Franco-Prussian War: Battle of Sedan

Battle of Sedan
Napoleon III and Otto von Bismarck speak after the Battle of Sedan. (Public Domain)

The Battle of Sedan was fought September 1, 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). With the beginning of the conflict, Prussian forces won several quick victories and besieged Metz. Moving to lift this siege, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon's Army of Châlons, accompanied by Emperor Napoleon III, engaged the enemy at Beaumont on August 30, but suffered a setback.

Falling back on the fortress city of Sedan, the French were pinned in place by Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke's Prussians and then encircled. Unable to break out, Napoleon III was forced to surrender. While a stunning victory for the Prussians, the French leader's capture precluded a quick end to the conflict as a new government was formed in Paris to continue the fight.


Beginning in July 1870, the early actions of the Franco-Prussian War saw the French routinely bested by their better-equipped and trained neighbors to the east. Defeated at Gravelotte on August 18, Marshal François Achille Bazaine's Army of the Rhine fell back to Metz, where it was quickly besieged by elements of the Prussian First and Second Armies. Responding to the crisis, Emperor Napoleon III moved north with Marshal Patrice de MacMahon's Army of Châlons. It was their intention to move northeast towards Belgium before turning south to link up with Bazaine.

Plagued by poor weather and roads, the Army of Châlons exhausted itself during the march. Alerted to the French advance, the Prussian commander, Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, began directing troops to intercept Napoleon and McMahon. On August 30, troops under Prince George of Saxony attacked and defeated the French at the Battle of Beaumont. Hoping to re-form after this setback, MacMahon fell back to the fortress town of Sedan. Surrounded by high ground and hemmed in by the Meuse River, Sedan was a poor choice from a defensive standpoint.

Battle of Sedan

  • Conflict: Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)
  • Dates: September 1-2, 1870
  • Armies & Commanders:
  • Prussia
  • Wilhelm I
  • Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke
  • 200,000 men
  • France
  • Napoleon III
  • Marshal Patrice MacMahon
  • General Emmanuel Félix de Wimpffen
  • General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot
  • 120,000 men
  • Casualties:
  • Prussians: 1,310 killed, 6,443 wounded, 2,107 missing
  • France: 3,220 killed, 14,811 wounded, 104,000 captured

Count Helmuth von Moltke. Public Domain

Prussians Advance

Seeing an opportunity to inflict a crippling blow on the French, Moltke exclaimed, "Now we have them in the mousetrap!" Advancing on Sedan, he ordered forces to engage the French to pin them in place while additional troops moved west and north to encircle the town. Early on September 1, Bavarian troops under General Ludwig von der Tann began crossing the Meuse and probed towards the village of Bazeilles. Entering the town, they met French troops from General Barthelemy Lebrun's XII Corps. As fighting began, the Bavarians battled the elite Infanterie de Marine which had barricaded several streets and buildings (Map).

Battle of Sedan
Fighting at La Moncelle during the Battle of Sedan. Public Domain

Joined by VII Saxon Corps which pressed towards the village of La Moncelle to the north along Givonne creek, the Bavarians fought through the early morning hours. Around 6:00 AM, the morning mist began to lift allowing Bavarian batteries to open fire on the villages. Using new breech-loading guns, they began a devastating barrage which forced the French to abandon La Moncelle. Despite this success, von der Tann continued to struggle at Bazeilles and committed additional reserves. The French situation quickly worsened when their command structure was shattered.

French Confusion

When MacMahon was wounded early in the fighting, command of the army fell to General Auguste-Alexandre Ducrot who initiated orders for a retreat from Sedan. Though a retreat earlier in the morning may have been successful, the Prussian flanking march was well underway by this point. Ducrot's command was cut short by the arrival of General Emmanuel Félix de Wimpffen. Arriving at headquarters, Wimpffen possessed a special commission to take over the Army of Châlons in the event of MacMahon's incapacitation. Relieving Ducrot, he immediately canceled the retreat order and prepared to continue the fight.

Completing the Trap

These command changes and the series of countermanded orders worked to weaken the French defense along the Givonne. By 9:00 AM, fighting was raging all along the Givonne from Bazeilles north. With the Prussians advancing, Ducrot's I Corps and Lebrun's XII Corps mounted a massive counterattack. Pushing forward, they regained lost ground until the Saxons were reinforced. Backed by nearly 100 guns, Saxon, Bavarian, and Prussian troops shattered the French advance with a massive bombardment and heavy rifle fire. At Bazeilles, the French were finally overcome and forced to cede the village.

This, along with the loss of the other villages along the Givonne, compelled the French to establish a new line west of the stream. During the morning, as the French focused on the battle along the Givonne, Prussian troops under Crown Prince Frederick moved to encircle Sedan. Crossing the Meuse around 7:30 AM, they pushed north. Receiving orders from Moltke, he pushed V and XI Corps into St. Menges to completely surround the enemy. Entering the village, they caught the French by surprise. Responding to the Prussian threat, the French mounted a cavalry charge but were cut down by enemy artillery.

Battle of Sedan map
Map of the Battle of Sedan, 10 A.M., September 1, 1870. Public Domain

French Defeat

By midday, the Prussians had completed their encirclement of the French and had effectively won the battle. Having silenced the French guns with fire from 71 batteries, they easily turned back a French cavalry assault led by General Jean-Auguste Margueritte. Seeing no alternative, Napoleon ordered a white flag raised early in the afternoon. Still in command of the army, Wimpffen countermanded the order and his men continued to resist. Massing his troops, he directed a breakout attempt near Balan to the south. Storming forward, the French nearly overwhelmed the enemy before being turned back.

Late that afternoon, Napoleon asserted himself and overrode Wimpffen. Seeing no reason to continue the slaughter, he opened surrender talks with the Prussians. Moltke was stunned to learn that he had captured the French leader, as were King Wilhelm I and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who were at headquarters. The following morning, Napoleon met Bismarck on the road to Moltke's headquarters and officially surrendered the entire army.


In the course of the fighting, the French incurred around 17,000 killed and wounded as well as 21,000 captured. The remainder of the army was captured following its surrender. Prussian casualties totaled 1,310 killed, 6,443 wounded, 2,107 missing. Though a stunning victory for the Prussians, Napoleon's capture meant that France had no government with which to negotiate a quick peace. Two days after the battle, leaders in Paris formed the Third Republic and sought to continue the conflict. As a result, Prussian forces advanced on Paris and laid siege on September 19.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "Franco-Prussian War: Battle of Sedan." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Franco-Prussian War: Battle of Sedan. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Franco-Prussian War: Battle of Sedan." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).