Doctor Theophile Anger continues his account.
“On Thursday, 18 August, I came back to Chalons with the Emperor’s household: on 19th, after luncheon, Napoleon had me called and gave me the order to return to Paris, along with the greater part of his military household.
“The next morning, 20th August, Nelaton took me with him to the Tuileries to report to the Empress on my mission. She was very contraried about my return and asked me to return immediately to General Headquarters and to remain in constant contact with Dr Conneau. I straight away wrote to the doctor about my interview with the Empress and that she wished to know me in her husband’s entourage.
“He replied that the Emperor consented to my return to General Headquarters, and I left for Reims.
“On Tuesday evening, 23 August, I rejoined General Headquarters at Betheniville, and then didn’t leave him until Sedan and Bouillon, in Belgium.
“During the Battle of Sedan, the Emperor was always within sight. He mounted his horse between six and seven in the morning. At the moment when he left the Sous-Prefecture, a caisson was bringing in Field-Marshal MacMahon wounded. The Emperor asked me to see him. I helped to carry him to a bed, and I saw his wound, which I judged to be very serious. I immediately rushed to the Emperor, who was on horseback and was going towards the battlefield. I joined him a few hundred metres from the Sedan fortifications and kept him within sight all morning.
“Twice he dismounted to urinate.
“I saw two of the officers who were accompanying him fall around him.
“The Emperor entered Sedan around half-past-eleven. I didn’t see him again this same day; the next day I joined him around half-past-seven in the morning at the Chateau de Bellevue. Around ten o’clock, Bismarck and Molke arrived in a fiacre. Half-an-hour later, the capitulation was signed.
“In the afternoon, the Emperor had me called and said roughly this to me:
” ‘Doctor, I have not needed your services up until today, and as tomorrow I am going to Cassel, as a prisoner of war, it is probable that I shall not need them any more. I am taking with me Conneau and Corvisart; I hope that they will suffice me. Return to France and do whatever your heart and your patriotism dictate to you.’
“During the night, I left in a cart with the Marquis de Massa to reach the railway at Beaumont.
“I omitted to recount to you an interview that I had before my departure, on 15 or 16 July 1870, with my former head of service, Professor See. I went to see him to say goodbye, and as I added that I was going to General Headquarters with Conneau, he guessed straight away the nature of the role that I was called to fill. ‘I’m very happy that you were chosen’, he said, ‘because three days ago I was called in consultation to the Emperor at Saint-Cloud. I’m certain that the Emperor has a stone; he has all the signs; I drew up a consultation in that sense, which the Princess de Mouchy was to give to the Empress.’
“Nelaton had been more reserved with me, and he was less affirmative, the Emperor not wanting to be sounded.
“My dear colleague,
What conclusions can be drawn from this collection of witness reports?
In contradiction to the assertions of a few people, the Emperor never made the slightest allusion to his state: in any case, he never used this state as a pretext for adjourning the events which he very well knew he couldn’t prevent.
It would not be correct to claim that Napoleon III had full freedom of mind, tortured as he was by physical suffering; but although he displayed great moral energy, and showed that a valliant soul always wins over the body that it dominates, his incapacity was even more obvious.
No-one contests that the Emperor displayed courage, but wasn’t it rather a fatalistic resignation, and perhaps also the consciousness of his responsibility before History, which made him go towards death, which didn’t want him at that time? The Margueritte brothers put this state of mind in singular relief:
“Despite the atrocious torture for him to remain on horseback, he stiffened his rounded shoulders and offered himself in an expiatory holocaust. Conscious of his supreme responsibility, feeling rejected everywhere, by his army, by Paris, by his family, he had, in Napoleon, looked for the end of an emperor. Gripping his saddle, ahead of his etat-major which he stopped at the foot of the slope, he remained for long moments on the mound, open to all the crossfire, letting his troubled gaze wander over the tragic plateau. He saw one of his aides-de-camp cut in two beside him, two others fall seriously wounded. He did his best to tempt fate, his hour had not come. So, he turned his horse around, and set off at walking pace as if he were sleepwalking. When the Emperor crossed the bridge over the Meuse, an obus exploded before his eyes, killing two horses. He continued on his way, mournful, spectral…”
Now, the question is the following: if Napoleon had been in good health, would the war have ended the same way?
The Emperor was of goodwill, humane and generous. He organized numerous charities to help the poor. But, at the same time, he was convinced of having a role to play in History. Napoleon III often hesitated, was subject to diverse influences, but, in definitive, he only did what he wanted. Most of the time, he hid his ambitions and suddenly imposed them, like the coup d’Etat of 2 December 1851.
Napoleon III was not much of a military chief, nearly always agreeing with the last opinion given; neither did he have the firmness and resolution that a Head of State should display in such a conjuncture.
But other weaknesses, independent of the Emperor’s health, also contributed to the Sedan defeat. At the time of her entry into war, France was not ready. She managed, with difficulty, to send 250,000 soldiers to the front. In August, they had only reached 300,000. To this must be added a not very competent Command, the generals having a tendency to remain on the defensive.
In the Prussian camp, the troops are higher in number and more mobile, the artillery is superior, and supply better organized. These differences will weigh on the issue of the conflict.
The French army, sent into Lorraine, arrives on 28 July at Metz. The formation of the troops is carried out in a disorderly fashion. Awaiting an hypothetical alliance, the French army remains in its positions, along the border. No strategy is devised, and the enemy dangerously has the initiative. This inertia is imputable to the Supreme Command, that is to say, the Emperor.
The French lines are quickly overrun and Napoleon III then thinks only of returning to Chalons to cover Paris. Upon his arrival, he reorganizes the Second Army and makes Bazaine Commander-in-Chief of the Rhine Army. Unfortunately, Bazaine is not ready for such a post. Retrenched at Metz, he allows the Prussians to come, without risk, and encircle the French army at Sedan. Napoleon III capitulates to avoid a massacre.
The Sedan defeat was therefore not an unforseen accident, but the fatal conclusion to a long series of mistakes, for which the Emperor should not be the only one to be blamed, particularly as, from 12 August, he no longer has any power, either civil – Empress Eugenie is Regent – or military – Bazaine becomes officially Commander-in-Chief of the army.