Battle of Sedan

Battle of Sedan 1940

A brief reflection on the association of Sedan with conflicts between France and Germany

Many battles have been fought throughout human history that have shaped the geography and politics of the present world. The battles have the potential of reflecting on the international relations between countries in the past and the mistakes that led to conflicts. The observation of the events that led up to the various battles in history can provide a clear indication of initiatives that can be put in place to prevent any military conflicts in the future.

The battle of Sedan did not happen once but twice in history and reflected prominently on the state of relationships between Germany and France. The sedan is one of the levels of administrative division in the French Republic that are known as communes. It is included in the Ardennes department and the Grand Est region in north-eastern France. It also holds the administrative seat for the arrondissement that holds a similar name.

The foundation of the town located at a distance of 200 km from Paris can be traced back to 1424 when it served as an asylum for war refugees in the French Wars of Religion between the Roman Catholics and the Huguenots or the Protestants. The town is also renowned for being the birthplace of one of the generals who served in the Napoleonic Wars, Jacques MacDonald.

The First Battle of Sedan

The first battle of Sedan marks one of the most important events during the Franco-Prussian War from 1870-1871. The early days of the Franco-Prussian War starting in July 1870 witnessed the frequent defeats of the French by the highly trained and equipped Prussians. After facing a defeat at the hands of the French at Gravelotte on August 18, the Army of the Rhine led by Marshal Francois Achille Bazaine retreated to Metz.

However, the First and Second Armies of Prussia surrounded them quickly. In response to this crisis, Emperor Napoleon III advanced north with the Army of Chalons led by Marshal Patrice de McMahon. The unfavorable conditions of the march to Metz such as poor weather and roads weakened the army and to make matters worse; the Prussians were alerted of the French movements in advance.

The Prussian commander, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke used this information to his advantage and ordered his troops for intercepting Napoleon and McMahon. The French suffered defeat at the hands of Prussian army under Prince George of Saxony at the Battle of Beaumont on August 30.

McMahon immediately ordered a retreat to the fortress town of Sedan France only to be surrounded by high ground and blocked on all sides by the Meuse River. That particular decision of McMahon followed by various changes in command of the French army in the event of the siege by Prussians from west and north ultimately led to the French being surrounded.

Finally, the French ceded to the Prussians by midday as Napoleon III ordered to raise a white flag indicating his surrender. The French suffered around 17,000 deaths and injuries along with 21,000 captured soldiers while the Prussians faced around 7,753 deaths and wounded soldiers along with 2,107 missing soldiers.

In the aftermath of the battle, France did not have any government for a short period before the formation of the Third Republic in Paris two days after the surrender of Napoleon III. However, Prussian forces continued their march to Paris and finally laid siege on September 19.

The Second Battle of Sedan

The second battle raged for four days from May 12 to May 15, 1940, and it is one of the highlights in the history of Sedan France in WW2. This battle was a part of the German invasion of France in 1940 and can be accounted as a part of the German operational plan to move an offensive through the hilly terrain and heavily forested area surrounding Sedan in Ardennes, France.

The objective of the operational plan was to surround the Allied forces in north-Eastern France and Belgium. The location of Sedan played a huge role in its selection for the attack. Since it was located on the east bank of the Meuse River, Germans perceived that it could be used as a base for capturing all the bridges on Meuse River and cross it.

This strategy was intended to support the march of the German divisions across the open French countryside that was undefended and advance towards the English Channel. The German High Command provided Army Group A with motorized forces and armor in full concentration with heavier tanks such as the Panzer III and the Panzer IV for conducting the critical operation.This capture was imFailure to see the inevitable portant to the Germans as it marked an important breakthrough as after capturing Sedan France in WW2, the Germans were able to reach the rear of the Allied mobile forces moving towards Belgium.

The French committed a huge mistake by perceiving Ardennes as ‘Impenetrable.’ The French General Staff assumed that a German thrust through Sedan in Ardennes, France would be impossible because of the terrain that can restrict the movement of tanks. The French held the belief that even if the Germans start an offensive, it will take almost two weeks for them to reach the Meuse.

The French believed that the Germans would have to spend almost five to nine days for crossing Ardennes only and these assumptions were not up to the mark as found from the outcomes of military exercises carried out by the French in 1938. In light of the findings from the military exercise and the estimates of General Andre-Gaston Pretelat, the French Army ordered for strengthening the fortifications in the autumn of 1939.

However, the severely cold weather created obstacles for delivering the necessary materials as well as pouring concrete. Further attempts made by General Charles Huntziger in April 1940 for the appointment of four additional divisions to work on the fortifications went in vain and created the path for the victory of the Germans.

Attack on a weakened front

Another factor which played a crucial role in the siege of Sedan, France was the insufficiency of French defenses. The lack of manpower and resources for fortification led to half-built bunkers and allocation of a category B division, i.e., the French 55th Infantry Division led by Brigadier General Pierre Lafontaine proved to be prominent reasons for the downfall of the French. The Germans traveled through Ardennes and reached the Meuse River in a mere gap of 57 hours.

General Heinz Guderian implemented a changed attack plan and concentrated forces for the penetration of Ardennes. The Luftwaffe supported the siege, or the aerial forces of Germany and dive-bombing assaults gradually weakened and penetrated through the Allied lines. Even some French soldiers left their posts at gun due to the heavy bombing and immediately surrendered to the might of the German forces.

In the aftermath of the defeat at Sedan, the Allied Army Groups in Belgium did not have adequate flank protection. Military historians have accounted the second battle as one of the crucial events in World War II that determined the fate of Belgium and France. Furthermore, this battle has also been considered as one of the major reasons that led to the surrender of France in the Second World War.

On a concluding note, it can be noted that the lack of preparation on behalf of the French and the location of Sedan as well as the foresight of Prussian and German forces led to the defeat of the French at both instances of military conflict.

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