Emperor William First - George Upton


Bazaine was now shut up in Metz and closely surrounded by the first, seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth corps, under the command of Prince Frederick Charles; MacMahon's diminished army had retreated to Chalons, where it was met by the Garde Mobile. Except for this the road to Paris was open. It was therefore determined by the Germans to mass all their available forces and advance upon the capital without delay. It was fully expected at headquarters that MacMahon would dispute their way and that another battle must first be fought in the neighborhood of Chalons. Great was the surprise, therefore, when news was brought by scouts that the enemy had abandoned this important post and retired northward. This was inexplicable. Why not have gone to the westward in the direction of Paris? The commander-in-chief was not easily deceived, however, and as for Moltke, one must indeed rise betimes to get the better of him in strategy. MacMahon's purpose soon became apparent. By a wide circuit from Chalons northeast to the Belgian frontier, and then southward again, he hoped to annihilate the besieging forces at Metz, release Bazaine, and thus reinforced to attack the rear of the army that was advancing on Paris,—a fine plan, but not fine enough to succeed against King William and his generals. A flank movement by the combined German forces to the right was ordered and a series of forced marches made to intercept MacMahon before he could reach Metz. It was a bold and exciting chase, led by the Crown Prince, Frederick William.

The French struggled desperately to gain their end, but all in vain; on the first of September they found themselves completely surrounded at Sedan, a fortress on the Belgian frontier, and forced to a decisive battle. King William himself was in command, and what a battle it was! Prussians, Bavarians, Wurtembergers, Saxons vied with one another in deeds of daring and contempt of death against an enemy who, with the courage of despair, accomplished marvels of valor; yet when the day was ended Mac Mahon's army had surrendered, and with it the author of all the trouble,—Napoleon himself.

Great were the rejoicings over this victory! King William and his gallant son were hailed on all sides with the wildest enthusiasm, their praises sounded far and wide. The Crown Prince and his cousin Prince Frederick Charles were rewarded for their services to the Fatherland by being made field marshals immediately after the fall of Metz, an event that had never before occurred in the history of the house of Hohenzollern.

The first telegram sent by the King to the Queen after this latest victory ran as follows:

"Before Sedan, September 2, 2:30 P. M.: The capitulation of the entire army in Sedan has just been arranged with General Wimpffen commanding in place of MacMahon, who was wounded. The Emperor only surrendered himself to me personally, since he is not in command, and has left everything to the Regency in Paris. I will 'decide on his place of residence after the interview which I am to have with him at once. What a fortunate turn of affairs has been vouchsafed by Providence!"

On the third of September this despatch was followed by a letter, from which we quote:

"VENDRESSE, September 9, 1870.

"By this time you have learned from my telegram the extent of the great historical event that has just happened. It is like a dream, even though one has seen it unroll itself hour by hour."

Then follows a brief and concise description of the battle and its results:

"On the night of the thirty-first the army took up its prearranged positions about Sedan, and early in the morning firing began in spite of a dense fog. When I arrived at the front about eight o'clock, the large batteries had already opened fire on the fortifications, and a hot fight soon developed at all points, lasting almost the entire day, during which our side gained ground. A number of deep wooded defiles hindered the advance of the infantry and favored the defence, but village after village was captured and a circle of fire gradually closed in about Sedan. It was a magnificent sight from our position on a height behind one of the batteries.

"At last the enemy's resistance began to weaken, as we could perceive from the broken battalions that were driven back from the woods and villages. Gradually their retreat was turned into a flight in many places, infantry, cavalry, and artillery all crowding together into the town and its environments; but as they gave no intimation of relieving their desperate situation by surrendering, there was nothing left for us but to bombard the town. After twenty minutes it was burning in several places, and with the flaming villages all about the field of battle the spectacle was a terrible one. I therefore had the firing slackened and sent Lieutenant von Bronsart of the general staff with a flag of truce to demand the surrender of the army and citadel. On inquiring for the commander-in-chief, he was unexpectedly taken before the Emperor, who had a letter he wished delivered to me. The Emperor asked his errand, and on learning it replied that he should have to refer him to General von Wimpffen, who had assumed command after MacMahon was wounded, and that he would send his Adjutant General Reille with the letter to me. It was seven o'clock when the two officers arrived; Bronsart was a little in advance, and from him we first learned with certainty that the Emperor was in Sedan. You can imagine the sensation this news caused 1 Reille then sprang from his horse and delivered to me his Emperor's letter, adding that he had no other commission. It began as follows: ' Not having been able to die at the head of my troops, it only remains for me to place my sword in the hands of Your Majesty.' All other details were left to me.

