Battle Analysis-Sedan, 1870

The Battle of Sedan, fought on 1 September 1870 displayed the superiority the Prussian Army had attained over the French in the nearly sixty years since their devastating defeat at Jena in the Napoleonic wars. The battle was notable for several developments in warfare, which were showcased by the Prussian and French army’s different abilities to effectively utilize the new technologies and methods existing. The most dominant military technologies of the time were railroads, repeating rifles, and modern cannon.

Map of Battle of Sedan - Image Courtesy:

While the French had at their disposal the Chassepot rifle which was superior to the Prussian needle-gun, their artillery was inferior in both quantity and quality to the Krupp guns deployed by the Prussians. The Prussians made superior use of the railroad in the deployment of their armies but that had little to do with their successful encirclement of the French army at Sedan, as the Prussians had largely been road bound and foot marching since crossing the French frontier at the beginning of August. The French failures of command and poor planning prevented them from retreating from Sedan thus forcing them to stand and fight the numerically superior Prussian army.

The Germans under Moltke proved to be energetic in their attacks and ruthless in the use of their superior artillery to bottle up the French and prevent their movements within the Sedan pocket. As the German armies approached Sedan, Moltke ordered his corps to probe the French and begin to march to encircle the French in the city. The Prussian armies quickly attacked to force crossings of the Meuse at Bazailles and Donchery. After the Prussians forced the crossing of the Meuse on 31 August, they moved rapidly to complete the encirclement of the French Army of Chalons and by that evening, the French were surrounded.

Like many battles of the war, the Prussians joined battle on the next morning not through any plan but through the actions of a lone commander acting on his initiative. At around 0430 on the first, the I Bavarian Corps mounted an attack to retake the bridge at Bazailes. As the Saxons moved up on the Bavarians flank in the early morning, they emplaced their artillery and began to attack also. The engagement rapidly spread from there to become a general attack on the surrounded French Army.

The Prussians made excellent use of their artillery to force the French to halt movement within the pocket. The effectiveness of Prussian artillery was a foretaste of what modern quick-firing artillery could accomplish. The Prussian army continued to make frontal infantry assaults even in the face of the tremendous casualties inflicted by the French using their superior rifles. The Prussians could have just as easily dominated the pocket with their artillery and thus saved themselves many of the 9,000 casualties they suffered during the battle.

Strategically the Battle of Sedan was a masterstroke for the Prussians as it removed the last trained French field army from the war. There were operational errors committed by Prussian generals who ignored or imperfectly followed orders but overall The Elder Moltke was shown to have a superior grasp of strategy than his French opponents. The major errors on the part of the Prussians were in their tactical use of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. They suffered needless casualties by not using their larger gun-line equipped with superior weapons to dominate the French before committing their infantry to battle. They were saved by their larger numbers and the yeoman’s effort put forth by the better-trained gunners of the Prussian army.

The battle could have been won more cheaply if Moltke had had better control of his subordinates and thus better control of the timing for beginning the battle, the impulsiveness of the Prussians cost them needless lives. The Prussian army did not use true combined arms tactics but with a larger and more disciplined army, their mistakes were not as detrimental to success as were the mistakes of the French.