Friday 3 May 2024

The Destruction of the Imperial Army, Volume 3: The Sedan Campaign

I’m still away so here for your enjoyment or otherwise is another review of one of my holiday reading choices.

Following on from the first two volumes, the next in the series in Helion’s ‘from Musket to Maxim’ series, ‘The Destruction of the Imperial Army, Volume 3: The Sedan Campaign 1870 by Grenville Bird is unsurprisingly yet another masterpiece, and the superb quality of the previous volumes is maintained throughout.

Volume 3 advances the woes of Napoleon III’s army, this time the spotlight being on the fighting leading up to the debacle that was the short (barely a fortnight from the formation of the Army of Chalons to its surrender) and decisive Sedan campaign, culminating in the surrender of the city, the 100,000 plus strong French Army of Chalons, and the French Emperor, on 2 September.

We begin with the various and somewhat ill-thought deliberations among the French high command which led them (and leads the reader) on the road to Sedan. This is followed by a breakdown of the Army of Chalons. Many of its component corps and divisions were in poor shape after the earlier battles, and lacked equipment, horses, clothing, weapons (including artillery). One contemporary writer present with the army pulls no punches when describing the quality of newly-arrived officers (it seems the bottom of the barrel was being well and truly scraped to furnish sufficient officers for the new formations and as replacements for casualties. The same writer considered the majority of the NCOs he saw to be ‘more or less inept’ and newly promoted, and the replacements young and inadequately trained or old soldiers recalled to the colours. I leave it to the reader to enjoy his descriptions of the army. One anecdote probably sums it all up, when troops came under fire while encamped, loosing seven killed and eight wounded. Chasseurs were sent into the woods to determine to source of the firing, only to find it was their own men on a poaching expedition for their cooking pots!

The remainder of the book, over 400 pages, gets us straight into the action, where the combat at Nouart, the battle of Beaumont and finally the battle of Sedan are described eloquently and in forensic detail. This is always a boon to wargamers in any period.

Eight appendices give us orders of battle for each of the battles covered in this volume as well as detailed casualty returns. I do not mind that the extremely comprehensive orders of battle are perhaps (I have heard said) not the easiest to read, but the information they present is widely available elsewhere should anyone really struggling wish to look. I managed perfectly well to understand them.

There are 58 colour and black and white images, and following the pattern seen in the earlier volumes, some are contemporary and others are photos of features of each battlefield as they are to be found today. As in the earlier volumes many of the battlefield photos compare the ground as it was in 1870 and in the present day.

Volume 3 contains 17 highly detailed colour maps showing the topography and the movements and deployment of the formations involved, which are helpful to refer to when following the strategic and tactical movements of the armies. It is worth a reminder that if one makes a visit to the Helion website you can gain access to .pdf copies of all the maps in order to avoid too much flicking back and forth.

Grenville has done it again! Like volumes 1 and 2, The Destruction of the Imperial Army, volume 3: The Sedan Campaign is a masterpiece equally valuable to Franco-German War novices or the more informed (I would not class myself as an expert, more of an enthusiastic amateur). As with the two predecessor volumes I could easily go into overload in the number of adjectives I might use to describe this book. Suffice to say in terms of the depth of research and quality of writing it is simply an absolute cracker and both a fascinating tale of the demise of Imperial France and a highly informative one to boot. This has to be a must for anyone with an interest in the Imperial phase of the war. Volume 4 is already available (and as yet untouched on my bookshelves) and I am looking forward to reading it next.

ISBN 978-1-804513-32-3 soft back, 477 pages

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