"My answer was that I regretted the manner of our meeting and requested him to appoint a commission to arrange for a capitulation. After I had handed my letter to General Reille, I spoke a few words with him as an old acquaintance, and he took his departure. On my side I named Moltke with Bismarck to fall back upon in case any political questions should arise, then rode to my carriage and came here, greeted everywhere with thundering shouts by the marching troops that filled the streets, cheering and singing folk-songs. It was most thrilling! Many carried lighted candies, so that at times it was like being escorted by an improvised torchlight procession. I arrived here about eleven o'clock and drank with my staff to the army which had achieved such glorious results. The next morning, as I had heard nothing from Moltke of the negotiations which were to take place at Donchery, I drove as agreed to the battle-field about eight o'clock and met Moltke, who was coming to obtain my consent to the proposed surrender. He told me that the Emperor had left Sedan as early as five o'clock and had come to Donchery. As he wished to speak to me and there was a small chateau in the neighborhood, I chose this for our meeting.

"At ten o'clock I arrived on the heights before Sedan; at twelve Moltke and Bismarck appeared with the signed articles of capitulation, and at one I started, without Fritz, escorted by the cavalry staff. I alighted before the chateau, where the Emperor met me. The interview lasted a quarter of an hour; we were both much moved at meeting again under such circumstances. What my feelings were, after having seen Napoleon only three years before at the summit of his power, I cannot describe. [King William had been in Paris in 1867 on the occasion of the World's Exposition there.]

"After this interview I reviewed all the troops before Sedan; their welcome to me, the sight of their ranks so terribly thinned—all of this I cannot write of to-day. I was deeply touched by so many proofs of loyalty and devotion, and it is with a full heart that I close this long letter. Farewell."

"Hurraha! du grosse Zeit!"  It was indeed a glorious but also a solemn and heart-stirring time. Men, women, and children of all classes stood breathlessly about the public bulletin-boards, and when the news of Sedan was received, an irrepressible storm of enthusiasm swept over the country, even to the remotest solitudes. Men whose hearts had long been hardened by the cares and troubles of life burst into tears of joy; the hands of enemies were clasped in reconciliation, and mothers rejoiced that their sons had been so fortunate as to take part in this great event. Napoleon a captive at Wilhelmshohe in Cassel, MacMahon's army prisoners of war in Germany, Marshal Bazaine shut up in Metz, and France, imperial France, prostrated at the feet of the foe she had so wantonly injured! But King William had said to Count Bismarck after the capture of Sedan, "Great and glorious as is this victory, it will not bring us peace as yet"; and he was right. It is true that with Napoleon's surrender and the subsequent flight from Paris of the Empress Eugenie, who had been appointed regent, the Empire fell, but hard on its heels followed the Republic, the "Government for the National Defence," headed by General Trochu as Governor of Paris, the most important members of which were Jules Favre and Gambetta. In what spirit these men undertook to conduct the government is evident from a circular letter to the French ambassadors in foreign courts which was full of lies and calumnies of over-weaning pride and self-deception. Had they really wanted peace, they might have easily availed themselves of the opportunity offered by the ensuing negotiations for a truce. But unwilling to own herself defeated, France would only agree to peace on terms which were impossible for King William, as guardian of Germany's honor, to accept. This high-sounding letter, therefore, had no more influence with Germany than with the other powers, and the war pursued its bloody course.

All the available forces of Germany now advanced on Paris, and soon the great city was completely invested. Attempt after attempt was made by the new Republic to place new armies in the field. The imprisoned forces in Paris, Metz, and Strassburg harassed and struggled against the encircling enemy, but all in vain. Battle after battle was won by the invincible Germans. Orleans, Coulmiers, Armiens, Le Mans, St. Quentin, La Bourget, Belfort, and many others testified to their valor. Fortress after fortress capitulated,—Strassburg, Toul, Metz, and finally Paris, after a terrific bombardment. In the midst of all these conquests, however, a great and solemn act was quietly consummated,—the fulfilment of the dream of thousands of patriots, the restoration of the glories of the old Empire in the final unification of Germany. In the palace of Louis Fourteenth, that Prince whose whole aim and endeavor had been to bring about the destruction and humiliation of Germany, King William First of Prussia was proclaimed German Emperor January 18, 1871, the same day on which, one hundred and seventy years before, his ancestor, the Elector Frederick Third of Brandenburg, had been crowned King of Prussia. The grand salon of Versailles was chosen as the scene of the ceremony, and amid all the splendor that had surrounded the Kings of France a modest altar was erected, covered with red velvet and adorned with two lighted golden candelabra. Before it stood a Prussian divine in his plain black robes, and on either side troops were stationed, consisting of men chosen from each of the regiments encamped about Paris. The banners of these regiments, each supported by a non-commissioned officer, were placed on a dais at the end of the hall, in which about six hundred officers were assembled, their gay and varied uniforms making a brilliant scene.

Just at noon the King entered with the Crown Prince, followed by a train of royal and noble guests, and took his place before the altar, Bismarck and von Moltke standing near by. The service opened with the chorale, "Praise the Lord, all the World," sung by a chorus of soldiers with trombone accompaniment; then the liturgy, followed by another hymn, and a sermon by Rogge, the court chaplain from Potsdam, from the twenty-first Psalm, concluding with an exultant "Now all thank God."

