, who were-gazing on their fallen foe with curious and eager interest.

Presently a clattering of hoofs was heard, and looking toward the sound, I perceived the Chancellor cantering down the road. When abreast of the carriage he dismounted, and walking up to it, saluted the Emperor in a quick, brusque way that seemed to startle him. After a word or two, the party moved perhaps a hundred yards further on, where they stopped opposite the weaver's cottage so famous from that [513] day. This little house is on the east side of the Donchery road, near its junction with that to Frenois, and stands about twenty paces back from the highway. In front is a stone wall covered with creeping vines, and from a gate in this wall runs to the front door a path, at this time bordered on both sides with potato vines.

The Emperor having alighted at the gate, he and Bismarck walked together along the narrow path and entered the cottage. Reappearing in about a quarter of an hour, they came out and seated themselves in the open air, the weaver having brought a couple of chairs. Here they engaged in an animated conversation, if much gesticulation is any indication. The talk lasted fully an hour, Bismarck seeming to do most of it, but at last he arose, saluted the Emperor, and strode down the path toward his horse. Seeing me standing near the gate, he joined me for a moment, and asked if I had noticed how the Emperor started when they first met, and I telling him that I had, he added, “Well, it must have been due to my manners, not my words, for these were, ‘I salute your MaJesty just as I would my King.’ ” Then the Chancellor continued to chat a few minutes longer, assuring me that nothing further was to be done there, and that we had better go to the Chateau Bellevue, where, he said, the formal surrender was to take place. With this he rode off toward Vendresse to communicate with his sovereign, and Forsyth and I made ready to go to the Chateau Bellevue.

Before we set out, however, a number of officers of the King's suite arrived at the weaver's cottage, and from them I gathered that there were differences at the royal headquarters as to whether peace should be made then at Sedan, or the war continued till the French capital was taken. I further heard that the military advisers of the King strongly advocated an immediate move on Paris, while the Chancellor thought it best to make peace now, holding Alsace and Lorraine, and compelling the payment of an enormous levy of money; and these rumors were most likely correct, for I had often heard Bismarck say that France being the richest country in Europe, nothing could keep her quiet but effectually to empty her pockets; and besides this, he impressed me as holding that it would be better policy to preserve the Empire.

On our way to the chateau we fell in with a number of artillery officers bringing up their guns hurriedly to post them closer in to the beleaguered town on a specially advantageous ridge. Inquiring the cause of this move, we learned that General Wimpffen had not yet agreed to the terms of surrender; that it was thought he would not, and that they wanted to be prepared for any such contingency. And they were preparing with a vengeance too, for I counted seventy-two Krupp guns in one continuous line trained on the Chateau Bellevue and Sedan. [514]

Napoleon went directly from the weaver's to the Chateau Bellevue, and about 10 o'clock the King of Prussia arrived from Frenois, accompanied by a few of his own suite and the Crown Prince with several members of his staff; and Von Moltke and Wimpffen having settled their points of difference before the two monarchs met, within the next halfhour the articles of capitulation were formally signed.

On the completion of the surrender — the occasion being justly considered a great one--the Crown Prince proceeded to distribute among the officers congregated in the chateau grounds the order of the Iron Cross — a generous supply of these decorations being carried in a basket by one of his orderlies, following him about as he walked along. Meantime the King, leaving Napoleon in the chateau to ruminate on the fickleness of fortune, drove off to see his own victorious soldiers, who greeted him with huzzas that rent the air, and must have added to the pangs of the captive Emperor.

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