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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

"THE MAN OF SEDAN"

[455] LOUIS NAPOLEON inherited something of his uncle's love of war.

Three years after the Peace of Paris he crossed the Alps into Italy to help the Italian king to drive the Austrians out of his kingdom. After winning several brilliant victories he went back to France.

In 1866 war broke out between Prussia and Austria.

Prussia won many battles, and under her chief minister, Count Bismarck, became so powerful that Louis Napoleon grew jealous.

Under one pretext and another the French emperor therefore, in 1870, declared war against Prussia.

He found that it was not only against Prussia that he would have to fight, but against all the German states, who at once sent troops to the help of their countrymen in Prussia.

With the German troops marched William, King of Prussia, his son the Crown Prince, as well as Count Bismarck.

Napoleon III., with his son the Prince Imperial, joined his army on the Rhine.

About two and a half miles beyond the boundary of France lay the small town of Saarbriicken. Here the first shot between the two armies was fired by the young Prince Imperial. Louis Napoleon sent a telegram to the mother of the prince, the beautiful Empress Eugenie, [456] to tell her that her son had received his "baptism of fire."

Again and again the Germans defeated the French; in one battle, indeed, two French regiments were entirely destroyed.

At length, in September 1871, the two armies met at Sedan, where the last and most terrible battle in this campaign was fought.

The French army had marched into a valley, under the walls of Sedan. "It was there," says Victor Hugo, a well-known French writer, "no one could guess what for, without order, without discipline, a mere crowd of men, waiting, as it seemed, to be seized by an immensely powerful hand. It seemed to be under no particular anxiety. The men who composed it knew, or thought they knew, that the enemy was far away, "The valley was one of those which the great Emperor Napoleon used to call a "bowl." No place could have been better calculated to shut in an army. Its very numbers were against it. Once in, if the way out were blocked, it could never leave it again."

The night before the battle the French army slept, and while it slept the German army was creeping steadily and noiselessly nearer and yet nearer to Sedan, silently making sure that no outlet from the valley was left unguarded.

Not a sound disturbed the slumberers in the French camp. But in the morning when they awoke, a strange sight made them rub their eyes and look again to see if they were still dreaming.

There, on the heights above them, looking down into the valley, the French had seen what looked like a dense mass of soldiers.

Two hundred and fifty thousand soldiers! In the night they had come, as stealthily and as silently as serpents, and the French army was held fast, a prisoner.

[457] What Napoleon III. thought when he saw the trap in which he was caught, we do not know.

The French fought with courage, but the German guns seemed to send volleys of shot and shell into the valley from every point of the compass. The battle was speedily changed into a massacre.

When at length the terrible day drew to a close, the emperor sent a note to the King of Prussia.

"MONSIEUR MON FRERE,—Not having been able to die in the midst of my troops, it only remains for me to place my sword in the hands of your Majesty.—I am. Your Majesty's good brother,

NAPOLEON."

Thus did the French emperor give himself up as a prisoner of war, while about eighty-three thousand troops were forced to surrender to the Germans.

A meeting was then arranged between Napoleon III. and Count Bismarck, in a chateau on the banks of the river Meuse.

It was a beautiful autumn day when the meeting took place, and chairs were brought that Napoleon and the minister might sit out of doors.


[Illustration]

"CHAIRS WERE BROUGHT THAT NAPOLEON AND THE MINISTER MIGHT SIT OUT OF DOORS."

The emperor, as was natural, seemed tired and dejected, although he was treated courteously by the count. King William of Prussia also drove to the chateau to greet his great prisoner.

When Paris heard of the surrender of her army she was very angry with Napoleon, "the Man of Sedan," as the people named him.

The mob rose as usual when it was displeased, and rushing into the Assembly Hall declared that it would no longer have an emperor to rule over the country. France should again be a republic.

But it was not until the German armies had besieged Paris and forced her, after terrible sufferings, to come to [458] terms, that, in March 1871, Napoleon III. was solemnly deposed.

Louis Napoleon being then set free by the Germans, hastened to England, where he died in January 1873.

Monsieur Thiers, the historian, was now proclaimed President of the Third French Republic.

But the Democrats were indignant that any terms had been made with the Germans. They shut the gates of Paris and refused to allow the new president to enter the city.

These rebellious citizens were called Communists as well as Red Republicans or Democrats. They declared that rich and poor should share all they possessed in common.

While Paris was in the hands of the Communists law and order ceased to exist. If was not safe for any one to be seen in the streets. They might at once be suspected of favouring law and order, in which case they would either at once be killed or thrust into prison.

For their beautiful city the mob had no respect.

It destroyed the famous palace of the Tuileries and tore down a monument which had been made of cannon captured from the enemy by Napoleon I. It even set fire to the city itself.

For nearly two months the terrible reign of the Communists lasted. By the end of that time Thiers had assembled the regular army, and the Government troops were ordered to take Paris out of the hands of the rebels.

The army forced its way into the city, and after a desperate fight the Communists were overpowered. Hundreds of them were punished with death, while many hundreds more were sent abroad to the colonies. So at length peace was restored to Paris, and President. Thiers was able to rule the country.

Since then until our own time France has remained a republic, governed by many noble and unselfish men.

During these years, too, she has remained undisturbed by [459] war, yet her people cannot forget the pain and misery she has endured in the days that are gone by.

"They love her much, because she has suffered much." And now the one wish of every true Frenchman is "to comfort the heart, the heart that has been broken, of their dear, brave, glorious old mother."


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