The King then rose and, followed by all the princes and Count Bismarck, walked over to the dais where the standard-bearers stood, and halted at the edge of the platform, the Crown Prince on his right, to the left the Chancellor of the Confederacy, the princes ranging themselves behind the King. In a voice shaken by emotion the aged monarch declared his acceptance of the imperial throne that had been offered him by the unanimous voice of the princes of Germany and the free imperial cities and representatives of the North German Confederation. Count Bismarck then read aloud a proclamation prepared by the King for this occasion, which ran as follows:


"We, William, by God's grace King of Prussia, hereby announce that the German princes and Free Towns having addressed to us a unanimous call to renew and undertake, with the reestablishment of the German Empire, the dignity of Emperor, which now for sixty years has been in abeyance, and the requisite provisions having been inserted in the constitution of the German Confederation, we regard it as a duty we owe to the entire Fatherland to comply with this call and to accept the dignity of Emperor.

"Accordingly, we and our successors to the crown of Prussia henceforth shall use the imperial title in all our relations and affairs of the German Empire; and we hope under God it may he vouchsafed to the German nation to lead the Fatherland on to a blessed future under the auspices of its ancient splendor. We undertake the imperial dignity, conscious of the duty to protect, with German loyalty, the rights of the Empire and its members, to preserve peace, to maintain the independence of Germany, and to strengthen the power of the people. We accept it in the hope that it will be granted to the German people to enjoy in lasting peace the reward of its arduous and heroic struggles within boundaries which will give to the Fatherland that security against renewed French attacks which it has lacked for centuries.

"May God grant to us and our successors to the imperial crown, that we may be the defenders of the German Empire at all times, not in martial conquests, but in works of peace in the sphere of natural prosperity, freedom, and civilization.

"Given at Headquarters, Versailles, the eighteenth of January, 1871.


After the reading of this proclamation the Grand Duke of Baden stepped forward and cried in a loud voice, "Long live King William, the German Emperor!" and an exultant shout burst from the great assembly. Tears rolled down the cheeks of the aged sovereign and his stately form was visibly shaken with emotion. The Crown Prince was the first to do homage to the newly made Emperor by kissing his hand, but the father clasped his son in his arms and kissed him repeatedly. He also embraced his brother Charles and his cousin, Admiral Adalbert, his brother-in-law, the Grand Duke of Weimar, and his son-in-law the Grand Duke of Baden, after which he was saluted in turn by the other princes and the rest of the assemblage, for each of whom he had a kindly word. As the Emperor departed from the royal palace of the Bourbons the banner of the Hohenzollerns was lowered and the German Imperial ensign floated out upon the breeze. Thus was this great act consummated amid the thunder of guns that shook the capital of France and woke so mighty an echo in the heart of the Fatherland.

The war was continued for a time, but after the destruction of the armies of the Loire and of the north the guns about Paris were silent, and on January 29, 1871, the Emperor sent the following telegram to his wife from Versailles:

"Last night a three weeks' truce was signed. All troops in Paris are prisoners of war. The Provisional Government guarantees to maintain order. We occupy all forts. Paris remains in a state of siege and must provide for itself. All arms to be surrendered. A Constituent Assembly will be elected to meet at Bordeaux in fourteen days. This is the reward of our people for their patriotism, their sacrifices and heroic courage. I thank God for all His mercies. May peace soon follow!"

The Emperor's prayer was soon to be granted, for on the twenty-fifth of February the Empress received the following message:

"With a glad and thankful heart I am able to inform you that the preliminaries of peace have just been arranged. Now there is only the consent of the National Assembly at Bordeaux to be obtained.


In a letter dated March 2, 1871, he writes:

"I have just ratified the treaty of peace. Thus far the great work is finished which seven months of victorious warfare has made possible, thanks to the bravery and endurance of the army in all its branches and the willing sacrifices of the Fatherland. The Lord of Hosts has blessed our undertaking and led to this honorable peace. To Him be the glory! To the army and the Fatherland my deepest and most heart-felt thanks!"

It was indeed an honorable peace, won by a series of victories unparalleled in the world's history. Alsace and Lorraine, formerly torn by France from Germany when enfeebled by internal warfare, were restored to her, Strassburg once more mirrored her cathedral spires in the waters of a German Rhine, and five milliards of francs were also to be paid by France as indemnity for the expenses of the war.

On the sixteenth of June the victorious troops made their entry into Berlin amid celebrations even more imposing than those of 1866. The whole length of the Sieges strasse, through which the troops passed, a distance of almost a mile, was bordered with cannon captured from the French, while non-commissioned officers from each regiment, decorated with the Iron Cross, carried eighty-one French eagles and standards. A continuous ovation greeted the Emperor, his generals, and the troops all along the line of march. The celebration of the victory found a fitting climax in the unveiling of the monument to Frederick William Third in the Lustgarten, at the foot of which his son could lay the trophies of a glorious and successful war, and as the head of a newly restored and powerful German Empire consecrate the fulfilment of his trust.