September 3 – October 23, 1870
MacMahon, with his broken army, had escaped towards Strasbourg, and De Failly was proceeding to join him, but both were cut off from all communication with the main body. The left and centre of the French army were gathering in and around Metz ; this force, the principal hope of France, numbered 160,000 men, and 400 or 500 guns, a force quite unequal to that of the Prussians, who had 200,000 men on their way from the Saar, while the Crown Prince with his corps was rapidly advancing through the passes of the Yosges. The Emperor, who had drawn his chief corps to Metz, still lost three days in holding councils, reviewing troops, and planning the campaign ; he also at this time resigned the chief command to Marshal Bazaine. The German masses were meanwhile advancing on Metz, and had so arranged that a retreat on Chilonss would be impossible to the French. On the 14th August, the Emperor, however, crossed the Moselle, and reached Chilons ; but the principal part of the army remained encamped to the east of the fortress ; they were here attacked, and after a hotly contested fight of three or four hours, retreated into the town. The Germans had suffered greatly, but they had accom- plished their design of detaining the French army in its former position, and were themselves being strengthened hourly by the arrival of fresh forces.
Map of the battle of Metz.
Click for a larger image .
On the 16th, however, Bazaine might still have escaped to Verdun, but it seems he did not know of the danger threatening him, for he did not attempt to advance till the next day, and it was then too late. His army had commenced its march when it was sud- denly assailed by a Prussian corps ; the French fought under great disadvantages, for they were attacked always on their flank, and soon were obliged to retreat into Metz. At the same time another division was attacked on the Etain road, and obliged to fall back on Doncourt, and from thence to Gravelotte and Metz. Bazaine endeavored again to extricate himself; he posted 110,000 men on the heights of Gravelotte, at the junction of the Verdun and Etain roads, where they had every advantage of position, with a wood beneath them commanding the neighboring approaches; he left a reserve force of 20,000 men at Metz. The Germans, in the interval, advanced and occupied the roads to Verdun and Etain, from Rezonville to Doncourt, and had a force of 240,000 men to oppose to the French, whom they had decided to attack right and left simultaneously. The attack began about mid-day, and lasted until night ; for hours the victory hung in suspense, but the French at length fell back on Metz, fighting to the last ; they lost 19,000 men. On the (German side, it is supposed 25,000 men at least were killed. Bazaine with his army was now completely imprisoned in Metz, with no prospect, if he could not force his way through the lines of the enemy, but to surrender.
The French Imperial Guard march out of Metz .
Illustrated London News August 1870
A council of war was held, and it was determined that as a retreat on Paris would prove fatal to the Imperial interests, MacMahon should assume the defensive, and endeavour to join Bazaine at Metz.On the 27th August the French marshal, who ought to have reached the Meuse, was only at Le Chdne le Populeux : the delay must be explained by the bad condition of the troops, who only marched 22 miles in two days, and the misconduct of some of the regimental officers ; this delay proved fatal, for the Grerman armies, numbering about 24,000 men, were marching on with astonishing rapidity, and the Crown Prince of Saxony reached the Meuse in time to fall upon the vanguard of the French when they should cross it; the Crown Prince of Prussia arrived on the line of march of the French by the 28th. MacMahon, now warned of his danger, determined to cross the Meuse and to go on to Carignan by Montmedy, but the Prussians advanced and drove back the French as they arrived on the river, with terrible loss, and shut off the road to Montmedy. MacMahon, with his disheartened troops, then collected behind the Chiers. Here, with his 110,000 men, with Balan and Bazeilles in front, and Sedan to the right of the Meuse, he waited the attack, the emperor, it is said, still sanguine as to the result. On the morning of the 31st August the battle began, every step was disputed, every position the scene of a bloody contest ; the emperor himself fought bravely and cheered on his men, but all was in vain, the French line after a struggle of several hours gave way, and was "driven headlong into the town, smitten by the weight of a crushing artillery." Firing was still kept up on the town, until a flag of truce was waved from its undefended walls, in token that a parley was desired. A council of war was held in Sedan ; with almost one voice it was agreed that the position was hopeless, and that the terms of the King of Prussia must be submitted to.
The Prussians enter Metz
With the defeat of Marshal Bazaine's Army of the Rhine at Gravelotte, the French were forced to retire to Metz where they were besieged by over 150,000 Prussian troops of the First and Second Armies. The further crushing French loss was sealed when he surrendered 180,000 soldiers and 6,000 officers on October 27. Bazaine and his army marched off into captivity and a new Prussian army was now free to besiege Paris. A little later the Republic was proclaimed. The leaders of the new Republic labelled Bazaine a traitor and sentenced him to death. It was felt that his surrender and the freeing up of troops prevented a victory against the Prussians in the Loire.The sentence was commuted and he died in exile in poverty. He remains a hero to the Foreign Legion.
Surrender of the French army of Bazaine at Metz